Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The greatest expression


I think we can all generally agree that modern life, or maybe we should call it post-modern life, in much of the world, gives us access to all sorts of amazing inventions. It’s to the point we are hardly amazed anymore. I have images in my mind's eye, probably put there by television, of early aviators barnstorming from town to town. They’d land in a field somewhere and all the town's folk would rush around to gawk at the amazing technology. Some brave soul or two would go for a ride. People were awed and afraid of that areo-plane back then. More recently, perhaps, was sending men to the moon. I’m barely old enough to remember the later Apollo moon-shots. But those captivated much of the world. They were amazing.

Sometimes some new gadget excites me, but I’m not amazed. As in, this is revolutionary. 3-D printing seems really cool. But I don’t know of examples where the city elders and towns folk are gathering around the new 3-D printer in the community to gaze at its wonder. People line up for new Apple products but that isn’t because of amazing technology. More like amazing marketing.

I work at a university and the young students coming in today have never been amazed. They carry their own computers and portable communication devices and have grown up in a world of hyper-connected technology, video everywhere, and so on. I was in a conversation recently about this and about the lack of amazement we have with what ought to be pretty amazing technology. We concluded that we have become so accustomed to radical technology advances over the past 20 years or so that we have come to expect that as normal. And the only true innovations or discoveries that would fill us with awe would be things like time travel or teleportation or confirmation of extraterrestrials. We’ve become a bit jaded.

Yet, with all this amazing technology, I still hear people say that some such gizmo is “the greatest thing since sliced bread.”

Sliced bread? Sure, it’s just an expression, and I use it from time to time in conversation. But given how fast and far technology has advanced, ought not we innovate common expressions?

Sure, sliced bread is convenient, but how did it become the benchmark after which all else is compared? What must life have been like before sliced bread? And did sliced bread usher in some golden age of modern convenience?  Thanks to another innovation, crowd sourced knowledge; I found out that sliced bread, as we moderns know it, came into being in 1928. You can read about it yourself here at Wikipedia. You can also learn there was a ban on sliced bread during World War II! That’s how great it was.

The last, greatest thing
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “John, it’s just an expression and its actually meant to be used somewhat ironically or as hyperbole. Don’t be such a literalist.” Ok, fine. But given the advances since 1928 I wonder if the ironic affect is lost on us now. And maybe we need something other than sliced bread to demark the modern era from our pre-modern simplicity.
And consider this: I was at a local upscale grocery store the other day. I don’t want to say which one for obvious reasons but it rhymes with Mole Moods. In the bakery section I noticed that the really good breads were all un-sliced, full loaves. Multi-grains and olive and nuts and figs. Yummy! And then it occurred to me: Of course! The greatest thing since sliced bread is unsliced bread.

And there is another expression I wonder about. I was in a meeting not to long ago and someone chimed in “hey, now let’s not re-invent the wheel.” Yes, we all nodded. We don’t want to do that. And it got me thinking about wheels and what must have been going on for someone to first say that. Was there a problem with wheel inventions? This must have been before patent laws existed so probably numerous inventors were claiming their new wheel as the wheel.

“Hey, Bob, check out what I just invented!”
“Uh, Chuck, It’s a wheel.”
“Yeah, yeah, but this one is better.”
“It’s still just a wheel.”
“Bob, you just don’t get it do you.”
*sigh* “Whatever.”

I can see where this would become a problem with all these alleged wheel inventions. Everyone was working on inventing wheels and ignoring other important problems. It must have reached some crises and then the king or pharaoh or whoever must have issued some decree that there be no more wheel inventions. The current design works good enough.

“And, from this day forward, there shall be no more wheel inventions. We are good with what we have.” And all the subjects in the land went back to there mud huts to contemplate something other than wheel inventions. And before long we wound up with sliced bread.

But this got me thinking. I wonder who really holds that first, true wheel patent. So I went to the US Government Patent and Trademark Office website and did a search on patents with titles containing “wheel” to find out. Well guess what? As of October 29, there are 20,873 patents with the word wheel in the title. Since 1976! Lots of wheels! Sure, there are steering wheels and inline skate wheels and mechanical devices with wheels in them. Not just that original chariot wheel or cart wheel or whatever. But still, that’s lots and lots of wheels!

