Monday, June 20, 2016

Social externalities

Was just reading The Economist's survey of the future of agriculture, in which it looks at a wide variety of new technologies impacting how food is grown, and I found myself thinking of how, in this field too, the economics are now tending towards providing disproportionate rewards to those who can intellectualize and in turn automate the fundamental processes of production.  The technology being thrown at farming is nothing short of amazing.

And so, even as locovorism for the elite and a back to the land ethos push a small number of people back into farming and provide a means of livelihood for some traditional farmers who can adapt themselves to a new supply chain, wealth in food production as in so much else will continue to concentrate itself in the hands of a corporate few.

This is something we are seeing in so many fields. Technology is eating everything, simple jobs are disappearing, honorable ways of earning livings for people of few intellectual and social privileges are slinking and sliding into the dustbin of history.  It all seems inexorable.

On the other side of this same coin, we see deep anomie, populations falling further into disarray as their paths toward betterment seem foreclosed.  Just in the USA we see declining mortality due to mental health issues and substance dependency, specifically opioids; afro-separatism expressed in generations of naming conventions (witness NBA players Dontae' Jones and Dahntay Jones, for one small example); racist hatemongering from Duck Dynasty to its logical heir, Donald Trump, and on and on and on.  In Europe we see neo-Nazism in lots of places, from Le Pinism to the Leave movement in the UK....

In the Islamic world, there's been plenty of analysis of how the fundamental inability of authoritarian petrokleptocracies to keep up with the West economically has created a class of young people -- and males in particular -- with no future who are ripe ground for terrorist recruiters.

Fundamentally, so much of this seems to be a response to an economic pie that is shrinking due to a worldwide dependency ratio that becomes increasingly unfavorable as populations age, and technology that appropriates a lion's share of what economic bounty there is to those who can dream up technologies to streamline production and distribution.

Which pisses people off and makes them sad.  And, in turn, violent and nasty towards one another.

What if all of this can be classed as an externality, in the same way that CO2 emissions are unpriced externalities of fossil-fuel burning?  Which is to say, what if the rolling up of profits to technologists messes up society and peoples' lives so badly that its repercussions should be classed as real costs?

In which case the real economic value is not provided by your Bill Gates / Sergei and Larry / Jeff Bezos types but by those who can figure out how to sort out the damage that they cause. In some sense, nobody would disagree that King, Gandhi, and in our day maybe Pope Francis or Temple Grandin are bigger, more important figures than your big technologists.  But it is hard to price and compensate them, particularly as they aren't the sort who really prize money.

In the abstract, this all sounds plausible. The difficulty is in pricing it all and administering it.  If Amazon or WalMart or Cargill/Monsanto etc. displace a bunch of people and make their lives utterly miserable, how do you quantify it?  By contrast, formulating and setting up a Carbon Tax is child's play.

Graham and Mary are now up and having breakfast.  Time to get ready to go out and see London!


We got here, yesterday, bleary with jet lag after flying through Boston and Reykjavik to save a couple of grand on airfare.  Somehow we managed to stay up till 10:30, which allowed us to more or less get synched up on time (ask me again at the end of the day about this).

So I was just sitting here poring over the maps of London and the Tube and the Overground train, trying to figure out how it all fits together, but it occurs to me that this is a perfect instance of where I need to just let go and let things happen.  I by nature am perfectly cool with stepping outside, hopping on any old bus, and going with the flow.  I guess I am concerned with Graham's energy level over the course of the day, that he will flag and get whiny as the day rolls on.

Fact is, over a few days I will get the hang of this place, and I suppose looking at the map for a while will let the city kind of gel for me. But is it worth the time it takes to do it?

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Griswolds take Europe

Once more, life imitates great art, and we are some five hours and change away from setting sail for the other side of the pond. Natalie and Joan are, of course, already there, having been in Spain for a week and change, biking and living the high life despite some brutal heat down there in Andalucia.

