Category Archives : Let’s Talk About


Should We Let People Control Their Own Taxes? 7

MNiC Feat Taxes 2What if we had personal control over our taxes? Or, alternatively, we had to pay them, but had nominal control over where they went? I asked this of my friends, and got some really interesting feedback. It’s a good starting point.

First, there are pretty clearly three, or three-and-a-half tiers to consider here.

The Basic Options

Full Voluntary Tax Burden

In this scenario, everyone would choose what they paid in taxes. This is unlikely to be feasible, but one interesting thing I noted was that my liberal friends seemed to think they wouldn’t pay taxes if they didn’t have to, and my conservative friends seemed to feel people would. I have no idea what to make of that, really. In any case, it doesn’t seem especially workable.

Fixed Burden, Control of Funds

In this scenario, you’d still pay your fixed tax burden, but you’d have control over where they went. For example, if you owed ten thousand in taxes, you could send five to the National Parks Service, two to the Department of Education, two to the Military, and one to Medicare. And so on.

There are some really great pros and cons to this. The cons are pretty clear; how much funding do you think the IRS is going to receive? The pros are quite powerful, though; try to imagine a world where American citizens have direct control over how their taxes are spent, but the Veterans Administration can’t afford healthcare for returning soldiers, NASA doesn’t have a space shuttle, and the National Parks Service has to close for a couple weeks. Can you? Because I can’t.

Fixed Burden, Hybrid System

The fact of the matter–and there seems to be a wide agreement on this point–is that some things we need to spend money on just aren’t sexy enough to fare well in a popularity contest. This leads to the third system, which is the hybrid. Herein, a certain amount of tax money is not discretionary. It is down to elected representatives to decide how this money is spent.

The rest of the money is held in the hands of the taxpayer. This is the system we’re going to explore, because it seems like the one that might actually work, and we’re going to do so on several different scales.

The Salient Points

The Prediction Problem

One of the biggest pitfalls of this system is that it will make it very hard to predict budgets . . . at first. How can you accurately project longterm costs and expenditures if they are at the whim of the capricious public?

I think this will be a huge problem . . . at first. After a few years, it will likely be more predictable than the current system, since what gets funding won’t be at the mercy of special interests and political brinkmanship. Public opinion on many subjects is very stable, and it’s unlikely, barring major changes that would necessitate budget changes in any case, that wild swings would occur.

One of the strongest objections to this whole idea was summed up by one of my friends as, “You think balancing the budget is hard now?!” I would counter that we haven’t had a balanced budget in a decade-and-a-half, an official budget from either controlling party since 2009, and we’ve failed to even keep the current budget operating once, nearly three times, in the past two years. The argument that we shouldn’t replace a broken system because the new one might break seems . . . hollow.

The Flexibility Problem

Even if the system does reach stability, there is the possibility that it will be too slow to react to a major crisis, such as a war, health crisis, or financial drop, and this stability may be a real weakness, if it produces a system which cannot easily respond to any incoming emergency. Of course, we might avoid such timely and retrospectively wise decisions as countering the military threat of Iraq in 2003 or giving several trillion dollars to bankers in 2009. All snark aside, there is a certain level rapid response required, and some method of actionable response to crises is critical to any (long term) functioning government. If there were permanent voting centers, the Senate calling an emergency authorization vote would work. I’m sure there are other possible protocols which would circumvent the problem; it simply must be acknowledged so that one of them can be implemented.

The Apathy Problem

People don’t care about the issues. Right? I mean, I don’t care, that’s why I’m writing this, and you don’t care, that’s why you’re reading this, and the nation at large doesn’t care, that’s why there three huge television news channels running 24 hours a day. That’s why, in the last election, only (slightly less than) seven out of ten eligible voters took time out of their day to go vote.

That’s the main reason we still need people who do care to go and do the work: if people cared enough to research the issues and vote, we could just phase out representative democracy entirely in favor of the direct form. Sadly, that will never happen, because no one cares. Our elected representatives don’t agree on much, but they are unanimous in that, at least.

Sure, but I’ve caught a suspicion, or maybe a blind hope, that people will care a little more in a system where caring matters. And if I’m wrong, we can account for this by making the discretionary aspect default to the elected representatives in absence of direction, e.g. if you want to give one thousand to the military, and don’t specify where the other nine goes, it goes into the general use pool.

In other words, the people who don’t care go on as they always have, and the people that do care have a say in the system. Besides, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen evidence that most the people in power of a vested interest in more than staying in power. Even an apathetic idiot has more of a stake in fixing Social Security than your Congressman who’s drawing from his own special system.

Public Control

I think the biggest advantage to this idea is obvious: the increase in control this gives individuals. In our current system, if 51% of the people in your district disagree with you on what tax priorities should be, since their guy holds the purse. For example, there are five million voting conservatives in California, and three million voting liberals in Texas–how much say do you think these people have in how their taxes are spent?

Under this system, the winning side would still have more influence, but individuals would have a say in how things are spent. An environmentalist in a coal mining district could still put money towards alternative energy research or environmental improvements. A conservative man living in a liberal district could still direct money towards paying down the deficit, or military research, and so on. Better yet, a person who isn’t a cardboard cutout of a focus group could put her money towards alternative energy and paying down the deficit.

The problem with greater control by the people is, of course, less accountability, and the potential to be influenced by ad campaigns and PR. I think the last is a moot point in the Citizens United age, but multiple people brought it up in discussions, so it deserves mention. The lack of accountability is the main concern I see.

I’ll go one step further than that, however: Yes, this system involves trusting average people to do research, care, and make smart choices. However, when you trust your elected representative to make a decision, you are, in fact, just trusting the people who elected her or him to have done the research, cared, and made the smart choice. You’re in the same boat either way; only this way, you have a hand on the tiller.

A Step Towards True Democracy

This is a step towards greater democracy of a sort that was impossible at the founding of this country, but technology has rendered feasible.

You need representatives in a world of horse drawn buggies, and two month mail delivery times. That’s a fact. It’s either that or anarchy. Today, though, we could have permanent polling stations, and democratic control of most issues. We would still need representatives, and experts to draft the legislation, but we could–in principle–run this entire country, easily, without them. I don’t mean to open up debate on whether that would be a good idea, just that it’s technically feasible.

