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The Dismal Science: An Excerpt
Rumor had it that breakfast at the World Bank’s cafeteria wasn’t as good as breakfast at the IMF’s cafeteria, even though both were made by Marriott from identical recipes and ingredients. The debate was, of course, not about breakfast at all; it was about the participants in the debate, a select group in the twin organizations, where breakfast wasn’t popular, since most people took it at home. Joining the debate indicated you were prepared to take at least two of your daily meals at the office, which suggested ambition.
William Hamilton, the United States’ executive director at the World Bank, pioneered the breakfast argument. In a memo circulated among the executives of both organizations, he claimed to have conducted a taste test of both cafeterias’ biscuits n’ gravy (chosen because “it requires the most skill to pull off well”). He concluded, “Unfortunately, the Fund’s cafeteria kicked our behinds!”
At the time, Paul Wolfowitz was six months into his term as president of the Bank. Wolfowitz had reportedly never had breakfast at either cafeteria, but he circulated the only response, jokingly calling Hamilton a “turncoat,” and saying that “any good economist knows how to read the data in a way to get a favorable result!”
After the memo exchange, Hamilton—who’d worked with Wolfowitz at the Pentagon—made a daily show of going across the street to the Fund’s cafeteria for breakfast. Wolfowitz, meanwhile, continued to forgo the meal.
On days like the one in question, when there were protests on Nineteenth Street, Hamilton used the tunnel connecting the two buildings’ parking garages. Due to the low attendance at breakfast and the odd arrangement of the Fund’s cafeteria—a labyrinthine warren of interconnected and irregularly shaped rooms, none of which had windows—Hamilton often had a room to himself.
According to rumor, he ate two eggs, two sausages, and an English muffin, but Tuesday was salmon cake day and he always treated himself to one.
“Oh yes. It’s definitely better,” he said, when Vincenzo sat down and asked if there really was a difference. “But my cholesterol, I don’t even want to think about it.” Hamilton was a stout man, physically conspicuous. Though mostly bald, a blond cirrus adorned the peak of his shiny dome. He had jovial eyes, an affable way, and looking at him up close, this early, Vincenzo’s antagonism dimmed a little.
Still, he wanted to limit the banter; he was considering calling his daughter Leonora. If she answered and he heard crowds, he’d know she had gone to the protests that were raging outside today. If he heard the clacking and caterwauling of a train, he’d know she’d left, had gone back to New York, as promised. If she didn’t answer, he’d have to decide what to think. It shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. “You wanted to talk to me about something?”
“I wanted to talk about Bolivia. You heard about the poll?” He forked a mouthful of salmon cake into his mouth and chewed slowly.
“I did. So, why did you want to see me?” Of course, he knew why and was just being difficult. A new poll of the presidential race in Bolivia put Evo Morales, the indigenous socialist candidate, a former coca-farmer with an eighth-grade education, with a strong lead. The results were a surprise to everyone, no doubt to Evo himself.
As the liaison from the U.S., Hamilton worked for the State Department, and he had presumably been asked to persuade the World Bank’s management—namely Vincenzo, vice president in charge of Latin America—to cut aid to Bolivia if Morales kept his campaign promises.
“You know that he intends to seize foreign-owned gas refineries?” Hamilton snorted. “He’ll kick out foreign investors, increase the production of coca. It’s going to be their number one crop.”
“Isn’t it already—” Vincenzo said, but he didn’t bother completing that thought.
“He’ll cut off gas to Chile. It’d be a disaster for the continent.”
“Well, let’s not get carried away. Cut off their gas?”
“He’ll spike the price.”
“They pay market, and if the price drifted up a few cents, that would have no real effect on BOP, right?” Vincenzo didn’t actually believe this argument, but it would do.
Hamilton’s eyes widened. He had apparently used a dull razor that morning, his skin was speckled with razor burn, and the blood had stained the ridge of his starched white collar a rusty brown. “I’m just asking what you plan to do if Evo does this shit.”
“Well . . .” Vincenzo frowned, shrugged. He waved a hand, as if to dispel the rest of his incomplete thought.
“If Evo makes a scene, you’re going to cut, right?”
