Meaning

The complications of a busy life conspired to thwart my plans to attend my twentieth college reunion. When I didn’t appear at the appointed tent, a classmate of mine texted a where r u, because Professor Chatfield was asking. Jack Chatfield is my most beloved history professor who had embodied all of the things I most treasured about my college years. This man, my academic hero, had been in declining health for several years, and I had come to understand, through other mutual acquaintances, that he was too ill to visit. “Not so,” texted my friend in Hartford, “I am with him now, and he misses you.” Immediately, we hatched a plan, and last fall, I set foot on the Trinity College campus for the first time in nineteen years.

I have spent almost a year trying to order my thoughts about that weekend. They are complicated. The weekend was exhilarating, devastating, reassuring, shattering, and far too brief. It included a visit with my professor I will never forget, time spent with a new friend, a moving memorial for a man I did not know, boozy carousing with two of my closest college friends, and a very disturbing introduction to a man whose life was in free-fall.

This post will not tackle any of the above. What brings me to my keyboard today is the word meaning, as in something that is important or worthwhile, with purpose.

When people find out I was a History major in college, a modern American diplomatic history major to be specific, they laugh. I do not begrudge them that response; I laugh too. When you look at what I do each day, it does indeed sound ridiculous that I once dedicated so much time, effort, care, and passion toward a discipline and topic that is very remote from anything I do these days. While I could proceed on a tangent about the value and versatility of history as a discipline, I will spare you from that. Nonetheless, I can still recall the energy, the sense of calling, and the satisfaction I felt studying these topics in college. Almost all of that grew out of the benevolent, productive, patient guidance of my professor, who imparted such palpable relevance to the events we discussed that they seemed every bit as vital, if not more so, than the contemporary world around us.

As one unraveled the events and motives and assumptions of the past, the dense web of connections between the people of centuries ago and of today caught the light of first recognition and glittered in a way that maybe only a twenty year old can see. Revealing the swift flowing continuum that connects us to our forebears filled me with curiosity. Seeing current events react to forces unleashed long ago changed my sense of time, giving me my first sense of how immediate the past can be. The lectures and discussions and readings from those days fired my mind, and filled me with a sense I did not bother to name then, but which I can clearly label now as meaning.

I did not pursue my history studies out of any conscious search for meaning. I pursued them because I found them captivating. I believed then – as I was raised to believe – that the pursuit of that feeling would lead to the sort of excellence and drive that would lead me to a calling. I studied history as an undergraduate with no proper sense of where that might lead, and when I closed in on graduation, I found two paths before me – academia and the law. My gut told me the last thing the world needed was another lawyer, and I knew too few lawyers to understand just how diverse that profession can be. My gut also told me that I would never teach at the caliber of my beloved professor, and I knew too few teachers (as peers) to understand how many different ways there are to be an effective teacher. So I turned my back on these things that so excited me, and sought meaning elsewhere.

Let me note the meaning I am pondering is professional and intellectual meaning. I have been deeply fortunate and truly blessed to find genuine happiness and meaning with a wonderful wife and a terrific family, and I would be lost without them. I am solely addressing meaning in a work setting as I turn these thoughts over. We live in a world where our work, our occupation is a fundamental part of our identity and self-worth. When you meet a stranger, see how long you can speak with them before one of you asks some variation of “what do you do?” Society admires people whose work has true meaning, and it also admires people who find meaning in their work. Most of us were raised to pursue meaningful endeavors, and most of us raise children who we steer towards a life in pursuit of meaning.

I have now been out of college for more than two decades. I’ve worked miserable hourly jobs, I’ve worked poorly paid internships, I’ve worked some small independent side jobs, and I have had a series of related jobs that string together to form a career. I’ve been good at some of the things I have done, and I have even been better at them than any of my colleagues, which fosters a rewarding sense of true contribution.

