A journal of a roadtrip with Tim, Steph and Porter, from June 28 - July 14 2013.
A week of sunsets and thunderstorms. Stress. Moving out of my house, packing up all my stuff into boxes and then stacking, Tetris style, all the furniture into a single room.
Then a go-live in California, new technology, new team, even less prep and communication. The boss barks orders in terse half-finished sentences. The other guys plead ignorance or naïveté and no one wants to brave initiative.
And so in that final day, Friday, fixing stupid little bugs on the production system, 10 minutes before we go, no time for testing, no time for second chances.
Load up the car between deployments. Porter running crazy. Steph with her hands on her hips.
And we're off at 2. Onto the highways, the common sights, cruise control locked at 80, the start of the Baby Einstein on DVD.
The first day has lots of stupid squabbles. I drive the whole way. We eat at Cracker Barrel, Steph waits inside, clutching her shiny new Burberry bag, Porter runs down the sidewalk and jumps on the GI-made rocking chairs. Dinner of biscuits, deep fried fish, dumplings, etc.
Clouds threaten from the south, navy dark and shivering lightning, long electric streaks. Porter is transfixed and still for a brief moment to watch.
I get a call from work that interfaces are down, the thing I worked on is broken just a few hours after I finish my watch. Email is rapid fire dinging. Text messages of confusion and panic. I'm pissed at the lack of organization, the fact that everyone else jumped ship, or went off to smoke cigars instead of planning for contingencies. I call the hospital IT contact. She says things are working now, the lab system fixed itself. I mass mail everyone that things are fixed. All this playing out while we wander through Walmart, sitting in the parking lot of a Starbucks, looking out in evening traffic and ugly cacophonous chaos.
We get through North Carolina and into Virginia. Start seeing the name of places I've heard my Dad mention from his adventurous youth. The New River, James River, Blacksburg. Virginia Tech.
The storm spreads out into strange wavering clouds. The sun glows orange. The whole sky is spliced in half by a distant mountain. And we just see the aftermath, the underside of the clouds glowing like embers.
We arrive at the shitty hotel pissed at each other, the third or fourth hour of listening to Baby E on repeat, whipped into a rage from the giggles and kiddy visual candy. Porter never really slept.
We drag ourselves into the hotel in a swearing match. The room is moist and misty, carpet damp, smelling like mold and old cigarettes.
I connect to the hotel wireless, check that the system is cranking along, then turn off the lights, to seep into some sort of weak uncomfortable sleep.
We spend a day driving through Civil War battlefield towns.
Northern Virginia is full of rolling hills and distant green mountains, the whole thing under a blue sky and arcing white clouds, all the perfect summer colors and bright light, and I'm stuck just watching it scroll by from the highway.
Barns and cows and 'burgs. The dream and myth of America, conveyed by sound of its names and the feel of its geography.
Through West Virginia and Harpers Ferry, an obligatory trailer to meet us at the border. Wendy's chicken sandwiches and Frosties, served up by redneck hairdos in wife beaters. Then Maryland and Pennsylvania, signs pointing to Gettysburg.
At Harrisburg Porter actually sleeps, but we get lost along the shores of the Susquehanna, fiddling with iPhone GPS and gesturing in whispers. The scenery is beautiful, a wide swollen river, and quaint villages of stone and brick along the shoreline, visible across the way. Old bridges of stone and iron. Small boats and jetskis powering along beneath the churning brown water.
Northern Pennsylvania gets rugged, steep mountains and empty expanses of valleys and fields. There are no stores or signs of civilization. We stop at a small gas station and Steph has them make a grilled ham and cheese, and the redneck kids in big boots and black t-shirts give us looks.
Wind another two hours through small roads over beautiful country, just a faint rain wetting the streets, kicking up a mist, the sun making everything glow. There are times when I can look down the valley and see quaint villages, and even the trees, and everything is a washed out in white and green silhouette, and it reminds me of that glorious drive west from New York to Indiana, that glowing Lehigh valley. I can see why the Amish settled here, all the glory and minimalist essence locked up in the light and natural bounty.
We get into Ithaca around 6:30. Unload the car at a picturesque inn that overlooks a lake. It's painted yellow, probably a hundred years old, with diners in nice clothes queuing up to eat. I run into Brad, the brother of the groom in the parking lot, catch up, wave to his head-scarved orthodox wife who can't shake my hand on Shabbat. She reminds Brad he can’t help carry any of my things inside.
