2008: A year to remember, for mostly bad reasons

On September 11, 2008, I was in New York with my boss, we walked past the Lehman Brothers building on our way to a meeting, and I said, "There's a run on that bank, not a run exactly, but they are teetering on the brink..." -- my boss does not follow finance news as closely as I do, Lehman filed for bankruptcy four days later.

2008 is almost over, for myself (and many others, perhaps) the New Year can't begin soon enough. In 2008 many old certainties crumbled and assumptions once held true were exposed as cruel falsehoods, what once appeared solid, predictable and 'bankable' turned out out to be as ephemeral as melting snow.

All things must pass (Melting Snow) from JG on Vimeo.

Could this clip be a metaphor for?:
  • My long term job prospects
  • The value of my 401k
  • Opportunities in Vermont -- ugly news & rumors swirl of forthcoming layoffs at the state's largest employers, including the state government itself (except for PR flacks serving the governor)
In many ways I have lived a very contrarian economic life: I don't buy things on credit, mostly dislike spending money, and have a deeply ingrained 'the glass is half-empty' perspective on things. As can be imagined, I am not the most fun person to be around, and my lifelong aversion to purchasing new cars with credit may have contributed in a small way to the demise of the Big 3 automakers. But now that the days of reckoning have arrived, it seems that present and future realities are beyond even my gloomiest imaginings, and steps that I took to try and hedge against this situation were not nearly enough.

I can't see what 2009 will bring, but one consequence of the present situation and uncertainty (the one certainty being, that there are few 'conventional' opportunities available) is that I find myself living with a permanent state of queasiness, almost akin to nausea, and that sometimes the very act of unlocking the door to my small and not extravagant condominium (with its mortgage) sometimes sets off a fear reaction in my nervous system, an unpleasant prickly sensation. It's not the most pleasant way to live.


Song of the New South: 'Jesusland' by Ben Folds

Heading north on I-95 near the Virginia state line

I'm pretty sure the video for the song "Jesusland" (filmed in 2006) was shot in western North Carolina -- there are some hills in the parts shot in a new development, and (separate from the lyrics about false religious promises) the video captures some of the sense of alienation as older sections of small towns decline and developers move in to build soulless (and sometimes quite gargantuan) new housing and vast shopping malls. While visiting my mother, I walked through a local Walmart Supercenter that was vastly larger than any retailer in Vermont....covering acres of land, and these facilities are not at all unusual.

Leland, North Carolina (a wider panorama of this scene here), the skyline is marked by signs for Hardees and McDonalds (Waffle House, Bojangles, KFC, are also on that stretch of road, but their signs are not as high). I've lived in Vermont for exactly 20 years now, and it still feels sometimes like I'm just visiting. I wonder if would fit right in in a such a transient, impermanent environment where everyone is a stranger, or if it would be a crushing, soul-deadening experience?

Goldsboro, North Carolina: An old style southern downtown, threadbare shops and vacant storefronts, I gave a dollar to a man from New Orleans who had just completed a 16 month stint in the county jail (no reason given). I don't doubt that there is some Walmart Supercenter somewhere on the outskirts of town, off of a divided highway. Living in Vermont, I put up with some limited opportunities and high costs, but I generally don't have to experience this kind of environment.

I wish Ben Folds would tour through Vermont, the Flynn would seem to be a good venue for such a show, with Burlington being such a college town.


Winter solstice, 2008

The shortest, darkest day of the year, marked here in Vermont by a fairly good sized snow storm accompanied by cold and wind.

A couple of images from the trail to Mt. Hunger taken yesterday afternoon, there was a good sized snowfall on Friday night as well.

And a couple of images from my recent trip to North Carolina, taken at my dad's place outside of Havelock.

Long exposures taken using the dock railing as a tripod.


Lost highways: North Carolina to Connecticut

It's an allusion (not "illusion", ie, Ponzi scheme), one can know exactly where one is, as in 'location', and still be 'lost', as in 'lacking direction.'

I spent a week aimlessly driving around the 'new' South. When I drove to my Dad's place from Wilmington I headed inland from the heavily developed North Carolina coastal areas (waiting for a hurricane to come along and return things to the original state of nature) and cut across on a rural highway, a flat agricultural landscape dotted with trailers propped up on cinderblocks and billboards advertising pork products. The lack of hills made it feel quite different from home and the featureless horizon was quite disorienting.

In North Carolina, I think that that Havelock (home of Cherry Point MCAS) and Jacksonville (Camp Lejune and other installations) are about as far removed from Vermont as possible, culturally speaking: Pawn shops, strip clubs, churches and innumerable fast food establishments, it's almost like being in a foreign country compared to Vermont. A bumper sticker seen in a military surplus store summed up the rather warlike ethos of the place quite concisely:

US Special Forces: Death is our business, and business is good

But the perimeter fences surrounding military housing are marked with homemade banners welcoming service members back from long deployments, and there have been many causalities from this decade's various conflicts -- the Marines pride themselves on being the tip of the spear.

And once it was time to drive northwards with a purpose I used a basic digital camera to amuse myself on the long (1100 miles) gray trip.

