A Resolution by Any Other Name
I hereby resolve to complete the next dozen or so writing assignments. More or less.
Well, that was easy.
I don’t know if it’s a family thing, or a cultural one, or what, but whatever the reason I never grew up making New Year’s Resolutions, which were the first thing that came to mind when I saw today’s prompt. My family never made them, not that I know of, and once I learned about them, I pictured everyone else’s families sitting around near the end of the year making and sharing resolutions, laughing about them with each other, and making some sort of ceremony out of it, maybe even one involving writing them down, signing them, and sealing them away to be opened next year when new resolutions would be made.
Like I said, we never did any of that.
I was certainly aware of the New Year’s Resolution tradition. Who couldn’t be? At the end of each year it was all over my television, when I had one, or every other form of social communication, right along with the annual jokes about them never lasting through January or being recycled each year, perhaps until we “got them right.”
I don’t know if that poisoned the well again my making any, but it didn’t help. Somewhere, back in some dark corner of my thinking, I knew that if I made a resolution that I’d more than likely fail to keep it, and I don’t like failure.
As I keep telling people, one of the reasons I so enjoy sitting outside and watching the sun rise is because at that time of day, I haven’t screwed anything up yet, and that helps me feel happy, grateful, and content.
Making a resolution, it seems to me, is just a recipe for disaster and doing even more damage to my already weak sense of self-esteem. Better to leave it alone.
That’s not to say that I don’t agree with the notion of ritually bettering myself, and to that end even though I’m not Catholic, I do give up something for Lent each year. I guess my thinking is a year may be too long for me to commit to, but forty days? Hah! I can commit to giving up just about anything for forty days, and over the years I’ve been doing it, I’ve been quite successful in keeping those pledges.
For some reason, they’re usually about food or eating, mostly because I refuse to give up anything serious. Naturally, there are tons of things I could give up that I have no chance of accomplishing anyway, but I’ve been told that sort of thing doesn’t count. I can’t, for example, get much credit for giving up sky diving or kissing people, things I’m unlikely to ever do in my remaining days on this earth whether or not I give them up.
I’ve had, as I’ve said, quite a bit of luck with the food thing, though. I think it started with fast food, and my decision to only eat at any nationally advertised fast food place once every three months. I don’t think I was ever a fast food hound, anyway, but I wanted to keep an eye on it for both health and financial reasons, as well as political ones.
I’m not a fan of corporate food, not at all.
I’ve managed since taking that first , tentative step, to get down to once a year, at most, and that’s usually at someone else’s insistence. It was much easier when I lived in LA and there were small, local places all over the map, so now that I live in the Morongo Basin, I basically just don’t eat out. Not only is there hardly anywhere up here to do that isn’t the same sort of place that exists at every stop on the Interstate, the few places that are unique aren’t very good, at least to my tastes.
So yes, I’ve resolved to keep giving up things, different things, for Lent each year, and the mild improvements to my life are readily apparent. To me, anyway.
House Resolution 2406
One of the most interesting chapters in my life was the six months I spent working as an intern on Capitol Hill. These internships are a rite of passage for anyone just out of college looking to land a job in Congress, government, or in DC generally. They are terrible, thankless positions with mind-numbing work and little or no pay. It’s a little like being hazed before being accepted into the insular, wonky world of our nation’s federal government.
Like all institutions, there is an unwritten hierarchy on Capitol Hill. There are high-end clubs and restaurants frequented by congressmen and their senior staff. There are mid-level joints for the junior level staffers, and there are the dingy happy hour spots for the interns. Usually, they are Mexican restaurants, because you can make a meal out of a pitcher of margaritas and endless free chips and salsa. When you meet someone in one of these bars, one of the first questions you ask is usually: “Who do you work for?”
In the way that Los Angeles operates on proximity to fame and New York on proximity to money, DC is run by power. Each year, the Congressional newspapers publish lists of the most powerful people in Congress. The thing they don’t publish and that I think most people would be horrified to know is that the Congress is effectively run by 22-26 year olds.
