The authentic experience…

It was pitch black when I left the house Saturday morning for my weekly supply run. These early morning trips for groceries started as a way of avoiding potential plague carriers swarming the supermarket later in the day on Saturday, but have long since become part of the normal rhythm of life. The draw of continuing to avoid as many people as possible is just too strong to ignore. 

My love of avoiding people in a retail setting, however, isn’t really the point. What struck me as the truck rolled down the driveway was an unexpectedly strong memory from childhood. If you didn’t grow up in a specific time and place, it’s not something that’s likely to mean anything to you… but for some of us, it’s a memory that’s almost formative. It’s certainly one of the earliest memories I have that isn’t in some way hazy. 

You see, a long time ago, southwest of Connellsville, Pennsylvania there use to be a shopping mecca called Pechin’s. I remember it from the early 80s. It was a time long before anyone in our part of Appalachia thought of big box retail – easily a decade or more before I saw the inside of my first Walmart. Pechin’s was, in a word, unique. They were a one stop, dirt cheap purveyor for groceries, meats, shoes, books, sporting goods, home improvement wares, baked goods, and an insanely cheap cafeteria lunch. Surely more that hasn’t stuck with me, but let me tell you, five- or six-year-old Jeff was obviously impressed with the place.

I remember distinctly the whole place having a pronounced rickety, held together with bailing twine and duct tape feel. I can’t imagine it would ever pass modern health and safety standards, but it was good enough for those of us from the back half of the last century. 

Why did this long-forgotten memory come flooding back on a Saturday morning in October? I’m guessing because all of those trips in the 80s involved piling into the car well before sunup, for the hour plus drive across Garrett County and into southwestern Pennsylvania. The early bird gets the worm and all that. 

The internet tells me that the original Pechin complex is long gone – done in by the death of the founder and driving force and later fully erased by fire – but that the name lives on in smaller, and surely less colorful stores. Somehow, I doubt today’s shoppers are getting the authentic Pechin’s experience.

I’m glad I did.

Smart people…

Believe it or not, there was a time when I was (slightly) less judgmental. I was mostly happy to let people go on about their business while I went about mine. That arrangement is perfectly serviceable until “their business” starts to conflict with what’s going on over here in my lane. Once that happens, I’m all too happy to act as a jealous guardian of my own interests.

I like to think that over the years I’ve managed to excise most of the truly stupid people from my life. Not being a particularly social creature, my circle has always been relatively small. Following a season of elections, protests, and plagues, though, that circle has grown smaller still… though I wonder if it’s not about to get culled even further.

See, the thing is, I’m starting to see people who I always assumed were reasonably intelligent unpacking whole steamer trunks of batshit crazy. That’s ok, I guess, when done in the privacy of their own home where no one can see their ass showing, but when you’re doing it loudly and in public, well, that’s a different animal altogether.

I could say it’s something I’m just seeing from my right wing friends, but it’s not. Some of the lefties are absolutely determined to get themselves out there on the lunatic fringe too. If the last 18 months has taught me anything it’s that I’m just not sure I’ve got the patience or the temperament to be tolerant of people saying or doing patently dumb shit on a regular basis.

I’m self-aware enough to know I’m not the smartest guy in the room. I’m certainly able to my fair share of dumb shit… but I try to make it a limited experience rather than basing my entire personality around it. It turns out that’s not universally true.

Heavy nostalgia…

I just signed the paperwork starting the process of selling the condo I bought in 2001… Back when I was a fresh faced, 23-year old college graduate just a year or so into my first adult job in extreme southern Maryland. Back then St. Mary’s County was just starting to grow up – it’s first great strides towards becoming another bedroom community for the District.

Coming out of a two room granny flat that was about the size of my current laundry room, the condo felt palatial at the time. It was 725 square feet of all mine. The first step along the path of my own version of the American dream. If my time in Frostburg molded me, St. Mary’s, and my little condo was where I was tempered and really learned how to be me outside the orbit of the known and familiar.

With the paperwork signed, I’m about a week and a half from seeing the place back on the market for the first time since I snatched it up. I’m feeling an awfully heavy dose of nostalgia tonight – for nights on Solomons, at the Brass Rail, or the Green Door, for friends made and contact lost over the long intervening years, and more than a little for the 23-year old version of me who was so very determined to bend the world to his will, got kicked around a little by life, and kept on coming.

I’ve had chances to sell the place in the past, but could never quite bring myself to let it go. Now, though, it feels right. My long time property manager is closing up his business and being a long distance landlord has lost a lot of its luster. It’s probably a few years past time, really. The place deserves a shot at an owner who’s going to call it home again. I’d like to see that… but of course if another investor shows up with a big bag of cash, I’m not going to send them away.

As much as I’m feeling and appreciate the moment of nostalgia, it does have it’s limits when it comes to making decisions with the dollars and cents.

