Starting today, masks are required when out in public where I live. It was announced a week ago, so I’ve been wearing one whenever I’m out since then to get used to it. I am not enthusiastic about it, for reasons I’ll outline below, but I’ll comply for two reasons:
Any steps we can take toward reopening society are good ones, and people seem to feel we can reopen more quickly if everyone wears a mask.
Many people seem to be reassured by them, or become anxious when around people who aren’t wearing them, so it seems like a reasonable courtesy to extend.
There are a vocal group of people opposed to mandatory face coverings. As noted above, I think it’s better to wear one even if I disagree with the requirement to do so - the law doesn’t compel enthusiasm, thankfully, only compliance. But there’s something about the tone of the conversation which bothers me - people tend to view anti-maskers as backward hicks, throwing a temper tantrum because of a perceived inconvenience. Why don’t they just shut up and do as they’re told?
It’s easy to see why many people are quick to be in favor of masking up. There’s a solid common sense argument - the virus is mainly spread by fluid emitted from nose/mouth traveling through the air, a mask would lower your emissions, so to speak. I think there’s an element of being seen to be doing something good, also; wearing a mask is a physical incarnation of sharing a post about a worthy cause. But there might just be reasons to be skeptical. I can think of two.
Evidence of Their Efficacy is Scant
There’s huge overconfidence on the part of the pro-mask community. Phrases like “Wearing Masks Saves Lives” are bandied about as though they were axiomatically true. But here’s the conclusion from this piece from the British Medical Journal arguing in favor of mass mask wearing:
In conclusion, in the face of a pandemic the search for perfect evidence may be the enemy of good policy. As with parachutes for jumping out of aeroplanes, it is time to act without waiting for randomised controlled trial evidence. A recently posted preprint of a systematic review came to the same conclusion. Masks are simple, cheap, and potentially effective. We believe that, worn both in the home (particularly by the person showing symptoms) and also outside the home in situations where meeting others is likely (for example, shopping, public transport), they could have a substantial impact on transmission with a relatively small impact on social and economic life.
The authors laudably acknowledge that there are no certainties here - they can’t say for sure that wearing a mask prevents transmission of COVID-19. They just think there’s a chance it might be better than doing nothing. Maybe. This line of reasoning has merit, to be sure, but what it does not represent is incontrovertible proof that You Must Wear A Mask. Given that, I think it’s reasonable to be uneasy about “there’s a chance it might be better than doing nothing” forming the basis for a legal requirement.
Liberty Only Ever Flows One Direction
I can well remember flying pre-9/11. I got on a plane in July 2001 and July 2002, and the two experiences were unrecognizable. Virtually overnight it became a viable occupation to harass weary travelers about the size of their toothpaste tube, in the name of national security. I was 13 at the time and naively thought “it will all go back to normal soon.”
It’s been 19 years, and all those restrictions are still with us. Why? Because giving liberty back to people is really difficult. Governments have an instinctive opposition to it, because they exist to tell people what to do. But it’s not just power hungry officials - people like being told, as well. In the case of airports, the argument for a return to 1990s security standards will be opposed by someone saying “you can’t prove that no one will die as a result of this change.” And it’s true, you can’t. Similarly with COVID-19 - how many deaths per year are acceptable in order to take our masks off? It’s a really tricky thing to try to unwind.
All kinds of extraordinary powers - restrictions on assembly and much else besides - are being invoked in the name of Coronavirus. There’s been no democratic influence over this process, and this latest example is government regulation about what you must wear when you leave the house. I don’t think people are irrational to be unhappy about that.
To people who don’t want to wear masks: consider being unhappy about it and wearing one anyway, because you care about the feelings of those around you, and because we might all get our society back sooner.
To people frustrated with those who don’t want to wear masks: consider that masks are a matter of opinion, and people with different opinions to yours aren’t automatically bad. If you find this unacceptable, the TSA is hiring.
Coordinate leaving the house clean and dressed with everything I need for the day
Drive to the ferry terminal
Ride the ferry for a hour. Do some work or read the newspaper(‘s iPad app)
Walk from the ferry terminal to the office
Try in vain to fit in actual work around the chaos of instant messages, meetings, drive bys, urgent emails, and the sounds of other people dealing with the same
Retrieve the salad I put in the fridge earlier, try to convince myself it’s better than finding food downtown, remember that I don’t have time to find food downtown, eat the salad
Try in vain to fit in actual work around the chaos of instant messages, meetings, drive bys, urgent emails, and the sounds of other people dealing with the same
Walk to the ferry terminal
Ride the ferry for an hour. Usually have a beer with Troy
Drive home. Usually drop off Troy first
Work, no longer interrupted because everyone else has stopped for the day
Go to sleep
For the last 2 years that I’ve lived here, this has been the vast majority of my Mondays-Fridays. In quaran-time, it’s been more like this:
Wake up a bit later
Clean self and teeth, put on jeans and a t-shirt
Work, still interrupted but somehow with more time overall to focus
Collect salad from fridge, convince myself it’s better than DoorDash. Remember how expensive DoorDash is. Eat salad.