Central Lunch, Goldsboro, North Carolina

Billboards along the highway in the Allegheny mountains, Pennsylvania, a blasted, post-industrial landscape recalling a time when coal was mined, and steel was forged, in the United States.

Crossing the Hudson, near Newburgh, New York

Even though it was the holiday season it seemed that the mood everywhere was one of foreboding and a grim anticipation of what comes next, I tried to put anxiety about the future out of my mind but wasn't entirely successful. The annual December bacchanal of consumerism isn't nearly as festive this year, not that I ever really bought into it anyways.

Lost highways: North Carolina to Connecticut, Dec. 2008 from JG on Vimeo.


Lost highways

A road through an as-yet undeveloped area in rural North Carolina.

After a week down south, tomorrow I start driving back to the cold, wet and economically distressed Northeast. The plan is to take I40 to I95 all the way to Washington then to head into Pennsylvania, eventually hitting I84, crossing the Hudson at Tarrytown, then into Connecticut (to visit relatives); and finally getting home on Thursday via interstates 91 & 89. I anticipate that it will be a long, dull, cheerless ride.

A new road winds through one of the innumerable housing developments that dot the landscape. It's a strange landscape that feels very impermanent -- I've never been to Las Vegas, but I think that there may be some similarities -- a sense of transience (no one is from the area -- all are strangers), alienation and tackiness: Miles and miles of strip retail development interspersed with an endless variety of chain dining establishments.


On the beach

Wrightsville Beach NC, August 2008 -- sunnier days, before the crash

Since there's little work in Vermont, I'm taking a quick trip to North Carolina to visit my parents before returning for the holidays. Perhaps I'll be channeling Tom Joad and Jack Kerouac as I drive aimlessly up and down the charmless highways of the East Coast, and I'll have a camera with me so maybe I'll be able to try and capture some visual sense of things at this moment in time. Fear and discouragement are the watchwords of the day...


Signs of the times

Very literally, and pretty self-explanatory, sights from my commute to work -- which I won't be taking for the duration of this year due to the economic slowdown.

Signs advertising two forthcoming foreclosure auctions along Rt 100 between Waterbury and Stowe. If nothing else the auction business seems to be doing OK even as most other things crumble. It's a scary and discouraging time and the short gloomy days and long nights of December don't help matters much either.


Metaphorically speaking: The Fall

Metaphor: A figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as in drowning in money) ; broadly : figurative language (Merriam-Webster). The example is quite ironic given the present state of affairs.

I thought I would take a look at Camus' last novel, the title is apropos in these gloomy times, and the theme (absurdity) may also be appropriate.

The economic history of the G. W. Bush years, as reflected by a Vanguard mutual fund (aka my 401K)

As work has been very ominously quiet lately, I have spent a lot of time reading the New York Times business section and free articles on the Wall Street Journal site. It's illustrative but depressing, and many downward metaphors have been tossed about to describe these queasy and unsettling times. I saw a comment somewhere that described the US economy as a building with termites, it looks solid from afar but the reality is that it is rotten and soft, one could put a fist through the wall, or kick down a door, with little effort: Condemned as "structurally unsound".

A capture from the opening credits to Mad Men, a series about being on the cusp of change... hmm.

As should be quite obvious by reading this site, I spend a lot of time in the outdoors. I usually am fairly cautious and conservative, I don't take too many unnecessary risks. One of the stupidest things I've done, however, was to try and walk across Colchester Pond one late afternoon in early December before the pond was thoroughly frozen. I did this solely because of impatience, I knew it wasn't a good idea when I started. It was a windy day and the ice was not very thick and as I got to a point about 1/3 of the way across I could feel the ice sheet going up and down because of the pressure of the wind, and this was accompanied by loud compressive booms. Needless to say, I paused to consider my predicament -- I thought I was dead, if I had gone through the ice, no one was going to come along and perform a rescue -- and very gingerly and cautiously beat a retreat back to shallower waters with thicker ice.

When I survey the present situation, I sometimes think back to being out on that semi-frozen pond, feeling the tremors and hearing the cracks and booms of the ice, and very cautiously picking a route back to shore -- I really thought there was a good chance I'd end up going through. I am not sure what the future holds but hopefully things will solidify, but I think it's going to take a while, and I strongly suspect I'm going to get more than a little wet.


The most fun I can have with an Internet connection

...coverage of the Superprestige cyclocross series in Belgium. Live, high quality streaming video of bicycle races held in the most appalling conditions provided by Belgian television station VT4.

Watching the entire event is illuminating because it shows the the dynamics of the whole race instead just selected highlights. It also shows the atrocious conditions these guys race in.

Dominance: Sven Nys wins in a full on blizzard at Hamme-Zogge. Niels Albert, one of the rising young guns who may be able to challenge Nys, severely injured himself (torn spleen) warming up for this race in the slop. It's a tough sport, the riders would swing their hands on the paved sections to try and get some feeling back in their frozen extremities.

Surprise: Klaas Vantornout beats Bart Wellens in a two up sprint finish at Geiten. I thought that there was no way that Wellens would lose but that's racing.

A post race explanation. Czech rider Zdenek Stybar gave an interview in perfect English, I am such a monolingual rube.

There are three more races in the series, the schedule is posted here, I'll be watching.