“This sounds like a political issue more than an economic one, so I don’t think I’d do anything.” He was playing with semantics now, the last refuge of an ill-equipped debater. “You should put it to the executive board.” Vincenzo knew that the board would not be discussing Bolivia again for another ten months, and that Hamilton might not be able to gather enough votes, anyway.
“He’s kicking out foreign gas companies on day one, apparently. We can’t wait.”
“If I cut Bolivia off, I’ll have to cut off Venezuela, too—because they’re just as bad. Are you saying you would have no problem if the Bank took action against oil-saturated Venezuela?”
“Goddamn it, Vincenzo. Forget it. Let’s just let it go.” Hamilton’s lips pressed shut, white with pressure. Vincenzo knew that, despite his vulgarity, Hamilton was more or less within his purview—he wasn’t demanding action.
Then, in an unfortunate step in the direction of absolutes, Hamilton said, “As I interpret it, you’re not going to touch Bolivia no matter what Evo Morales does.”
“If you and the board vote to change the Bank policy in Bolivia—”
“In ten fucking months!”
“Yes, if—in ten fucking months—you can get enough votes to change the policy, I will impliment the new policy, but I don’t think that this demonstrates egregious malfeasance”—he made a point of using a direct phrase from the Bank’s written policy—“that would require an intrusion from—”
“You axed an eighty-million-dollar tranche in Brazil last month!”
“Completely different!” Vincenzo snapped. “A failed subsidy!” He paused and took a breath. He was becoming truly angry, too, now, too angry to continue, too angry not to continue. “I didn’t cut it because the president of Brazil was saying George W. Bush is an asshole. Personally, I don’t think the Bank should become an instrument for Condoleeza Rice to coerce or bribe favorable policies from poor countries.”
And, although this had seemed like just another jagged point to score in an already jagged argument, when Vincenzo almost immediately realized this marked a key transition. They’d strayed far outside the implicit boundaries of these conversations, and he’d led them there.
When Hamilton put his fork down and said, “You better watch yourself,” Vincenzo knew the conversation was approaching its endgame. All of the major decisions had been made.
“Are you threatening me?” Vincenzo hoped he came off amused, not furious.
Hamilton shrugged, had a sip of coffee.
“If Wolfowitz calls me about this I will go directly to the Washington Post,” Vincenzo said, which was rash, irrevocable, and signaled a definitive transition into endgame.
Vincenzo had been playing chess with Walter at least three days a week for ten years and he’d found that the mid-game was the key to speed chess. At that pace, the opening was all reflex and the endgame was often averted either by a forfeit or time running out, so all the real strategy took place in the middle. One player usually made a fatal mistake in the middle, some apparently innocuous move. And if conversations were most like speed chess in that they were a rapid-fire negotiation of surprising, changing terms, with formalities up front and closing remarks at the end, then the outcomes of conversations were also determined by the decisions made in the middle.
Hamilton picked up his coffee cup again, but then put it down. Vincenzo could hear his own pulse in his head now—the conversation had its own direction, its own momentum, and he was just filling in the blanks.
“Well,” Hamilton said, “you’ll lose your job.”
“And you’ll lose yours.”
“Would it be a consolation?”
“Yes,” Vincenzo said. He could back down, now, he knew, but he didn’t really want to. Stalemate was just that: stale. “I have worked here for twenty-four years,” he said. “They will push me into early retirement. What about you? How old are you, forty-five? If this breaks, you’re done. You’ll be working as an adjunct at some tiny think tank. If you’re lucky, you get to be an associate professor at a university in Ohio.”
“That’s bullshit.” Hamilton’s eyes darted away, and although the gesture was small, in it Vincenzo saw doubt, and judged that he had the initiative.
No one else was in the room, so he said, “If Wolfowitz contacts me about this, I will call the Post immediately. I swear.”
There was a pause. The threat was unprecedented. There existed hallowed, if unwritten, agreements about the sanctity of these kinds of conversations, and talking to the press about them was completely out of the question.
In a five-minute game of chess you can’t always consider the permutations of every move, but must try to work entirely on a broad strategy. This move of his had been a straightforward gambit. In the famous Queen’s Gambit, which Vincenzo rarely used against a strong opponent like Walter, but often against a weaker player, white opened with a defenseless pawn on the queen’s side. If black took the pawn, white could move to gain initiative and take control of the center of the board.
“Is it worth this much to you to make me look like a fool?”
