03SEP2015 – Morning flight to Paducah, KY. I enjoy flying. I love to travel. Being strapped into the asshole-tight plastic seat of a commuter jet is still an opportunity to go somewhere else for awhile, to escape the insides of my brain which, when I’m left alone, bear down on me from all sides like a counter fire in a cane field.
I was sound asleep at 5 a.m. when the phone rang. “Hey, man. You wanna go to Kentucky with me?” It was my boss. Her voice was almost playful. She started to explain the situation to me but the cell connection went to shit, the details were broken and unreadable. I didn’t care. I expect she knew what I’d say before she even called me, when weighed even briefly against the Kobayashi Maru we’d been bashing our faces against this week.
A group of exercise support contractors had been paid good money to play “Stump the Chump” with our team in a Virginia Beach convention center in order to test our problem solving flexibility. The scenario was grim: a fictitious country under siege, soaked in fire, and straddling both an earthquake and massive civil unrest.
There were three cells, one to observe, one to control, and one to respond. We cycled through these for the first two days. For my response time, I picked up a radio and played the role of operations, organizing and orchestrating the movements of rescue helicopters and firefighters in the field. I’d had some experience running search and rescue cases a long time ago on an Indian reservation far, far away. I’m good at organization and breaking down complex puzzles into simple pieces.
Nothing we did was going to save that place from all out doom, and it didn’t help that the contractors kept changing the rules the moment we got anywhere near even the smallest victory; changing into wigs, playing dumb, and breaking their own rules.
I’m a geek. I’m no stranger to RPGs and I get the point of being able to think outside the box, but by late inthe third morning their rigged rules had gotten the best of me. I called for a time out and lo, I didst cast bullshit across the waters, counting points ‘pon my fingers. The exercise was not about winning, they said. It was designed to see how much you can handle and to see how well you work as a team. Raised eyebrows and reproachful admonishments ringed the table; faint shakes from the heads of my superiors. My outburst was not well received, no matter how logical my argument.
So now, was I willing to hop a flight to Kentucky and do something, just anything else?
“Absolutely. Sure. I’m already packed. When’s our flight?”
As it turns out, the case wasn’t that big of a deal. My notes fill the blanks and shape the response:
Reminder to: capture an MSDS of the product spilled… acquire a list of the nearest water intake facilities… address wildlife concerns… don’t get caught up in the numbers game… gather basic background on the vessel involved in the incident, anything a reporter could Google with five minutes and half a cup of coffee to motivate them. Lastly, a note to start gauging and tracking the frequency, tone, and market size of the media calls as soon as I hit the ground, and start wading through social media for hash tags and conversations.
21SEP2015 – The Taverna Lupolo, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Second bourbon over ice as the sky grows pregnant with rain and dark clouds match the cobble-stoned streets; adoquines, a stone cast from furnace slag and brought over on Spanish ships as ballast, hued a specific blue by age and moisture, cracked, faded and worn by automobile and foot traffic. Notes from this trip (entitled ME WANT NERD GIRL in all caps?) are hazy:
“2 or 3 syllable guns… hipster seed economies… note to self: buy more Pink Floyd… go to El Jibarito and order Arroz y habichuelas… ceiling fans and the sound of rising trumpets, balconies in a ghost hotel… drinks at a tiny third floor tapas as M and I discuss our lives at present intersections, and what brought us here… More reminders: reach out to Ian. (What’s the score? What’s next?) And lastly: “You deserve a tomorrow. If you’re not acting in your best interests, who will?
27SEP2015 – The Knight Moves cafe in Cambridge, Mass., hours before the blood moon, an event not seen since the early 80s and not again until 2035. I’m at Harvard for a week of lectures on public health and safety communications in a risk-based environment, new approaches to networking, and the economics of persuasion. Great lectures. I took a lot of notes.
The room is empty. The barista stopped by to ask me what I was writing. Within five minutes, I’d sketched out a basic ICS org chart and given her a rough overview of what goes on behind the scenes all across the country when bad things happen. Her eyes bugged a bit. I probably talk too much. All I could think about as she walked away is that I’d been ‘mansplaining’ to her. I felt bad about that for a few minutes before wandering off to find someplace to look at the moon. The coffee here is good.
24JAN2016 (Excerpt of a letter to a stranger) …I’ve had nights where I’ve been out drinking, where I hit the Wild Turkey too hard, too fast, gotten way past my useful point and hauled out my notebook and pen trying so hard to capture that disoriented feeling. The spins, the lights, the manic laughter, the bad music, the scars on the table, and the stink of cigarettes. Saturday nights have happened somewhere the world over since mankind first invented the weekend.
I frequented the strip clubs in San Francisco when I wasn’t dating for more than a year (don’t judge me on either account) and I remember sitting drunk at a table amidst all that warm, whirling beauty trying to force the words from my head as though I was giving birth from my fingers.
“Hey, you wanna dance?” (In a minute, I’ve almost got this, thank you! Can I please buy you a drink instead? Strange looks back at they walk away, balanced on clear stilettos.) I’ve come home from nights out with my pockets stuffed with folded forests covered in jagged seismographs of the previous evening with no idea of what it was I was trying to say: REMEMBER THIS, REMEMBER THAT, phrases underlined and circled with arrows leading to still more scrawling. Something about the “it-ness” of the moment in NYC, or the underlying current of D.C., or the faded light of hippies in San Francisco, or just whatever about the wherever I was living at the time. Gosh, pat me on the head but I was just so earnest and determined to look down, see through, and gaze past the shoulders of the modern giants in order to behold the memories of the ghosts of those who’d come before me: “I wonder if Lou Reed ever stood here? I wonder if Hunter S. Thompson ever drank here? I wonder what bands have graced this stage? Think of all the madness on all the street corners and in all of the cabs and in each of these apartments looking down on this street? How many people within a one-block radius are fucking as I write this?”
I remember one night at The Patriot in Manhattan (I think I got married to my bartender?) when a group of us closed the place down. Once shopping cart rides through the snow-clogged streets had reached their natural conclusion, I still had to drunkenly speed walk to the subway. It was 2:30, maybe 3. The streets were now deserted. Cleaning crews were swarming the platforms and tracks at every stop. Bowling Green north to Union Square, switch to the L, and get off at Graham Avenue. I charged home, climbed the three flights to my apartment, pounded a bottle of water and fell into bed. But when I woke up, there was a surprise sitting on the countertop closest to my bedroom door. A toy robot. How I got it or where I got it from, I don’t know. Maybe I plucked it from a trashcan or a curbside giveaway? But it’s on my bookshelf now and that’s where it’ll stay.
Maybe that fire [you feel] is an urge to move beyond where you are, beyond who you know, and all the places you call home. Maybe you’re sick to death of the sameness and you want to feed on something new. Living among the ghosts is a great way to experience burn out. I’ve moved out of perfectly good apartments for that very reason. I’ve shared so many good times with so many some ones but when they leave they’re still sitting there on the other end of my couch, or wrapped in my blankets on the other side of my bed weeks and long months after they’d left me for good.
I couldn’t stand being with their ghosts anymore so I moved on, too. If I had the money to spend I’d get rid of some or maybe most of my furniture. The couch. The bed. The papasan chair. Fresh and clean, new pieces, with no memories attached to them. Neutral items. That’s one reason I took this job; to avoid being home, to avoid relationships (even though I really kinda want one), to have more experiences to write about, but above all to drown those ghosts for good. Which is kinda hard to do when I keep charging into the river after them.
When there is no future home to move in to, we cannot help but rent in the past.