“Stagger Lee was born in February of 1996. After a little over a year at Vanderbilt University, he moved to Washington DC and signed on as tech support for a major non-profit. Seven years later, he moved with his fiancee to California, where he has lived and worked ever since.”

Seem like I’m leaving out a lot? Probably. But let’s be honest: for most people in my life, that’s my story. Anything before I joined a certain listserv during that winter of ’96 only exists in my own tales and imagination, because nobody was there to see it and there’s precious little physical proof any of it happened – apart from a ring or two and perhaps an old T-shirt or six. And if you’re in California, it goes more like:

“Stagger Lee was born in April 2001. His existence did not solidify until July 2004, when he moved to Silicon Valley. He has since bopped around several jobs, leaving a trail of incoherent ramblings about Vanderbilt athletics, tales from his first job, and something about an “EUS” that may or may not have to do with Scottish soccer.”

Four years ago, I went home and cleaned out the closet. The result was something of a temporal fugue, where for a span of about three hours, I was back in high school. A little over a year later, I was sent a link to a station of streaming Irish music, which catapulted me back in time seven years in a cloud of snow and pipe smoke. And last week, I opened boxes that carried me from 1985 to 1997 and back, providing me with the most unexpected gift of the year: a treasure-trove of real-time documentation of what I was thinking, what I was obsessing over, how I was living my life – in short, almost all the data points needed to really see what’s changed in the last twenty years…and what hasn’t.

There are things in my past that were too painful to contemplate, and to get them out of the way, I shut off the past. It didn’t keep the actual problems from leaking through, but it did succeed in cutting off large swathes of who I used to be – things that are, or should be, a very big part of who I am today. When they leaked through, it usually only served to trigger the wrong reaction. Memory and regret go together like Jack and Coke, and that’s not an idly chosen comparison.

The triumph of 2009 is that a lot of that past broke through in a big way this year, for a number of reasons, and for the most part not in a bad way. Call it the Lion King moment, if you like – “remember who you are.” I did. Those things that happened in 1989, or 1994, or 2000 are not things that happened to previous regenerations, played by different people in a different era – they happened to me, they made me what I am, and I still have a lot of those things going for me.

In 2010, I’m not going to be playing defense against my own past anymore. Which should free up a lot of time and energy for other things.

Things I knew then that I didn’t know now that I knew then…

…or something. Or in other words, lessons learned by delving through some of my old paperwork of days gone by.

It literally took less than a month at my undergrad school to realize that my biggest need was somewhere to belong, and that it wasn’t going to happen there. Inexplicably, I pieced enough together in the first semester (plus Interim term) to get by, which in retrospect was a mistake – my undergrad life was a 747 with three engines on fire plummeting to Earth, but for two years, I was convinced I could put that bird down safe.

After that, I more or less gave up. I spent a lot – a LOT – of time building a mythology around a fictional alternate school, and spun not one but two different class final projects out of it. I was desperately looking for three things: a non-insane girlfriend, a real peer group of friends, and an authentic college experience. You could make a good case that I have now spent exactly twenty years trying to make all three happen at the same time.

Throughout the undergrad years, I am flabbergasted at the number of notes laying out possible combinations of new teams and divisions for pro sports leagues. I distinctly remember noting in 1992 that “every league in North America could easily go to 30-35 teams” and I think it had happened by 2000. And the rules! The endless RPGs, Cyberball, reimaginings of how to render things into a system that would allow me to reproduce and analyze them on paper! What was that about, especially when I couldn’t get my head around SPSS and statistical analysis in political science?

In 1994, I knew that politics was turning into a team sport, and that participation was directly proportional to ideology, and that it created a climate of moral imperatives where your opponent was not just misguided, or wrong, but evil and non-negotiable. Nailed it. My professor was amazed at my capacity for sarcasm and vitriol, which I didn’t apologize for at all, and wondered whether I might not need to develop my empathy for others. I think that’s the part where I point to the DSM-IV and say “Aspergers, son, recognize” but I think I’ve come around on that some in the last fifteen years. Others may disagree.

Most of all, there was a scene I wrote in those undergrad years where my long-lost fairy godsister gave me the opportunity to go back and reset the clock. It amazed me, because I wrote the same thing six years later and remembered writing that, but not the original one.

