Sunday, October 20, 2013

Big Deal

As I begin writing this post, the President and the Congress are engaged in an epic battle over the Debt Ceiling and the Shutdown. I'm confident that by the time I get around to finishing it, given my typical pace, they will have since resolved the whole thing. Here's a tip: if you're getting your breaking news from this blog, I recommend you find a more unbiased, timely, and professional news source. Like The Daily Show. Still, whenever it is that you are reading this, I'm confident that the President and the Congress are, or soon will be, engaged in a epic battle over something else. It seems to be the way we do things now.

Disclaimer: There should be absolutely no cross-curricular application of what I'm going to say here--no larger metaphor I'm trying to draw (for that sort of thing, see: here, here, and here). If you see some correlation to negotiations with your teenage kids or your dealings with car salesmen that's fine, but I didn't put it there. If I were in another profession or circumstance, I might write a piece on how these big showdowns are just like teacher contract negotiations, but alas no. The only lessons that are to be gleaned from this are applicable to the President and the Congress, and nowhere else. Absolutely. <Ahem>


The current impasse (or the one that is current to me, perhaps some time in your distant past), like many others we've seen, has certain characteristics. These characteristics make a solution at once very difficult and entirely inevitable. Until the impact of the disagreement is felt more strongly than would be the sacrifices required to resolve it, the conflict will live on. As soon as the current discomfort reaches a tipping point, the conflict will be resolved. The plot-line follows, loosely, the same progression as any disaster movie, thriller, or season of 24 that you've ever seen:
  1. The approach - It all begins when some eccentric wonky-type sees a problem way off on the horizon that spells certain doom. The problem is, this eccentric and his colleagues are always seeing problems way off in the distance. For the vast majority of people, it's impossible to tell that one time when doomsday is actually coming.
  2. The very near approach  - By this point most insiders see a real problem brewing, but they're still putting on a brave face in public. Investigative journalists are starting to ask difficult questions, and writing lengthy pieces in The Atlantic, but the public has no idea and/or can't be bothered.
  3. The point of no return  - Everyone is quite sure there will be an eleventh-hour reprieve. That's because sometimes there is, and the whole thing ends here. Actually, it never really ends here but rather is tabled until the inevitable sequel.
  4. The deadline - The deadline that everyone has been dreading arrives.
  5. The breach of the deadline that must never be breached  - The deadline goes whooshing past, as deadlines are prone to do (see also: here) and: ...nothing. Well, not nothing, but nothing quite as cataclysmic and impressive as was predicted. Mostly, people go about their business (or stay home and begin the long wait for their paychecks), doing work that must be done. Many essential things are still running just as before anyway, so it becomes a bit of a hard sell that this should matter to people.
  6. Hopelessness - A period of calm terror ensues, during which no one can see a way out. People start to theorize about the last possible moment when a deal could be done before lasting damage is done. Then they start to theorized that the world might just literally come to an end before an agreement can be reached. At this point, more discussion is held in the media than face-to-face, which reduces the level of discourse past people's elevator pitch, to their cable's been cut and the elevator is plummeting a hundred floors to the ground pitch. 
  7. Two men (or women, but mostly men--maybe that's part of the problem) enter - At some point, it always comes down to two guys locked in a room. It's possible that two guys (or girls, maybe preferably girls) locked in a room can solve any dispute, but it's possible that all of the theater involved in the previous steps is entirely necessary to get to this point. Whichever it is, large groups can rarely develop a tone civil enough to make any progress, leaving a couple of people to do all of the work. Group projects almost always turn out this way (see also: here).
  8. A deal emerges - Typically, everyone hates it. No one got everything they wanted, and the whole charade feels like a waste of time. Maybe it had to go to the last minute. Maybe it had to go significantly beyond the last minute, but while some will declare defeat, no one can declare victory.
  9. Lessons are learned - No one ever wants to repeat this whole thing again, so everyone makes plans to do things differently next time. These very plans sow the seeds of the next crisis.
  10.  Meanwhile - Some wonky eccentric is warning of the next cataclysm.
And suddenly, everything is back to normal--which is to say FUBAR. The "fix" will take us more or less to Groundhog Day--which is a fitting day to begin reliving this whole thing. The Republicans are smarting from what they perceive as a loss, which means they're either going to go back to their home districts and shoot a whole lot of rounds of ammunition into something, or they're going to take their aggression out on us somehow--expect the House to call quite a few hearings in the next weeks until they get this out of their system. Meanwhile, the Democrats will likely overreach by trying to fix climate change, campaign finance, or immigration. Then, this effort will inevitably get delayed by one or more of them becoming embroiled in some kind of bumfuzzled campaign finance ethics scandal, or getting caught having sex with a whole lot of interns and/or prostitutes--maybe by accident.