It has been a hard-working couple of weeks here in NC, blocking and tackling to retain my book of business as I've transitioned to my new firm. It hasn't all gone perfectly, I've retained maybe 85% of my assets, as my boss picked off one client and a couple of others aren't sure they will stick around. But that is life.  I have been honest and upfront with them to the greatest extent possible.  I think I'll pick up half of the stragglers when I get back, and chalk up the rest to experience.

Being a nervous ninny, now that I'm in a relaxed place about my work, I had to find something else to freak out about. And the strikes in France have offered me that. Images of and stories about garbage piling up in the streets of Paris while millions of Europeans pour into the city for the European soccer championships have irked me a little overnight. Much as I'd love to see a game or two, my family could give a rats ass about sports, and mostly I just want to chill, stroll, eat pains au chocolat, and dig the city once we get there.

A woman at Al Anon who has spent lots of time in Paris assures me that it is all nothing and I shouldn't give it a second thought.

Lord knows, I'll try.

And I'll try to blog from the road too, but that gets hard sometimes.

For the flight, we will have turkey sandwiches, potato chips, and Oreos. When I showed Graham the last two items, he perked right up, whereas he had been a little mixed before about the prospect of flying. The boy loves him some potato chips.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Breakfast vignette

Every school day for some time, Rascal, the by far more social of our two cats, has joined Natalie for cereal. Natalie gets her bowl of cereal, sits at her stool at the bar, grabs whatever she is reading or watching on her phone ("How I Met Your Mother", "30 Rock", "The Office", whatevs) and settles in. Then Rascal comes and sits or stands on Natalie's lap, and Natalie pets her or rubs her belly.

Saturday, June 11, 2016


It has been one of my basic policies here on the Grouse to not blog about work or marriage, or at least to do so very little. Mostly for political reasons.  But this has the effect of, to a certain extent, sealing off the most important topics in my life.

Today I'm going to cross the line a little. On Monday I quit my job and, within an hour, began another one, doing the same thing at a different firm. This week has been a fire drill of talking to my clients, explaining the move in as general terms as possible, and trying to convince them to stay with me.  Thus far things have gone well.

But to back up a minute, just quitting my job was an important step for me. I wasn't happy where I was, and I had known that a change needed to be made.  There were scenarios which might have resolved the situation under which I wasn't going to need to do anything dramatic, but those fell through for reasons entirely beyond my control in April, reasons intimately bound up with the things that were making me unhappy. At that point in time I knew I needed to make a decision to change.

Which freaked me out a little. I have historically had difficulty leaving jobs under my own initiative. I had a great offer in DC in 2006 which would have gotten me out of another devolving work situation, but I couldn't talk Mary into moving from Princeton, and I couldn't insist on doing what I knew would have been a good thing. Instead I rode that situation out, and ended up being let go as the financial services arm of that firm got winnowed down as people left and as another line of business rose up to dominate the firm.

I also historically had problems leaving romantic relationships.  I couldn't admit to myself I was unhappy when, for example, a girlfriend and I were geographically separated and I needed more constant companionship and, lets face it, sex (this was when I was in my teens/20s). So I would cheat on girlfriends and more or less force them to dump me.

Sometime this spring, I realized that this behavior all traced back to my parents' divorce, when I saw the situation going south and I knew it was fucked up, but I couldn't do anything about it. So I stuck my head in the sand, denied it, smoked pot, drank beer, told jokes, and tried to wish the situation away. Obviously that didn't work out very well. My parents split up, which was the right thing for them to do.

So, quitting my job was the right thing to do. It has been an anxious, hard-working week, calling all my clients on the phone and trying to retain them as my boss does the same thing.  Then actually doing the administrative things that need to happen to hold on to them. Mostly it has been going well.

In the end, I know it is the right thing for me, and for my clients.  For reasons I won't delve into here, because they're really not that important in the long arc of my life, and those of my clients.