A Final Thought

I’ve talked mostly about the practical considerations here. This will help blunt the influence of big money and Citizens United. This will alleviate the practical issue of all-or-nothing districts where nearly half the participants are rendered voiceless each election by the larger group. This will make our massive democracy more sophisticated in reflecting the interest of individuals than two party platform rule could possibly hope to. And so on. In theory, all taxes are voluntary, and our budgets are determined by people representing our interests . . . so this whole change would simply be a streamlining of the system.

There is an ethical component as well. I am not a pacifist, but I think not forcing pacifists to pay for wars is the ethically superior option if possible. I am not against abortion, but I think not forcing people morally opposed to abortions to pay for them is the ethically superior option if possible. We live in the real world. Sometimes, we need people to pay for things they don’t want . . . but I believe the United States should emphasize ethical responsibility in government, something it has been failing miserably at for awhile now.

The simple truth is, money is power, and any time we, as a people, have the chance to give more power to the people of this country, we have an ethical responsibility to consider this. I maintain the burden of proof should not be on the side of those asking for more freedom, but on those who say it doesn’t belong to us–that they are better than ordinary men, and so we must surrender our own right to choose.

What I’m saying is that the question’s not, “Should we let people control their own taxes?” so much as, “What is the overwhelming reason we would deny them that right entirely?”

If the powerful want to keep that right exclusively, let them prove that this system is flawed. Of course, the only way to do that is to allow it to be tested in the real world–but hey, if it’s going to be such a miserable disaster, they won’t have any trouble getting us to give that power back, right?

What do you think? Good idea? Bad idea? Got a way to make it better?

 

 


Life Less Than 30

MNIC Feat Less Than 30

“Less than thirty.”

“It can’t be that small,” she said. Technically, since we were talking about length, it wasn’t small, it was short. Oh, the insecurities of youth, right?

Normally, letting that pass without comment would have been about as possible for me as licking my own elbow or singing opera. This time it went by without a word or even a snigger, because I was concentrating on something.

I’d just done the math in my head, so I was seriously entertaining the thought that I’d made a rounding error; I was checking it by doing an easier problem:

“One hundred times three-sixty-five-point-two-five is . . . thirty-six-five-twenty-five. It’s right. Less than thirty.”

Twenty-seven is an important year, though we don’t really notice. That wasn’t the bit she was commenting on, though—and no, it wasn’t that bit, either. She was commenting on what I’d said moments prior, “Less than thirty.”

The math there wasn’t really too hard to do: Twenty-four thousand, plus four thousand eight hundred, plus four hundred, plus twenty, equals twenty-nine thousand two hundred twenty. Less than thirty.

It can’t be that short.

And it does seem short, doesn’t it?

Most things, they seem smallest when lumped together into a few large aggregates, but eighty years seems so . . . vast. There’s a lot of time in eighty years. Time to change, time to do the things you’ve been putting off, time to go back, time to go forward, time to dream and to fail, and fail, until you succeed, and time still then to enjoy that success. Time to recline and bask in a life well-lived, even though we haven’t yet found time for the living.

27

Like I said, twenty-seven is an important year. I’m twenty-seven. Twenty-seven is young. Old enough to have watched friends die and watched friends have children of their own, but young. Twenty-seven is the year you turn ten thousand, and ten thousand days, that’s old, when you probably won’t see thirty.

Somehow, thirty thousand is less than eighty. It works by months, too; you probably won’t see a thousand months pass you by. Suddenly each month is a tenth of a percent of your life ticked off with each turn of the calendar page.

Like most people my age, I think, I see myself as independent, adventurous. I take risks, and I’m willing to sacrifice in the pursuit of future goals. I move a lot. I mean, I’m the guy who dropped out of chemistry grad school to live in his car, travel, and write. Wanderlust is my defining feature.

On the second day after I left, I stopped at a waterfall—well, actually, I drove past a waterfall—in the Rockies. Then I turned around on the shoulder of the road, stopped to talk briefly to a guy who was rollerblading across the United States (he’s still the only person I’ve ever seen with calves bigger than his quads), and drove about a mile back to the fall. I parked in between an army of RVs, most with little Jeeps being towed behind, like remoras. I walked down the trail through a sea of retirees, and stood for a moment at the barricade with them. Then I walked past it, up a narrow trail, mossy and slick from the mist, and climbed up along the side of it. The roar was defining, the rocks were sharp, the water everywhere, and so cold I was sure it wasn’t water at all; it was just ice that needed to be somewhere in a hurry.

I looked back, and I saw them down there, little white heads behind the barricade. People who had worked their whole lives so they could afford to view life from a distance someday, safely behind the railing. That was the last time I had a single doubt about whether leaving grad school was the right choice.

That was then. It’s harder to justify that view staring at 10,205 days, gone. I . . . what have I done worth noting, really? Here I am, probably staring at a third of my life in the rear view, and do I actually know who I am, or where I’m going?

Stop.

I just stopped writing this to talk to a college friend who walked into this random Starbucks—small world—and he’s doing physical rehab now. He was another chem guy back when we were in school together. As he put it, “I know what I want to do, it just took me six extra effing years.”

Serendipity is the best part of life. I was going to write about the difficulty of plotting a path. That was stupid, and my friend reminded me why.

See, I’ve got that much figured out. We’re lots of people, each of us, and we’re going lots of places. It’s not a lack of paths which besets us, it’s a lack of inner certainty. Our lives are nothing but paths tangled all over one another.

Life is a buffet where they serve everything but you only get one plate; it’s easy to be paralyzed by the decision.

Let’s be clear, here, it’s not about fear of where we’re headed, for most of us, it’s about fear of missing what’s on the other path. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that standing there, staring at the fork in the road sign costs us both paths. There’s a you down both paths; the question is, Which you would you rather be?

Most of life is not finding answers, it’s finding the right questions, and I think that’s the right one.

Is the me who stays here the me I want to be? Or is it the me who goes there?

The truth is any one path can get you almost anywhere. They overlap, over and over. You can scale cliffs and slide down slopes, cut across trails, and duck under railings. Pick a direction you like, and take whatever trail will take you there. If don’t know which direction to go, go see what this one or the other looks like, you can always work your way around.

