I woke up this morning thinking about the old “Honors Lounge” at Frostburg. Twenty feet deep, eight feet wide, and half subterranean, there wasn’t much to it. A few beat up couches, a dorm-sized refrigerator, and a coffee maker that as often as not stayed on for three days at a time and burned the dregs rock hard in the bottom of the pot.
It had a view of the sky, a tree, and the side of a building. Then again most of Guild Center wasn’t known for its views aside from the rare room that looked over the upper quad. It wasn’t much, but for a couple of years it was my home away from my home away from home. It was a great place to kill an hour between classes if you didn’t have the heart to face the climb back to the top of campus or needed to avoid the wind-driven snows coming down from Savage.
It was an unexpected, but happy recollection from out of nowhere this morning. The brain dredges up some of the strangest details when it, still sleep addled, takes a brief stroll down memory lane.
1. EZ Pass. Every month I check my Maryland EZ Pass statement. Every month I find at least one mistake – usually a toll charged at full rate when I’ve already paid the flat fee for the year option and had it coded on the transponder. Every month I go through the process of logging in, filling out the dispute form, and then watching the account periodically to make sure the right multiple of $8 per incident is refunded back to my account. Individually, it’s not the kind of thing that’s a big deal, but since it’s happening month, after month, after month, like interest, the annoyance compounds.
2. Pants. A million years ago at the beginning of my career I wore a suit or a minimum of coat at tie to the office just about every day. It was DC and that was the standard. Slowly though, I abandoned the suit or coat, but grudgingly stuck with the tie and long sleeves. In a pinch I kept a sports coat in my cube that I could press into service in extremis. Eventually, I abandoned the tie and long sleeves, too… introducing my personal “five star” rule – that no meeting that included any less than five “stars” in the room justified wearing a tie. The ghost of Eisenhower or Marshall rated a tie, two three stars rated a tie, three two stars rated a tie, and so on. Those were the rules of the before time. Now, of course, I’m annoyed as hell on days I have to bother putting on long pants. That’s just to be expected as part of life in a plague year, I guess.
3. Students. The news is currently filled with still photos and videos of college students in their hundreds attending parties now that at least some schools have opened again. You can’t see it, but I’m obviously sitting here with a completely shocked look on my face. I have a vague recollection of being young and invincible once. I wasn’t really a party animal, so my poison was mostly seeing how fast a Chevy Cavalier could go or how high I could get it to jump over railroad tracks or bridge approach ramps. Negative consequences were something to worry about when or if they happened. The point is, I have no idea why college administrators and parents are suddenly surprised that their 18-22 year-old darlings are throwing caution to the wind. It’s exactly the kind of behavior that administrators and parents have complained about since the first universities sprung up in Europe almost a millennium ago.
I had a pretty normal undergraduate experience – 4 years, a couple of summer or winter classes, and done. I managed to earn a full academic scholarship at least for tuition, so fortunately I didn’t have to pay the freight for that education. I won’t say I loved every minute of it, but I look back very fondly on those four years.
In the early stages of my federal career I was on the road more weeks than not and opted for an online MBA. I don’t know what the fees for such a thing are now, but back then I was paying $1,850 per six week class, for a total of $24,050 by the time I earned my degree. My impression of online education, based on that MBA experience, is that you could get as much or as little out of it as you were willing to put into it. It wasn’t hard to slip through doing the minimum, but to really learn the subject you needed to put in extra hours beyond the homework and discussion boards. I didn’t love it, but I ended up learning a lot and it served its purpose for a guy whose schedule wouldn’t have otherwise supported getting a degree.
I’m seeing articles indicating that brick and mortar schools largely plan on charging full tuition for their slate of online classes for the fall semester. I fully realize that these schools have sunk costs that they need to keep paying regardless of how instruction is delivered, but at the same time I can’t fathom by what logic an entering freshman would pay full price for severely reduced services. Better I’d think to take your intro level classes from the local community college, save your money, and transfer them on when your school of choice opens back up for learning in the flesh. Under the circumstances, I’d even argue a gap year could be a better investment of time and resources.
