Yesterday had its…

…frustrations, but these melted away at dinner with a friend, Erin, at a Mt. Vernon pub called Daugherty’s. I was first introduced to this pub a week or two after moving to Baltimore and I was a regular customer while I still lived in that neighborhood. I still like to get back there once or twice a year, and last night it seemed like the perfect calming destination: dim lights, deep booths with tall dividers, dark brown wood everywhere. It only took a few minutes until I could feel the bad energy melting out of me. Over the first round of drinks, I remarked to Erin that the bartender, a thin woman with curly hair and a perpetually spacey air, had been working there as long I’d been a customer, almost eight years. Just as I was saying this, I overheard the bartender say to another customer that she’d been working there for 16 years. It’s probably a pleasant gig, as these things go. The place does a lot of business but with a very mixed crowd, in terms of age, race, occupation, and so on. It’s low key, a refuge from louder, more hectic bars; it’s probably the rare night when anyone needs escorting out the door.

At home I finished watching Road Warrior. It occurred to me that I’ve never been clear on the precise chronology of these movies. Perhaps the scriptwriters weren’t either. Does Road Warrior take place soon after Mad Max? At the end of Mad Max, Max is last seen turning onto a road into something called a “Forbidden Zone,” which appellation suggests that this is an area that the government, already clearly crumbling, assumes no responsibility for. Presumably, this is where Max still is when, at the beginning of Road Warrior, he finds the fortified oil refinery, led by a Mick Jagger lookalike and menaced by a flamboyant gang, similar to the Toecutter Gang that killed Max’s family — and which was, in turn, wiped out by Max — in the first movie. The embattled fortress residents hope to make it to some far-off alleged paradise (I believe a distance of 2,000 miles is mentioned); if they do, will they be in the relatively civilized place where Max is living and working as a cop in the first film? Maybe, except there is much in the first film to suggest that said “civilization” is on its way out: marauding motorcycle gangs terrify the general populace pretty much at will, no witnesses show up to testify at the trial of one of these gangsters (suggesting that the general populace has no faith that the police offer any substantial protection), and the police comport themselves — and dress, for that matter — only a step above these gangs, anyway. And by the time we get to the third movie, Beyond Thunderdome (which there is no particular reason to watch), it’s clear that there isn’t supposed to be much in the way of recognizable civilization to be found anymore, at least not on the Australian continent. I’d be curious to see a map of the terrain in which these movies take place, just to get a better grasp of what’s happening.

My brother walked in while I was halfway through and shared his observation that the characters in the movie, particularly the gang members, seem to have all been attending some sort of bondage-themed costume party when the inciting apocalyptic world event took place, and to have decided to just commit to this aesthetic indefinitely. There’s something to be said for the intimidation factor of this look — all that leather and straps — but some of the effect is undercut when, for example, the gang’s mohawked second-in-command starts running as Max appears on the horizon in the truck, and we see that he’s not wearing any pants under his chaps. In addition to looking silly, the question immediately arises as to how practical this really is, especially given the gang’s heavy reliance on motorcycles.

I’ve never suspected Lou Dobbs of being smart…

…but what does it say about the CNN “commentator” and wannabe-Huey Long-style fulminator that, while he apparently doesn’t read the New York Times (which, whatever you think of the paper, is just stupid for someone in the news business), he still feels free to make statements like this:

I’ll bet you know about the illegal alien amnesty marches, but I don’t know of a single news organization, electronic or print[,] that pointed out that May 1 is America’s Law Day. The cable news networks gave almost wall-to-wall coverage to the illegal alien demonstrations, but they apparently couldn’t find any American celebrating Law Day.

Strange. In addition to the NY Times mention I noted yesterday, turns up 327 mentions.

I guess that’s not as dramatic, though.


Correction: I added the word “wannabe” after Michael Deibert reminded me that, as mixed a reputation as Huey Long has, Lou Dobbs is not qualified even to clean up spit in the shadow of the man’s gravestone, much less hold a candle to Long’s eloquence and guts. In retrospect, I regret dignifying Dobbs by comparing him to an actual man, but now that I went to the bother of learning how to do an HTML “text anchor,” so that readers can jump straight from “wannabe” in the text to this correction, I’m just going to let it stand.