We drive over to Ithaca around 7. Porter is starving and is making it well known. Cornell is a cross between Harvard and Georgia Tech, perched on a mountainside, waterfalls cascading through rocky gorges between big research labs and gothic dorms. We grab a bite of pizza. Then drive through campus, past tame deer, and then end up at the eccentric and charming town center. We say hi to Jeff the groom - can’t join him at the bar due to 2 year old - and grab a bite of ice cream instead.
Then it’s home to the inn for an expensive whisky and an evening of rest.
I’m glad to not be driving 8 hours again tomorrow.
Tossed and turned in a bed probably as old as the hotel. Felt like it was folding in on us, and the whole room was stuffy. Porter slept, thankfully, even as Steph groaned.
Woke up to a breakfast in the common area downstairs, fresh waffles with fruit, pastries, yogurt, coffee. Chatted with Jeff's parents, and eventually Jeff showed up.
Got booted up for a walk to the nearby waterfall - Taughannock Falls. Porter excited to get moving. The trail is muddy and leads into a gorge of ancient stone. Porter is initially worried about the "water fall down", but we encourage him and he's soon trucking along, stopping every hundred feet or so to pick up sticks or rocks, or play in the mud.
The river bed is wide, the base weathered limestone, dimpled from rain, hints of fossils. The walls of the gorge are crumbling shale and limestone, cracked into geometric shapes and patterns.
The falls itself is magnificent, bold and tall, billowing mist, and is framed perfectly by the overhanging cliffs and soaked vegetation.
After, we run across a wide field of grass, swallows swooping in to snatch bugs, to a playground alongside the lake. Porter runs through the obstacles, and I try to chase him, as the sun comes out and the sky goes blue and it gets hot. Across the way, through the trees, we can see the yellow siding and roofs of the inn, majestic and stately.
Steph picks up lunch, and after a bath, Porter naps, while I lounge in the parlor...
The wedding party congregates on the shores of the lake, the directions shoddy and confusing. Dressed in the finest clothes we brought, we decide to drive down the hill and park, since its only 15 minutes till the ceremony and a bit humid.
We finally see worn signs, park, all green grass and shady oaks, green and blue, pure colors, the smell of salt water, just the hint of a dead animal distant. Groups of families laid out in the grass, or at picnic tables, taking advantage of the weather. You can tell the wedding goers from the others if they are wearing dress clothes.
Porter is obsessed with the lake. He runs to the edge, curious, then starts throwing rocks into the surf. It's a big lake and might as well be a shore. The rocks are worn smooth and there are skeletons of rotting fish and other things washed up. There are other packs of little kids - blonde and outfitted in dress clothes - playing in the dirt and the surf.
It's a Jewish wedding, with the nice Chuppa constructed from birch branches. The officiate is a family friend and she hardly speaks loud enough, and we bribe Porter to stay relatively quiet with candy tic tacs. They drink the wine and cough out the Hebrew in unconvincing vocalizations and smash the glass and we all say model tov!
After, I drink beer and Porter throws more rocks into the lake. Steph chats it up with Brad and his wife. I snap lots of pictures of the beautiful scenery, the lake and trees and props of the wedding. Jeff is in military blues and walks around his Doberman and I joke he looks like a prison guard.
Lots of tasty hour devours and I share with Porter and he runs off on his own agenda to the swings or to play in the field or look out in the lake. He is a handful but Steph reminds me (and everyone else) that he is my son, and I was the same. I think about the person he will be, driven by that fierce streak of independent exploration. Whether it is a good thing. How it must be a good thing, but may bring him loneliness.
There is dancing and Porter jumps to the beat until his blonde hair is damp with sweat. We are seated with another couple who have 3 kids - an ER and OBGYN combo, just like Jeff and Stacy. They have a Swiss au-pair to watch their kids. I tell Steph I don't envy doctors.
We take a few final shots of the sun setting over the lake, finishing glasses of wine. Steph doesn't want the carrot cake, but me and Peter dig in. We get him changed and in the crib and he passes out quickly.
It was a beautiful day, it was eventful, and it was over fast. There was no time to focus on work or the news or things like that, just barely enough to document the time flying by, throw enough Instagram filters on them so the picture does the actual event justice.
New York City
Leave Ithaca in pouring rain, get down into Pennsylvania and across the state line in good time, Porter sleeping for a good bit.
