Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Part Nine: Wherein I Gloss Over How I Met The Son of The Shah Of Iran To Focus On Other Things.

Everyone has one year in their life that has a greater impact on them than any other year. Mine was 1994. Once a week, I'll recap that year. This is part 9; click here for a table of contents.

I started thinking about 1994 when one day I was engaging in a little thought game I like to play.

I play a lot of thought games that would not necessarily be thought of as games by others

My thought games mostly involve math, because math is a good way to occupy your mind while you're jogging. Music is another good way to occupy your mind while jogging, and I do that, too, but that doesn't always keep my mind focused. It's important to keep my mind focused on things other than how awful it is to be jogging, and how difficult it is to keep going, and how hot it is, and how much I would like to quit. At times while jogging, I used to engage in mostly-math-related thought games, like the time I tried to figure out, while jogging around the track at the club, how many more laps I'd have to do if I were to run on the inside of the track versus the outside.

The track at our club is small. Twelve laps equals a mile, and the sign is careful to note that it's twelve laps around the outer track; there's three lanes, and the sign applies, apparently, only to the outermost lane. Jog on the inner lane, or, God forbid, the middle lane, and you have no idea how far you might have gone.

That began to bug me, one time, around about lap 32. How much difference could it make? I wondered. So I decided to rough it out, and did that while I jogged the remainder of the 28 laps that made up my run back then. (That was back then. Nowadays, I raise my arms in victory at lap 36 and head home.)

I decided that it didn't make much difference, at all, which lane you ran in. The outer lane, at 12 laps to a mile, meant that each lap was 440 feet. I estimated the inner loop...

... bear with me here. There's probably some kind of symbolic reason I'm doing this. Maybe. I haven't figured it out yet...

... to be about three feet in, so on a sort of rectangular track, like this one was (is; it's still there) that meant that each leg of the track was about 3 feet shorter. Which meant that if I ran one lap on the outer lane, I'd run 440 feet, while on the inner lane, one lap would take me 428 feet. Which meant that I'd need to go about 12.3 laps per mile on the inner lane, as opposed to twelve laps per mile on the outer lane. So for every three miles, I decided, I'd have to run an extra lap if I was on the inner lane to have it equal a mile. If I didn't do that, on a supposed-three-mile run, I'd go only 2.91 miles -- falling 0.09 miles short of my goal.

With that, I decided that the sign was stupid and overly technical, as most things that most people do are. If the sign did not specify the outer loop as the exact 12 laps-to-a-mile distance, what would the harm be? Some people might run on the inner loop and run a little shorter than they'd thought they might.

Here's the part that maybe is symbolic. Or something: Even though I figured that out, even though I know that in a 2 or 3 or 4 mile run, running on the inner loop doesn't make that much of a difference, I still run on the outer loop, because I like to be exact about how far I'm going. And I still get irritated when I have to cut into the other lane or cut a corner short or do something else that threatens to make my run less than the exact three miles I'm planning on running. And when that happens, I lengthen my run, by weaving in the track or by going a few steps farther in the end.

That probably means something, in the long run. That's the kind of self-examination that writing a memoir will prompt: my thinking that people were stupid for being so exact about which lane will let you run exactly a mile juxtaposed against my insistence on always trying to run the exact distance I set out to run means...

Well, I don't know what it means. I don't do so much math anymore when I run, partly because I don't run so much anymore, but also partly because I've started writing more and more these days and when I run or bike or swim, I tend to think about stories I'm writing and essays I'd like to write, and that serves the same purpose that math used to serve: it distract me from whatever it is I would rather not be thinking about.

Creativity-as-distraction is probably not a bad thing, I think, and it may be more healthy for me than the other distractions, like math-while-jogging and like the thought game that led me, one day, to begin thinking about 1994 and then decide to write down what I thought about 1994.

The thought game was one I came up with, actually, a long time ago but the first time I really paid attention to it was when I'd gotten back from a vacation to Mexico with Sweetie. We went to Mexico over my birthday one year, to Puerta Vallarta, and I spent my birthday week in 80-90 degree temperatures, walking on the beach, parasailing, drinking margaritas and bumming around Puerto Vallarta, and also misconstruing beach vendors who I thought were trying to sell us a sex slave. It was a great week.

Then I had to come back, and I had to go on with school, and I had to walk around town in ankle-deep slush and snow and study and read and be freezing cold and not drink margaritas hardly at all, and I was depressed about it.

So one day, a few days after getting back, I was walking along with my cold, wet feet through slushy junk, and I thought to myself Last week at this exact time on Monday, I was walking along a beach with Sweetie and planning on going body surfing.

