February 26, 2011

Texas Half Empty

“Welcome to the Gaylord Texan!”

Yes, that’s where we checked in. The Gaylord Texan. A hotel biodome in Grapevine, a half hour from Dallas. By biodome, I mean an entirely enclosed four-and-a-half acre atrium containing 1,500 rooms, 1,800 workers, eight restaurants and bars, a hidden vineyard, and an imagining of the grand canyon including a covered wagon. Winding streams. Wooden bridges. Also a windmill.

Typical guest at the Gaylord Texan

Typical guest at the Gaylord Texan

I’m sure it’s been mocked before. The guests, too, I’m sure they’ve been mocked. The men with their khakis and golf shirts have been mocked. Their bushy mustaches reminiscent of Austrian trolley conductors have been mocked. The Nero-cut hair. The serious conversations they have with each other. It was the perfect place to imagine a zombie outbreak. Instead, there were a lot of conventions, which also surely have already been mocked. For example, The Large Animal Pharmaceuticals Sales Conference. I saw a sign on an easel with the headline, “The Pork Business is Heating Up!” But even better was the copy below it: “Visit Team Pork at the Cowboy Ballroom.” But there’s also the other Texas: the romantic Texas of horses, crimson skies, and the phrase, “the Texas night” or “the Texas road.” No one ever speaks wistfully of a New Jersey night or a New Jersey road.

It was a week in Grapevine for meetings with the telecommunications IT people. We were redesigning their company’s website, so five of us headed there to collaborate on some ideas. The day before we left I threw a tantrum at the office when the production assistant failed to book me an aisle seat.

“Bring me the head of Mark Sallas!” I bellowed. “Why, that little cocksucker. That incompetent zygote.”

“This is exactly what I was talking about earlier,” said my producer, Dan, a born-again Christian with the big heart of a kid, after he took me into one of the conference rooms. This is it, I thought. I’m finally getting the talking to that I deserve. No more prima donna.

“But you don’t understand,” I whined. “If I don’t get an aisle seat I won’t sleep and if I don’t sleep, I’ll be dead at our first meeting. Plus, I need easy access to the bathrooms. You know, my gas problems. You know, because of the surgery.” There is nothing I don’t talk about at work, by the way.

“Oh, here we go,” said Dan.

But for all my screaming and acting out, I couldn’t get an aisle seat. Except at the airport, where a kindly counter rep suddenly found one after I agreed to pay an extra thirty dollars.

So for five days we collaborated with the clients: we whiteboarded, we argued, we presented, we listened to presentations, we dismantled each others ideas, we groaned whenever the account director said something. Then we drank together, ate together, drank some more together, ogled the Texans together, bought Texas‑y trinkets together: bolos, rhinestone belts.

There’s nothing worse than forced sociability. I can pull it off for a few hours and sometimes with great success. But to do it from 9am until 11pm every day for a week was too much to ask. Admittedly it was all salved with plenty of fancy drinking and eating, but still. After a couple of days I began to sink. There’s just so many crawdads you can eat with a smile. Also, my colleagues are absurdly optimistic, cup half full people, while I am a committed cup half empty type. Being bright, happy people they wanted to bring me along to their happy places. But I was having none of it. After seeing miles upon miles of strip malls, I wondered where Texans actually lived, I mean other than the tract housing we came upon, each one a duplicate of its precursor and successor. So Dan drove us for thirty minutes to a Dallas exurb where there were indeed houses that looked built before 1996.

“Now that’s a nice house,” said Dan, indicating the one ahead of us.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “It’s all garage.”

“Oh, you’re crazy. It’s a beautiful house.”

“It’s just garage doors.”

Karen piped in. “It is a bit bland.”

“Oh, not you, too?”

“See, this is what I mean,” I said. “This is the problem with you cup half full people. Everything is beautiful, everything rocks. That house is great, this house is great. You don’t discern between anything. It’s all good. Where’s your taste? On the other hand, when you’re a cup half empty guy and you like something, maybe it means more.”

Karen nodded. “You actually might be on to something there.”

“I’ve taught you well, grasshopper. Come to the cup half empty side.”

“I don’t believe this,” said Dan. “It’s a wonderful house.”

I laughed. But it was laced with envy. Who wouldn’t want to be cup half full? Cup half full people die with family around their bed. Cup half empty people die alone.

“I don’t want to sound racist,” said Karen, “but–”

“Too late. Is this going to be a Jew thing, you drunken Scottish whore?”

“No no, listen. This is why I think Jews make really good website designers. Because you’re cup half empty people. Because all you do is complain. You nitpick over every little thing.”

“That’s ridiculous. And did I hear a silent you people in there?”

“It’s true. Who are the best designers back home? They’re all Jewish. Why? Because you don’t like anything. Everything’s got something wrong with it. Everything needs fixing.”

“Ha ha ha,” cried Dan, “she’s right. Karen’s right!”

“Maybe,” I said. “Maybe it is true. Oy, all the buttons on this page, they’re the same size! Which one should I click? Why am I on this confusing site?

We laughed, Dan suggested we find a Whataburger, and then we drove some more, driving deep into the Texas night.

