Under 40, Under 40: Rollin’ and Tumbin’ to the End of the Season

I promised something about the wonders of DC in the spring, and I’m getting to it. But I just have to relay the story of last weekend’s 5k in Houston to celebrate the opening of the new stadium for the Dynamo (our major league soccer team).

So Dana and I get up at 4:40 AM and leave the homestead in Galveston at around 5 last Sunday to try to get to the 7 o’clock start on time. I mention this because it sets the stage for why we were snippy with each other: no amount of coffee and running mix music in the car can make up for having to get up at before dawn, drive an hour, find parking, wait in line to pick up your registration packet, and get to the port-a-john fast enough to drop your pre-race nervous poop.

Anyway, a few minutes before the race, Dana lets me know that she has some issue with my previous post and its well-constructed (or, uh, whiny and elitist) arguments for having staggered starts at the beginning of races. I’ll let her post a more eloquent comment on this if she wants, but the gist of her response was that (1) dodging is part of the game, so suck it up; (2) I ought to be encouraging more people to run because their interest is what allows road races to exist; (3) if I have a problem with crowding, then start doing triathlons … they are much less crowded. All good points, but I won’t concede that any of them are inconsistent with race organizers starting some faster people 5 minutes before everyone else.

Anyway, as normal, I didn’t push to the front of the crowd (much), but with Dana’s points in my head, and my grumbly half-formed responses to them, and having been a bit rushed overall, let’s just say I started the race in a less-than-optimal mood. Physically, the first steps made me feel like a mobile bag of goat crap, but at least I was no longer stewing. To my surprise, the dodging wasn’t awful, though the first quarter mile was crowded with lots of teams and people with kids (this was a run for the opening of a soccer stadium, after all). About 3/4 of a mile in, I was able to separate enough to find the space to run without worrying too much about other people, and the goat crap feeling was starting to go away.

But the running gods are, like the golf gods, a**holes. Around the first mile marker, I was just starting to get a rhythm when, looking down at my watch, I noticed I was at a little over 7 minutes — which is much slower than I wanted to be going. That was confusing to me, because my pace felt harder than that, but even more confusing was the sudden realization that I had stubbed my left toe and was falling.

Now, this is not the first time I’ve fallen while running, and it sure won’t be the last. It’s not even the first time I’ve fallen this year. But it’s certainly the first time I’ve fallen in a race, with a couple teenage girls who I’d just passed as witnesses. The only positive thing to come out of this little episode was that I actually fell in a minimally harmful way — I think I rolled, or something, because I popped right back up and found myself still moving forward. I won’t lie — it hurt, and a week later my left toe is still really tender, but now I had to finish the race. More to the point, I had to put some distance between  me and those teenage girls, because shame is a powerful motivator.

But the running gods are, like the golf gods, wonderful. Despite having four separate places on the left side of my body that felt a little bruised (and bleedy) it didn’t seem like there was anything seriously wrong, so on I went. And damned if this wasn’t me at the end of the race:

For context, that’s me (sporting the sweaty Rorschach test on my shirt and the dubious upper body running form) in a footrace to the finish line with the kid in the red to the left. I was trying to pass him at the end, but he managed to speed up enough for us to tie coming in. Turns out that shame is a pretty good motivator after all. It also turns out that the running gods thought that one relatively minor fall was penance enough for my previous blog post — I actually ended up winning my age group for the race. Seriously, you can check it for yourself here, just go look under the “male 35-39” category (they haven’t posted the results in the “fell like an idiot” category yet). To be fair, dividing age groups up into five-year increments is unusual, and that makes it easier to place in your age group, but I’m still surprised and pleased.

(I like the above picture because of the guy in the background. What’s he looking at? It’s a mystery on par with what the Mona Lisa is smiling at. I also suspect that is pretty much what I looked like right before kissing the pavement (rule one of injury prevention: look where you’re going)).

Several lessons occurred to me after this 5k. First, I still don’t know how to run a decent race. I ran the first couple miles in a little over 7 minutes each, then ran the last 1.1 miles in under 6 1/2 minutes. It’s like for the first couple miles I’m just trying to figure out what I’m doing out here in shorts and running shoes … then in the last mile it occurs to me that I might want to run fast because, you know, it’s a race. It is possible that the miles were mismarked (Dana backed me up on this possibility) but it’s more likely that I just haven’t figured out how to concentrate enough to maintain my focus and attention throughout the discomfort of racing.

The second lesson is that I need to figure out how, and how much, to warm up. Running from the car to the starting line doesn’t count.

The third lesson (if it’s not obvious from the picture above) is that I need to drop some weight. They tell me it’s easier to run faster and longer if you weigh less … perhaps that’s worth a little empirical research. Fortunately, summer is coming, and for those of us who don’t eat barbecue, it’s easier to eat well.

The fourth lesson is that I am an incredibly lucky man. When I met her at the finish line, Dana took about 30 seconds to catch her breath and down a bottle of water. She then picked up right where she left off before the race: giving me shit about my previous blog post. There have been many moments over the last ten years that made me realize that my wife is the perfect person for me. That was one of them.

So that’s it for the spring 2012 season of Under 40, Under 40. This summer is devoted to building up mileage by running in the morning before work and losing some extra pounds. This series will be back in September, when it’s still too damn hot to race in southern Texas, but we try anyway.

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Under 40, Under 40: Austin Rocked. I Didn’t.

I have no idea why I haven’t been able to sit down and write in a while. I’m no creative writer; I don’t do this for a living, and I’m well aware that I’m one of those people who has to drill a habit in (like writing on a daily basis) to get it to stick. So let’s just go with this: I’m back. For now. Trying to make this more of a habit.

On to more interesting things, like the latest chapter my quest to do something silly: run a 10k in under 40 minutes before I reach 40 (in 2015). I know it sounds like 3 years would be more than enough time to knock that out — at least that’s what I thought — but (not) shockingly, it’s not proving to be all that easy. To wit, my latest attempt in Austin, on March 25 at the largest 10k in Texas and the 5th largest in the country fell a little over 5 minutes short at 45:24. For context, that’s about a 7:19 mile and is a bit less than a full minute slower than my best time so far. I need to run about a 6:26 mile for the whole 10k to get under 40 minutes.

For more context, the guy who came in 542 places ahead of me (and ahead of everyone else) ran the damn thing in 29:51, which is a 4:48 pace. FOUR FORTY-EIGHT. And that’s on a course that was uphill for the first two and a half miles and then rolled up and down for the rest of the time … so he achieved his “under 30, under 30.” Um, a slightly more selective club than the one I’m trying to get into.

At any rate, I don’t really see this as a setback — the course wasn’t easy, my training had been thrown off course by a week or so off due to a nasty cold, and the rest of my training had been more haphazard in general in the weeks leading to the run. Shit happens, and it’s hardly a major issue to not PR every time out. The really cool thing about this run was that the fine folks who organized this thing managed to corral over twenty thousand people and get them safely around a 6.2 mile course. The Capitol 10k is really a marvel of organization, or at least it seemed that way to me (but getting my wife and two dogs out the door for a walk in the morning is a logistical puzzle that I only figure out about half the time, so my bar is kind of low). The Austin Statesman 10k actually divides people up into at least three different time sections: elites (people who have run a 10k in under 38 minutes), general timed (people who want their time kept) and not-elite-but-want-to-run-reasonably-fast (people who have run a 10k in under 48 minutes). I was in that last group, and I had to submit a time that could be verified, just like the elites had to. So the race started with the elites in front, and then 5 minutes later us “not-elites”, then about 10 minutes later everyone else was let loose. This elegantly took care of the major problem in most 10k races for those of us who want to run at a decent but not asphalt-melting pace: the opening dodge session.