“I don’t care about you, William. That is the truth.”
“Jesus—you came here looking for a fight, didn’t you? What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“I don’t care about you, William,” Vincenzo repeated.
“And you don’t care about yourself either?” Hamilton said.
“There are worse things than being forced into early retirement.”
Vincenzo shook his head, stood up. He buttoned his suit jacket. “I’m telling you that I can live with this. I want to live with it. My wife and I bought a farm in Italy six years ago and I haven’t been there since she died. The house needs a lot of work!” Hamilton’s mouth twitched slightly when Vincenzo mentioned Cristina. It was clear Hamilton really did want him to back off, that Hamilton was afraid of what violence Vincenzo might inflict on them, but Vincenzo couldn’t bring himself to retreat.
And so, at that moment—standing and staring down at William Hamilton in the IMF’s subterranean cafeteria—Vincenzo’s life pivoted, and the lives of millions pivoted with him.
As he walked through the fluorescent-lit tunnel connecting the IMF’s parking garage and the World Bank’s garage, Vincenzo knew that while his job was interesting enough, in the event that this confrontation with Hamilton marked the end of his career, it wouldn’t be so bad. Not really. Despite a gut aversion to the scenario, he knew he could just as easily pass the rest of his life rereading the Russian masters and firing off the occasional angry letter to the Financial Times. More than anything, it was clear to him, as it had been for a while, that he had little left to keep him in DC. His daughter lived in New York, and his friends had mostly moved away. Those who remained in DC were really Cristina’s friends, and despite their generosity, he never felt comfortable with them. They were forever sighing when he was around. While he still saw them once a month or so, he found that they squinted at him often, as though he were out of focus. Do I just remind them of her? he had wondered, And, if so, how sad—because they just remind me of her.
Waiting for the elevator in the World Bank’s basement, Vincenzo returned his attention to the conversation with Hamilton. Both of them had made mistakes, had overplayed their positions.
Over the long weekend, Leonora had said that she thought the World Bank was “basically run by the U.S. government,” which had bothered Vincenzo more than he could explain. It had kept him up at night formulating and editing counter arguments, which he’d never used, because the subject hadn’t come up again. But now, this morning, witnessing Hamilton’s swagger at breakfast—Vincenzo was more than a little dismayed by the way it dovetailed with her comment.
They would not fire him, he knew, because to do so would only exacerbate whatever PR fiasco his going to the press would cause. They’d offer a large severance. Not that money was an issue anymore. This was one of the sadder things about hitting his middle fifties as a widower: suddenly the debts were all gone and the investments were pulling record returns, the house in Bethesda was worth five times what he and Cristina had paid. And yet, apart from his dinosaurian nest egg, he had no significant use for this money. He had begun eating osetra caviar casually, and drinking Barolo with Indian carry out. He had bought that stupid Mercedes-Benz and the new kitchen supplies. It was a mirage, of course, the shimmering apparition of newness.
Vincenzo stood in the elevator alone.
He grasped the wooden railing and stared at his blurry face, bisected by the crack in the brass doors. There were always finger smudges on the doors, especially near the middle, as if someone had been trying to pry them open.
He passed the rest of his morning repeatedly checking his e-mail, waiting for the message from Wolfowitz requesting that he come in for a talk. The phone rang twice, but neither was related. When it rang a third time, Vincenzo saw on the screen it was Wolfowitz. He let it ring three times. He readied himself, and picked up, “Hello.”
“Hello, Vincenzo, how are you?” He sounded light and friendly, even unaware.
“Fine, fine.” He processed Paul’s tone and decided to move cautiously. “What can I do for you?”
“It’s the protestors. I’ve invited their leader up to talk to you. Their complaint involves Latin America, meritless stuff, but we should meet briefly. Don’t spend a lot of time on it. I thought you’d be the man to talk to. His name is, let’s see—um . . . Jonathan Paris. Economics from Yale—good for him. 2002! Wow, he’s a child. Okay, let’s see: magna cum laude—and, well, you get the idea. A frisky guy, so I thought we’d try to mollify. Carrot is better than stick with these people; they live for the stick.”
Vincenzo had only spoken to Wolfowitz a few times and didn’t know whether he was joking. Picturing the jug ears and gnomish features, squinting eyes, he knew Paul really wasn’t as bad as they said, but he was hard to understand at times. Did this have to do with his conversation with Hamilton? It seemed likely. “Did you really invite him up to my office?”