And the most telling bit of all – a quote I copied down, from the famous British intelligence officer turned Soviet spy, Kim Philby:

“To betray, you must first belong. I never belonged.”

I wrote that down half a life ago. I knew all along. I just didn’t realize then that I knew…and I just didn’t remember now how much I knew then.

Our Stupid Decade

Come on – in 1999, did you really think it would end up like this?

I’m not even going to put it down to the corrosive effects of the Bush years, because I think that’s another symptom, not a cause. Things like “Mission Accomplished” and “Deficits don’t matter” and “Heck of a job Brownie” and “welcomed as liberators” didn’t give us American Idol, or an endless parade of missing white girls, or the onslaught of reality shows – think about this, ten years ago NBC prime time meant ER or The West Wing. Now it’s The Biggest Loser and Jay Leno at 10 PM five nights a week. Just look at the state of college football, for crying out loud – where crying out loud has in fact become the principal means of getting ahead in the world of the BCS.

I don’t know if it was just the shock of September 11, or some millennial sense of “we’re through with history and now we can sit back and coast” or what it was, but somewhere back there, we were transformed into a nation of pants-wetting fraidycats, with no more curiosity than it takes to sit on the couch sucking down straight high-fructose corn syrup and watching the latest episode of THE REAL OOOH SHINY!!! And what’s worse…somewhere along the line, a large chunk of American decided that was just fine, and wanting anything more was somehow weird, or dangerous, or wrong. And another chunk of people decided that those folks were somehow more real, more authentic, more to be valued, and went on validating them.

If you want an epitaph for the 00’s, here it is: this was the decade we let stupidity become a valid lifestyle choice.

Fuck. Is it midnight yet?

Surviving Christmas

It’s a lot to ask a technologist to go eight days without his laptop. Sending him out for a week with only a smartphone is like sending a soldier to war with only a pistol. And sending him to stay in a rural house with no broadband, no neighbors with wireless, and cell coverage that equals one bar of service, with no data, and only when stood outside – that’s sending him out with a pistol and no bullets.

Thankfully, the excuses to hit the road were plentiful. We got to have drinks at an actual W-affiliated hotel in the unlikeliest of places, we got dinner at two different Frank Stitt restaurants in the company of fellow alumni (and Team Black Swan East, natch), we did a little driving and a little shopping and fought some holiday traffic, and had a surprisingly non-disastrous time with the relations.

Lessons learned:

* Cousin Pa is exactly the sort of moron you would expect a 70-year-old who DVRs the entire Fox News Channel weeknight lineup to be. He’s interested in buying some of my old guns. I’m uncertain whether it’s moral to make a bunch of money off the Obama-hating paranoia of an old racist prick, especially when there’s a non-zero chance of seeing the wrong end of those guns someday.

* No amount of time in the old land will ever be enough for my mother, who after eight days wanted to know why we couldn’t stay the second week if we were off work. Here’s a hint: if my consecutive time in Alabama ever hits double-digits again, somebody has died, or else somebody needs to come shoot me.

* You’ll never convince a hick that Scharffen-Berger baking chocolate is superior to the liquid squeeze-pack stuff from the Piggly Wiggly.

* Don’t look for quality radio in a town that has two 24-hour sports stations AND Rush Limbaugh on FM.

* I am ruined forever for public transit. The thought of having to drive everywhere, all the time, and at least twenty minutes in each direction for ANYTHING – I’m getting the shakes just thinking about it.

* The right combination of wardrobe, music, and box-of-stuff-out-in-the-garage will convince you that you are much younger than you really are. The practicality of this is left as an exercise for the reader.

* The iPhone is still the Magic Phone by which all others are measured, but it is not suitable for the full use of Facebook, long-form blogging, or really getting the most out of a James Bond movie.

* The Redskins are GHASTLY.

* Cal can’t fire their offensive line coach soon enough for me.

* The Mercedes M-class is a piece of shit to drive, and anybody who thought you could build a real Mercedes in Alabama was full of it.

* Your relatives will call your bluff and buy you a Nerf sword as a Christmas present right as somebody launches a terrorist attack on a plane that makes taking said sword back damn near impossible.

* The TSA may actually be sobering up as far as the wet-your-pants response to terrorism. The GOP, sadly, probably never will.

* A peacoat – especially one you got for $37 – is not the optimal piece of outerwear for the South in December, no matter how stylish you think it might look. Get something more collapsable.

