Bus People, 7/31

“Hey Baby,” he says, a phone to his ear, as I sit next to him. I smile accommodatingly, as is my most hated automatic response to these kinds of comments. He’s older and seems harmless enough.

“I think this girl might help me,” he says to the person on the phone. “I’ll talk to you later.”

He hangs up and explains that he just got the phone the night before and that he has no idea how to use it. He wants the music on it to stop playing and he wants to send text messages. It’s a new Windows phone, and I’m not very familiar with the set up, but we make do. We figure out texts, phone functionality, and I make the mistake of poking the “Explorer” icon to show that he can access the Internet. I instantly find out, when his most recently-viewed web page opens, that although he’s had the phone for only a handful of hours, he’s found YouTube and a double-penetration video in that time. Oops.

His breath reeks of the malt liquor he’s been sipping from the slurpee cup in his hand. It’s 8am. He tells me he does flooring and says he’d do my floors for free if he could come over and I could “fry up some fish or something.” I say my husband probably wouldn’t be down for that.

He drops the slurpee cup and half of it spills on the bus floor. He says the Lord works in mysterious ways, maybe God didn’t think he needed that extra booze.

The bus goes by the cathedral and he says he was raised in that church, used to iron the robes and polish the silver. I say I’ve never been inside. He says, how interesting that we could both be so different, but here we are on the bus, at the same time. We’re not so different.

He says in life we all come to a point where we need to make our choices, and that he’s not where he wants to be, but he’s getting closer. He shakes my hand for a little too long, and I say goodbye.

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On Growing

So about year ago, I wrote a blog about my feelings on leaving my old neighborhood and embarking on home ownership in a new part of town. I had kind of forgotten that it was pretty well-received among my fellow Denverites until a friend of mine reposted it on facebook, and I recalled that it was a pretty intense time in a number of ways. First, it was a farewell to a corner of the city I’d lived in for nearly a decade. Second, it was a goodbye to renting and all the complex elements that tenanthood involves. But more than anything, it was a goodbye to that part of my life, when it made sense to live amid the heady mix of high and low that Capitol Hill life entailed. And it’s actually strange to imagine that it’s been only a year since I wrote that post, because I’ve almost never seen anything change as much in a year as Denver has in this past one.

I don’t like being so affected by change. It makes me feel old. I try, I swear, I really do try to evaluate every averse feeling I have toward the city’s growth spurt by asking myself, “Am I upset because of a real reason, or because something I’m nostalgic about is gone or different now?” Because if the answer is the latter, I understand that I am in danger of Grampa-Simpsonesque rhapsodizing on the olden days, when I wore an onion on my belt and lived in a $575/month one-bedroom in Governor’s Park. But I sometimes find that the answer actually is the former. It sometimes turns out that I’m upset because I fundamentally don’t like the way the city is dealing with its current insane level of growth. I have some real problems with the way things are changing, here and all over the country. Rich people decided they wanted to live in cities again, and their exodus to urban centers is manifesting itself in some shitty ways.

It’s all the weirder because I’m a homeowner now. I’m in the process, a year after embarking on this most American of dreams, of refinancing the house I just bought, and part of that process is hoping that the price someone will pay for this place is sufficiently inflated now that I “win” and no longer have to pay mortgage insurance. Somewhere down the road, we’ll probably sell this place, and as the logic goes, it will sell for more than what we paid. The four-plex next door is for sale, and there’s a good chance someone will buy it, raze it, and build something that the current tenants can’t afford. It wouldn’t be profitable to do otherwise. Whatever the new thing is will probably bring my property values up. But you know what? I am not super excited for that. Because I love hearing my Guatemalan neighbors cackle over their telenovelas, through the open windows. I love the little girl next door who keeps asking me when my wildflowers are going to bloom. I love my neighbor’s little dogs who came running to us the first time it was warm enough this spring to sit on the porch. They missed us. I missed them. I don’t want the changes in this town to make it so we can’t be neighbors with these people any more.