“Absolutely. I’ve met with a lot of them, and they—look, they’re just kids. You’ve got a kid, right?”
“So you understand. At the Pentagon, Don had a policy against even acknowledging protestors, but I figured if it’ll stop them spraying us with pig’s blood, let’s hear them out.”
“Well, Paul, I’ll let you know what this boy says.”
“Great.” And, with that, Paul hung up.
Vincenzo barely had time to recover from the phone call when Jonathan Paris himself, escorted by a lanky North African security guard, knocked on his open door. Vincenzo stood, beckoned him inside, dismissing the guard. Jonathan had a freshly shaved face and an ill-fitting suit, possibly on loan from his father. He was maybe about Leonora’s age—out of college, but not yet acquiescing to the realities of full-blown adulthood. He shook Vincenzo’s hand and flashed a future-politician’s smile, toothy and hollow and curiously beguiling.
“What can I do for you?” Vincenzo motioned for him to sit.
Jonathan ignored the chair. He turned and walked to the window, put his hands behind his back—it was an affected gesture, but Vincenzo sympathized. He often interviewed young men like this for positions at the Bank. They were often handsome and boasted fresh degrees from legendary institutions; they felt, in short, like destiny was in their favor, but they were always the most conspicuously insecure candidates. Jonathan Paris wore his nervousness a little proudly, as if the reticence were itself a product of his morally superior position.
“You can’t hear us from up here,” he observed glumly. He leaned toward the glass, peering down. “You can’t even see us, can you?”
Vincenzo squinted, put his fingers into a steeple, as if this were a very weighty matter.
While sitting at his desk he could see the corner of the IMF’s top floor and a tidy rhombus-shaped swath of sky. “If you rented a hot air balloon, I could see you when I sat at my desk, but I’m guessing that the propane isn’t—” he shrugged, winced, “—it doesn’t burn very clean does it?”
Jonathan turned and smiled at Vincenzo, but kept his hands still latched together behind his back. There was a confidence—affected or not—that felt off-putting in someone so young. Vincenzo was tempted to ask if Jonathan had seen Leonora down there. Green combat boots? He had pictures of her in frames on the shelf. But no, it wouldn’t be appropriate.
“Do you want a cappuccino?” Vincenzo said.
In the elevator on the way down, Vincenzo talked about Leonora. He explained that she had tattoos covering her arms, and that she supported the Rainforest Coalition. He said that she was bright, lived in New York. She had majored in something called media studies at Oberlin. When they arrived at the mezzanine level, he realized it sounded like he was trying to set Jonathan Paris up with his daughter, and then, walking across the buffed travertine floor, he realized he was trying to set Jonathan Paris up with his daughter.
“Oberlin is a good school,” Jonathan said.
At the café, Vincenzo glanced around but saw no one he knew. “Oberlin is also an expensive school,” he said. “And I told her that if she went to a state school, I’d give her the difference. That is, I would give her the money that I saved.”
Jonathan shook his head, amused. “Well, you’re definitely an economist.”
“True. But she could have made a hundred thousand dollars if she’d gone to Maryland. She said no. What does that tell you?”
“It tells me that people have a difficult time seeing the long-term consequences of their actions. We prefer to burn our resources now, deal with the consequences tomorrow.” He smiled at Vincenzo, understandably satisfied.
“That was nicely done,” Vincenzo said, and patted the boy on the shoulder. “That wasn’t what I had in mind, but it was nicely done.” Since they were apparently switching from banter to business, he said, “I think the Bank understands quite well the long term consequences of its actions. What would you like to drink Jon?”
Jonathan did not try to refuse when Vincenzo offered to pay for their coffees. They sat at a table in the corner, and Vincenzo listened to Jonathan talk about the problem of prioritizing short term economic growth over the long term welfare of the planet. He could not have done it better himself, and enjoyed especially Jonathan’s ability to whip himself into an emotional climax that corresponded with the sharpest points of his argument. This part of the conversation was painstakingly choreographed, he knew. The edginess from before, when they’d been improvising, was replaced by a frosty certainty.