So it would seem that wheel re-invention is happening a lot. And maybe it’s not such a bad thing after all. Now I know what you must be thinking, “John, fer cryin’ out loud, it’s just an expression intended to communicate the concern for repeating or duplicating work already done. Don’t be such a literalist.”

Ok, fine! Still, I think there is room to clean up some dated and misleading expressions. You know, maybe instead of wheels we should try not to “reinvent the bread slicing machine.” Or maybe we should measure future innovations against something more transformative and say that something is “the greatest invention since the wheel.” That might be more accurate, if not easier to say.

In the end, I guess I would just like a new comparative common phrase. One that is really clever and meaningful and right for our post-modern sensibility. Then I could say that this new expression “is the greatest expression since the one that was about sliced bread.”

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

In a box


I remember an article I read in the Roanoke Times back in the late 1980s. I was in grad school and working for my university, Virginia Tech, as a software programmer. The article was about Generation X. Apathetic, MTV-watching, Generation X. Up until then I’m not sure I had heard of Generation X. Maybe I had. Maybe it had been mentioned on my primary news source, MTV, but it was this article that got me. Turns out, I read, we were apathetic, self-absorbed, in the shadow of the Baby Boomers. Not really amounting to too much. What had we accomplished? Not much, it turned out. We hadn’t been protesting Vietnam or pushing any real social agenda like Civil Rights. We really weren't doing much of anything, unlike the Boomers. We were in our early 20s and had little to show on our generational resume. Needless to say I was miffed. All at once I was now part of some group with a label with a set of attributes. And I had already failed.

Recently there has been much written about the Millennial generation or Generation Y. And thanks to Google, I know my kids, born in the 2000s, are Generation Z. I wonder what generation comes next? Do we loop back to Generation A, or start using Greek letters? Or maybe names like hurricanes. That would be cool. Look out for Generation Alberta!

Thanks to Tom Brokaw I also know the generation before the Boomers is the “Greatest” and allegedly, according to Wikipedia, there is a "Lost" generation (they fought in WWI) and a "Lucky" generation (nestled between the Greatest and the Boomers).

This all got me thinking: What’s up with this generational labeling, and, can I blame the Baby Boomers for it? Is this something we worried about before 1900? Or is this a reflection of the rapid pace of social and technology change over the past 100 years or so?  Thus to describe the different experiences of our lives over time it's just easier to assign a group of people born in a range of years to a generational bucket. As if there is some big difference between someone born in 1964 and someone born in 1965.

Long gone are our comfortable tribal affiliations: There was My Clan, and everyone else. I knew My Clan because we spoke the same dialect of the same language, lived in the same valley together, and worshipped the same right local god. We may trade with the Other Clan, the one in the other valley, and sometimes there would be a inter-clan marriage to ensure ongoing peace, but we knew who was who. I suspect there was not so much of a generational delineation other than elder, adult, and child.

Our Generation Z cats fit in their own box.
Today that family-geography clan identity doesn’t work like it used to but we still need the comfort of our in-groups. So we create them. Democrat, Republican, Tea-party Republicans, Blue Dog Democrats. I guess there are still some calling themselves Independents and who cling tightly to that group for comfort. In my life I’ve belonged to several groups: Nerdy/smart kids, frat boy, computer guy, married, divorced, married, married with children, young widow(er), remarried widow(er).  I was Catholic then Agnostic, maybe Atheist for a moment, then Unitarian Universalist. I’ve actually voted for Republicans in the past, but have always thought of myself a Democrat or Green, when I can find one. I used to think I was Independent but Independents can’t vote in primaries in my state so I had to choose a side. And I’m a heterosexual white male Gen Xer. I don’t watch MTV anymore but do love Downton Abbey. Downton Abbey: Now that is a group with generational problems and lots of convenient in-groups and out-groups.

Last spring I watched all three seasons on HuluPlus and Amazon Prime. I had just had minor “guy” surgery (putting me in another group: Done Having Kids). I decided to find out what all the fuss was about so I started watching and was hooked within the first 5 minutes of the first episode. I plowed through all three seasons and am now watching it again with my wife and two boys. And what fun to share a pop culture experience with my two Generation Z’ers!