Friday, June 10, 2016


I meant to write a little something here at halftime, instead I am entirely entranced by this video of John Fahey playing a concert in 1981. He is a freak, yes, but a special one indeed. Acoustic, yet electrifying.  I will take my guitar downstairs to play during the second half commercials.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

What a drag it is getting old?

Was just out playing soccer in the heat, I thought my calves were going to cramp up a couple of times.  But they didn't.  I was drinking Gatorade, feeling pretty clever to be getting all those electrolytes into the old bod. Then I got in my car and felt life my right foot was about to freeze up, so I put on a flip flop, and I got through it fine.

Eventually, however, it caught up to me. Niklaus and I were chilling on the dock out in the lake, and I dove into the water to cool off. The act of diving caused my right calf to freeze up fully, and after I swam back to the raft, pulled myself onto it, and stood up, my left one cramped too.  Great, I thought. Here I am 50 yards from shore with two cramping calves.

In the end, I had to swim the whole way back using only my arms. It was interesting.

In any case, it was good to hang alone with my old friend out on the dock.  45-year friendships do not grow on trees. It is fine to find time to nurture and enjoy them.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Contradictions public and private

I usually don't get around to the front page of the Sunday Times, because Mary grabs that while I start with Sports, then move on to Week in Review, followed by Business, if I get there. Today being Memorial Day, I got to it.

There were two stories branching from Page 1 that pointed up aspects of something we already know all too well:  tons of money held privately, with not enough flowing to the public sector. The first story was about "free ports", where rich people store art, wine, and other expensive stuff away from the public eye in a tax-preferred setting. Nuffbeit to say that lots and lots of art is stored in this fashion in places from Geneva to Singapore to Newark, Delaware. There's debate about the wisdom of having so much art hidden away from a cultural standpoint, as in shouldn't people be able to see the art.  I get that, but I don't worry about it too much. There's plenty of art in the world, and people can always and always are creating more anyway. The chief lack is a lack of time to appreciate it, and/or piece of mind to be able to facilitate its appreciation, because people are stressed about feeding their families and/or otherwise vouchsafing their safety and prosperity.

But there is a lot of value being stored away and non-trivial taxes forgone. Though it's not as if just putting the art in the public eye and/or circulation would increase economic value. To the extent that it decreased scarcity, the forced showing of all that art could crash art markets and/or constrain margins at art museums. Which would be a relatively victimless crime, it's true.

The other article concerned the decline of CUNY, which, like many public universities, but perhaps more acutely so, is hugely underfunded but also has a lot of high paid administrators. New Yorks State and City and funding it as once they did, so higher fees are being pushed onto students, buildings are falling apart, classes are getting bigger and fewer between, etc.

It seems like a classic situation where rich people need to step into the breech and give to CUNY.  In general it seems like the high net worth are more inclined to give to the fancy private schools that they attended than to less well-heeled public ones, but that maybe back in the day this was less the case, that your Carnegies and Rockefellers better understood the need for supporting public institutions. We need to get back to that, and the Giving Pledge that Gates and Buffett have spearheaded points in the right direction.

That said, I can say for myself that this is a good deal more easily said than done. I came back to NC with a vision of giving to causes outside of my socio-economic milieu, to institutions like NCCU in particular, but the exigencies of life and how it happens have led me to support the things that impact us more immediately:  cancer (after Leslie's breast cancer and Sophie's losing battle) in particular is hard to get away from. Yes, I support Josh, and yes, I go out of my way to participate in the recovery community in places where I at least see and can help less wealthy people (Governor's Institute in particular), but really I live my life among affluent white and Asian people, and I rarely break out of that, and I slave away to protect my own class status by educating my kids well. And that is in turn driven by uncertainty about the future and their own ability to maintain their own class status, because of common causes (technology, globalization) and particular ones (autism).