Vincenzo wasn’t up for a battle, though it probably would have been easy enough to hand the boy his own head. Instead, he offered a few halfhearted counterexamples—it would be unseemly not to. Jonathan’s argument hinged on a critical misunderstanding of the Bank’s purpose. To him, the Bank wasn’t fair, as if being fair was something they set out to be.
Still, Vincenzo said that the Bank welcomed new ideas. He went on to explain that they were continually adapting their policies; specifically, he said, they had been softening their policies since the seventies. He deliberately used that word, softening, although it wasn’t politic to do so. Then, rushing toward his conclusion, he said, “We are gravely concerned about the deforestation in the Amazon, and we are doing what we can to address that. But our principal goal, at this point, has to be to alleviate the human suffering.”
“Brazil is the richest country in Latin America, by your measure,” Jonathan said.
“There are persistent problems with inequality.”
“What are you doing to try to fix that?” Jonathan was hitting his stride now.
“That’s really a domestic political issue.” The truth was more complicated, but there was no point in trying to explore it with Jonathan Paris. Vincenzo had finished his cappuccino and was eager to get back to his office to await fallout from his argument with Hamilton, or maybe there had been a message from Leonora. When he was at his computer, he sometimes hit refresh on his e-mail again and again and again, as if trying to draw up something new that can’t be drawn up. “Anyway,” Vincenzo said, aiming to deal out a quick coup de grâce, “I thought your position was that we should interfere less in their governance?”
Jonathan shook his head and pursed his lips. “Where did you learn how to make a conversation into a game of dodge ball? God—is there a special school for people like you?”
“Yes, there is.” Vincenzo stood up. “I think you went there.”
When Vincenzo called Wolfowitz’s office the assistant patched him through.
“How are things at the rainforest group?”
“His position was that we shouldn’t favor development over ecology?”
“More or less.”
“But we’re the World Bank, not the World Rainforest Preservation Organization.”
“That’s what I said.”
A pause. Vincenzo looked at his vanilla pudding phone, the butterscotch pudding console. It was awful how little a person had to be concerned, how little a person had to awaken before the whole event—what was now underway—was understood to be useless. As a rule, it was all useless. Every conceivable way of being upset, that was useless, too.
But this hadn’t been an ordinary errand, he decided. It was too convenient a coincidence. So instead of playing the innocent, he thought he’d put Wolfowitz on the spot with a direct question. “Have you spoken to William Hamilton today?”
“No. Why do you ask?” That sounded honest, and Paul wasn’t going to lie, not like that. This was not what Vincenzo had expected. Paul’s question was framed with a distinct forward momentum, which demanded a true and clear answer, so Vincenzo made room, saying, “We had breakfast today. He wanted to talk about Bolivia.” And by now he was starting to wonder if he shouldn’t have just kept his mouth shut.
“Bolivia?” Wolfowiz sounded circumspect. “He wanted to know whether we would be cutting aid.”
“And you told him to get lost?”
“That is exactly what I did.”
“Well done.” Neither of them said anything for a while. Vincenzo was baffled.
So Paul said, “Is that it?”
“Yes, that’s it,” Vincenzo said, and then he saw that it would be better to clarify this all with Paul now than let Hamilton, who now would be roped into the conversation, do the clarifying, so he added, “Except that I told him that if he managed to get me fired over this, I’d go to the press. I said I’d talk to the Washington Post.”
“You did?” A firm pause. “Why did you say that?”
“I was concerned about my job.” This was how things disintegrated.
“Well. Then let me be clear: Bill Hamilton has absolutely no control over your job. None at all. But for you to threaten to go to the press—that’s not sportsmanlike. I appreciate your position, he was trying to bully you, but talking to the press isn’t a parachute for you. It’s not going to save you. If anything, it’s got more in common with a kamikaze’s strategy.’’
“Yes,” he said, but something was shifting in the conversation, and in his understanding of his situation. This wasn’t new information, it was old information seen anew.
Half an hour later, Vincenzo called Walter to say he wanted to go on the record about something that had happened that day at the Bank.
Walter was silent, then cleared his throat. “You aren’t trying to put me into a difficult position, are you?”
“No,” Vincenzo said. If the moment he’d made the decision had to be pinpointed, he’d say it happened while he was talking to Paul. Or maybe just after. Or there was no specific moment, really, just the entire circumstance, just everything about the year, too, and the year before, and the one before that. It was time to drive the boat ashore. In case Walter was still vacillating, he added, “I’m just going on the record about something.”
