“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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Broke is the new black

I can’t really remember a time in my adult life when I haven’t been broke. Which is why this article is so poignant for me. It has real numbers confirming what I’ve suspected all along. It’s not that I’ve failed. It’s not that I haven’t tried hard enough. It’s not that I’ve been spending too much on stuff I don’t need (though I should work on that, and I know it).

It’s that I’m broke, and it’s because, until fairly recently, nobody has paid me enough to not be broke.

Now, bear in mind, I’m using the word “broke” as a highly relative term. I’ve experienced broke in a vast and varied spectrum of ways. I’ve been so broke I have done laundry in my bathtub. I’ve been so broke I’ve purposefully overdrawn my bank account to the allowed limit by getting cash from an ATM, because I needed groceries. I’ve been so broke I’ve used CoinStar to get $8 to buy pasta and sauce for two weeks, at a BigLots where I did my best to pretend not to see mice running down the cereal aisle (that very BigLots is now an upscale bowling alley for the very worst people in Denver).

I’ve always had a safety net with my family. I’ve always been able to wake up knowing that I wouldn’t be homeless. I was, and, in many ways, AM broke, but I’ve never been poor. I draw a very clear distinction there. I am fortunate in the regard that I have resources and support structures that I have always known were there for me if the worst happened. When it did happen, when I was laid off after four months at a job and was, therefore, ineligible for more than $300 in unemployment, my folks helped me survive. That’s the difference. I was broke, but I was going to be OK.

I’ve moved to a different level of broke now. I pay my bills on time but occasionally tap into my overdraft protection. I always pay my bills and pay down my credit cards, so I have stellar credit, but virtually zero savings outside my government retirement fund (which, of course, is off-limits until I actually retire). I own a house and a car but agonize over budgeting and purchases that fall outside the “necessities.” I bargain hunt with a zeal most people reserve for loving their children or believing in a higher power. I’m comfortably broke. I put weekend trips on credit cards and eventually pay them off.

My reality: I own a pair of Manolo Blahniks (secondhand) but lay awake at night thinking of ways to reduce my grocery spending.

I’ve been in the post-collegiate working world now for more than a decade. In that decade, I have accepted pay cuts, done work for free, very frequently been denied cost-of-living wage raises and have had to accept, as a fact of life, that the notion of a continually growing wage is never a guarantee. Ours is a generation that has been told, since we shook off our sweaty polyester graduation gowns as we left high-school, that it’s a tough world out there.  We’ve had to do what is necessary to get by, and we’ve never been told to demand what we think we’re actually worth. We’ve been told to be happy with what we can get.

It’s only been since working at the city that my pay has been growing at a pace that keeps up with inflation. My very first job out of college paid $28k per year, in 2003. Until last year, with some ups, downs and a period of unemployment throwing the numbers, my annual salary hovered within about $2-4,000, + or, in some cases, -, of that number. Taken in aggregate, the decade starting with my graduation from college in 2003 (With honors!) and ending with my pay raise in 2013 resulted in an overall increase in earnings of just 11%. Most of this decade was spent living in a city where the cost of living has increased 13.6% just in the past five years. And where rents have increased almost that much in just one year.

Something has to change. With my entire generation carrying tens of thousands of dollars in college debt, with many employers expecting applicants to have labored for years in unpaid internships, there is a serious problem that still needs to be addressed. We are probably better than any generation since the Depression when it comes to creative solutions for frugal living, but that only goes so far. At some point, we’re going to need to be better compensated (or, in the case of recent grads in some fields, compensated AT ALL) for the work we do. Otherwise, we’ll keep delaying the purchases that run this economy, and everyone will continue to struggle.

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Happy birthday, baby

2006 was a big year for me. It was the year I turned 25, and it was the year everything happened.

I had moved to Denver the previous year and in autumn of 2005 I had started my First Real Adult Relationship. New Year’s Eve 2005 was the first New Year’s when I had someone to kiss at midnight. After the holiday, I would start a Real Adult Job as a proofreader at the city’s most prestigious ad agency. That’s how I began 2006: anything was possible, and everything was new.

In May of 2006, I had my First Real Adult Breakup.

In June of 2006, I had my First Real Adult Layoff. That was also the month my sister left for the Peace Corps. A few months later, another close friend moved away to begin graduate school. Summer of 2006 I had my First Real Adult Emotionally-Abusive Relationship. That was a good time.

Summer of ’06 was one of extreme highs and the lowest lows. It was the summer I became a full-fledged freelancer, writing about local music, restaurants and the theater scene. But it was also a summer when I’d leave multiple desperate, panicked voice mails a night for a guy who wouldn’t call me back and later cheated on me. It was the summer I appeared on an album cover for a local band. And it was the summer I temped at a methadone clinic and got fired (well, in the temp world, we call it “reassigned”) from a shitty data entry job. Importantly, it was a summer when the guy I was seeing left town quite a lot for his job, leaving me to hang out with his friends while he was away. Since I’d started dating my First Real Adult Boyfriend so soon after I moved to Denver, I didn’t have many friends of my own when we broke up. So, Second Boyfriend’s friends became my friends. One of these friends was a guy named Dale.

Summer smoldered well into October with unseasonably warm weather. I left the Second Boyfriend. I got a steady job at a scooter shop. Things seemed to be calming down. I focused on work and writing and dated a bit, mostly trying to get the bitter taste of my last relationship out of my mouth. Then the winter came.

Cabin fever urged me out of my apartment one December night. I had just been paid and went to the local watering hole. There was Dale, and his roommate, Rip. We played pool and listened to music. And just like that, Dale became more than my friend.

The blizzards soon blanketed the city in sound-dampening, transportation-hindering snow. We began to have a routine of getting together, walking through piles of snow to our favorite bars and then going home together.

If a fortune telling gypsy had told me when 2006 began that the year would end the way it did, I would have probably asked for my money back. But for all I went through that year, the final act of 2006 was my favorite. I’m so glad I met Dale. I’m so glad we’re still together, eight years later. Even the hard stuff has been worth it. I’ve often put it this way: My life may have been easier if I had never met Dale. But it wouldn’t have been better.

He asks me all the time why I stayed, why I’ve stuck around. I don’t have easy answers for this. I don’t think anyone who has ever truly loved someone does have an easy answer… can you imagine? Why do you love XYZ? Because he’s handsome and makes a lot of money. Because he doesn’t question my motives. Because he lets me have my way. Those would be easy, awful reasons to love someone. You need more than that. You have to have complications and scar tissue and unanswered questions, or things burn out pretty fast.

My complicated reasons are more like this. Nobody has ever loved me like Dale loves me. He’s neither desperate nor distant, needy nor aloof. He calls me out on my bullshit and I call him out on his. It is not about what he does for me or what he has, it’s about how we are together. He helps me with the stuff I struggle with, and in return I help him. We’ve been through fights and moving and family issues and death together. We’ve grown together in ways I could never have imagined all those years ago. We bring out the best in each other, in new ways, all the time. We just work together. It’s easy, easier than I ever imagined it could be.

I love you, Dale. Happy Birthday, and Happy Anniversary.

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Posted in Let's Hear It For The Boy | 2 Comments