It is hard to do the right the by the public sphere.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Moral superiority

There was a moment when I was driving home this morning when I passed a couple of Passats, I think they were diesels, next to each other near Chapel of the Cross.  One was jumping the other. A WASP in a jacket was standing in front of it.

Safely ensconced in my Prius, a felt a wave of righteousness sweep over me as I thought of the emissions scandals.  And then, in the blink of an eye, I caught myself and thought "where the hell did that come from?" and backed off a little.

Whither Chapel Hill?

I don't necessarily make it to uptown Chapel Hill and Carrboro every week, so on those occasions that I make it to the 10 am Sunday morning AA meeting I like, I wend my way home by driving through town, even though I could use the bypass. I like in particular keeping track of the major construction projects, so that there impression on me will be gradual, instead of driving up there one day and being like "WTF, there's a 6-story building now."

In principle, I am all for developing upwards and increased density. It should bring more and better jobs, more urban intensity. It is kind of working. The other day I learned that both Google and Tibco have development teams located in the building which until recently housed Aveda, across from the University Square redevelopment. Those are good jobs to have downtown.

However, all this construction of new buildings is also just pushing up rents and driving out the kind of businesses that have historically given Chapel Hill-Carrboro character and made it an interesting place to be. Nice Price books is gone. Just today I saw a relatively newly vacant space on Main Street in Carrboro, where photographer Jesse Kalisher had his space (no big loss, really. His work wasn't that interesting, he was reputed to be an egotist). I fear in particular the day when the Bookshop on Franklin Street gets pushed out. That place is the birthplace of my soul.

So I'm seeing lots of retail vacancies already up on Franklin Street. In addition to the empty holes where restaurants should be down near us. This suggests that retail space is being overpriced in generally, and that more and more expensive retail space isn't going to do anybody any good.

It will need to be fancy eateries. But those are coming and going pretty quickly too.

Here are three thoughts

  1. The rarefication of Chapel Hill proceeds apace. The more metrosexual and cosmopolitan it becomes, the more it loses its soul and becomes kind of insufferable.
  2. The problem of excess retail space is secularly connected to the rise of Amazon. One local merchant, a jeweller, said to me not long ago that he was sanguine on the prospects for retail in general in America.
  3. Eventually the price of retail space may have to drop and be subsidized by office and residential tenants.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016


One time not too long before he died, Mary's father George Sr. and I were sitting on the front porch of their home in Larchmont on a summer afternoon. From over the small hill just to the East we could hear the voices of kids laughing, playing, and splashing over at Manor Beach (yes, that is its actual name). So George says to me: "You know, I remember times when I would be sitting up at my desk working on a draft of some letter or something, and I would hear those sounds of people having fun, and I resented it."

This was a very rare moment of pulling back the veil for George Sr. He was a generally chipper, if occasionally sardonic guy (God are those some WASPy adjectives, but I'm sticking with em). I loved the guy.

But the fact is, this resentment theme is huge for many of us in the breadwinning role, and for our spouses too. Life is all too often a series of compromises and decisions made on incomplete information -- albeit the best available to us at any given moment -- and then we roll forward and make what we can of the decisions. But it ain't always easy.

The breadwinner often feels (s)he gives up more, sacrificing dreams, but the primary caregiver does too. And when shit gets dicey, we often blame our spouses, time and again, though we know it's not their fault.

It is the oldest story in the book, and it eats marriages and all sorts of other relationships alive, even though we know what is going on down below the surface, and we can even talk about it. Many times.

Incidentally, this memory wasn't spurred by anything specific with Mary today. It was the noise of a bunch of high school kids, presumably ECHHS seniors, out in the park by the lake behind our house. Making noise, having fun.  I suppose that, in the grogginess following general anesthesia from my colonoscopy. the firmly punctuated 50-year old in me resented their youthful carefreeness.

