On Blue Lake and Beyond

As soon as I got out of the car, I knew the day would go differently than I'd planned. I'd driven up to Blue Lake, a favorite hike of mine 4 miles west of Chambers Lake. Solo hiking is as close as I get to therapy - nothing so far in my life has led me to believe the presence of an expensive judgmental stranger will be useful in unwinding the week, but the sound of a river rushing down the canyon is a pretty reliable path to "calm." I'd spent an excellent morning up here on Labor Day, and was interested to experience the other end of the season. There's plenty of tree cover throughout, and most of the route is marked by blue arrows, pointlessly pointing out that the well trodden bit between the trees is the trail.

Alas, "seasons" are differently defined at 9500 feet, compared to my idyllic foothills city - up there, the snow hasn't cleared by May 13th. Determined to make something of the day, I stumbled ahead, only occasionally ending up groin-deep in slush. For about a quarter mile, I was hopeful that it would get better as I got farther along - that the part under heavier shade from trees would have experienced more snow melt. I went to school in Ault. As with so many areas of life, my optimism remained undimmed until I'd gone far enough that turning around would have constituted significant effort - with the journey back to the car looking equally unpleasant, I conceded it would be a slow, soggy day.

The snow was deceptively firm at first. Like the crispy mashed potato on top of a shepherds pie, it sounds hard when tapped with a fork, but under no circumstances should someone stand on it. Moving tentatively but quickly seemed to be the best strategy. The descriptions of the ground in Lewis' "Great Divorce" came to mind, designed to keep you moving toward the goal by being uncomfortable to stand on for any sustained period. Having no certainty about what precisely was beneath my feet, I rapidly reevaluated the utility of the blue arrows.

And then they ran out. I hadn't noticed last time, not really needing them. Suddenly, I had no more ideas about whether to head north, south, east, or west than I had ideas about which direction actually was north, south, east, or west. Fortunately, snowpack is relatively good at preserving footprints, so I headed off in the direction most feet had printed.  This is a conflicting situation to be in, though - how do I know this person went the right way? Will the footprints lead to a summit, or a corpse? To avoid dwelling on that unpleasant thought, I noticed a dry patch under a tree, and hopped down the bank to rest.

Unable to escape the feeling I was trapped in an overworked metaphor, any energy gained was used in the climb back onto the path. I resumed tracing a stranger's footprints, and felt glad it wasn't possible to confuse a person's shoes with any other animal's paws. One in the eye for all the "dogs are better than humans" people I know. Although a dog  (and a sled) could have pulled me more effectively. Thinking about it, however, so could a car. Which would have had made a far more dependable track.

A discarded Nalgene poked through the snow. This didn't seem like a good sign - no one looking to lighten their load discards their water. On closer inspection, it was full of urine. Why had someone urinated in a container, when the woods are entirely capable of withstanding the deluge? This strikes me as the same sort of person who leaves the plastic film on the screens of their electronic devices. As I pressed forward, I caught an encouraging sight - enough snow had melted to form a viable path. It had been there for a considerable distance, I realized - why hadn't I moved over sooner? Mr. Footsteps hadn't either. Perhaps he, like me, had considered forward progress challenge enough without also looking for better alternatives. Walking on mostly-dry earth was a welcome relief, but the nagging sense it would end soon stopped me from truly relaxing (see "work, why vacations don't" in index).

I've no idea why I assumed summit-or-corpse were the only potential outcomes. Abruptly, halfway from the summit, footprints stopped entirely. It seemed wrong to turn around, at first - I'd been following someone so long, I'd adopted the general direction as my own. One nagging thought crept in as I continued forward, though - If I keep going and this isn't the right direction, what if someone later follows my  steps? 

Out in the woods by myself, thoughts of any impact on my fellow man were far from my mind. Additionally, anyone who has met me would know I come after "spitting into the wind" on the list of reliable navigators. On the other hand, I don't know anything about the footprinter I've been following, either. Any myths we believe about our lives being independent as long as we're "not harming others" vanish when we realize we're imprinting the earth with each forward motion. 

