Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Ninety-Four, Part Fourteen: Wherein I Write Some Papers And Mention George Clooney, For Reasons That You'll Understand When I Get To Him.

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 14; click here for a table of contents.

I did take a class when I was in D.C. We all were required to take one class for credit, and my class had something to do with foreign policy or the foreign service.

I don't remember much about the class. I remember the class room -- but maybe I only remember the class room because all class rooms look alike, more or less, don't they? I bet right now you're picturing a class room with a green "blackboard" in the front of it, and wooden desks with wooden chairs smoothed until they feel like plastic, sitting on dull-gray-metal stumps, desks with rounded edges and a little ridge at the top of the front of the desk to hold the pen or pencil you'll use. Desks that open up to put your papers in them.

If you did, congratulations -- that's the room I remember my class in D.C. being held in.

Whether or not that's what the room looked like doesn't really matter, does it? Maybe it's more instructive what I remember about that class, and my life, than what really happened. Think about this kind-of-frightening thought: If you think something happened to you, then it did, didn't it?

I think so.

I didn't invent that premise, just to be clear. That idea was floated around in Cory Doctorow's Down and Out In The Magic Kingdom, for one (and in Total Recall, for another) -- the idea that if you simply implant a detailed enough memory into someone, there's no real difference between them actually (or "actually") experiencing it and them thinking they experienced the thing. In Doctorow's book, it was the Haunted Mansion at Disney: The people in the book were working on a way to have the idea, or the memory of the Haunted Mansion at Disney simply blasted into the "riders" minds so that they would experience it in their minds and remember it, without actually having read the book.

Here's a weird coincidence that may explain why I'm thinking about that book as I try to remember whether my classroom in D.C. matched what I remember as my classroom in D.C.: I read Down and Out In The Magic Kingdom... in Washington D.C., when I took Sweetie there for an anniversary trip and tried to show her all the stuff I remembered visiting when I'd been there, before.

Here's another weird coincidence: Tomorrow, May 13, is my-and-Sweetie's anniversary. So as I write this, I'm trying to remember going to D.C. in 1994 and that causes me to think about the trip I took with Sweetie to D.C. in 2004 during which I tried to remember going to D.C. in 1994, a trip I took for my anniversary, which is tomorrow, and on which I read a book that in part dealt with memories versus experiences.

Did I drive that point in enough?

The class that I took, the maybe-foreign-service class, impressed on me only one thing: I thought at the time that the foreign service would be cool. Travel the world, see new cultures, meet interesting people... that was the time in my life when I was thinking that's how I want to spend my life: traveling the world. I wanted to go, well, everywhere, and getting paid to go everywhere seemed like a great deal.

I didn't think, then, what I know now to be true: That going somewhere for fun is not the same as going somewhere for work. I also know this to be true: sometimes going places for fun isn't fun, either. But I'll focus on the former.

If you're me (you're clearly not, but bear with me) then you have thought this about almost every place you've ever gone on vacation: This would be a great place to live.

You've thought that, if you're me, about San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Maine, Washington, D.C., Orlando, Tampa, Galveston Island, Mexico, and the Wisconsin Dells, to name just a few.

And you've thought that, if you're me, because when you were in those places, you were on vacation. You were sleeping late, reading until all hours, spending your days wandering around Pier 30 or Caesar's Palace or the Smithsonian or Sea World. You were eating anything you want, and, in Mexico, you were also taking advantage of the all-inclusive resort's all-inclusive bar to order drinks you might otherwise not, like "Pina Coladas," because they were free -- and you were ordering a lot of them, because they came in small glasses. And were free.

What place wouldn't be an awesome place to live if your day was a blur of Pina Coladas, Cory Doctorow books, Kennebunkport sweatshirts and pizza buffets? I bet even Gary, Indiana, would seem pretty nice under those circumstances.

Washington, D.C., being the first time I'd traveled on my own, didn't teach me that places seem excellent places to live if your "living there" is "being on vacation." I treated my time there like a vacation -- as you can tell -- but I didn't yet realize that vacationing some place and working some place might be two very different experiences. I just associated travel with what it had always been: Easy and responsibility-free. When I'd traveled with my parents, I'd had nothing more onerous to do than find a way to fill hours in the car as we'd driven around the country. When I'd traveled to Galveston Island for spring break, I'd traveled with three women to a weeklong party. (It was no wonder I liked Galveston Island.) And now, when I'd gone to Washington, D.C., I was only ostensibly working and going to school, and was instead spending as much time as possible not doing those things and trying to see and experience as much of D.C. as I could.