I haven’t watched any of Breaking Bad so I’m not in that group. And they seem like a cool group with their Periodic Table Chemical Symbol Facebook Profile Pictures. I'd like to be cool like that too, but I'm not. And that’s okay. One series is enough for me. And since I cancelled Netflix a year ago or so, I can't be part of the House of Cards group either. I'm completely shut out of that group. That makes me a little sad since I really love Kevin Spacey. But Downton Abbey I can share across the generations. What I know of Breaking Bad is that it would require more explaining to an 8-year-old Generation Z kid than I can muster. Though Downton Abbey has some difficult scenes it also has great "teaching" moments and lessons about people and history.

Which is good. Because kids these days need all the lessons they can get if they ever plan to put down their iPodTouches and X-Box controllers and hope to measure up to Generation X.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Mums the word


Now that we are past this most recent political crisis I can have some comfort in knowing that someday I will die.

Okay, I’m not trying to scare anyone. I’ve got years of living I hope to live. I have two boys I need to help become men, though they seem to need less and less each day. I have a new bride and plan to spend many years with her. We are in our mid (or is it late?) 40s. Hopefully we have 30 or so more with good health and stamina. I still want to hike the Appalachian Trial, bottom to top, and, with luck, meet my grandchildren. So I’m not planning on leaving this planet, not just yet.

I don’t dwell on death as much these days as I did after Amy died. I think that is a good thing, mostly. I can’t say I’m “cured” of my existential spirals and occasional wonderings about “what is the point of it all.” Especially these past couple weeks listening to the oratory from what count as our Nation's Statesmen (aside: it is mostly men and they are NOT helping advance our gender's cause at all). Anyway, this past politica-pocalypse was enough to start me spiraling again. As much anguish we just went through, will it really matter in a year? 10 years? How about 1000? In 3013 will historians, assuming there are historians, study this month and draw the great arch of that future civilization from here? Or will it even register a footnote in a multi-volume analysis of post Cold-War America.  I guess a footnote would be nice.

But does it even matter if we get a footnote or not? Baring some amazing medical miracle I’ll be dead, as will you, dear reader. Sorry for the downer. And writing these last 3 sentences is exactly how I get pulled past the event horizon into one of my existential black holes.

Not today! I’m not going to let the specter of my future death get me down. Forget about death – I’m
not going to let the reality defeat me that the same jokers who passed for statesmen three weeks ago are still there. No!

I’m looking out the back window of my home office. The white mums I bought yesterday from the hardware store on sale for $4.99 are glowing with the dawn’s first light. The muggy, cloudy rain from last night has passed on to somewhere else and the fragrance of fall floats in the crisp coolness of today. Tonight my new bride returns from a week away at a workshop. This is the day that God, or Love, or the Buddha, or Neil deGrasse Tyson has granted me. This array of atoms, called John, is still alive and self-aware. That seems pretty amazing when I think about it.

What’s not to love about life?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Caring for a sick child. And congress.

Last night, Bryan woke up crying. It was a different sort of crying than the crying that comes with a bad dream, which, thankfully, isn’t all that common. This one came with a different tone. It was that tone that a parent hears and knows something for real not good is happening. And you out there with children or have been around young ones, you know there are different cries. Angry, sad, frustrated. There is the cry that comes after a loud noise. There is a loud bang, then a second or two later out comes the first long, loud cry then another pause as the injured child takes in a large breath, and then the second cry, even louder. I think there is a good reason for that first pause. The lurking guardian has just enough time after the loud bang to mentally run through all the possible scenarios, outcomes, and contingencies, conclude if there are enough large bandages in the medicine cabinet, before leaping to action. All these different types of cries remind me of the saying about Eskimos having 50 words for snow. Maybe we should have more than one word for cry. Rather we describe the cry by the type of tears that come from our eyes, as if there is some chemical difference: Tears of joy. Angry tears. Crocodile tears. Where does that one even come from? Crocodile tears. I’ll have to look it up later. And I need to confirm the Eskimo thing about snow before I say it again. I’m learning more that stuff I learned, as a child, isn’t right. Like Christopher Columbus being an awesome dude or that you can’t swim for an hour after eating.