I didn't turn around immediately. On some level, the danger of being an unusually convenient food truck for a bear or mountain lion would at least have spared me the walk back to the car. But it would also have permanently denied me the summit. Retreating back to the blue arrows until the path is more clear felt like defeat, but a summit next month is not a defeat. It's a summit.

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The end of the line (today). 

On Your Left!

I yell that a few times a week at fellow Poudre Trail cyclists. Most often, both I and they are wearing headphones, so it's unclear what the point of this activity is. I suspect my feeling like I've done the right thing is what keeps me doing it, despite the lack of any actual evidence of it's usefulness. Traffic signaling meets virtue signaling. This is also why people buy greeting cards, in case you've ever wondered.

"On your left" is also the way I've generally described my political leanings relative to my circle of friends. The roots of it are easy to identify - growing up in the UK in the 90s, the wave of enthusiasm which brought Tony Blair to power was palpable, even as a nine year old, and it was natural that I'd be interested. As a teenager in the mid 2000s, cocksure of my own understanding about the world like everyone of that age, the U.S. and U.K. governments were busy tearing apart the Middle East and giving massive tax cuts to big businesses. The narrative was easy to understand and had practically made it into the water supply - the American right was evil and the UK left had betrayed their principles. As the decade drew to a close, America had it's own euphoric "Tony Blair" moment, as the right (left) candidate for the moment arrived and was swept to victory. A couple of moments stick in my mind from November 2008:

- A coworker having their car stolen on election night, and claiming she didn't mind, because Obama was president, and so things would work out, somehow.

- My grandmother, in my mum's kitchen, exclaiming "right. So when do we get our free healthcare?"

That wasn't evidence of any lack of understanding of the political process on my grandmother's part, incidentally. It showed her confidence that dramatic change would happen soon - a common attitude among many at the time. But what exactly was the change people wanted? 

Having had the intervening decade to think about it, it's the economic argument of the left which has always resonated with me - with respect to the market, the government's useful function is to encourage enterprise, discourage greed, and use the difference to bring in those at the margins. Increasingly, though, that economic perspective is available only if we also sign up for a raft of unrelated social ideas. Holding radical views such as "the family structure which humans have used to organize themselves for thousands of years is broadly the right one," leads to an immediate divorce from the left. I'm not sure this is wise, and I think it's close to the heart of why 2016 turned out the way it did.

One of the more encouraging noises on this subject was Obama's comment on Marc Maron's podcast that some Americans felt he was more concerned about transgender bathrooms than the economy, and that this was a problem. He was right, but word didn't travel far enough. Six months later, Clinton's proclamation that we need to "make America whole" demonstrated a firm commitment to her social program over any redistributive economic strategy. Even post-election, the left is still drawing lines in the sand in unfortunate places (warning, that site has an autoplaying video. It was difficult to find one which didn't).

Where does this leave us? In two years, four years, six years, will those who think the government should take an active role in helping smooth the rough edges of capitalism still insist on talking loudest about the genital social issue of the moment? I expect they will, unfortunately. 

On your left? I'm not sure. 

 

 

On 2016

“It was a bad year.”

This is the nicest way to express what many people seem to be saying about the past twelve months. Why, though? Because Donald Trump killed David Bowie? Given the political trajectory the year would take, the man who sang “Loving the Alien” and “I’m Afraid of Americans” needed to be silenced early. I think the reason for most people’s 2016 antipathy runs a little deeper.

Facebook noticed something earlier this year which I think helps us understand our current cultural moment: they noticed that people were sharing more content than ever, but the content wasn’t their own. (note to Bloomberg, I would happily have linked to your original version of this story, but it has an autoplaying ad. Please stop urinating in the internet swimming pool).