The state funeral…

When you look for pomp and ceremony, there are few who do it better than the British. They make state occasions look easy – the opening of Parliament, the sovereign’s birthday, and other moments of ceremony go on as if nothing could be more natural. Maybe that’s to be expected in a country that celebrates a monarchy stretching back a thousand years. 

State occasions are different here in our young republic. They tend to be more subdued and perhaps more egalitarian than those carried out by our cousins across the sea. The exception to America’s tendency towards more low key affairs, is the state funeral. It’s the one state occasion when our long ties back to the old world are most on display – and it’s a thing of real beauty. 

From the Old Guard flanking the horse-drawn caisson in procession along Pennsylvania Avenue, to the riderless horse with boots reversed in the stirrups, and the muffled roll of the drums if it doesn’t make your breath catch, are you even really alive? The casket, lain on the Lincoln catafalque, in state beneath the arching dome of the Capitol, with average Americans shuffling past, unnaturally quiet in such a massive space, is one of those sights and moments that you never forget. 

If you happen to be in the DC are over the next couple of days, do yourself a favor and go observe some of these moments – watch the procession to the Capital, wait for a bit in line to pass through the Rotunda and pay your respects. Even if you had political differences with the departed, its an American experience you owe yourself. 

It’s in the face…

I’ve learned from hard experience to control my tongue in moments of frustration and anger (mostly). It’s a skill that has saved me on more than one occasion when all I’ve wanted to to was vent every little thing that was on my mind.

What it appears I’m never going to be able to master is the skill of keeping my face under control. The rolled eyes and look of utter disbelief or disdain just shows up no matter how hard I try to keep it impassive and apparently no matter who happens to be in the room.

If I ever manage to tend both mouth and face at the same time, then God help me I could take over the world. As it is, I can’t even disguise a passing moment of annoyance. Then again, I’m probably not trying that hard.

Full days…

I’d guess that on average three weekdays out of every five could be fairly described as being “less than full.” Now I don’t mean to imply in any way that I don’t strive to give our Uncle his money’s worth every time, but there are simple laws of the bureaucracy that say it’s impossible to be busy every moment of the day. This isn’t McDonald’s and there isn’t always stainless that needs wiped down. Usually our days have an ebb and flow that ranges somewhere between comfortable and mind-numbing. It’s that one day in five that’s the wildcard. When it comes along it’s like being stuck with a whole room full of one armed paper hangers. No matter how fast you work, it’s just not going to be fast enough to account for everything coming over the side. In my experience, that’s the nature of the beast.

The real trouble with those rogue days is that they’re absolutely unpredictable. Days that for all outward appearances should be busy won’t be. Days that by rights should be dead slow will open their gaping maw and eat you alive. It would be nice, I think, if those wide-mouthed days would at least give you a fair warning. It feels like the very least the universe could do if it’s bound and determined to spend the rest of the day kicking your ass all over the room.

Spectacle…

While the airwaves are filled with commentators, opinion makers, protestors, and politicians both for and against, the one certainty is that in just about 87 hours President-Elect Donald Trump is going to be sworn in as the 45th President of the United
States. Baring something unprecedented and Inauguration 2005.jpgunforeseen, he will be president, notwithstanding the calls of “not my president,” “not your president,” whatever. He’s going to be sworn and take office. Whether you voted for him or not, whether you find him appealing or appalling, whether you march in protest or toast the victory, this inauguration will roll forward with every bit of pomp and ceremony officialdom of the United States can muster.

Despite my grave disquiet at being out among large groups of people, I’ve attended two inaugurations. The first, in 2001 was the last staged in the era before “big terror” was an issue. The crowds came and went and security was the occasional glimpse of a rooftop sniper or mounted police officer working through the throng. The second, four years later was the first inauguration of metal detectors, fenced pens, and bomb sniffing dogs. The contrast couldn’t have been more stark.

I can’t imagine a circumstance where I’ll ever attend another inauguration in person. I’ve not got enough patience now for the crowds or the five hundred yard wait to process through security. Sill, though, it’s one of those uniquely American experience I’m glad I’ve had. Standing on The Mall, half frozen, the 21-gun salute booming in your chest, the simple and utterly remarkable act of a peaceful transfer of power, and the sense that what you’ve just been a small part of is something historic is a moment that sticks with you.

We here in this happy land may have thrown off the cloak of monarchy in our long ago fit of revolutionary anger. The inauguration of our president, though, is one of those rare moments in the life of the republic when we give ourselves over fully to the purely ceremonial; when we celebrate the office if not the man. It’s really something to see and an American experience worth having, regardless of party affiliation.

Where you stand…

It’s Monday again and while they don’t seem so bad when you’re not shuffling off to work in the dark hours of the morning, it’s still the kind of thing that turns your mind to thoughts of the office. Inevitably, that means I’m thinking about meetings, because, in a “professional work environment” apparently meetings are just about the only thing people do.