Work, still interrupted but somehow with more time overall to focus
Work, no longer interrupted because everyone else has stopped for the day
Go to sleep
The new world involves more work, more intentional exercise, and is altogether less interesting. And yet, if I think about going back to how things were in the before time, it sounds exhausting. I should say at this point that I’m aware I’m at the very bottom of people impacted by Covid. I have a job I can do from home, a home with enough space to work, and nobody else to have to organize around. There are things I wish were different in life in general, but specifically related to this crisis, I’m unbelievably fortunate. This piece isn’t about my personal circumstance, though.
Very few of the things we do throughout the day are done by conscious choice. After the first time or two, I never actively thought about how to do the drive to the ferry terminal, or whether I want to walk up the steep hike from 1st to 8th avenue to get to the office, or any of the other autopilot actions that keep us going throughout the day. And the longer we’re unable to do those things, the more those habits are being eroded. We’re going to have to relearn a lot of things.
Not just work-day related things, either. Some of us used to go to church, which meant getting up in time to be presentable on one of the days when you don’t have to. We might pretend to be virtuous and say this was always a positive, thought-out choice, but for most people, most of the time, it was habit. It’s a muscle which is atrophying, one we’ll have to train all over again, and naively we assume it’ll come back naturally. It won’t be easy.
Social interactions are not generally between people equally enthusiastic about them. Some people can’t wait to go meet x friend/check in on x relative/etc., and other people reluctantly go, knowing it’s the right thing to do, and, as with all habits, having had certain mental patterns worn in through positive reinforcement. By the time we get to use them again, the paths we travel down on autopilot will be overgrown with months of anxiety, apathy, and much else besides. It’s difficult to imagine now, because we’re all full of frustrated energy - the positives of brewery patios and coffee shops and whatever else we miss looms large. But it’s coming.
When the starting pistol fires for a return to real life, some people are going to find, perhaps to their surprise, that they don’t want to. It might be you. Or me. But we should be prepared for it. Much good has been said and written about the ways we need to bear with one another as everyone has different and unpredictable reactions to life under lockdown. I think we’re going to need just as much forbearance and patience for all of our unpredictable reactions when we’re eventually released.
A year after our old band played our last gig, I wrote some reflections. Having just rediscovered them, here they are a decade later.
March 12, 2010 – myself, Mike Korth, Will Caudill, and Neil Sheets gathered together with a bunch of friends at the Crabtree Brewery in Greeley, for what turned out to be the last Expiration Date gig. We didn't intend for it to be the last one, but nothing lasts forever, life moves on, and other vague cliches to explain that it just sort of didn't ever happen again. I'm pretty nostalgic by nature, the past almost always looks better after it's happened than it did at the time, and a year since the last gig seems like a good opportunity to remember a couple of my favorite moments.
August, 2005 – Grand Island, Nebraska:
We had seen a battle of the bands go down in this place the year before, and naively thought "let's come back next year and win this thing." Upon arrival, we discovered that there was only 1 other band competing – our confidence increased at this point, surely we, a band from Nowhere, Colorado, who had played about 2 gigs so far, would be miles better than whatever 'other' band had kindly agreed to open for us. We didn't have any gear in those days, so we spent the hour before the competition frantically trying to borrow drums and amps, then we arrived on stage and realized we'd forgotten to tune our instruments. Several awkward minutes passed as we got everything in tune, and we were ready to begin the set. First, however, I released a very loud, accidental burst of feedback – I wasn't used to the amp, you see. So, with the judges looking at their watches and covering their ears, and with a glare coming from the guy whose amp I'd borrowed that would definitely turn me to stone if I looked him in the eye, we played our first song.
I won't speak for the other two, but I know my playing and singing were filled with wrong notes and missed words, it took about 4 minutes into the set for all of our confidence to be blown away. We stumbled through for about 20 minutes, and then took second place. Of 2. The judges comments that particularly stuck with me were "I like your song titles", and "you're on your way to being a good garage band."
October, 2005 – Briggsdale, Colorado:
This wasn't an Expiration Date show - we'd been asked to come out to a church to play some...well, church music, for an evening – we didn't do any of our songs, but what makes this stick in my mind was the soundcheck: We'd been toying around with a weird song I wasn't really sure about called Back2Earth – we made a run of it in the afternoon to warm up for the Briggsdale gig, and a run of notes came out of Will's bass for the first time that would come to define that song and our band for the next several years. I still dislike the lyric to that song intensely, whining about problems with girls is sort of the lowest common denominator of songwriting, it just always felt like we should have been better than that, but for whatever reason it was a favorite track from this moment until the end. Mainly, I think, because of Will's fantastic bass playing.
January, 2006 – Ault, Colorado:
Some late night in early 2006, I got an instant message (remember those?) from Will asking if his friend Mike could join the group. Now, in those days I was hesitant to have an opinion about anything in the band – as the front man and songwriter, I felt like I had too much control already, so any time any of the others expressed an opinion, I was pretty eager to do whatever they wanted. So it was agreed that Mike would join us at our next practice. I can't remember why I didn't bother to ask if Mike could play the guitar, but the first practice with him on board revealed that we had forgotten to check that detail. We kept him low in the mix for about 9 months, and he turned into quite a good guitar player – Mike is one of my closest friends these days but I still don't recommend jumping into someone's band without knowing what you're doing as the beginning of a friendship.
