Friday, January 4, 2008

Retro-Journal: Health and Death in Early 1993

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That former friend whose insane father had accidentally blown himself up — along with his fringe “church” — crossed my mind as I watched the Branch Davidians compound burn on TV in April 1993 (from the postmodern safety of the McDonald’s just north of Times Square, on a lunchbreak just after starting a new job at Kaplan Test Prep). I remember being a bit choked up as I thought about how humanity seemed doomed to be squeezed forever between those twin monsters, government and religion — both destructive, both murderously insane.

However, that horrific incident was in some sense the best thing that ever happened to the modern right. Conservatives, traditionally fond of law and order, learned from that fire to fear the police for perhaps the first time in the history of the movement — giving the GOP one last injection of anti-authoritarianism, which would help infuse the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress with a slight libertarian spirit. That spirit would in turn peter out, though, not long after the Oklahoma City bombing (exactly and not coincidentally two years after the Waco fire), in part because no one wanted to look like an anti-government radical after Oklahoma City.

In 1993, though, there was enough fear of government to make the public wary of new first lady Hillary Clinton’s clumsy and secretive effort to lead the government in a takeover of American healthcare. Lingering resentment over that episode may help explain why her presidential bid fifteen years later hasn’t gotten off to a stronger start (judging by the close Iowa caucus race as I type this).

Interestingly, Republicans in Congress very nearly went along with Democrats’ socialist plans in 1993. However, former Dan Quayle staffer William Kristol, son of founding neoconservative Irving Kristol, was pivotal in sending memos to conservative congressmen assuring them that the public was not in fact enthusiastic about HillaryCare and that politicians could safely oppose the scheme. No matter how much I sometimes disagree with William Kristol today — as he prepares for his new gig as a New York Times columnist — I will always think of him as perhaps the one man who rescued America from socialized medicine in 1993, and for that I am grateful (as were the Republicans, whose 1994 takeover of Congress was further aided by resentment of HillaryCare).

I will be less grateful if he uses the Times platform to urge America to go to war in Iran hastily. It will be interesting to see if he and his Weekly Standard co-editor and now fellow Times columnist David Brooks end up at odds on that topic one day, since Brooks has come to regret his and Kristol’s drum-beating for the Iraq war, while Kristol seems unrepentant. (And it will be strange if, in the wake of the Ron Paul movement, we soon find ourselves accustomed to hearing radical rightists complaining about the Times op-ed page being the media’s main fount of warmongering, but times change, so to speak.)

But in 1993, there seemed to be no major wars in sight, and life — for those not killed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms — was good.


The late Jack Temchin was a theatre mover and shaker who helped run the Manhattan Theatre Club (and a funny storyteller — he once recounted, for instance, how he’d seen 2001: A Space Odyssey stoned when it first came out and mistakenly attributed his confusion about the plot to the drugs). In early 1993, Temchin had introduced me to Diana Amsterdam, one of the playwrights who Jack and I had included in an anthology of monologues Glenn Young published while I was working for him.

Diana groomed me as her replacement as in-house ad writer for Kaplan, the company that tutors test-takers on how to get higher scores. It wasn’t all that meaningful, but my co-workers were pleasingly nerdy in the case of the writers and test-analysts and amusingly flaky in the case of the graphic designers, and the pay was twice what I’d gotten in my Dickensian book publishing jobs. I stayed at Kaplan for the next two years, gaining access to e-mail for the first time and befriending a co-worker who would go on to edit a very early webzine and later become a blogger. Perhaps best of all, I got the opportunity to write (and see illustrated) a vocab-word-filled detective story, meant to be used by students as a study aid, starring a thinly-veiled version of my parents’ dog, Uber (“The Case of the High-Strung Poodle,” I believe it was called).

I remember as if it were yesterday consciously thinking, “I will look back at these days as ‘my early twenties’ and should make an effort to enjoy myself and be easily entertained even when, say, I’m on a simple restaurant outing with co-workers to drink margaritas down in the Village,” and I pretty much pulled it off. The aforementioned future blogger, Alice Bradley, would occasionally amuse herself and her friend/co-worker Beth Wojtusik by exchanging e-mails about their imaginary ponies, Misty and Shasta, which still sounds to me like a pretty pleasant pastime.

Not far from my cubicle, another amusing co-worker, Matt Hart, was a bit like a one-man version of Six Feet Under, a decade ahead of time. Gay, slightly droopy and pessimistic, funny, and coming from a family of morticians, he had some great stories about his days working in “body retrieval,” such as the time he showed up at the scene of a death early enough to hear a woman being questioned about it by cops, with her saying she’d been angry at someone for not returning her record collection, so she “hit him” with a knife and he fell down under a Christmas tree, to which the cop, according to Matt, replied, “Well, ma’am, in this town, we call that murder.”

Matt also noted that he was bothered by the small robots that ran along tracks moving supplies to and fro beneath some hospitals — “It wasn’t so much the bodies that bothered me as the robots,” as he put it — and he felt just a dash of envy toward my Wonder Woman-like boss, Ellen Dracos, who looked for all the world like a tough, beautiful, more-80s-than-90s version of the young female executive — “I feel like that’s human life,” as Matt once said with a mixed tone of awe and self-reproach — but Ellen would end up on antidepressants, divorced, traveling in Tibet, ditching her shoulder pads for more feminine outfits, and then moving to Atlanta to be closer to friends by the summer after I left Kaplan in 1995 — all of which made her more likable, to my mind.

One year when I rented a Superman costume for the office Halloween party, I also rented her a Wonder Woman costume, which she’d gamely agreed to try on, but she decided, after I’d brought it into the office, that “We’re never going to fit my boobs into this thing.” It’s worth a try, I protested, but in the end the costume had to be worn by another, smaller but no less charismatic co-worker, London/Delhi-extracted Sangeeta Sahi, then a staffer on the medical school admissions-test team but years later a “quantum healer” of whose scientific claims I am, I must politely confess, skeptical, much as I adore her.

To me, all unscientific claims hold the danger of teaching people to take things on faith that may be dangerously mistaken — it’s easy to declare them harmless, but the steady habit of believing things for which one does not have solid evidence is not something that can easily be halted when the time comes that it really matters, really becomes an issue of life and death. I’m sure the Davidians, like the downbeat FBI agent character who debuted on TV that year, X-Files’ Fox Mulder, would say “I want to believe,” but that urge to trust without reason can lead to a bad end, with or without help from government goons.

But my friends have been crucial in enlarging my mental world, whether they’ve agreed with me or not.


Diana said...

Delightful if rambling blog.

I like your philosophy of life, Todd.

“I will look back at these days as ‘my early twenties’ and should make an effort to enjoy myself and be easily entertained even when, say, I’m on a simple restaurant outing with co-workers to drink margaritas down in the Village”

I think you could write a self-help, stop feeling so fucking sorry for yourself and allow yourself to be happy, kind of book ala Bertrand Russel’s “The Conquest of Happiness” and slip in some libertarian ideals and new wave musings.

Todd Seavey said...

I think I can at least promise you to write a book that’s, say, 40% each libertarian and New Wave and maybe 20% happiness — especially if you count talk about utilitarianism as happiness.

I used to worry sometimes that my sense of humor was solely a side effect of trying to keep an irrational world from driving me nuts, but the humor has remained habitual, I’m still pretty happy, and the irrationality of the world doesn’t upset (or surprise) me as much as it did in my youth, when of course each thing the planet did wrong was a fresh outrage.

Alice said...

Misty and Shasta? Really?

toddseavey said...

As I recall. Is that not right?