Archive for the ‘ A Quiet Normal Life ’ Category

A Long Way From Here

The truth is, I’ve never much cared for Thanksgiving Day. When my family used to host every year, it meant a day and a half of housecleaning while my parents became testier with every second that brought us closer to Zero Hour. Plus, I hated most of the food we made for the feast. Green bean casserole? A box of stuffing? That weird can-shaped blob of cranberry “sauce” quivering atop a china serving dish?

And turkey has never really deserved its reputation, when we get right down to it. It’s 50 / 50 whether it’s going to be tasty or bone-dry. My sister might have finally cracked the code last year when she brined the hell out of it, but that’s probably the only memorably delicious turkey I’ve had.

As for the celebration, well, for years that meant dealing with my mercurial grandparents and aunt. My grandfather was perhaps the only one who seemed legitimately happy to be eating with us, and most of that was sweet potato-induced. “Hooo!” he’d cry as he peeled back the aluminum foil over the dish. “Look at that!”

But my grandmother or aunt would usually decide, without warning, that it is time to leave right now and vanish into the car before the coffee and pie had been served. Sometimes my grandfather would just disappear after dinner, and then we’d look out the window and see him, arms folded, in the back of the Buick.

Dessert conversation among my parents, sister, and brother-in-law usually revolved around what was that all about? On the television, we’d make a desultory effort at watching the Lions get their asses kicked, but the Lions have been unwatchably bad for as long as I can remember.

So I’m not really very sorry not to be celebrating Thanksgiving Day with my family this year. I feel terrible that I’m now reduced to seeing my sister and her family about once or twice a year, but the holiday itself has always been a bit too much trouble, too strongly associated with anxiety and inconvenience.

But I am crushed to think that Wednesday night, for the first time I can remember, I won’t be sitting down to spaghetti casserole by candlelight with my parents. We won’t be watching Jason Robards’ You Can’t Take It With You, which my parents recorded off PBS many many years ago, or drinking my father’s chocolate eggnog at the intermission.

Almost as bad, I won’t be putting up the Christmas tree this year, which traditionally marks the first time my parents break out The Chieftains’ Bells of Dublin and the John Denver & The Muppets Christmas album. Thanksgiving itself might be the heart of the holiday, but the real family traditions lie on either side of it. And this year I couldn’t make it.

My partner and I have a nice weekend planned, and God knows we need a break. We couldn’t spare the time to make it back to Indiana, so we made reservations at our favorite restaurant in Cambridge. We have some great movies to keep us company through the weekend (I’m looking forward to introducing her to Easy Living) and plenty of sweet treats and relaxing beverages. My mother passed along the spaghetti casserole recipe, and my father air-mailed us a copy of You Can’t Take It With You. I have the supplies for chocolate nog. It will, in some ways, be the first Thanksgiving that is my own, and in others it will be very much like home.

But I can’t shake this sense of dislocation. For over twenty years I’ve been home for Thanksgiving Eve and I’ve hung decorations on Friday afternoon. Even when I was away at college I made sure to make it back no matter how hellish the traffic got around Chicago. So as I drink my coffee here in Central Square, and watch last light fading over Mass Ave., I keep asking myself, “What am I doing here?”

Just a Restless Feeling

It’s about 7:45 and I’m finishing up coffee and breakfast in a cafe near my apartment in east Cambridge. I’ve been awake since 4:30. It has been raining all morning, and outside these windows it is a parade of dark umbrellas and shockingly bright ponchos. I am glad to be in here with my coffee and scone.

I used to arrive at school every morning at this time, and being up at 5:30 or 6 in the morning did not seem like much of a feat. For the past couple years, waking up anytime before 8 seemed like a miraculous event, one deserving of some kind of commendation medal. “For Excellence in Getting Out of Bed Prior to Lunch, the Committee Awards on This Day…”

Now my day starts well before dawn, because I have reluctantly acknowledged that I am unable to do any work that is the least bit intellectually taxing after lunch.

I don’t know what happens. Whatever I have for lunch, however much or little I have of it, I become an uncreative, distracted procrastinator the moment the dishes are cleared away. I can still do chores, play games, or even do some light editing work, but I cannot write or conduct much research.

It was killing me how I would deceive myself. I would front-load the day a bit, but I’d always promise myself that I could make up for lost time in the afternoon or early evening. Didn’t make my word-count? I’d get there before dinner. At the very least I’d put together a good outline.

So time and again I’d find myself, at 10 at night, staring at a legal pad with “OUTLINE” written across the top. Underneath, I’d have: “Main argument: WTF happened to video game manuals? This is bullshit.”

And underneath that: “Supporting argument 1: Manuals were cool.”

The rest of the page would be blank. This would represent 12 or 13 hours of “work” in which I pointlessly browsed the web, wrote and deleted several introductory paragraphs, and refused to let myself do anything else because I had not accomplished my day’s goals yet.

