You didn’t ask for it, but here it is anyway.
You didn’t ask for it, but here it is anyway.
It’s hard to tell if some of the internet’s favorite darkest jokes are funny anymore. Some white guy shoots another dozen people, we ask “WHERE WAS HE RADICALIZED?” The President says something rash, and we nervously laugh about nuclear war. And in recent weeks, we quip about how everybody would be fine if we just followed Mike Pence’s rules, or if we wouldn’t be better off if we just got all men out of government, or how we’d rather hear that beloved public figures had died than that they’d done the seemingly inevitable act of harassment or worse.
It’s common, is the point. Astonishingly common. The rule, rather than the exception, maybe.
Maybe some of these more intentionally-strident statements on Twitter are actually right. Maybe it’s ironically right to stereotype based on gender, but the stereotype is that men are likely to turn bad. Maybe we’re all carriers of this disease and its emergence is more likely and tougher to battle than any of us might care to admit.
Logically enough, i then wonder, what if it happens to me? When do i become compelled to do something this (pick one on a range from: stupid > shitty > immoral > horrible)? What happens, does a switch flip? Is it age? Is it triggered by wealth or advancement in society? Is it lurking?
There’s something that naturally bristles when you see people say that all this awfulness is partially your fault when you know you’re not awful. Like watching the umpteenth episode of DuckTales where the boys learned that Webigail could do anything they could, and 11-year-old me thinking ‘i fucking know that already’. It doesn’t matter, until someday in the distant distant future it’s somehow made right, it’s for those of us carriers of the evil gene to deal with. Not being evil is not enough, you have to at least support the idea that it exists and still requires work. Maybe it’s complacency, decades of conviction and assurance that you’re a good person, that allows it to sneak up on you, and one day you find yourself defiling a potted plant and thinking you’re still okay.
Don’t get me wrong, i don’t actually think that i’m going to turn evil someday, but maybe considering the possibility that we all might be capable of this behavior is a good reminder to, you know, not.
This is long. I don’t even know why, but it was fun to write.
Normally, the girl and i do not put a lot of mileage on our car. Neither of us drive to work, and our routine activities don’t really add up to all that much. So it’s been a fun month for the car in that we took two ~2000-mile trips up and down the eastern seaboard. For reasons.
One of these was planned a long time ago, the new and improved summer version of my side of the family’s every-two-years Thanksgiving conclave. A giant house with everything you could want, with the Outer Banks beaches as its backyard beckoned for a week of slacking off and drinking a ton of beer. With enough beer, even i probably would like the beach more.
We set off from Boston on a Friday afternoon and made fine time toward our halfway point in coastal Delaware. Somewhere near the ironically named Walt Whitman service area on the New Jersey Turnpike, texts start flooding in. About this. First we figure we’ll just improvise, as it’s just a power outage. Buy a lot of ice, plan on perspiring more and altering our grocery plans. My mom, already in a motel for the night, stocked up on flashlights, because dealing with situations like this is her superpower. A half-hour further down the road, and the text messages changed further. Now it was an evacuation, destined to be a long one. Now my mom’s working magic on her iPad, and suddenly several cars worth of us are all making a right turn and heading west. As shown.
There’s no booking alternate accommodations on the beach in the summer for 14 people on zero notice, probably not for any amount of money. Thus did we find ourselves still in North Carolina, but in the mountains of Asheville. Specifically in a golf/aviation (yes, really) resort on top of a mountain. So anyway, this is a change of plans, and we packed wrong for it, bought the wrong liquor for it, etc., but we are resourceful people.
Some things we learned:
After that (also, quality family time, including indoctrinating both my octogenarian great-aunt and my six-year-old nephew into playing ruthless games of Asshole), the girl had another quest for the ride home. There’s a state park in northern Pennsylvania renowned for the darkest night skies east of the Mississippi, so she figured we should go chase the Milky Way.
One corollary to there being dark skies, which we quickly picked up upon, is remoteness. Cherry Springs State Park is something like ninety minutes north of I-80. About 20 minutes into that, we began to appreciate that there would be many closed gas stations between us and our destination, but maybe no open ones. We backtracked and filled up, and were proven right.