May, 2007 – Toad's Tavern, Denver, Colorado:
This was the only gig we ever filmed or recorded, and I was very pleasantly surprised that we sounded... like a band. I have no idea what has happened to the dvd in recent years, but it was a great night and a confirmation that maybe we were on to something. It seems silly now, but the other thing I recall about that night was how intimidating bars were when we were all under 21. Not only had we come into this place when it really felt like we shouldn't have, but all the people who were coming to see us weren't going to be drinking either... Not a great night for the Toad's bank account, but a wonderful night for us.
September, 2007-July, 2008 – Blind Dog Studios, Longmont, Colorado:
During several evenings and weekends over these months, we laid the tracks to an album that will probably never be released. It's almost totally done, but as we don't really exist anymore it feels a bit strange to think about working on it again now. A couple of things learned in the studio – first, in the studio, there are only opinions. On stage, it's a lot more objective – something either works in front of an audience, or it doesn't. If you're unsure, you can try it in front of a few different audiences, but eventually, you'll know. In the studio, you don't have any of that. You can have people you know there with you, you can have some friends listen to some rough mixes... but you only end up with one finished product, and however much you've worked on it, you only think it's great. You don't know. The other thing I discovered in the studio, was that people have opinions different to mine. In live situations, everything goes by so fast that you let most things go, but in the studio, if you play something that someone else thinks is awful... it can be listened to again, and everyone can weigh in. You discover very quickly whether or not you're on the same page musically in the studio, and we are all very different people.
March 12, 2010 – Crabtree Brewery, Greeley Colorado:
2009 and 2010 were pretty lean years for us, I think we played 3 gigs, of which this was the last. We'd made friends with some people who run some poetry slams in Greeley, and they asked us to play about 20 minutes between each of the rounds... so 5 sets over the course of a few hours – it made for a great evening. Because we'd played so little lately, I was expecting a disaster of a gig, but this worked out really well. They hadn't set up the main part of the brewery where they normally have gigs, because they didn't expect anyone to show up, so we were crammed into a corner by the bar.... which meant the place was pretty packed even if there were all of about 40 people there. It was a hot, loud room, of friends and fans who knew most of the words better than we did, and fittingly, the last song we played was It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine). We "debuted" a new song that night, funnily enough, so that audience was the first and last audience to hear 'I'm Not.' And now, We're Not.
These proposals risk triggering a race to the bottom on rights and protections: putting food safety at risk, cutting environmental standards and workers' rights, and opening up our NHS to a takeover by US private corporations. This sell out deal won't bring the country together and should be rejected. The best way to get Brexit sorted is to give the people the final say in a public vote.
I'm no fan of the prime minister, and no particular enthusiast for the agreement with the EU he's negotiated (though it could certainly be worse), but Corbyn's argument here is the worst kind of snobbery. As the argument goes, the EU has been a vanguard of high standards in all kinds of areas, and we can't remove ourselves from EU regulations because future UK governments might choose to lower those standards.
Only if future UK voters elect a government on that basis, Jeremy. This argument suggests UK voters can't be trusted with such choices, because some of them might be conservatives, so such important issues must be safeguarded by the EU. There may well be good reasons to reject the new deal for leaving the European Union, but fear of UK voters can't be one of them.
Crazy hair. Talks endless nonsense, most of it verifiably false. Alleged by many to have achieved his political objectives only by Russian interference.
Did the UK just elect a "British Trump"?
This has been suggested to me by enough people today that I thought I should write about it. The idea was not helped at all by Mr 45 himself drawing the same comparison. It's not quite true, but there are some interesting parallels.
Alexander Boris Dpfeffel Johnson (was there ever a full name more fun to pronounce?) is certainly not Prime Minister material. A journalist by trade, fired from multiple newspapers for printing things which weren't true, he entered politics after promising his boss at a UK magazine that he wouldn't do so. He will not confirm the number of children he has, or by how many hapless mothers (best guesses run at 7 and 4 respectively). So how does such a man come to lead the 5th largest world economy?
Two important things have died, which I think can help explain this.
Boris, like The Donald, puts on a patriotic show. Trump lacks the intellectual capacity to do anything other than hug a flag and wear a red baseball hat, but Boris can recite Kipling and speak with gusto about Perfidious Albion, which endear him to a crowd who long to belong. Many in the U.S. and the U.K. scorn patriotism because they view their own country's history as so tainted as to overcome any national pride. But millions of people don't feel this way, and instead see their country as the largest possible rallying point. If some say with a straight face that "what we have in common is our diversity," everyone else can see through this to look for a common identity, and find it in their homeland.
Trump does this to position the whole world as America's enemy, challenging other nations to a fight. Boris' patriotism, by contrast, views Britain's interest as best furthered by getting along with as many other countries as possible. What he doesn't accept is the tendency of many to sing "imagine there's no countries, it isn't hard to do, nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too." Lennon wrote many great songs, but the naivety of Imagine has been evidenced by every syllable of recorded time both before and after he wrote it.
