Thursday, April 22, 2010

Tenth Anniversary of the Greatest Single Day in My Life

The above photograph is a copy of the original that I have hanging on my wall, which was taken exactly ten years ago today. Earth Day 2000. My internship had ended a week earlier and most everyone on BYU's Washington Seminar program had already left D.C. Some interns in the White House's Office of the Vice President had also left D.C. Since I stuck around to search for a career in government, I got to meet Vice President Gore for the final time in my internship, when he met with all of his interns for Spring Semester 2000. Fifteen interns were assigned to his office (0ut of 188 White House interns for that semester), but two were already gone.

When Vice President came into the conference room in the Old Executive Office Building (the stately building that dwarfs the White House and home to most of the offices for employees in the Executive Office of the President), he went around the table shaking all of our hands, then sat down directly opposite of me! I was glad that I stood in the right spot to be across the table from him. He spoke for a couple minutes, then allowed people to ask questions. When he called the final question, my hand shot up and he picked me.

My question was: "I had read in the Washington Post that as a young man, you had dreams of writing a novel someday and I was wondering if you still wanted to do that...after your presidency, of course."

His response absolutely floored me. He responded with a question of his own: "You ask that question because you want to be a writer, yourself, right?"

Damn...the guy was smart. In hindsight, I guess its not that amazing, if you know basic psychology and view a person's question as their most passionate issue. But, at the time, I was impressed, because I have dreamed of being a novelist since age 11 and was planning to write my novel based on my Navy experiences (which I did write from December 2000 through December 2004) once I landed a job and re-took my biology course.

I admitted to Gore and the other interns that he was correct. Then he spoke about writing Earth in the Balance and how much research and work it entailed, and finally said that maybe someday, but for now, his goal was to win the election in November.

Sometimes, I wonder if he remembers that an intern had asked him that question. Out of all the questions to ask, that was one that I wanted to know the most about...because I considered myself at a crossroads. The Washington Post had run a series of in depth articles about Al Gore, Bill Bradley, John McCain, and George W. Bush as young men. Out of all the politicians I learned about in the late 1990s and in 2000 during my internship, Gore represented an idealized version of myself. He was the one politician I felt that I had the most in common with (introverted personality, seen as serious by other people but close friends see the funny side, global in our worldview). Thus, when I had read in the article that as a young man, Gore had two competing desires: a political career or a writing one, I was even more impressed because that represented my two competing passions (a writing career or a political aide career). The political career won for Gore. Neither of those careers have panned out for me so far, yet like a masochist, I continue my search in both areas.

His second daughter Kristin published two novels of her own in the previous decade and I had the honour of meeting her one year at a lecture at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta. Perhaps she inherited her dad's creative writing side, as her novels (about a neurotic political aide to a Senator who happens to become president) are quite hilarious.

Because I identify so strongly with Gore, the 2000 election results were quite painful...especially when many people in my church congregation in Atlanta were happy that Bush was appointed the president. It was strange to hear church folks I've known since 1988 tell me that they would "vote" for me if I ran for political office in Atlanta, while celebrating Bush's presidency as a return to "Christian values." If they didn't like Gore's political views, they wouldn't like why would they vote for me? I stopped becoming a regular church member in the aftermath of the painful 2000 election, until I left Atlanta for Portland in 2006. It was just too hard to be around church folks who had no idea how incredibly spiritual and good Gore is. He, after all, gave the commencement address at our church's Graceland College in Lamoni, Iowa. Has Bush ever done that? Hell, no! Cuz in Bush's mind, we're a cult. One church lady even had the gall to tell me that she couldn't vote for Gore because he had the "taint of Clinton." That would be like me telling her that I couldn't be friends with her anymore because she carries the "taint" of her ex-husband's adultery. Does that make any sense?

Seeing as how disasterous the past decade has been for our country and people around the world, its amazing that there are still people who can't bring themselves to admit that Gore was a better man and would have been a better president than Bush. That, I have no doubt.

But, that's all "water under the bridge." Back to Earth Day 2000. After Gore met with us interns and we each got our photos taken with him (the individual handshake and a group photo), he was off to his next event, which included the Earth Day celebration on the National Mall with emcee Leonardo DiCaprio and performances by Third Eye Blind (and other bands).

After walking out of the meeting, I went to meet Jenet so we could attend the event on the Mall. I was emotionally high all day. It was a perfect day: meeting Gore again and hanging out with Jenet as we watched Third Eye Blind perform (probably the band I liked the most in college). Could any day get better than that?

In the decade since, there have been a few notable days for me, including two years ago when Obama spoke at the waterfront in Portland a few days before the Oregon primary. This time, it was Christine who shared the special day with me and its a memory that I will always cherish for the rest of my life. As I think about it...why do my "greatest days" involve politicians and women I'm interested in? Can I have a "great day" without a politician in the picture? That remains to be seen.

