Sunday, May 23, 2010

The perils of travel to the South and back

I spent the last week in Atlanta and rural Georgia. As I child, I spent tons of time in Atlanta, because I lived there, but also in other parts of Georgia: Savannah, Augusta, the Okeefenokee Swamp, Sea Island, Gainesville, Jekyll Island, Dahlonega, Macon, Cleveland, Helen, and others. These are all places that aren’t widely known to the people in my current social circles, but would easily qualify as small town in rural Georgia. But to me these were childhood destinations, worthy of long car rides traversing the largest state east of the Mississippi (Do you remember the Trivial Pursuit Question? The answer was Waycross. “What is the name of the largest city in the largest county in the largest state east of the Mississippi River?). We spent hours on those pine-packed throughways linking Atlanta to our weekend destinations, often my dad’s medical meetings, keeping track of the license plates that we passed, because nothing else could be spotted outside the car windows: an occasional church, lots of forests and swampland, and some mountains. I was always so proud of my home state, with its capital city – my home – shared by the Braves and the Falcons and the Hawks and the Chiefs and the Flames (before Calgary stole them away), Underground Atlanta’s cool penny arcades, the High Museum, the multi-level world of Sid and Marty Kroft indoor amusement park, the massive Hartsfield Airport, WTBS, and more malls than I had seen in any other city, with Lenox Square as a regular weekend and evening destination. I read book after book about the history of Savannah and Atlanta, and was filled with sorrow that Atlanta had been destroyed by those damn Yankees, but felt it had been rebuilt as one of the best cities ever.

And now I go to Georgia and see a state stuck in the past or growing out of control in almost every way. Atlanta is too large to manage, and not in a good way like New York City. The street network, perhaps the worst in the US, was never built to handle the level of traffic that now clogs every roadway. The city’s suburbs have sprawled far beyond any lack of natural boundary that might have been suggested. But some interesting things have happened. Whole neighborhoods that were once white are now Black and the reverse is also true. Many of the more cosmopolitan neighborhoods in the urban core are fairly diverse, more than they were when I was a kid, and feel welcoming to everyone. Even some more progressive politics are spreading out into formerly exclusively conservative bastions.

On this trip to Georgia, I ventured into an area known as the Heart of Georgia, unfortunately abbreviated HOG. I picked up a coworker at the now awkwardly named Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta airport and we zipped south to Macon (pronounced like bacon) in the middle of the state, arriving around 10:00 PM. Macon isn’t an especially glamorous locale, and my most recent memories of Macon included a stop at a Zaxby’s with my salmonella-poisoned friend Mike and not-poisoned friend Viet. Prior to that, my friend Anita and I had stopped to explore the Indian mounds, albeit on a 99-degree and 99% humidity sort of day, making exploration more of an endurance competition than an archaeological expedition.

On this trip, my coworker, Alice, and I stayed at the hotel, a Homewood Suites on the north side of town, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. But it wasn’t until the next morning that we really headed to the middle of nowhere. We drove south from Bibb County and make it to Bleckley County, and further south to Dodge County, arriving in the City of Eastman – a very small town, but one large enough to have a Piggly Wiggly and two motels… and a nice airport. And that’s where we went: straight to the airport. Not to get out of Dodge on a plane, but to conduct a workshop with a wide array of human service agencies and county administrators to talk about transportation. The guests were friendly and participated fully in the workshop, and they were also very Southern. When I say Southern in this context, it’s (1) an observation, (2) a commentary on what I expect of them, and (3) a genuine appreciation for the friendliness of the people. Nowhere can I go in California and hear women whose first names are Sue Ann, Anabella, or Beatrice referred to by young men and old women alike as Miss Sue Ann, Miss Anabella, and Miss Beatrice. But they most certainly do that in the rural south. Hair salons in rural California cut women’s hair short or long, but in this community where hair salons clearly outnumber restaurants, the women sported hair I can only describe as fluffed, rounded, and frosted. And at my meetings in other communities –in just about any other state – the food brought in for lunch is usually sandwiches and salads; here lunch was a large tinfoil tray of finely chopped smoked pork, a couple of tins of a mustardy Carolina-style barbecue sauce, a large tinfoil tray of Brunswick Stew (one of my favorite dishes from Georgia, but not something I find on menus in San Francisco), a large tinfoil tray of creamy potato salad, and several plastic-wrapped loaves of white bread. And plenty of sweetened iced tea. Always have to have the iced tea. I was really glad my kosheresque vegetarian coworker Richard was not there, or Linda, who only really eats crunchy things and hates anything mushy or creamy. Had they been there, I would have had to explain their awkward reactions and make excuses for their not eating this food at a meeting. But Alice and I, both being from the South, were able to play the southern card. I even heard my accent get more and more southern the longer I stayed and talked to people. And it wasn’t really fake or forced. That’s what’s so weird. It just was what it was.