Even though I am, at this moment, at the point in Book 4 of Knausgaard where Karl Ove, a high school senior, works through the challenges of his parents' divorce -- the growing acuteness of his father's alcoholism and his own slide into near constant drinking, hash smoking, and truancy. Or perhaps it's better to say that he isn't working through anything, he is just drifting on a wave of trauma-induced instability, one that is all too familiar to me. And his mom, like my mom, expresses her concern for him and he is just like "FU mom," though he knows that she is the one firm point in the constellation of his life.

And it is just where I was when I was the same age as those noisy boys out back: partying, making noise, fronting, getting ready to burst forth into life elsewhere.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Attention seeking

It is odd how things flow.  On the one hand, during the week it is my job in a sense to seek attention. I am trying to develop a business, which means making people want the service we are providing. To that end I have to reach into the outside world and solicit the attention of others: go out and meet people, write, speak, present, call people on the phone, provide good service to current clients, increase my skillsets and knowledge base in a way that allows me to serve others better and then communicate these improvements to the right subset of the outside world so that it requests my/our services. It is a hard thing to do, and to some extent the success metric is reciprocal inbound traffic: calls, emails, texts, etc. asking for me.

So when I come home I am tired of seeking attention and really just want to be, but often it is when I am at home that my assistance is most needed:  chores, homework, technical support, advice, crises, etc. What I would rather do is just commune:  sit on the couch with a child and read (right now Natalie is on the other end of the couch with her laptop) or watch TV (Star Trek with G., Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt with N.) and so on. I don't want to be asked for things. But there's always something to do. And I get pissy and resent it.

I also really like people to read my blog, and at times I put stock by the statistics that various sources provide:  Statcounter, Google, etc.  But I just looked and saw that as of right now, most of my traffic is coming from France, and the second biggest source is Russia. Rather suspicious, actually. In fact, I just went back and anonymized my kids' names, though I've spelled them out a hundred times before.  It looks as if some crawlers are aggregating information on me, perhaps in an attempt to predict passwords and security words so as to break into financial web sites and steal stuff.  Who knows? If I were a cybercriminal, I would certainly try to.'

Attention, like much else, can be a double-edged sword.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Relative silence

It has been a mad busy weekend, which explains my relative dearth of posts.  I had a workshop at the Chapel Hill Public Library today, which ended up sucking up much of my weekend.  On top of an excellent game yesterday, I felt in better form than I had all season, and a party last night on one side of the lake, followed by another this evening on the other side of it, the Lake Forest Association spring social.  Busy busy busy.  Really no room for the studied languor and reflection which usually characterize the Grouse's weekends. I looked more like a typical suburban guy than a meta-one. Oh well.

Now it's time for bed. More soon.

Next weekend Graham and I will check out the new Captain America movie. Psyched for that.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Again about Karl Ove Knausgaard

I know I keep coming back to this, but I just can't help myself. There is something mesmerizing about this series of books. I am now in the middle of Book 4, in which our hero has taken himself to the Northern reaches of Norway to teach in a high school, barely removed from high school himself. He chronicles with absolute candor the flights and indignities of it all, including getting boners looking at students, drinking till he blacks out, his manic drive to lose his virginity, his compulsion to shoplift.

Right now he has flashed back to the time when his parents are in the middle of their divorce.  He is at his dad's new house, with his new girlfriend, their first time having dinner together after his dad moved out, and already he can see his dad's standards are slipping. His dad is getting drunker than usual, is letting Karl Ove drink himself, is praising his new girlfriend, and Karl Ove is testing his limits, drinking more than his dad had initially said he would be allowed to, smoking in front of his dad, trying to get a sense of the new lay of the land.

Yes, I remember this moment with my dad. It wasn't exactly the same, but there was much in common. My dad and I smoked pot together (though his weed was pretty shitty, it must be owned). We tried to interact as peers. It didn't really last for long.