Curiously, the work I do does not build on any of the talents I consider to be my best skills. In fact, I have been moving further and further away from them over time, like an unmoored ship borne by the tide away from where it is meant to be. These days I am a statistician, and I am certain that any of my math teachers would have placed big bets against my ever finding employment tied to my quantitative abilities. Strangely enough, I am a solid statistician, but I bet you can guess what I do not find in that sort of work: meaning.

If this meditation has veered too far towards whining, I do not mean it to. First off, the evolutions I describe are all of my own making, outcomes from decisions made in an ignorance of my own design. Combine that with the fact that I live a fortunate, safe, happy life. It is the death of my professor that brings these things to the front of my mind. I think I have managed to forget, or maybe suppress, the vibrancy of what I felt as his student. Recalling his cadences, his corrections, his encouragements, and his piercing curiosity as we debated the events of the past, the vital, electric immediacy of that time together is so far removed from anything I ever find in my work these days, and that gulf alarms me.

I wonder if the passion I felt then was a function of not only the man and the material, but of my age at the time? If I somehow slipped out of my life today and returned to all those same things, would they kindle the same feelings within me now? Or has the passage of twenty years dulled my capacity to feel that? I don’t think so, I don’t want to think so, but is that a realistic assessment or simply wishful thinking? It is difficult to step back from the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other nature of life and contemplate these most fundamental issues.

Time machine

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Originally uploaded by mike_s_etc.

Back in the 80’s, my father and I visited Dayton twice for the air show held there each summer. They were great trips, as Dayton’s a big show with serious ground and aerial displays. A bonus of each trip was the chance to visit the USAF Museum, which is chockablock with terrific planes and memorabilia.

One of the exhibits we enjoyed was this Martin B-26 Marauder, a type that also went by the names Flying Coffin and Widow Maker. The 5,266 of them built were hot ships in WWII, and the type earned its place in the Museum, racking up the lowest loss rate of any Allied bomber in the war despite its fearsome reputation among pilots.

On our second trip, we headed over to the museum to look around, and were there near closing time. The planes are housed in giant hangars, and with few people in them and dim lights, we made our way from plane to plane. As we approached the B-26, we could see two couples, both older, and their quiet voices carried clearly across the still distance between us. The men were veterans of the 9th Air Force, and had served aboard B-26’s, and their wives were asking them about the planes. One woman looked up for a moment and asked her husband how he boarded the plane, which stands well off of the ground. Without missing a beat, the man stepped over the rail, reached under the nose gear door, and – without looking – unlocked and lowered a ladder that was stowed there. He explained the ladder, and restowed it, again without looking, and stepped back over the rail.

It was so amazing to me, and my father, as we watched this moment – the man so comfortable with the machine that after 40 years, he still knew where to reach without a moment’s hesitation and the plane so perfectly restored that the ladder was poised for his touch. I felt sure that the men and the plane were as eager to return to service as that ladder had been.

If you like this, I encourage you to check out this summary of all of the aviation photography I have featured here.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, “The Chance for Peace”

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Every gun that is fired, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hope of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than thirty cities. It is two electric plants, each serving a town of sixty thousand population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than eight thousand people. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging upon a cross of iron… [We] aspire to this: the lifting, from the backs and from the hearts of men, of their burden of arms and fears – so that they may find before them a golden age of freedom and of peace.

-Delivered April 16, 1953, before the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Written by Emmet John Hughes & C. D. Jackson.

Cleveland Park

Flickr has a great feature where its users can indicate where a picture was taken, and then others can search for pictures based on location. It’s a great way to find pictures of places that interest you. Posting about Ford’s funeral earlier reminded me of D.C. and the year I spent in Cleveland Park. One of my college roommates had a two bedroom place with a vacancy, so I spent a happy year living next to the fire house on Porter Street and Connecticut Avenue. Since his name was Stephen, and I am Randolph, we always laughed that it should have been Clepheland Park. Permit me to show you three of my favorite spots down there…

