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.

On Keeping Things on the Table

My apartment is disappointing. I know this, because everyone who has ever been inside has remarked on one of its less savory elements, like the fact that I don’t own any tables. Or curtains. Or the fact that the windows don’t open. Or the leak in the ceiling.

This was all news to me – I have remarkably little awareness of the parts of the world around me unrelated to the task at hand, which is why my shoes are always untied and I have to rely on external feedback about my breath. But now others have pointed out that my home is unlikely to attract someone to spend their life with its tenant, I have been moved from disinterest to incessant complaining. How lucky for my friends.

Whenever I start ranting about this, someone will inevitably say “why don’t you just move, then?” This is a completely reasonable question, and I don’t have a good answer. Similarly, if you’ve been around me for any length of time, you’ve either witnessed me drink too much and talk/text unending nonsense, or you’ve heard me be frustrated by my tendency to do so, and an inevitable question of the same kind arises – “why don’t you just stop, then?”

Regardless of the inventiveness of my response, the truth is that if I’m not willing to take any of the more direct steps to fix those problems, then there are some things I consider worth more than their resolution. This isn’t wrong in itself – very few things are ultimate. I consider the lack of men’s 29” length jeans available for sale FREAKING ANYWHERE to be a significant problem, for example, but I wouldn’t want to pass a law requiring stores to stock them. In so doing, it becomes clear that for all my whining, I value certain things about a free market more than I value the convenience of being able to purchase clothes that fit.

This self-awareness of the way we communicate our values is missed from the public sphere sometimes, I think. One common economic conversation goes like this:

Person A: “Corporations are amoral, so we need to obligate them to contribute to the country and pay workers fairly through taxes and wage requirements.”

Person B: “But we can’t do very much of that, because they’ll just go to another state/country, and then what would we do?”

Person B would likely not say they think corporations rather than governments are the final authority in the world, anymore than I would suggest I enjoy beer more than I hate the consequences of drinking too much of it, but the options we consider “off the table” communicate more about what’s really going on in our heads and hearts than the words we say.

When nine people were shot in Charleston ten days ago, the first reaction of several was to say “we must not use this moment to talk about gun control.” Franklin Graham said the problem was not guns, but Hollywood’s corrupting influence. Rick Perry said the problem was not guns, but drugs. Facebook was full of well thought out political discourse, such as memes which said “no one blames the car in a car crash” and “Cain killed Abel with a rock.” Would changes in gun laws have made a difference in this instance? I don’t know the facts or the potential solutions well enough. But when a person’s first/loudest response to a shooting is to protect their right to keep and arm bears, it communicates more than just opposition to gun control. It shows the things they consider less important than maintaining the current levels of access to guns.

On That Speech from That Guy

No hidden fees! No contract! No one forcing you to eat lawn clippings!

Are you interested yet? Does it matter what I’m selling, when the terms are this good? Does it even matter if I know what I’m selling? Do you want to be forced to eat lawn clippings? Those are the choices – my nebulous shadow of an idea, or everyone being forced to eat lawn clippings.

I knew you’d come around.

This is roughly the proposition Ted Cruz offered students of Liberty University last week. Cruz’ speech announcing his candidacy was the first major announcement of the 2016 campaign, and hundreds in the Liberty audience applauded his every word. Almost 40% of Republicans polled this week said they would consider voting for him, twice as many as prior to the speech. I have three questions for them/you/pronouns:

Why are the accomplishments of a leader’s family important?

Cruz’ first 10 minutes were spent describing how his mother and father rose from poverty, prison, and vice into education, entrepreneurship and Christianity. I’m sincerely pleased for them, but I’m pleased in the way I am when people talk about their March madness bracket. I’m glad you’re excited. The difference is that (with a few exceptions) people aren’t trying to get me to change my worldview based on their ability to predict basketball results.

Cruz, however, wants us to believe that his presidency will allow Americans to pull themselves up by the laces of their Converse because his parents did the same. Unfortunately, you cannot simultaneously ask people to like you because your parents were good, hardworking Christians and ask people to like your vision of America where all you need is a work ethic to succeed. I’m not discounting the contributions parents make in instilling the kinds of values needed to contribute usefully to the country, but many of us have had great parents and become total train wrecks, and vice versa. It isn’t relevant to the discussion.

Why are platitudes to which we all can agree important?

“Imagine, instead of economic stagnation, booming economic growth.”
“Imagine young people coming out of school with four, five, six, job offers.”
“Imagine that every single child, regardless of race, ethnicity, wealth, or zip code has a right to a quality education.”

I’m on board with the above quotes. Everyone who runs for office in every country in the West is on board with the above quotes. Perhaps a good rule would be that if every single candidate in a given race could make a particular statement, we shouldn’t applaud it from any candidate. If it’s something that Megan Fox could say if she ran for office, it shouldn’t be enough for a prospective president to gain approval.

Why do you trust someone before they have presented any realistic plans?

Toward the end of the speech, Cruz got slightly more specific about things he would do differently than the current administration:
– Repeal the Affordable Care Act
– Abolish the IRS
– Repeal Net Neutrality
– Repeal Common Core

You might agree with Cruz’ assessment that the current administration has failed in these areas – but he didn’t provide any alternatives, and these aren’t binary issues. “No regulation of healthcare, tax, communication, or education” does not solve the problems created by those issues any more than closing Facebook would have solved the problem that people believed they could “do their part” for American Sign Language by dumping ice water on their heads.

Politicians are often cornered into saying things like “I’d rather people voted for the opposition than didn’t vote at all,” and we seem to associate some virtue with lining up for the ballot booth. I think we can raise the bar a little bit this time. As we gear up for another 18 months of mudslinging, complaining about mudslinging, and some pesky voting at the end of it, let’s make our reactions to this campaign season about specific, positive policies, not personality, platitudes, or unfocused anger with the current regime. Let’s aim to see everyone proud not just to get something that says “I Voted”, but that they cast a vote informed by the specific policies they believe will make our country a better place.

We’re going to need a bigger sticker.

Tonight's Top Story...

Longer pieces never really go well for me on stage (the below is actually long for me…), so I’ve only attempted this once, but as the relevant news story has reared it’s head again, I thought I’d post my notes in written form.

The following is a dramatic reenactment of a recent news story.

Hey Bill, isn’t it great being up here on the 493rd floor of this building?

I don’t know Johnny, I’m getting kind of worried.

Why’s that Bill? Is it because he gave us both the same voices? 

No – something even worse. I’ve heard they’re going to implode the building. 

Oh no! What should we do, Bill? Or am I Bill?

I don’t know, I’ve forgotten. I think we need to get out of here… But I’ve been here on the 493rd floor all my life, since my mother gave birth to me.

Did she had the same voice as us? 

Probably. But the point is, we need to get out of here, leave the 493rd floor before they blow up the building. Let’s go as far away as I can think of, somewhere we will be safe during the implosion… Floor 490.

Are you sure we can get there in time?

Oh yeah, we’ll be fine. Plus, when we get there, there’s a vending machine!

Perfect! Yes! If we run away as far away as we can think of to floor 490 and eat all the food in the vending machine, we’ll definitely be safe when they implode this 10,000 story building.

-That was two bison, running away from the Yellowstone volcano.