Then I began thinking back a bit further, which is how I came up with At This Time, as I think of it, a thought game where I try to remember exactly what I was going at a given time and day in the past.

Like for today, I would say:

Last week at this exact time, I was meeting with another lawyer in my firm to discuss a case.

A month ago, on January 24 in the morning, I was getting Mr F and Mr Bunches from the daycare of the church and walking out to the car.

A year ago, on February 24, I'd have been at work here at the office preparing for a trial that would be postponed.

Five years ago, on February 24, we'd only lived in our current house about five months and Oldest still lived at home and the babies! weren't even close to being born.

10 years ago, on February 24, Sweetie and I were not yet engaged.

15 years ago, on February 24, I went to visit the Holocaust Museum:

And you see how that ties in, now, right? I'm clever.

I liked to play the At This Time thought game because it helped me see how far I'd come, whether I'd met my goals, or done what I thought I was going to do, to examine how I was changing or not changing. Nobody's ever really aware of all the ways they are always changing their mind or changing their life, I think. We know about the big things: we get married, we have kids, we quit smoking, we move or get a new job or have a leg amputated; those things stick out. But they're not so much consciously considered as they are just experienced, and unless we pause to think about then and now, the impact of what happened, of how our life changes, of why we are the way we are, might be missed or not fully appreciated at least.

Take just now: when I typed that in about five years ago having just moved into our current house, it took me a moment to realize that we were then still two full years away from having Mr F and Mr Bunches born. They've been like a tidal wave that swamped our life and it's hard for me to remember what life was like without them... but I try to do that, to appreciate the impact they've had on my life and to understand what kind of person I am, to see if I like the changes or if I need to make more. So when I play At This Time, I think back to 2004 and our house that was still new then and had the old blue couch we got from my brother Matt, and the coffee table that The Boy carved his name into, and the fact that the playroom was then a "study" that nobody ever studied in, and I can remember lying on the futon in that study and reading, a lot of nights, while the kids watched TV or did homework in the next room. I can remember how the room was too dim to read and how I'd make an effort to read in there because I've always wanted a study and if you're going to have a study, isn't that where you would retire after dinner to read?

Granted, I never pictured my study being a kitchen table, a rickety desk, a futon, and a pink molded plastic chair from Ikea; in my mind, my study was more book-lined walls and overstuffed chairs and one of those old-fashioned couches that nobody ever wants to sit on because they've got a wooden rail along the back so you're always clonking your head when you try to lean back... the kind of study that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had, I bet, the kind of study that anyone who's been knighted would probably have. I think once you're knighted, and have that "Sir" appellation before your name, that you almost have to have a dignified study. I bet even Sir Elton John has a dignified study, just down the hall from his Room Of Many Weird Sunglasses.

And someday I will probably have a dignified study. It won't be down the hall from my own Room Of Many Weird Sunglasses. Instead, it will be at the top of the tower that I'll have in my house, and will be reachable only by a spiral staircase and at the top of the tower will be a room filled with bookcases that come up to about waist level. They will only come up that high because the rest of the room will be windows from waist level to the ceiling. There will also be an old-fashioned telescope in the study.

Until then, I'm happy with the playroom that we have now, and I like to think about the time when the playroom wasn't a playroom but was a study, then a storage room, then was empty for a month because it flooded and we were worried about mold, and now it's the home to the Rrowr Monster and a bunch of slides. Thinking about where I've been helps me know where I am.

It was, in fact, thinking back to 1994 and how I spent the year there, that led me to remember going to visit the Holocaust Museum, and that led me to think about all the things I saw and did and felt and planned while I was in D.C., and then Morocco, and that led me to think that I should write those things down, and so I began doing that, because in my mind, I thought I was a very different person now than I am than, and I wanted to see if on paper that turned out to be true, or if in fact the differences were only slight; were the differences between 94-me and present-day me substantial? Or would it be like running on the inner versus outer loop?

Nice, right? That's writing for you. You thought I was going nowhere with all that math.

In some ways, I'm the same person now that I was back then, albeit with more things taking up my time and accordingly fewer interesting things to do than I did back then. Back in 94, I had an abundance of energy and time, energy and time that were overflowing and spilling over and driving me forward, and energy and time that were in no way devoted, whatsoever, to (a) school or (b) a career.