The above photo is a copy of the official White House Interns for Spring Semester 2000, taken sometime in mid-April. I'm harder to see...but I'm about mid-range on the staircase on the left, near the flowery bush. President Clinton had kept us waiting for over an hour past the scheduled photo time. During the wait, I was disgusted hearing girls much younger than I gushing to one another about what Clinton was like in bed. Its hard to respect girls who talk that way, particularly at an official function. That's the kind of talk they should've reserved for their off-work time.

After the photo, Clinton shook as many hands as he could but I was too far up to make it before he left for his next event. That's okay, though, because I finally got to meet him and shake his hand when he came to Portland two years ago and spoke at the school where my brother works as a custodian. It just goes to show, if you have patience and want to meet someone badly enough, eventually it'll happen.

Lately, I've been thinking about choices I made in 2000 and in 2006, and wondering if I should once again take a big risk by "correcting a mistake" I consider to be the costliest mistake of my life: leaving D.C. in July 2000. When I was in college thinking about my post-college career plans, Washington, D.C. was "Plan A" and Portland, Oregon was "Plan B." I didn't have a "Plan C", but in the back of my mind, it was moving back to Atlanta, Georgia. In the past decade, I fulfilled all three "Plans." It was not my intent to live all three "Plans," just the way my life worked.

At some point in June 2000 when I realized that my money was getting too low and I did not have a job and my parents kept pestering me to move back home, while Jenet kept insisting not to leave D.C., I was torn. The few interviews I went to did not bear much fruit and I didn't take one Gore staffer's advice to apply to a temp agency as I searched for a career. Someone at church told me about a Peace and Justice Minister position in the Pacific Northwest, which I thought was perfect. It was just the carrot I needed to say goodbye to D.C. and focus on my "Plan B." So, I returned to Atlanta in July 2000 and applied to that position with the church while finding a job in Atlanta in the meantime.

I never heard back from the Pacific Northwest, but I did hear from church congregations in Florida, Alabama, and Pennsylvania about possible positions. Since none of those places were on my dream sheet of locations to live in, I politely turned down their interview requests and focused on finding a permanent job in Atlanta that would allow me to save up money to move to the Pacific Northwest.

In 2006, when I realized that I had made my goal of saving up enough to quit my job and move across country, I did consider five cities: Boston, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, and Portland. I ruled out Boston and Chicago pretty easily because of the cold winters and expense of living there. My biggest aversion to moving back to D.C. was that I didn't want to feel like I was "moving backwards" in a futile repeat of 2000. Plus, I actually believed Karl Rove's talk about a "permanent Republican majority", which was just too depressing to contemplate. So, my focus became a toss-up between San Francisco and Portland.

In retrospect, had I known that one of my best friends would get stationed in the D.C. metro area in late 2006 or that the Democrats would retake control of Congress in that election cycle (and the White House two years later), I most likely would have moved back to D.C. and gotten involved in James Webb's Senate campaign (who knows...I could've been one of his staff members these past three years!).

Though my heart was in San Francisco, the fear of running out of money before I found a job was real at the time. Plus, I knew that the city is so expensive that I wouldn't have been able to afford my own apartment and would have had to live with roommates. That's not an option I ever look forward to, due to plenty of bad apples in college.

My biggest fear about Portland was that I wouldn't find a career that interested me. I had job searched all summer in 2006, looking at what was available in Portland and San Francisco. There was no comparison. San Francisco had more interesting jobs available. Portland seemed to lack good jobs. Since I've moved to Portland, I have found that to be very true. The lack of good jobs is the biggest negative for this otherwise great city. After a 40-month long search for a better job, I'm ready to give up on Portland. The truth is, if I really value my international politics degree, moving to Portland was the worst decision I could have ever made for my career goals. Yes, its a beautiful and livable city with a great liberal and small community vibe. However, the choice I face is: Do I want to continue this never ending search for a better job while I continue to work at the worst place I've ever worked at (with its bad management, low morale among co-workers, and high levels of dysfunction) or do I want to take a risk in the direction of careers that excite me in a city that always pulls at my heartstrings?

When I lived in D.C. in 2000, there were many moments where I had the thought: "I'm in the city of my soulmates." After almost four years in Portland with none of the objectives I set for myself before I moved having been accomplished, I think it might be time once again to take that risk. However, I am giving Portland until June to show me that it wishes to keep me as a resident. Two events have to happen and if neither of them does, then the temptation to cut my losses and move on will be too strong come August when my apartment's lease is up for renewal and I receive my refund check from Uncle Sam.

In the past decade, the most important lesson I learned is that I should have listened to Jenet instead of my parents. It would have made a huge difference in my life. I could have been in my dream career. After all, Jenet eventually found her career after working various jobs in a mall. I gave up on my dreams too soon and paid a huge price (ten years in three crappy jobs). The choice before me is to continue slaving away in a job I despise or taking a risk towards my international career in the city that continues to attract me.


Betty said...

It's never too late to follow your dream. Even if it involves working temporarily as a shoe salesman, if you love where you are, you'll be happier than you are now.

pat m said...

Go for it Nick.

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

How totally cool, the pic of Gore. Echoing Pat m - yes, got for it.