Queue up for the Lincoln tunnel in the mist, under the Hudson and into the city in record time.
As soon as we emerge that feeling comes back, that aura of New York. Something about all the distant sirens and jackhammers blending in with the million footfalls and echoing through the blocks of grid canyons. All the old stone and masonry, the geometry of the place unchanging, the people constantly recycled.
Drive up 8th avenue in the chaos, dodging cabbies and double parked delivery trucks. Over eager pedestrians ignoring the traffic signals.
Columbus circle is a madhouse since a lane is blocked. We drive up to 64th to cut across the park, then down near the Plaza. We cut across Central Park South and make a wide U-turn in front of the hotel - the JW Marriott Essex house.
Get unloaded and checked in, upgraded to a suite. It's a pretty big room, L shaped, with a walk in closet and separate lounge.
Walk around Central Park in the mist so Porter can get some energy out. Climb on the big rocks, then the playground, Porter sliding down the fast metal slides on a wet butt.
Make a trip to Bed, Bath and Beyond to grab some supplies, Porter is mesmerized by the mechanics of the elevator.
The evening turns a bit chaotic with some confusion over plans. Rob can't meet up till 7 and were scheduled to see Jon and Jess at 7:30. Get dinner at Shake Shack, greasy burgers in their dingy basement. Pick up Magnolia - Steph is bummed Buttercup has closed.
Sit around the benches at the Natural History museum to kill time, a bit at ends over the whole Rob situation, but Porter is transfixed by the big trees, stone walls, glowing lights of the Planetarium.
We walk around the old neighborhood. It feels like nothing has changed. All the old stores and curb sides. We walk to our old street and look at the dinghy door and address. Porter doesn't notice.
Jon and Jess are welcoming. We sit at their dinner table as they eat BBQ and greens and glasses of wine, feeding their gentle and quiet 15 month old daughter - Ellie. Porter makes himself at home in their playroom.
We talk about what has changed in the four years, and what hasn't, filling in the details of lives. The mundane updates of jobs and churches and growing families. Jess has an interesting way of asking details, that feels almost too concerned, as though an act. When she asks us how we judge our decision to leave NY now, years later, it feels odd. Hard to tell if she is criticizing us, feeling superior that we quit NY and she survived, or if there is a hint of jealousy, that her success here could translate to comfortable wealth and luxury somewhere else.
We share cupcakes and try to snap a group photo.
Then cab it back to the hotel. Porter is in awe of the experience of riding in a car sans car seat, and cranes his head out the window like a dog, watching the lights go past.
Back at the hotel Rob and Sheila meet us, and we invite them up for some beers and conversation. Again filling in the details of life - they are now, finally engaged. They learn the news about Akash, and Andrew. We talk a little but about jobs and programming.
Allan shows up with some more beers. We joke about the past, living in the brownstone, Greg and Tony. Allan is still with a girl I met back in 2009.
After a while it’s time for them to leave. I offer to join them to finish off the night from a rooftop bar, and we walk to the elevators to check it out. Turns out there is no public access to rooftop bars or lounges, as the elevator guy tells us. A bit bummed, I say good night and walk them out.
I don't want to give up that easily though. I'm bored and paid a good price for the hotel, I want my park view.
The 20-40 floors are guarded by a separate set of elevators, so I take our set up to 19 and then find the stairwell. At 20 I try to catch an up elevator, but when they ding open they are filled with gibbering drunks, so I let them pass.
I head back to stairs and just start climbing.
At 40 I get out and look around. The hallways are narrow, the floor filled with large penthouses, and there's clearly no public access.
Back in the stairs I'm driven by adrenaline, heart beating, listening for the hint of a staff or maintenance guy. I peer out at 41, and it’s strange to see the same hallway, but full concrete and green doors, instead of luxury carpet and brass.
Two more floors, the stairwell growing dimmer - there it is. An open window.
It yawns like a portal. Through it is only back, then it comes into focus as I step through - the black expanse of Central Park, the line of buildings on each side. The glowing heart of Columbus Circle, slowly circling twilights.
Everything is commingled to an orange glow up here, and there's a buzz, a strange whispering howl, as if you listen hard enough, you could pick up individual conversations. I can see the slanted roof and gargoyles of sister buildings. Behind me, the Essex House sign glows huge, and behind that still, like some alien monument, the half-finished construction of some narrow luxury tower, twice as high as the 45 story Essex house. I feel like Batman up here, crouched in the dark, a misty night, the lights gone gothic.