Look, I’m honest with myself: unless the race is incredibly small (or there is some sort of ill-timed zoo escape that only affects the front-runners, which would be unfortunate but hilarious) the best I can do is maybe place in my age group. So I don’t shove my way to the front of the pack at the beginning of races, because I know that no matter how fast I think I am, there’s always going to be that 4:48 pacer who’s going to run my ass down — to him or her, I’m a barely mobile speed bump. Unfortunately, most people don’t seem to think that way, especially in charity races. And I can’t really blame them; they just want to get some exercise and maybe chat with their friends while running for a good cause. But that puts me, and I suspect a fair number of others, in a tough spot: I spend the first mile or two dodging in and out of traffic, trying not to face-plant while jumping on and off curbs and ducking around people who are rocking out (slowly) to their iPods. It’s an odd place to be, it makes the first couple miles of these races frustrating, and most 5k and 10k race organizers don’t realize (or care about) it. You have to shove your way to the front, or you have to deal with the groups of power-walkers who are yapping and walking four or five abreast. I haven’t found a good way to deal with this, other than to turn my 5k into a 4-miler and my 10k into a 7-miler by zigzagging all over the place. But it was really nice that the Austin 10k organizers acknowledged that there are a lot of people who want to try to get a PR, but can’t keep up with the jackrabbits who win these things. And judging from the running magazines and websites, I’m not alone in this group. It would be terrific to see a “mid-speed” group included in more runs, especially the big ones — or even a single broad division, say between people who want to run 8 or 9 minute miles or faster and everyone else. Everybody wins – less frustration for the faster folks, and fewer shoe marks on the backs of the slower ones.

But enough about my inability to deal with elevation changes, blabbing about things that require regulation because people in large crowds are mostly clueless and sometimes actively selfish (don’t get me started on baggage carousels at the airport) and my fascination with how they somehow managed to get 23,000 people to run in the same direction without releasing a herd of bulls behind them. The really fun part of all this was Austin itself.

In retrospect, I don’t know why I thought this, but I was expecting Austin to be a sort of advanced Chapel Hill — a college town with a little more development, maybe a few large buildings. Wrong! Austin is big, awesome, and quite pretty in parts. We took one of the many available food tours, which started in the middle of a farmers’ market (we have no farmers’ market in Galveston right now, though I keep hearing rumors) and took the entire morning and early afternoon, ending in the kind of moderately dark bar that serves a thousand kinds of beer and contains savvy students, grizzled locals, and everyone in between. The Capitol building is beautiful (the only capitol building in the country taller than the one in DC … of course, because it’s Texas) and we had the good fortune of being out on kayaks to watch the bats emerge at dusk from under one of the major bridges into the city. I remember leaving on Sunday night thinking that this place felt good, felt familiar, and that I could easily, and happily, move there. I guess once you get to a certain age, you starting thinking about the places you visit in terms of their livability, instead of how many bars and bad decisions you can stuff into a weekend.

More than anything, Austin reminded me of some of the nice (but not uber-rich) urban fringe areas of Washington, DC — a little like Silver Spring, where we moved from, or the Clarendon or Falls Church areas. You get the feeling that it’s a mixed bag of gentrification, diversity, young families, straight-up weirdos, and students. The whole area seemed possessed of progressive sensibilities about things like food and urban development, combined with a healthy business and intellectual environment. I’m no expert in development policy, but it’s hard to miss how often all those things go together.

All of this thinking about Austin, and its resemblance to parts of the DC,  has inspired me to write my next post: 5 things I miss about DC in the spring. I promise it’ll be out before summer. In the meantime, next week is the Go For Goal 5k up in Houston, where “strollers are allowed on the race course.” I’ll put my dodgin’ shoes on.

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Looking Forward to, and Fearing, Mass Effect 3

My first real post on this blog was about the potential of video games, and my willingness to give them a chance in the coming months/years to show me a new way to tell a story — or maybe even invent a new sort of art. Something like that, anyway. I also noted that for the most part, I have been disappointed, though I remain hopeful. Until recently, though, there was something else nagging at me about video games that I couldn’t quite put my finger on: why can’t I finish so many of these video games?

The games that I was talking about in that post, and that Tom Bissell wrote about in his excellent book, were the long, story-driven (sort of) games that seem to come out and result in the loss of tens or hundreds of hours of your life. They are immersive, usually single-player, and almost always require you to place yourself in a different universe, with different rules. Most that I’ve played are part of an ongoing series, so that universe (with some minor modifications) continues across more than one of these monstrosities. The more recent ones include the Fallout games, The Elder Scrolls series (Skyrim’s the latest), the Dragon Age games, and the Mass Effect trilogy.

And I’m looking forward to, and fearing, Mass Effect 3 (came out on 3/6) in equal measures. Here’s why.

I usually start these games hopeful, curious, and engaged. Generally, the visual effects initially blow me away, though that’s rarely the reason I buy a video game. And most of these games start with a decent story hook (Mass Effect 2 started with your character dying in the starting sequence!). And all of these games ask you to make “one big leap”: you have to accept that there is something major that is different about these worlds, and you need to come to grips with it before you can go on. I love the idea of the one big leap, because I am almost always willing to make it. That’s why I like lots of sci-fi stuff, at least at the beginning: it’s interesting to think about living (temporarily) in a world where magic is actually real, or where aliens and faster-than-light travel exists, or where some humans have evolved strange mutations that give them odd powers. In my mind, the best science fiction takes that one big leap and then explores what that world would be like, usually if everything else was roughly the same. What would have happened to human development if somewhere in the middle ages we found out magic was real, and a few people could actually control it? Would people fear or revile magic-users? Would cults grow up around them? How would politics look? Would technology have developed in the same way it did in our world, or a different way, or not at all?

Some video games actually do the one big leap quite nicely. Though my buddy Shawn reasonably has little use for the (perhaps overly intricate) set of rules and interactions that make up the Mass Effect universe, I really like the way that Mass Effect 2 (the only one I’ve played) takes its one conceit and builds a detailed, interesting world around it. That’s a requirement for me: the one big leap has to have rules. You can’t just say “there’s magic in the world, so anything can happen!” That’s not a setting for a good story, that’s preschool kids playing in the backyard. It’s fine for the wee ones, and I encourage it … for 4-year-olds. If I’m going to be interested in the story, you have to set ground rules. It’s the physical rules, in part, that make the story compelling. We don’t realize it, but there are always a set of physical rules operating in the background of any story; it’s just that most stories take place in our world, using our physical rules. I recently watched the movie Drive, and whatever you thought of the story, you could count on the cars not suddenly levitating up in the air or on Ryan Gosling shooting flames out of his asshole toward the bad guys. The story was told on a consistent set of physical rules.

Good sci-fi often radically changes those physical rules, but it’s when we get too far beyond that one big leap that I start losing interest and find myself flipping back to ESPN (or, God forbid, CNN). The main way that shitty science fiction video games, TV shows, and movies use the one big leap is as a way to escape not having thought the story through. It’s like you can see the writer thinking, “well, in this world, there is magic, and the hero is in trouble, and I can’t quite figure out a decent way to have him/her escape, so BIGGER MAGIC HAPPENS! and everyone lives happily ever after.” This technique — the Deus Ex Machina — is not unique to science fiction, but science fiction seems unusually susceptible to it. It tends to show up at the end as a sudden bending or outright breaking of the rules that the game/TV show/movie has spent a long time establishing. It’s why, while I enjoyed reading the Harry Potter books, I never really connected with them: the “magical world” keeps vomiting up things that save the main characters at the last moment.

So back to the video games: many of the ones that I enjoy initially actually do the one big leap, and the keeping to a set of rules, pretty well. This might be because video games have such a heavy dependence on play, which has to have a consistent underlying logic; it wouldn’t be any fun to play a game where hitting something with your sword, or laser pistol, or magic flame-throwing hands, has an inconsistent effect. It’d be like playing baseball where you get between 1 and 5 strikes before you’re out, but it’s randomly determined every time, and you don’t know until the ump punches you out after your first (or fifth) swing and miss. That might be how life is sometimes (unfair and arbitrary) but it’s no fun as a game. Most video games hold to an internal logic, which should make them a good medium for telling science fiction stories. And they are … for a while.

But then it all falls apart. After playing a game for around 15-30 hours, something in me breaks, and I either lose interest and toss the game or find myself driven by some quasi-OCD impulse to finish the story, and to do it as soon as possible. This has resulted in some very late nights in front of the TV (and earlier in my life, in front of the computer) and in some of the only all-nighters I’ve ever pulled. As much as I liked Mass Effect 2, it fell into the second category: all-nighters until I finally finished the damn thing.