* Southwest Airlines isn’t as bad as it used to be.

And most important:

* The relief of being on the plane, and the elation of being back in California, and the happiness of just driving through In N Out for a double-double plain, may be a sure sign that Silicon Valley is your home now, and you are absolutely in the right place.

More later.

Last call for the Old Ones

Twenty years ago, I described them as “post-Civil War, pre-Civil Rights.” In more recent times, I’ve asserted that the South can’t begin to move forward until they’re dead. It seems awfully uncharitable to talk that way about my grandparents – and my parents – but there it is.

Non-urban, mostly Southern, the kind of voters who tipped for Wallace in 1968 and abandoned the Democrats nationally by 1980, these are the people who want the government out of their lives and away from their Medicare and Social Security. They occupy a conservative-populist space that’s made millionaires of countless AM radio hosts, a fundamentalist pre-Enlightenment space that doesn’t have room for science, logic, reason, or fancy book-larnin’. The phrase “common sense” comes up a lot – it’s all gut instinct and what they already believe. And it’s a worldview that is essentially and utterly incompatible with 21st century modernity.

This is why things have gotten so bad – these are literally their Last Days. They will fight to the death for their worldview – this is a matter of God and country and what they know to be right, so there’s no room for negotiation or compromise or “come let us reason together.” And there are elements that are more than happy to harness that rage and desperation to their own ends – with precious little regard for what the endgame looks like.

So how do you prepare for a situation where you can’t make a deal? At all? Ever? Your options are twofold at that point, whether it’s Afghanistan or Alabama:

1) Containment

2) Elimination

Take it as read that 2) is impossible. You’ll never kill every last Taliban or Al-Qaeda, and even if you could, there are always others willing to take their place. All you can do is whatever it takes to minimize the risk that they can get at you.

But then there’s Alabama. What was Reconstruction, if not a decade-long attempt at containment?

and away we go

There must be something worse than flying at the holidays, but I can’t imagine what right now.

As always, reverting to the usual site for any postings while in the field.

Otherwise, Merry Christmas to all, and to y’all a good night…

Joseph, Better You Than Me

…is the title of my favorite new Christmas song – it was last year’s holiday track from the Killers. Their first, “A Great Big Sled,” was another solid hit; their second, “Don’t Shoot Me Santa” was…less so. But this one was oddly affecting.

Well your eyes just haven’t been the same, Joseph

Are you bad at dealing with the fame, Joseph?

There’s a pale moonshine above you

Do you see both sides, do they shove you around?

Is the touchstone forcing you to hide, Joseph?

Are the rumors eating you alive, Joseph?

When the holy night is upon you

Will you do what’s right? The position is yours…

Think about this. You’re just this guy, a carpenter, making a living for yourself in a Roman-occupied Judea where you’re probably lucky just to be hanging onto upper-working-class. Engaged to be married, good decent life ahead of you, and then – out of a clear blue sky – she’s pregnant. And it sure as hell wasn’t you, and you don’t want to make a fuss, but come on – what else are you going to do?

And then, the angel of the Lord shows up, and he’s got a message. Yes, she’s pregnant, and her baby’s daddy is God. You know – Jehovah. YHWH. “I AM THAT I AM.” Yeah. And you have to marry her, you have to have the baby, you have to raise the baby as your own, and to cap it all off – proof that the angel of the Lord went to Notre Dame – you can’t tell anybody why you’re doing it. You have to be the stepfather to the Son of God.

When they’ve driven you so far

That you think you’re gonna drop

Do you wish you were back there at the carpenter shop?

With the plane and the lathe

The work never drove you mad

You’re a maker, a creator

Not just somebody’s dad

We have no idea what happened to Joseph. We know he stepped up, married his fiancee, was there at the Temple after eight days, to all accounts brought up his son the best way he knew how. And then…nothing. No mention of him down the home stretch. Not a word about when, or how, he died. Just disappears – not really germane to the story anymore.

From the temple walls to the New York night

Our decisions rest on a child

When she took her stand

Did she hold your hand?

Will your faith stand still or run away?

I think that irrespective of your faith – or lack thereof – there’s a lesson here. There are things we have to do in this life that we probably don’t want to, things that drop out of the sky at the worst possible minute, and there’s no door number two, no plan B, just this thing that you have to deal with. Whether it’s a natural disaster taking your home out from under you, or a parent you never thought of losing suddenly gone, or a pink slip the second week of December, or a phone call from the police at 3 AM, or the doctor walking in and closing the door and sitting down – you just have to swallow hard, accept that this is your life, and face it as best you can.

