What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. At least twice this week, as I drifted off to sleep, I thought of something and noted that it would be a good blog topic. Yep. I’ll write about that tomorrow. Of course by morning the thought had completely evaporated without hope of recovery. All I’m left with is the ghost of an interesting idea and no ink on the page.  I’m going to need the ideas to start coming before that instant when consciousness blinks out of the night while I’ve still got a fighting chance of making some notes.

2. There’s a day next week I wasn’t scheduled to be in the office. Now I am. Not because of some bureaucratic fuckery, but because I opened my own stupid mouth and volunteered. After almost 19 years you’d think I would know better. Sure, it’s one of my few “high profile” projects, but there’s absolutely nothing I can add in person that I couldn’t have added in a video call. But there I’ll be, failing to strike a blow for the power or remote work. Let the record show I’m able to annoy myself just as much if not more than other people can manage to achieve.

3. I’ve been using my original Gmail address since back in the olden days when the service was “by invitation only.” Yes, I’m well aware of how much of my “personal information” Google is sweeping up in their net by providing this otherwise free service, but it has been an absolute workhorse over the years. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve gone to check my email and found it unavailable. I’ve been using the account for everything, for so long now, that it’s almost starting to choke on the not-quite-spam – or the random marketing emails sent by companies I legitimately do business with. They’re companies I don’t necessarily want caught in the spam filter because I like getting receipts, bills, and  the other bits of information I need,.. but getting 20-30 messages a day that are close to but not quite spam feels like way too much. I could probably spend a little while tightening up my filters, but I definitely wanted to bitch about it first.

A surprisingly fond memory…

I have no idea what would have made me think of it this morning while driving to the office today, I had the most vivid memory of the night following my high school graduation. Maybe I’ll write it off to the mind going to odd places to avoid thinking unpleasant thoughts… like spending an otherwise perfectly fine day as a cube dweller in fluorescent-lit hell.

The notion of a raging party following graduation is so common it’s become a go-to trope in teen movies… or at least it still was the last time I saw a teen movie. There was certainly a selection of those available to choose from that night.

The one I picked was a more low-key affair. Someone, I don’t remember who, snagged a room at the Holiday Inn in Grantsville. Did hotels rent rooms to 18 year olds back then? There were maybe a dozen of us there, strictly a coed affair, all thinking we were young princelings of the universe.

There was plenty to drink, pizza to be ordered, and the possibility of other debauchery to be had, I’m sure. I wasn’t much of a partier in high school – I saved most of my boozing and smoking and other questionable life choices for college. I’m not claiming that I was an angel back then, but in some ways, the parties I did go to (and some that I hosted) were remarkably tame… as long as you didn’t look too hard at what was happening in dark corners. In any case, those long ago band parties are probably a topic for a different post.

Graduation night, though, is supposed to be the big night. Most fresh minted grads, I suppose, would have made a real time of it. Me? Well, I left the party long before midnight. I don’t remember what excuses I made, but I was sleepy and everything was loud. I stopped at Sheetz for a sub, went home, and put myself to bed not long after the clock struck twelve.

In retrospect, it feels like that night may have set the tone for how I’ve felt about parties and staying up late for almost my entire adult life. I still have no idea why I would have thought of any of that this morning.

On that one time when the job mattered…

There aren’t many days from my distant past I can point to and tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing. August 29th is one of the rarities. 

Right around this time 16 years ago, I was sitting in a back room on the mezzanine level of FEMA headquarters. I was on loan from Uncle’s big green machine and there wasn’t space in the old National Response Coordination Center for all of us, so the logistics cell had been shuffled over to adjacent office space. I didn’t realize then that I’d spend most of my waking hours for the next 75 days huddled up in those offices. 

It was mid-morning, August 29, 2005. Katrina had made landfall earlier and the initial reports, what we were seeing on television, looked like we’d dodged a proverbial bullet. Back there and back then, a direct hit on New Orleans was always one of the nightmare scenarios emergency managers talked about in hushed tones. We let out a sigh of relief and talked about where to get lunch. 

Then the levees broke – or “overtopped” – depending on how technically correct you want to be. There’s an image of a huge barge slammed hard against a widening breach as canal water pours through that’s going to stick with me forever.

I’ve got definite opinions about the now infamous failures in the initial response to Katrina. The federal government – and FEMA in particular – makes a big juicy target for news organizations. We weren’t guiltless, but there’s a shit ton of blame to also spread around on New Orleans’ mayor and Louisiana’s governor. Under our federal system, at least back then and maybe still for all I know, it’s important to remember that states have to ask for federal assistance before the resources flow. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. That’s all I’ll say on that particular sore topic.

Watching the news this morning has brought back swarms of memories from sixteen years ago. Mostly it’s memories of the people I was working with at the time – some of the best I’ve ever known. More than a few of those thoughts, though, are of being young and just a little bit arrogant, of too much coffee and not nearly enough sleep, and of one of the handful of times in my entire career that doing the job meant making a tangible difference rather than just making the PowerPoint slides a bit more spiffy.

Lots of people are keeping a good though for those in harm’s way today. Me? I’ll keep mine for those sitting in the mezzanine trying their hardest to do the right things. I’m proud of the work I did 16 years ago, but sweet little baby Jesus am I glad someone else is sitting in that seat this morning.

Sunday cooking…

Growing up down the crick in the 80s, Sunday dinner with the extended family wasn’t just something you saw in a Rockwell print. Sitting around the table, weighted down with metric tons of food, presided over by my grandfather, with aunts, uncles, and cousins jammed in elbow to elbow wasn’t a television trope. Living it then, I didn’t recognize it as anything other than the normal way of things. It’s only in hindsight I can see just how remarkable those Sunday dinners were. 

