a fugitive looks at fifty

The phone has replaced geography. I can look at five and a half inches of black glass in one hand and keep up perfectly with the ins and outs of UK politics, either from the BBC’s website or their podcasts or just Twitter snark. I can listen to Bluegrass Country from WAMU in DC, or the Midnight Jamboree from the Ernest Tubb Record Shop in Nashville, live on WSM, or stream a big-band station with the broadcast watt power of a hair dryer to anywhere I happen to be. A couple weeks ago, I watched the local ABC affiliate in Birmingham for four hours from my Silicon Valley living room, watching James Spann do what he’s done for forty years and marveling at how much has changed with the precision of tracking and the measures you’re meant to take when the tornado comes barreling through. I watched the Winter Olympics from Beijing via Hulu from a fire pit in South Lake Tahoe. I commiserated about idiots and morons in Ottawa with someone in Ottawa in real time. 

It’s not just the the phone is a camera and a television and a bookstore and a stereo and a GPS and everything else you can imagine all in one, it’s that it defies the geographical constraints of being in range of the broadcaster or in the distribution area of the newspaper or in the neighborhood of the bookstore or the record shop. It makes you post-geographical. It creates a layer of participation in the world that works from anywhere, as long as it depends on bits and not atoms.

Set against this, geography becomes more important than ever, because of the things that the phone cannot do for you. The phone can provide you the avenue for belonging, but if you live somewhere in which who you are as a person is wrong, it can’t solve that. If you’re black in suburban Alabama, or transgender in Dallas, or too old for Shallow Alto without retiring or entering VC, it cannot change the circumstances around you. All it can offer is a momentary escape, and when you resurface, your world around you is as it was before. 

Watching Chloe Zhao’s underrated Eternals – which was ill-served by the necessity of being a Marvel movie – I remembered well how much I felt like a secret mutant superhuman in Alabama, trapped by the world around me, and how much I aspired to get into a wider world. I didn’t have time to wait for the craft brewing and the pervasive wireless and persistent live pro sports downtown and an internet that would bring all the same bits to Birmingham as you could get in Mountain View. And it occurred to me that at some level, I was defined by being a mutant, and that once you move to someplace where what you are is all right, you have to fit in and make it on the merits, and it’s easy to get lost in the sauce – especially when your otherness no longer provides you with an affinity group to protect against the world around you.

Thing is, if I were in Birmingham now, I could have the downtown loft, have tickets to the Legion and the Squadron and maybe even the Barons, I could drink at Good People or the Garages, eat my way through the food trucks and the State restaurants and the places name-checked in “This Or That” on the new podcast by Iva Williams III. And I could see the same things on Disney+ and Netflix and Hulu, eventually catch the same Marvel blockbusters in the theater, order the same LC King jeans and 3D-printed Nerf blasters and non-alcoholic craft beers to my doorstep. But I would still be in Alabama, in a place where the legislature will blithely let anyone carry a concealed gun without a permit and declare any group of people a “riot” and spend 2022 trying to bring back 1962. California has plenty of its own discontents, but at least you don’t have to wonder if today’s the day that the California Legislature makes it mandatory to out gay kids or force trans kids into their chromosomal bathroom or outlaw books that suggest there was slavery in the United States. Who I am as a person is fine here. Who I am as a prospective employee may not be all that desirable, but what are you gonna do.

I don’t think there’s any disputing that the 40s have been the least rewarding decade of my life. Sure, we did more international travel, and I’ve gotten my salary up, and getting *stuff* is not really a problem, and I can generally make it through the days…but in terms of the things that make the arc of your life pleasant and enjoyable, it’s hard not to feel like this has been the decade, as was said to Indiana Jones, when life stops giving you things and starts taking them away…

The only problem is with trying to find the solution is that this time, there isn’t one. At some point, you have to find a way to acknowledge that shit happens, that life is full of randomness and it doesn’t always work out or even mean anything, that we live in a world of chaos and entropy – and you have to find your own light.  And for someone whose worldview has always depended on consistent rules and logical solutions, the real world is ever more difficult to cope with. And thus we get to where I am now.  I have an amazing wife, and a good solid job, and a nice house and a pretty good car.  I have 12Mbps broadband at home, and HD television, and a lightweight laptop at work and a miracle of a cell phone in my pocket.  I have a little bit of a reputation as a Vandy blogger, and real-life friends and acquaintances that serves me for a social life of sorts.  I have a routine, and a place to lay my head, and I try not to think too far down the road.  The goal is to live in the now, in the moment – free of both the tyranny of memory and the trap of expectations.