There’s that stupid old saying, “Wherever you go, there you are.” Well, screw that. Wherever you go, there you’re going.

You’ll get where you’re going. Just—you know—walk, because you’ve only got thirty thousand days to spend getting there. Life is short, but that doesn’t mean it’s small.

At the end of the days, it’s not really about how many days you lived, it’s about how many days you loved.

 

MNIC paths


Corporate Identity 3

The Corporate Identity

“Why don’t you have a Starbucks card?” she asks. The question has a layered quality in my mind, because it’s played simultaneously in my memory with about a dozen tracks other men and women asking the same question, with the same words, and even the same intonation. That I’m-not-being-pushy-I-just-want-to-nudge-you tone. It’s just a really small pledge of allegiance to a corporate identity.

“I should, shouldn’t I?” I answer, because people have trouble responding to question-non-questions–it breaks the script–and it’s always fun to see where it goes from there.

Why don’t I, though? I mean, financially, it would make sense. The inconvenience of another thin rectangle of plastic in my wallet would be negligible. There’s already credit cards in there with my name on them, business cards, supermarket discount cards, my ID (actually every ID I’ve ever had, except for my first one, which was snapped in half while opening a door). And so on.

I’ve made an effort, though, to make those cards useless. I never filled out the little application that goes with the supermarket cards, so there’s no name, phone number, or address associated with them. This has the added bonus of being slightly amusing in the places where the cashiers are obligated to thank you by name when you shop there. It must be pretty common, though, because everyone but the newbie cashiers transition very smoothly to, “Thank you . . . for shopping with us.” It’s just a quick glance to where the name is supposed to be, and then an instant recovery when it’s not there.

I’ve made an effort online, too. I’ve lied about my personal details on just about every field I’m not legally obligated not to from the very beginning. New Years for me means a sudden influx of emails with subjects like,  “Happy Birthday  Youdon Tneedtoknowthat!” and, “Happy New Year Nunya Bidnez!”

Tribal

Anyway, back to the cards; I guess I’ve never been able to shake the association of cards in my wallet with IDs. Yes, my name is Connor, but also, if I’m carrying that Starbucks card around, then I’m a little bit Starbucks, too. Somewhere in my brain. That’s what all those cards are about. They’re a club, and they want you to be a member, right? Humans are, at a very basic level, tribal. You only have to look at children to know that much.

Fry’s gives you a card because they want you to carry a badge that says you’re part of Tribe Fry’s. Basha’s gives you one for the same reason, and they do it for the same reason. You could make a pretty good case, I think, that corporate structure is the replacement for the feudal structures of eras past, but that’s an article for another day.

I’m not taking some hipster stance that, “Blah, blah blah, corporate, blahblahblah, less than human, blah, machine, blah, per se, blah, etc.” Even though I take a little joy in tossing the occasional apple of discord to a marketing firm, I don’t think it really matters at the end of the day.

The honest source of my reticence is . . .  I just have this horrible picture in my head of meeting some traveler from a distant space or time, and them going through my wallet and saying, “It’s a pleasure to meet you Mr. Costco Visa of Clan Starbucks.”

But that’s just really hard to explain to the Starbucks girl in the time it takes to fill a cup with 16oz of coffee.

 


Traveling: The Places We Can’t Go Again

English: View atop High Dune, Great Sand Dunes...

English: View atop High Dune, Great Sand Dunes National Park. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I left grad school, and just drove, traveling, I had destinations, but no route to speak of. I wandered, and, looking back, the things I remember often aren’t the things I thought they’d be.

Sure, there was the thunder of Niagara, and somber majesty of Rushmore, but it was those strange little moments between places. It was waking up to the lumbering of a harvester in the pale light before dawn on a foggy morning. It was a perfect little Main Street town in Oklahoma, where every shop, home, and business was a boarded-up husk. It was the rusting hulks of the iron ore ship along Superior’s cold shores. Seals in the moonlight in the Bay of Fundy. I could go on, and on, and on, but everywhere civilization was as full of decay and new growth as any forest. It was so alive. The highways and the rails the veins and arteries of a breathing, growing, hungering continent.

The world is strange and wild, and we are, whatever we think, made in its image. We have changed it, are changing it, but we reflect it in spite of ourselves.

It’s a strange thought, then, how many things I have left to see, if I have the wherewithal to get to them, and how many I would like to see once more, but never will again. I couldn’t even trace the route I drove anymore, and–if I did–everything would be different.

You can’t drive the same road twice; that’s just the way of the world.

So here I am, looking back, and I see that my life is full of things I’ve already done for the last time. Some of that is good. I might go back to Great Sand Dunes National Park, but I’ll know the sand will form up around me, and render my down sleeping bag useless. The older wiser me would also probably pause to wonder why I was the only who applied for a back country permit that day, but to take that from my younger self would be a form of cruel robbery. I wouldn’t trade it.

Look at that guy who has no idea how cold he’s about to be!

Not for the world.

Camping on a sand dune in a sandstorm on a cold windy night is miserable in such a myriad of strange and creative ways that it’s not really worth describing. You just have to be there. Besides, it was when I woke, if waking is what you do from five hours of gray shivering haze of minute-long catnaps, that this story finds itself.

There was something primordial about waking up chilled, shivering, aching with the cold, before the first light of dawn, feeling the insidious creep of dew and the surprising weight of the blowing sand which had half buried me. I was glad for it, it defanged the wind. There I was only living person for miles, beneath a sky full of stars–no matter how many times I visit somewhere far from the city lights, I find myself thinking, I forgot there were so many! Memory is simply not up to that task.

Rising, shaking off the sand that enveloped me as entirely as the useless sleeping bag, I felt almost staggeringly alive, like something emerging from a grave, or perhaps just a past long buried. As I set about shaking off the sand, packing up, and moving, my body shook the chill and my limbs banished the ache, and some deep part of me was certain this was how I meant to wake up; cold, hungry, aching, damp, and before the sun.

The air had gone still, and the light of those stars, reflected off the dunes, was enough to see by. It was too cold to be still. So I had put in a mile on soft sand before the first lightening of the eastern sky. Miles are a long way on sand, cresting dunes and then running and sliding down them like waves.

Then the sun rose.