This is well and truly Real America we’re driving through now; ‘towns’ that consist of six ramshackle houses, maybe three with any signs of life, but most with at least four cars (or what used to be cars). Windy, narrow roads with no speed limit posted. A burbling stream out our window. Bugs pelting the windshield like driving through a snow squall. Progressively smaller roads pointed further from civilization.
Finally we find it, and sure enough, it’s plenty full, with lots of people looking up. Unfortunately they’re looking up at a full moon (which we knew about, and knew it would set later), and a persistent haze. We pitched the tent in the dark easily enough, and sat and had a dinner of leftover Chips Ahoy and a beer. After nearly half a dozen times taking the girl camping, i’ve still yet to actually do it well. Maybe it pours rain, maybe it’s cold, or maybe we’re just half-assing it on the way somewhere else. But i swear, you can get good at it, sleep well and warm, eat good food, and enjoy a fire all night.
So we get up several times through the night and look up. Now there are a lot of stars, far more than we city dwellers are used to. But we also know it’s not enough. The just-set Moon is lighting the haze enough to hide a lot of the stars. It’s still nice, though.
The next day, it’s a further 90 minutes on back roads in the middle of nowhere until we get to I-86 in New York. Through all this, i remain suspicious at Apple Maps’ decision making, but not once is she wrong. More on this later.
The girl was, to put it mildly, disappointed to have missed out on a week on the Outer Banks, as she does love the beach so. Since we were already going to quest toward the totality of the eclipse, and this meant a lengthy drive in one or more directions, it made sense to at least rig it to stop somewhere near the water. Thus:
As we drove south on Saturday morning, the girl was entertained in the car by play-by-play of Boston vs. Internet Nazis; even though it wasn’t a very close game, we regretted missing it.
So here’s where we started to appreciate, if not trust our telephone copilot. Traffic bit us hard on this trip. First, she routed us around a stopped bridge through scenic Chester, PA. Later, back roads in Delaware instead of the highways. Sometimes it was a break-even, sometimes it was a huge savings, but we started to notice that if nothing else, these alternate routes were taking us places we maybe wouldn’t see otherwise. Boring places, crappy places, beautiful places, but at the very least, parts of part of the country we wouldn’t have seen. Considering how i lament road-tripping with no time to take side trips, having a computer there to generate advantageous detours really changes the experience.
In any event, we arrived at the Bay Bridge/Tunnel at sunset, which is a good time to arrive there.
So i hadn’t been back to the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area since i was in NROTC as a college sophomore; i spent a month there in the summer of 1995 doing push-ups and learning about the Navy and the Marines. Anyway, not a lot of time at the beach. Which is nice, if you’re into beaches, but even nicer if you like seeing F-18s taking off constantly or SH-60s buzzing the coast. The beach was just teeming with people, lounging immersed in the shallows at low tide on a hot day. And even i like playing in the waves.
But time for business. The eclipse being a rather fixed deadline, we needed to get within shouting distance of it that night. This is where we started running into the fun of lane closures on weeknights on two-lane interstates. Watching the arrival time tick up on the phone, and debating back-roads-at-night versus actual stopped traffic.
This is also where we tried Bojangles. Listen, i am a Popeye’s devotee, having spent formative years in New Orleans, but there are people who will try to tell you Bojangles is better. This is untrue. Chicken’s different. Spicier at first, maybe, and with a good flavor, but less crispy and not as much like crack. The sides are quite good, but really my quarrel here is with the biscuits, my good sir. i say, suh, these biscuits are not up to any comparison <slaps them with a glove>.
Anyway, the following morning we get up and bounce early and start heading south. Traffic is heavy, and frequently stopped, but not the sort of thing that will prevent us from getting to our destination. But, as my wife the weather person reports, our intended destination of Columbia is due for 47% cloud cover. 90 minutes west, Greenville has 25%. We ask the phone lady nicely, she refers us promptly to a narrow side road with no yellow line and no cars, and we set off west, confidently. It wasn’t scenic, but it was easy. We even stopped for gas and what, judging by the line, was the only convenience store with a bathroom for miles. Maybe i made some rash decisions there.
Emerging from the woods, it turned out Greenville is a nice little college town. We immediately take the girl to a cocktail bar with a roof deck (full, sadly) and drink a little. Perusing the map a little showed two parks, one along the river and promising a waterfall. And sure enough it’s just covered with people, some sitting in the water, others walking around, plenty of nerds with telescopes and shadowboxes, and high-end cameras.