Joseph is the patron saint of the local parish, and (obviously) of the nearest big city. If the lives of the saints are meant to be exemplars of how we live our lives, you could do worse – get on with it, do the best you can, and don’t be a horse’s ass about it.

Oh yeah, the song also features Elton John and Neil Tennant. You think that’s not an instant classic, well, you’re entitled to your wrong opinion. =)

Caffe del Doge

image1787839796.jpgThe Italianate coffeehouse beloved of Facebook employees in days past now has a location in the 40’s Streamline Moderne edifice that is the Palo Alto Caltrain station. It’s a fabulous location – so much of the original decor and furniture is still there that it feels like commuting through a movie. All you need is steam, fog, and Bogart with a revolver in his raincoat.

Mobile Blogging from here.

Part II: So here’s the problem:


DEMOCRAT: What the plan calls for is an individual mandate – everyone has to buy insurance. If you get this through your job, or if you’re in Medicare or Medicaid, nothing changes. If you are currently buying your own insurance, or don’t have insurance, you will be able to choose from among several plans in a health exchange, which will have millions of customers and will be able to get the kind of rates that big companies get. If you can’t afford to buy insurance, we will have financial support available. And to make sure that the insurance companies don’t take advantage of a captive audience to just jack up rates, we will have the opportunity to buy into the same insurance program that members of Congress have, a non-profit program, which will help keep the insurance companies honest and prevent them being able to just gouge you for more money. And just to keep everything on the straight and narrow, insurance companies will no longer be able to deny you for pre-existing conditions or drop you because they don’t want to cover your illness. They will also have to cover preventive care and health maintenance issues, so you can take care of yourself before you get sick. And with no more wasting money on using the ER for primary care, and the benefits of catching disease and illness before it gets out of hand, everyone will end up saving money in the long run.


MATT LAUER: Thank you both, we’ll be right back with more on Tiger Woods and a missing white girl.


This is the problem: there is no quick and easy way to explain the health care reform plan beyond the words I put in the mouth of the Democrat above. And the sort of people who broadcast news in this country are simply not bright enough to explain it. They are also unwilling to actually analyze the claims made by either side, whether through stupidity or malice. And honestly, pretty much every television journalist in the country is pussy-whipped by forty years of conservatives screaming “LIBERAL MEDIA” at everyone to the right of Pat Buchannan and terrified of being accused of bias. Consequently, absolute horseshit lies are passed off as an equivalent point of view, because any attempt to delve into the matter and determine the truth makes you some sort of filthy hippie liberal advocate. And since they’re too fucking stupid to understand what’s actually happening, your media presents the whole thing purely in terms of a horse race: who’s up, who’s down, who’s winning – completely oblivious to the practical reality at hand.

You want to know why Obama’s approval rating is 49%? It’s because liars, racists, and outright mental defectives are treated by our press as a legitimate part of the discourse, and the slackjawed yokels of the American public go right along with it. Call me an elitist, because I am, and I’ll own it proudly – the biggest problem with this country is that we treat stupid people like they’re worth taking seriously.

Part I: Listen up, liberals…

…this is how it works. You don’t get to just sail into town and get whatever you want. People who point to the Bush tax cuts and say “why can’t we do that” miss the point: it’s always easier to destroy than create, and even then they went through reconciliation instead of the normal process (which is why they’re going to sunset and spare us the trouble of having to legislate a huge tax hike to keep the deficit from going supernova). The Democrats made a decision long ago: play it straight, play it big-tent, and you know what? If they hadn’t, you’d still be looking at less than 60 votes.

This is how it works. You grind these things out like Johnny Cash: one piece at a time. You bleed and sweat and suffer, and frequently pass things by one vote (ask Al Gore, and Chelsea’s future mother-in-law, about the 1993 budget a.k.a. the “Clinton Landslide”) and you don’t get everything you want. The point is, you pound away at the coal face to get what you can, and then? You come back the next day and do it again. And again. You don’t ever get to declare victory and go home in triumph, but that’s not how it works.

Grow up, kids. Politics is the art of the possible. If you want to dream, go be a theater major.