Pretending that you’re completely justified in charging full price for the undergrad college experience while providing significantly reduced service feels distinctly like perpetrating a fraud… although if you have a large enough group of people willing to unquestioningly pay the bill, I suppose you can take every cent they’ll willingly hand over.
It will come as a surprise to no one who really knows me that I stayed as far away from math and science as possible during my four years as an undergrad. I could muddle through the work and scrape through with C’s, but I had no aptitude for it, no talent. Turn me loose in Dunkle Hall for History of Whatever or Guild for political science and I was in my element.
Increasingly it feels like many of the old maximums of political science I learned 20+ years ago don’t really apply to the study of politics in 21st century America. Despite the formal education and a few decades of reading I find myself feeling like a stranger in a strange land more and more often.
Still, though, some of the old truisms were true for a reason. While lecturing on the role of the Judiciary, Dr. Simpson was fond of reminding us that “the Supreme Court isn’t final because they’re right – They’re right because they’re final.” It’s one of those deeper truths wrapped in a easy to understand package. For good or bad, short of amending the Constitution, there’s simply no mechanism to allow for appeal beyond the Supreme Court.
Listning to the talking heads today, many of them seem to forget that the same is true when the Senate sits as a court of impeachment. That body has sweeping latitude to set the terms of the trial and the outcome belongs to them alone to decide. What the House thinks, or the president thinks, or what the latest polls show is a bit of interesting, but not particularly relevant detail.
In cases of impeachment, the Senate is right simply by virtue of being final. If you don’t like the results, if you don’t like how you’re being represented in this republic of ours, then the onus is on you to secure different representation at the ballot box… but running around whimpering that “the Senate got it wrong” makes you sound like a schmuck.
1. “Free” college. Almost a decade ago, the federal government stepped in and allowed people to refinance their mortgages during the housing crisis – but only if you let your payments fall behind. If you took your word as your bond and paid on time even though it was hard, well fuck you sucker. That’s why it took me $30,000 out of pocket to close the sale on my Tennessee house. I played by the rules and got properly fucked for the trouble. Now Senator Warren comes along and wants to push student loan “forgiveness” as the brave new way ahead. If she gets away with it, once more I’m a sucker for playing by the rules, doing the hard work, and being responsible for paying my own debts. I really do despise the 21st century.
2. Morale. Apparently as a moral boosting endeavor we’ve installed a wall-sized mural with my organization’s name blazed across 30-feet of graphics and some fancy new signage in our bit of cubicle hell. I’m sure someone thought it would be a good idea and that everyone was sure to find it inspirational. I’m just not one of them. I’m probably too jaded and cynical at this point to ever be bought off by new signage. That’s just the kind of guy I am. Want to improve my morale? Throw me a step increase in recognition of the work I’ve done. Hit me with a time off award – that one is my personal favorite. Order up some office chairs that aren’t low bidder junk or computers that aren’t crippled right out of the box. If you’re going to spend the money, spend it on something that matters… because new wallpaper doesn’t get it done.
3. 5PM. Being a creature of habit, there’s not much I value more on any given weekday than leaving the office on time. I value arriving on time, too… because getting to work on time is a reasonable employer expectation. The converse should also be true – leaving on time should be a reasonable employee expectation. Except the average office is full of subtle signs and symbols that it isn’t the case. No one will come right out and say it, but you’re supposed to just understand and not mention that someone at echelons higher than reality has scheduled a meeting to start an hour or two after you’re supposed to have departed the area for the day – and that’s assuming that the meeting will accidentally start on time, which of course it won’t… The not so subtle message being that anything you have outside the office walls couldn’t possibly be as important as what’s happening inside them. Then again, this is often driven by the same people who think they can fix morale problems with wallpaper, so it’s whatever I guess.