Walter laughed nervously and then sighed. “Is this something where I have to weigh your interests against my interests? That’s not something I want to do.” He was a barker on the phone, unnecessarily loud all the time. Even in person, he tended to be argumentative and unnecessarily loud.
“No, we have the same interests.”
“Oh, I doubt that.” There was another long pause while Walter groaned, mulling it over. Walter verbalized, perhaps unknowingly, his harsher emotions: groaning (audibly) under his breath at boring people, sighing loudly at exasperating conversations and also, evidently, at friends steering themselves into the weeds. At last, he said, “Fuck it. Okay. Go on.”
Much of the rest of the conversation was a blur, as are most of the truly important moments in life. Those great events always seemed to be formalized in interactions that, when recalled, appeared bright and blurry—like an iridescent watercolor left out in a rainstorm. The memory of his proposal to Cristina was like that, as was the conversation when she told him that she was pregnant. Leonora’s birth: the only remaining image was of the thick dark blood seeping slowly from the freshly cut umbilical cord—and later, in Italy, when Leonora lost her leg, he remembered only huddling with Cristina, her nails digging deep into his wrist, so that he was certain that he would bleed (he did not), while the electric saw screamed in the next room. Of the conversation with the doctor who told him that Cristina was dead, he remembered nothing whatsoever, just a hand on his shoulder. And, of this latest incident, telling Walter about the conversation with William Hamilton, Vincenzo would remember mainly that Walter offered him several opportunities to back out, but he continued.
At one point, Walter even said. “God! Have you talked to Wolfowitz, because I bet he’ll take your side.”
“I actually did talk to him. And you’re right. He took my side.”
“So, what’s the point?” Walter shot back with unusually stark emotion. Like so many of the old guards in the DC press, Walter was a wan and debauched preppy—blond and fond of seersucker in the summer, tasseled loafers whenever; he was Buckley-esque. Still, his mind was a ferocious instrument dulled only around the periphery by years of monomania and heroic boozing.
“I don’t know.” Vincenzo was stuffing his things into a black garbage bag. Things he kept included several nice pens, some pictures, a dull rock he’d found on a hill in Scotland while on holiday with Cristina, some foreign currency, unread mail from the credit union—then he got up and started shoveling files, his crucial outgoing correspondence, into the bag. Things he didn’t keep: everything else. He didn’t keep four other drawers of documents, including letters of recommendation that he’d written.
“Vincenzo, do you have any idea what you’re doing?”
Winded, he paused. The easiest explanation was what Wolfowitz had implied, that this was a kamikaze’s strategy. It had an appealingly straightforward quality: he resented the Bank and he despised himself for participating in its work, so he torpedoed himself into the Bank. Unfortunately, that wasn’t it. Yes, he was exhausted by the Bank’s bloated ineptitude and inefficiency, but this wouldn’t change any of that. William Hamilton was only as cunning as his job required him to be and his request, in retrospect, wasn’t even that inappropriate. Vincenzo had seen worse.
Although even he had trouble understanding why he was doing it, he knew with a white, blank certainty that he wouldn’t regret this. Or, this was the right decision, even if he did regret it. A problem to be sorted out later. There was an opportunity here, today, and there might never be another. The time to act was right now. The way to act was this.
Finally, after ample enunciation of his misgivings, Walter recorded the conversation. He said that he couldn’t wait much later than five before the story was a lock for the next day.
Vincenzo stopped rummaging through his things for a minute. He’d already filled one and a half plastic bags with garbage. He drew a deep breath. Exhaled slowly. “This is the start of something good for me, I think.” He walked over to the window. “It’s—” he shrugged. He leaned forward. Standing there, he could almost hear the crowd below. With his face right next to the glass he could almost see them, but not quite.
Peter Mountford’s debut novel, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, was the winner of the Washington State Book Award and a finalist for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Mountford’s work on The Dismal Science has won grants from 4Culture, Seattle’s Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, and the Elizabeth George Foundation. His short fiction and essays have appeared in the Atlantic, Granta, and ZYZZYVA. He is currently a writer-in-residence at the Richard Hugo House and at Seattle Arts and Lectures.