The jobs (even decent, non-internship jobs) pay hardly anything, and so they are filled mostly by young people just out of college. You work endless hours, have no predictable schedule, and usually burn out by 26. Most people either then go on to jobs with lobbyists, trade unions, nonprofits, NGOs, to law school, or just leave politics entirely.
My internship, however, was different than most. I worked for the representative from Las Vegas. A woman who had started her career as Sheldon Adelson’s casino attorney before making a segue into politics. It was the only job I ever got through networking—my brother’s friend from high school was friends in college with the congresswoman’s son, and so they gave me the internship.
They were expecting me to be some knuckle-dragging, mouth-breather who they were compelled to hire, so everyone was pleasantly surprised by the fact that I was motivated to work hard and learn, and really wanted to be there.
Because it was the Las Vegas office, we were a little more relaxed than most offices. The Congresswoman was passionate about the causes she worked on, but not exactly the most engaged legislator. Her Chief of Staff, the titular head of our office, had a reputation for being, well, strange. And he was. He wasn’t a bad leader by any means, but he had that far-off-stare personality of someone who’s spent too much of their life in the sun.
When my friends asked me what the office was like, I would say: “very Las Vegas.” All that said, because of the informality of the office and people being a bit checked out, I was (as an intern), able to do all sorts of interesting things. Of course, my primary job was all the drudge work: sorting and delivering the mail, gophering around the Capitol, answering calls from angry constituents, logging constituent mail in our database, and (my favorite task) giving tours of the Capitol Complex to VIP constituents who came through DC.
These tasks filled most of my time. In the hours left over, I was generally of service to the Legislative Aides in the office. These are the people (mostly between the ages of 22 and 26) who manage various portions of the legislative portfolio (healthcare, veteran affairs, foreign policy, economic policy, etc.). I would go with the Aides to meetings, cover briefings for them, and on occasion write first drafts of floor speeches and public remarks for the Congresswoman.
I learned a lot about how and why our government does and doesn’t work, but in the six months I spent on Capitol Hill before landing a full-time gig in the non-profit world, I really only did one thing that actually might have mattered.
It was the Friday before the August recess, and the entire staff was gone—either on vacation already or with the Congresswoman on a plane back to Nevada. It was about 4p, and the phone rang. It was the Attorney General of Nevada needing urgently to speak with the Congresswoman.
I had met her about a month earlier, when she came to DC for a meeting of State Attorneys General. She brought her two middle-school age children with her, and I was tasked with giving them all a tour of the Capitol Complex, so I had spent a not insignificant amount of time with her and her family.
She needed to speak with my boss, because a group of about 30 Attorneys General were about to jointly send a letter to the Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel condemning a House Resolution he had introduced about the regulation of Internet gambling. This is, needless to say, an important issue for Nevada. The deadline to sign the letter was 5p East Coast time (less than an hour away), and the Attorney General had noticed that my boss had been a co-sponsor of the bill.
My boss and the Attorney General were essentially the leading figures in the Nevada Democratic Party at the time. The only other Democrat to hold statewide office was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who was much more of a national politician at that point. The two women would possibly be running against each other in primary races for the governorship or the other Senate seat, both of which were coming up in the next four years.
Moreover, the Nevada Democratic Party is chaotic on a good day. The state’s liberal coalition is a loose, fractious alliance of union workers, minority communities, and the hospitality industry. It’s very easy for conservatives to drive at wedge issues and divide and conquer Democratic candidates. Having the Attorney General sign a letter that said that a piece of legislation the Congresswoman co-sponsored was “half-baked” and “potentially devastating,” would be a perfect cudgel for them to use. But the Attorney General was facing pressure from her colleagues to sign-on to the letter. And from a legal perspective, they were right—it was badly written legislation.
I gave the Attorney General the bad news that there was literally no one but me to talk to at the moment, but that if she could give me the hour, I would find an answer and get back to her. I hung up the phone and sent an emergency email out to the entire staff, I tried calling everyone, but as I suspected, everyone was out-of-reach.