Meanwhile we'll be writing back-pay checks to all of the furloughed workers--without ever being able to recoup the income they would have generated in National Park fees, etc., or the economic activity they would have engaged in if they had been going to work during the whole mess. This means that the Republicans scored one real victory--they managed to prove that the government is wasteful and functions badly--mostly by making it more wasteful and nonfunctional.

Before we all go on a national bender to erase this sad chapter from our memory (actually, since you're living in the future, maybe you've already done that and are just beginning your recovery), there were a few little tidbits of wisdom exchanged during this whole thing that must right now be called out for the nonsense they really are. Here are some examples of the kinds of things you heard during this crisis, or any other since then, and the reasons you have a moral obligation to shout these people down:
  • It doesn't really matter - Wingnuts (like me) have more in common with wingnuts on the opposite side of the issues than we do with people who can't be bothered to care. If you don't have an opinion on this stuff, I'm sorry, but I see that as a character flaw. I believe the other side was wrong to do what they did, and wrong in their entire reasoning behind doing it. I do, however, identify with the experience of seeing something so horrifyingly, awfully wrong that you are willing to do just about anything to stop it. In fact, if we'd had our own Boehner during the run-up to the Iraq War, we may not be in the fiscal quagmire that is at the root of the whole budget mess that keeps nudging up the debt ceiling.
  • Fair and balanced - It's tempting, and seemingly reasonable, to take an "everyone should take a deep breath and negotiate in good faith" stance. While I do understand how the House Republicans feel, that doesn't make them at all right. The fact is, balanced is rarely fair (which you may have read before: here). The problem with the both-sides-have-an-entirely-reasonable-point nonsense is that sometimes one side is wrong. News outlets and neutral parties have a habit of finding the middle ground between the sensible center and the completely insane extreme. This may be balanced, but it's not fair.
  • Compromise is a virtue - I believe that the President's default setting is compromise. However, last time he compromised on the Debt Ceiling he got us the Fiscal Cliff and the Sequester--which we're still dealing with. Those were terrible outcomes, and worse, they taught John Boener's right flank that they should get a shiny new toy with each must-pass bit of legislation. That said, this needs to be a limited lesson-learned. If the President and/or Sen. Harry Reid decide that they will never negotiate on anything ever again, we're equally screwed.
  • Compromise is always the right answer - Nope. Observe:
    • May I punch you in the face?
    • What?! No!!
    • Uhm, okay. Maybe just a slap?
    • No!
    • Nuggie?
    • I said no.
    • Come on, lets work this out.
    • You're not punching me in the face, or anything like it.
    • Why won't you negotiate?
  • So what, as long as they got paid - Messing with a person's paycheck is serious business. Even though it was obvious early on that there would be retroactive pay--even for those who weren't reporting for work--having no money is expensive. Anyone who has ever screwed up bank balances or credit card payments knows that fees and penalties that add up very quickly, and a problem with one account can make it more difficult to fix the others. The "non-essential" workers are Americans, so their savings were statistically low, and many already had their incomes reduced because of Sequestration. In addition, there is the whole uncomfortable business of bosses getting paid while workers don't. Many of the people doing this work aren't doing it just for the money, but money is a way of communicating value and it's possible that things are a little awkward in a lot of workplaces right now.
The real fallout from all of this can't be seen right now. The shutdown dragged a serrated blade through the government, establishing some of it as essential, and the rest of it as non-essential. It was like the Sequester, in that it did not discriminate between good stuff and bad stuff, just stuff that happens to be on one part of the ledger compared with another. People could reasonably ask why we have any non-essential parts of government in the first place. People could reasonably ask why certain things were deemed essential, and others not.

My worst fear is that people won't ask these questions. If the "end" of this standoff comes as a relief, that's a big problem. Republicans have real concerns about Obamacare (mixed in with some complete nonsense). Democrats figured out that they're not entirely powerless, even when Republicans really want to get their way. They may or may not do good things with this discovery. To play the part of the wonky eccentric for a minute (okay, maybe I do that a lot of the time), this is the time to work on the fundamentals that led to this crisis. If war is God's way of teaching Americans geography, maybe near fiscal collapse could be God's way of teaching us civics. Maybe a grand bargain on the budget, a legislative fix for Citizen's United, and even a way of making polluters pay for their pollution could happen right now, when the world isn't about to end. I'm all for getting things done at the last minute, but it's not always the best time to engage in productive conversation.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Tri As I May

I recently completed the Marshman Sprint Triathlon. If you're doubled over with laughter (as my students were when I told them this), have chosen to quietly wait for a better punchline, or assume that I must be lying, please allow me to first define these terms--in reverse order, if you don't mind.