At this very hour 72 years ago the English Channel between the south of England and the Normandy coast was churned by the largest naval armada ever assembled. From the massive battleships to the tiniest landing craft, these ships carried the flower of Allied youth – the best trained and equipped army that was ever sent to war. All these brave souls knew their mission and more importantly they knew that if they weren’t killed in the crossing, a few short hours later the ramps of their landing craft would drop and they would face an enemy who was entrenched on the high ground and who had years to prepare his defenses.
On beaches named Sword, Gold, Utah, Juno, and Omaha, those ramps dropped and soldiers bled and still they fought on to overwhelm the German defenders. They established a toehold and then a beachhead in Occupied Europe. Then they fought through another fifteen months as liberators rather than conquerors.
That’s what our grandparent’s or great-grandparent’s generation did to ensure freedom and liberty weren’t extinguished… So when a student today, tucked comfortably on a college campus, says they need a safe space or a trigger warning or protection against micro-aggression, honest to God I can’t for the life of me understand what their pansy asses are whining about.
If I’m rolling my eyes I can only imagine what their long ago counterparts crossing the last hundred yards of open water into the teeth of hell might think.
First I’d like to thank Chrissie for letting me off the hook to coming up with a new idea tonight. Since she asked three questions, I’ll do my best to take them one at a time. The first, and not just because I’m waiting for what’s cooking away in the stove is a response to (and I’m paraphrasing here) “the best and worst meal I ever ate.”
The best I’ve ever had makes it a bit of a loaded question as I’m not a foodie, per se. My tastes tend to run a bit towards the traditional. No surprise there I’m sure. I could tell you about the half dozen out of the way local crab houses on both sides of the Chesapeake between St. Mary’s County and Crisfield that are all in the running for best crab cakes and/or blue crabs I’ve ever had. I could tell you about a remarkable slice of beef served at the top of the Stratosphere in Las Vegas. I could tell you about the world’s most perfect cheeseburger, french fries with brown gravy, and strawberry milkshake combination that came from the kitchen of a health code violating former county sheriff in my home town. It’s not an exaggeration to say I’ve had dreams about that one.
With all that said, the best meal I ever had was actually a regular occurrence throughout my formative years. The local chapter of the Loyal Order of Moose had a steak feed once a month. They packed people in shoulder to shoulder at paper covered tables and served us the biggest bowl of buffet-style house salad I’ve still ever seen in person, a t-bone steak, and a potato. It was a monthly staple. It wasn’t the best cut of steak I’ve ever had (although they weren’t bad), but it was the company that made the meal. Steak at the Moose was one of the few times you could count on the entire extended family being together in one place. That was before my grandparent’s generation passed and the whole thing split into warring camps, before a couple of decades of hurt feelings and animosity. I’ve had better meals purely in terms of technical excellence, but I’ve rarely dined in better or more entertaining company.
The worst meal? In a world full of really appalling fast food options that’s a little more difficult to pinpoint. The only one that really stands out in my mind is more because it’s a meal I regret than it was because the chow was bad. The award belongs to some long forgotten Ethiopian restaurant in Adams Morgan. I was a college freshman in the city on a school-sponsored trip to get us hillbillies some culture in the form of dinner and a show. I liked the show well enough – I think maybe it was Rent – but I wasn’t quite evolved enough just yet to appreciate the virtue of truly ethnic food. The flavors were strange, the service was different, and I wasn’t a fan of everyone around me just diving in with their bare hands and some spongy bread. Between the end of the meal and when the time the bus showed up to deliver us across town, I managed to get a get across the street and wolf down a quarter pounder… and that’s what and why it ranks as my worst meal even though it says far more about 18 year old me than it does about the quality of the food.
Monday evening. Milepost One in the long march towards the three-day weekend. One of my go to responses to many events at the office these days is an exasperated reminder to the world that I could have learned to weld, apprenticed to be a plumber, or picked up any number of practical skills that ensured my long term employability. I’m told that at least one of my high school teachers recommended that amidst my perpetual struggle to grasp the basic concepts of algebra. Perhaps the old crank was on to something after all.