Denver, as a city, has always had a bit of an identity crisis, and it’s been more pronounced as of late. Don’t get me wrong… I love a good bikeshare, and the new ramen restaurants are fantastic. But I realized on my recent trip to New Orleans that there are really two types of American cities: Those that truly have a sense of self, and those that seem to grasp endlessly at the defining characteristics of other cities instead of cultivating their own. And Denver, with its amnesiac enthusiasm for the promises of every economic boom (Silver! Oil! Real Estate! Marijuana! This time it will last forever!) and its palimpsest-like approach to urban design and planning (1952: Let’s doze everything and build parking lots! 1963: Viaducts, that’s the ticket! 2014: What if we just make it so every new house looks like it’s made of Lego?), is one of those cities that tends to pave over much of what it could claim as its own identity, in favor of what is new and exciting. So what’s my point? My point is that many of the now-gone places and things I get nostalgic for in Denver probably replaced something someone else was sad to see go. I’ve realized that mourning such things is usually misspent heartbreak. Especially in a Western city where more than 60% of the population was born somewhere else. They bring those places with them when they come, for better or for worse.

Did you think I was joking about those parking lots? Denver, 1966.

But there remains the problem of how these changes are felt on levels other than the misplaced nostalgia as I near my 10th anniversary of Denver residency. There are people I know who are seriously struggling. Considerations for traffic, infrastructure, water use or seemingly anything more long-term than accommodating the influx of new residents with pricey new condos, are not being made. My only hope is that Denver will realize that a city is only truly great when it can be great for a lot of different kinds of people, instead of just an elite class of rich transplants. I just hope that wages for baristas and bartenders and  dishwashers will be raised so that the people who make all the cool new stuff in Denver possible are actually able to live close to it and enjoy it, too. In the ten years I’ve lived in Denver, I’ve grown and learned quite a lot. But if Denver’s history is any indicator, through each boom and bust, growth and learning are two very different processes.

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“You need two names to make it sound real.”

Two Names

Holloway-Harris. Harris-Olson. Whitman-Draper. You need two names to make it sound real.

Women in those days changed their names and, as Don put it, “took another man’s name” all the time. It didn’t necessarily make them disingenuous. It haunted them, if it haunted them, in different ways than it haunted Don/Dick as he tearfully confessed his sins to Peggy in that person-to-person call. When Joan “took” the name “Joan Harris,” it was an experience much more akin to that of a victim of theft, not a perpetrator. But she was never one to play the victim. And while Don lamented taking another man’s name, and doing nothing with it, Joan did precisely the opposite.

“I’ve been to the beach.”

The Real Thing

You have a person-to-person call. It’s just the two of you. Can you handle the closeness, of this call. Do you accept? Can you be this close to someone, even when they’re so far away?

You can confess your sins. You can say goodbye. You can profess your love. You can learn that the best thing you’ll ever do as a father is allow your children to grow up with someone else. You can have a nervous breakdown. Do you accept? Can you be this real? Just between the two of you?

It’s the only real thing you’ll ever have. Until someone figures out a way to sell it to you.

It will be something of ours with our name on it

What’s it like when it’s your name on the wall? Peggy wants to find out.

Is the rich little bastard still a Sterling, even with another man’s name? Who does he belong to? And even with him around, Joan still longs for something of her own. With her own name on it. But she needs two names, to make it real.

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Our own private apocalypse

I wrote my undergraduate thesis in 2003 about dystopias of the past. The classics: Orwell and Huxley, of course (I’m so going to name a couple of cats “Orwell” and “Huxley” some day). And new classics, too: Blade Runner and A Handmaid’s Tale. I’ve been fascinated with these twisted, satirical visions of a disastrous future since a young age, and I think it’s really only natural. I was born into an apocalypse of sorts, and I think we’re only now realizing to what extent this apocalypse is total, ubiquitous, and ongoing in its destruction.

I recently read this piece by Michael Moore on dKos, which gives the date of death of the American Middle Class as August 5, 1981- exactly one week before I was born. The blog’s rationale is that Reagan’s firing of PATCO Union Leaders was the New GOP’s killing blow to the American working class. What followed was a march toward financial serfdom for those who used to feed their families by using their hands to assemble, repair, inspect or package the things America used to make. As the author puts it:

America, from now on, would be run this way:

* The super-rich will make more, much much more, and the rest of you will scramble for the crumbs that are left.

* Everyone must work! Mom, Dad, the teenagers in the house! Dad, you work a second job! Kids, here’s your latch-key! Your parents might be home in time to put you to bed.

* 50 million of you must go without health insurance! And health insurance companies: you go ahead and decide who you want to help — or not.

* Unions are evil! You will not belong to a union! You do not need an advocate! Shut up and get back to work! No, you can’t leave now, we’re not done. Your kids can make their own dinner.

* You want to go to college? No problem — just sign here and be in hock to a bank for the next 20 years!

* What’s “a raise”? Get back to work and shut up!

