Kay Cook needs to relax. For her, as for many Washingtonians, the stress levels of 2012 have approached Vise-Grip levels as a city that lives on national politics and federal budgets hurtles toward a too-close-to-call election and a looming “fiscal cliff.”
“Sometimes I feel like I can barely breathe,” said Cook, one of 250 people who gathered at a Bethesda church last month trying to replace the harsh buzz of the moment with the soothing hum of group meditation. They settled and “centered” until even the traffic on River Road softened to a mellow “ooooom.” A sign on the door advised late arrivals to “Park Mindfully.”
But even Zen-ful Washingtonians find it hard to chill right now. After the session, several of the practitioners went right back to fretting — about the election (most are Democrats), about federal spending (many are bureaucrats), about the poor, about health care, about, heck, “everything.”
“I’m so anxious about everything right now, I haven’t even been able to meditate,” said Cook, who lives in the District and volunteers for the Obama campaign.
If cities have moods, then Washington is in a bad one. It has tension. There’s a knot right . . . ouch . . . there, between its shoulder blades. Ask the massage therapists, the bartenders, the career counselors and the psychologists. They’re getting an earful from a city on edge.
Ask a guru.
“People’s stress levels are just really up right now,” said Tara Brach, the popular Buddhist meditation teacher and psychologist who leads these Wednesday-night sessions at River Road UnitarianUniversalist Congregation.
Brach’s large local following, which includes lawyers, media personalities and many who work in and around government, is accustomed to the quadrennial uncertainty of a presidential election. But this year, the region’s collective spring seems more tightly wound than ever.
“So many people are talking to me about being particularly stressed this season,” Brach said. “It just feels more intense this round.”
And if a nail-biter election mixed with a budget battle royal wasn’t enough of a perfect storm, an actual perfect storm hit the East Coast on Monday, wreaking havoc from Virginia to Maine.
This is a season of not knowing important things. Federal managers don’t know what they will have left to manage if negotiators fail to rewrite the sequestration deal to avoid massive spending cuts on Jan. 1. Federal workers don’t know if they will have jobs. Federal contractors have already drawn up contingency layoff lists. Campaign partisans on both sides are gnawing their fingertips. The White House could change hands, as could the Senate.
In the fourth year of a grinding economic downturn, of course, plenty of people are more worried about their next rent check than the next president. But even those who are indifferent to politics can’t escape it. In the final months of a bruising campaign, with millions spent on a relentless loop of falling-sky political ads, the electoral struggle now infuses everything.
“We might be there to talk about a marital issue or anxiety, and there’s Mitt Romney or Barack Obama in the therapy room with us,” said Michael Oberschneider, an Ashburn psychotherapist. “This is something my clients are bringing up.”
At the Sine Irish Pub & Restaurant, a Defense Department hangout at Pentagon Row, manager Marybeth Brown said the threat of massive cuts has dampened not just spirits but business. There were still guys in flight suits speaking in acronyms to guys in ties one recent afternoon, but the monthly numbers are down. The military promotion parties and other private functions have nearly dried up.
“The last time we had a stretch like this was when there was a threat of a government slowdown,” Brown said.
At a table near the bar, Brett Marvin, 37, sat alone with a bourbon and cynicism on the rocks. Happy hour was grumpy hour. The civilian combat analyst for the Marine Corps said he was fed up with politics, posturing and this “maddening” way to run a government.
“It’s such a frustrating time,” said Marvin, who described himself as an idealistic person who wants to serve his country. His paperback copy of David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest” rested on the table. “I just have less and less hope that we’re going to get any responsible leadership from our elected officials. Thinking about all this has taken me to some dark places.”
At Calvert Woodley Wine & Spirits on Connecticut Avenue, customers aren’t buying more — they’re buying cheaper. Owner Ed Sands said he can always spot a citywide funk when folks opt for the lesser of two wines. In recent weeks, the average price has dropped about $5 a bottle. He and other retailers are hoping that the town’s temper doesn’t depress year-end sales.
“I’ve been doing this long enough I can tell what my customers’ mood is,” said Sands, 73. “People are a little apprehensive with the election coming up, no question.”
Real estate agents say the uncertain mood of fall has slowed the robust housing sales of summer. Suddenly, more people have scurried up on the fence, according to Holly Worthington, a Long & Foster agent in Chevy Chase. She thinks they are waiting to see who wins the election and how Congress and the administration will resolve the budget standoff.
Some may be holding back listings with the notion that a White House transition will generate a big churn in Washington real estate. Not going to happen, she said.
“The big churn is a myth,” Worthington said. “When the administration changes hands, those people don’t leave town. They take lobbying jobs. But the distraction of the campaign has caused some anxiety in people’s minds.”
Although lots of people across the country are sweating Nov. 6, the confluence of the campaign and the sequestration battle is particularly hard on Washingtonians, residents of a company town.
“It’s very personal in Washington,” said Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), a daily practitioner of meditation who is promoting the idea of mindfulness in the public sphere. He compares the unease about budget cuts felt in Washington area neighborhoods to what Midwesterners feel when they lose a factory.
“It’s not that different than a plant closing in Youngstown,” said Ryan, whose book “A Mindful Nation” was published in March. “In Washington, that kind of anxiety is tied to an election. You get down to the nervous system, we’re all human beings.”
Of course, the ominous soundtrack to the region’s election-
seasonal mood disorder is provided by the omnipresent political ads. It’s hard to be upbeat when every time you sit down for a little “Modern Family” diversion you are warned, over-and-over again, that your vote is all that separates us from an apocalypse.
“It’s disturbing how much anger there seems to be underneath them all,” said Brigitta Toruno, who owns a translation company in Lansdowne and was paying her first visit to Brach’s meditation class. “I just wanted to watch the ‘Today’ show this morning.”
She, and her neighbors, are counting the days until it’s over. “Can we just vote now?” she asked.