Then I saw this article and realized that I was not alone in my mixed (and even at times antagonistic) feelings toward these games. The author of that article, I think, put a finger on at least one of the things that really bothers the hell out of me about modern single-player video games: the sheer repetitiveness of the actions that you have to take, and the way that repetitiveness takes you violently and relatively quickly from enjoyment to tedium. The story has to wait, in other words, while I die 47 times trying to figure out how to kill this one dragon, or while I have to fight my way through one more abandoned factory filled with zombies / mutants / Nazis / mutant zombie Nazis.

But what about the “story” for a game like Modern Warfare 3, which is about 10-15 hours long (and that’s with the slightly OCD-style of play where I explore every nook and cranny that I can sustain for the first part of the longer story-type games described above). My first objection is that it requires the kind of repetitive button-pushing that the other games require — only much earlier. 10-15 hours of that shit is the maximum that anyone could take, I’d think. But it is short, and has frequent story tidbits thrown in, so it’s not that intolerable.

Maybe the answer is a series of short stories, like MW3, but ones that require entirely different patterns of pushing buttons. That “pushing buttons differently” comment makes video gaming sound even lamer, I know, but there is a critical difference. Writing the great American novel looks from the outside exactly like writing asinine comments on editorials at the Galveston Daily News — it’s just some dude tapping away at a keyboard — but they take massively different amounts of intelligence, experience, and thought. I’d argue that sitting in front of a TV with a video game controller could have as much variation, though right now it really doesn’t. I suppose the real problem is that it costs a buttload of money to create an internal logic for a video game, and creating 5 different ones for 5 different parts of a story would be prohibitively expensive for both development and the player.

So here I am, looking forward to playing Mass Effect 3 because I’m hoping that the story will be good enough to overcome what I’m fearing will be a highly repetitive playing style. Review to come … if you’re lucky, I’ll be doing it at 5 in the morning after an all-nighter.

Posted in Video Games | 3 Comments

Island Life Part 3: Reality.

I’ve written in previous posts on Galveston about how much the island has surprised me. It still does. Unfortunately, not every surprise is pleasant. And not every surprise, on retrospect, was all that surprising.

My (relatively) new job has demanded that I take a new perspective on this island. Unlike every other job I’ve had, especially in the public policy world, this one is at a place with a another mission beyond “produce high-quality research.” It’s right there in the name: the Center to Eliminate Health Disparities.  In reality, though, this is hardly an advocacy group; understanding and eliminating health disparities is a fairly universal goal. More generally, we look at social issues from a health perspective, asking questions like “How will the effect of this decision about [public housing, economic development, plans for sidewalks, whatever else is being considered] affect the health of the community?” We’re five people with advanced degrees in public health and public policy. Political ninjas, we ain’t.

But let’s be honest: when you read the goals of most organizations that aren’t overtly political, they all sound good. It’s their actions that count. And at the place I work, it seems that our actions have earned us some local infamy among some in the community. My boss even got her own hate entry on a blog that, for some reason, many people on this island choose to read for their news on what’s going on here. (When the blog refers to “three co-workers” who showed up to speak at the city council meeting, one of them was me. There is a recording online of this that you can watch. It’s about as exciting as watching CSPAN.)

OK, I’m playing at being naive: people read that blog because they already agree with what it says. Everyone does it: MSNBC and Fox News depend on that aspect of human nature for their very existence. And I’m part of it too. I occasionally watch Rachel Maddow, but I don’t ever watch Sean Hannity. But I get most of my news from NPR and the Washington Post. And say all you want about the “liberal media”, there is a fundamental difference between what those two organizations — and the Wall Street Journal, which (cue gasp!) I also read from time to time — and the Maddow/Hannity types. You have to read a lot to find out the full story on issues in this country, but if you go to the right places, you’ll find it. You have be a critical thinker, but it’s there. There is a fundamental difference between fact and opinion, and if you don’t believe that, you’re lost.

(Note that I didn’t give this blog as place to find fact. You come here, you are usually reading opinion that is sometimes based on fact.)

Bear with me a little longer — this will come together. Getting back to the blog entry above, it’s pretty easy to see that the public housing debate here is the banner issue of our upcoming local elections. That linked article is a pretty decent introduction, but let me give you my even shorter version of what’s going on. In 2008, a hurricane fucked Galveston up. It effectively destroyed all the public housing projects on the island. The housing authority here, because of a lawsuit that resulted in an agreement, has to rebuild all 569 units of public housing that were destroyed on the island. The housing authority is rebuilding using a different approach than before (mixed-income development, among other techniques) because the housing we had before sucked more ass than a vacuum cleaner stuck to a fat guy’s butt. My organization has a contract with the housing authority to evaluate the proposed new housing sites for potential health issues. That’s our link to the “poverty industry” described by the dude’s blog above: making sure that the lead levels in old houses aren’t going to kill kids who move in there.

(Ha ha, thought that link was going to be a disgusting picture, didn’t you? I didn’t say everything here was opinion. Some of it is backed up with real research. By the way, don’t tell my boss that my link to one of our policy briefs includes the phrase “vacuum cleaner stuck to a fat guy’s butt”.)

So that’s where we stand now. The future is uncertain, of course, and there are intelligent policy arguments for both sides of what to do going forward. It’s conceivable that Galveston has too much poverty, too much vacant housing, and too few jobs to support bringing more low-income people onto the island. If that’s the case, the argument goes, we shouldn’t rebuild. But it’s also possible that the housing authority’s plan to rebuild the housing will be a part of sparking a revitalization of the island. If that’s the case, we should go ahead with this now. We can try to answer these questions with data, such as previous experiences with mixed-income housing. In fact, that’s what we were doing at the city council meeting: presenting data (our full “testimony” was ten pages and had over 30 citations, most of which were from peer-reviewed publications) on what we’d found on the effects of mixed-income development, on both the health and economics of communities. What we found was generally in favor of mixed-income development, and that it’s probably the best choice for the health of the community given the situation we’re in. Hanging over all of this is the possibility that the agreement that’s forcing us to rebuild public housing could fall apart and we could all go back to court. If that happens, we might have to back up and look at this in a totally different way, because the rules might have changed.

And, of course, there are unintelligent arguments on both sides. The guy who runs the blog above does a great job of oversimplifying (and sometimes entirely ignoring) the facts. He’s also a decent character assassin in his own way, making not-so-subtle insinuations that my organization is part of a large conspiracy to defraud the public … and therefore, nothing we say should be listened to at all.  But I’ve also heard accusations of racism thrown around pretty loosely, and as a policy argument, racial discrimination is tough to prove and even tougher to eradicate. On the other hand, I’ve heard multiple people say that the hurricane gave Galveston a great chance to re-invent itself by “washing out all the riff-raff,” and given the history of racism in Texas, that’s a little disturbing. The point is that attacking the person doesn’t help us resolve the problem.

Anyway, do you remember the title of this piece? Reality. (Don’t worry, I had to scroll back up to find it too.) To me, Galveston is no longer just a fun, sunny island with disproportionately large weekend-long celebrations. Turns out its history is both inspiring and ugly. It’s a place with problems, some of them quite serious, others relatively minor. All of them are able to be calmly addressed by reasonable people.  I would like to think that we’re an island near Texas, a community, and we can solve our problems.

But I keep getting reminded of how that isn’t true. I could try to stick my head in the sand (literally — it’s just half a mile away from where I’m sitting), but I just can’t do it. Almost every week, I read angry letters to the editor about “those people” who live in public housing, and how our current mayor (who supports the housing plan) is a cheat and a liar. I work at UTMB, a huge medical center, and I can’t escape the fact that Texas is one of the states that has passed a law forcing ultrasounds on women considering abortion; it has also passed a law that could destroy the state’s health program for poor women because one of the providers of that program is Planned Parenthood.

The fact is that we are a city in Texas, which is located in the United States. One of my work colleagues noted that we are, in many ways, a water-bordered microcosm of this country right now. We’re dealing with shit that lots of places have to deal with — but we’re dealing with more than our share of that shit. We’re dealing with the disaster recovery and town-tourist tension issues of a New Orleans; the space-cramped public housing issues of a New York City (sort of, that’s overstating it a bit, but we’re both pretty damn small islands with damn large mandates); the racial issues of many Southern towns, and also many towns on the Mexican border; the student population of many college towns; and we can’t fucking figure out how to get our economy started again. This city has a sharply divided legislative body, in part because the people who elected them seem sharply divided as well. Our local government generally has a very uneasy relationship with the state and federal governments. Hell, I told that work colleague that I could develop a masters program in public policy that used only case studies from Galveston in the last ten years, and every one of those students would be prepared to go and practice anywhere in the United States.

