27 September 2014

My new reality - catching up on the world of reading

I've been back to work for two full weeks now. It is amazing how good it feels to be busy all day. The second day of getting up at 6:30 in the morning I thought "oh god no". But then I reminded myself how billions of other people have to get up every morning as well. I was just part of that club again. Believe it or not, that actually worked. The other thing that propels me out of bed in the morning is looking forward to my 30 minutes of audio book listening on my commute.

Audio Books
Yes, after all your suggestions, I did indeed download an audio book for my commute. Most of you know I don't think that audio book listening is reading and I have had a bit of an attitude about them as a result. But, I must say I love listening and it really makes the time fly. It even keeps me calmer in traffic. A few things have made it work for me. One, I chose a book I have already read, Nevil Shute's In the Wet. I have been wanting to reread it for some time now. This gives me the perfect opportunity to visit the story again. Two, I chose a book with a really straightforward narrative. My mind wanders too easily. I need something that keeps moving forward. Three, the audio book app has a feature where with one tap you can go back 30 seconds. This has proven very helpful when I tune out momentarily to switch lanes or something similarly captivating.

I can't believe how much I love audio books. What a revelation.

Revisiting a corny, elitist, and utter delightful dystopian screed
As I mentioned, the book I am listening to is Nevil Shute's In the Wet. As a piece of literature it is so problematic and certainly not Shute's tightest work. When the exact same information gets repeated about 20 minutes after the first time you hear it, you know there was a sleeping editor somewhere. Then again it was the 1950s, maybe he was drunk after a long Mad Men style lunch.

Shute, unhappy with the direction the UK was headed after WWII emigrated to Australia. And this book is his 'Fuck You' to dear old England. The novel centers around an opium-induced hallucinogenic flash to the future of the 1980s. Shute imagines an England where the socialist governments have turned everything the country into a sad, joyless, drab, corrupt, shameful, decaying mess. A million people a year emigrating to other parts of the Commonwealth. Rationing (forty years after the war) so bad that people haven't seen pineapples or hams for years. And the Royal family more or less gets run out of town, at least temporarily. On the other hand, Australia is everything England isn't. Prosperous and plenteous and run by fine men--not the idiotic, illiterate union bosses running and ruining England.

Oh, and toss in the repeated, casual use of one of the most reprehensible words in the English language and you have yourself a book. Shute was clearly a racist, but not in the KKK kind of way, but in the highly paternalistic, everyone know your place, isn't he articulate, kind of way. We could discuss how much difference there truly is between these two types, but I will defend Shute a tiny bit on this aspect of his character. At least against the virulent and violent types.

Anyhoo, one of the things I had forgotten about was how Shute imagines a voting system that was adopted in in Australia in the 1960s where one person can have up to seven votes in electing the government. The ways one can obtain those seven votes really sums up Shute's elitist outlook. I may have the exact order slightly wrong...

First vote: Everyone 21 or older gets at least one vote

Second vote: Education. A college degree or becoming a commissioned officer in the military gets you a second vote.

Third vote: Foreign travel. Making your living for two years abroad gives you another vote. Many who fought in WWII got this one.

Fourth vote: Family. Raising two children to the age of 14 without divorcing gets you a fourth vote. I guess after 14 divorce isn't traumatic or disruptive. And what about single people? Nope.

Fifth vote: Achievement. This translates to money. If you make at least 5,000 pounds a year you get another vote.

Sixth vote: Religion. For religious officials, vicars, or anyone who does a "real" job for a "Christian" church.

Seventh vote: Given purely at the pleasure of the monarch.

Can. You. IMAGINE. such a system? Would it be better or worse than the unelected oligarchs who currently buy our politicians?

At any rate I am only about a third of the way through the book. The narrator is quite slow and just about as corny as Shute's writing. But still quite enjoyable. Listening to the book I was reminded of how I skimmed the beginning of the book when I read it. It really just sets up a vehicle for the hallucination, but it takes Shute so long to do it. After not skimming through this part in the audio version, I can guarantee you that you could easily skip it and get to the interesting bits and not miss a thing.

And I haven't even gotten to the part where our protagonist flies HM and the Duke from one Commonwealth country to another when it is deemed too dangerous for them to stay in the UK. That part of the story dovetails nicely with Shute's fascination for aeroplanes and engineering in general. How can you not love a book that uses the word aerodrome?

I played a bit of the book for John and he, who already had a dubious opinion of much of my reading material, was a bit nonplussed at how ridiculous and mundane it is. I guess he just didn't really get the significance of the pineapple scene. And I get John's criticisms. But I still love this book. A fascinating story but so ridiculous in so many ways and I love it. I want to make it into a film. Most of you would hate this book. But some of you would love it.