After our workshop ended and the participants had left the airport, a young man came in to introduce himself. He’d heard “outsiders” from Massachusetts and California were in the building and wanted to meet us because he really liked talking with “normal people,” though I was starting to wonder if I was less normal than everyone else around me. He was charming and friendly and suggested the best restaurant in town for us to have dinner. He came running back 15 minutes later to talk to us about restaurants in New England and to tell us about a recent visitor from New York. We thanked him for his dinner recommendation and headed to it an hour later, only to learn the finest restaurant in Eastman is actually only open on Friday nights. Feeling despondent, I went to Google maps for other restaurant options. After the five fast food joints that showed up failed to entice me, I clicked on the other barbecue place in town (the one that didn’t cater lunch) and read the sole review (one star: “This place used to be good, but now their food is all greasy and nasty…”) and Alice and I found ourselves in a near panic that we wouldn’t get to eat. Would we have to go do Captain D’s or Dairy Queen? On a phone call, Alice had her mother Googling other dining options, and she came up with ”Chik King,” reading us the very positive review over the phone. “The best fried chicken around” was enough to tempt us, and so we ordered at the counter and waited for our Styrofoam plates of fried chicken, fries, onion rings, coleslaw, and my lemonade, to which I added a few tablespoons of cherry syrup. I don’t really know why I did that but figured I’d already eaten a not-so-healthy selection of foods in the last day, so a little cherry syrup might be just what I needed.

The next morning, we packed it up, did a little bit of fieldwork and had some informal meetings with a few of the people who attended the workshop and drove back to Macon. Outside of Macon, we stopped at a truck stop and I bought a Styrofoam container I filled with boiled peanuts – salty and porky – to snack on as we headed north to Atlanta. Overwhelmed by the salt, I ate one of the fresh Georgia peaches I’d bought the day before and felt a certain pride that my home state produced delicious peaches.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Looking for a career

I’ve been trying to figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life. I can certainly carry on writing reports about buses going up and down streets and making turns. I can write more reports about bringing large items and mobility aids and strollers on buses and trains. I can write even more reports about land use planning and long range community development plans. And I can write copy for public involvement pieces and marketing efforts for transit agencies. But could there be more?

I meet people who tell me about the jobs they have. They work as attorneys, which is appealing because they make buttloads of money, but reciting legal text and crafting tenuous arguments based on legal precedents isn’t exactly what I would consider one of those things that gets me excited. I do that every day anyway and I don’t have to memorize the documents that I reference. I talk to my friend who is a Director of Service Planning at a major US airline, but most of what he does is make decisions about where planes go based on gobs and gobs of data – pretty much what I do for buses – and if I’m not eager to continue planning, then that seems like the wrong direction for me. He has great benefits – flights around the world for free whenever he wants to go, but I fly all over the place too. I look at my sister’s career, at a major consumer products company that produces all kinds of crap that you really don’t need to buy, but that advertisers make you think you need, and so you buy new things to spray or to reduce the fat levels in your body or to wipe your ass. She creates diapers that parents will want to buy. Her job sounds interesting, but working for a multinational corporation, nothing happens very fast and her decisions must percolate up and down before they ever get carried to the next step.

I look at my friend who works for a major animation studio. She’s always excited about the ultimate product: the films the studio produces. But the day-to-day grind involves managing people and managing data backups and doing lots of things that are way behind the scenes, keeping her far from the cute characters that grace the studio’s screen.

I used to always want to work for a chamber of commerce or convention and business bureau promoting a community I liked. And the person I know who does exactly this is responsible for getting major employers to lay off their employees in California and move to Texas to hire the locals. He can tout cheap labor and a low cost of living. If I were to work for the San Francisco chamber, I would have to promote high costs of living, a business-unfriendly climate, and don’t think I would be too successful at luring businesses based in places like Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Utah and Arizona. And then, I confess, I don’t know if I really would want lots of people from those states to move to San Francisco, so I would most certainly be a failure in that job.