I snap a few photos, take a video, but mostly just breathe it in.
This was what I came for, the chance for a little bit of rebellion, a big dose of grandeur and glory. That's New York for you.
Sleep in a bit. Our room, nestled in the armpit of the hotel, doesn't get much light so it's still pitch dark at 9.
Breakfast at Fairway, silver dollar pancakes and fresh fruit.
Drop a knife off at Jon and Jesses. They'd forgotten it in the Magnolia box and it was a nice knife so I decided to return it. Had to wrap it up in a magazine and roll it in my rain jacket - I didn't want to be walking around New York with a knife. But their door is closed and doorman not around, so hopped down the service entrance to hand it off to the Super. A monstrous Levain cookie and Black and White cookie from Lenny's completes our errand in the Upper West Side.
I want to ride the subway down to the World Trade and look at the new tower and memorial. We're a bit worried, given Porter’s past feelings up close and personal with trains. But we load up the stroller and ride a maze of elevators down to the track.
It's a different experience when you’re so reliant on slanted walkways and cops to open the alarm doors. But we finally get on the downtown C and switch to the A express. Porter is mesmerized and is a bit demanding about getting on or off the train. But we make it down to World Trade area.
The streets are packed and the roar of constructions drowns out conversation. Porter covers his ears. It's starting to rain and the narrow sidewalks are clogged with trash and dirty runoff.
Right out of the subway you can see the new tower. It's tall and solid, but it feels a bit too generic to evoke any direct comparison to the old towers. There are a half dozen other buildings being built alongside. The entire area will be nice and impressive in 5-10 years when it is done. But for now it is ugly chaos.
Steph is sweating and tired, and Porter wants out of his stroller. There is a line to the memorial, and tickets are required anyway. We'll have to do it another time.
We reverse the trip, back uptown, sweating and tired, Porter on the verge of tantrum, getting evil looks from strangers.
We eat lunch in Whole Foods at Time Warner center, which is also horribly packed. I have this feeling that in New York the true luxury is empty space to yourself, wide open spaces, the antithesis of the city.
It's been a good trip back, and New York feels like an old friend or brother. But it is tiring and expensive, and I think we'll take another long break from each other. I have a feeling when I go back there will be something unchanged, and I'll get right back in the groove, even if all the familiar stores are gone, and all the people I know have moved away.
We get the car at 3 and are out of the city by 4. Porter spends an hour pointing out all the planes and trains of the Newark area until finally passing out.
The road to DC is tolls and bridges, the ugly wasteland of Newark and Baltimore giving way to the wooded stretches of Maryland.
We pass the NSA headquarters and snap a photo grinning. Then signs for NASA and other agencies.
A big SUV is tailing me and I scoot over, joking that it’s not good to piss off the wrong people in this town.
Porter wakes up as we enter DC, and we joke about our nation’s capital even as we see run down houses and junkyards.
A maze of highways and then we're in the city proper, passing big mammoth stone buildings devoted to Commerce or the IRS.
At the Marriott, some smiling and genteel Africans check us into our room, then we walk around the block for a pricey dinner of popcorn, pasta and ice cream.
After, I let Porter get his energy out by running around the big plaza, the masonry carved into a map of the capital. He's into horses, and stares up at the bronze statues of generals on their steeds.
We walk another block on Pennsylvania Avenue to look at the White House. It's farther away and bigger than I thought from pictures, Porter wants to play in the fountain in front, and hangs on the cast iron fence.
He runs all the way back to the hotel, sweating in the balmy night.
It's a humid day as we tour the mall. Porter wants to run but he doesn't want to listen. We have to strap him in his stroller during fits of screaming. We all sweat and our legs are covered in dirty puddle water and mud.
Most of the mall is crisscrossed by chain link fence. Steph thinks it may be for crowd containment tomorrow on the fourth. Wouldn't want thousands of citizens trampling the grass to mud.
But the rest of the park seems a bit worse for wear. The Washington obelisk wears a suit of scaffolding, the smooth stone covered. The WW2 memorial has an ugly tarp billowing out the backside, probably something to do with the waterworks. The grass is overgrown and dotted with weeds.
Porter doesn't know the significance of these things. He likes to look at the water and climb the steps.