If the death of Patriotism gives Johnson and Trump a launch pad, the death of Truth gives them a rocket.
Listing Trump's fallacies would use up the rest of the internet, and I'm already at 75% of my data for the month. Johnson, though, is interesting. Last week, at the final "debate" between Boris and Jeremy, the man sadly tasked with playing his opponent in The Hunt Fore Gone Conclusion, Boris produced a fish. He then explained that as a result of EU legislation, fishermen now had to include expensive ice pillows when shipping their fish, the cost of which nearly drove them out of business.
Except this isn't true. The fish packing rules are imposed by the British. It also doesn't stand up to any logic (who is going to argue in favor of putting rotting fish in the mail, except when sending in payment for parking tickets?). But the crowd laughed and laughed, and applauded Boris' patriotism for wanting to stick it to those continental European busybodies. Alternative facts abound.
Is there a way out of all this? The left need to learn that people naturally love where they live, and spending all of your energy talking about the sins of the fathers will give rise to those who salute the flag, whatever their motives. The right, by contrast, need to discover veracity. You might brush off the lies of your own side for the sake of political point scoring, but the measure you use will be measured against you - there will be no room to complain about socialist economic projections in 10 years if you play fast and loose with the truth when you're in control.
I maintain that "British Trump" is unfair to Boris. A philanderer and a clown he may be, but no worse than that. It's more like the UK found and elected a British Jeff Foxworthy (no doubt with a collection of "you might be a redcoat if..." jokes).
There's another reason I'm worried by Trump and not by Johnson. In the U.S., the executive branch sprawls across every public appointment such that the Senate spends most of its time approving the civil service. Trump has seen fit to fill the cabinet with wholly inadequate cronies, like the winner of an elementary school class election declaring his lardiest friend "the King of Lunchtime!"
But in the U.K., by the grace of the past, elected politicians hold all the great offices of state. So, for better or worse, Boris' pool of acolytes is limited to those whom voters have already endorsed. The one good thing he did while Mayor of London in the aughts was to establish under him a reasonably competent cadre of deputies, who were happy to keep the city lights on while their boss took all the credit. This same pattern seems likely to repeat itself, and so long as Team Johnson has the rudder while Alexander DePfeffle shouts nonsense from the deck, the U.K. will enter the 2020s with far less damage to its democratic institutions than the U.S. will.
If there's a more British ending to a column than quiet, conflicted optimism, I'm not sure what it is.
As this post talks about work a bit, I note here that this doesn't reflect the opinions of any past or present employers. Timelines are deliberately ambiguous, in the same way a comic will say "the other day" to signify some time between forever ago and never.
"When people say their processes can't be automated, it means they have data the rest of us don't have, but need to get."
"This year we're going to work on moving from being a business that succeeds because of its people to one which succeeds because of its processes."
This thinking isn't new - those lines came from conversations a decade apart, one right as I was getting into the job market, one more recently. It's easy to understand why a business wants to ensure their operations don't rise or fall based on the knowledge of an individual. I've heard this called "The Bus Factor," (I thought by Joel Spolsky, though I can't find his reference to it) - the number of people who can be hit by a bus without threatening the success of a project. Theoretically, a high bus factor is ideal for everyone involved - the team as a whole is stable and secure, and no one has their vacations interrupted by frantic conference calls because they're the only person who knows the procedure for turning the conveyer belt on.
In practice, this isn't always so simple. Setting up a task so that anyone could step in and do it makes a person feel their work isn't valuable or appreciated. Most people have seen the lower bound of this problem:
EMPLOYEE: In some ways I'm the most crucial person here, because if I don't do my job none of our orders are processed.
TRANSLATION: I open the mail.
EMPLOYEE: I know this is true, because when I'm not here, no orders are processed.
TRANSLATION: When I go home, I take the mailbox key with me.
Similarly, the upper bound is easy to recognize - most of us don't want any medical procedure done by a project manager who took a nurse out to coffee and asked for a quick summary of the high level problems they face. Not all jobs can be figured out on the fly by a person of reasonable intelligence. But the space in between is harder to evaluate - which problems really need to be solved by people with years of expertise, and which can be reduced to just-in-time processes?
I've worked on both sides of that divide, and in general the Process Analysis Consultant is given the benefit of the doubt, with any failures excused because the experts on the ground didn't tell effectively communicate every detail they had acquired in years on the job in a thirty minute meeting. It is rare that someone concludes "maybe we should have trusted someone who knew what they were talking about."
The tendency to devalue hard-won knowledge spills over into other areas of life, too. John Finnemore's sketch about a pub argument being ruined by smartphones suggests that we used to be ignorant before we could look everything up online, but I think this perspective is backward - we used to actually know things. Our access to the sum of human knowledge is better than ever in the smart phone age, but the sum of human knowledge only increases by people synthesizing things they already know to produce new insights. The fewer things we already know, the less this synthesis happens.