February 17, 2011

Escape from Seattle

“What’s the soonest you can get me on a flight to New York?”

The lady behind the counter frowned; she had heard this question before. Then came the clatter of keystrokes. She shook her head and peered closely at her screen through a pair of bifocals. Bifocals interest me since soon I will need them. Actually, I need bifocals now. I wondered if she was really looking for empty seats. I wondered if she already knew it was hopeless. There is something to being humored. It means that on some level someone cares, that someone is willing to take the time to support your fantasies, the way a mother will nurture a child’s belief in Santa Claus. At least the wait had been short; I had expected catastrophic lines of angry people with dashed plans. Instead, everybody seemed happily on their way to Tokyo.

“Thursday. The red eye,” she said. “It’ll get you into JFK on Friday morning.”

That was two in two days. I didn’t have two days. I didn’t have two minutes. I was escaping my family. Somewhere my brother-in-law — ex-naturepath, currently builder and remodeler —  was dragging my luggage to me on the off-chance, on the miracle, really, that I’d get on a flight out of there.

“That’s the best you can do? Nothing else?” I smiled, tried beaming at her. Put my hand on the counter. Cocked my head. Flirted with my eyes. “Nothing at all?”

The woman laughed cruelly. “And you’ll be lucky if that flight doesn’t get canceled. Don’t you know what’s going on in New York?”

I did know what was going on in New York. That was why I had come first thing in the morning after they had canceled my flight the night before. Two feet of apocalyptically-driven snow had dropped on my hometown in less than 24 hours. Now, I was stranded in Seattle, stuck with my sister and my mother, who, on her arrival, had instantly reverted to her Teutonic roots by following my sister’s orders, agreeing with her most absurd observations, and putting up silently and with great cowardice with my sister’s repeated interruptions, her righteous indignations, her endless offerings of strident opinion.

“I’m surprised I was even able to find you a seat.”

“But that’s in two days. Nothing sooner? Regional airports? I could take a train, a bus.” A helicopter.

“Let’s see. Boston? Never mind. Nothing.”

“Too far, anyway.”

“No, nothing.”

“What about Philadelphia?”

The rep braced herself, flexed her fingers, and began what looked like an heroic attempt to find me a flight. The woman must have been yelled at all morning by one-time passengers trying to cobble together what was left of their vacations. Or they were like me, terrified of staying in Seattle for another day. The computer terminal she worked on sounded ancient, the kind with the thick keyboard and the keys like chunky pieces of chocolate, telex-sized. Each stroke sounded thunderous.

“I got something. The red eye, tomorrow. Philadelphia.”

“The red eye?” I didn’t do well on overnight flights. “Nothing earlier, a more normal hour?”

She looked at me the way my cat did when I ordered him off the dinner table.

“Okay, that’ll be fine, actually.”

“Philadelphia?” My brother-in-law had found me. “Why would you want to go there?”

“It’s closer than Boston.”

“How would you get home?”

“Amtrak?”

My brother-in-law shook his head. He couldn’t understand why I wanted so badly to leave. But he should have gotten the idea the day before when I had begged him to drive me to a casino and leave me there. I won a little money at poker and paid for Chinese food for everybody back at the house.

I had come to spend the holiday week with my overbearing sister, my mother who’d also come from New York and had instantly become my sister’s slave, the step-niece who was 23 and dealt with my sister by burying her face in her cell phone, and my beleaguered brother-in-law who had confessed to me that he was just too scared to ask my sister from which restaurant we should order the Chinese.

Also, I hated Seattle. It wasn’t just the rain, though it had rained every single day. In fact, I hadn’t seen the sun once. And the rain was different here. Half the time it was a coolish thick mist that got into your bones. This was the kind of weather you’re allowed to have when you go on a traveling adventure to some badland part of the world. Someone forgot to remind Seattle that it was supposed to be a mainstream metropolitan center. Instead, Seattle’s a miserable and shabby little city that hasn’t gotten around to burying its power and phone lines and so it manages to look like a depression-era industrial failure. Legions of homeless people with frontier-lined faces roam the streets. Seattle, according to my brother-in-law, has generous social welfare policies that attract people from all over. That’s why crazy people made up most of the customers at the coffee houses, where they made faces and sniggered menacingly at the tables next to them, to the polite Seattlites who smiled uncomfortably back, smiling because basically everyone here is a pussy.

But it was more than just the mentally disturbed that colored my perception. It was the ordinary citizens that I found deeply mockable. The women are invariably short of hair, sallow of skin, and like to wear nerdy glasses. Their sensibilities are crunchy, Priuses –Prii? — abound. The men are worse than the women. The men kind of are the women, actually. They favor glasses, too, though rimless. They wear closely shorn beards. They’re shorter than the women. They smile constantly, supplicatingly. They talk a lot amongst themselves about social justice. Uncharitable? Grossly generalized? Sure, why not?

“Oh no,” said the woman at the counter.

“What? What?”

“Someone else must have been working on this seat at the same time. It’s gone.”

“No. Oh no.”

“Let me try again.”

I looked forlornly at my brother-in-law.

“I can drop you off at the casino on the way back,” he said.