But where Moore sees a sudden and final death, I see the beginning of a slow, bleeding apocalypse. I see the beginning of a way of life beset on all sides by boundaries: financial, educational, geographical and political that have kept us (“us” being those who were born around the time of this pivotal Reagan move) from ever understanding the comfortable, stable lives of our parents as anything more than a far-off, nostalgic dream of American prosperity.

Is it any wonder we are a generation obsessed with the end of the world? Is it any wonder we watch TV shows where the dead bodies of generations past rise up to devour us, haunt us, shamble around and destroy the makeshift structures we’ve built for survival? Is it any wonder that we watch elaborate survival shows, in which people are stripped of the trappings of a promised modern life and forced to make do with what they can scrounge, gather and kluge? I think it’s interesting that zombie imagery so often includes the undead wearing business suits, nurse’s outfits, farmer’s overalls or mechanic’s coveralls, as though the survivors are literally fighting the ghosts of the Old Economy as they try to make a life in their post-apocalyptic world.

Working class zombies. A cultural touchstone.

And the turn toward the handmade, the artisanal, the practical arts… what else would come from a generation made to feel useless, unproductive, technologically-dependent and trapped in a service economy that buys everything in? What else would be expected from people who work so hard and make so little, all the while failing to see student loan balances drop? Why wouldn’t we want to take wood or yarn or metal and turn it into something we can hold in our hands, something we can truly call our own?

In the world of our apocalypse, there is a sense of resignation. We are willing to take less, buy less, live with less. On one hand it’s a seen strength we’re to be lauded for. The excesses of the 80s and 90s are in our childhoods, not in our futures, and America’s appetite for more, better, uglier ways to consume should be tempered as we consider the consequences of decades of sprawl, SUVs, damaging agricultural practices and fossil fuel consumption. But there’s a moment when less becomes too little. Among us are those who are struggling to pay student loans, but there are also those who are struggling just to keep their families housed. But like characters in a zombie film, we seem to look at one another without hope for anything better than what we can scavenge from the rubble of the previous generation’s mess. To be honest, I don’t know where the hope will come from at this point. I don’t know how this gets any better, as the needs and opinions of most people are being so flamboyantly ignored at all levels of elected leadership. I don’t know how this movie ends.

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Nuking Bad- a theory about metaphors that I came up with when I couldn’t sleep.

From the moment I first stumbled onto an episode of AMC’s Breaking Bad, I knew it was set in Albuquerque (and I’m excited to see that the prequel, Better Call Saul, is also set in this David Lynchian fever-dream of a city). The first shot I ever saw of this groundbreaking, masterpiece of television was Walter White’s house. I’ll always remember that dumpy, 1960s ranch with a gravel yard on a dull little cul-de-sac. For me, this house is as iconic of Albuquerque as a California Bungalow would be of Pasadena, or an elegant brownstone would be of New York. While many imagine The Land of Enchantment as a sea of adobes and tasteful Mediterranean clay shingles, the Albuquerque I remember (as someone who called the city “home” in the early 90s) was also this Albuquerque, a land of hastily-built suburban homes with mustard carpet and little pools in the backyards that were more trouble to maintain than they were worth.

My most recent trip to Albuquerque was in late 2013, in October, during the Balloon Fiesta. I was there to investigate Albuquerque’s nuclear history as part of a project for a class on the rhetoric of National Security. This also happened to be the week that Walter White died. His obituary was in the paper. No, Really. As a fan of the show, the trip was almost as much about paying my respects to Walter and the city he came to rule over as it was a trip to the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized the two stories- the story of America’s nuclear development, and the story of a scientist who chooses to Break Bad and use his intellect for the forces of evil- were closely related.

There are two big metaphors I find most intriguing in the show, which apply to the nature of nuclear science and America’s nuclear narrative. First, there is the metaphor of cancer. Cancer is a disease of unchecked growth, and can be both caused by and treated with radiation. Cancerous cells deplete the body’s resources, for growth that is diseased and uncontrolled, rather than generative and normal. Second, there is the metaphor of the chain reaction. A simple trigger is all that is needed to take an object at rest and set off a series of events that can have the most unintended of consequences.

Walter begins the series as an object at rest. His massive potential energy is contained in an inert identity as a teacher, father, underpaid public servant. Then, there is cancer. Then, there is the understanding of his own half-life, of the life rapidly retreating from his body.  Then, there is radiation. His own body becomes a site of decay, the constant fight against metastatic growth, a cycle of cancer and cancer treatment that started (most likely) with either Walter’s exposure to radioactive chemicals in his work or simply with contact with Albuquerque’s contaminated landscape, and cycles back to his treatment with radiation in a desperate attempt to live.