In years past, users shared their status (words about how they were doing) and their photos (evidence of how they were doing). Lately, users mostly share links to other content – badly filmed youtube clips of a stranger’s kids not actually doing anything interesting, quotes wrongly attributed to Stephen Fry, etc. Most commentary at the time explained that this was due to privacy concerns – the wider our virtual circles, the less we want to share with everyone inside them. I think this hints at the right idea, but it’s much more basic: our lives are complicated, and we don’t know how to express that, so we opt for cat videos.

“How are you?” is a stupid question to ask under most circumstances. That’s not a novel observation, but I think it gets at the heart of hashtag expletive 2016. When asked to take stock of the past year, we generally talk positively for the same reasons we ungrammatically say “I’m good” when asked how we’re doing – the actual answer is tricky, and if we have to pick one of the two binary options, we’ll opt for the one with fewer follow up questions. In 2016, the tide turned, and the usual response to “this year sucked” is a reassuring nod followed by “I know.”

Collectively, we’re all understandably jumping on the opportunity to have feelings affirmed which are usually left unexpressed. But does that mean it was a bad year, really? Or are we all so lacking in relationships deep enough and safe enough to process the good and the bad honestly, that we run toward generalizations which let us validate our more painful experiences? 2017 will be terrible and wonderful, full of celebration and sorrow. Here’s to knowing and being known by those with whom we can share all of it

On 2015

January 1, 2015, 12:00am. 

Just in time to count down to the new year, I finish bluffing my way through Mustang Sally on the bass, subbing in for a musician who didn’t arrive. I play the bass roughly as well as I do car repair – given enough time, manuals, and privacy, I can almost get to “adequate.” On this occasion, I had none of those, and with added pressure – this song was always my dad’s show piece when he used to play bass in a band. It’s a good thing he wasn’t also 30 feet in front of me (oh, wait, he was).

January 1, 2016, 12:00am.

Paper Bird are about 1/3 of the way through their set at the Oriental Theatre in Denver, and they stop to count down to the new year. They break out a bottle of champagne to give all the band a drink, and foolishly leave the still-mostly-full bottle close enough to the lip of the stage for the front row to grab. It was never seen again. The fog machine which ran for a couple of minutes before the band came on appears to have been a waste of money, as the audience supplied plenty of their own, uh, fog.

These were both lighthearted, fun bookends to a difficult year. I’m conscious as I’m writing this that compared to most of the world throughout history, it was an unbelievably good year. I had heath, food, shelter, and iDevices. I saw some unbelievable live bands (nights watching The Decemberists, U2, and Jon Foreman will all hold a special place in my memory). I spent a brilliant week in Chicago with my dad and sister where we ran around being tourists 18 hours a day yet somehow didn’t have pizza, a hot dog, or go to Wrigley, and spent another brilliant week here in FoCo with them recovering. Got a promotion. Objectively, it was an excellent year.

Disjectively (does he know that’s wrong, or is he just playing with us? or is he not sure, and using this overdone device to hedge his bets?), it felt like a year in which I didn’t know who I was.

I have yet to accomplish some of the basic “adult” things – having a partner, kids, house, minivan. I attempted the last one in February, but only made it halfway. In the past, I’d have said this didn’t bother me much day-to-day, as there was still plenty of life to get on with. I didn’t realize how much of a lie that was until this year – in truth, not having a personal life in which to find my identity was only possible because I found my identity in my work life. In 2015, I went through the most difficult period in 5 years at my current job, and found myself undone.

Running out of parts of life to find optimistic is an annoying mental exercise. The running-in-a-swimming pool feeling of our worst days is a common experience, but this year it felt as though the steps along the side to get out had been removed. Nothing truly significant was ever wrong, but however much I knew that intellectually, it rarely made a difference to my emotional state. This made me a terrible friend, as I often blew off people I cared deeply about in order to chase after any misguided interaction which might improve my personal or work life, or to wallow in self pity alone. Or, worse, to go and drink.