So like I said: a surprise, but in retrospect, easily predictable. It was a predicturprise. It was surpredictable. I should have seen it coming, is what I’m trying to say.

But don’t get me wrong — I still like this island and its people a lot. It’s one of the best places I’ve lived. But it’s suffering from the same political malaise that the United States is afflicted with: the belief that people who don’t agree with you are actively evil. I don’t know how to cure this disease yet.

But it’s possible that we think those people are evil because we don’t really know them. In Galveston, that person who shouts “NOT IN MY BACK YARD!” might be the person who works on your roof. And that person might have to trust his mother’s care to one of “those people” who live in public housing — and who also works the night shift at UTMB. On this island, you can’t really avoid people who don’t agree with you. It gives me some hope that at least here, people are going to realize that people who disagree with them aren’t evil. After all, most of us suck at roofing, and who’s going to hire an evil roofer?

Posted in Galveston, Howling | Leave a comment

Under 40, Under 40: Half Marathon Edition – Under 2 in a Tutu!

A couple weeks ago I, my buddy Shawn, and my wife Dana dragged ourselves out at 7:00 in the morning and ran 13.1 miles in a windy, rainy winter Galveston morning. All three of us also ran it in purple tutus.

Why? Well, the most obvious reason was that it was the Mardi Gras Marathon / Half Marathon, and you gotta dress up for Mardi Gras. Our outfits also featured multicolored knee or thigh-high socks and variously colored hats, though next year I’m going with a full-on jester outfit (or perhaps something a little lighter if it’s warmer). But after running the longest distance I’ve ever run continuously — my long runs usually only go about 10 miles, then I get bored — in an hour and fifty minutes, I have to admit that dressing up was part of the fun. And while I can’t imagine actually training to race half-marathons (seriously, the race regimens call for running 18-20 miles on the weekends … I’d have to start dressing up for my training runs to keep myself interested) I can imagine doing a couple halfs each year. But I can only imagine doing them while dressed up in some way.

Look, 13.1 miles is a challenge, and I’m proud to have done it. I’m not putting any stickers on my car, or getting any tattoos on my calves (you need to have done a marathon for that, and you need to have giant ogre calves as well), but it’s an accomplishment. I earned my pancakes that morning. But that distance is really tough to seriously train for — yet it’s just a little longer than my average long run. So for me, I’m not really worried about finishing, but I do need a little incentive to get out there. Hence, dressing up and having fun doing it. Future half-marathons will more than likely find me decked out for whatever the closest holiday is.

All that being said, though, I do have some observations on being a man, in a race, wearing a purple tutu. You see, after the first mile I broke away from my wife and BFF because I have a base long distance running pace that’s most comfortable for me pretty much regardless of the distance. What this meant is that instead of three people wearing matching purple tutus running together, there was now one guy (me) running along and generally passing people while wearing a purple tutu. Those people may or may not have ever seen the two people who matched me. As a result, I came up with the following equations …

Three people in matching purple tutus = Funny, lighthearted, and silly. Friends who are obviously celebrating the event. Perhaps part of larger group of happy idiots coming down the road.

Two people in matching purple tutus = Still funny, perhaps friends who did ballet together, maybe friends who have been training together and are joyfully celebrating the result of their hard work and persistence.

One dude running in a purple tutu = Perhaps funny, but probably just strange. Possibly a guy who was taking part in another parade and is now lost. Overall, kind of weird. If you’re watching the race, clutch your children a little closer until he passes.

I also have a few observations on what other people who are running in a half-marathon say to a single male running past them in a tutu. Not surprisingly, one can break these down according to what mile of the race you’re at. Also, here’s a hint: I can hear you. Just because there’s a 20-mph wind and I’m 20 yards past you doesn’t mean I can’t hear your clever comments, your snide observations, or your cursing. And trust me, I’m laughing with you, but if you’re mean, I’m laughing at you. So …

Miles 0-3: Loud, occasionally asinine, but mostly encouraging and thankful for being entertained during a long run. People are using complete sentences, and some appear to want to have a conversation with you. Examples: “Hey man, those look a lot like LSU colors!” “Did you lose a bet or something?” “Looking good, there, purple tu-TU!”

Miles 4-8: Volume toned down from shouting to conversation-level. Laughing still common but muted. Sentences are shortened, sometimes considerably. Examples: “Whaddya think’s going on there?” “Dunno.” “Yay. Purple tu-tu. Yay.”

Miles 9-11: Laughing limited to small chuckles. People becoming confused at why you’re wearing a costume. Sentences, when they are attempted, are lacking organization. Examples: “Oh yeah, Mardi Gras.” “Go you, run, purple.” “Tu-tu, yep.”

Miles 11+: Grunts and snickers are few and far between. When passed, people attempt to keep up with you for a few steps, then almost invariably mutter “fuck it.” Some guy wearing red track pants that passed me at mile 7 appears to be either drunk or lost. Examples: “Grrumff.” “Erp, um, errrrrp. Blargh.”

Finally, I have to mention a post-race question asked of all three of us standing together: “How did she convince you to wear those?” The two boys at the same time: “What makes you think they were her idea?!?”

Next up: Austin Statesman 10K, on my first-ever visit to Austin. We’ll see if a food tour of the city on Saturday affects one’s racing time on Sunday morning … I’m all about empirical evidence. I’m doing it for science.

Posted in Running | 7 Comments

Big Government, Part 1: Am I Too Stupid To Be Trusted With a 401(k)?

I enjoy reading Matthew Yglesias’s economic view of the world over at Slate. I don’t always agree with his views or reasoning, but he’s painfully prolific, so if there is an issue in the news you can be damn sure he’ll be pecking away on the keyboard about it. At the end of 2011 Yglesias wrote a short blog post entitled “Normal People Shouldn’t Have to ‘Invest'”, which I’ve been thinking about for nearly a month now. (Not constantly. The only thing I’m able to think about constantly is lemon meringue pie.) The combination of starting a new job, doing all the paperwork to roll over all my old 401(k) accounts into a single IRA, and creating a post-moving and post-house-buying budget has had me thinking about how to stay on track to make sure I’m not begging in the streets when I retire.

Anyway, for those of you who aren’t going to click that link above (and from the stats on clicks on links in this blog, that would be all of you) let me give you the most important quotes:

“… the best way to ‘save’ for retirement is to live in a country with a properly functioning Social Security system. … Social Security was never big enough. Instead, just as we made up for the lack of a national health program with employer-provided insurance, we made up for Social Security’s inadequacy with firm-level defined benefit pensions.”

[And instead of making Social Security bigger in recent years, U.S. policymakers advanced 401(k) accounts,] “… turning tens of millions of middle class Americans into ‘retail investors’ who don’t know what they’re doing and don’t save enough. The result is nice, I guess, for the guys who collect the management fees and print the 401(k) brochures, but it makes no sense as a social arrangement. … the idea that a mass market of retail investors ineptly attempting to maintain a balanced portfolio serves a useful role in steering capital to productive uses doesn’t pass the laugh test.”

I’m going to talk about the second quote in this post, because it’s the one that makes me feel most stupid, and because talking about that is going to be quite enough for one post.

I am — and was — one of Yglesias’s “inept retail investors.” I dump all my money into index funds that follow the entire U.S. or international markets, or into those lifecycle funds that automatically readjust as you get older. By doing this, I am doing what most experts say is best for the average investor, because even the best fund managers utterly suck at consistently beating the market. According to historical performance, investing in index funds over the long run is like gambling, but instead of the house always winning, the game is rigged so that you always do. Sure, there will be some times when the market blows (like, uh, now), and those times might last for a while, but over the long run the market goes up, which means that your invested money will likely magically turn into more money over the long run. Perhaps the idea that my wife and I did a minimal amount of research might make us slightly less inept than other people who are trying to manage their 401(k)s, but not that much. And I don’t think that Yglesias is really trying to insult me by terming me inept, but more on that later. First, a little more personal history.