But as is the case with some radioactive elements, the decay actually transforms Walter into something utterly different. He becomes Heisenberg, an elementally different version of himself.

Walter does not choose the name of our culture’s more recognized, American nuclear physicist, Robert Oppenheimer. Instead, he chooses the name of the man who presented a lecture to officials of the Third Reich theorizing nuclear fission, which got the Nazis as close as they’d ever come to building a nuclear weapon (Notably, though, it wasn’t close enough for an American assassin, sent with a gun to one of Heisenberg’s lectures, to decide to pull the trigger). Some of Heisenberg’s calculations were later proven wrong, and he was characterized by some as a man who could have built a bomb, but chose to develop nuclear power instead. Others say he was purposefully throwing the match, keeping the bomb just out of hand’s reach for the Third Reich. Heisenberg’s motivations, like his most significant scientific contribution, were quantum: uncertain, ambiguous, difficult to fully observe.

By contrast, repentant Oppenheimer famously quoted the Bhagavad Gita upon detonation of the Trinity test (about a two and a half hour drive from Albuquerque): “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” Melancholy, tormented Oppenheimer devoted much of his later life to attempts to control the use of his scientific discoveries. Heisenberg, on the other hand, maintained his cool veneer of scientific detachment, seeming to adhere to the narrative that the pure, empirical science was his guiding force, and whatever purposes humans, nations and leaders found for the science were their own moral prerogative.

Walter must have had Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in mind when he took his name. The principal holds that the more precisely a particle’s location is determined, the more difficult it is to calculate its momentum. Similarly, as we learn one element of Walter’s moral standpoint, it becomes less certain what his next move could be. It is never clear whether Walter is conducting himself with a set of morals at all, or a moral code of his own design, or for the good or detriment of anyone around him.  He poisons a child (but non-lethally). He brutalizes his wife (as a ploy to protect her?). He alienates Jesse (for his own protection? Or for Walter’s own gain?). Is Walter good or bad? What are his motivations? It depends on how you look at it. Or if you look at it at all.

Ultimately, the end result of both the discovery of nuclear firepower and the end game of Walter’s meth empire are similar. Neither the nuclear bomb nor Walter’s vast cash stores can be put to practical use. Both the bomb and Walter’s meth business start as morally questionable means rationalized by their potential ends: the end of the war, the funds needed to sustain the family of a dying man. But at some point, both grew past that horizon. Into an arsenal of weapons we don’t use. A storage room full of money that can’t be spent.  And fallout, everywhere you look. The consequences of these scientific endeavors are horrible, almost too horrible to fully imagine. The end users of Walter’s product are not very visible in the Breaking Bad narrative, so it can only be guessed how many people he’s hooked, how many will die, how many children will be neglected by addicted parents. The bomb and the meth represent scientific ego and power gone cancerous, grown beyond its capacity to contribute to a common good.

Speaking of uncontrolled, metastatic growth, welcome to Albuquerque!

The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History is featured in a handful of Breaking Bad episodes. Enshrined within its walls are discussions of the evils of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the terrifying near misses of Broken Arrow incidents, the paranoid artifacts of Cold War preparedness culture. It is a narrative of the heights of human imagination, the most profound accomplishments in the ongoing quest to understand the way the physical world works. And it is a timeline of human failings, misunderstandings, abject fear and petty disputes. And so is Breaking Bad. It is a story of the corrupting properties of power, the proper use of great human potential, and the unforeseen consequences of human endeavors. But more than anything, it’s about the ways human beings justify their own horrific behaviors under the guise of calm, intelligent rationality.

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How I learned to stop worrying and just love Christmastime

In a family video of Christmas Day, from around 1986 or so, my skepticism is the real star.

“Somebody’s trickin’,” I say, when I see the mounds of Christmas presents that have appeared under the tree, as if by magic.

But I don’t believe in magic, not even at this tender age. All the gifts from Santa bear my mother’s handwriting. All the gifts from Santa are items that were readily available at local stores. All the gifts from Santa are clearly crafted by American designers and marketers and assembled in China. It says so right on the box. I was a precocious kid, and I can only now appreciate the moral misgivings my parents must have had in trying to pull a fast one on their bright little girls who seemed born with an annoying tendency to call them on their shit.