I am about as good at self control as I am at car repair or bass playing, and Fort Collins offers many delicious hop-and-malt-based recipes for disaster. It’s an ugly journey from going for a drink because you’re lost in the world to accidentally finding yourself asleep in the bathroom of a Five Guys you went into because you’d been out too long. It’s a slippery, greasy, salty, cajun seasoned slope. It’s remarkably counterproductive, too – the proverbial highways of 2015 are littered with relationships crashed by my drunken text messages. Note to self, replace all metaphors before posting.

Over the course of the year I would recognize this, and stay away from the bars for a few weeks, but the symptoms only stay away as long as you treat them – as soon as I thought I’d regained control, I’d lose it. The reasons I was frustrated didn’t change just because of a few weeks of looking for different distractions – I was still seeing all of life through the lens of things I didn’t have. I still hung my identity on things which could fall away at any moment.

The wise thing to do would be to wait to write until there’s a neatly packaged ending, until a newfound appreciation for the rule of a sovereign, good creator over the world has given me rest in my current (objectively fine) circumstance. That would be a bit dishonest, though. I’m grateful for these two weeks at the end of the year to reflect and start to see more clearly, but I’d hesitate to declare any further progress than that. Whatever else 2016 is about, it can’t rise or fall based on finding a partner, being successful at work, or anything else so terribly circumstantial. Reasons to live need far stronger foundations.

Here’s to the future. I’ll report back in 2017.

On Economics

Woman Receives Sentence for Welfare Fraud

Entrepreneur Defends Price Increase of Daraprim Drug

These two stories have the same plot – “person uses economic system unethically to their own advantage.” That one of them is filed under the website directory “crime” and the other under “business” only reflects the reality – the welfare fraudster is thwarted by the rule of law, and the biotech extortionist faces “the court of public opinion,” who pursue the case only for as long as clicks generate advertising revenue.

These stories reduce our thinking about economics to something like “humans are fundamentally self interested, so the only system which will cause a society to prosper is one in which it is in everyone’s self interest to make as much as they can.” This line of reasoning only works in the abstract, however – our daily experiences are filled with good, hardworking people who hit rough patches from time to time for thousands of complicated reasons. It’s also impossible to apply with any consistency – the benefit cheat is used as proof that such programs should be stopped, and the person driving up the price of vital drugs is merely an unfortunate side effect of a system to which there is no alternative.

In various parts of the world, people are wondering if there is an alternative. The reelection of Syriza in Greece, Jeremy Corbyn winning the Labor party leadership in the UK, and the pace at which Bernie Sanders’ campaign is gathering momentum are all evidence of a willingness to challenge some basic ideas which have ruled the West for decades. In response, some are just putting their hands over their ears – when challenged about the lack of affordable housing, the UK Prime Minister explained the most important strategy to solving the issue was growing the economy, not doing something practical like introducing lower down payments for people who are planning to actually live in a house rather than rent it out for twice what people can afford. In the US Republican debate recently, the only thing more certain to get a round of applause than bashing the current administration was to use the phrase “I will never support a policy which makes it more difficult to do business in America.”

I have no idea where any of this will lead over the next few years, but I’m optimistic that there could be a more reasoned debate about these things. Maybe we could lose the assumption that profit rules the world, and that all of life is figuring out how to best build a society around that reality. Maybe flawed people with huge potential for good and bad elected by other flawed people with huge potential for good and bad run the world. We need systems which fight our tendencies toward laziness and greed, and help us when our lives are impacted by others’ similar tendencies. We don’t need systems which assume one is morally wrong and the other is inevitable.

A friend and I got into a heated conversation about this issue a couple of years ago which amusingly lead him to exclaim “It’s social darwinism!” quite aggressively to a surprised server who had come to refill our water glasses. That’s not particularly relevant, but it’s good to end on a joke.