I was talking to someone the other day who grew up in the neighborhood I currently live in. At least, I think they did. They referenced many places I had heard of, and told me where they lived in relation to those. Do I possess the information needed to visualize those places and how they intersect? Definitely not, I get around blindly following the maps on my phone (worse, they're Apple Maps). Most of the time, I get where I need to go, but my understanding of the place where I live, and my interaction with the people who live here, is greatly diminished because of the connections I can't make. It takes expertise I don't yet have.
Is there a better way forward? On the business side, I wonder if the affordance we give to people with MBAs but no subject matter expertise might be just as useful working the other way. If we gave more subject matter experts the chance to learn other business skills, we might discover it's the Consulting Process Analysts whose roles can be quickly learned on the fly with no prior experience. As for recapturing the need to actually know things in the rest of our lives, it will take bitter experience for us to see the light... as we catch our partner slyly opening a dating app to make sure they have our name right, before introducing us to their parents. Sometimes it's worth really knowing things.
It started with the longest, happiest sigh. In early summer 2012, I returned to an empty apartment for the first time in two weeks, having had my dad and sister over for a vacation. The warm afterglow of fond memories together with the still peace of a house to myself made for an excellent mood. A friend of my sister's had suggested The Decemberists' The Crane Wife as good driving music during our road trip, and we'd added the title track to whosever iPod was in charge. She was right, it was an excellent open road song, and I made a note to check out more of their stuff when we came home. I'd heard of the band, as 2011's The King is Dead was a favorite among some friends, though I hadn't listened to it myself as that particular group of friends had a musical vocabulary completely foreign to me, and I felt it'd be easiest to remain ignorant rather than risk mispronouncing Bon Iver as "Sufjan Stevens."
And so, alone in my apartment with no risk of getting anything wrong, on that hot June evening in 2012, I investigated their latest release, and discovered it was a live album from the King is Dead tour. I was already excited about this, as I generally find live albums more enjoyable than their studio predecessors, and it provided a good way into their whole catalog. We All Raise Our Voices to the Air made me an instant convert to The Decemberists, and to this day that album brings to mind dozens of sunny afternoons cycling along the Poudre river, as the horrifying story of The Rake's Song stealthily invaded my brain through a catchy guitar riff.
2015's "What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World" was the first album they'd released since I'd been a fan, and it was a vast array of styles and perspectives. Or, said more pessimistically, it was bloated and directionless. I think both perspectives are probably right in their way. But the title could just as easily be applied to their latest effort - 2018's I'll Be Your Girl is a short, focused, often whimsical look at the sad state of things. Waiting three paragraphs to get to the record is perhaps why I haven't written more reviews.
An acoustic guitar fades in to kick things off, as Colin Meloy pleads for something to go right in "Once in My Life." It's a risky ploy, singing about how difficult things are, as you release your eighth studio album and head out to play to thousands of fans every night as part of your band's seventeenth year. But everyone has someone above them keeping them down, and in any case, problems start far further back than this record if all Decemberists' lyrics must be explicitly autobiographical. A bright synth strides atop the guitars and drums to carry the vocal along, and the amount of melody and interest they manage to wring out of the piece is genuinely impressive, as the song has about six lines.
"Cutting Stone" is the album's nadir. Some more synth runs initially threaten to take the song somewhere notable, but as the same two melodic ideas repeat themselves, three minutes twenty seconds seem to take a very long time. Sequencing as track two a song best suited to a Best Buy Exclusive bonus cd (even after they stopped selling cds) was an unfortunate choice, but the first notes of Severed immediately wrestle back the listener's attention. Severed was the pre-album single, and it announced a bold new direction, all verbed out guitars and vocals held together with unexpected keyboards. It features Meloy at his most directly anti-Trump, as the President proclaims he's "gonna leave you all severed." As words put in the mouth of the commander-in-chief go, "don't you get clever" surely ranks as some of the more poetic, apropos, and sad. Severed also represents the album at it's most experimental, to allay the fears of fans of the band's earlier work. No further pages of the Nord 2 manual are explored.
"That's a very high note" is likely the next thought from the listener, as "Starwatcher" comes in with it's military drums and warnings of evil ahead. It's the first in a trio of songs direct from the center of The Decemberists' wheelhouse. "Tripping Along" lets a lazily strummed clean guitar lull the listener into a state ripe for being jolted awake by the next track, in the same way the ticking countdown from "24" used to leave us vulnerable to the VERY LOUD FOX COMMERICALS. The energetic "Your Ghost" would be slightly more enjoyable had it not already been released as "The Infanta" several years ago, but adds an excellent instrumental break reminiscent of a harpsichord played through a 16 bit Nintendo.
So far, so... like the last one, but with keyboards. Side 1 has many of the strengths and weaknesses of "What a Terrible World...", with it's disorganized flashes of brilliance and tedium, with some interesting new instrumental flourishes.
Dropping the needle on side two is only recommended if you're listening on vinyl (it will scratch your phone otherwise). The first nineteen seconds of strummed "A" chords and repetitions of the word "everything" are a big risk, all the listener's "where are we going with this?" patience has nearly been exhausted before the tension breaks, and "Everything is Awful" kicks off an incredibly fine run of songs, stronger than anything in the first half. Whether the world needed a big nihilist singalong is a topic for another time, but this is the first of two on the album, and it's catchy and playful. I defy anyone to keep from humming it the next time a day-ruining email hits their inbox. Chris Funk's mad Wilco-esque guitar adds just the right amount of chaos as Meloy exhorts him to "kindly keep it down, I'm trying to get some sleep."