I think about the concept of monuments, how every generation the memory is wiped clean. The monuments tell us what to remember, what was important in the past, and so to kindle a sort of mythology. Wars and Great Men. Things that are easy to build a monument for, and so what we consider them the crux of history. The number of dead the criteria for the size of monument, the liters of water pumped through, the amount of granite and marble quarried.
The demographics are interesting. There are a bunch of boy scouts and Asians.
I assume Koreans are the ones at the Korean War memorial, the only people who care. And there are whole busloads of black church groups funneling to the MLK monument. King looks pissed, arms folded, staring across the water at the Jefferson memorial, as if to say, "this is my America too, bitch."
A choir is singing at the Lincoln memorial. Steph buys a signed book from two Vietnam vets. Porter is breaking down, just wants to climb the marble steps. He looks out across the reflecting pool from the top. So does Lincoln, the collective memory of him, and some chiseled quotes, carved into stone to sit until the end of time.
The old planes dry, dusty corroded like mummies.
Washington, D.C. Is not America
The universe is cold and meaningless - humans are just lucky storytellers.
Steph snagged her dress on the corner of a drawer in the hotel in New York. It was a new maternity dress she'd bought for this trip, long, blue, flowy, with intricate floral print along the length.
A quick call to the concierge and a slick manager was sent up, his hair gelled, uniform black and perfectly trim. He was apologetic, efficient and resourceful. The dress was sewn, with an intricate and nearly invisible stitch, in 45 minutes. And during that time a handyman was sent up with a hammer and small tool to remove the nail, smoothing out the corner.
The only reason we remembered this was because the service in DC was far worse. The valet was disorganized and dismissive, the bellhop was kind, but the check in girl put us in a two twin room. When we were moved over to King, there was a spot of wet carpet that never dried out the entire stay, and the entire room smelled musty. Even worse, the snacks were lined up on a pressure sensor plate, tempting to Porter to bat about, like the booby trapped Idol from Indiana Jones. We ended up having to contest a $35 charges on the bill anyway.
And unsurprisingly, stuff blew up at work. No one with any knowledge was put in place to cover for me when I was away, so the issue bubbled up to me. So I sat on the toilet when we tried to get Porter down, laptop plugged into the wall, suffering through a $16 internet connection charge, on the phone with a slow-witted IT contact in California, trying to debug socket connections. We weren't successful, and the interface remains down till today (July 5) and probably will stay down throughout the weekend.
But it makes me think about service, and that even paying for something isn't a direct correlation to service. It almost feels that you have to enter some higher rung of privilege and power to get the level of service we had at Essex house. The bare-bones by the book service (which sometimes never even resolves the issue) are more par for the course today. Fact is - it takes an individual with a drive for service (in this case, the sweating concierge) to resolve the issue. I'd like to say I could do the same, jumping onto the call during my vacation. But either way, a mere system, staffed with peons, can never compete with the drive, efficiency and ingenuity of someone committed. Outsourced call centers take note.
Our goal for the afternoon was simply to visit the museum, and maybe the capitol.
Took a cab a few blocks down to get out in front of the museum. The grassy mall is surrounded on either side by behemoth buildings. At this end it’s mostly museums, at the other end, old bureaucratic castles. There's this sense that DC is less about running the actual country and instead creating this illusion of what the country is. These monuments to peace and war (Order of Americas, Red Cross, Commerce Department, Air and Space Museum, National Archives) don't do any of the real work their titles announce. That grunt work is fought out in nameless office parks throughout suburban Virginia. Instead, the big facades of quarried stone are there to say: these are the objects that make America - freeze dried, plastic wrapped, etc.
Instead of the buildings in New York, which are always dedicated with the transparent goal to make the builders money, and thus have to sparkle with shimmering glass and dazzling spires, the DC behemoths are there to bolster the girth and strong fist of The State. There's a feeling that these are just the outer monuments of a vast churning machine, something that can't be seen in full, just cower in the wake, and hope it doesn't set its hungry, vengeful, violent sights on you (as an individual, institution, or nation state).
And so the museum - it was an impressive piece of design - hanging all the airplanes from the rafters at various angles, the thousands of tons of aluminum and steel "in flight", and then connected to banisters and escalators and informational placards.