This is the part where we stress heavily: There is no substitute for the actual totality of an eclipse.
It’s impossible to describe sufficiently or do justice to with bad photos. It looks like something you’ve seen before, but only in movies or science fiction. Like some malevolent force has covered it over. Or like the sun is the malevolent force just barely being held back, with the wispy, fingery corona spilling out. It feels like a dark amusement park ride when someone accidentally turns the lights on, ironically, like some mechanism behind every day of your life has suddenly been exposed. The two minutes passes quickly, and light spills out the other side like molten metal.
Now we had a day and a half to drive back to Boston, and obviously we wanted to make headway that afternoon. The highways out of Greenville were clogged, so we got routed on surface roads, to suburban roads, to rural roads to get around them. It wasn’t the massive gridlock that people thought might happen, but it was a big, significant movement of people the whole day. We could tell because we were following this crazy backroads route with other cars from northern states (and in heavy traffic once we returned to the interstate, again, all people like us returning north). Amusingly, we got within an hour of where we were in Asheville two weeks earlier.
So the plan was to camp the night in Shenandoah and close the loop by getting to see the Milky Way in the sky. Conditions were perfect for it, but traffic meant that we reached Skyline Drive at midnight, with 25 miles to drive at 35mph, with presumed furry creatures waiting to jump in front of us at all times. It was not awesome.
But the skies were perfect. A nice band of the Milky Way (you know you’re looking at the right thing when you have to spend time deciding if it’s a cloud), and many orders of magnitude more stars than we get at home. A trickle of shooting stars, even. Getting up to take a leak at three in the morning becomes the greatest thing.
Confession: since November, i’ve been holding a teenage girl against her will in my basement.
Hahaha, i’m going to big boy jail, aren’t i?
Clarification: since November, the wife’s (metaphorical) little sister has been living with us. Owing to her mom’s moving to another town while still maintaining enrollment in another faraway school, the kid had a > 90-minute bus-T-train-walk commute each way to school. Coupled with making some of her own bad decisions and flunking basically everything, we decided that we would solve a lot of her problems by having her live with us. And sure, there are literally bars on her window, but 1: she has by far the best one of our two extant windows, and 2: she isn’t really mad about living three blocks from Newbury St. and all those sweet sweet material goods.
Some things about living with a teenager:
Anyway, the important thing is, what once were straight Fs are now straight Bs, and the kid’s better rested, maybe somewhat better off. Me? I’ll get over the whole turning-into-my-dad thing eventually. And at least the wife gets to make fun of me for that.
The girl and i had a big Saturday. Ikea, Lowe’s, Market Basket. A lot to do, we didn’t know if we had time. What with the ongoing collapse of what we know as civilization and all. Having purchased our own home we feel, understandably i think, attached to it, and accordingly a bit dismayed upon realizing it’s basically stuck in a country that’s fighting for its soul.
So it’s a hell of a thing to put aside, for the moment, the grim specter of fascism, to concentrate on staying married through the relationship test of a trip to Ikea. The prisoner needs some kind of storage unit for her orange coveralls, but which one is best? More drawers, or hangers? Minimalist, or ultra-minimalist clean Scandinavian design? And can this clothes rod be fashioned into a shiv by an average teenager? Somehow we ended this trip having purchased a bed. A serious piece of furniture weighing 200lbs and requiring five hours and three beers worth of assembly. We now have a lot invested in this bed, and it seems somehow wrong to flee to Canada. Sure, it’s possible that brownshirts are going to come for our prisoner someday, on account of her religion (which, to our surprise, turned out to be more than simple devotion to popular accessible-luxury brands), but we just built her this goddamned bed so we’re not leaving.
And that’s before the fucking paint, too. Oh sure, we rounded out our trip by choosing paint colors. In a fit of hubris, now we’ve decided to paint things, as if that somehow means that i’m less likely to be sent to reeducation camps for taunting that fascist Milwaukee sheriff one too many times. “But Herr Kapitan, we just got the bathroom vanity the way we wanted it…” And we’re finally going to mark our door with something other than black Sharpie (one wonders if we could have afforded the place were someone to have scrubbed it off). It’s going to be borderline respectable, and now we’re supposed to leave?