"Sucker's Prayer" is next, to check the "singalong suicide song" box. The story of a despondent man filling his pockets with rocks and wading into the river must surely pique the interest of mafia bosses who may find this easier than concrete shoes. For as much as they were trying to get away from the "piano in the verses, organ on the chorus" sound for this album, they made the right choice to play this one straight, with piano, organ, lush slide guitars, and beautiful harmonies. I could listen to that chorus for days, while my wondering where this song was when I was a lonely angsty teenager is answered by the realization that times haven't much changed.
There haven't been enough saxophones and childrens' choirs yet, thought nobody. Both are put to excellent use in the next track, the musings of someone lying injured, dreaming of a message from a civil war general. The fight between irresistibly fun music and inexplicably heavy lyrics is a hallmark of Decemberists tracks, taken to the extreme by "We All Die Young." And so we do. The band's political leanings might tempt the listener to frame it as a protest against war or mass shootings or whatever else, but reminders of the inevitability of death are useful from any perspective.
Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes manages to harken back to the epic feel of The Island or The Hazards of Love without feeling derivative, a feat successfully attempted. The haunting piano of the first half gives way to a jaunty acoustic guitar just in time to stop the piece dragging, and some menacing organ and electric guitar riffs close out what should be a high point of their upcoming live shows.
And finally...the title track. "I'll Be Your Girl" recalls the perfect simplicity of "June Hymn," adding a slightly odd genderbending lyric. It's pleasant enough, and rather than being baffled by a line like "I could be your man but I'll be so much more... I'll be your girl," I just assume I'm not the intended audience. I hope that whoever is enjoys it.
New sounds, bold perspectives, and strong songs. Whatever the flaws of "I'll Be Your Girl," it leaves me enjoying my favorite tracks and excited for wherever they go next, which luckily for me is "on tour, quite near here."
In 2012, the leader of the Labour Party in Britain was reflecting on why they'd lost an election two years ago. In a speech about immigration policy, he made the following point:
Quite simply, we became too disconnected from the concerns of working people. We too easily assumed those who worried about immigration were stuck in the past. Unrealistic about how things could be different. Even prejudiced. But Britain was experiencing the largest peacetime migration in recent history. And people's concerns were genuine. Why didn't we listen more? At least by the end of our time in office, we were too dazzled by globalization and too sanguine about its price. By focusing too much on globalization and migration's impact on growth, we lost sight of who was benefiting from that growth - and the people who were being squeezed.
A mea culpa from a political leader is a rare event, and there's no doubt Ed Miliband was right about this. But where would he go from here? He could:
Continue this dialogue, and commit his party to developing and proposing policies at the 2015 election which would thoughtfully address the public's concerns; OR
Never mention it again, allowing public frustration to fester, and leaving people open to being taken advantage of by those offering a blunt instrument with which to vent their feelings.
He chose the second option, and the blunt instrument offered was a referendum reconsidering membership of the European Union in 2016, in which the public duly voted to leave.
The U.S. went through virtually the same political spasm later in 2016, as neither party offered a scalpel to carefully address the concerns of those who were doing poorly. When they were instead presented with a rock to throw at the greenhouse of society, they took it - people only vote for someone likely to say something as crass as "this American carnage stops right here and stops right now" after a long period of failing to hear anything more nuanced. That the rock has turned out to be largely inflatable was both obvious at the time and didn't seem to matter very much to the people voting for it.
I point all of this out because of the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In the era of mass public shootings, the only thing Republicans in this country seem to know how to do is put their fingers in their ears (though thankfully not in a "miming a gunshot" kind of way). By doing this, they may have left it too late for a careful, considered solution. There are all kinds of contributing factors to these tragedies, and people who look to blame family breakdown or SSRIs or social media or whatever else probably do have something useful to contribute to the discussion, but by refusing to engage with the idea of legal restrictions on firearms, that discussion is never going to take place.
Recent history (indeed all of history) shows that the public do have a tipping point. You can leave it too late. What could have been a sober, thoughtful process of how to balance liberty and safety will be replaced with calls to outlaw anything more powerful than a water pistol (and even those must be made from avocado, so they begin dissolving when you fill them and collapse disgustingly in your hand upon firing). If those on the Right keep stonewalling the gun control debate, the future is shockingly easy to predict. In 2018, and 2020, commercials and events featuring the bright and articulate students from Stoneman will capture the public attention, and a sweeping, radical change to gun ownership will be passed into law. And I wouldn't be a bit surprised if the person signing it spends a few seconds reflecting on the tragic waste of life this country has seen, before saying "this American carnage stops right here and stops right now."