Triathlon - Technically, any collection of three sports could be called a triathlon--perhaps tennis, backgammon, and rock climbing. In the Winter Olympics they have something called the biathlon, where you cross-country ski and shoot a rifle (not at the same time; though that would be pretty interesting). Therefore, triathlons could conceivably involve skis and guns, plus ice dancing or something else entirely. Duathlon is actually totally different than biathlon, in that it is a variation on triathlons invented by bicyclist/runners who really hated the swim--more on that a bit later. All of that said, triathlon pretty much refers to swim-bike-run events. The reason you're so suspicious of my opening sentence is that you're picturing an Ironman (not to be confused with Ironman). This was not that.

 Sprint - Unlike the Ironman, the Marshman is only a 1/4 mile swim, a 12.5 mile bike, and a 2 mile run. I think it's called "sprint" not because the pace is always so speedy--even the winner took almost an hour (not exactly a sprint, in the normal sense of the word) and the last people to finish took more like 2 1/2. Rather, I think they wanted a euphemism for very short that wasn't to...uhm...diminutive. Sprint sounds much better than mini, tiny, puny, or micro. Athletes can be a little touchy about such things.

Marshman - Seems to be sorta like wedding anniversaries, where there's a sliding scale at work. For weddings its Diamond, Gold, Silver, Wood, and so on all the way to Paper. Go ahead and check the link; I'm not kidding. For triathlons, it goes in descending order of  hardness--Iron, Bronze, Nickel, Glass, Ice, Grain, and finally Marsh. At least we were ahead of the Marshmallowman Triathlon and the Creampuff Triathlon.