I was not so interested in seeing or experiencing what it was like to work or study in D.C. That's why I remember so little of the class, other than maybe the classroom and other than a hazy image of my teacher, a short, squat man who was rather too fat and who wore thick glasses and talked quietly.

That, by the way, is almost an exact duplicate of the image I have of my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Muth: Short, squat, rather too fat, and with thick glasses. But Mrs. Muth had black hair, while my D.C. Class Teacher had reddish-brown.

I think.

I also remember about my class that I wrote a paper on foreign policy, a paper I saved for a long time until I finally threw that out (along with the red notebook.)

I saved it for the same reason I save a lot of things: Because everything we do, otherwise, seems so ephemeral. I used to write songs on my guitar, when I played my guitar, and I wrote down the lyrics and chords and would record the songs onto a crummy tape cassette player when I could, because otherwise it seemed that the songs, once written and played and then not played would disappear, and what would I have to show for that? What's the point of writing The Lookout Cow on your way to a court hearing in Green Lake County if then, after a few years, nobody can remember how the song went?

For the record, it was:

Moo moo moo goes the Lookout Cow
Chasing danger away.
Moo moo moo goes the Lookout Cow
Keeping the other cows safe
When he smells danger, it's no lie
The Lookout Cow he stands by
And he yells:

"Look out, cows!"

There was more, but you get the drift. Somewhere, I've got a tape of me playing that, including my favorite verse:

Some people keep a dog in their yard
Others have burglar alarms
There's those that hire security guards
or build a fence 'round their farms.
But if you want to be safe, I'll tell you how
Just go get you a look...out...cow.

I also saved my short stories that I wrote in the 90s, and, when I started blogging, I began saving those, too, copying them and printing them up and saving them, not so much because I thought they were great (they were -- are) but because I didn't want them to disappear, didn't want them to go away and I'd never remember that I'd once thought those things, written those things, sang those things. And with a memory like mine, there's more than an even chance that would happen.

If something happened to me, and I don't remember it happening, then did it happen to me?

The paper was called "Enlightened Disinterest" and it was a study of then-President Clinton's foreign policy, which I described as being one, more or less, of not paying attention to anything more than he had to -- lobbing bombs here and there when the situation called for it but otherwise not doing much of anything. I liked that paper a lot, actually, and so did my Pinkerton-Internship boss, Frank. I showed the paper to Frank and he read it and he called Ed and Rene into his office and he said:

"I like this a lot. We should try to publish this." And Ed and Rene read it or pretended to and told me it was very good. They never printed it, though, and I got distracted from them and whether they'd print it by again trying to figure out what the deal with Rene was.

Rene fascinated me: He was an elderly man of French descent and I was told that he'd been an undercover spy for a long, long time, living as someone else in some country and not able to relax for years and years and years. Rene spoke many languages -- I want to say 10, but I don't know how many he did. He didn't talk a lot, and when he did, it was usually to chastise me. One day, when I was scanning articles into what passed for computers in 1994, I was fishing for information, asking Rene questions about the foreign service and espionage and Eastern Europe.

He would nod, or say "I don't know" or something and after about fifteen minutes of that he took off his glasses and he looked at me. He set his glasses down on the table where we were working, and he pointed a bony, long, pinkish-red finger (Rene had pinkish-red skin, like he'd been almost-sunburned, without ever getting a tan) at me.

"You ask too many questions," he said, and paused. "You should not ask so many questions."

I never asked Rene another question.

That exchange took place after the day of the "Enlightened Disinterest" paper review, and Rene on the day he read the paper sat in Frank's office with me and Frank and Ed for a few minutes. They were talking about how I'd hit the nail on the head and exposed the Clinton Administration's shortcomings in foreign policy. Frank, a very conservative person, never warmed up to Clinton and thought maybe this school paper, by a junior in college who'd written it in about an hour without doing any research whatsoever (other than reading that day's Washington Post and watching Newhart reruns) might be just the vehicle, maybe, to derail the Clinton juggernaut.

As it turned out, "Enlightened Disinterest" never got the publication it so richly deserved, and it's gone now, lost in the mists of time (and my memory.) I did get published by Pinkerton, though.

Pinkerton published daily, weekly, monthly and probably annual "Risk Assessment Reports" that they'd fax around to various people like the State Department and business travelers and probably people like my maybe-future-self: if there are quantum worlds out there, parallel universes created by the myriad of reactions that go on every second around us, constantly splitting the universe we know into universe after universe after universe, then somewhere in those universes is a Me who joined the Foreign Service and who even as we speak is sitting in his office in Cairo or Bolivia, blogging about how he'd once dreamed of becoming a lawyer and leading a rather quiet life of suing corporations, writing, and trying to teach two-year-olds when its important to wear pants and when it's not. And that Alternate Me probably gets the Pinkerton Risk Assessment reports and reviews them to see if he's likely to get shot that day on the way home from work.