Look, I always kind of liked my 401(k) accounts. I’ve never had a job that didn’t offer one until four weeks ago (ironically, the University of Texas — the state university of Rick Perry and Ron Paul — does not offer the great majority of its employees anything other than the defined-benefit-style Teachers Retirement System as a way to save for retirement). Most of the time I was able to put a healthy amount of my pay away and watch it creep up in value. Sometimes I would even twiddle my fingers and chuckle to myself about all the money I’d be rolling in, Scrooge McDuck-style, when I retired at age 48. There’s excitement in watching the accumulation of money (especially if it’s yours, and especially if you’re doing nothing to make it grow).  But as we know from work on the psychology of risk perception, we tend to underestimate the risks of something if we feel like we’re in control of it. This is why we tend to feel driving is safer than flying, and I bet it’s why we feel like making decisions to put our money in stocks in our 401(k) accounts is safer than it really is.

So then, of course, I watched a big chunk of my retirement savings disappear.  This was around the same time that everyone’s house started looking less like a good investment and more like a money-eating version of that mouth monster from Star Wars that eats all the nice people from Jabba the Hutt’s party barge. I didn’t wig out and sell all my stock so I could hide cash under my mattress, like this guy who writes for Money freakin’ magazine, but I sure considered it. It’s painful watching your savings go away because some group of assholes on Wall Street decided they had a clever way to capitalize on people’s wishes and desires for homes. Making bad investments and losing money is one thing; doing everything “right” and still watching your savings and house value go in the toilet is another.

Anyway, I think what Yglesias is saying above is that millions of (inept) little investors like me just trying to scrape up enough to have a comfortable retirement is a stupid way for a society to figure out where money should go. If I’m worried about having enough money to pay the rent when I’m retired, I’m simply going to try to invest in whatever stock, mutual fund, or stock index is making the best return right now. And while that might be the smartest idea for me as an individual, that’s dumb for society overall.

I don’t necessarily agree with that idea. Pretty much every economist fundamentally believes in the ability of the market to efficiently direct capital without someone pulling the strings from a central place; this is the definition of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” I’ll happily admit I’m inept at controlling the economy as an individual, but I take issue with the idea that the market is a dumb way to distribute resources overall.

Instead, two things about using 401(k)s as our society’s retirement plan bother me more than arguably dumb distribution of resources. First is that we’re doubling down as individuals on the economy with 401(k) accounts. When the economy is good, so are our 401(k) accounts (though I’m betting that most people in the U.S. don’t proportionally increase their 401(k) savings when their income increases). When the economy tanks, as it is wont to do from time to time, a retirement system based mostly or entirely on 401(k)s is going to tank too, which deepens and extends the overall impact of the economy being in the shitter — and for people who are still working, might permanently dent their ability to save for retirement. And simple math tells us that a 10% loss in the stock market in one year requires a greater than 11% gain the next year just to break even, and as the initial losses get larger, so do the required gains. In a country where the plurality of us still die from heart disease, I don’t think we need anything else to compound our collective stress.

So I think those of us who have to keep a job are at the mercy of the economy enough as it is. The second, and deeper, issue that bothers me is that if we are all stockholders, we’re all going to start thinking in a much more mercenary way about our companies and by extension, ourselves. Sure, we can invest in a mutual fund for do-gooders, but the returns on it are pretty bad compared to funds that don’t care about the environment and human rights and other flowery shit like that. And I believe that societies should have goals other than the maximization of profit, and by turning everyone into a stockholder we move more toward adopting that goal above others like equality, justice, fairness … and other flowery shit like that.

Addendum: If you’re worried about how much you should be saving for retirement, pick up this book. It’s the best thing I’ve seen for helping people understand how to save for retirement, and it contains some good basic information on how to handle yourself financially. (I have no financial connection to the author of the book, and no interest in you buying it, other than a general interest in well-being of my gentle readers.)

Posted in Howling | 1 Comment

Thoughts on Not Eating Anything with a Face, Part 2: Vegetarians Turned Carnivores

Before reading on, please take a second and read this short article about a group of vegetarians that changed their tune on eating meat.

I’m hoping you actually did read that, because the rest of this post is a series of responses to points raised in that article. (I’m also hoping you read that article because the author wrote a book titled “Righteous Porkchop,” which is the name I had stitched on the superhero costume I just ordered.) If you haven’t noticed, it’s been a while since I wrote on vegetarianism. This isn’t because I’ve given it up; except for the occasional inadvertent mistake, I’m still not eating meat. But I set the bar for future posts on the subject rather high the last time I wrote — addressing the ethics and economics of eating meat is a big assignment. I’ve been avoiding it, because I don’t want to go read any more Peter Singer or re-watch Food, Inc. (or read the accompanying book … seriously, the movie has a 300-page text that goes with it, and because I’m a giant dork, I own it). Putting together a research-supported diatribe against eating meat is hard. Worse, it’s been done before, so all I would be doing is creating a poor replica of what others have done elsewhere. So for a few months I’ve sat around, paralyzed on this issue, wanting to make a good ethical and economic case for vegetarianism but knowing that it would take far too much time and I would probably do a comparatively shitty job of it.

Then I came across this article, and realized that nobody needs another policy brief on the evils of meat. The article I’m going to discuss is well-written and persuasive. I believe the authors are writing from a place of honesty and that they aren’t trying to sell me a burger because they own stock in McDonald’s. I agree with a lot of what they say. I also happen to disagree with some of their conclusions. So take the following responses to sections of the article (listed below in italics) as my “lecture”, “policy brief”, or “uninformed blather” on the ethics of eating meat.

“At first, my new job — touring factory farms and researching their water, air, and soil contamination — reinforced my rejection of meat. But as I studied ecologically based food production, I learned that animals were essential to sustainable farms, which don’t rely on fossil fuels and chemicals. Animals can increase soil fertility, contribute to pest and weed control, and convert vegetation that’s inedible to humans, and growing on marginal, uncultivated land, into food. And as I visited dozens of traditional, pasture-based farms, and came to know the farmers and ranchers, I saw impressive environmental stewardship and farm animals leading good lives.”

Like a good little hippie, I love the idea of small, sustainable farms. I particularly like the idea of farms that use animals to contribute to the act of farming, rather than separating them by herding them into pens while they wait to be killed. Dana and I have half-seriously considered replacing our lawnmower with a couple of sheep and a goat. But I don’t think this is a good argument for actually eating the animals that help with the work of farming, any more so than it’s an argument for eating your tractors, sprinklers, or ranch hands.  I mean, I know that pigs and cows probably taste better than riding mowers and cowboys, but either way you’re still eating your farm implements.

“… having moved back to a rural community from New York City, I realized that all food has its costs. From habitat destruction to combines that inadvertently mince rabbits to the shooting of deer in farm fields, crop production is far from harmless.”

This part irritated me because it smacks of one of my least favorite arguments: the “everything has benefits and costs, so everything is kind of the same” bullshit that is often heard, especially about public issues. Look, everything does have costs and benefits. But some things are way worse than others. Just because the occasional rabbit gets caught up in a combine does not mean that we have an ethical free license to go eat meat. More broadly, large-scale industrial fruit, vegetable, and grain farming probably isn’t the best thing for animals or our environment. But it does help produce enough food to keep many people alive at a reasonable cost. And the message we should take away from “crop production is far from harmless” isn’t that we should throw our hands up, see everything as equally harmful, and chow down on a fat steak. It means we should try to improve our farming methods.

“Once I saw how the meat we were selling had been raised, and met the farmers who were striving to raise animals sustainably and ethically, I overcame my aversion to consuming meat. I realized I didn’t have a problem with meat. I had a problem with the inhumane practices of the commercial meat industry.”  

I like this bit. If you’re going to eat meat, I think the “inhumane practices of the commercial meat industry” should be a major issue for you; watch Food Inc., or even do a quick Google search, and you can find out more than you ever would like to know about the environmental and health effects of those practices. I realize that not everyone is going to give up meat. If you’re not going to give up meat, though, please try to eat meat that came from somewhere that isn’t actively stabbing the Earth in the eyeball.

“Although health and nutrition research has yielded diverse and conflicting findings, there is consensus among mainstream experts: overconsumption of meat, dairy, and eggs can be harmful, but the optimal human diet includes some food derived from animals.”