As so often happens to me with Big Events (see also: here, here, and here), this experience has yielded a few thoughts. Here are some: 
  •  On motivation -The worst thing about triathlons is riding your bike in a wet swimsuit. The second worst thing is the fact that the person doing the work and the person demanding the work are the same person. I think the 5k and the baby sprint triathlon have become so popular because running (and biking, and swimming) for exercise is pretty lonely and boring business. When you're your own coach, the coach and the athlete may both be Slackers. If so, having a long term goal and some standard by which to measure your progress can be helpful. Even in the race itself there is a moment where you ask yourself "am I doing all that I can," and you answer yourself "yes." And you're lying. I'm not talking about literally going to your limits and beyond, or any such nonsense, but even with a timing chip strapped to your ankle it can be very difficult to determine if you're doing your best.
  • On eating - Diet and exercise are two things that are very often conjoined, and usually in a sentence that will attempt to ruin your fun: "You can avoid type II diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, bad posture, a saggy lower lip, nausea, vomiting, lethargy, poor self esteem, and whatever else through dietandexercise." Truth is, I took on exercise because I didn't want to do anything about my diet. I enjoy ice cream, and doughnuts, and steak, and french fries, and beer--sometimes in wonderful and sinister combinations. The circular logic goes like this:it might have been to my competitive advantage if I'd dropped some of the two and a half stone that I'd packed on since college, but I got into exercise so that I wouldn't have to do it through diet.
  • On adult beginners - I started playing the guitar at age 26 and the violin at 30. I took my first tennis lesson at 40, and I started doing triathlons (see also: definitions above) at 42. Starting new things as an adult is difficult, frustrating, and sometimes highly embarrassing. Still, if you don't do this, you're pretty much limiting yourself to the things you learned to do when you were a kid and were still allowed to start something new.
  • On teams - Many of the participants were part of teams, identifiable by the jerseys that were barely legible as they went zooming past on their bikes. I wasn't part of a team. In fact, I've never been on a team of any kind, unless you count swim team--which isn't so much a team as a group of individuals whose scores get added up at the end. However, my brother also competed in this event. By "also competed" I mean that he pretty much saved my sorry hide at numerous opportunities, from when I fouled up my registration and had to sneak in at the last minute, to finding a place to park that didn't require that we stand around in the wet grass for an extra hour at the end waiting for the last of the contestants to cross the finish line. I don't really know what the other teams do for one another, but I can tell you that I was very fortunate to have mine.
  •  On specialization - I'm not a bad swimmer (among bicyclists). I'm an okay cyclist (among runners). I'm a pretty good runner (among people who are sitting on their couch). In fact, I've made my living by being a pretty good singer among pianists, and a pretty good pianist among school teachers. In other words, if you're not going to be especially good at any one thing, try to surround yourself with people who are very good at one thing, but not your "specialty." If this isn't working, change specialties--I was a bass drummer my junior year in college, in part because J. Thomas Seddon was a better trumpet player.  
  • On time invested - The next logical step in all of this is an Olympic-distance tri, followed by a half-Ironman distance, followed by a full Ironman. No it's not. One of the biggest obstacles to this pursuit, and things like it, is time. Cramming enough workouts in the three discipline into an already full life, even to do just the wussy sprint distance, involves shirking lots of responsibilities. I have a friend who played golf until he had kids, when he switched to tennis. I think of golf as an older guy's sport compared to tennis, but he found that he could get his fill of tennis in a couple of hours, while golf took the whole morning. My bike rides take +-45 minutes, where an Iromnan-distance ride would take at least ten times that, even at my 10-mile pace.
  • On swimming - The swim in this particular race isn't exactly like a swim as I would have thought; it's more like a bar fight in the water. About 120 (out of the 400 people who finished the race) guys got into the water for the first group, and all spread out nicely along the wide starting line. In the first stretch of the swim, everyone was to swim around a pylon and then angle back toward shore. This meant that the entire field was battling for the same position, immediately next to the pylon. I was never really interested in contact sports, and I was never especially curious about what it might be like to be part of a Shark Week feeding frenzy. The swim provided me with both perspectives anyway.
  • On biking - There were guys who passed me riding $8,000 bikes. We own four cars, the sum total value of which isn't much more than $8,000. A significant portion of what you're buying at that level is a reduction in weight. As mentioned above, I'm pretty sure that I could more quickly shed a few pounds of me than earn enough money to shed the equivalent weight in bikes. One bit of solace, though: each guy who flew by me outfitted for a Tour de France time trial was a guy who swam slower than I did--see also: "specialization" (above).
  • On running - I did a brief stint as a runner when I was in, like, 8th grade. Why? Well, I had gone halvsies with my parents for the hottest pair of shoes going at the time: KangaROOS. These sneakers weren't only the coolest fashion choice available, they also happened to be fairly serious running shoes. Since I had also recently acquired the other very important status symbol for my demographic at the time--a Sony Walkman--becoming a runner was the logical next step. It was going okay, with fairly steady improvement, and a few minor aches and pains until I read somewhere that running ruined your knees and hips and other joints. Continuing to do something that was ostensibly healthy, which also hurt a little, and which was going to forever wreck my body was something that not even nice shoes and a Walkman could overcome. Like so much medical, dietandexercise, and relationship advice this running-is-bad advice was only a passing fad. I still have plenty of room for improvement in this portion of the race, but I did manage to hobble to the finish.
I had a great time doing this, and certainly plan to do it again. I'm not, though, ready to become a true evangelist for this activity and those like it. I spent a few days after the event pretty sore, and spent part of the race itself in some real pain--it was one of those mornings following overnight temperatures in the 40s, and older muscles and tendons really don't like being pushed to their limits in the cold. I've suffered no lasting damage from this, but the whole idea of taking up competitive athletics in one's forties is tricky business. If I had actually injured myself, and maybe pushed through an injury, I might have been forced to give up exercise for an extended time, which would be highly counterproductive.

On the other hand, having something to work towards--other than earning visits to Twin Kiss and Fresh Doughnuts--puts you out there on days when you don't feel like doing it, and encourages you to take the longer route when you could as easily take the shortcut with no one but you knowing the difference. Still, I'm much more ambivalent about the newer and more trendy ways that older people are attempting to permanently injure themselves--i.e. mud runs and other military boot camp styled events. In order for exercise to be effective, some degree of suffering must be endured. In order to keep doing it into even more advanced age, this suffering must be reasonable. As evidenced by the link above (and again: here), I'm not the only one putting serious thought to this question. It's all a matter of small choices--"which gear to downshift to before attempting a hill?"; medium choices--"do I even want to go out today and do this?"; and big choices--"maybe bariatric surgery and be done with it?" Sometimes making the right choice can be helped along by having something to work for, which in my case was the particular distinction of becoming a Marshman. Not to be confused with a Marshman.