Monday, December 31, 2007

How About a Fresca?

As we all know, it was Judge Smales who said, “Danny, there’s a lot of baaaadness in this world. I see it in my courtroom every day.”

It’s hard to disagree with my philosopher king and avatar, but I must. Being a good-natured soul, however na├»ve, I happen to think day-to-day life for most people is pretty good, despite the media and social focus on the inexorable crush of Everything. And that's why I'll follow lockstep the federal law requiring on the last day of the year that shallow, self-absorbed blawg-meisters address the hard realities of 2007 and look ahead with hope and promise to the phantasms of 2008.

2007: Oh, this is easy: It’s all about the prism of politics. And the kaleidoscope of 2007 was a mirror of 1995 with a refraction of light from 2000. Like the 104th Congress, in which I was a foot soldier, the 110th Congress was going change the world, doncha know. Man, 11 bruising months later, we get a dollar increase in the minimum wage, more loan money for sullen, underachieving college kids, a couple congressional ethics laws, and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys gets a Kennedy Center honor. So that takes care of that.

But whoa, wait a minute. On the actual serious side, 2007 was a year framed by Nellie's Real People Tour. In my capacity as an apparatchik Chart Boy for various Power Brokers, Movers and Shakers, and Major Players (see April 27th post), I traveled to one-fourth of the states in the Union, visited dozens and dozens of cities and communities of various means, and spoke, no kidding, with hundreds of people. It was a nice break from my life sentence in a windowless office in a monolithic office building serving as a faceless, soulless bureaucrat pushing paper and sending meaningless email. From my American odyssey, several observations, however unscientific:

1. Guess what -- your typical person outside a 30 mile radius of the Capitol follows in only a desultory fashion what goes on in Washington. They don't watch C-SPAN, they don't paw through the Federal Register, they don't follow hearings in the Subcommittee on Paperclips and Office Furniture, all of which is probably why to a person they......

2.Think Washington is a town generally inhabited by full of people who are rather callow and self-important (c'mon, no way!). Americans don't have an intense dislike of politicians and legions of serfs (like Nellie) who run the gears of this tow; rather, it's more a disappointment people feel, fed by the endless stories of the perceived chicanery here, the superficiality, the grasping, the tantrums, and rigidity that politics so easily slides into. By and large, Americans get things done, whether it’s a week's work or a home project or raising kids. Outside Washington, the perception is that Congress does not get things done. And when they do get done, it's last minute, half-hearted, and filled with acrimony. Perhaps that's democracy with a small d, but it certainly is discouraging.

3. All that noise you hear about immigrant nation? Well, it's true. This won't strike Washingtonians as unusual, where you can be anywhere in the city and hear people yammering away in some clipity foreign tongue, but from the heartland, the coast, the remote reaches of small towns and extant suburbs, this nation is packed with immigrants from improbable lands. An entire Eritrean cadre runs the cab services in Kansas City; there are Russians and Nigerians running corner stores in Lancaster, CA; Guatemalans cleaning streets in Naperville, IL; Pakistanis in strip malls in Henderson, NV; Vietnamese and Thai running gas stations in Houston; Afghans in Harrisburg; Iranians in St. Louis. I've lived in cities like Los Angeles, Washington, New York, and San Francisco, where you expect enclaves of ethnics. But this spread of immigrants across the land is as steady as it is vaguely disquieting.

4. Out There, you run into people who actually do things – they run a restaurant, they are a building contractor, they work in a dental office, they teach schoolchildren, they buy and sell real estate, they manage a store, they make payrolls, buy commodities in bulk, work spreadsheets, and lead people, 3 or 53. In DC, and goodness knows I’m as guilty of this as any drone, it’s paper and phone calls and computer screens, and meetings and seminars and speeches and more paper. Within the District of Columbia boundary lies the softest economy in the land; out in the real world, people actually have to produce and sell and buy goods and services with their hands and savvy.

5. Despite the horror and doom you hear from the MSM, most people are doing pretty darn well. You move through communities-- in all regions of the nation -- and you can tell that the vast majority of Americans work hard, have a demonstrated sense of selflessness, are committed to their families and involved in their communities. The word here is decency -- it's palpable wherever you go.

Hence, the lessons of 2007, learned on the road with eyes peeled, a Chart Boy with peripheral vision and no free hands, thank you.

So 2008? Easy. The tidal wave of a presidential campaign engulfs us already, there will be no respite, we will all suffer mightily and beg for mercy, and all five observations above will have new meaning. How to handle it all? Easy. To once again quote from my intellectual North Star, Judge Smales, how about a Fresca?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Another Nellie White House Christmas

"I saw Smales cheating on the 12th hole."
"Nobody likes a tattle tale, Danny. Except me."
-- Danny Noonan and Ty Webb, Bushwood Country Club

Washington, D.C. – Because I assume that modern society is informed and shaped by the ethos of "Caddyshack," I'll come clean, unlike Judge Smales, and admit this post was written exactly a year ago. Nothing changed this time around, except the envoleope wasn't in my chair. It was laying on my desk.