I then picked up the phone and called Chairman Rangel’s office. He had written the resolution, and there must have been a reason for it. Of course, it was minutes before a long recess, and there was no one in the Chairman’s office except for my counterpart. My counterpart was able to track down one of her superiors who explained to us that the bill had been hastily written, because it was more about legislative territoriality than law.
The Chairman of the Energy & Commerce Committee had written an Internet gambling bill for his Telecommunications subcommittee to mark up, and Chairman Rangel, as head of Ways & Means, felt he needed to write his own bill to demonstrate that it was a taxation issue, and therefore under the purview of his Committee, not Commerce. My boss had lobbied to join the powerful Ways & Means Committee for the sole purpose of protecting issues around gambling and new areas of law like Internet gambling, so this was a critical move for us. The staffer explained that Rangel never had any intention of bringing it to a committee or floor vote, it was strictly a procedural move, hence the junk language in the resolution.
I called back the Attorney General, and explained this to her. She had trepidation about trusting a 22-year-old intern’s advice on such an important decision, but for whatever reason she believed me and didn’t sign on to the letter.
It was a tiny, tiny moment, but it was the one thing I did in six months that in some small way made a difference. In the years ahead, both my boss and the Attorney General would run for statewide office. My boss missed her chance at a Senate seat by a few hundred votes. Just last year though, the now former Attorney General was elected to fill Harry Reid’s Senate seat following his retirement. In doing so, she became the first Latina to serve as a United States Senator.
Did I have a part in making that happen? No, absolutely not. But I didn’t do anything to hurt her chances, and for that, I’ll give myself credit.
25 new things
In January 2011 I resolved -- inspired by something I read somewhere -- to try 25 new things in the course of the year ahead. Two a month, I thought, how hard can that be? I was 40 at the time and it seemed like a good way to face the stagnation of midlife.
I set some rules. For instance, I couldn't just go to a new restaurant and count that as something new. But I decided that I could try a whole new food that I'd never in my 41 years eaten. (I tried tongue, in a taco.)
This was the height of the Groupon craze, and that was a boon. I found out about all sorts of classes and places that I never would've thought of. For instance, I went to a rock climbing gym, which was fun, though probably not the ideal exercise for my body type. I found a small sensory depravation tank in an office park in Burbank. That was seriously strange. Not the experience, but the place. It could have been an insurance office, with a generic waiting room. Then you were showed to a room with a shower and the tank filled with body-temperature heavily salted water so you would float. The room smelled musty. So after you floated for a while -- and I'm just going to add here that there is plenty of "sensation," in part because you get wet and then cool because of the evaporation, and also because you don't float in place, so you are also repeatedly bumping into the sides of the tank. And then after 20 minutes, there's a loud pump sound, which is the signal to get out so they can pump out and filter the water so that it supposedly isn't just salty bathwater shared by whomever coughed up $35.
Two things I took up in this period of experiments I still do. First, I decided to try a book club. The first was something someone had organized through Skylight Books, a nearby bookstore. I bought the book, read it, and when I showed up at the pub where the meeting was to me, the attendees numbered two, including me. The other woman had also never been at this book club. (We both liked the book, by the way, which was "The Glass Castle.") I decided that was seriously no way to run a book club and promptly started my own with the help of some friends who invited friend of theirs. Some day soon I will write a manifesto on how to run a good sustainable book club.
The other thing I did was try singing in a choir. Again, my first option hadn't worked out. I looked into the still-thriving Silver Lake Chorus, but at the audition I could tell the skills they were looking for were beyond me. I offered to volunteer for them, but never heard back. My second attempt took me to St. James's Church, where a friend knew the choir director at the time. There were no auditions, so I was in, and I still sing there.
What else did I do that year? I went to a two-week class in book publishing in Vancouver. I smoked marijuana for the first and only time while up in B.C. I took a boxing class and maybe some other new exercise classes that I don't remember. I think I went to a Korean spa for a full body scrub. Somewhere I hope I have a full list. I do recall that I bought a Groupon to take a fencing class, but never took it.
It was a very interesting year, 2011, much of it by choice. I think it might be time to try something like that again.