It’s one of life’s purest truths that at some moments we are more alive than others, and I have rarely been so alive as I was when the sun rose over me, and my shadow stretched back along the trail of my passage, the only footprints on the dunes, already vanishing.

It was extraordinary. A place I can’t go back to, and a place I’ll never leave.

Next time, I’ll bring a sleeping pad and some sort of polar fleece lining.

 


Let’s Talk About Career vs. Relationships 8

I’m trying to write a screenplay. I even woke up early and it’s just not coming. Right now I’m ignoring the advice I give everyone about writer’s block; there’s no such thing, just shut up and write anyway.

I did say, about a month ago, that I’d be going to the journal I’ve been writing for material for this blog. Instead I’m writing this. Which sort of defeats the purpose, since the point was to be lazy and copy/paste writing I was doing anyway. I’ve played around with the journal, and it’s just too specific. It’s not so much worry about it being personal to me, or not, it’s just that there’s a lot in there that impacts people other than myself, which means I’m not going to toss it out onto the web. What I can do, and will, is write something  based on what’s been on my mind. Pull the thread from the past month of writing and unravel it until all the details are lost. Here we go!

 

Thumb MNiC LTA CvR

 

What’s been on my mind, lately, is relationships. Specifically, the sort I always seem to be in.

There’s a whole list of women I’m friends with who I can predict the relationship status of purely by the frequency with which they talk to me. I see I have a text or message from them and the very first thing I think is, “Looks like her relationship’s on the rocks.” That’s apparently who I am. I’m that guy you think of in between the real boyfriends, and I suppose that’s a natural outgrowth of the sort of life I live.

Generally speaking, I’m fine with that. Like I said, it’s a natural consequences of decisions I’ve made. There’s a whole list of things that matter more to me than relationships; my career, traveling, self-improvement, etc. . . I don’t want a family right now, I want a book contract and a sailboat.

I think a lot of people look at the way I live, if not me personally, with a bit of envy now and then. I can, with finances as the limit, do pretty much whatever I want at any time of the day or night without being answerable to anyone. It makes sense; you’ve got the stable job, you’re building a life, you’ve got a serious significant other. . . it’s wonderful nine days out of ten and then there’s that one day when you wish you could just rush headlong for the horizon because there are just so many commitments in your life. The greener grass, etc. It cuts both ways, though. Nine days out of ten, I’m more than content with my life, in fact I love it. Most of my friends won’t have a chance to live this way again until they retire, while whatever strange part of my heart was born to ramble remains fulfilled.

Other times, though, I think, Wow, it would be wonderful to be building a life with somebody. I wonder what it would be like to come ome to somebody every day without the underlying certainty that in three or six months I wouldn’t be. To be building walls, fixing furniture, and doing repairs on my home. That’s something I’ve never experienced, and it does look nice. It looks especially nice when I meet someone particularly amazing, someone who I could, maybe, sort of, picture falling into that role.

It doesn’t happen often, and each time it does I have to make the decision not to pursue it. It leaves that question mark there: What if? And, over time you start to wonder just how many what ifs you get in a lifetime. More, certainly, than I’ve had, but how many?

What I won’t do is pretend to be anything I’m not, so instead I wear it on my sleeve that I’m not just a bad longterm bet; I’m already gone. And so I’ve become the between-boyfriends guy. After all, why would you be looking at some guy who won’t be around in six months as serious boyfriend material?

Then there’s this other side of things. How could I find someone I could really, truly, pursue that way? There’s who I am, sure, but the truth is I’m not really me yet; the real me is on the other side of storms, long trips, cold nights in empty places, and adventures in distant lands. I’m just some guy who knows who and what he will be. If there is some perfect woman out there, she’s perfect for someone who doesn’t exist yet–or only partially exists. Either way, this isn’t the time for it. This is the time for getting lost faraway and writing enough to afford a 28′ Bristol Channel Cutter.

I imagine, in the end, there won’t be much doubt when I do arrive at whatever indeterminate tipping point the future holds, from going places towards building places. I knew, almost instantly, that leaving academia for writing was the right choice. After years of moving from one thing to another looking for the right fit, I found the place, fit perfectly, and went, Yes, this, exactly. See, the parts of you that are you are the constants; the ones that don’t care how the equation changes. I could go back to work in a lab tomorrow and I would be a writer who does lab work, in the same way that, despite my background and degree, I am not a lab rat who does writing. I will fail over and over again and be poor and hungry, live with no certainty of financial security and without lots of things I wish I had–including relationships–just to be a writer–not as a down payment for becoming a wealthy or successful writer, mind you. Just to write.

I figure I’ll probably know I’ve found the right girl when I look back over my shoulder and see Connor-shaped holes in every wall that stood between the two of us–and probably girl-shaped holes in any walls in the direction she came from. But I don’t know any of that, it’s in the part of my existence currently labeled “Here be Dragonnes.”

So here I sit in the meantime, somewhere between the darkness and dawn in every sense, the road ahead obscured but my bearings certain. Perhaps the nicest thing about not having any sure destination is that your’e always going that way.

Anyway, thanks for reading. Time to get back to work.

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20-Something Life: The U-haulers and the Backseaters 3

I’ve just moved into a new place. There’s a room with a big closet. I live in the closet, my friend is in the room proper, at least until he gets into the military. . . it’s not really that odd of a situation by our standards. We’re planning to build a dividing wall. Shouldn’t be a big deal, but the subject has come up of “stuff”. Or lack thereof.

I’ve known this guy for awhile, we’ve been friends since college. We’ve probably logged enough cumulative years living together to be in a common law marriage at this point. When we met, I was already sort of the path to where I am now, where I’m mostly divested of stuff. My life fits in my car, and I like it that way. I own what I want, and little besides. My belongings are 45% tools, 45% outdoors gear, and 10% clothes. And my computer. That’s basically it. Six plastic bins, two of which stay in my car, and four small dufflebags.

What’s interesting is, given how many times I’ve helped him move, I have a very accurate (by weight) understanding of how much stuff he’s owned the entire time I’ve known him. It started out as lots. Eventually it topped off at tons, counting the furniture. Not just stuff, but unnecessary stuff, nice stuff; he didn’t own knives, he owned a knife set; he didn’t own furniture, he owned a furniture set. Things had a theme, they went together, they were purchased new. He was on the road to success as defined by the ability to procure excess. Not that I’m complaining, he sheltered his semi-homeless writer friend a time or three.