Forgive a slightly similar setup from a couple of years ago, but it gives me a way to share the following anecdote:
January 1, 2017, 12:00am
A good friend had invited several of us over to celebrate the new year with a few drinks and some games on a highly sought after NES Classic. A feeling of "thank goodness that's over" was in the air, and someone thought it would be fun to write down elements of 2016 we hoped would not return, then set them alight at midnight. As we should have realized, setting pieces of paper on fire in a small glass container where oxygen could not easily enter was a near impossible task. Tipping the container out onto the snow-covered sidewalk did not make things easier, and we gave up after two or three of the paper slips flickered for a second or two. Beginning 2017 with a failed gesture of defiance was an amusing political symbol if nothing else.
January 1, 2018, 12:00am
I've seen in about half of the new years of the last decade with the same group of friends, and it was a thrill to do so again after being elsewhere last year. This year, everyone was elsewhere, and friends in four cities and three states gathered to ring in three progressively tipsier 2018s, playing party games over video conference. Technology is brilliant.
So, then, 2017.
Towards the end of 2016, I was reasonably settled in my job, learning an enormous amount of new things with colleagues I loved and projects I enjoyed. Out of the blue, someone suggested a new opportunity I might be a good fit for, but I fell at the final fence. In January, a much better opportunity with a new organization presented itself, and after several hours of interviews I...didn't get that either. These two experiences prompted a lot of thinking about where my career was going, and lead me to take a new job I was not very well suited for and at which I did not succeed. I'm sincerely grateful to some very patient coworkers who prevented that from being any worse than it was, and sorry to some employees who deserved far better from me. The collective impact of these episodes meant I jumped at the chance to move to Seattle this summer and do something completely different.
People seem to have all sorts of different expectations about career stability, so I've no idea whether the above sounds normal or insane to anyone else. As I'd held the same position technically for four years and practically for closer to six, it felt incredibly strange. Doing the same thing for a long time in an organization develops particular kinds of expertise and levels of influence which are immediately lost in these transitions. On the other hand, as a 29 year old I've got another 40 years of work ahead of me, so this is likely going to happen again and again. With that in mind, I wanted to document two things I've noticed about changing jobs in the last 12 months. Neither of these are novel, but are things are want to make sure I remember the next time I throw everything up in the air.
Curiosity actually saves the cat.
When I was learning to drive, my parents were appalled to discover I didn't know my way around anywhere. I'd been driven by them to and from various places for years, but as my only role in the process was to get in the car and get out again, I hadn't bothered to take any notice of what happened in between. This lead to a handful of frustrated moments realizing far too late that I'd ended up in the wrong lane at a stoplight or highway exit, but it did not instill in me any great change in behavior - in the 8 years I had a license prior to the advent of turn-by-turn directions on phones, the surfaces in my car not covered in Pepsi cans were covered in printed out pages from Mapquest.
In the office, this lack of curiosity about how to get from A to B leads to death. In many organizations, the first few weeks of a job consist of learning step by step processes and the rhythm of which processes are invoked at which time. The path to being able to meaningfully contribute, though, is in the whys and wherefores and steps in between, in understanding enough about how you got to step 25 to make some reasonable guess at the yet unwritten step 26. If I had any awareness of this before, it's been turned up x100 this year - it's good to be bothered by things you don't understand, and being the new guy is an excellent cover for having a thousand questions about everything.
Work, not approval.
In Fort Collins, if things would go well at work and I was pleased, I'd immediately fret that I was getting too invested in it. Since moving away, I've been surprised by how much less I'm plagued by this feeling now that work genuinely is the only thing I'm doing. In Colorado there were great friends, church, music, comedy, etc., which meant work wasn't anywhere close to the "only thing" going on. In the six months I've been here, I'm mostly working, riding the bus, and sleeping. And the difference, I think, between that being life giving or not, is in where affirmation comes from.
What makes a day good or bad? That answer will wholly be about work sometimes, and this is ok as long as it's not wholly wrapped up in pats on the back (I am not sure how someone wraps up a pat). In a new place, you spend your whole time asking other people for things instead of getting to play the hero who has the answers, and this can be surprisingly draining if you're used to things being the other way around. Finding some measure of "was my work meaningful today?" other than the number of people who said they were pleased by something you did is vital. Which is a terribly silly thing to write just before hitting ‘post' and anxiously checking for likes.
"Likes good things, dislikes bad things. Not here for hookups despite my incredibly suggestive pictures. ESFP."
So goes the majority of personal blurbs on any online dating service. If I were a different person entirely, this would be where I'd begin recounting a recent date, carefully disguising the identity of someone who didn't consent to be written about by changing a letter in their first name. It was nice to meet you, Lundsay. Alternately, this might be the beginning of one of those "hilarious" suggestions of a new name for such a service, along with descriptions of the types of people they might specifically try to attract. Alas, no. Instead, I'm hung up on those four letters at the end.
It is an interesting ploy, leading with a supposedly objective, scientific classification of your personality. Sometimes this is done with Myers-Briggs, sometimes with various formulations of "introvert" and "extrovert", lately expanded to include "extroverted introvert," "introverted extrovert," "desiccated coconut," and so on. To define yourself in this way is an attempt at setting others' expectations appropriately, and to subtly suggest that any conflicts arising as a result of this predisposition should resolve themselves by other people realizing that's just who you are. But is this wise?