In general, this is the effect of riding shotgun with Knausgaard as he relives his life: I remember mine. When he arrives in the village in the North of Norway and describes setting up his new home there, I was transported back somehow to arriving to graduate school at Columbia in 1991, moving into my new apartment. I remembered how the bookshelves I had brought, plain, old, dark particle board ones from mom's office, would barely fit into the elevator.  There was a moment we thought they wouldn't, but somehow we wedged them in there and cracked the cover on the elevator light.

I hadn't thought about that in many years. It is odd, this effect, and it happens on more substantial levels as well. I will keep reading.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Positive interruption

For some reason, I let myself be interrupted in the middle of booking the last bit of summer travel for our next Griswoldian adventure to help Graham and Ben with some technical trouble with a nerf gun. I was having one of those giving tree moments, feeling like my life was being drained from me by little tasks, but when I passed through the rec room to get my toolbox, I heard Natalie, out on the porch in the breeze, gamely taking an AP World History practice test, after having taken the SAT yesterday (also really just for practice).  She was singing to herself.  So lovely.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016


At the grocery store today, I was buying a couple of bags of nuts, and I ran into someone I know, not all that well, admittedly. She asked me how my business was going, and I told her it was coming along, but that it demanded "constant application."

"Constant application, huh?" She said, and then she remarked how it was a rather formal way of speaking, and I have to confess that she was right. Others have remarked that I have somewhat geeky diction at times, as entirely befits with my outlandish degree of overeducation. Some have even pointed out that I say "indeed" a lot, and sometimes I find myself saying it just to buy myself time to think when speaking, much as others might say "ya know what I mean?"

But I think this tendency has likely become even more pronounced in recent months, as Graham and I have been working our way through Star Trek: The Next Generation. Specifically, I have probably been influenced by the hyper-formal diction of one Commander Data, android extraordinaire. I will confess that I find him to be the beating heart of the show, ever earnest in his desire to figure out what it means to be human, supported in this quest by the ever-steady Captain Picard.  Not every episode is great, but the ones foregrounding Data are always killer.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

In memoriam, Frank Miller

Friday evening a bunch of Slavist and other sundry geeks gathered at Columbia to celebrate the life of Frank Miller. And celebrate we did.

I went there sensing that, whatever Frank stories I had, they probably weren't extensive enough to merit trying to grab the mike, even if it was an open mike affair, which it wasn't, though exceptions were made. But there was no need. Excellent stories abounded, of Frank's jokes, devotion to his students and colleagues, and generally infectiously good spirits.

For me, the best moment came from Jason Galie, who recounted a trip to Frank's lakeside dacha upstate sometime back in the aughts. Frank drove them up there, they got their stuff out of the car and into the house, and then Frank took Jason out behind the house to a blueberry bush that was laden with berries, and they proceeded to stand there and eat berries off the bush for an hour, while Frank launched into a deeply Frankish discussion of blueberries, lingonberries, and god knows whatever berries, then the conversation moved on to rodents, fish, trees, folklore, and, almost certainly, interludes of the scabrous.

There were plenty of other poignant moments. Frank's sister told of lying in bed with him the day before he died, listening to opera, and Frank telling her that if he had it all to do over again, that he would be an opera singer because, for him, "opera sparkled."  Lynn Visson told of him laying in bed in his last week meticulously preparing for his upcoming lessons. Elizabeth McLendon spoke of the deep bond Frank had formed with her family in their shared native South Carolina, of how Frank had becoming and adoptive sibling and never forgot her mother's birthday.

There were plenty of allusions to the jokes but, for the most part, people exercised restraint in actually telling them. Or, if they couldn't do that, they left out the punchlines.

