If you live long enough you’re sure to noice there are moments where you repeat habits and patterns of past generations. Resist as much as you want and there are some elements of your parent’s personality that are sure to come through lound and clear despite all protestations to the contrary. As much as the big story today should be that Fortress Jeff is now manufacturing hot air six percent more efficiently than I was when the day started that is, in fact, not the big story… even if the projected savings on electrical and propane changes alone would have rated a mention here.
I’m writing here tonight not to sing the glory of high efficiency HVAC systems, but because I caught myself squarely in the midst of following my father’s footsteps. You see, when I walked through to the kitchen to brew up another coffee, I noticed the demolished remains of the old furnace laying on the driveway. Next to the shredded metal carcass of the furnace was a stack of 3-inch PVC pipe, the former intake and exhaust, that had been cut into neat eight foot lengths ready for disposal. Being my father’s son, of course, I couldn’t let perfectly good PVC pipe get thrown away.
Despite the fact that I have never in almost 40 years had a situation where I though, damn I wish I had a 16 foot length of 3-inch PVC pipe handy, I went out to the driveway and toted the two lengths that were clean cut and without joints back into the garage and leaned them in the corner. I laid them up “just in case,” against a day that when I need just exactly 8 or 16 feet of pipe to take on some project here at the house.
These lengths of pipe join sections of trex and 1×2 that came off the access ramp that use to be in the garage, several coffee cans of mismatched screws, nails, bolts, and nuts, a few smallish squares of drywall, and some leftover tile that matches my kitchen floor. All of it is material in waiting – most likely for a project or requirement that will never come – but ready just in case.
What Annoys Jeff this Week is usually the place where I vent my spleen each week. Most of the time it’s easy enough to cull the “top three” things from the list and give them each a little paragraph of exposition. Some weeks, this one included, offer what I can only describe as an embarrassment of riches. In fact this week it would be easier to discuss the few things that have not annoyed me in some way.
1. The critters. Despite the bills for care, feeding, and entertainment, I can’t think of a time when I’ve ever begrudged one of my animals anything. Regardless of the stupidity going on “out there” beyond the four walls of the house, they’re consistent in their affection and pleasure at seeing me every afternoon. Even the cat. Walking through the door to be greeted by a wave of fur and slobber is the high water mark of each and every day.
2. Living rural. Every time I switch on the television I find myself faced with an endless amount of stupid things happening. For the most part that coverage is dedicated to the things happening in major cities here at home and around the globe. Now I’m tuned in to the local news outlets closely enough to know that there’s plenty of stupidity happening in Cecil County, too. Fortunately, my little corner of the place is remarkably serene. Now there may still be plenty of stupidity happening nearby, but we have the common decency to (mostly) keep in behind closed doors.
3. Blood. You don’t get to pick your family. What you end up with seems to be mostly be left up to the luck of the draw. Let me say that knowing that, I feel like I’ve been given a very fortunate hand to play. I’m looking forward to that rare opportunity of spending some quality time with them this weekend.
If there’s anything else you can think of this week, it’s safe to just go ahead and assume that it has annoyed me at some point.
It doesn’t happen often, but there are some times, some moments, when I just don’t have the right words. Anything I manage to get down on the blank page feels somehow inadequate to the moment.
Saying a real goodbye is always a struggle. Saying a final goodbye almost beyond my weak capabilities. Since long before our written histories, honoring the dead was a task for the living. Maybe it should be hard to put those ideas into words. Maybe, at its core, goodbye should be something felt rather than something said.
Another of the too rapidly diminishing links to my youth is unexpectedly gone. My memories, though, remain – of summers spent “far away”, of learning to love the Chesapeake and those creatures that dwell on, in, and above its depths, of family in better times. Those memories remain and loom ever larger in my mind, making it that much harder to think of saying the inevitable goodbye.
As I’ve worked and reworked these few sentences tonight I keep coming back to a quote first heard long ago. One of our greatest warrior philosophers offered that “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.” While it may be foolish, I’ll mourn tonight – but I’ll also be well and truly thankful that such a man lived.
This world is a little less warm and its light a little less bright for his passing.
In most parts of the country maybe people don’t really think of government as a family business. Here in the greater DC-Baltimore area – and in many small towns who find their employment life’s blood tied inextricably to dams, prisons, or other federal projects, it’s just one of those facts of life. In my last job it wasn’t at all unusual to find three or more generations of a family who have worked at one location since back before we had to go liberate Europe the second time. I have my own share of family who spent time working for or who are still on the payroll of their elderly Uncle.