Sunday dinner was always the big meal of the week, but Sunday lunch is just as fixed in my memory. It was almost invariably hamburgers – fried up in a skillet, or more rarely from the electric grill on the patio, and served with chips and maybe baked beans. I’m sure there were other sandwiches, but it’s the hamburgers that seem to be stuck in my mind’s eye as I look back across the decades.

I’ve long maintained the spirit of Sunday dinner being a household “event.” It’s consistently the biggest and most wide-ranging meal I make every week… though unlike my grandmother, I’m mercifully not making it to feed a dozen or more hungry mouths.  

Now, these many years later, I find myself recreating those lunches, too. Sunday lunch is hamburgers or ham salad or BLTs. Perhaps it’s not an exact recreation, of the lunches that I remember so clearly, but it’s absolutely done with intent. 

I know the poet says “The good old days weren’t always good.” He’s probably on to something there. Even so, they weren’t all bad either. One of the great mercies of time is it tends to smooth off some of the rougher edges of memory. I appreciate that immensely. 

Damnatio…

Two millennia ago in ancient Rome, one of the gravest punishments the Senate was empowered to hand down was the damnatio memoriae – literally damning the memory of a failed leader by erasing them, as completely as possible, from the historical record.

It’s an official forgetting. It’s a bold statement that some people, some actions, are unworthy to even serve as a warning to others. Some people can best serve history by being exiled from it.

I have no idea at all what pulled that little nugget of information to mind this afternoon. Yep. No idea at all. 

The vagaries of memory…

Picking Concord grapes is one of my first vague childhood memories. There were friends of the family (distant relatives, maybe) living way the hell north in Erie. They had a house in town, an endless supply of Pez candy, and what now would be called a vintage Volkswagen van. Back then, in the early 1980s, it was just an old van, of course. It’s funny, the things we remember.

We’d go north to Erie in the fall. There was grape picking. I know my memory isn’t completely faulty on this because not long ago I saw the photographic evidence. I’d eat those damned Concord grapes until I got sick. Forty years later, if I don’t impose a touch of self-discipline, I’ll still eat those uniquely purple grapes to the point of making myself sick.

I’m convinced it’s these partially formed memories that are responsible for my ongoing love of grape soda, or candy, or anything flavored in that particular grape-y profile. 

My local Mennonite fruit stand had Concord’s by the quart basket this weekend. I didn’t clean them out, but I put a dent in their stock. They’re the kind of thing that have to be enjoyed in season so when they’re ready it’s a race to eat as many as possible. I’ve avoided making myself violently ill (so far), but boy I’m right there on the cusp… and I regret nothing – especially the memories.

With honors…

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.

The smell of summer…

There’s a certain smell in the summer. Maybe in my mind it’s actually the smell of summer. 

It’s a smell of damp wood, sun-scorched earth, brackish water, salt marsh, and the slightest hint of creosote. It’s strongest, most potent in the high summer, just after the sun sets, maybe around 8:30 or 9:00. It’s a unique smell I only catch somewhere near the Bay after a blisteringly hot day with high humidity. On days when the weather is just right, you can feel it in the air as much as smell it.

This is the time of year I can smell it here at near the head of the Bay. I could smell it from the patio of my one-bedroom bunker in St Mary’s County, too. But the first place I smelled it was in Tracy’s Landing. It was a million years ago when I was a kid and summer was defined by “long” trips to my aunt and uncle’s house. It wasn’t more than three hours from home, but the drive then felt like it took forever. The flatlands of tidal Ann Arundel County might as well have been another planet from the ridges and valleys of far western Maryland.

It feels like that was lifetimes ago, now. More than anywhere else it was on these summer trips that I learned to love the Bay and the critters that dwell in, on, and near it. Those summer days were filled with buckets of corn distributed at a waterfowl sanctuary in Shady Side, picking fossils out of the creek out on the “back 40,” feeding Stormy and Hazy, the resident horses, gathering up vegetables for the night’s dinner out of the deep garden plots just a few hours before they were on the plate, trot lining blue crabs in the West River in a hand-made skiff, or chasing rockfish out on the “blue water” Bay in a proper work boat. There too, innumerable family events unfolded – back before family got too damned weird.

All these years later and I remember it all with stunning clarity thanks to something as completely ephemeral as a smell I can’t quite describe.

What I learned this week…

I’m sure I learned something new this week. Meandering through seven whole days without picking up one remotely interesting tidbit feels like it should be hard. Actually it feels like it should be impossible if you have any kind of inquisitive mind. To be fair, I’m sure I did actually learn more than one new thing as I was pouring through the latest hundred-odd pages of Pax Britannica. Those new things, though, aren’t really the kind of nuggets you bring to your blog on Friday night. Well, I sure some people do, but that’s not how we do things here.

The fact is, I’ve scoured my memory for the better part of the last hour hoping to tease out one little factoid that I could turn into a paragraph. I’ve been soundly defeated in that effort. My post-work Friday afternoon brain dump seems to have eradicated more than the stuff time stamped during business hours.

There’s also the very real possibility that I’ve completely overestimated my ability to remember random minutia. I try to make note of the interesting stuff, but even that system seems to have failed me this week… and maybe that’s this week’s lesson. It turns out I really can’t rely on my internal memory to keep track of jack shit anymore and need to make a conscious effort to be a better note maker.

Yeah, I guess that’s what I learned this week. It’s lame and I’ll probably have forgotten it by this time tomorrow, but there it is.