I can't wait for my Monday commute so I can continue the story.

Books at lunch
We've had some nice weather so I didn't fully grasp that my new work situation doesn't really offer much in the way of locations for lunch time reading. Hmm. But then I noticed that I am only about five blocks from the central library for Arlington County. Cool. A sandwich at my desk, a seven-minute walk, and then 45 minutes at the library. Could be a whole lot worse.

Catching up
Having a job that is writing intensive makes blogging, and social media, and reading blogs, and replying to email, and just about everything else that's not TV a little more difficult to get to. No doubt I will find a pattern. And hopefully sometime soon I will have a chance to recap what I have been reading (and not listening to) lately.

21 September 2014

My new reality - shaking off the doom

I've been a little shy about writing about my period of "not working" on My Porch and Facebook for a whole host of reasons. First, I didn't want to get the stench of failure all over me. Employers can smell that. Friends start to feel pity. Small children stop and point before they burst into tears. Second, well, there really isn't a second. It really just boils down to the fact that I didn't want to become that guy. You know, the one who can't get a job.  I was also very aware that I am very lucky to have a partner whose hard work can carry us both if necessary. I truly don't know how the long-term unemployed survive. Any complaints I might have made would've seemed whiny at best. Let me repeat this point. I was EXTREMELY lucky to not be unemployed and destitute. I am thankful for that every day. But that doesn't mean long-term unemployment doesn't suck.

Without going into some long explanation of how my fields of expertise (urban planning and historic preservation) are fairly narrow, and how federal austerity has impacted employment in the DC area, and how it is almost impossible to get an employer to give you the time of day when you are over qualified, let me just say there came a tipping point where being unemployed really started to get me down. That moment when wide stretches of day that held so much promise started to turn into something out of a Brookner novel where the protagonists just seem to be biding their time until, well, in the case of Brookner they all seem to be waiting to die--that certainly wasn't me, but there were days when I just wanted the work day to be over so John would come home and we could have a routine evening like we did when I was working.

In the early days there were lots of house guests, and travel. The first couple of months just sailed by. Then there was so much to do for our house project, packing up the house, moving, designs, contracts, meetings, financing, etc. And the holidays, then they rolled around. Then the house project really got into full swing and we were in our rental apartment.

Then a long planned vacation then, then, then, it started to get dicey.

One of the big issues round about this time was that the apartment building we are staying in had about four major renovation projects going on at once. It is a huge building and these projects involved jackhammer noises that I could literally feel in my internal organs. Just as one project would begin to wrap up they would start another one with slightly diminished noise but still enough that it was unbearable. The kind of unbearable where you feel like, and sometimes do, scream at the unseeable noise making machines to shut the hell up. I used to plan my day so that I would be home from 11:30 to noon because that was when the workers took their lunch break. It was the only time of the day I could even make a phone call.

Layer on top of that a job search that seemed to be going nowhere. The one-year anniversary of being out of a job. Linked-in notices about how everyone else I knew was celebrating work anniversaries and new jobs, and promotions. A "network" that wasn't particularly helpful--despite all the good networking karma I have put out over the decades--I have never not helped someone with their networking requests. I even actually found a job for someone once. The realization that changing careers in your 40s isn't as cute as doing it in your 30s. The direct and indirect comments from some in my personal life about my lack of job. The realization that my lack of paycheck was negatively impacting our house project and our retirement outlook. A spouse who never once complained about my work status but who works so hard himself that it was hard not to feel guilty.

When I was able to tamp down all of the guilt and anxiety I certainly did have many moments of pleasure. Who wouldn't want to spend all day with Lucy? And we had such a wonderful summer here in DC that most days would find us sitting in the park for hours while I read and Lucy watched bunnies.

I didn't blog very much while I wasn't working. You would think I would have gone gangbusters. But an odd sort of paralysis set in that made a lot of formerly pleasurable things seem like insurmountable chores.

I got to the point when every post on Facebook or Twitter about people hating their jobs, or their co-workers, or the time they had to get up every morning, made me want to chime in with comments about gratitude for what they had that I didn't have. But I really didn't want to be that guy.

And then, in a blink it was all over. Realizing that I was going to have to come up with some new search terms if I was ever going to find a job, I plugged in "writing" into a job search engine. And up popped a job for which I was totally qualified. And with a company that had been working on the St. Es project for as long as I had and whose owner I knew on a first name basis. Instead of the never ending, byzantine, federal job search process where agencies regularly take three to six months just to call you for an interview, within a week I knew I had a job. And another week later I was sitting at my new desk.