My father and my friends who are doctors have too much non-doctoring to do to make their jobs what they want them to be. They seem to like working with people and trying to help ill people find solutions to make their lives better. But the part of my job that I hate the most – billing and dealing with invoicing my clients – that’s what they have to do for every patient they see, and with the US government’s screwy Medicaid reimbursements (or lack thereof), that’s what just drove my primary care doctor to bankruptcy. And nurses always seem to be great people: helpful and considerate and knowledgeable. But dealing with patients’ shit and doctors’ shit makes that seem like a job not worth pursuing.

The authors and writers I know seem a little overwhelmed and depressed all the time. I write all the time myself, and I get fed up with it from time to time, but I have lots of different outlets: I can make presentations and create graphic images and boss people around. But writers write, and writing all the time can be a lonely job. I don’t want a lonely job.

Educators generally seem happy with their jobs, but state cutbacks and dismal work environments make teaching less and less appealing. My spouse and friends in the world of education appreciate their long summers and shorter workdays, but also have to put up with archaic computer systems and dreary schools, along with more and more children who come from terrible homes. And educators don’t get paid enough for what they do.

And so I’ve written off most of the careers of the people I know. I neglected to mention pilots and water quality regulators and environmental policy enforcement specialists. I didn’t mention real estate developers or IT project managers. I know people with all of these jobs too, but they’re not for me. I’m too hasty to take after my friends who are architects or landscape architects or engineers.

And so I look again at the multitude of different things that I do, and the incredible flexibility I have and the ridiculous number of frequent flyer miles I accrue and wonder what else should I be doing. I speak at conferences, I write reports that are published, I help seniors and people with disabilities get to their doctor, I create logos, I write advertising copy, I design things, I calculate things, I lead focus groups, listening to regular people and making recommendations based on what I hear.

If you have any suggestions for my next career, please let me know. And if you have expertise in bakeries, delicatessens, acting, art, or retirement before age 45, please let me know.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Yard work

Completion of a garden. When our house was nearing the completion stage, I was getting excited about planting the yard. In my mind, I saw a beautiful yard filled with lush flowers in yellow and blue, every herb imaginable, flowering fruit trees cascading on the slope from above. I sketched a five minute plan and showed it to Brad and gesticulated that there would be trees and flowers and birds and fruit and tall grasses. And he looked at me and told me it would be a “granny garden.”

What’s wrong with a granny garden? Perfectly pruned plantings of primrose? Healthy hostas? Giant geraniums with juniper. Calla lilies and birds of paradise, all to be planted in clumps on a slope so all of the neighbors could marvel as I do my daily watering and weeding. I would wear a Kentucky Derby hat and a pair of flowered gloves while I snip away – delicate and precise – the suckers and awkward branches. The hummingbirds would flutter above me sipping the nectar from the hibiscus, and I would gather a few petunias to place in a small teal vase on the dining room table. I would make regular trips to the garden store and hire a group of day laborers to help me with the heavy lifting, but knowing most of what I was doing was organically designed and free-flowing and thoroughly manageable.

That was my odd little vision. But it was shot to pieces and instead my wallet was pulled from my pocket to create a different type of dream garden. Instead of the makeshift berms and patched together plants that would intrigue me at the nursery, a very intelligent landscape architect was summoned to draw up a plan that would thoroughly respect the slope of the yard, the modern design of the house, and the geometry of an urban garden. Instead of a mix of “fancy” in yellow and pink and white and purple and blue, a palette of bright greens and vibrant purples paired with grey-greens and grey-mauves, was drafted in a design of rusting steel earthworks, carefully placed stones and groundcover, and lighting and a watering system to nurture it. Instead of granny’s whimsy, our garden was to be a lush architectural showpiece to be enjoyed from above, within and below.

The steel was fabricated, the watering system put in, the driveway concreted, the slopes protected with headers, the walkways clad in black slate, and impressive pieces of granite and blue stone were set perfectly to create a path through euphorbia and leucadendron. Lighting was installed. The result: a garden that even granny would love, but granny wouldn’t have to prune it.

The neighbors like it too. It took a year to remodel the house, and only a few neighbors stopped by to peak in or ask what we were doing. It took only a couple of months to complete the yard and garden, and nearly everyone in the neighborhood has stopped by to compliment us and, to my delight, to point to our neighbors’ house and say, “You need to tell them to do something about their ugly yard.”

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