Instead of doing something productive like learning carpentry, I went to college and promptly put the thought of alternatives out of my head. I do wonder sometimes at what kind of difference it would have made had I found myself practicing an occupation where the end result is something to physically show for your efforts at the end of a day’s work. At least part of me thinks that’s got to be personally fulfilling on some level. Or maybe from where I sit it just seems more fulfilling than being the guy who churns out the memo with the fewest spelling and punctuation errors.
At the rate my bits and pieces seem to be grinding down, I’m not under any delusions of transforming myself into a tradesman at this late date. Between the shoulder problems, lower back pain, clicking knee, and the occasional bit of foot trouble behind a desk is probably the most reasonable place in the world for me to stay. While I’m there, though, I’m going to spend an unreasonable amount of time thinking that I should’ve learned to weld. With all the wisdom of hindsight I think a career that results in something less ephemeral than a voluminous stack of PowerPoint slides would have suited me.
Anyone who knew me in high school will probably attest that I wasn’t one of the kids that was going to show up at a party. Frankly, I’m still not one of the kids who shows up at parties. As a general rule lots of people and lots of noise makes me nervous and jerky. As usual, though, that’s not my point. My point (this time) is that I was a late bloomer in the world of alcohol. I don’t think I had my first “serious” drink until I was 18 or 19. At that point my illicit underage drinking budget mostly allowed for such libations as “Mad Dog” 20/20, Milwaukee’s Best, Red Dog, and Honey Brown if it was a McPayday.
That all changed late in the summer of 1997. That’s when I met Sam Adams Cherry Wheat for the first time and realized that beer didn’t have to taste like ass. Unfortunately, you do have to pay a premium for non-skunky beer, but that summer opened my eyes to the idea that tasty adult beverages could be about more than drinking until you fall down. Sure, I still managed to do plenty of that during the last three years of my academic career (Hello quarts at Hi-Way, dime drafts at Repub, and the serve-all-comers dive in the basement of the Gunter Hotel), but the seed was planted.
My palate has widened considerably from it’s humble beginnings with Sam’s Cherry Wheat, but on days like today, when the humidity is up and sitting out in sun is the order of the day, it’s still my go to beverage of choice. There are surely better cherry brewed beers out there these days, but none of them will ever take the place of beer I fell in love with long ago and far away.
I’ve been working on a book. That’s not exactly been a secret. It feels like I’ve been tinkering with it since just after the dawn of time and I’m sure you all feel like you’ve been hearing about it for even longer than that. The good news is that the actual writing is (for the most part) finished, I’ve made the first pass at editing over the last few nights, and earlier today I seeded the text to a handfull of people who have graciously volunteered their time to be beta readers. Once they’ve finished and gotten comments and suggestions back to me, I’ll take a few more swings through the editing process, address some layout issues, and come up with a cover that doesn’t look like I designed it using PowerPoint.
So yeah, the good news is you’re going to be spared the pain and aggravation of listening to me bitch about writing for a while. To compensate I’ll be ratcheting up the volume on my complaints about editing. I mean, I want everyone to feel like their part of this process right along with me. I mean who doesn’t want to know fun facts like the first draft contained 137 separate instances of the word “likely” and 27 sentences that started with the phrase “Go ahead…” Let’s just say that first draft version 1.1 showed some significant improvements.
This blog was very clearly the inspiration for the book and if you read it, I think you’ll notice the same tone come through almost immediately. Where the blog ranges out over whatever topics happen to strike my fancy, I limited my efforts on the book to a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. With a working title of What College Didn’t Teach You: A Ground Guide to Surviving Your First Big Job, I’m going to do my best to deliver 35 chapters of observations, generalizations, and snarky commentary about the lessons I’ve learned from navigating big, bureaucratic organizations for my entire professional life. Mostly, it’s just a collection of things I know now that I wish I’d have known in the Summer of 2000.
For now, it’s all about editing, cleaning, figuring out if I’m going to get wrapped up with the US Office of Government Ethics, and reminding everyone repeatedly to read the disclaimer.