-Feb 28, 2012


Everyone moved away.

My surrogate sister moved from Burlingame to Santa Cruz. In fact, most of the Castro Street Dining Consortium moved to Santa Cruz, except for the ones who moved to Seattle or Colorado or Austin or London. My cousin moved to Texas, then Nashville, then Kazakhstan. My old coworkers moved to Los Angeles, or the Central Coast, or Nevada. The actual locals, people who lived in the same town, moved to Pacifica part time or Reno full time or Norway and Berlin and back to Norway with my closest local guy friend of the last five years. Even my in-laws moved to Heaven, by way of Denver, if we ever get around to delivering the ashes.

The first month of the pandemic was the best month I’d had in six or seven years, when it hit – because suddenly the whole world was locked inside, and Zoom was the only way to socialize, and suddenly it was as easy to hang out with people in DC or Nashville as it was to take the light rail one stop to the pub in the before times. And for about two or three weeks, I was essentially teleporting around the country for happy hour. And then the fatigue set in from working on a camera all day, and real life caught up in places that were less serious about beating the virus, and it all went by the boards. And to add insult to injury, because I was trying to be serious about stopping the pandemic (and so was California), even the methadone substitutes of Trials or Lilly Mac’s on a weekend night were no longer available. Pub night at home became ever more important, and ever more jealously guarded, because that’s all there was – no travel, no live sessions, no going anywhere or doing anything.

The social ramble couldn’t be more restful. There aren’t even Cal events I can plus-one my way into. And that’s the frustration: I have abjured all these things for two years in aid of trying to help beat back a pandemic that has killed more people than the Civil War, while actual Confederates have been fighting for the freedom of the virus almost since it arrived on our shores. I have given up on birthday parties, basketball games, or just posting up at the bar for a quiet pint for a couple of hours to try to pretend everything will be OK, and it has all been for naught because fucking rednecks wouldn’t take eight fucking weeks to acknowledge that there are other people. My patience, and my sympathy, are completely exhausted – as well they were before CoV-SARS-2 even appeared.


The chaos, entropy and evil went macro.

The first sign that things had gone seriously badly wrong – like, worse than usual and worse in ways that shouldn’t have been possible any longer – was when Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman, a redneck who wanted to need his own gun and found an excuse, and was subsequently let completely off the hook. Said redneck created a situation in which he, a civilian, would have the opportunity to kill, and seized upon it. Not unlike how Kyle Rittenhouse would do the same a few years later, and get completely away with it. The last decade has been one in which the lowest sort of ignorant dickhead has been empowered – not only with legitimacy, but with righteousness.

And it only got worse. That was the leading edge of a wave that has over the last decade attempted to roll back what little progress has been eked out over the first forty years of my life. Apparently a Black President – a re-elected one, at that – was a bridge too far and made it legitimate to do whatever was necessary to preserve white hegemony. If that meant putting a gun in every pot, so be it. If it meant electing a senile reality-TV bigot to the Oval Office, so be it. And if it meant rallying behind opposition to the very vaccines that could have ended the pandemic – and by extension, the very vaccines that saved them all from polio and smallpox and measles and mumps for the entire Baby Boom – then so be it. This is the last dying gasp of the Old Ones that I thought for sure were done for in 2012, when I said it would no longer be possible to win an election with only white votes. I was right. What I did not expect was for the entire machinery of conservatism to then be bent on reducing the electorate to a point where white votes alone could still be sufficient for victory. 

You’ll notice I didn’t say a word about politics ten years ago in that paragraph, but that’s because it wasn’t a constant pile of dynamite stored in a hot room back then. And yes, the pandemic has made things worse – but the main way it’s made things worse is in how it’s added fuel to the fire of selfish ignorance as the highest ideology. Not even a death rate in the Omicron wave orders of magnitude higher for the unvaccinated has been enough to end that. Travel, delayed. Outings, deferred. The world, reduced to a couple thousand square feet and a quarter mile walk on most days for the last two years and counting.