I stood up from a restaurant table recently during a meal with some friends, and attempted to make my way to the restroom. I was immediately met with loud protests from the group, who assumed I was attempting to sneak home unnoticed. I explained I wouldn't do that, as it would involve sticking them with my share of the check, but someone quickly jumped in with the suggestion that "if Thom has decided he's done for the night, he'd probably just pay the whole tab rather than stay until the end." This was useful as everyone laughed and allowed me to escape to the bathroom, but I couldn't escape the realization that I had, in fact, done exactly that in the past. I'm quite bad at people, it turns out - selfishness and cowardice combine to produce many ungraceful social interactions, the occasional Irish Goodbye being one of the less harmful examples.
Many others are, thankfully, much better at people than I am, and as the introvert/extrovert debate rightly points out, some tend toward the opposite extreme and self destruct during any periods of silence. Anyone who has gathered together with friends or families for an extended period of time in the last few years has seen the way we now handle troughs in the conversation by collectively disappearing into our devices for a few minutes. Certain people can't handle this, and use those moments as an opportunity to read their social media feeds aloud as though the rest of us are interested, often providing an unsettling window into the things they find amusing. The more outgoing have the upper hand in this situation, as my reticence to start a conversation is neatly complimented by my ability to ignore them.
I've participated in exactly one Myers Briggs exercise, one of those formal work training days where a dozen colleagues find an excuse to get out of the office together for a few hours. After listening to presentations and completing questionnaires, we were split into groups across the room, introverts and extroverts divided like boys and girls at a junior high dance, or virgins and popular kids at a high school one. After we were settled in our teams, the facilitator asked if anyone had done this before, and something important came to light. A friend in the "extrovert" corner, who those of us who had been around a while knew as someone who didn't feel especially comfortable around people, but had worked like hell to become good at it to further their career, noted that in a previous course she had been called an introvert. The instructor had a minor mental breakdown, explaining that these are scientifically proven unalterable personality traits. They must have done it wrong the first time.
This is the flaw in the -vert divide, and is why I wish we would stop using the terms altogether. It's not that I don't believe we have such predispositions. But classifying them in the way we do hurts all parties involved. When my inept social skills cause me difficulty, I need two things: hope that I can improve to attain a better outcome in future, and encouragement to work at this. Diagnosis as an introvert, as though I have some genetic malfunction, both condemns me to a life of embarrassingly bad interactions with others and relieves me of responsibility for this. Is there a more hopeless place to be? Those impacted by the social failures of others are also not well served by this silly psychologizing. The mental muscle we all need to exercise to hold together a society full of other broken, frail humans is not a bland tolerance which pretends we're not broken or frail. We only help our fellow creatures move forward by providing the kind of relational safety in which boundless patience and strong admonition to change can work together for good.
I'm bad at people. And you might be bad at silence. We both need to know that we can change, we should change, and we're loved. Diagnosis a-verted.
To my surprise, I have something in common with Katy Perry (apart from the whole "kissing a girl and liking it" thing). In a recent profile by the New York Times, they announced her current slogan as "i know nothing", uncapitalized in the name of authenticity. There's apparently something in the air - Miley Cyrus also recently caught a bout of restraint, having discovered self righteousness is as powerful a drug as any other on the market.
But where was I? Ah yes, "i know nothing (sic)". I don't wish to have that printed on t-shirts or in my Twitter bio, but it does describe my frame of mind this week. Next Saturday, I'll leave Fort Collins and move to Seattle, to begin a new job with Amazon. Everyone's reaction when I mention this is to ask "are you excited?" And I have no idea. The main thing I am is baffled - when will they realize their mistake? When will Ashton Kutcher jump out and explain I've been Punk'd? There's no false modesty in this, incidentally - I'm not feeling unworthy, just really confused, as if I'd been told I've got a new job as the back of someone's neck. How did this happen?! i know nothing.
To make a list of people and places I will miss is a fool's errand, as I will inevitably forget someone and accidentally upset them. But the fact that I will miss anyone/anything at all has genuinely surprised me over the past few days. Had you asked me a week ago, I'd have thought about it and confidently said that, while I love my friends and family around here, I'm still a single 28 year old, and the only good thing about that is the ability to move anywhere for any opportunity at any time. But as reality has set in, I'm unexpectedly somber. You all have made more of a mark on me than I'd thought, Fort Collins.
In a few weeks, when I'm settled and doing less wandering around in a daze, I'll write something more reflective. But while I'm caught between being elated at a wonderful new opportunity and confused about leaving behind so many people I care about, I'll be honest that I don't have anything more to say than that. I'm super excited about everything that lies ahead, and I wish I could take you all with me.
One apropos thing was pointed out to me recently - several years ago, after a year and a half on the front lines at ADP, I had the chance to work on upgrading all of our clients to a new product, in a project which put my career on the map in a way it hadn't been previously. It's fitting, then, that the very last thing I've worked on there, 6 years later, is another new product which replaces it. Life very occasionally ties itself in a neat bow.
Here's to the future! i know nothing.
(p.s. a logistical note - I leave Colorado next Saturday, July 8th. If you're reading this, we should see each other before then.)