But last night’s tears were not Crocodile. Bryan has had a fever since Thursday evening. I’ve come to not freak out over fevers like I used to.

John: Hi Doctor Feldman, thanks for taking my call.
Dr. Feldman: Of course, and you say Bryan’s temperature is, what, 99.9?
John: That’s right. When can we bring him in?
Dr. Feldman: Any other symptoms? Coughing, Achiness?
John: No just the fever.
Dr. Feldman: I see. Well, I can tell you are concerned, but you know, kids just get these viruses from time to time and there is not much we can do but make them as comfortable as we can. If he gets hungry let him eat what he wants. Push the fluids if possible. If the fever gets a little higher, maybe give him some Ibuprofen before bed to help him sleep. You know, we don’t even really count it as a “fever” unless it gets over 100.4 and fevers between 101 and 104 are normal for so called “cold” viruses. He’ll be fine. But do call us if other symptoms, like a cough, or achiness, develop.
John: Oh.

Though his fever started low, yesterday it graduated crept up to 104.6 by late evening. So now I had crossed that threshold to "high fever" but thankfully with no other symptoms. And I’ve also come to learn that in this case to give the Ibuprofen and if the fever comes down soon-ish with that treatment, not to panic.


Right. Don't panic.

As soon as I saw the reading on the ear thermometer my mind’s eye conjured up an old scene from Little House on the Prairie: Ma’s got a fever and Pa has rushed over in the rain to Doc’s house. He stands there with rain dripping off his hat pleading, "isn't there something, Doc, you can do?"

"I'm afraid not Charles. Not this time."

This episode is not going to end well, I can tell.

So I took a deep breath and convinced myself that Bryan did not have meningitis, or tetanus like Ma did, but just some normal but nasty virus. He is, after all, an otherwise healthy 8-year-old running around 5 days per week in that petri dish we call elementary school. I gave him the Ibuprofen and an hour later his temp was down to 102.6. I moved him from the couch in front of the TV to his bed. And we all went to sleep.

Oh and before I go on, those instant read ear thermometers are worth their weight in gold. They are not the cheapest, but they are fast and convenient. Get one from your local drug store or pharmacy.

But back to last night . . .

Here is something to know, before Amy died, she was the primary caretaker. No surprise there. She was the one who had some innate sense about the children and would take notice the moment just before one of the kids started to cry. I could never quite understand how it worked. There were plenty of nights I wouldn’t even be aware of trouble until the next morning unless I received a gentle elbow or knee letting me know it was my turn. Now I am the one with that ability. I still don't know how it works but last night I was getting up out of bed right as Bryan started to cry. I hustled to his room and on the short trip down the hall had some sense what might be going on. I sat down on the edge of Bryan’s bed and put my hand to his forehead. He was cool and soaking wet. I reached under his blanket and he was soaking wet, head to toe. His fever had broken. I covered his eyes and turned on the bedside lamp. Slowly he woke up from his fever dream. I replaced his damp pillow with a fresh one and swapped comforters with a spare. It probably would have been best to completely change his bed but he was too rung-out and I didn’t want him to get up.  He slowly stopped crying, I turned off the light, rubbed his back and he fell back to sleep.

And during this most tender father-son moment the thought running through my head was: Thank god the federal government is closed. 

Every year, you see, out church has an annual weekend retreat to Catoctin Mountain Park. Catoctin is perfectly gorgeous in the Autumn. We stay in cabins in the woods and gather in a main hall for meals and games. We play sports and hike and just have a lot of fun together. I like to volunteer to coordinate the Saturday morning breakfast, usually for about 120-140 people. Catoctin Mountain Park is right next to Camp David and is federal land and therefore: Closed. This week the church has scrambled and Plan B is a big outdoor gathering, grill out, games, sports, etc., at our minister’s home. And through whatever Unitarian Universalist miracle we can conjure, it will become Catoctin. At least for one day.