I was struck by the horrific interiors of Apollo-era spacecraft - the sheer dumb bravery of those with the "right stuff" - way more guts than brains. The fact that most of these machines were simply a chair strapped to a ridiculously powerful engine. And the engine itself, all the interwoven and delicate metal pieces. There was a cutaway of an early jet engine, the cogs caked in thick grease, the entire thing spinning smoothly, fan blades slicing with gear-magnified ease.
Flight is an amazing thing, and I've certainly reaped the rewards - traveling the world in days, and checking satellite maps and weather for free. But I can't help but feel's there's defiance behind the entire enterprise, comparisons to Icarus and the Sun, etc.
Porter raced through the entire thing, pulling his arm out of the socket, screaming when forced to sit in the stroller, and out on the mall he was sweaty from the exertion.
We walked across the grass, the capitol just a few hundred yards away, but impossibly far for a toddler and a pregnant wife. Snapping a few attempted shots, I hailed a cab and we grabbed a Mexican dinner, my phone already starting to ding with desperate emails from beleaguered hospital administrators.
At a diner the next morning we decide to leave early, before the parade. Steph talks to a big bald cop for a long time (just trying to enjoy his coffee and donuts) about exit plans and traffic. Head north on 14th, cut over to 395, then merge on to 95 south, which will probably be a bit busy.
His predictions are accurate, and we cross the Potomac without issue, the wide wall of the Pentagon to our right.
There’s a bit of holiday traffic near Richmond, and we stop for a lunch at Panera Bread, making casual glances and unspoken internal pronouncements about all the other families out traveling for vacation.
Get into Virginia Beach around 3, and are unpacked in time (with hugs from Gram) to have a beach day. Porter is thrilled, and even gets his feet wet. We dig in the sand, and build a turtle.
They are dredging the sand up from offshore, and the normally calm and open residential beach is clogged with big pipes, construction vehicles, and double the tourists.
Anne shows up with her boyfriend for dinner (salad and burgers), and I drink a few beers, and then we all saunter down to the beach to watch a barrage of fireworks. Some from the official city show, others from the hotels, and still others from the rich vacationers, blowing hundreds of dollars on smuggled mortars from South Carolina. These snap and boom louder than the distant lights, and the crowd oos and aahs. Pyromaniacs - all.
July 5th is a full, perfect beach day.
All the clichés apply: forget to apply enough sunscreen to extremities, end up lobster pink by early afternoon. Lugging water and books and chairs down to the beach, leaving them down for lunch, then returning. Porter gets in the water, as his bravery grows, so do his demands. By the day's end, he wants me to carry him deep into the surf, and we jump the waves together, the foam smacking his little sunglasses.
Will shows up, correcting everyone on everything from the rules of tennis to building trends to recent national news. Steph and Anne debate abortion and homebirths. I scoot my chair over a bit to get some reading. Gram berates me for checking my phone too much.
I can't help wanting to get some peace and quiet from all these people after unending days. I've felt a bit of self-sacrifice lately and in turn self-pity, then growing selfishness. It's an ugly vicious cycle. It would probably just be better to assert what I want from the start, get it in moderation, then stick my head down for a long while afterwards.
The days blur into a routine of sun, sand, sunscreen, beers, ice water, bad television, meals. An uncomfortable bed. Diplomatically trying to maintain a sort of peaceful conversational tone with relatives. Answering work problems without getting 100% invested (emotionally, mentally, etc).
Brief recollections of the days, days later:
Friday July 5
Between work emails, did a beach day. Weather was perfect, water was rough yet fun. Built a sand castle with Porter. I tried not to get into a hardcore political debate with my uncle. Gram pesters in her own way, not letting people act with autonomy, wanting to control every detail.
Saturday July 6
Work boiled over, to a stressful point, driven by an enraged email by a head ER doctor at the client site. I get everything 3 levels down, forwarded from bosses and such, all the headers void of additional info or plans of action, merely letting me know that the client is pissed. I set up a call with the vendor to debug sessions during the afternoon, sitting at Gram's kitchen table, all the data traffic rammed through my phone's hotspot functionality, consuming gigabytes like Joey Chestnut at a hotdog stand. We run tests and try different configurations, but nothing is solved, and all the hours are basically me spending brain waves and avoiding UV rays on this time I've set aside for mindless respite.
In between there are some moments at the beach, and the dinner table, and in conversation with Will and Gram, and drinking luke-warm canned Yuenglings.
Dinner of spaghetti that I end up cooking since Gram is caught up in Saturday Mass and traffic. She's surprised / impressed that I can cook something so simple. Anne is so scatterbrained she can barely heat up a loaf of Italian bread. Will is nowhere to be found.