That’s where things get interesting, though: Little by little, that’s been changing. There’s been a divestment of stuff, to the point where he has less than I do (mostly because he doesn’t have tools).

There’s so very much we don’t need. More, I think, than we realize. Everyone grasps that it goes the other way, right? That’s common knowledge; you never need something until you have it, and suddenly you just can’t live without them. My smartphone comes to mind. I got it about a year and a half ago. Up until then I’d had the same phone for about half a decade, one of those waterproof/shockproof models that had survived more abuse than most action stars. I was completely content with my dumb brute phone, but would be hard to give up the smartphone, now. Still, if I had to go back to a regular old dumb phone, I’d adapt, quickly.

It’s amazing what we don’t need when it’s gone. Matched bedroom sets, for example.

I sleep on the floor, on a mattress pad. I could afford a mattress, or build a raised platform easy enough, it’s just not something that matters. I’m not bringing any girls home to my closet.

It’s a strange feeling, to have what you need, and what you want, to be what you want to be. Earlier this week I need to hang cabinet doors, and I had everything I needed. Later this week, I’m planning to go out hunting with another friend, and I have everything I need for that. Sometimes I think that stuff is a substitute for the substance of having a purpose.

Now, I have another good friend, or rather a pair of them (they’re getting married) who share a home and a life, and they just got a new car. They have lots of stuff, and it’s their stuff, together. They’ve settled down, and if they move, it will involve things like escrow and U-haul trucks. There will be lots of labeled boxes. What they want is a happy and secure existence, and it seems to be working wonderfully for them.

I bring this up because it fascinates me. It seems to be that nothing stabilizes in the middle. There’s a ratcheting effect happening here, where people are either building towards something in place, by acquiring the things they want, or building towards some sort of journey towards something else , by divesting themselves of the things they don’t need. There aren’t many people I know, now, who own medium amounts of stuff. There are my friends who need a U-haul to move, and my friends who need to put the back seat down.

 

 


. . . the Rising Ape 2

Humans Need Fantasy

“Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.”

RisingApeFallinAngel2

That’s a quote from a Terry Pratchett book (Hogfather) I just finished up. Isn’t it an extraordinary sentence? I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more succinct summary of what it means to be human, and there it is in a comedy fantasy series, just hanging out. There’s no doubt that Pratchett is an extraordinary writer regardless of genre. And I don’t mean a good storyteller, although he’s that, too. What I mean is that he puts words together in a particular and extraordinary way. That’s something for another day, though.  To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape. How much of the good and evil in our history, the seemingly incompatible moments of kindness and cruelty each and every person blunders through in their short little flash of a lifetime, fits in that sentence?

It got me thinking about something. It’s not a new thought, but it’s one I more or less decided to leave alone in the early years of college. See, there are seven billion people, and change, on this planet right now. Almost all of them are religious in some form or another, but the religions are neither the same, nor inclusive. This means, depending on how strict your standards are for what constitutes the “same religion” and what does not, somewhere between six and seven billion people, who believe in something which must, by default, be wrong. Fantasy. People get angry when you point that out, mostly because. . .

It’s not much of a leap from there to the conclusion that they’re all fantasies, just persistent ones.  Billions of people will kill or die for them, cast stones, take eyes, and pass on the shellfish, etc. Commit murder/suicide for their chance to sleep with a bunch of virgins. That last one’s always struck me as a particularly odd one, even among its illustrious company, since I am almost certain the ratio of virgins to non-virgins here on earth is at least as good as it’s likely to be in the afterlife. But whatever. Anyone who agrees to be the guidance system for a bomb in this post-radio-control age isn’t likely to be good at math, or anything particularly cerebral, really.

Anyhow, lots of people seem to suggest that a world without religion is one without morality. If the religions are fantasies, though, as most of them must be even if (particularly if) yours is not, that implies that religions did not give rise to moral codes. Moral codes gave rise to the religions, instead. How about that? And that is a wonderful, wonderful, thing.

Why? Because we are trying to be. . .

FallingAngel

The Falling Angel

 

Because it says something extraordinary about people, as individuals, as groups, as nations and as movements. It says: In spite of everything we were (very dangerous animals), and in the face of everything we could be (more dangerous animals), we have, across a broad array of cultures and histories, arrived at the conclusion that, when possible, it is better to coexist than to kill; when we have enough to share, we should do so; when we could steal, we still should not. And so on.

Now, you might point out, correctly, that there is war, murder, theft, and all the rest, that the world is awash in lies and backbiting, that this is a dog-eat-dog world, and you’re not wrong. Exactly. There is an animal undercurrent that runs through all of us, and therefor all of the societies we build. The thing is, though, we’re under no real obligation to be anything else.

Still, this is not a world rife with rape, pillage, murder, theft, and so on. They happen, but there are social orders in place. Think about that. Think about the resources it takes to set up a series of checks and balances, a system of justice, a well-trained and funded corps of peace officers, courts, jails, lawyers. The education system which can train them. The teachers, professors, and materials that make that education possible. The resource investment is. . . extraordinary. Extraordinary. I haven’t done the math, but simply keeping society as we think of it running is a great work. It’s like building a Great Pyramid every year, probably even adjusting for the changes in our relative ability to stack things. Forget about scrubbing evil from the world, and just appreciate how many people are working in concert as you read this to make sure it hasn’t taken over completely. Millions, this very second, and they’ll keep right on, day after day, generation after generation.

And that’s just one small aspect of it, for all its grandeur. For a practical example, take a look at the United States highway system. This is the single largest public work in the history of the planet, requiring constant upkeep, and it is built for two purposes: to ensure the military can, in times of war, move soldiers and supplies by the millions to wherever they’re needed to defend people they have never met so that they can fight, die, even kill, for the defense of common values–and to make trade and travel routine between people and places separated by vast distances.

 

Yet, there is less war than there has ever been. Less starvation.