But that isn’t what I was thinking about. I was thinking about what I would have done had the feds been open. I had all this food to purchase, bring up to Catoctin, and then prep for breakfast plus all the normal packing. But it would have been with a sick child. Lori probably would have drawn the short straw and stayed with Bryan. Bryan probably would have been upset to not go. There would have been complex logistics issues since I would have to drive the minivan up with all the gear and food and left the VW behind, which is a manual transmission. Lori doesn’t drive a manual. She’d be essentially without a car. Catoctin isn’t too far away, maybe 90 minutes, but I imagined possibly two trips back and forth. I’m sure we would have worked it out and others in our church would have helped. They always do.

But thanks to the intransigence on Capitol Hill I had one less thing to worry about. As I tried to go back to sleep it occurred to me that, like Bryan’s fever, this too shall pass. Congress has us crying in our sleep and each night we wake up soaking wet hallucinating colors and shapes that attack us. We just seem unable to quit the bug that has infected us. But hopefully, soon, we will get up one morning, like Bryan did today, feeling much better. We won't completely out of the woods. Bryan, for example, still has a 99.6 fever but his appetite has returned. I don’t know if the Congressional physician has taken Congress’s temperature yet. And for that, by the way, I’d recommend rectal, rather than ear. But tt feels we are past due for a little care for those sad, sick politicians. Maybe they should rest, load up on fluids, and take some Ibuprofen. This fever too shall break. I hope soon.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

My Willow Oak


We have a willow oak in our front yard. It was already full-grown when Amy moved in 15 years ago and the same when I joined her 2 years later. I wasn’t familiar with willow oaks before I moved in. Maybe I had seen them before and just not paid any attention to them, but when I thought of an oak tree I thought of a white oak or red oak. An oak tree with that classic oak tree leaf and acorns the size of a good-sized cherry.

Leaves on my front walk
signal autumn
If you know the willow oak then you know its leaves are different. Its leaves are long and thin, not at all like a white oak’s leaves. And we do have white oaks too. They are in the backyard. And while the long and thin willow oak leaves are not at all like the white oak’s they are like their namesake’s, the willow tree. Though confusing a willow tree with a willow oak seems unlikely even for the least of the arborist among us.

I love our willow oak, but I didn’t always. I guess you could say it grew on me. Our willow oak is a large willow oak – very large with a canopy stretching over the street and back over nearly our entire house. In the summer its leaves shade our shingles and the house is cooler as a result. But in the fall, which the several thin brown leaves on my front walk tells me is starting, my willow oak drops those thin leaves over a wide area with significant deposits in my gutters. Its acorns are also smaller. More like blueberries than cherries.  The acorns fall too, of course, and mix in with the leaves on the ground and gutters. Should we ever grow an apple tree we could sprinkle on a balsamic vinegar and toss in a little blue cheese and we’d have a perfect waldorf salad. At least perfect for the happy squirrels with whom we share our yard.

I’ve gone through a couple rakes in my decade or so here. Before moving in with Amy, I had mostly been a townhouse, condo or apartment dweller.  As a child I grew up in the country with a yard and lots of trees and I did my fair share of leaf raking. I also did my fair share of leaf pile jumping and I imagine if you asked my parents they’d have a different recollection of my raking to jumping ratio. As a teen-ager I had summer and after school jobs working for a nearby farm. After the summer peaches ended and the autumn apples slowed, our boss, Mr. Heritage, would pay us minimum wage to rake leaves at the Methodist Church down the road. We’d rake huge piles onto a giant canvas then hoist the canvas onto a flatbed pulled by a tractor. We’d drive the leaves into the orchards and spread them out for mulch. All of this is to say I came to my current residence with a resume containing practical and advanced raking experience.

And like many life and work experiences, including some on my resume, there is a difference between the content and the context. Though I had raking experience I had no willow oak raking experience. Only white and red oak, along with sycamore, perhaps a little maple, and tulip tree. These are good rake training trees with their large leaves that rest loosely on the ground. They are happily gathered with the tines of the average rake. The willow oak is a different kind of thing. Its narrow leaves prefer, insist on really, the comfort of the ground. After only the first heavy fall dew, forget about a gentle rain, any willow oak leaves take that moisture, nestle down in the grass and embrace the earth. I use the word “embrace” in an attempt to be poetic, but those goddamned leaves, to be more precise, stick to the grass and earth like week-old dog shit. A rake is practically useless. It takes several passes over the same patch of earth, with increasing pressure, to relieve those leaves from my yard. And given their shape and size, the rake tines tend to mostly realign the leaves in a parallel direction so the next pass of the rake has zero affect at all other than to better arrange them in the same direction. I have learned, over the dozen autumns, to alternate each pass or so at a 30-45 degree angle so as to confuse the leaves. This seems to help though it is no perfect solution. And any of those leaves left behind, I have learned, will eventually decompose but only after taking my hard fought grass with it. That’s another story.