I don't know. There were lots of great stories. I'm sure I've already lost many of the most important details. The main tenor was the strength of devotion and relationships Frank fostered with a bunch of folks. Frank was one of those people for whom, so long as you were on his good side (and I remember a select few who weren't), whomever he was talking to was his best friend, and I mean that in the very best way.  He is, and will be, deeply missed.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Parabola of talents

At JFK this morning, I had my first Shake Shack experience.  As I bit into my bacon, egg, and cheese, I started to think about what I was going to write about the sandwich and experience. And then I stopped and asked myself: "has the world asked me for a review of Shake Shack? If not, why do I feel compelled to offer it?"

So I stopped, and concentrated on the sandwich, and the music, and the people gliding past, and the general sensation of leaving one place and group of people that have meant a lot to me en route to another.

All was good. But the instinct to write, such as it is, that wells up within me, is always and everywhere a manifestation of a fundamental sense that writing is what I should be doing and that, if I have not done it, I am somehow incomplete, I have not fulfilled my contract with Being. Which is at once a little silly and perhaps in its own way tragic, as this urge pulls me ever onward, elsewhere and away from simple presence.

The sandwich, by the way, was good, though I found myself wishing that, at that price point, it should have been on a hard roll. But I know that is just me, and that the bacon, egg and  cheese on a hard roll takes me back to a special time in my life, when I had come to the Northeast and was casting off the complexities of a childhood and adolescence that were not without challenges, when I had met Hilary and was pointed forward into a new world full of promise. It is, in short, a special sandwich, one that I ask a lot of at times. But that is understandable, for something with a name like bacon, egg, and cheese. Of those to whom much is given, much is expected.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016


On the way back from Asheville the other night I stopped off at about 9 at a Sheetz to get gas and something to eat. Not the best food, but the quickest way to get something less than utterly disgusting and get gas. I was proud of my logic.

So I filled up and got me a fish sandwich, put some Dinosaur Jr. into the car stereo and was psyched for the last leg of my journey. I got back on the highway. A few minutes down the road I saw a sign that said Statesville 13 miles, Asheville 112 miles and I cursed myself mightily. I had made the rookie error of getting back on the highway going the wrong direction. I probably added 25-30 minutes to my trip by the time I was able to turn around.

I have speculated before on the way that Google Maps has caused my tendency to learn roads and internalize directions to atrophy. I trust the device almost entirely, so I space out and don't learn my way around. Cary and Raleigh, in particular, remain terrae incognitae for me to a great extent, especially Cary, because I let Sergei and Larry do the heavy lifting, space out, and coast along going tra la la or, just as likely, perseverating about something I will have forgotten about in 4 days.

But this was the first time that it made me think that not only was I not learning specific regions, but that my attentiveness to direction in general had somehow begun to slip. Now, it was, admittedly, rather late, and I had had a long day of learning about the ravages of the opioid epidemic, and I am also getting older, but still. Getting on the interstate in the wrong direction is a new one.

Excitement about the fish sandwich and rock and roll admittedly played their parts as well.

Monday, April 25, 2016


At the conference on Friday, I attended a session on Motivational Interviewing, which is a technique that docs working in the substance abuse world and probably other parts of behavioral health use to work with patients who are resisting change. Which is to say, practically, everybody.

So, if you have some ornery cuss sitting there saying he has no interest in quitting drinking and his wife is a bitch etc. etc., you don't fight it, you try to ride the wave of discontent, listen for core issues, repeat back what the person is saying in slightly different ways, establish yourself as an ally. The docs are all about staying calm, showing empathy, looking for openings.

It was all very professional and compassionate, but there was an emphasis as well on not being judgmental, keeping an even tone. There was some overlap with things I've heard on sales training CDs, honestly, but the accents were in very different places.

So we did some role playing, and I was paired with this very nice young doctor from Raleigh. It was a struggle for me at first, but then I got better. But at the end of the sessions when I was playing doctor I kept going back to enthusiastically praising him for the progress he had made ("It sounds like you're doing great!") instead of keeping it even keel.  And each time he cracked up and said something like "And that'll be $100."