Sunday July 7
We hold off working, since the vendor wants a holiday weekend themselves, and sit out for a perfect beach day. All those pristine moments (which are tinged with stress for an active Dad) of suiting up Porter, slathering him in sunscreen, pulling on his swim diaper, swimsuit, sun shirt, sunglasses, big brimmed hat that makes him look like an Australian rancher. Outside in his beach shoes, and he grabs his bucket with 4 colored shovels.
We arrange chairs, and a half-assed umbrella to block out as much sun as possible, so Steph and I contort ourselves and our chairs so the maximum amount of skin is beneath shade, while Porter runs down to the very foamy edge of the surf, only to scurry back, a human doppelganger of those white ghost crabs, all giddy cowardice and beaming blonde smiles. I encourage him to fill his bucket with sea water, only to dump it into a trough gouged out with my heels in the sand, to build some sort of industrial infrastructure rendered in sandy miniature. Drip castles, tunnels, towers. Only to have the human Godzilla of Porter come to wreck it. And if not him, the encroaching unstoppable tides.
After dinner, we sit around and watch TV. First forgettable shows, then Will switches over to NASCAR. I ask open-minded questions and Will fires back with vitriol (you must not watch cars). I almost want to play the game, mock him passive-aggressively, all sarcasm and venom, but figure it's not really worth it. What do we have to fight over? What spoils would go to the victor? I have enough responsibilities to realize that competition is a young stag's game. I have no need, or desire for it.
And so he stews and watches his Nascar and goes to bed alone and the next day leaves without a word of goodbye. I doubt I'll see him again for a year.
Monday July 8
Work again. Emails, phone calls, attempting to lend rationality and the scientific method to a process and reality that is in essence chaotic. The problem is more the result of miscommunication, faulty human processes, than any human coding error or bug. A course of action is forming in my head that of how the whole thing will turn out - a workaround - just run the thing on another server. It's a weak solution, unkosher. But it will make the client happy, and above that layer of transparency - the managers - who don't understand and ignore anything technical - it's perfect. A one click fix.
We leave VA Beach around 3:30, packing up between emails, all the stress and hyper attentive iPhone usage it requires - same as when we left last Friday. The anti-vacation. Say goodbye to Anne and Gram. Hugs. Rough, loose smiles, almost grimaces, all the words unsaid, all the hopes for the future. Who knows when that last hug will really be the last hug, when the next year will truly change things, and this tradition that has lasted my life so far will finally end.
Drive into the ghetto of Norfolk, into an old diner where they make ice cream cones from scratch. Meet up with Kelly and her oil-rig slinging boyfriend. He wears a V-neck t-shirt and hipster shorts and speaks in a deep New York accent, but he's friendly enough, if quiet. We eat BBQ sandwiches wrapped in wax paper, a sour vinegar sauce, and afterwards super rich ice-cream on those famous cones. Jo and Jeff give us details on the ride down to the outer banks.
It's an easy enough drive. Lots of foreboding clouds. The rural farms and fruit stands give way to big bridges over stretches of water. Water birds and swamp grasses. Tolls. Then the tell-tale signs of a rich beach community - lots of big new houses and SUVs with fancy colleges on the bumper stickers and license plates.
Pool and drinks to finish the night, and bad TV.
The Outer Banks
Tuesday July 9
Work again, most of the day. Want to knock out this problem. Thankfully, have a good wireless connection. Decide to go with the workaround at the start of the day, and spend the rest of the time getting it approved by the higher ups and the client, setting up the details, constructing the emails rationalizing and white-washing the course of action. There are all these different parties that have different levels of information. The severity and my own lack of knowledge is on a sliding scale, depending on the level of influence of the party in question. So the quick witted Indian girl who is stuck in support in Austin knows all the nitty gritty details of Wireshark packet traces and my lack of Mirth experience, but Kyle and the client think I'm a sole superman.
Are these really the battles I want to fight? Weaving through all these layers of un-knowledge? These fires that need to be fought more so with emails than algorithms? There are so many moments when I was rent with rage. Rage for my boss, for the inefficient process, that the whole thing wasn't smooth and professional. The pieces that weren't my fault, and perhaps actually were my fault, since I didn't go the extra mile in all those boring prep meetings. If I sit silent since I think it’s not responsibility, but the problem festers, maybe it was my responsibility, since I was the only one who knew about it? Do I want to be that annoying guy who is always pessimistically bringing up bad stuff? Or be the guy who can level-headedly face those same problems?
