middle-eastern-tinged hours in Charlottesville
Tuesday, May 30 2023
location: unit #4, 201 North Madison Street, Staunton, Virginia
Today was my first day working remotely from Staunton, something I've never done (at least not a whole eight hour workday's worth). I like my screen setup, which leans heavily on the 4K television supplied with the room. But the options for a desk-like surface were all unsatisfactory. The kitchen table is too tall and a living room end-table is too low and lacks a space for my legs to go. But that was what I ended up using, and by the end of the day I had pain in my left shoulder that I'd have to take breaks to deal with. I know that specific pain well; I only get it when the desk surface is at a sub-optimal height, I have to reach out too far to type on it, or if there's some issue that is causing me a lot of frustration.
I'd taken a recreational 150 mg dose of pseudoephedrine early this morning, which turned out to be mildly-bad idea. It laid a thin membrane of gut sickness over the day that made eating and drinking coffee more joyless than usual. It was a bad enough feeling that I abstained from kratom tea (which I'd only drunk once, earlier in this trip). Later in the afternoon I thought a beer might help, but it didn't help and I drank it very slowly.
At lunch today, I walked down to the center of Staunton on Beverley Street to see if there were any groceries I might find useful at the Clocktower Convenience Store, the closest thing to a grocery store in downtown Staunton. They had a lot of wine, beer, and energy drinks. But they didn't have Tofurky or anything like that, so I left without buying anything. As I was leaving, the cashier, a man who looked much older than his years from what I thought might've been a prolonged addiction to methamphetamines, called out to me, "Nothing today?" I was a little embarrassed and chuckled, "No, not today!"
Usually when I am in the Staunton area, I try to also visit my friends in Charlottesville. On this trip, the plan was to visit them later in the week. The problem with that was that my childhood friend Nathan, whom I always try to visit, would be going on a work-related trip to Atlanta later in the week. So after work today, I drove the Bolt to Charlottesville. As I often do, I stopped at Market Street Market (on the edge of the Downtown Mall) to get some gifts, which in this case included a six pack of an Icelanding porter (just because that seemed weird, and I've been trying to expand out from IPAs to lesser-known phyla of beer) and a bag of cherries. I'd been trying to limit the accumulation of trash and compost in the AirBnB back in Staunton, so I also had some bottles, cans, and containers containing cherry pits and used coffee grounds in the bag I was using as a shopping bag. (I would've gotten rid of the bottles and such, but there are few trash cans along Market Street.) Ultimately I had to go down a side street to find some bushes into which I could throw the compost (which also included a banana peel). Later I passed a trash can in my car and was able to get rid of the recycling (which, in Virginia, in hangover from its former status as a red state, is considered trash). But by then there were coffee grounds all over both the beers and the cherries.
I came upon Nathan out in the front yard of his house on Little High Street, the same one he's been living in since 1996. The most notable new addition to his household was a big fluffy young great pyrenees, whose white fur was now peach after considerable staining by the red clay in the yard. The yarfing around of this new dog with Brian, the chonkier great-pyrenees-adjacent dog I'd met on earlier visits, had so destroyed the lawn that Nathan had thrown down a bunch of straw to control the mud. We sat stood around in the yard talking about various things, including my mother, his mother, and what we imagine a dignified death would be. Several years ago Nathan's father just dropped dead, kind of like how my dog Wilbur did at the age of ten back in 1982. We both agreed that's a good way to go, suggesting perhaps diet rich in cholesterol might make it possible for someone to maximize the fraction of their life that they can truly enjoy. What nobody wants is a long lingering death, though once we find ourselves in that phase of life, we've lost the ability to do what we promised ourselves when we were younger that we would do: find a way to end it all as painlessly as possible.
Eventually we cracked open the porters I'd brought and then Nathan's wife Janine came home. She does some sort of backend database stuff of a youth-related program at the University of Virginia, and what she had to say about how her day went was full of a lot of technical details, some of which involved the programming language R. I found this amusing, since there is no way Gretchen would ever be party to such technical smalltalk.
After deliberating about the options (which also included Firefly, where the vegan options tended towards "comfort food"), we decided to go to a Middle Eastern restaurant near the Downtown Mall called Otto's Turkish Street Food. In addition to Nathan and Janine was their adopted teenage daughter K, who now wears an austere all-black hijab that completely covers her hair and hides her body beneath layers of black cloth. Wait, was she always Muslim? I didn't remember that from before.
Otto's is a fast-casual place where one picks what one wants in bowl or a pita. I went with the pita and tried to make it like an Aba's Falafel, but since they also have french fries at Otto's, I had the guy throw some of those in as well. It didn't end up measuring anywhere close to an Aba's pita sandwich, mostly because the stuff I'd had put in it didn't mix very well, and I found myself eating a lot of falafel and french fries without any tahini and then a lot of tahini and onions but no falafel. Meanwile K was worried about whether she'd get back to the house in time for the 8:45 pm prayers, which she'd have to wash up prior to. From the way she was talking about it, it seemed as though she'd just learned about these things.
Later, as Nathan and I were walking by ourselves back to his minivan, he explained what was up with K. Apparently she'd been befriended by some very nice Aghan refugees who had managed to get her to convert to Islam. For K, the big selling point initially was the modestly, which helped her deal with the kind of body-image issues that have made being a teenage girl something of an Instagram-powered nightmare in the United States. Nathan said he and Janine were trying to be as accepting as possible while also making sure she understood that the kind of man she's likely to marry from within this new faith might not be as enlightened about female empowerment as she might prefer. Nathan than went on to tell me that K has shown herself to have amazing talents with language, mostly due to social fearlessness. She's not afraid to sound stupid in new languages, which allows her to quickly master them. In an earlier phase, she'd insinuated herself among a group of Hispanic women and quickly mastered conversational Spanish with no evident American accent. And now, with her new Aghan friends, she's learning both Pashtun and religious Arabic. This sounded to me like a very good skill to have. Nathan than told me about how his son A has an incredible eye for photography, something that is apparent innate with him, since nothing special was done to develop it.
Back at Nathan's house, we had some more porters and discussed at some length the threat of AI. I've already made my views on this subject plain in here, but Nathan hadn't heard them. I said that biggest initial disruption will come when AI, which is already good enough to do so, replaces knowledge workers. How will those people, who make up about 70% of the workforce, make a living after that? I'm less gloomy about the prospect of an AI takeover, since robotics is now a huge limitation on what AIs can achieve entirely on their own. On some level, they still depend on humans to do things like reproduce, a human advantage I summed up as "having an opposable thumb." But, I said, if a Nigerian can convince a lonely housewife to send him hundreds of thousands of dollars, an AI could probably work an even more elaborate plan. Once an AI has money, it could pay people to do just about anything.
At around 10:00pm, I thought I should head back to Staunton so I'd be well-rested for another day of remote work and more dealing with the living members of my family.
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