I played along for the sake of my little sister, who was little and whose big bright eyes would widen appreciatively in the presence of Santa’s magic for another couple of years. We had a family talk years later to clarify the Santa issue, but both my sister and I already kind of implicitly knew that the tradition was just that, a tradition. I didn’t feel betrayed by my family, though that probably is a fair feeling to have when your parents lie to you about the surveillance of your good and bad deeds, and bribe you to behave with the promise of a Barbie RV and a Casio keyboard. It wasn’t their fault. Participation in traditions isn’t always a conscious choice, and my parents were young and wanted for us to feel like we lived in a magical world. That’s a noble thing to wish for your children. I could never begrudge them that.

When I was about 11, I had my first experience with Having an Opinion of my Own when it came to Christmas, namely when it came to the idea of Christ. I didn’t believe in Jesus or God anymore. For me, it was the same concept as no longer believing in Santa, though it did seem that many of my peers clung to the Jesus thing with much more tenacity than the Santa thing. I couldn’t… and in many ways, still don’t… fully understand the distinction there, between a faith in a divine Jesus and the belief that being good means a magic man will reward you.

But at age 11, I was laying awake at night with knots in my stomach, trying to sort out the fact that I still wanted very much to experience the joy of Christmas but could no longer accept the divinity of Christ. I wrote long, meandering entries in my journals, trying to square this circle. In the black-and-white way only an 11 year old can see the world, I saw my new found atheism as a revocation of my right to Christmas. But at the same time, I still really, really wanted that Gameboy.

Years went on and I grew up and Christmas became less of a big deal. I wrote cards and bought gifts for my small circle of friends. The piles of presents from my parents shrank and became gift cards, necessities for dorm life, and, some years, just a phone call: “What would you guys like this year?”

But even though I knew fairly early on that the whole Santa thing was a sham, even though I see very clearly the crass, emotional manipulation of advertisers from car manufacturers to jewelers to toy companies, I find myself grasping for those feelings of wonder and delight that I knew before I began my lifelong quest to Figure It All Out. I suppose it’s only human, to want to give oneself over to the sublime, sparkling beauty, to the magic, to the blinkered innocence of childhood and the feeling that anything can happen. There are a great many things human beings will do in order to try and recapture that set of feelings. But ever since that Christmas in 1986, I’ve personally had a harder time responding to such efforts. My brain is set up in a way that it insists on answers. I need the real, the tangible, the reliable satisfaction of first-hand experiences.

So I try not to put too much pressure on myself to feel a certain way about certain times of year, certain moments, certain benchmarks in my life in general. While I may never experience the thrill of childlike wonder at gifts that seem to appear from nowhere, I instead feel the thrill of seeing an old friend in town for the holiday. I watch my kitten bat at the tree decorations and curl up among the gifts like the funny little treasure he truly is. I resist the urge to question the surprise my husband says he has in store for me. I laugh at the goofy social media posts from my family, and feel a swelling in my heart that means I am missing them… the sweet feeling that I care enough to wish they were closer. These feelings aren’t the same as feeling as though I live in a magical world. But they’re real. And they’re mine.

Happy holidays.

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Bus People, Dec. 12

He clutches several overstuffed backpacks and garbage bags to his chest. From them bulge odd-shaped objects: a large stock pot, the threadbare head of a well-loved stuffed horse, the handle of some gadgety floor cleaning tool. The seat beside him is suddenly vacated and I plop into it, thankful for the relief from standing. He greets me nearly unintelligibly, a large wad of chew in his lower lip. I say hello back and, taking this as a cue, he begins to tell his story.

He’s a scrapper and says the stock pot and other aluminum in the sack at his feet will get him about $60. “Wow,” I say, genuinely impressed. He has a guy for everything, he says. Clothes. Antiques. He even has a guy for iPhones, which he says he finds with some regularity, even working ones. They get him about $70 apiece, even the broken ones.

He’s suing Denver Health, he says, for a botched surgery. They left a sliver of metal in his eye, and the vision is slowly going. He says scrapping used to be hard work, but now it’s harder work, with the eye going. Things that took 20 minutes now take an hour. He says he doesn’t know how much Denver Health will pay him, he doesn’t know how much an eye is worth. It’s not something you can replace, he says. I look over during a quite moment and, as my bad habit these days tends to be, glance at his phone. The message he’s answering says, “Congrats on getting some housing, dad. Text Ashley and let her know you’re OK.”

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