And the gutters are another story too, but one I’ll include here. Normal oak leaves – and by normal I’m referring to those red and white oak leaves – are large enough to mostly cover over the gutter in clumps. To be sure, plenty do get into the gutter itself and some into the downspout, but mostly two or three of the first fallen leaves will cooperate, overlap and cover the downspout so the others rest on top. Over the course of the fall, even though the gutter structure becomes completely overlaid with leaves, the overlapping and broad structure still leaves enough room for an average autumn rain to collect and discharge through the downspouts. Willow oak leaves have a different plan. Then conspire with a small stick or two and lodge themselves well down the downspout and create a foot or two-leaf plug column.  After this first vanguard of leaves has settled in, their reinforcements quickly fill up the gutter rendering the whole contrivance useless to guttering rain. Even now, on this chilled sunny October, I can see a November rain lipping over the edge of my gutters. A wet homage to the waterfall. All this is to say, the only real strategy to the willow oak in the autumn is to stay ahead as best I can. I can’t wait until all the leaves have fallen then dedicate a crisp Saturday afternoon to their removal. I have to plan ahead a bit more. If there is rain forecast for a day or two away, I better do spend some time, even if its an hour, to rake up what willow oak leaves I can before they imbed into my lawn. Which is exactly what I will do. I will do it in some fantasy future where I sit on my front porch with a cup of coffee in one hand and rake in the other waiting to dispatch each leaf as it falls.

But that isn’t what is going to happen. The forecast for the next few days calls for rain and I haven’t the time to be raking which means the willow oak leaves with the head start will become laminated to whatever they land on.

My willow oak as seen from my neighbor's yard
I say I love my willow oak yet have given scarce evidence for that emotion. I did mention the shade it offers. And that is nice. But I get shade from other trees too. I don’t know how old the tree is but it must be original to this neighborhood. My house was built in 1940 – probably one of the last before the war. There is a time gap in our little development of when homes were built and one can almost draw a line on a map based on when construction stopped and war making started. I imagine someone; maybe a young girl or boy, mentored by a father leaning on a shovel, planting my willow oak as a sapling that year of looming war. An oak of any sort would have been a good choice. It’s strength and future size a good symbol during those days. It is possible my willow oak was already there and the builders kept it while the house was built, but that seems unlikely. It would have been a young tree, not sturdy and mature enough to be worth saving and incur the inconvenience of excavating and building around. And there are no other willow oaks nearby to leave an acorn behind. But I can never know. So I choose the image in my mind’s eye of the child planting the tree with an approving father’s oversight.

Over the years families and individuals walked passed my slowly maturing willow oak as they went off to whatever it is they did. And along with the tree, each person grew a little older. Eventually each person moved on leaving my willow oak to greet the next temporary inhabitant. Then the day came and my once future bride, Amy, arrived, walked up our front steps, past the willow oak, and settled in. Then she invited me in. Then two young boys. And too soon after, Amy left us behind along with my willow oak which sheltered us through the worst of storms. Eventually Lori and a small menagerie of loving pets walked past the tree and joined us in our home.

Through our human storms and meteorological storms with human names my willow oak has lost a few branches here and there. A knothole is growing about 15 feet up that is a home for squirrels. I had to have a large limb removed a year or so ago as it had grown too big and too close to the roof for my home insurance agent’s checklist. And some day my willow oak will die like we all must. I don’t know if I want to go before it goes, or if I want to stand witness to its demise. Some day may come when a terrific gust blows part or all of it down. Such a calamity will cause quite a mess of electric and telephone wires, possibly break a car or two, and maybe require another visit from my home insurance agent, or worse, a neighbor’s. And given that risk I know I will likely face a test administered by a well-meaning arborist who’ll force me to admit my willow oak’s death sentence. Some will see my decision as a merciful thing. But to me it will be a crime most foul. I do not look forward to that day in the least, but cannot imagine anyone else committing this premeditated murder for hire.