The pandemic didn’t help, but it was obvious from at least the beginning of 2016 and possibly 2014 that we might not get away with this one – that the world had turned in ways that were fundamentally unpleasant. From this end of my 40s, I am profoundly grateful that I didn’t have kids, and I don’t know how my loved ones who did found the strength to try. As it is, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t also profoundly grateful to be in California, where circumstances now suggest that I won’t be obligated to leave California if I retire. I don’t dispute that this place has racism or a rotten value system – Silly Con Valley will rapidly disabuse you of both without ever spending time in the Central Valley or Orange County – but as it stands today, I do not have to worry about the agency of rednecks. I don’t have to worry about the state of California burning books or outlawing “critical race theory” or preserving Confederate monuments or redrawing the district lines to keep people of color from having voting power. The Golden State has its problems, to be sure, foremost among them a ballot initiative system that makes it easy to buy yourself loopholes – but that’s largely an issue of unchecked wealth. And there are ways of checking that. The bigger problem is the extent to which California money goes to federal taxes and in turn underwrites the low-tax-high-racism shithole states of the old Confederacy, which is in the long run an untenable prospect.

I have never thought California should secede from the USA. Not once. But the sixth-largest economy in the world and capital of the future should not shirk from seceding from the CSA. And if that means this is my forever home, I can live with it.


I don’t really have a groove any more.

We moved house a few months ago, and have finally closed all the deals and paperwork. It’s nice. The creak of sixty year old wood floors is comfortable and feels like a permanent cabin camping weekend, especially given the quarter-acre back yard and the propane fire pit in it. Everything is on one level, the ramp and the grab bars for my in-laws are still in situ, and in almost every way, this is a house in which we could easily age in place for another thirty years – and things being how they are, we could stop paying the mortgage in fifteen years and take out a reverse mortgage instead that would see us through to the end of our days with brass in pocket and a fairly cozy retirement.

But it meant giving some things up. Sure, now I am free from hacker house neighbors, or a meddling HOA, or Teslas doing 30mph in parking alleys – but now there’s no hot tub or gas grill that someone else maintained, and no light rail steps away with easy access to downtown or transit, and no more easy walking to the convenience store or the deli or a cheap haircut. I can walk to Starbucks, sure, or to the grocery store or pharmacy at a pinch, and maybe that will be useful, and it’s not like I’ve been able to go down the pub on the train for a couple of years – but there’s a big difference in “I can’t but maybe when this is over I can” and “I can’t any more.”

And the other part of it is – if I ever have to go into work again, it’s going to be a car commute. No bus, no trains. And I don’t know how long I will continue to be let to work from home in this job – assuming I can even keep this job, because the lesson of the last ten years is that my employer does not value the work I do or the knowledge required to do it. Everything from salary to hiring practices to the fact that they outsourced us all to the fact that things we did surface again six months later as new initiatives invented from first principles – every bit of it boils down to you do not matter. That was a hard thing to take at age 20. I’ll be damned if I take it at age 50.

But then what? A career change? To what? Something that imperils the dream of maybe being able to retire before age 70? As much as I want a fresh start, I’m terrified of it – of having to learn new systems, new best practices, a new culture, of having to prove myself all over from scratch to new co-workers and new managers and new customers. And I resent having to do that, because it feels like admitting that I wasted the last ten years and that the aggregate value of my effort and experience is nil. But then, if my current employer values that at nil – it’s a wash, isn’t it? So if your scars and treasures are worthless, why keep wasting your time trying to make the stones worth counting if you can go somewhere that gives even a vague sense that they want you and would receive you with positive expectations? But how do you even find a place like that any more? Especially when the new world of remote work means they won’t even hire in the Bay Area, in order to keep the costs down? What do you do when the thing you do is something they only want done somewhere else?

Over the last few years, I did come to terms with the two fundamental traumas I cited ten years ago – partly because Vanderbilt gave me a way of fishing some of my past out of the black hole, polishing it up, and repurposing it for more than it’s worth – but instead of the tyranny of memory and the trap of expectations, I found myself inadvertently revisiting my oldest and most foundational trauma: life in a milieu that diminished my value as a person. The same thing that made Birmingham-Southern a misery, that made being gifted in the 80s South a millstone, the original damage from which all the other damage ultimately stems. And at some level, it goes back to the same thing you were told as a child: who cares what other people think, you should be your own person, you are not defined by what other people think.