Right next door to the fire station was the Yenching Palace, where I learned to like Chinese food. Founded in 1955 by the Lungs, it was in 1962 the site of surreptitious meetings between U.S. and Soviet representatives seeking to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. Later, Kissinger hosted a Chinese delegation there while seeking to normalize Sino-American relations. My roommate and our friend Robin would get food here – sesame chicken, mmm – and head up to the roof of her apartment building on Quebec Street, to eat and watch the late summer sunsets. You could look up the wooded hill towards the National Cathedral, and fool yourself that you weren’t in a city at all. (Oh no! My last google just unearthed the sad fact that the Lungs just decided it was time to close the restaurant. The site’s next occupant will be D.C.’s first Walgreen’s. Presumably, Walgreen’s will be the site where U.S. envoys purchase personal care products to ease tensions with Canada.)

Photograph by Muckraker.

I may have only been to the Yenching Palace a half dozen times, but I went to the 4P’s a lot more than that. While I have never been one for Irish bars per se, or theme bars at all, I quickly learned that Cleveland Park seemed to offer a few smoky dives, a few franchise establishments with no soul, and also one small gem, an emerald as it were – Ireland’s Four Provinces. Their web site suggests, as does this photo, that they’ve renamed themselves Ireland’s Four Fields. Okay, if you say so, but to me it’s the 4P’s. My roommate and I went often enough that we obtained a distinction there I’ve never achieved elsewhere – the waitresses (complete with Irish accents, of course) knew us well enough to bring us our drinks when we walked in – Harp, mmm. The 4P’s took the ‘Restaurant and’ portion of its name seriously, and maintained a welcoming, family atmosphere that was quiet enough to think and chat without resorting to the hollering necessary in so many bars. An ideal plan of attack for an evening would be to go straight from the Metro to the Uptown (see below), buy tickets for the evening’s late show, and then assemble at the 4P’s for dinner before proceeding to the theater. On warm evenings, sitting outside, you’d have the petty pleasure of watching the box office line snake past you, and the even pettier pleasure of waltzing into a sold out movie, past the grumbling horde. I loved the 4p’s every time I went there, save one – on St. Patrick’s day it was buried by Irish-for-a-day idiots, and was unrecognizable. We all were pleased for them to have so much money come in, and the next day it was right back to low-key business as usual.

Photograph by Hoffmann.






Of course restaurants and bars are just warm up for the centerpiece of Cleveland Park memories – the Uptown Theater. Opened in 1933, the Uptown was the sort of theater that explains to you why movies made such an impact years ago. Instead of being a 4, 8, 12, 16 or more screens shoehorned into some drab building in a shopping center, the Uptown was a movie house. It has one screen, and while I lived down there I saw nearly everything they showed. I loved the balcony, of course, and was surprised to learn that right after I left the balcony was refurbished with stadium seats. I quite liked the threadbare 1970’s upholstery we sat on. Armed with Junior Mints – mmm – from the 7-11 next to Yenching, you could enjoy films here in a way cineplexes will never achieve. This building was full of appealing architectural details, and was so old fashioned the restrooms more closely resembled my grandparents’ powder room than the locker room facilities you’ll find at any Regal. It felt like a home for movies, and despite my roommate’s gigantic TV, we came here often to escape the Washington heat or the anxieties that weigh on you in your unsettled twenties.

Between the Yenching Palace, the 4p’s, and the Uptown, my friends and I spent many happy hours enjoying each other’s company, enjoying the time and the place, enjoying being young and unattached, and essentially carefree. Like any time and place remembered from afar, I realize I am glossing over things, but the memory plays its tricks for reasons. The strongest memory that remains is how much pleasure I had being able to take my favorite date to these places, and how happy I was that she took to them with the same enthusiasm I felt. We’d still be going back regularly, if there weren’t 112 miles and the need to book a sitter standing in the way of it.

Top to bottom, photographs by bullcreek [1] and [3], edwardaggie98 [2] and [4], and piet.niederhausen [5].