The envelope sat on my chair at work one morning. Inside was the invaluable payoff that only a shallow, self-obsessed functionary like me could appreciate: an invitation to the White House Holiday Open House! Sure, maybe I am a washed up Santa Monica surfer, a bane of my liberal parents’ existence, a nothing burger in a town full of Big Macs. But, forget that all, man – Nellie was getting on the Beautiful People train and the first and last stop was 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Always one to stay grounded, I immediately began imagining the event – the twins, Jenna and Barbara twins would be there, winking at me. Karl Rove would want to know what I thought about Social Security privatization, I could swap Harley stories with that St. Albans Angel, Josh Bolton. Maybe even Laura Bush would be open to my irrepressible rap. Sure I’m middle-aged, plain, devious, and overbearing. But I sparkle inside. Or at least that’s what people have told me. People, I note haughtily, who were distinctly not going to the White House for some good old fashioned holiday open housing.
So on a balmy late afternoon earlier this week, I hustled on over to yes, “The White House!” as I said loudly to the taxi driver as I climbed in, so that all my equally faceless peers on the street corner could hear me. I was driven to the special entrance on 15th street that is open to the public, and soon was in front of a Secret Service guy with a transistor stuck in his ear. “You’re on the list,” he said causally. You got that right, brother, I thought, rubbing my palms together with glee. “I am indeed on the list,” I smirkingly said to myself, audible to anyone within earshot of twenty feet.
I passed through security easily with about 150 of the Prez’s best pals and soon was walking through the ground floor corridor in the East Wing. A stickler for details, the first thing I notice gazing out the windows to the south toward the Washington monument is couple of weeds growing through a nearby brick path. Well. There are no brick walkways at Nellie Manor but if there were, you can be dang sure there’d be no weeds in them. No wonder the country’s going to hell.
Then, some beaming elderly woman handed me a booklet, “Deck the Halls, Welcome All” – my first takeaway from the White House! Just in time too, folks, because now I didn’t have to accidentally “borrow” a pen or some other piece of bric-a-brac lying around to take home as a souvenir. I soon learned there would be no worry about that -- I wouldn’t get close enough to anything smaller than a chair or looser than a door.
Down an ornate corridor I saunter in a packed herd of well-wishers, flanked by huge red plants with red Christmas tree balls glued to them. Then it’s another corridor, then another -- I’m beginning to think this is just like the monotonous office building in which I toil, except for the inlaid marble floors, mahogany wainscoting, crystal chandeliers, tasteful throw rugs, and 20-foot ceilings.
At intervals, we are allowed to look in on several rooms. One was the “Library” so named because the sign out in front said it had 20,000 books in it, all about American life. Standing on my toes, peering through this narrow doorway, I could see about ten of them. There was also a fireplace and a few chairs. Hmm, I thought, this is where I’d probably hang out if I was the Commander-in-Chief.
Across from it was the “Vermeil Room”, where I saw a wood floor, a couple more chairs, and another fireplace. Before I had a chance to see what a “Vermeil” actually was -- a person or a certain kind of floor polish they used in there -- I was gently pushed out of the way by some nondescript guy and his matronly wife. I mumbled to myself like a crazy person -- “Well, I never….in the White House no less….there were no buttinskis during the Reagan administration…” Soon the sea of humanity ebbed on and flowed down another corridor.
Here was the East Room which they actually allowed us into. 35-foot ceilings and dimensions of oh, about 67 feet by 224 feet. Again, a fireplace, a couple stuffed chairs, and a long table. The Deck the Halls program told me that this is where the nieces of President Jackson went haywire one Christmas eve and “waged a tremendous cotton snow ball fight inside this room.” Well, good to know that kids didn’t have manners then, either.
Nice room, yes, but while all these crowds of obvious nobodies were milling around taking pictures, I still held onto my dreams. I gripped my program tightly and fingered the pen in my breast pocket, knowing that it would be only a matter of time before I’d have to whip it out fast when if I wanted to get an autograph from the twins or someone else important.
Then yet another hallway, ornate as the dozens of hallways I'd already been in -- red balls plastered, pine needle garlands, and some portraits. There’s Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon, all with the men standing against backdrops of books and fireplaces and drapes. Off in a corner is an odd one, a painting of a brooding JFK, his has head down, his hands in his pockets, the colors light brown and grey and black, with a background representing a kind of mist.
Hey, what’s this?! A portrait of Hillary Rodham! She’s standing next to a table and what is here right hand gently grazing? Why it’s a drawing of a book – “It Takes Village”! You old rascal, Hil, I chuckle to myself. Subtly flacking a book in the East Wing about those marvelous towns in Africa that function like clockwork, except when people aren’t dying of malaria, starvation, thirst, or marauding Muslims. C’mon HRC, it takes a Special Prosecutor in that village.
Stopped before a huge portrait of either Dolly Madison or Eartha Kitt, I continue to note the crowds of ordinary looking folks milling. Jeez, the riff raff they let in the People's House.
Oh, here’s the “Green Room” – emerald city. Jefferson used to play his violin here I’m told by the booklet. How neat. I can’t seem to hear the echoes even now. Next the “Blue Room.” So named because you know why. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in this room with a “shaky hand” we’re told. Well, that settles that.
Next, the “Red Room.” My eyes are reeling. Something famous happened in here but I was too distracted by the trying to find somebody, anybody, to sign my dang program. And I was getting hungry. Good, because the next stop was the State Dining Room. Aha, I thought, this is where I can put on the nosebag, get a few of those delicious little wieners on toothpicks with the tangy mustard dip, and wash it down with some punch and maybe sneak the plastic glass into my pocket.
Well, folks, I want to tell you there is no chow line in the State Dining Room. Just another long table and a couple of secret service agents staring at me, making me paranoid, like I'm going to steal something. Which is true – I’d tried to twist off some pine needles from a garland and only got sticky fingers. I kept moving and presto, I was suddenly in the Grand Foyer and being hustled down a cascade of steps that lead down to the driveway and out to Pennsylvania Avenue.
I pause for moment on the ordinary asphalt driveway and wonder if this has all been a dream. The booklet tells me I’ve “now become part of the White House holiday history.” What? No twins, no First Lady, no souvenir pen or coffee mug, no tiny hot dogs, no Rove sighting, and now I’m standing on a plain asphalt driveway like the one I have at home. Still, I do have my booklet, and it sticks to my pine-tarred fingers as I walk proudly out the White House gates.