Yep, that’s why I’m vegetarian and not vegan. But be careful of sweeping statements from large organizations on nutrition issues; most organizations have multiple funding sources, some of which might be large animal product producers. Imagine the political shitstorm if the USDA or FDA came out and said, “you know, we actually don’t need animal products in our diet at all. Our bad. Also, stop eating Cheez Doodles, fatty, they aren’t good for you.” Even if all the science in the world told us that we didn’t need to eat any animal products to be healthy, I can’t imagine any large organization having the balls to actually say that.

“Meanwhile, many popular beliefs about the health-related downsides of foods from animals are being revealed as myths. Take cholesterol. Early human diets apparently included a hefty 500 mg daily dose of cholesterol, more than what’s found in two eggs. During the 20th century, consumption of eggs declined and overall animal fat consumption dropped by over 20 percent, while consumption of vegetable fat (which contains no cholesterol) increased by over 400 percent. Yet blood cholesterol levels steadily rose and deaths from heart disease increased more than fivefold. Harvard School of Public Health researchers have concluded that eating foods that contain cholesterol does not affect blood cholesterol levels.

In short, eating animal-derived foods is not a health risk. Only overconsumption is.”

The final conclusion in the last two sentences does not follow from the previous paragraph. I don’t dispute the facts on cholesterol; this is why I don’t care too much about watching my dietary intake of cholesterol. It’s not the cholesterol, it’s the fat and the overconsumption of calories (though to be fair, if you’re eating a high-cholesterol diet, you’re likely to be eating a high-fat and high-calorie diet too). But it’s also far too early to be assuming that because our initial thoughts on cholesterol — one nutritional component of meat that tends to be high — were wrong, that all animal-derived foods are off the hook as health risks. It’s a totally unfair comparison, I know, but if research found that being punched repeatedly in the head doesn’t affect your ability to remember phone numbers, does that mean that we should all go out and schedule a good daily head-punching?

“As any attentive observer of nature knows, life feeds on life. Every living thing, from mammals, birds, and fish to plants, fungi, and bacteria, eats other living things. Humans are part of the food web; but for the artifices of cremation and tightly sealed caskets, all of us would eventually be recycled into other life forms. It is natural for people, like other omnivores, to participate in this web by eating animals. And it is ethically defensible — provided we refrain from causing gratuitous suffering.”

Ah, what my brilliant wife refers to as the “Breyers argument.” If it’s natural, it must be morally good. Look, humans have been around for a long time, and we’ve come a long way. We’ve found out that lots of our “natural” behaviors and tendencies aren’t the best idea, especially in organized society. And as our population grows worldwide, we’re going to find that even more of our “natural” inclinations are going to come into conflict with the very real limits of our natural resources. “Natural”, in a complex world that no longer looks like the wild savannah that our Homo sapiens bodies and minds evolved in, does not mean “ethical.” (Or to put it more simply: You know what else is natural? Fucking Ebola.)

So I submit to you this: I can get a jelly bean that tastes like a banana, a sausage, or a booger. It is entirely within our species’ scientific and technical capabilities to eat ethically (and yes, even “naturally”) without eating meat. Conversely, saying vegetarianism is somehow “unnatural” in that it means vegetarians are not participating in some “food web” that isn’t really applicable in the world anymore is, quite frankly, bullshit.

Look, on this issue — on most issues — I’m persuadable. I suppose that makes me a potential “flip-flopper,” which means that I would have a hard time getting elected to office in today’s political climate — though my lack of religious convictions would likely put the real nail in that coffin, especially down here.

(As a side note, my dog is smart enough to flip-flop. She’s changed her tune entirely on the subject of rolling over (used to be against, now for, with some help from the treat jar); peeing in the house (used to for, now against) and cat poo (used to be indifferent, but our other dog has convinced her that it is a delicacy not to be missed). I love my little mutt, but I would prefer my elected officials to be at least as intelligent and capable of responding to changes in the world around them as she is.)

I’m open to arguments for and against eating meat. I ate meat for over 36 years, with some exceptions, until last August. So let me leave you with this final thought on the article:

“There is also a practical dimension to consider. Americans are far more likely to stick to a regimen that includes meat, dairy, and eggs, all of them staples of our national diet. Most people have no interest in giving up these foods.”

I agree with this completely. And while it doesn’t make me happy, it’s part of the reason I wanted you all to read this article. I know you all probably aren’t going to give up meat. That said, I do hope that you at least take a minute to think about where the vast majority of the meat that we consume in this country comes from, and whether that really squares with your own ethics.

Posted in Food | 1 Comment

The Top 5 Songs That Just Won’t Stay Off My Workout Mix

To those of you that just started taking a look at this blog: thanks for taking the time to stop by. Hope you’ve been enjoying it. I feel the need, though, to take a quick break from my normal stream of posts on poverty, the inner workings of video games, and what kind of Victorian stocking cap Tiger Woods would look best in so I can address an issue that is very important to me. I need to make the following statement, which I wholeheartedly believe in and is one of the few beliefs I have that I think everyone else should adopt:

No person should be held responsible for his or her workout mix.

Running, cycling, weightlifting, jazzercise, Zumba, Roomba, everyone needs to have at least one playlist that gets them going and keeps them moving — and that is completely outside the boundaries of external judgment. I have had playlists that were 50% songs by former members of the Mickey Mouse Club. Yeah, I said it. And in the spirit of this post, I won’t apologize for it.

All that being said, I don’t ever listen to music while I’m running. There are a number of reasons for this, which have evolved a bit as I have moved to Texas. First, I have two modes of running: meditative and focused. On long or easy runs, I like to space out a bit and let my mind wander. (This is when I get so many “good” ideas for blogs.) On other runs, I’m trying to hit a certain per-mile pace, which takes a bit of concentration. Music screws up both these modes for me. Second — and this has become particularly important to me here in Galveston — is safety. I’m not sure if you all know this, but everybody in Texas drives a big truck and actively hates runners. In Maryland, if you’re kicking down the street (or trail … man, I miss Sligo Creek Trail), people will at least make sure to miss you. Here, they’ll hit you, and then the police will roll by and leave a ticket on your still-warm body. It’s a better idea here to be as aware as possible, is what I’m saying. No headphones.

But I do hit the stationary bike a couple of times a week and attempt to lift weights once in a while. And because neither of those involves an interesting change of scenery or the immediate threat of being hit by a truck (although this story makes me happy that we use a second-floor room as a gym), they require some sort of music. And like most of you, I have several mixes for different workout moods. But no matter the mix or the mood, these songs somehow seem to keep finding their way onto those mixes.

The following is an attempt to figure out why.

1. The Police, Next to You.

I used to love the Police, and then Sting, in all shapes and forms. Sting then went through this initially strange, but now completely understandable, change from “interesting” to “boring as hell” from the early 90s until … well, until now, I guess, I haven’t really listened to any of his stuff after Ten Summoner’s Tales. Look, he got older, he wasn’t playing in weird little clubs, he didn’t have the creative tension of dealing with the other very talented members of the Police. I have no problem with artists continuing to write songs about what they are experiencing — it just became increasingly obvious that Sting was writing about things I wasn’t experiencing at the same time or no longer cared about. OK, enough about that, on to this track, from the ska-punky Police era. It’s got a great fast beat, it’s got repeated lines that aren’t yet overtly dark like Every Breath You Take (great song, not great for working out), it’s under 3 minutes, and the overall vibe of the song is a single-minded pursuit of someone, which is terrific for working out.

2. The Postelles, White Night.

A corollary to the “no judging my workout mix” rule above should be that it doesn’t matter where you found the song. I am no longer cool enough (or rather, no longer in-college-enough) to find out about new bands and songs by going to dive clubs on a Tuesday night. So I scavenge from everything around me, which includes (gasp!) TV shows. My current favorite TV family is the Chance family from Raising Hope. (This might also have to do with an unhealthy affection for Martha Plimpton, which my wife is also very tired of hearing about.) This song appeared in a silly party dance scene in the first Halloween episode of this show, and I immediately ran to iTunes to find it. Like all the songs on this list, there’s a strong if somewhat inconsistent beat, a weird little undertone (I dig songs that have strange, dark, or otherwise interesting undertones), and again, it’s under 3 minutes. It’s impossible to not jump around a little bit while listening to this song.