Part of me thought I should take two weeks before starting back in. But that thought lasted for about five seconds. If I hadn't finished something in 15 months, it was never going to get finished. So now I have a cube, and a computer, and a company mug. And I couldn't be happier. No doubt the shine will wear off at some point. But when it does I will remind myself of the pitfalls of my extended vacation, wrap myself in my paystubs, and go back to work.

Do an image search on "unemployed" so many things to choose from. It was hard to narrow it down to just four images.


20 September 2014

My new reality - not reading on trains

On my first day back to work week a really terrible thing happened. I was sitting on Metro all happy to be hunkered down with a good book, when suddenly, without any warning whatsoever, I got nauseated from the motion of the train. I know, with that build up you were expecting something way worse. But really, for a reader facing a half an hour on an underground train, this ranks up there.

Even worse, on the way home that first day, after trying and failing again to read on the train, I got to Metro Center to transfer to the Red Line only to be faced with a really crowded platform due to delayed trains. I fought my way to the end of the platform to find relief only to find no relief. And the people kept coming and coming. After waiting about five minutes and looking at my watch I began to wonder if I would make it to Lucy's doggy daycare before the 7:00 pm cut off time. I only had about 40 minutes. The nearest train was still 10 minutes away but there was no way I was going to be able to squeeze onto that one, the next one was 24 minutes away, then the journey time and walk to Happy Paws. I would never make it on time. So I went up to the street (ah, fresh air) and walked about 10 blocks to get as far out of the vehicle congestion as possible before I hailed a cab.

Through this process I began to think the unthinkable: what if I drove to work instead? I haven't car commuted in over 14 years. Even when my schedule is compatible with John's I prefer not join him on his car commute. I take Metro so I can read.

Until now.

I was truly looking forward to about 40 minutes of reading each way. And traffic in and out of DC can be truly horrific. And what can be less green than a car with a single occupant? Still, I wasn't happy with the idea of all that travel time (plus at least another 40 minutes each way in walking time to drop Lucy off, walk to Metro, walk to work and then reverse it all at the end of the day. An hour and twenty minutes each way. Two hours and forty minutes out my day with nothing but the possibility of audio books and podcasts (and who listens to podcasts?).

Could this be me? No. He is clearly on a motorway and driving on the left. Plus my commute is never really slow enough to encourage this kind of dangerous behavior.
So when I got home that night I took a good look at Google maps wondering how painful a car commute might be. Turns out, not so painful after all. I found a route to my job that is, dare I say, almost pleasant. It stays well north of the city center, it keeps me off all freeways or even highways, it is a reverse commute so all the rush hour traffic is going the other direction, and the blinding morning and evening the sun is at my back. There is even a moment on Chain Bridge where I can look down at one of the more scenic and rocky stretches of the Potomac. 

My drive averaged from 25 to 35 minutes each way. And the nature of the commute doesn't induce the normal commuting stress. I may indeed have to download an audiobook or two, but so far I have been content with loudish classical music and the occasional dip into the news.

The bottom line is, no matter how pleasant my commute, it means I won't be getting the extra reading time I predicted. At least I still have my lunch hour. Time to be anti-social.

Could this be me? No. I don't have to wear a suit or tie, I don't drink coffee, and my iPhone stays in my messenger bag while I drive.

07 September 2014

My slow reading year?


About ten years ago there was a book published in which the author decided to read 52 books in one year. I remember at the time thinking "That's nothing, I read more than 52 books in a year." Then I went to my 'books read' list and realized that the most I had ever read in one year was 37. So beginning in 2004, I decided I would shoot for reading at least 52 books a year. It wasn't too difficult to achieve that year and to continue to achieve over the years.

Just as my perception in 2004 that I read way more than 52 books a year was grossly incorrect, my current perception that I am one of those people who reads at least 100 books a year is somewhat faulty as well. I just crunched the numbers and it turns out that I have only broken 100 books for the year twice. Once in 2009 and again last year in 2013.

I guess I think a lot of myself.

When I first started this post this morning I was intent on writing about how it had been a slow reading year for me having just finished my 51st book for the year. Shouldn't that milestone been passed sometime back in July? But after crunching the numbers and comparing to previous years, my total so far for 2014 really isn't too bad. Over 18 years I have broken 50 ten times. But in only five of those years have I broken 65--and I will easily get to 65 this year.

Here is what my reading totals look like since 1995, the first full year after I began keeping a reading log.

I have a new job now that will have me commuting again on Metro so my reading output is likely to improve as a result. I could drive to my new job, but who needs that hassle, especially when the alternative is to be reading?

So I guess 2014 won't end up being such a bad year after all.