Like all things we love our minds sometimes drift to dark fantasies of when that thing must die. We hear something on the radio or someone says something and our mind drifts to that scary place where a loved one is no longer with us. I suppose it is essential to our human nature and is an evolved strategy to prepare ourselves, inadequately, for that certainty. I fear that future day, after the storm named for a person, when a large branch has taken out my and my neighbors electricity and perhaps worse. The gaping wound left on my willow oak’s trunk reveals a terminal rot. The decision I will be forced into will be both obvious and impossible. And that is how I know I love my willow oak. I love it because I fear the day I no longer rake its leaves.

Today though, when I walk out my front door, it will be there. Standing to my right as I walk out to do whatever it is I will do.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Politician's Dilemma


Political oriented essays will also be published on my Daily Kos blog 

Here is a question my good friend Jim and I posed as we were driving back from a camping trip: What does it mean if all the individual people (actors) in a system act completely rationally and make rational decisions but the sum of those rational decisions is irrational? What does that mean about the system that contains those individuals?  It’s an interesting question somewhere in the overlap of economics and social psychology. Game theory might describe it with the classic problem known as the prisoner’s dilemma. Rather than trying to explain it, you can read it on wikipedia.

We were talking about the current congressional budget impasse, of course. But the prisoner’s dilemma only really describes the rationale for the actors’ decisions and the economic motives behind them. It says little about the system that would encourage or lead to individuals not acting in a way that is contrary to their better self-interests.

And yet, for the group of republican congressional representatives we refer to as the Tea Party, this seems to be exactly what is going on.

Like it or not, thanks to decades of gerrymandering we have a high percentage of very safe districts for both liberals and conservatives. If the primary reward for a congressional representative is re-election, then making decisions and voting in the way that best ensures re-election is the rationale thing to do. And thanks to citizen anger in parts of the land to Obamacare (nee: the Affordable Care Act), those Tea Party activist congressional representatives are acting in a way to ensure re-election.

I’m not going to argue the validity of the citizenry’s anger nor the representative blood-lust embodied within the Tea Party. There is plenty of analysis regarding the mis-information, subtle and not-so-subtle racial antagonism towards anything Obama. That’s for another day.

In Federalist Number 10, James Madison warns of the perils of factions and argues that the republican form of government, rather than a direct democracy, and shared powers between federal and state, would prevent fractious disruptions to the proper running of a government.

He was wrong.

The seeds of a civil war were sown in the hallowed constitution. And in addition to that war we have a history of factions disrupting the civil functioning of the government including the most recent Tea Party movement. Perhaps our founding fathers, as great as they were, were naïve to human behavior and believed too much in an Enlightenment Age view of civilization. Their high-minded ideals and philosophies assumed a level of compassion and working for the greater good, and that rational debate and science would lead us to greater knowledge. But those concepts are assumed, not well codified in the Constitution itself. The separation of powers was seen as sufficient (and revolutionary at the time) yet it has not successfully dealt with the recent passions of humankind and our descent back to superstitions and fears of science.

Now we have a minority opposed to a law passed by both houses of congress, signed by the President, and affirmed by the Supreme Court. This minority’s strategy to change the law is to shut down the government, throw people out of work, and end necessary services for the citizens they represent. If this were happening elsewhere in the world we would be debating whether to name it a coup or not.

And yet, this collection of individuals is acting rationally. Each is acting in the way most likely to achieve re-election. So when we start hearing reports that Republican congressmen secretly wish this would all just go away and pass the so-called “Clean Continuing Resolution” I can only conclude a “Prisoner’s Dilemma” like situation is in play. The best outcome for all would be for all Congressional Representatives to vote for the Clean CR and then get on with whatever they want to do to change Obamacare. But for that to happen, no one can balk and vote against it. As soon as the Tea Party wing suspects one will balk, they all must to show fealty to their constituents. And then, in fear, the rest of the Republicans do the same: Acting as rationally as the two prisoners in their dilemma.