It’s been my experience that on any given day there are more meetings than people available to go sit in them. That problem compounds because everyone inevitably thinks their meeting is the most important of the day and demand that the most senior person available attend them in order to reinforce the perception of importance. And you see, that’s where things start coming off the rails, because some meetings get stuck with guys like me showing up. When I show up unescorted by someone of senior grade, there’s a good chance your meeting isn’t nearly as important as you think it is.

It’s not that I’m in any way incapable of expressing official thoughts or ideas, it’s just that I have no standing to actually make or enforce decisions on behalf of my large bureaucratic organization. Those activities are reserved to pay grades far higher than mine (and I’m OK with that). The other thing that you really should be concerned about when I show up alone is that there’s always a chance that my filter will slip off and I might accidentally open my mouth and let my actual opinion fly out. While there’s always a price to pay for telling truth to power, I generally don’t think about that until the cat’s well out of its bag.

As it is, I’m amazed on a weekly basis how many times I’m left alone with an open mic and a naive optimism that I won’t say something stupid directly into the ear of someone at echelons higher than reality. Also, and I’ll give you this one for free, if the only time you can schedule your meeting is after lunch on a Friday, go ahead and kill your project because that’s a sure sign there isn’t a single person anywhere on the planet who actually cares about what you’re doing.

So, yeah, on this Monday morning, I’m reaching out to meeting organizers everywhere and giving them an opportunity to reevaluate their actions, how many gaggles they schedule, when they’re held, and where they stand in the grand scheme of things.

Bad juju…

I suspect we all run into them from time to time – days that are just filled to the brim with some kind of bad juju. For me, today was just dripping with the stuff. It’s not like anything bad actually happened (to me at least), but from the time I walked out the door this morning to the time I came back through it tonight, every second felt vaguely unsettled. That small voice in the back of my head that seems to become more sage the older I get, whispered a near constant “just keep your head down.”

I can’t pinpoint exactly what the problem was today, but it just had the unmistakable feeling of being ready to come off the rails at any moment for any reason. It seemed like all it would take was the barest nudge and the whole thing would end up out in the tall grass somewhere. Creature of habit that I am, unsettled does not make me happy. I’m sure that only adds fuel to the fire of the day’s already uneasy feeling.

Since we don’t get mulligans in this game, I’ll send the rest of the evening trying to shrug it off as a large group of people collectively having a bad day. I’m not optimist enough to fall back on the idea that tomorrow will always be better, but if it avoids getting worse, that’ll be an enormous step in the right direction. Who knows, maybe a good night’s sleep will shake off the bad juju.

Reunion…

This weekend the Westmar High School Class of 1996 will celebrate its 15-year reunion. A decade and a half. Three lustra. Fifteen years. Nothing in terms of geologic time, of course, but long enough in the hear-and-now world. These five year anniversaries are as good a time for reflection as any and you know from reading that I’m not one to let a good anniversary pass without saying something sappy about it. So here it is …

I have a confession to make. I don’t feel all that different from the much younger version of myself. The thinking part of my brain keeps insisting that I should. That I should maybe feel like more of an adult somehow. I’ve added some paunch around the middle and lost more hair around the top, but I really feel pretty much like the same guy I was then. I mostly like the same food. I mostly like the same music (don’t judge me). A lot of the things that were important to me then are still the ones that are important to me now. Maybe I’m a little more moderate in my politics than I was when I was 18 and knew everything, but that doesn’t seem to make much difference because ultimately, I’m still me at the core.

I know there are plenty of Wildcats from that long-ago class who have their own high school age kids. There’s a thought that sticks with you. Surely they feel different, right? Metaphysically changed somehow by the passage of years and accretion of responsibility? I’ve been out there and seen whole big swaths of the world. I feel like I’ve seen it all… and I’ve mostly done it all. Sometimes to my own detriment, but always good for a “life experience” credit. I’ve done great things and I’ve had my self confidence shattered. Hell, sometimes it’s happened on the same day. But through it all, I don’t feel any different. Same guy, just with a few added layers of experience.

I get up in the morning, put on a sharp shirt and a tie and spend eight hours pretending that I’m a knowledgeable professional… but at heart I’m still the same guy who mostly wants to hang out with his friends and stay up too late shooting pool or sneak up to Frostburg to see a girl. Under the thin veneer of adulthood, I still like driving too fast and going to Denny’s at odd hours. If having a house, holding a steady job, and paying your bills is the defining characteristic of being “grown,” I’ve got it covered. If it’s some deeper change in your psyche, well, that’s a little more problematic.

It’s one of those deep thoughts I have lying in bed before sleep comes: Am I the only one who feels this way? Is everyone else really an adult inside their own head and I’m the only one who feels like he’s playing a part just well enough not to get caught? Maybe I am… in which case this entire post as served as nothing other than a 500-word admission of guilt. Surely I’m not the only one out there faking it, right? Even if we’re all not kids any more, I’m looking forward to seeing the old gang again.