Let’s take a second look at the bit about less starvation. This one is special. This one is special because the only reason there is less starvation is because humans have applied their ingenuity over and over again to making certain it was that way, and then spread that knowledge and the hardier or more flexible crops, themselves. Armies march on their feet. From a purely strategic standpoint, farming secrets and particularly fruitful strains of crops should be guarded like nuclear secrets, but, instead, they’re spread as rapidly as possible.

The legacy of each generation for awhile now has been, instead, as a share of the whole, fewer starving people, fewer sick children, and a safer world for all of them.

And that’s what I find fascinating. What if there is no falling angel? What if there is only. . .

 

The Rising Ape

RisingApe

What does it say about humanity if there is no Higher Power, no Greater Purpose, and every good thing we’ve ever done, every piece of bread shared with a hungry stranger, every umbrella loaned, every peace treaty signed, every discovery, every mercy, every sacrifice, was intrinsic? There is the rest, yes, the bad, but that is part of nature. The tiger is not cruel when it downs the deer and begins to eat it while it still lives, because the tiger has no concept of cruelty, and there is no natural reason for us to step beyond that. No reason that we should not, like the tiger, kill the offspring of another tiger so that our own will be better positioned to live. Yet, somehow, we have found it in ourselves to define a concept of cruelty and balance it by inventing the concept of kindness. Moreover, to agree it exists, and, to a very large and growing degree, agree that kindness, which only happens at all because we thought of it, was a very nice idea, and we liked it a lot. Enough to keep practicing it even though we all know we’ll get burned by it.

Sure, we made angels and gods to justify the concept, but in the end the falling angels are only paintings on the ceilings of cathedrals, who we will never meet, except perhaps in some mirror, someday. Or maybe we’ll see an echo of them in our great grandchildren.

What if we’re all just the children of apes who looked upwards, one day, and decided there must be something better up there? Animals who stood a little taller than they were, technically, obligated to. What if we made up a thousand different stories to convince each other to keep climbing?

Personally, I like that idea. I like it very much. It might be a comfort to think of Right and Good as things written in stone by something greater than ourselves, but I, for one, find it much more pleasant to imagine, instead, that it never needed to be written at all. That it is our ultimate fantasy, and in living it, above all our other fantasies, it weaves through them a common thread, making it, as Mr. Pratchett suggested, himself, the truth.

“You need to believe in things that aren’t true. How else can they become?”

 

___________________________________________________________

 

Here’s a video of the scene from the movie, which follows fairly closely to the book:


Let’s Talk About Principle and Principles

As I get ready to leave town, on to the next place, I always feel a bit of nostalgia.

There’s nothing too special about that, and given how often I move compared to most people, I probably feel a muted a version of it, but it’s there. I wandered around the old NAU campus today, for a bit, just enjoying the lovely weather. I was there on business, however. As one of four Alumni in my family, and the scion of two people who met there, I’ve got more than a bit of a connection to the place. I’ve taught and taken classes there. I loved my time there. But today there was a bit of a sour note.

Way back in the day, long, long ago, I left grad school to become a writer, and lived on the road for a good while afterwards, and even when not on the road, I lived in temporary and unofficial arrangements. I enjoyed it, it worked well for me. Unfortunately, there were some charges posted to my account. Nothing I couldn’t or wouldn’t have paid if I’d known, just about $30 in fees, of the usual money-grubbing bullshit sort that colleges line their pockets with. No big deal.

However, being, as I was, living the glamorous in-the-car-semi-homeless life, I was not aware of the charges. Fast forward to today, where Northern Arizona University wants me to pay about $500 in late fees. Yes, you read that right. Half a grand for late fees on pocket change unpaid printing fees. Is that predatory? Definitely. Is it pathetic? Absolutely. Does it mean that when I’m rich and famous and a few million people follow my Twitter account I’m going to tell people not to go there? Would I be that petty? Definitely.

I only found out about it because they sent me to collections who called my parents, which was also annoying. The nail in the coffin, though, was when I was in there today, and discovered what become of my AZ income tax returns, all $180 dollars of them, from a couple years ago; it had gone to paying NAU, but here’s the awesome thing, they would have completely covered what I owed in principle, several times over, and then most the late fees. . .

. . . but the school put them towards the late fees as opposed to the actual charges. Why would they do that? So they could continue charging late fees indefinitely–and no, it wasn’t a fluke, it’s official policy. Because who cares about education or the success of your graduates when you can just keep bilking money out of them indefinitely?

Shameful. Criminal. Utterly unforgivable. 

Now, the woman at the counter, who thought my name sounded familiar (because she knew me when I used to live here, but I didn’t feel the need to remind her), was very helpful, very nice, and gave me the contact info for the collections agency and the fellow here at NAU who handles stuff with them. Now I’ll give them a call and try to work things out, definitely.

I’ve thought about it, though, and here’s what I won’t do: Pay them another nickel, ever. See $500 isn’t much in the grand scheme of things. I could walk over there and pay it right now. I can afford it . But it’s going to cost them more than that to find me, more than that to take me to court, and more than that in bad publicity if they try it. If I write an article that persuades one prospective student to attend another school, it’s going to cost them fifty times that all by itself.

I have lots of flaws, and one of them is an irrational stubborn streak that makes it physically impossible to let some piece of shit bureaucrats bully me into paying them money for nothing. I want to be clear about that, I pay my debts and I have no issue with that concept. I’d go hungry before I shorted someone for a service they rendered. This is not that. This is a debt ten times the value of the service rendered, which I have squared with them, and manufactured for no other reason than profiteering.

I’ve paid the NAU what I actually owe them, and it’ll be a cold day in hell before I pay them half a grand for nothing. They want to hold that debt over my head? Fine, but they’re a petty extortionists for doing so, and I don’t finance criminals. If they’re that concerned with dollar signs, well, they’ve likely already spent more money trying to collect a debt you manufactured out of thin air than the value of the debt, it’s illegal to charge late fees on the late fees, and they’re only going deeper into the red from here. Even if I was inclined to pay it, the longer I wait, the more money they lose on the transaction, which is cool with me.

Hell, if it comes down to it, and I do go to court, and I do get ordered to pay, I’ll go to jail for contempt of court for not paying it before I pay it. Assuming they can find a judge that will award it. My credit is perfect, it can take a hit, and good luck garnishing my wages; I work freelance. If I can’t write an article that goes viral off of that experience, I should be looking for a new career.