Everyone you ever knew will die

Sad, isn’t it? But meanwhile, everyone you ever knew will live a life that means just as much to them as yours does to you. They will be loved and hated and — if they’re lucky — called on their birthdays by people you can’t even imagine.

The mass email I sent out announcing the Montana move has put me back in touch with some people from my past. (Actually, one of them coincidentally found me through Google, inspired to do some cyber-stalking by the upcoming 15th reunion of our high school class.) I was struck by the synchronicity, then, when I read this:

I have a small obsession with how we live as if all the people we’ve ever known, or have known of, don’t exist. Think about it: Out there somewhere is Tommy Byers, with whom you dug a hole in his dirt-floored garage in Fourth grade. You planned to dig all the way to China but gave up when the hole was just waist-deep, which apparently was enough to bend the connecting rods on his dad’s Chevy when he drove unsuspectingly into it. Why don’t you know of Tommy’s days and ways since then?

What about your old teachers? Those cousins you saw only once a year? Your old lovers and roommates and coworkers? They’re all here on the same little planet, each living an entire life and you living yours as if the other didn’t exist.

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.

The usual difficulty of…

DSC 0036

…getting my head back in the game on Mondays was complicated by startlingly beautiful weather, weather better suited for strolling past well-tended Charles Village gardens or through a park, if you can find any in this green-space challenged city. Nonetheless, I finished making text edits to that immense paper I’ve been struggling with and left work with a not entirely unwarranted feeling that it had been a productive day.

On the way home, I stopped at Eddie’s, a small grocery store in Charles Village, for three items I’d forgotten to place on Saturday’s order. The Giant is closer to my house than Eddie’s, and presumably cheaper (although I haven’t studied this), but Eddie’s is always my preference if I need some groceries on my way home from work because I’m inevitably carrying a bag or briefcase, and Giant insists on treating its customers like criminals by requiring everyone to check their bags on the way in. Unless you’re a woman, of course.

Once, I entered the Giant carrying an expensive camera in a small cooler bag (cheaper than and not as obvious as an actual camera bag), and I strode right past the guard without thinking, because it would never have occurred to me to check this bag. “Sir! SIR!” The guard chased me into the store. “You need to check your bag, sir.” I showed her that it only contained a camera (I might have had room to stuff in a few candy bars or packs of gums, certainly not as much as some neighborhood women with their massive tote-style purses could manage), assuming that she would immediately recognize that checking this bag was not an option. She insisted. A., who was with me, said something quite reasonable about how reluctant we were to entrust a camera to strangers, which seemed to really offend the guard, as if she were a knight of the realm, sworn to uphold justice and defend those who cannot defend themselves, rather than a rent-a-cop in a plastic shirt. And I’ve been a rent-a-cop in a plastic shirt, so it’s nothing against her, but come on, “grocery-store security guard” is not a calling, it’s a job. She eventually “let” me carry the camera around my neck, but I had to leave the cooler bag with her. I swore I would never return, but I turned out to be too weak to ignore a supermarket three hundred yards from my front door.

The problem, in addition to my resenting being assumed guilty on my way into a store where I spend about $80-100 every week, is that I’ve seen these “guards” wandering into the store, gabbing on cell phones, doing stretching exercises out on the sidewalk — anything but keeping a close watch on these checked bags, which are arrayed temptingly on a wire shelf just inside the entryway, within easy grabbing range of anyone passing by. And what if something happened in the store that caused a distraction and required the guard’s presence? Who would watch the bags then?

But mainly, it’s the being made to feel like a criminal that gets to me. Walking into the store behind an African-American man who was surprised to have to check his briefcase, I heard him exclaim to the passersby something like it’s a black neighborhood, so this is how they treat us. Exactly. Plus, the managers have to know that — as is the case throughout the retail industry — any significant shoplifting problems they are experiencing are much more likely to originate within their own staff, rather than crafty customers with tinfoil-lined duffel bags. (Um, I understand that’s one way to defeat those alarm sensors by the door.)