And…yeah, okay, but we live in a society. We live in a wider world. Unless you’re willing to become an anchorite and wall yourself in a cell forever, you have to interact with others and have to be part of a larger community. Which leads to finding whatever subculture works for you, ultimately, with the caveat that the predominate subcultures for white, male, Southern, notionally Protestant, middle-aged goateed men – in tech or out – are in fact the very subcultures currently engaged in destroying the world and making me miserable.

Ultimately, that’s the great disappointment of turning 50: I thought that I would still have more of the things that really matter in life. Have I been very fortunate and very lucky and very privileged? Yes. Have I underachieved? It’s hard not to feel that way. Have I been successful? By what metric? Metrics are an easy substitute for understanding, which is why management loves them so, because you can just put up a PowerPoint slide and say yes it worked or no it didn’t. How do you actually measure the success of a decade? Of half a century? Measured out in long solitary drives and French fries and the largest soda the drive-thru offers, in hats and jackets and mobile phones, in the mental gymnastics of trying to somehow demonstrate that the ship actually came in after all, in trying to assemble enough of the jigsaw pieces of your life to make a clear picture of who you are?

In the end, if I had a goal for my fifties, it wouldn’t be that different from what I hoped for from my forties: nothing to prove to anyone, least of all to myself. If I can look back in ten years – a full decade that I am very acutely aware my father didn’t get – and say that I am happy with how I’ve lived my life, that some local part of the world beyond the front door had received me for who I am, and that I’d found a way to live with the rest…

Wouldn’t that, at long last, be enough?

final impressions

Range anxiety is a real thing. Especially when you haven’t get got a sense for what your vehicle is capable of. I figured we’d stop either way in Placerville to charge up to 80%, but I wasn’t counting on the uphill climb being as strenuous as it turned out to be on the way to South Lake Tahoe. I topped up to 60% there and was down to 47% when we charged on the return trip, then went from 80% to just under 20% home. A hair over 160 miles for 60% of the battery, which implies a total range at freeway speeds of about 250 miles – or more realistically, a range of around 200 miles on mostly level ground between fast-charges from 20% to 80%. In a world where the ID4 will be the regular runabout chore car and able to charge overnight at home, that’s more than sufficient, but it implies fueling up en route to any serious destination out of the Bay Area.

Which is fine. The Malibu is still meant to be the long-haul driver, and fast charging a rare necessity for special circumstances – the all-wheel drive for Tahoe makes it preferable for such a trip. In all other respects, the ID4 is everything we were promised. It feels modern, in a way that makes it awkward to stream bluegrass and 40s music in it – it feels like cyberpunk tunes only, whether 80s or vaporwave or what have you. It sits high enough to be useful but not awkwardly so; driving home through serious wind this afternoon never felt unbalanced or risky. Cargo was easily managed, and it was comfortable enough to it in for a couple hundred miles without incident. And in a weird je ne sais quoi sort of way, it feels right. This is the sort of vehicle we were all supposed to tool around in come the 2020s, fueled by solar power at home (even if relayed through Silicon Valley Green Energy) and connected via iPhone to navigation and streaming audio. The interior club lighting and the LEDs front and back only enhance the feel of it.

Meanwhile, once one gets out of the car, the iPad mini is serving as the personal computer of the future. It’s doing exactly what I wanted in the evenings: reading, browsing, background music, Wikipedia lookup while watching television. The whole Apple Pencil writing isn’t really a thing, although it makes a very useful and precise tapping tool. And it works splendidly when one has the keyboard, although it hasn’t proved very useful for Swift – but that could be as much my own failure to ignite on learning to code (of which more later, including how things stalled out). It’s a lot better for reading than a 5.4” phone without having to constantly raise one’s glasses (of which more later) and a usable USB-C port opens the door for all kinds of things – basically it has replaced my laptop for all personal functions. Which is just as well; once macOS 12.3 and iOS 15.4 drop I should be able to mouse from laptop to iPad and type in whatever I want, so having my personal computer integrated alongside my work one. 