For that matter, if I can’t sell an article about how Northern Arizona University hunted down and had a former student jailed over $500 in late fees levied against $30 dollars in printing fees, I should be looking for a new career. So that’s how I figure this, NAU: It’ll cost you more money to find me than you’ll make off finding me, and I’ll probably make more money off the ordeal than I’ll lose, while costing the school tens or hundreds of times that amount in lost income from potential students. I can live with that just fine, much better, in fact, than I can live with letting you push me around.

You want to kick me while I’m down, go right ahead, but this is a promise, I’ll find my feet, and when I do I’ll kick you twice as hard. You can take that to the bank, and rest assured it’s the only thing you ever will.

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I’ve Done Dumber Things 2

What do you think of the new layout? I think it’s a bit better than the old one, looks a bit  more polished. Then again I’d like to think that, wouldn’t I?

I’ve been asked to write something else, because a friend of mine is uncomfortable with the fact that Let’s Talk About Death is chilling out at the top of his “Like Articles” section on LinkedIn. So let’s talk about some stupid things I’ve done. And why they weren’t, really.

There’s a reason we’re all young (and stupid!) at some point.

As a teenager, mountain biking, I once jumped across an arroyo of indeterminate width because there was a rock there that someone else had clearly used as a ramp. . . I don’t know if he was successful, or why I assumed so at the time, but as it turned out, I was. I once free climbed a cliff face well over one hundred feet tall so I could sit at the top and eat an apple while smirking at the people trying to do it with all their ropes and helmets and safety equipment–this was not long after I’d caught myself with my pinky finger in a fall under similar circumstances. I once. . . you get the idea. This list is extensive, and you’ve got a similar one.

When you think about, young’s a terribly dangerous thing to be, and there must be a safer option. See, evolution isn’t about making you survive, it’s all about the species. So it programs us to spend several years with too much energy and too little sense because that’s a fantastic way to weed out the ones of us who are not some comfortable medium of durable and sensible.

Some slip through the cracks, don’t get me wrong, plenty of people slip through the cracks. Idiots abound. And we all worship at the alter of stupidity from time to time–it’s just how devout we are that varies. That’s fine. We do great things, too. We can all do great things.

There’s a reason we’re young.

It’s because one day we’re not. We’ve gotten pretty good at drawing the lines between our actions and the consequences, and it really cuts down on that feeling of invincibility. In theory it should make cowards of all us by our early thirties. I’m twenty-five and I’ve already come to a few realizations, like, for example, my knees are never not going to hurt because that’s what happens when your teenage years are tennis, biking, and falling off of high places. My knuckles are never not going to be knotted in places from where bits of the bones chipped off and didn’t quite heal right. Same with my shins.

We should be paralyzed by, if not fear, then simple understanding. We’re not, because we once were young, and, hell with it, we’ve survived dumber things. When I was debating moving up here I didn’t think things would hit the skids this quick, but the voice of experience informed me that virtually every relationship fails sooner or later. See Let’s Talk About Love On a timeline of any length, this was almost definitely going to be a waste of time and money, both of which I’m short on just now.

In the back of my mind, though, there’s the certainty that I’ve done dumber things for less reason. Hell, I’ve done dumber things for no reason. And there’s a whole ‘nother realm of action and consequence, the one comprised of inaction and consequence; the things we didn’t do which haunt us. That one girl I really should’ve asked out, etc. Going the extra mile is never a waste of time, because the act redefines what extra is. It extends the range of who we are, opens up new options and teaches us that our limits are not what they once were.

Moments like this I find myself rather happy to be alive, and rather satisfied that I’m putting my all into things that actually matter. I’m saying is that the stupidest risks are sometimes the ones we don’t take. The truth is there are very few people who can’t accomplish something if they put in the effort, so when we’re asking ourselves, “Is it worth the risk?” what we’re really wondering is, “Is it worth the effort?” and my answer is yes.

Some risks are worth taking, and, really, I’ve done dumber things.

 

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Let’s Talk About Death 4

And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything. ~William Shakespeare 

The Boxer

Death has kept creeping up on my mind this week, in one form or another. Did you hear about Omar Henry? He was a boxer, and a damned good one with a big career ahead of him. He was twenty-five, my age. Four months ago he was diagnosed with gall bladder cancer, and he died just days before his twenty-sixth birthday. Maybe it’s because I was just recently contemplating my own mortality, but it hit home for me. His last few tweets to the world were more visceral than they normally would have been, perhaps. I think the sort of death he faced is probably the hardest. With age, we come to expect it. In youth, if death comes for us, it’s usual brutal and sudden, no time for contemplation. He had time to face death, but not enough time to fight it. How can you prepare for that?

I had a friend who died a few years back, more of an acquaintance, but a nice guy who was close to several of my friends, nonetheless. He fell from a canyon wall while stargazing, and died. I was farther down what might have been the same canyon shooting fire arrows at bottles of gasoline, and I came through fine. It was an object lesson in just how ridiculously unfair life can be. It was also an introduction to another lesson I wouldn’t fully learn for several years.

Napkins and Jackets

This next bit is about a crinkled up napkin I found in the pocket of my leather jacket. You need some background, first.

Once upon a time, I knew a man named Bryce Gillies. Bryce was not a handsome man. He was short, and well on his way to bald at twenty, and his face was a bit asymmetrical. He was born with complications of some sort or another, I think, and I later learned from his father–who I wish I’d met under any other circumstances–that doctors thought he would never be able to walk for any long distance. I guess Bryce never got that memo. Bryce was an avid hiker and outdoorsman, an Eagle scout, a crazy good rock climber–basically everything people ever said he couldn’t be.

He was a quiet man, who kept his own counsel, but spoke up, and spoke well, when the situation called for it. In 2009 he went with me and a few other people to Ghana, where he oversaw the construction of nurse quarters for a clinic in the small village of Yua. He was an engineering student, and a smart one; he combined good sense with raw intelligence in a way few people manage. He was just along to build an irrigation system, but then the guy who knew how the building was supposed to come together caught malaria and had to be medevaced. Bryce took over, and got it done anyway. Though they spoke English, many Ghanians had trouble with our names. They called me “Corner” and Bryce “Bright”. My nickname was funny, his was, honestly, an accurate reflection of his character.