It occurred to me how salesmanlike I must have sounded to him, with his trained clinical restraint. Which is kind of an odd place for me, to have gotten to that point so quickly. But, whatever, it is what it is.

Nice guy, good training, good learnings. I should dial it back a little sometimes. I effuse sometimes when I'm nervous, I reckon.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Members Only

At the conference the other day somebody made reference to the metaphor of finding money in the street, and my mind drifted back to....

Moscow, 1998.  I was walking down the street, I think with Mary, when a plastic bag of US bills, most likely hundreds, fell from the waistband or pocket of a pasty, somewhat heavy-set fellow who was wearing, if memory serves correctly, a Members Only jacket. Rather quickly, a younger dude processed what was going on, grabbed the bag of money, looked me in the eye and gestured to an adjacent alleyway and said, quietly, "come on, we'll split it 50-50."

It all happened in seconds, too fast to do the absolute right thing, which would have been to yell to the guy who had dropped the money. But that would have been interjecting myself into a conflict which could have escalated quickly in what was, in many ways, a rather lawless environment. In any case, I passed on the opportunity to share in the windfall, and the second guy scurried off into the alleyway as quick as he could.

I feel bad about it to this day. Who knows what happened to the guy who dropped the bag? If it was enough money and it wasn't all his, he could have been killed for being so stupid and careless. If it was all his, he got hosed. Either way, he was an idiot for not having secured his cash better. Almost certainly, he went and got shit-faced and hid from someone, either his boss or his wife.

Moscow was a place for members only.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

On the Road Again

After some months of not going anywhere, I drove to DC and back, then to Asheville and back this week.  1150-odd miles, all told. courtesy of the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, numbers 40, 85, and 95 (and tributaries thereof).

It was good to get out, I had some good meals, saw some friends, met with some clients, as well as some prospects.

It was all capped a visit to the Addiction Medicine Conference sponsored by the Governor's Institute on Substance Abuse, of which I am now a board member, thanks to Matthew Sullivan of the Chapel Hill Police Department and now running the Fire Department, who had the good sense to throw my drunk ass in jail back in 1991, nudging me in the direction of recovery, eventually.

This was a good conference, as conferences go. It was pretty awesome to be in the company of doctors almost exclusively, to observe them trying to figure out how to do best by their patients. Mostly there was talk of heroin and other opioids, which are the things killing the most Americans these days. It was pretty amazing to dig into the complexity of it all.

Take Buprenorphine, for example. On the one hand, Bupe, as it is known in the field, is a promising tool in the treatment of opioid addiction, and there's a desire to expand its use in general. Unlike methadone, addicts don't have to go into the clinic every day to get a dose, you can write a month's prescription, making everyone's life easier. On the other hand, addicts have figured out that if you grind up certain types of Bupe (the generic, for instance), you can inject it and get really high. In some sense, it's not even the addicts doing the figuring out, it's the disease of addiction driving the process, using the addicts as slaves.

At about 6 yesterday, at the end of a long day, maybe 150 doctors were sitting there arguing the fine points of what type of Bupe should be given to pregnant women addicts: the straight variety, or mixed with Naloxone (long story).  They dug pretty deep into the discussion for 15 minutes. It was impressive, because they really cared.

Overall, that was the impression of the conference. A bunch of doctors who really cared about their patients trying to figure out how the heck to make their lives better. Full stop. I'll go back next year, if I can swing it.

One codicil: most of the doctors seemed to be Republicans, at least the older ones. I know that they work in a heavily regulated domain and resent the extent to which the government makes it hard for them to do their jobs and earn the livings they thought they would earn when they gave up years of their earning lives to med school and residency. But they also work closely with lower-income populations and people of color all day, and overall care deeply about these people's lives, you can see it and hear it when you talk to them. I would like to get to know more of them better to get a sense of what they think the right policy approaches are to our most vexing problems but, like all things, those are long and complicated conversations, and time is the most precious of all commodities in most contexts.