I don’t know why it always comes as such a surprise to me when someone in the office mentions meeting a colleague’s wife, husband, mother, father, sister, or brother in the course of flailing around trying to get something accomplished. Jobs are competed, personnel specialists live for making sure the rules are followed, and still often the “best qualified” are those who were raised from birth hearing about the Byzantine intrigues, conference room power struggles, and petty office politics the place seems to engender. We might be the single largest employer in the country, but sometimes, aside from marathon meetings, epic delusions of grandeur, and billion dollar operating budgets, it does feel like we’re running the average mom and pop shop.
But then you get out to the parking lot – which would make the biggest of big box stores blush with inadequacy – and realize, no, it’s not at all mom and pop. It’s not the family business. And you really are located somewhere deep inside the belly of the beast.
There’s a certain smell to summer in proximity to the Chesapeake. It’s not the saltwater smell you find at the beach. It’s not the aggressive punch of decomposing plant matter in the wetlands right down along the water’s edge. It’s a smell I only know from a few miles inland. It’s salty and woody and vaguely marshy. It’s a good smell and a familiar one for me. For a few weeks during the hottest parts of the summer I’d catch it in St. Mary’s County when I lived down at the southern tip of the western shore. It’s here now, too, at the northern reaches of the Eastern.
My first memory of that smell, and where I remember it most distinctly, is an a little town in between those two points no one reading this would have ever heard of. It’s the smell of long ago summer visits to far away relatives, of horses, of learning to pick crabs and to shuck oysters, and swimming until the pool’s rough bottom had worn blisters on my toes. It’s s a smell of a simpler time, or at least one that seemed simpler by virtue of knowing so little about the world’s machinations. It’s the single smell I’ll (apparently) forever associate with one very specific place and time.
It’s not a smell I’ve ever encountered elsewhere in my travels – there’s no hint of it in Petersburg, or Honolulu, or Memphis. Oregon has its own particular smell of the old, deep woods and powerful running water, but it’s not at all the same. I picked up that fleeting scent a few nights ago. It’s that time of year. The instant recall and deeply fond memories of times and people long gone couldn’t possibly have been stronger. I don’t think I’ll ever stop being amazed at what small details the brain snatches for its own and hides away only to restore them with perfect clarity years and decades later.
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.
1. Summer. I can’t help but notice in the last week or so that we’ve entered the part of the year when I drive by the local high school twice a day and find its parking lot absolutely empty. I’m not even going to try getting into a discussion about teaching, whether it’s an over paid or under paid profession, or even whether it should be open for business year round. For good or ill, we’re still using the 10-on, 2-off schedule of the agrarian age… and as long as we are I will continue to be insanely jealous of our nation’s teachers whenever I drive past on a beautiful summer morning and find them not there. June, July, and August are truly the only three things I miss about teaching… and if I’m perfectly honest with everyone, I’m already looking forward just a little bit to that day in August when they’re stuck back in the grind with the rest of us.
2. “Working families”-based legislation. I’ve noticed this week that the administration is trotting out the whole “working parents” discussion again. Look, I get that having a job and balancing everything else in your life is at best a challenge and at worst an exercise in futility. For working parents, I can understand that taking care of your kids is your first priority. That’s good. That’s how it should be. On the other hand, since I’ve opted not to go that route, I think it needs said that I don’t consider my own top priority items any less important to me than yours are to you. Every time I hear a politician spout something about making life easier for working families, my middle finger gives a little twitch. How about we come up with a few programs that makes life easier for employees in general rather than just a subset of the group? Trust me, I don’t value paid time off or a more flexible schedule any less than you do just because my dependents have four legs and fur (or scales).
3. Lack of focus. Yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States issued a unanimous ruling that law enforcement could not unilaterally search your cell phone without a warrant or in the most extreme of emergency situations. Read that again. It was a unanimous opinion of the court. A win for personal privacy doesn’t get much more decisive than that. But we’re collectively paying more attention to grown men kicking a ball or whatever celebri-skank did something whoretastic this week. Whether you agree with my assessments of daily events or not, I’d consider it hugely helpful if we could all at least try to pay a little attention to something beyond what’s “reported” on TMZ or ESPN.