We were not the closest of friends when we left, although on friendly terms, but the two of us shared a hut (with each other and one very fast scorpion we named Gonzales) while we were there. We shared goals and quarters and terrible food, a light that we turned on and off by touching live wires together in the dark, and I think I knew him pretty well by the end.

Among other things, his good sense probably saved my life, when we were installing solar panels. He had the sense to disconnect the panels from the wiring, which is the only reason my heart didn’t stop thirty miles down a dirt road from the nearest hospital, when I grabbed exposed terminals of the positive and negative wires at the same time with sweat-soaked fingers while I was wiring the lights.

 

Good

What Bryce really was, however, was a good man. One of the best I have ever known.

Some people, like me, actively work to be good, some people are just naturally predisposed to kindness, generosity, and a gentle nature. Bryce was both, and it showed. You knew it when you met him, and he never did anything in the entire time I knew him to make me question that for a moment.That’s not to say he was a stick-in-the-mud, either, he was always down for fun, or some good-natured trouble. He covered for me in Africa when I was puking my guts out from whatever tropical nastiness I had, but didn’t want to be sent home. By the end of the Ghana trip, I was determined to get to know him better and stay friends. Three weeks after we got back from Ghana, on July 18, 2009, when I was still fighting off the lingering effects of Africa (dysentery, some sort of recurring fever, and 35 pounds of weight loss) he was already feeling up to a birthday hike in the Grand Canyon back country. A bunch of people were supposed to go along, but somehow everyone backed out, and none of us realized he was on his own.

We figured it out pretty quickly when the 21st rolled around, and no one had heard from him. Search and Rescue went out. As did many people who knew him, and a lot who didn’t. I wouldn’t have been any damned help, so I spent time trying to figure out where he might have gone off the trail on USGS maps.

It was clear fairly early on in the search that he had left the trail somewhere. What all of us who were experienced hikers carefully didn’t talk about was that people don’t live four days in the Canyon without water in July. I think we held out hope that he had found a spring, or a way down to the river, and was holed up there waiting for rescue. They didn’t find him until the 25th, and I don’t think any of us really thought he was going to be alive at that point. Still, Bryce had defied expectation his whole life, and he knew what he was doing–if anyone had been able to make it, it would have been him.

When he realized he was going to die, Bryce typed out a final note to his parents, his friends, and the Ghana team on his phone. I don’t really want to go into what was said, but I will say it was true to form; light, funny, insightful, and more concerned about others than himself. His parents gave me a copy, and whenever I shuffle off this mortal coil, whoever sorts through my belongings will find it tucked away with some of my most treasured possessions.

A lot changed in my life that year. By the anniversary of Bryce’s death I had left grad school, decided to pursue a career in writing, and was living in my car traveling the country. There were many things that factored into that decision, but Bryce’s death played a role.

I remember sitting in the Starbucks at NAU, not long after Bryce died, trying to write a letter on a napkin. It was to Bryce’s parents, and it was a mess. I wanted to say so many things, and did not know how. I just knew I had to say something. These past few years have bought enough wisdom that I know now that I didn’t have to write anything, that Bryce’s parents knew everything I wanted to say more completely than I ever could. At the time, though, it seemed crucial. In the end, after sketching the building, and rambling about this and that, I decided I was at a loss. I stuffed the napkin in the outside right pocket of the jacket. It was probably early August, but it can get chilly in Flagstaff any evening of the year.

That was a confusing time. I had never suffered any illusion of my own invincibility. I’d like to think I’m pretty hard to kill, but I’ve always known I am going to die someday. But Bryce was good, and kind, about as good as people come. . . and he died a hard death, alone, on his twentieth birthday. What crystallized for me was not my own mortality, but the mortality of the people around me. All these people who matter more than life, I am going to lose, and the world is not going to give a second thought to how much they deserve to go on.

I don’t believe in a life after this one. It makes it easier to be strong, easier to be good, and more determined to leave a mark, but it leaves me painfully certain that every moment with these people is something I can’t trade back. So each moment has to be one I don’t want to trade back.

That jacket is my favorite, it’s worn and torn now, but it was fairly new at the time. When I traveled, it went with me. It’s been to dozens of states, and all over each of them. It’s not waterproof, and it’s been soaked through at least thirty times. I’ve probably worn it more days than not, all told.

The other day, when I should have been worrying about other things, I reached in that pocket. It’s something I have done thousands and thousands of times since that day, and felt a wadded up paper, I pulled it out, expecting a used Kleenex or something I had stuffed in there for lack of a better place. I almost threw it away. Instead, of course, it was the letter on that flimsy Starbucks napkin, somehow not torn and not washed out.

Without knowing it, I carried it every place I’d ever gone, for four years, somehow unnoticed in a place where I keep things all the time. Maybe there’s a metaphor in that.

 

Timeless

Sometimes I have moments where things seem to be going poorly. It seems like the world is unfair. Then something reminds me of the people who are gone now, who deserve to be here far more than a man like me, and I am humbled. I am not humbled that I have lived when better people have died, because that’s the nature of existence. I am humbled because these better people have at various points given some of their very limited time to me, and helped me become the sort of person I want to be.

If someone put a gun to my head and asked me if I could die without regrets right this moment, I could shrug and say, “Pretty much.” And I could mean it enough that I’d make a grab for that gun, too. That’s the legacy of Bryce and good people like him I have known.

There is a truth, one that I think most people know, and one that is easier to ignore: We are, each and every one of us, Small Gods. Our time may be limited by nature, but our ability to effect change upon the world is just shy of infinite. That’s a lot of pressure, to accept that you can and do and should matter. I still think of Bryce, from time to time, and people like him I’ve known in my life–people who were kinder and better than me–often when I’m fighting between something that is good, and something that is easy. Every time I think of them, and do the right thing when otherwise I would not, Bryce is living on. It turns out if you’re a strong enough force for good to the people around you, you keep right on being a force for good. Not even death can stop you.

I think Bryce might have understood that already, when he wrote his last words: “Life is good, whether it’s long or short.”

May we all be so lucky.

For what it’s worth, I thought this song captured the feeling perfectly.