I guess what I want to avoid is being the guy who gets called on his vacation...
Anyway, 6000 messages processed through the workaround, doctors reported being very very happy, I had a celebratory drink, watched the sunset with Porter from a restaurant pier, and sat and watched bad TV with Jeff and crew.
Wednesday July 10
Got up very early (perhaps woken up, the sounds of some bad TV still reverberating at 4:00 AM downstairs), and just laid awake till light started to filter through the windows.
Packed a water bottle, banana, and my cell phone in a plastic bag.
Then down to the raft I had inflated the night before, a sea kayak, all rubber and nylon mesh, along with a paddle. Hefted a few blocks down the road, the sun rising just beyond the houses and trees, a blooming of lacy clouds dispersing the yellow light.
The boat launch was simply a set of wooden stairs into the water. Wind whipped from the west, the sound a field of choppy brown water, the sky a faint pinkish blue, distant pastel clouds. Osprey nests on the remnants of pier pilings. All the private docks locked down tight, framed with sea grass and storm walls.
Spend the rest of the day neglecting email, but getting drawn into it to fire back responses. Fix a few problems purely through email. Swim with Porter in the morning.
Go down to the beach finally in the afternoon. The sun is free and brutally, torturously hot. Try to keep covered with a hat and towel and shirt, but can only read my Stephen King novel for 15-20 minutes at a time before I have to jog down to the ocean to jump in. The water is frighteningly frigid, like something out of winter, in another state. Mountain stream cold. All my limbs go numb, almost comfortably out of control, the loose nonchalant lack of movement of drunkenness. But when it hits my chest (diving under) it sucks out my breath and I feel a little closer to death. Thankfully, the sand bar is about ten feet offshore, so I can stand and let the waves approach with only my ankles wet. Hypothermia of the calves isn't that bad if you can swoosh back to the scorching sand and the thrill of the Dark Tower.
Jo works, Porter swims again, we eat Mexican, and I think about my life.
Thursday July 11
Got up early and jogged. Scared a deer out of the brush in the early morning, when the bugs were still buzzing and the air had that hint of dew, and the sun was not yet rageful. Got a good pace, passed some slow tourists, felt good in my strides. Makes me want to get back to running.
The blur of vacation life - eating, lounging at the pool, drinking beer, watching bad TV, making small talk.
Told Jo about my startup idea. Got annoyed at my boss for ditching out on vacation. Played a few video games.
John, Lori, Martin and his friend came over for dinner. Talked about video game dev.
Made it clear that it’s not about money, it’s about making something personal that you respect and getting it out there on the web for people to enjoy.
Friday July 10
The day opened in a hard rain. Plans of bike rides or last trips to the beach are scrapped. Give John a call in the morning, he has the plan to visit a lighthouse.
Wait till Jo gets up and then drive down the beach to John's house, where we meet his new puppy and munch on breakfast sausage. Then drive down to the Bodie Island lighthouse to walk around the grounds in between rainstorms.
The lighthouse is picturesque but dull, surrounded by grassy fields and wetlands. Point out the fish and crabs for Porter from a small boardwalk elevated above the marshy water.
Kill time till dinner, where we get one last seafood meal in a shack. Drive down the coast as Jeff shows us various buildings that have significance in his memory: the first beach house he stayed at, or he spied a topless woman on her balcony. Most of them changed by hurricanes or the real estate market.
Sit up with Jeff and Jo for a small chat as Fox News drones, then it off to bed - sober, only slightly tired, and ready for the next adventure.
Some sort of Home
Drive all day until we are home. A model of efficiency, only two stops, totaling under an hour. Porter binges on Baby Einstein. Steph sleeps. I listen to a few CDs, but mostly manage the levers of cruise control, turn signal, windshield wipers.
I think vaguely about goals I want to accomplish, things I want to work on, to focus my energy on now that I’ve blown my travel budget. But mostly I’m just bored and hungry.
It's been a good trip all up and down the East Coast, across America. But I feel less sure of the country then when I left it. The so-called glories of our past rendered ugly, chaotic, crumbling. And our future just the same.
In the end, there are just people, living their lives, working through their fears, seeking out a warm spot in the sun.