3. The Talking Heads, Girlfriend is Better (Live, Stop Making Sense album).

Another hit from the not-todays. I don’t pretend to be a Talking Heads fan from way back; like the Police, they were just a bit before my time, and I don’t have years of high school or college experiences with them playing in the background to cement my memory of their music. But my high school girlfriend — the source of some of my better instincts in music to this day — had a couple of older brothers with very good taste in music themselves, and the Talking Heads were part of that. Despite being a live version of this song (I kind of like this Special New Edition version, it seems cleaner than the one I remember from the live album), it comes in under 4 minutes, has another great beat, and continues the idea of there being something else there in the lyrics past the initial impression you get. The repeating of “Stop making sense” also gets me; there’s something  I like about a workout song when it expresses a wish for more simplicity, or a single-mindedness about something. I like “Next to You” and “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” by the Police for that idea. This idea allows me to justify having these five songs on a workout mix right next to some truly stupid dance / hip-hop numbers.

4. The Ting Tings, Shut Up and Let Me Go. 

Ha, no hidden meanings or subtext here, and that’s what makes this song great. This song is as simple as it gets, but it’s genius for a workout song. It’s a series of simple statements that aren’t overly dark, and exude confidence: it’s looking across at your opponent and stating that he or she is going to lose. “Shut up and let me go, just ’cause I told you so.” It’s making your wishes true by demand — not screeching, wildly unfocused demand (see: all songs by Rage Against the Machine), but (as the pounding beat of this song reinforces) by perseverance and desire. It’s inevitable that she will be let go. There’s no better feeling going into a workout, or any contest, that it is inevitable that you will win.

5. The Pretenders, Middle of the Road.

The only song on this list more than 4 minutes long (though only by a little bit) brings us back around to the 80s. The Pretenders, like the Talking Heads, are a group that I know mostly by listening to and appreciating their music years after it was at its height of popularity, but that doesn’t make this song any less awesome, especially for working out. Great, quick beat; undertones of being displeased about — and fighting against — something without screaming about it; and lyrics that talk about getting older, but a rhythm that seems to fight against it. It’s that we’re getting older, but we don’t have to give into it.

So that’s my list, freshly minted to help with all those New Year’s resolutions. I’m happy to hear more suggestions about good tunes that simply won’t stay off your mix — that’s what the comments section is for. Bring ’em on, this is a no-judgment zone. If you want judgment, and want to argue, see my BFF’s sweet not-another top ten list.

Running addendum: Yesterday I ran the Friends of Galveston State Park 5k/1ok fun run, and “won” the 5k. I use quotes for the following reasons:

1) a few people in front of me appeared to take a wrong turn in the state park, and I’m not sure they ever found their way back on course (to be fair, I had to double back too, but not as much as they probably had to);

2) the total number of people in the 5k race probably wasn’t more than 50, half of who appeared to be out to enjoy the 70 degree weather more than actually run; and

3) the two guys that probably would have beaten me were running the 10k (one had a running singlet on, for chrissakes).

Anyway, pictures should be up on the FOGISP website sometime soon, if you want to see what it looks like when someone is winning a race, but is incredibly confused by that fact. Next up is the Galveston Mardi Gras Half Marathon (which I’m not racing because 13 miles is too f**king long to run in general, and especially at a hard pace).  Then comes the Austin Statesman Capitol 10K  on March 25th, which I will definitely not have any chance of winning — there were almost 23,000 people running it last year, and my most recent 10k time wouldn’t have placed me in the top 500 last year. Plus, I hear they have hills in Austin. Crap.

Posted in Music, Running | 4 Comments

Every Time a Putt Drops, An Angel Gets Its Wings

Watching TV around Christmas season makes me doubt my sanity. Four factors contribute to this.  First, the ridiculous number of bowl games (I initially accidentally wrote “bowel games” there, which is probably more accurate considering their uncontrolled proliferation and the bed-shittingly poor UNC defense in yesterday’s stupidly named Advocare V100 Independence Bowl).  Second, the sheer quantity and varying quality of Christmas specials, which range from the awkward yet earnest (Michael Buble) to the frightening (Glee).  Third, the annual “war on Christmas” crap that shows up on the cable news channels (which I know is just another way Fox News stirs up the Republican base going into the new year, but still makes me want to apologize to everyone around me for the entire month of December — and I am neither Republican nor Christian). And fourth, the strange messages that come through in stories that posit an alternate universe for the main character. I’m looking at you, A Christmas Carol, ScroogedIt’s A Wonderful Life, and Family Man. One thing I can count on every year around Christmas is a series of strange dreams involving multiple realities, Victorian-era ghosts, and being hit with a toaster by Carol Kane.

I’m happy to report that this year has lived up to my mind-bending expectations. This time, though, the Golf Channel has provided the most grist for my mental weird mill. A few weeks ago they replayed the 1996 U.S. Amateur championship, which was Tiger Woods’ third straight victory in a row at that event and one of the many indications that this kid was about to make a lot of professional golfers cry. And while it was fascinating in itself to see what a 20-year-old Tiger looked and sounded like (and wore … Jesus, did I look like that? The answer is yes, and back then, I thought I actually looked good), I was far more intrigued by the guy Tiger beat: Steve Scott. Now, I haven’t watched golf religiously for long, and I still don’t watch closely enough to be able to hold more than a 5-minute conversation about the pro-level goings-on in the sport, but I do know that Steve Scott did not go on to become a household name in professional golf. No, the story of his career is similar to that of many people who aspire to professional athletics: he knocked around the equivalent of the golf minor leagues for a while before settling in as an instructor and a family man. It turns out that he married his college girlfriend, who caddied for him during the Amateur (watching them during the Amateur, this comes as no surprise, though I can’t understand how any college kid could possibly concentrate with his girlfriend on the bag), and they now have a couple young kids. The most recent news on him that I could find is that he just got a sweet new job and that his wife — who is a teaching pro herself — tried her hand at making music, which seems to be what she really enjoys. Any of this sound familiar? This is totally Nicolas Cage’s suburban New Jersey dad setup from Family Man.

In the meantime, the last thing I read about Tiger Woods was John Feinstein’s piece in Golf Digest, which hardly paints Woods in a positive light. Dana pointed out that it doesn’t take you too long to get into the article to figure out that Feinstein seems like quite an asshole himself (though I’m usually slower to see that than she is) and apparently Feinstein has never been a huge fan of Tiger — though again, I haven’t been paying too much attention to sports writer-professional golfer tiffs over the last 15 years. Regardless of what Feinstein (or anyone else) thinks, though, it’s difficult to say that Tiger has had anything but a rough time both professionally and personally in the last couple years, and it seems like there were a number of indications that the seeds of his current problems were sown earlier. The guy is incredibly talented, and I still think there’s a better than 50% chance that fifty years from now we’ll be talking about him as the best male golfer that ever played the game. (The best female golfer? I am rooting big time for Yani Tseng). I love watching him play golf, and I can’t help but root for the guy to overcome whatever the hell it is he is trying to overcome right now. But to me, his Christmas story role right now remains that of Scrooge — he’s still distant, seething with some sort of anger from his past that seems to be creating more and more problems in his present. He’s rich and successful, but hardly seems happy, and his behavior seems to have driven his family away. Maybe he needs a visit from a floating, winged Tina Fey wielding a food processor.

(As an aside, I actually always did like Scrooge as a character. He’s much more interesting, and funny, before his “rehabilitation.” One dude over at Slate even argued that his behavior as a miser was more beneficial to society than after he was shell-shocked into philanthropy. I’m not so sure about that, as the guy certainly needed some smacking around, but I sure hope the rest of his life contained some of the same wit and acidity that led him to accuse Jacob Marley’s ghost of being a “bit of undigested meat.”)

So anyway, this year I can’t help thinking about these two guys whose paths crossed 15 years ago. Was Tiger Woods visited a few days ago by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future (or at least by a nattily dressed Don Cheadle)? Did Steve Scott wake up from a bad dream on Christmas morning to find a copy of Tom Sawyer sitting by his bed and the entire membership of Paramount Country Club singing Auld Lang Syne? Which one of these two, as of today’s reckoning, was actually the most successful one?  Hollywood, because it is boring and conservative when it comes to both sports and Christmas stories, would tell us that Steve Scott is the real winner here. But I bet most of us would swap places with Woods, and not Scott, if given the chance. Woods can still be redeemed, despite what Feinstein seems to think. The ghosts can still be heeded, and the Christmas goose can still be bought for Bob Estes Cratchit and Tiny Tim Clark. Right now, Scott is the happy ending of a Hollywood Christmas movie; Woods is the beginning of another movie. Maybe it’s Scrooged. Maybe he’s got a bit of the Jeff Bridges character from Crazy Heart, on the road to spiritual redemption. Maybe it’s the beginning to Pulp Fiction, which would be awesome somehow, and would complete my journey to insanity that began this Christmas season with a golf rerun.