After Eddie’s, I picked up my drycleaning at the Mr. Nifty’s on Greenmount, which I mention not because I suspect it is particularly fascinating, but because being able to duck into stores on my way home — on foot — from work is an unusual luxury in this country, even in this city, where you really have to luck out to arrange work, grocery shopping and other necessities within a walkable radius of your home. This kind of human-scale convenience is what some people are already returning to the cities for (the rest will be back when the oil runs out), and it seems to me that we should make it a national goal to make this kind of lifestyle possible for as many people as we can. If you care about the environment, if you want to lessen our dependence on other people’s oil, if you just want a healthier life — all of these goals and more would be met if clean, functioning cities were a residence option for more of us.

And of course this is exactly the kind of thing I think I will miss most in Montana.

A. called around 7:30 p.m. (5:30 p.m. Arizona time). There is no cell phone reception at Bird Camp, which is located in dense forest among rolling hills, so, to check for messages on the official camp phone and keep up her own personal contact with the outside world, every day or so she must drive 20 minutes to the Mogollon Rim, at the southern edge of not only the Coconino National Forest but the entire Colorado Plateau. There on the Rim, where, on a clear day, you can see over 100 miles to the Four Peaks of the Mazatzal Mountains near Phoenix (during the summer, the Rim is a great spot for watching forest fires flare up off in the distance), she erects her antenna and boots up her satellite phone. (Just kidding. Verizon has the Rim covered.)


In last night’s call, A. reported that she had spent much of her day walking the fences of the other enclosures (yesterday I mentioned that one enclosure’s fence had been ruined by a treefall) and was relieved to find that the rest of them are in good shape. In the afternoon, she returned to camp and started preparing training aids that she will use to get all of her crew members on the same page when it comes to estimating horizontal and vertical distance. The project’s data records, as well as day-to-day operations in which some crew members will need to locate nests and natural features based on directions written down by other crew members, depend on everyone having the ability to accurately estimate distance. Her training aids consist of flags staked out along the ground at regular intervals, for estimating horizontal distance, and a rope hanging from a branch about 100 feet off the ground, marked every meter with bright orange surveyor’s tape. (Don’t worry, she didn’t climb up there. Instead, a rock tied to a smaller “messenger” line was thrown over the branch; this smaller line was then used to pull the larger rope into place.)

She also remembered to tell me about a problem that had come up just as she and the core members of the crew were arriving at camp for the first time: the company that held the porta-potty contract last year had, at the last moment, cancelled the contract for this year; a second company was only willing to step in at a monthly rate approximately double what the first company had originally charged for the entire season, which is business-speak for “we don’t really want this contract.” It’s hard to blame them. The nearest town, Happy Jack, consists of a general store and a cafe, and Bird Camp is about 40 minutes away from Happy Jack along gravel Forest Service roads. Not a lot of opportunity for economies of scale and that sort of thing. But fortunately the company had also notified the project’s main office back in Missoula, and the staff administrative assistant — one of those stolid, long-time career professionals that are the backbone of any university — had found a suitable replacement before A. even learned of the problem.


In other standard concerns for anyone responsible for human settlements since time immemorial, there is already a case of bronchitis in the camp; apparently there was a bit of an epidemic last year. I looked up bronchitis on Wikipedia just now, thinking I might be able to find some ideas about keeping it from spreading, and was reminded that it’s not exactly a disease, it’s a condition, i.e., inflammation of the bronchi that may be caused by a variety of bacteria and viruses. Apparently, irritated bronchi are particularly susceptible, which is why smokers so frequently suffer from it. I wondered if the dry, dusty conditions that arise in the camp once the summer heat starts to build might cause a general irritation of this sort. Then the germs — whatever they are – -have only to make short leaps from person to person in the communal eating tent, and before you know it the camp must raise a yellow flag and start burning everyone’s clothes. (Again, not really.)

But back to walking those fences. I’m finishing out my third straight year of working in an office, staring at a computer, and the vision of my wife, striding the hills like some sort of rancher, ruminatively plucking at fence wire with her rawhide-gloved finger, was incredibly romantic. I was overcome with jealousy and told A. how much I would love to have a paid reason to wander in the woods. She didn’t believe me at first. The weird thing is, I think that she believes that other people would find this kind of work boring (although she certainly doesn’t). Can you believe it?

Be honest. You’re positively quivering with envy right now.

I’m not trying to rub it in. I’m quivering, too, although I have also had a lot of coffee this morning.