I've never been one for New Year's Resolutions. For one thing, I don't like doing things as part of a crowd (small writing groups excepted). On top of that, the arbitrary nature of everyone's picking x number of things to do or stop doing, as of January 1, reminds me of the enforced cheer of office parties (What a great thing this is! I really really want to do it!)
But now it occurs to me that I plain don't like resolutions. I'm not sure I even can think of a time I resolved to do so-and-so. Which raises a few questions: Why do other people make resolutions for the new year? Are there patterns to what people resolve to do? Is a resolution a resolution if only the resolutioner knows of it or must the promise be made public? Are resolutions that are kept quiet pursued as faithfully as those announced to friends?
Now it occurs to me I have clues to one answer: When I stopped eating meat, it was one evening without any forethought. I made no resolution. In fact I didn't venture to mention it for a while to my spouse, who cooks. I only asked after a few days, when I decided it was no passing fancy, I had really lost interest in eating meat, whether he'd noticed I wasn't eating part of what he cooked. These days my brother comments on my discipline in not eating meat. I say, sincerely, there is no discipline at all; thus the qualms about resolutions. If discipline were involved I probably wouldn't do it.
That suggests that a resolution, at least to me and perhaps others, involves a temptation that must be fought, desire that is tamped down.
Which makes me realize another reason I don't make resolutions, for January 1 or on other dates: My flaws annoy me enough as it is that I don't need to set myself up for more self-disdain, i.e., failure to follow through on something I promised myself or the world I would do.
And yet I realize now that resolution can mean something altogether different: resolution, as in a plot that has come to its conclusion, or a song in which the loose ends have been tied up, a tune whose crescendo leads to a big, satisfying finish.
I must conclude, however, that even on this reading of the word I fall short: I have no resolution for this essay.
The Story of How John Ruth Lost His Fortune
John Ruth’s tailored blue suit and tie mask his heavy set, almost obese frame. He is a large man in his late 70’s. As he hands me a file across my desk, I see the flesh on his fingers has nearly overgrown his rings. “They took everything I had,” he says, his bloodshot blue eyes downcast. He is looking for a lawyer to help him with his claim against the federal government. He asks how old I am and when I tell him I’m thirty, he chuckles. I sense he’s going to stand up and leave. But he doesn’t and starts telling me his story.
It is a decade long impossible tangle of facts about a quarry owner—John Ruth—who operates a chain of successful and profitable quarries in Tennessee and Kentucky. After Congress passes a comprehensive Appalachian Development Act, and the federal government announces its plan to upgrade the interstate highways across Appalachia, Ruth realizes the demand for his product, crushed stone, will sky rocket. Highway building requires hug quantities of “aggregate,” or crushed rock. “To build these new roads, they will need millions of tons of what I can produce,” he says.
Having studied the federal plans for new roads, Ruth saw two locations where he could build new quarries to produce the materials needed to build the highways. Anticipating the gigantic need, he acquired the land, ordered the equipment and built the quarries. He stretched financially to add the two quarries to his group. Though he has considerable resources—he owns a plane to travel between his quarries—when the federal plans don’t materialize, Ruth starts to have financial problems. Slowly, without any business, the new quarries strangle the rest of his operations until he is forced to sell all the quarries to pay his debt. In the end, he loses everything.
“They broke me,” he says, and he is right. But does he have a claim? We help him hire experts in the field who also believe he won’t win a lawsuit against the federal government. Nevertheless, John Ruth thinks he should sue. I tell him that I can’t represent him in a suit that I believe cannot be won.
However, since I have all his files, and have traveled around his territory and interviewed witness, I offer to pull together all the key facts, dates, witness statements, government files and all the other data, and write a comprehensive version of his story—which includes the biography of how he became a wealthy businessman—with an appendix holding all the key documents. He can use this book to try to find other lawyers, or having his story told in a detailed fashion may be the resolution he seeks. At least his family will have a cogent explanation for what happened to his fortune and why, for so many reasons, the catastrophe wasn’t his fault. He tells me to get to work on it and I do.