Dispatches from the Swamp: How to Sleep-Train Your Lawmakers


Every winter in DC brings an existential threat of a shutdown—not because of Congress, but because of the weather. On any night when snow beyond a gentle dusting is forecast for the next day, the city stays glued to its work phones, waiting for the Office of Personnel Management to tell us whether government offices will be closed tomorrow. In an instant, usually at 10 p.m., phones across the city light up, and joy is absolute (unless you have school-age children whom you suddenly have to entertain). The next day the city is transformed into a snowy world of overjoyed dogs and buried cars and kids on sleds. My Italian-Norwegian friends used to cross-country ski on the National Mall, and then we would all go over to their house for ragú.

Actual government shutdowns dull the languid glory of these snow days with the creeping dread of a coup d’état. Nowhere else in America is it possible for a single action (or inaction) of Congress to freeze the business of an entire city. We of this city are accustomed to being treated like a punching bag by Congress whenever it decides it needs to let off some steam, but three times in five years? It’s starting to feel personal.

During the first shutdown we were here for, the 2013 one where Ted Cruz pretended to be Don Quixote, my wife was deemed essential, and so spent two weeks working grueling hours in an echoing, empty federal building. The second shutdown only lasted one business day, so we made cassoulet. This time? This time we decided to sleep-train the baby.

Five months ago, my wife gave birth to our first child.1 The day after Christmas, suddenly flush with free time, and no work to wake up for in the mornings, we decided to go all in: our approach to sleep training our son was the one the books call, ominously, “extinction.” Essentially, you do the whole bedtime routine, but instead of letting him fall asleep on his mother’s boob, as he had almost every previous night of his life, you deposit him in the crib “drowsy but awake.” This is the language every book uses. You quickly find that this is about as much fun as putting a cat in a bathtub, because “drowsy but awake” in your arms translates instantly and irrevocably to “awake and screaming” the moment his back touches the crib.

The extinction method leans into that screaming. It has the added benefit of simplicity, too: you just walk out of the room and let him cry. And cry. And cry. If you are not a parent it is indescribable; if you are, it needs no description. The point is that the baby has to learn that no one is coming to put it to sleep; it has to do it on its own. I won’t go into the details, because it seems to me that however benevolently intended it may be, most writing about how one successfully trained a baby to do anything has the effect of making readers for whom things did not go so smoothly feel shitty about themselves (this superb piece by Tracy Clark-Flory addresses the problem head-on). I’ll just say that for us, the extinction method worked, and we were jubilant. And more to the point, it occurred to me that while the lock-them-in-a-room-and-let-them-work-it-out approach might not work for all babies, it could be exactly the right approach for the US Congress.

This was in the early days of the shutdown. GOP members of Congress, the sour taste of defeat in their mouths, had ceased showing up for votes. The president was throwing a temper tantrum. If they were going to act like babies, we should have treated them like babies. We should have locked them all in a room together, Democrat and Republican alike, barred the door, and ignored their screaming until they’d worked it out.

But of course, we didn’t. And here we are, twenty days in as I type this, with no end in sight.

Here in the swamp, we tried to put a positive face on the situation. It was like an unscheduled staycation for everybody! Jose Andres, the beloved chef (I literally wrote his name in for mayor) whom Trump tried to sue for $10 million, offered federal employees with ID free sandwiches. Yoga studios offered $5 classes, the Phillips Collection granted free entry, there was free pizza, discount shutdown-themed cocktails, and so forth. At trivia the other night, fully half the team names were some pun involving the word “furlough” (ours was “Fur-locked and Loaded,” but we rightly lost best team name to “Fur Loko”). My wife, who once again was declared essential, is even enjoying being the only one in the office, because she can pump breast milk in there now. Or she was, until day seventeen of the shutdown, when a janitor walked in on her.

But as this stupid, cowardly, pointless tantrum has gone on, that positive thinking has faded into deep, lasting rage. For the last two years we have heard ad nauseam about the consuming rage of the conservative white rural voter. This rage has been sensitively analyzed, dissected, probed. We are told to empathize with it. And sure. Fine. Things are hard all over. But if you think that Trump’s base is angry, you should talk to the people who have to work for him. You want rage? You want frustration? You talk to people who have dedicated their careers to making this country better, only to see that work ignored and undone by people claiming to want to make it great. And now they’re being forced to do it for free.