Instead, my energy and time were devoted to exercising, which I did back then like a maniac, and I suppose I was maniacal about it in a way; I exercised almost every day for long periods of time, but that wasn't all I did. Back then, I did the thought games that I've talked about, and I played guitar, and I wrote letters back home -- long, thought-out letter that were 8-10 pages long and meant to be entertaining -- and I kept a journal in the red notebook, the red notebook that I then kept with me through several more moves, a total of eight different moves involving two continents and across the Atlantic, until it ended up in our garage outside the apartment where Sweetie and I lived when we first got married, and one day, cleaning the garage, I came across it and I decided I'm never going to need this or want to see it again.

I threw it away.

That was in 2000, or so, and I didn't miss the red notebook at all until I decided to start writing this and wanted to go back and look at what I thought and what I did in more detail and compare that with how I remember it now. There was a lot written in that red notebook. I wrote in it every day from January through at least August, 1994, wrote lots because of that crazy abundance of energy I had, energy that had no direction, no flow, no where to head in particular so it headed everywhere in general.

Everywhere, except, as I said, work and school.

Technically, I was in Washington to do both, and looking back, my memory is that I did very little of either.

We had classes, once per week, and I remember the class I took and the paper I wrote for the class I took. I don't recall what, exactly, I learned in the class I took but I do recall the classroom (small, with gray tiled floors and wooden uncomfortable desks, down the hall and to the right when I entered the building) and I do recall the teacher, vaguely, a short guy who I want to say had a moustache and the beginnings of a combover, and I do recall that the teacher was with the foreign service of the State Department, and I specifically recall that I thought that was excellent. He would describe, from time to time, his job and how it involved traveling and living in other countries and the postings he got and the extra pay he got for dangerous country postings, and all I could think was

Yes, that's for me.

That sounded phenomenal: spend the rest of my life traveling around! Meet diplomats! Work on treaties! Shop in foreign marketplaces and learn new languages and have great stories to tell and probably also meet the president and never settle long in one place. See all the world's landmarks and visit mysterious cultures and regions. Yes. Yes. Yes. I wanted in.

I didn't want to actually study whatever it was we studied in the class, though. I just wanted to go join the foreign service and begin traveling. The class probably related to that in some way, because I recall the paper I wrote for the class, and the paper I wrote for the class was about foreign policy. It was called "Enlightened Disinterest" and was a critique of the Clinton Administration's foreign policy as I saw it.

You know, as I saw it, through the eyes of a 25-year-old who had never been anywhere, much, except now he was in Washington D.C., and who sort of skimmed through the paper but didn't read all the articles, and who mostly read science fiction books, and who spent a lot of time listening to the radio with a cassette tape set up in his stereo so that when a song came on that he liked he could quickly hit "record" and tape the song off the radio because music was expensive. It was that kind of foreign policy critique.

Yet, it had its fans, one of those fans being my then-boss, Frank.

Frank was the head of "Pinkerton Risk Assessment Services," where I did my internship. Pinkerton had just bought them out, fairly recently, when I went to work with Frank and his group, working alongside my fellow intern, Eden, a girl from San Diego who was hard-working and smart and could speak other languages and who also told stories about finding rattlesnakes on her porch in the morning when she had to go out and get the paper, thereby (a) making me look bad because I was not hard-working and had overinflated my foreign-language speaking abilities, and (b) making me no longer want to move to San Diego, because I didn't want to have to kill a rattlesnake with a hoe just to get out of my house in the morning.

Pinkerton Risk Assessment Services was a company that provided "alerts" or "reports" or something to business travelers and people at the State Department and other people who had a need to know which countries they could go to without getting their heads chopped off or rounded up at gunpoint... something that would, in the near future, happen to me...

... foreshadowing...

... the gunpoint thing, not the head-chopping-off thing, that is.

Here's my understanding of how it worked, and how they formed, and if you feel this understanding is a bit vague and sketchy, know this: It's not because 15 years has passed since I worked there and was told or taught all of this. It's that I really didn't pay attention the first time around, either.

My understanding is this... Frank and some of the other people that I worked with, including Ed and a guy who maybe was named Don so I'll call him Don, and Rene, who was a spy at one point I think, and a lot of the other old guys that worked there, had all been in something like the "Air Force Foreign Service" or some such -- basically an Air Force intelligence service; they were Air Force spies. They'd done that for a long time and had an amazing career doing just that, a career that had something or other to do with the Shah of Iran, because Frank, if I remember correctly, knew the Shah of Iran. Maybe he'd saved his life, or something. It had to be something good, and I'm positive that Frank told me what it was, but I can't remember because I didn't focus so much back then.

