One of the keys to a happy, fulfilling life seems to be to recognize claustrophobia when it sets in and then to take the time to seek out the contours of that too-close-for-comfort feeling.
Perhaps this key gets minimized in places that are not DC, but here — here sometimes things get so monolithic that it becomes important to remember that it’s not you, but them who are crazy. And they are most certainly crazy.
That’s the thing about an inherently temporary town. We’re all here to suck the marrow, to learn and grow until we’re ready to leave. All that crazy begs analysis, demands that you try to understand what’s up.
Because the alternative is to internalize it, to give up on rules and boundaries and ride the wave “just for a little while,” until one day you look in the mirror and wonder: How the hell did I get to this?
All that is to say: Today I stumbled fortuitously on a short JD Salinger bio and was touched, as always, by how rendering Salinger’s stuff is. Catcher in the Rye is a good book, but Salinger’s soul shines through his shorter stories. You read them and can feel how tormented he is, grasping at straws and conflicted by the taint he associates with success.
He was claustrophobic. Salinger felt that ego tainted everything, that publishing his thoughts was a sort of symptom of phoniness. Read here from Franny and Zooey:
You take a look around your college campus, and the world, and politics, and one season of summer stock, and you listen to the conversation of a bunch of nitwit college students, and you decide that everything’s ego, ego, ego, and the only intelligent thing for a girl to do is to lie around and shave her head and say the Jesus prayer and beg God for little mystical experience that’ll maker her nice and happy.
That serendipitous article ended with the idea that “for a performer to remain true to his art, he can never perform.”
One of the first and most durable lessons DC has to offer is that narcissism — performance — gets rewarded. The rabid self-promotion that runs this town is at once abhorrent and fascinating. This is a transient town, after all; our grandmothers aren’t here to do our boasting for us.
“Nasty little egos.” It’s obvious that Salinger was claustrophobic in his own ego. Is it safe, though, to spend your professional life trying to escape the narcissistic pull entirely? It’s a bit like a dog running away from his own tail.
Try to find a better way to frame ego claustrophobia than this:
It’s everybody, I mean. Everything everybody does is so–I don’t know–not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid, necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless–and sad-making. And the worst part is, if you go bohemian or something crazy like that, you’re conforming just as much as everybody else, only in a different way.
It’s a fine line. A huge part of why I prefer urban life is that we all admit we’re solipsists up front, so there’s no bullshit. There are no false offers to help, no pretense. When someone’s kind it’s real, it’s solid, there’s no need to second-guess motives.
We in DC saw the compassionate lining to narcissism during February’s snowpocalypse, when neighbors suddenly showed up for one another, as though for the first time. There’s something refreshing about knowing that when no one is beholden to anyone, those who stick around are genuinely interested in engaging in that same egotistical sphere, up to and including yourself, toi meme.
All the same I came away from that tormented Salinger obit similarly deeply conflicted. Is this honest? Am I being straight with myself? Is this the life I choose? And: If the I’s have it anyway, why resist?
The contour of that claustrophobia, it seems — viz: the way to avoid being an ass — is to embrace that existential truth that nothing is really unique. We’re all busy, overwhelmed, underslept. One more from Zooey’s boyfriend Seymour to keep it all in perspective:
Let’s just try to have a marvelous time this weekend. I mean not try to analyze everything to death for once, if possible.
Especially me. I love you.
Right. So the key is: If you “let it ride” first, then try to understand, it’s miserable-making. If you try to understand, then let it ride — analyze only down to a point — that’s the key to a nonphony life, to keep everything in perspective.
If you shake a haystack and a needle falls out, it’s safe to assume the haystack is full of needles. Last month’s Metro crash may have been just such a needle, a symptom of a much greater problem in Washington’s transit system.
Washington Post reports that diagnostics since last month’s crash indicate Metro-wide technical failures. Four of five lines show large “dark” tracts where circuits cannot detect trains’ presence. Conductors rely on these circuits to maintain safe distances between trains. When circuits fail, nothing forces dangerously close trains to stop.
Metro chief Dave Kubicek acknowledged dangerous technical “anomalies.” Federal officials have helped Metro scrutinize circuitry failures. But no investigators have identified the cause of last month’s crash. In fact, other than analyze the site where critical equipment was replaced days before the crash, officials have done nothing to determine whether circuitry failures caused the accident.
Nor has Metro replaced uncrashworthy cars responsible for eighty-nine casualties June 22. Private companies provide cars and materials in return for tax exemptions affiliated with Metro’s public utility. Metro replaces cars only when materials themselves are damaged. Unfortunately, only severe damage can compel Metro to address the problem. Officials knew in 2004 that their cars were barely fit for passengers, and received an “urgent” warning from federal officials. But Metro did not plan to replace those cars until 2015.
Transparency is the best strategy. If the 2004 memos had been public, market forces would have pressured Metro to replace dangerous equipment. Costs would have been steep at the time, but cheaper than the increased premiums insurers will demand because Metro clearly does not take steps to protect itself from accident liability.
Already Metro denies the extent of its failures. Rather than fix the problem, Metro maintains a fund for inevitable negligence suits. One wrongful death suit already filed requests $25 million. Metro could have put that money towards safer cars and functioning circuitry.
What a shame that the dollar-and-cent incentives in place direct the Metro to find and share a tax shelter, rather than to protect the very public whose taxes shelter the Metro’s existence itself.
DC voting rights may be unconstitutional, but that won’t stop the House of Representatives from imposing programs in the District. This Thursday the House passed a bill that uses federal funds to accomplish controversial objectives while pretending they are not controversial at all. Thursday’s spending bill both allows the DC government to subsidize abortions and takes steps towards legalizing marijuana.
Besides providing federal funding for abortions, the bill also undermines free market and contract principles. The measure forces General Motors and Chrysler to restore franchise agreements with 3,000 dealerships closed under restructuring plans approved by bankruptcy courts. Both companies oppose the idea, saying it will hinder their efforts to return to profitability.
Is no issue more urgent for DC in the midst of its budget crisis? Rather than replace dangerous metro cars, Congress has decided that DC residents need fewer welfare babies and more weed.
Aborting contract principles represents an even more controversial step. Filing for Chapter Eleven bankruptcy gives failing businesses an opportunity to restructure their business models with legal and corporate guidance. GM and Chrysler took—and continue to take—federal funds on the condition that they change their unsuccessful structure so bailout funds won’t go to waste. A bill that undermines companies’ promises to close unsuccessful franchises violates both the federal bankruptcy structure and constructive contracts GM and Chrysler made with American taxpayers.
Federal interference with local governance does not promote the change we want to see. Abortion, marijuana, and bankruptcy conditions warrant substantial debate. Rather than solve DC’s looming budget concerns, Congress has decided to intervene in controversial areas while pretending to have full public support.
DC residents bitterly accept taxation without representation. The rest of America has not. It stands to the represented public to demand economic recovery rather than sweeping controversial measures without discussion. Abortions and coercive contracts will not solve our problems. Only by permitting individuals and the market to learn from the fruits and consequences of our actions can this country “restructure” in a way that will be successful in the long run.
I’ll be at the Sculpture Garden this Friday for the summer series Jazz in the Garden — can’t wait! DC has so many incredible, accessible opportunities to make it the good life!*
Check out DCist’s “deliciously summery” photos from last Friday’s jazz:
Two more after the jump.
*You can even pre-order a picnic basket! Decadent :)