They are both a nice artifact of life in a future that doesn’t always seem to have much of one. Of which, as I keep saying, more later.

the third world war

Some people will point to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Others will point to Lee Atwater’s embrace of neo-Confederacy for George Herbert Walker Bush, or the 1994 midterms, or the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Or maybe September 11, 2001.

But for my money, the Third World War began on the seventh of September, 2015, when the third reading of the Brexit referendum bill passed the House of Commons in Great Britain. From that point, the UK had placed a loaded gun to its temple, setting the stage for the first major battle of the war: the Brexit referendum. The second major battle was lost in the United States on 9 November 2016, when Hillary Clinton conceded defeat to a man who had received fewer votes. You can then look at India or Brazil, Hungary and Poland, and then look at the strike back in the United States in November 2020 – and then at the renewed offensive campaign that started on 6 January 2021 and has continued ever since, all the way to Ottawa for the last month.

Because this world war isn’t between nation states or ideological blocs of like minded countries. It’s a battle of ideology, a dozen cold civil wars of establishment versus populism, all with a common thread: the rejection of modernity, of globalization, of the idea that we in any way have to consider the existence of the world outside our door. It’s a rejection of climate change, a rejection of free trade, an embrace of homophobia and religious bigotry and racism and violent nationalism, a mindless barbaric yawp of asserting, as WJ Cash said, “that no man living could tell him what to do and get away with it.”

It’s powered by the Internet, fed with foreign money from aspirational great powers who don’t need to defeat America if they can merely drag her down to their level, and embraced by those who see it as a ready source of votes and outrage and ignorance that can be weaponized in defense of the status quo – or, if needed, to turn back the clock, or guarantee that one side can assure their continued political power in the face of demographics and democracy. You can see from here that the Republican aspiration is a country that looks like Hungary, where the courts are tame and the press is compliant and the opposition can be harassed out of puissance in the name of God and family and traditional values.

It’s what drives Xi Jinping thought, it’s what Putin has relied on for years, it’s got India in a hammerlock under Modi, it’s in Brazil – until Biden was elected, it was the governing ideology of literally half the ten largest countries in the world, and America’s democrats – small d chosen deliberately – are on the ropes and struggling to hang on in the face of Southern states determined to rig the vote and packed federal courts determined to allow them to do it. And it’s not hard to see where it leads. William Gibson described it perfectly in The Peripheral – a kleptocracy that rides out the slow-motion end of the world to its profit while four-fifths of the globe sinks into poverty and ultimately perishes. Who has to care that there are other people when you can just facilitate their death and take their stuff?

Ben Barber was on the right track. Ultimately, though, it isn’t jihad vs McWorld: it’s the whole planet against the servile hordes of a grasping few who chant their perpetual prayer: mine.

What are we prepared to do?

oh canada

All society depends on force. We don’t like to think about it that way, but PJ O’Rourke nailed it with accuracy and precision when he pointed out that at the end of the day, all government revenue comes from holding a gun to someone’s head. When we demand something, there is always an “or else”: what happens when you have rules with no compliance mechanism? No one follows the rules. A rule that is unenforced is worse than no rule at all, because indifference to one rule nurtures indifference to more of them.

This is what I tend to shorthand away with “these kids have never been spanked” – not that it’s a bad thing necessarily that no one has laid hands on them in a violent manner, but that they have not faced consequences commensurate with their misdeeds. If a pre-verbal toddler stays sticking your shoes in the oven, you don’t have to spank them, but you can’t very well reason it out with them. You can’t sing them a song about rules and show them the error of their ways. You have to use a stern voice and the word “No” will be concerned in there somewhere, and somebody will probably have to sit in the corner.

This is something that has weighed heavy on my mind as Ottawa enters its third week of siege by overgrown toddlers. These are people who have been told the rules, and their reply is “No.” Now you can argue that they should be reasoned with, there should be negotiation, we should come to an understanding – but there is nothing more foolish than trying to reason someone out of something they didn’t reason themselves into. This is a gut level emotional response, a barbaric yawp that at its heart boils down to “I don’t like being told what to do.” And if they’re going to just sit there bleating “No,” then you need a plan B.

This is where everyone failed – the city of Ottawa, the province of Ontario, the RCMP, the Trudeau government, all the way down – they clung too long to the idea that you could fix this with reason and good faith, when it stems from a movement and an ideology that cast off both years ago. It’s of a piece with Brexit, or Trump, or Modi, or Bolsanaro – a unified international front of mental defect insisting that it’s actually genius. And no one can say they weren’t warned, not when the convoy took a week to cross Canada and made no secret of where it was headed.