But I know that Frank knew the Shah of Iran because Frank introduced me to the son of the Shah of Iran one time. I had lunch with him. (On another occasion, with Frank, I had lunch at a strip club/ Thai buffet, where Frank dared me to eat a tiny little seed in the soup, a seed that to this day is the single hottest thing I've ever encountered or even known of.)

So Frank and Ed and Maybe Don and Rene had this amazing career where they traveled around the world and posed for pictures of themselves as younger guys, wearing uniforms, standing in front of things, with their arms around each other, pictures that were black and white a lot, and sepia-toned, a lot, only they were not standing in front of things like museums or fountains, they were standing in front of buildings owned by governments that they'd then toppled, toppling them the old way the US used to do things, secretly so nobody complains except the people who ran that government, and who cares about them?

Then, Frank and Ed and Maybe Don and Rene had all come back home to settle in a suburb of Washington, D.C., to spend their days reading things on the then-fledgling Internet and reading newspapers and magazines from around the world, and watching the news, and writing up these Risk Assessment Reports that they sold to people on a subscription service so that if you were going to, say, Algeria, you knew how much life insurance to take out. They'd read all this stuff and talk about it and decide how to rate the risk and then draft the report and mail them out.

That's where I come in. Shortly before I joined them, they'd gone from Business Risk Assessment Services to Pinkerton Risk Assessment Services. (I just now googled them and found that they still exist-- and I recognize the address, and I know, now, what Frank's last name was: It was "Frank Johns.")

My jobs, as I recall, included maybe stuffing envelopes, and scanning articles into the computer and then spell-checking them, and also reading Spanish-language newspapers and trying to translate the articles into something that they could use. There may have been other duties, as well, but I don't know what they would have been. I don't recall, as I sit here today, ever doing anything, really. I recall stuffing envelopes one time. I recall sitting in Frank's office smoking, because I hadn't yet followed through on my vow to quit smoking and because Frank smoked a lot; I bet it was like three packs a day, but who am I to judge? I smoked a lot, too. Mostly, I tried to kill time and hope they didn't catch on to the fact that I didn't really speak Spanish, hardly at all, even though I'd said I did. I'd sit there with El Tiempo or some such, trying to read through an article that looked important about the Mexican government, and all I could think was this:

If they were killing Americans, that would probably be on the evening news.

But I tried to take it seriously. I looked for words like muerte and Americano and struggled to determine what the articles might mean. Then I'd go smoke in Frank's office for a while.

The buyout by Pinkerton's meant a couple of things, I gathered. First, it meant that Frank was very gung-ho about his new corporate bosses. He had Pinkerton statues (he gave me one) and he had Pinkerton pictures and he knew the whole Pinkerton history about how Original Pinkerton saved Lincoln's life and got him to the inauguration and I think started the Secret Service, then. Frank told us that whole story.

The buyout also meant, I think, that they had more money, because things seemed to be going pretty good for Pinkerton Risk Assessment Services. They were installing computers, which was a big deal back then. A lot of offices didn't have computers, and it's weird to think that was only 15 years ago, that getting a computer in your office was such a big deal. The computers even had spell checkers, which was another job of mine: Scan a newspaper article into the computer and then read it to spell-check it because the scanner didn't always recognize the words and would put in the word it thought might be the proper one, so you'd be reading an article about the Mexican government, and instead of muerte it might have put in mortimer, and if you didn't catch that, then business travelers might end up dead instead of just drunk.

Other than that, I never really did much of anything at Pinkerton that could be considered work. Or even helpful. I hung out a lot, I asked questions, I helped out wherever I was asked to, and I skipped out as often as I could to go do other things, like go to museums and try to meet people. In comparison to my other fellow interns, I had either a horrible placement (if you went with what they thought) or a dream job (if you went with what I thought.)

They had jobs where they'd have to get up early, stay late, rush around, read mail, and do more. Rip, for example, was always working late and working early and going to meetings and drafting stuff and typing stuff and reading stuff and wearing ties and all. The interns who had those jobs (everyone but me, everyone including my fellow intern Eden) loved them and when I discussed (rarely) how little I had to do, they'd commiserate with me about how the placement wasn't really helping me much because it wasn't preparing me for a career at all.

How, one guy (Mike) asked me, could I ever in the future use as a stepping stone an internship where I had nothing much to do and my major task every day was finding a way to kill the time I was at the office?

How, indeed?

1 comment:

lisapepin said...

This is so great. 1994 is my favorite day of the week now. I hope you'll go back and EVENTUALLY tell us more about the son of the Shah of Iran, though.