So the next day, we built the bed, painted the damn bathroom, briefly attended a beer festival we bought tickets for a month ago, and then went to a protest. But i’m not gonna lie, it feels weird sometimes to do normal things. To worry about painting something, or visiting grandparents or in-laws, to wonder if the Revs are going to have a competent backline, or to think about how much i want a cheeseburger, or to worry about building the best thingies i can at work.
There’s a pinch of guilt with all these things, a little sting to remind me that this is complacency, complacency to which we’re all entitled–truly, life does indeed need to go on–but needs to be checked. If i want to keep my freshly painted door to my new condo in the best city in all the world, it demands this vigilance. If we ever get too comfortable, too distracted, and go back to our big Saturdays, someday there might not be 200,000 people ready to fight. And then i’ll have to find someone to move that friggin’ bed, because i promise you i’m not doing it.
In the generic term, i mean, by ‘house’ we actually mean tiny basement apartment in Boston. We’re so used to life around here that it’s in many ways, more than we could ever have hoped for for a first home. It’s two blocks from a major crossroads of a central part of the city, beautiful, scenic, and bustling. And while this comes with the obvious compromise of being in a basement, it has outdoor space that makes it not feel like a dungeon. And it was somehow so much easier than we thought it would be.
i mean, it was the first time we put down an offer. We figured we’d lose, handily. We figured we’d get trounced, but at least we’d get our initial mistake-making process out of the way, confident that we would make more than our share. And we were right about both things. We came in second on our offer, but the runaway winner was also enough of a runaway asshole that the seller picked us.
And headlong did we dive into the process of unearthing piles of paperwork and hastily shopping for a mortgage, all the while warning the broker, the loan officers, the lawyers that we were going to ask them a really dumb question and never once letting them down. The thing is, it all went off without a hitch. Sure, there were lots of sleepless nights wondering about what we’d missed, since surely in our haste we’d have to have fucked something up. The most difficult thing was really just making sure our little pile of money was in the right place (and documenting in triplicate our efforts to move it to that place).
It was a two-month-long process, really, but in the end, a half-dozen entities that could have screwed us, in ways we would never know about until it was too late, didn’t.
And then we had keys.
So many keys, it turned out; like eight of them. Later, we learned that we really only needed four of them, and that the color code on them was wholly incorrect, so we’d best make our own.
And we had an empty apartment. For over a month. A fairly dirty one, but we owned it, and all the possibilities therein. Possibilities of expensive problems, possibility of comfy nights of drinking beer under lights outside. i immediately binged on Asana tasks for fixing things, the girl immediately rolled her eyes at what a fucking nerd i am.
It’s an obvious difference over renting, the option of simply fixing it, changing it, redoing it if you don’t like it, and better still when you can get so much satisfaction out of simple changes. A new shower head here, a slow-closing toilet seat there, my ongoing war with beige electrical fixtures. $5 or $10 at a time, you can see it slowly go from that musty, flawed basement, to the sort of place you want to live. And grander plans, of course, fall by the wayside. Probably should have checked the ceiling fixture before buying a fan. Replacing the nasty (brand new) carpet with flooring was more expensive than we’d thought. Assorted forays into actually making something with wood have yet to occur (i’m more of an aluminum kind of guy). But the option is there.
And of course, the flip side is, you own all the flaws. You wash your hands one day, two months after buying the place and notice that the bathroom vanity is made from hideous, cheap wood, because you’ve noticed that it was only partially (cheaply) painted white. Or that multiple light sockets emit foul buzzing noises. Or that the fasteners in some electrical boxes are badly rusted. The idea of how much work you have to put in both for yourself and for your hypothetical future self trying to sell it sets in. And that’s before pipes burst in the middle of the night and air conditioners crap out in the middle of a late summer heat wave.
And all along, you’re not paying rent, you’re building up, slowly, the percentage of the place you actually own (even though, to borrow the tired phrase, you’re still setting fire to the money you pay in interest). But it’s something. And it sure seems like a better bet than the relentless bipolarity of our 401(k)s.
More than that, though, it’s nice to be able to look on my hometown from a distance, and think that a short distance away from the tallest building is a little patch of it that’s ours. And it becomes more so every day. Unless something happens on Tuesday and we have to move to France.