Here’s the thing: much as they fall about themselves comparing their effort to Black Lives Matter protests or civil disobedience, I’m having trouble remembering where those actually rendered a national capital’s downtown non-functional for days on end. I’m also having a hard time remembering the exact contents of Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “Letter From the Rain Man Suite At The Top Of the Tutwiler Hotel In Downtown Birmingham.” The police and government in Ottawa and Ontario have declared that there is no God, because there are no consequences for actions and these Caucasians with their big rigs are apparently above an ass-whipping. And now it’s been two weeks and it’s out of hand and it’s going to take force majure to dislodge them, and Canada hasn’t got the hydrogen bomb.

“Peace, order and good government” is a fine slogan, but it kind of falls apart when the third part of it privileges the appearance of the first part at the expense of the second part. Now matters are worse, and there are only bad options left. But one prerequisite – and an absolutely essential one – is for the 2/3 of Canadians who want no part of this to go batshit loonball angry. Calling their MP every hour of every day. Screaming at every CBC microphone in sight. Hassling Strombo on the street. Whatever it takes. The vast majority of Canadians disagree with this. Hell, the vast, vast majority of Canadian truck drivers are long since vaccinated. As in the United States, nutters are being given the privilege of coverage and consideration far out of proportion to their numbers on the ground or their support in the wider community.

When I lived in DC, we billed ourselves as the People Against Marching. We did not care what your cause was. You could be out there marching for free Guinness to be served every day by topless supermodels, but if your march lasted into a second day, you were officially the enemy. Once the locals have turned on you, the cops will do their thing, and the cards will fall where they must. MLK knew this. The whole SCLC knew this, and they abided by my family’s motto: buy the ticket, take the ride, and relied on the moral opprobrium of their circumstances to make the case in the court of public opinion.

And that’s where this cause will fall apart. They aren’t marching for freedom, they aren’t marching for liberty, they aren’t marching for equality: they are throwing a tantrum to get their way. We may not spank children any more, but it’s long past time to start spanking adults. Ideally with a fully-automatic spanking. And maybe if they do it up there, it will prevent us having to do it down here.

second impressions

If you need an endorsement for this iPad, it’s this: I have not felt the need of my legal pad and its expensive pen for weeks. Nor have I needed my phone and its myriad temptations on Sunday nights, when Irish trad forms a backdrop to reading and all from the same device. It’s actually made me appreciate my phone; being able to move between a one handed 5” screen with everything and an 8” screen optimized for reading or looking at scale is a delight.

To be honest, it isn’t the thing I’m going to learn to code on, barring some major progress and a Bluetooth keyboard. And while I can blog on it, it’s not as easy as typing on a keyboard. And while I could work on it in a pinch, it’s not an everyday workstation. And the pencil is very slick, but only really useful for drawing directly on the screen; as a text entry solution, it needs work.

But so much stems from just learning to use the thing, a consideration that also goes for the other new lithium battery addition to the household. The long-awaited ID.4 has proven to be a very pleasant ride once you sort your way around the controls. A brief outage of the cellular system was sorted with the cunning expedient of pulling a fuse and replacing it ten minutes later. The third attempt at charging from a free public level 2 charger was a complete success, now that I’m starting to figure time for watt power. The forecast range is still north of what the EPA estimate suggests, which lends credence to the notion that the EPA model is weighted toward highway rather than city driving. It feels good to be a little higher up but not so much so that you feel ungainly. I finally worked out how to open and close the lift gate with the kick of a shin, or bring up the climate controls or start the rear windshield wiper (for the first time in almost six years).

But despite a planned trip to Tahoe, it’s not going to be the long haul vehicle. And certainly not going abroad the way the iPad almost certainly will. In fact, there’s every chance that the iPad might be a walking companion in London, given how it’s been useful for looking up lodging and attractions or building the guide in Maps or what an improvement it is for video conferencing (assuming that it doesn’t center over your head in Zoom). As I bear down on a milestone birthday, both of my new electronic devices feel like a satisfying slice of the future we were promised, and given how that future is going, that’s not nothing. Of which.