Posted in Golf | 1 Comment

Neat, Plausible, and Wrong

According to the Internet, which is always right, H.L. Mencken said, “there is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.” My Christmas wish is that this concept — that we should be suspicious of simple, clean, and easy answers to big issues — will be prominent in public discussions this coming election year. Based on what I’ve seen so far in the Republican primary race, and in a recent discussion I attended between a couple of Texas state legislators, I’m guessing I should have asked for my second, more plausible, choice: the entire Kardashian family gets abducted by aliens.

One of the frustrating things about having a bit of self-awareness is that you start noticing that you make the same types of mistakes over and over. Maybe not the same exact one, but the same type, which means that it’s not so much a situational issue as a flaw in thinking. Example: I like cookies. (Trust me, this will loop back around to what I was talking about in the first paragraph.) It is easy for me to eat a whole box of cookies without specifically meaning to, especially if I am doing something else at the same time. If I don’t take steps to prevent myself from having a box of cookies within easy reach, I will always eat the hell out of those cookies. This might be more a flaw in willpower than in thinking, technically, but the point remains the same: I have to take special steps to guard against a mistake I will always make. So Dana and I don’t keep cookies in the house unless it’s a special occasion, or unless we’re having people over. And we rarely buy them; instead, we usually make them from scratch, which requires effort and planning — and generally makes us both less likely to make cookies and more likely to enjoy them when we do. I don’t set up the fight between me and a box of cookies, because I have learned that I will always lose. I avoid the fight with a simple solution.

But some fights we can’t avoid. If I want to do research for a living — and I do — and especially if I want to do research on policy issues, I have to take steps to counter another flaw in my thinking: the desire to find a clean, simple, easy answer to every issue. I love clean, simple, neat, symmetrical answers to big questions. Who doesn’t? If the economy is in the tank, lower personal and corporate taxes. Corporations make more jobs available, people have more money to spend, economy recovers, you’re done with that problem. If the education system is sucking, hire more teachers. Lower class size, more attention from teachers means better outcomes, hurrah, we’re done, onto the next problem. If I don’t guard against it, I will almost always default to settling for such an answer to big policy questions. And as Mencken points out, I will almost always be wrong.

And look, I know I’m not alone in this; it’s painfully obvious that we would all like to come up with the magic bullet prescription for the hard questions in our society — watch Fox News for any ten minutes of the day (or read the letters to the editor for the Galveston Daily News in any two-day stretch) and you’ll see at least one person who has indeed come up with a simple solution to solve all of society’s ills. Just like everyone wants to be the one that cures cancer, everyone wants to be the one who cures poverty. Or the economy. Or our “shitty” public education system. Or Middle East political strife.

I personally have to fight this tendency to believe in a magic bullet. And I think we as a society have to fight this tendency to believe in a magic bullet. I — we — simply don’t have a choice. We can’t just not buy the cookies when it comes to policy issues; we can’t avoid fighting with complex issues in our large, diverse society by going with the simple answer and then believing it is right. So how do we deal with complicated policy issues? We do research. Without research, we only have what we think or hope will happen, instead of some evidence about what actually does happen. And if we don’t have evidence public policy discussions become yelling matches, and often become a contest between whose magic bullet prescription is simpler and easiest to understand. I’d rather we argue about the quality of policy research on tax or education policy than argue about what we think is going to happen when we lower taxes or cut education funding.

Why all this yammering about thinking and evidence and research? Let’s get back to the Texas legislators that I saw in person a couple of weeks ago at UTMB. These two guys, one Democrat and one Republican, both represent Galveston county in the state legislature. I won’t pretend to yet understand the finer points of what happened this year in the state legislature, but because the meeting was at a university, public and higher education issues dominated the conversation. And this was a shit year for education funding in Texas — $15 billion was cut from the overall state budget, over $5 billion of which was education funding; this was so draconian, apparently, that a bunch of school districts filed lawsuits against the state. Anyway, the overall conversation was pretty muted, especially compared to “conversations” that you typically see on the cable news networks, but there were a few things that struck me about what the Republican member said (Larry Taylor).

Neither legislator was particularly proud of having to cut so much from education — and in front of an audience composed mostly of people employed by a public university, I wouldn’t exactly be crowing about de-funding education either. But Taylor stated again and again that he thought this would be a good opportunity for school districts to truly examine their budgets, figure out where the fat was, and cut it. Everyone would benefit and schools would get more efficient; in particular, he played up the value of using technology to lower costs while increasing the efficacy of classroom teaching. Time and again he likened public education to a business, and noted that the ratio of support staff to teachers has been creeping up in recent years, so districts must be expanding useless people on their payroll — if you’re not teaching, you can be cut, right? (An audience member pointed out that school nurses were “support staff”, which didn’t get a reply.) At any rate, some of this makes sense in theory — getting one’s budget cut certainly makes one reconsider what one spends money on. But at a certain point, your budget is so low that increased cutting doesn’t make you more efficient, it just makes accomplishing things impossible. Taylor’s assumption seemed to be that public education in Texas is bloated, inefficient, and needed cutting. If that’s your opinion about government in general — and that is the party line for Republicans — then the answer here is simple. I suppose there is a silver lining here of sorts: someone is going to study the effects of these cuts. Yay, evidence!

(Update: our local paper just published this article further detailing the possible effects of the cuts based on interviews with educators in Taylor’s own district. While it’s no surprise that educators would look at the cuts in a negative light and describe themselves as up against a wall financially, it’s interesting to see their reaction to the comment about support staff: we can cut support staff if teachers want to start driving the buses, ladling out the cafeteria food, and keeping track of all the data required by state and federal law. I’m sure that won’t hurt classroom instruction at all.)

But there’s another point here. Eventually the conversation got around to the “what is going to make this better?” issue. And both legislators agreed that a better economy would mean restoring some of the cuts (I have my doubts about that, seeing as Republicans have a supermajority in the Texas house and a majority in the Senate, and if they believe as Taylor does …). The big question, of course, is how to get the economy to improve. And it’s here that Taylor started sounding like every other Republican on the face of the earth: lower taxes, lower regulation, encourage businesses to come to Texas with tax breaks. The problem is that some evidence seems to say that corporate tax breaks on a state level don’t do much of anything to help their economies. And tax cuts only rarely pay for themselves. And lowering taxes on the wealthy “job creators” doesn’t seem to encourage them to actually hire people; one such “job creator” has recently argued that it’s demand that really creates jobs and stimulates the economy, and we generate demand by making sure we have a middle class with actual purchasing power. And it’s hard to say that we are doing a good job of that when median income in this country has been pretty much constant for years while the share of income going to the top fifth has been increasing consistently.

Look, I don’t pretend to know how to get the economy going again.  But I hear the same arguments over and over from Republicans about always lowering taxes on the wealthy and on corporations and how that is always the best way to stimulate the economy, and I just haven’t seen any good evidence of that happening. It’s a simple answer, but to treat it as an ironclad, proven law of economics … well, it’s just not true, from what I can tell. It’s neat, plausible, and wrong. I welcome anybody showing me anything different, because I would LOVE to see something work to get us out of this mess, and as stated above, I would LOVE for that answer to be simple.

But I have the sinking feeling that I always do when researching an issue: it’s not simple, and to pretend it is would be to lie. My instinct would be to set up a study in which we give corporate tax breaks to a randomly selected group of businesses and then see how they produced jobs and economic stimulus compared to a control group; we could also compare local tax breaks given to different income groups and see how they spend them, and how local businesses react to them. If you want to give me the money to do that study or any variation of it, I’m here ready with my pencil, paper, calculator, digital recorder, and Excel. I’d much rather we have some research to argue about instead of our best guesses about what it going to happen.

Posted in Howling | 1 Comment