If there is one thing of which I am sure, it is that I am consistent in my inconsistency.  A few years ago I could only work in coffee shops, one in particular. If I couldn’t make it down College Avenue to one of the cafes, my entire day would end up going to waste. Then, for no reason at all, I stopped being able to get work done there and started to do all my work in my office. Then that stopped working, and I split work between my living room and libraries.

When I was a freshman in college, I couldn’t write a damn thing before 11 at night. My best papers were completed between midnight and dawn, except that suddenly I started missing deadlines because the night schedule stopped working. Suddenly I could only work between lunch and 10 P.M.

I hope my current schedule will last. It’s liberating to know that my workday has a set endpoint, and that it won’t drag itself out through my afternoon and night. I have had problems in the past with letting work sort of consume my life, simply because I never really scheduled breaks from it. I would be tremendously sick of an article I was writing before I’d even finished three paragraphs, because it was pestering me from the moment I turned on the shower in the morning to the moment I fell asleep.

Here’s the dilemma I can’t solve: some days I can’t get a damn thing done. I can tell, halfway through, that I’m not going to write anything usable or have any clever insights. Should that be a signal to walk away, or do I honor my commitment to work for a given number of hours, whether or not I accomplish anything. Because giving up can also become habitual, yet beating your head against a wall is undeniably pointless.

Except that I always wonder: when I have that flash of insight after days of struggling with a piece, is that just a sign that I’m having a good day and things have finally come together, or is it the product of a subconscious cognitive process that’s happening while I struggle through unproductive workdays?

I write all this because it’s on my mind. My approach to the workday gets the job done, but I still feel  like I end up wasting a lot of time. I’m just not sure how to improve my efficiency.

Highway Thoughts

I caught about ten minutes of FOX News while I was eating at a Wendy’s in central Pennsylvania. The big news they were covering was the fact that Iran was testing a missle with a 1200 mile range, which would only be mildly interesting to me if I lived within 1200 miles of Iran. Nevertheless, they brought out a shill from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies who dutifully informed the anchors of what a grave and terrible threat Iran poses.

Then they cut away to talk about Bank of America distancing itself from ACORN and wondered aloud if this spells the beginning of the end for that organization. Personally I don’t read much into it. Bank of America is probably just preoccupied with making sure they’re charging their debit cardholders the full $350 of overdraft fees per day that BofA is legally entitled to. Still, FOX seems to think it’s bad news for ACORN that America’s biggest legal loan-shark is severing ties.

The final story they covered was the terrifying statistic that only 1/4 of all terrorism suspects are ever brought to trial. The anchors sounded pretty frightened of the thought that 75% of all terrorists are just going free, but their legal expert was on hand to assuage their fears. In his two minute segment, he said the figure was actually just a testament to what a great job our law enforcement and intelligence agencies are doing. He liked the way that sounded, so he repeated it about five more times until we got the right associations: law enforcement, intelligence agencies, great job.

It’s terrifying to think that people watch that network and think they’re getting the news. Someone from the Foudation for Defense of Democracies is treated as an unbiased expert, and the people watching at home have no way of knowing that this guy’s meal-ticket depends on advocating unrelenting interventionism. The only thing this guy probably ever defended was a master’s thesis. FOX tries to whip up some fear over the fact that terrorism suspects are going free, and never considers the possibility that, hey, maybe some of these guys are wrongly suspected. Nor do they even ask if 75% of terrorism cases are so weak that no prosecutor dares take them before a judge. Nope, FOX news just wants you to worry about all the terrorists that are no walking the streets, waiting to terrorize some more.

I laugh at FOX news a lot, but it scares me. It is packaged to look and sound like legitimate news coverage, but it’s a propaganda machine that attracts a vastly greater audience than real news. It’s existence is antithetical to the nature of an informed society, but it is also guaranteed by a free one. The contradiction never ceases to trouble me, and I’m not sure how it will ever be resolved.

Third Anniversary

For our anniversary on Tuesday, my partner and I decided against having one of our bank-breaking nights on the town, but we didn’t want to simply stay in and congratulate ourselves on being sensible. So we took a middle course and gave one another the gift of gin.

Now, this might seem like a warning sign to some people, so I’ll just quote Norm MacDonald’s response to being told that denial is the first sign of being alcoholic: “Yeah, but it’s also the first sign of not being an alcoholic.” The reason we felt justified in splurging on gin is because it’s our favorite spirit and certainly our most versatile. The gins we selected are radically different from one another, and produce completely different drinks. This supply should last us a few months, especially as the weather turns colder and gin and tonic season comes to its end.

Anyway, it made for a great day. Beefeater gin and tonics, dry Hendrick’s martinis, and some fantastic Age of Mythology comp-stoming over the LAN. Plus, we made these amazing biscotti late at night.

I’d never made biscotti before, but after discovering how easy and delicious they are to make at home, consider me a convert.

It’s also worth mentioning that a single biscotti is about 100 calories, which is a hell of a lot better than the mighty chocolate chip cookie.

This might have been our least ceremonious anniversary, but I think it may have been our nicest.