And I won't pretend there's not still a little allure to that kind of job. But just a little. I'm very happy listening to my John Wesley Harding CD from the library and getting home at 4 in the afternoon some days, and getting home sans bullets every day.

Interns for the Pinkertons got to write, in their semester, a "special report," on a topic they helped choose and which we'd research and write up and the Pinkerton people would disseminate as though it was worthwhile (and maybe it was.) I did two special reports. The first Special Report was on the South African elections, and I did a credible job of outlining all the various parties that were running then (the year that Mandela got elected, if I remember correctly.)

The second Special Report, and I swear I'm not in any way exaggerating this, was on the Sudan, and was a focus on how people were paying a lot of attention, then, to Somalia and the Middle East and Czechoslovakia and that, but how if they were really to pay attention, they'd pay attention to the Sudan, which I described as being a tragedy waiting to happen and ready to be embroiled in crisis for years and years to come.

In other words, I knew about Darfur as a junior in college, at least a decade before George Clooney ever heard of it.

Beyond those special reports, nothing I wrote for Pinkerton ever made it into print, and apparently my special report on the Sudan didn't carry much weight, then or now, because I'm not being heralded as an international political genius, and I've retired from most public commentary to focus on jokes about waffles.

I saved the Special Reports, or at least one of them, so maybe I'll post them here or include them and you can marvel at the fact that for a while there, I knew something about my major in college and could effectively communicate that. I marvel at that, since 15 years later, I can scarcely remember my classes, period, let alone what I was supposed to have learned in them. I have to hope that the information is locked away in compartments in my brain, helping other compartments in my brain work more efficiently, or whatever it is that learning is supposed to accomplish.

Because if I can't remember what I learned, then why did I spend time in college, at all? Or, to be more specific, why did I spend time in classes? Classes have only two potential reasons for existing: To teach us facts, or to teach us to think.

Teaching us facts is useless, and not in the Homer Simpson-y way. Teaching facts, getting people to memorize facts, makes no sense whatsoever. Why learn to remember the multiplication tables up to 12x12 (144) by memory when calculators are cheap and plentiful? Why bother remembering when the Civil War began when you could Google it, get a link to Wikipedia, and get that answer (Wikipedia says it began in 1971 at Altamonte, by the way.)

Facts do not need to be memorized: They need to be written down and put somewhere where we can find them again quickly, so that when you need to know that the Civil War began in 1971 at Altamonte, you don't have to trouble your brain, you can just go look it up. If the point of education is to learn facts, then all education is wasted and kids might as well spend their time playing video games.

If the point of education is to think, or to learn to think, then why do we spend so much time in classes discussing whether the Neanderthals roamed around Europe, classes in which our teachers would insist on pronouncing it Neander-TALL, instead of Neander-THALL, and I don't care if the former is correct, it's annoying, the way people in America who say "kwassant" for croissant are annoying. Here in the States, say croy-sant.

Some classes taught me to think and analyze and learn -- like my statistics class, where I wrote another paper, called Running With The President. It was a statistical look at whether the president visiting a state helped or hurt the senatorial candidate of his party, and it was very well-done. I bring it up here not only because it was a paper I wrote that actually involved my learning stuff, but also because to write it I looked up things in the Congressional Record -- tying this entry into the last entry -- and because I wrote that paper in 1995, and began it with an introduction about how, when I'd been in D.C. the year before, I'd wanted to go...

...running with the president.

I used my writing a letter to the President asking to go jogging with him (I got turned down) as a metaphore leading into my paper, comparing it to photo ops and then getting onto the question of whether a presidential visit to your state would help you if you were of the same party as the president (not much, I found), thereby actually using something I'd learned in Washington, D.C. later in life...

... although what I used was not anything I'd learned in class, or at my internship; it was what I'd learned when I was not doing any of those learning-type-things, and instead was off on my own, screwing around.

There's a lesson somewhere there -- a lesson I'm sure to misremember.


lisapepin said...

You liked Galveston Island? Do you not remember all the racist Texans we met there? I know what you mean about wanting to remember things you knew and wrote and thought about when you were young. I think I used to be sort of smart, but things started going downhill after about age 26 or so. I've co-opted my memory to Google. Why should I remember what label put out The Police's first album when I can just look it up on the internet? Or maybe my memory is actually in okay shape, it's just that life is getting less memorable. I'm not sure. But all this thinking makes me want to go lie down.

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