I will tell you frankly that this time, we aren’t just angry, we are frightened. Because this is the first time a shutdown has been presided over by a president who openly loathes the people who work for him. When he says that he “doesn’t care” that most of the federal employees whose paychecks he’s stopped “are Democrats,” what he means is that he doesn’t care because they are Democrats (at least, in his mind they are; there is no data to suggest this is true). This is the same reason why, shortly after the shutdown began, he jovially salted the wound by canceling a modest cost of living adjustment for federal workers. He actively wants to cut the civil service down to the bone, because sometimes they disagree with him, and the great fear is that this shutdown will help him accomplish that, because people will start to quit.

The paychecks stopped this week. As many federal employees are working without pay as there are McDonald’s employees nationwide. Imagine if McDonald’s started forcing their employees to work for free for weeks on end. There would be riots, hearings, boycotts, smoking craters where McDonald’s franchises used to be. Here in the swamp, we get $5 yoga and sample letters suggesting we offer to paint our landlord’s house.

Maybe you haven’t witnessed any disruption in your life. If not, good for you. But if you flew over Christmas, know that your air traffic controllers and TSA agents (many of whom live paycheck to paycheck) were working for free. If you ate meat or lettuce recently, know that USDA inspectors are missing food inspections. Live in California? Forest fire prevention teams are idle. Joshua Tree National Park is being torn up by assholes. Does illegal immigration keep you up at night, throbbing with anxiety at the thought of unwashed hordes swarming our borders? Bad news: Immigration courts are out of commission, and E-verify, the system that keeps undocumented workers from being hired, is offline.

This may be the stupidest shutdown in American history, but its stupidity doesn’t mitigate its damage. And assuming, as many people across the political spectrum seem to, that the only people this affects are liberal graduate-degree holding elites is exactly like thinking that fast food workers don’t deserve a living wage because they’re all teenagers (their average age is actually twenty-nine, and a quarter of them have at least one child). Only a small portion of the 800,000 workers being stiffed live here in the district. And even if they are given back pay, as they have historically been, this won’t help the army of contractors that the government relies on for everything from food service to sanitation, or the small business owners in areas like L’Enfant Plaza, which becomes a ghost town when all the agencies in the area close.

On Monday, January 14, a DC charity, Bread for the City, will begin providing furloughed workers and contractors who show up with a week’s supply of groceries. That’s where we’re at.

Last night, two furloughed friends and I made a big dinner for essential or otherwise still-working friends. In essence we were trying to recapture the feel of those snowy days and ragú nights. We wound up making Mexican food, not necessarily out of solidarity, but because I wanted to make tortillas from scratch (surprisingly straightforward!).

Once we’d put the baby to sleep—not so much as a whimper—we dug into enchiladas and rice and beans. One friend, let’s call him Eddie, had just quit his job (he doesn’t work in government), and had come straight from his goodbye party from work. Eddie is a brilliant, deeply idealistic person, and his habitual earnestness was augmented by having gotten pretty toasted at his party. He was leaving a job he believed in passionately because the people who ran his company were idiots, and he was in a maudlin mood.

Much of the conversation, inevitably, was about how we were getting through this, and moreover, what we were all supposed to be doing to help, if anything. Civil servants can’t speak out publicly, and their jobs matter to them. But as we talked and drank, trying to maintain some semblance of positivity, Eddie would, in a heartbroken voice, say things like, “Oh my God, guys, what’s happening to our country?” and the rest of us would physically recoil and howl, “EDDIE!” I turtled into my sweater. We couldn’t help it—we reacted to his lack of irony like vampires do to sunlight, hissing and snarling, because irony is, at this point, the only thing getting most of us through the day. Irony is the way we cope with the knowledge that this shutdown probably won’t move the electoral dial a single degree, because no one in America, left or right, seems to give a shit that people across the country are being stiffed by the very government they serve.

And suddenly here we were, seven children shut up in a room together, yelling our heads off while the grown-ups ignored us. I could imagine my son in his room, smirking in his sleep, thinking: now you know what it’s like.


Images provided courtesy of author.


1. The federal government, you should know, provides its employees the legally mandated amount of paid parental leave, which is… zero days. Nothing. Bupkes. Surprise! Instead, federal workers have to burn their accumulated sick days and vacation days to cobble together as much time as they can, usually eight to twelve weeks.

Samuel Ashworth's fiction, essays, and criticism have been published in Barrelhouse, Catapult, Hazlitt, Nylon, the TLS, Roads & Kingdoms, and many others. He is currently working on a novel about the life and death of a chef, told through his autopsy. Find him being overenthusiastic on Twitter at @samuelashworth. More from this author →