Sunday, December 23, 2012

My Top 20 Songs of 2012

No, I'm not resurrecting this blog - the title and URL don't really seem relevant anymore anyway, since I left D.C. a year-and-a-half ago. And no, I don't think anyone REALLY cares what my 20 favorite songs of 2012 were. And yet, here I am, using this old blog to post my top 20 of 2012 list. Because 2012 was a year when I found a lot of music that I fell in love with - including a couple of albums that I listened to on repeat for months on end - and I just felt like sharing. Conspicuously missing from this list, I'll simply point out: Muse and Mumford and Sons. Just pointing that out.

Check out the list, or don't. :)

Also, feel free to tell me I'm crazy.

Here we go!

20. "Lady," tUnE-yArDs

Starting with this one makes me a little nervous. It might set the wrong tone for the rest of the list and drive you away from reading the rest. tUnE-yArDs is one of those bands that, I think, most people will think is weird - and, I worry, some might think it's weird just for weird's sake. But I found tUnE-yArDs (a musical project made up almost entirely of Merrill Garbus) in 2011 and fell in love with the album "w h o k i l l." It's a 2011 album, so none of my favorites from it can be on this list, but I listened to tUnE-yArDs a lot in 2012 so I needed to feature something from Merrill here. This is her remake of Fela Kuti's "Lady," and one of the things I really love about Merrill's music is that, for a New England white girl, she does some really amazing African-inspired music. So while this may not be one of my favorites from her (please check out "Gangsta" or "My Country" or "Bizness" or anything else from "w h o k i l l" - especially if you like cute kids in music videos), "Lady" feels like a good No. 20 for 2011.

19. "Man on Fire," Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros

This is a band that I loved when they first showed up; continued to love when "Edward" (aka Alexander Ebert) went off and did his own thing; and then loved slightly less with their follow-up album. But this is music designed just to make you feel good. Throw in the music video (without it, this might not be in the top 20) and you can't help but smile. Bonus: More cute kids in this music video! Come on and dance with me.

18. "Yes, Anastasia," Tori Amos

I don't listen to, nor obsess over, Tori nearly as much as I did back in middle/high school, but she will always be my favorite. And "Yes, Anastasia" has been one of my favorite songs since I first really listened to it while suffering from the flu on a family trip to Yellowstone. One of my favorite things about it is the strings (I love a big, stirring strings section), so when Tori and the Metropole Orchestra redid a bunch of Tori's classics for her 2012 album "Gold Dust," and one of the things they did was replace some of the strings in "Yes, Anastasia" with brass (and a gong?), I was a little appalled. Then I discovered a new way to love this song.

17. "How Long Have You Known," Diiv

Here's a band I just randomly discovered this year and was able to listen to on a whim thanks to Spotify - and ended up listening to in my headphones at work countless times over the last few months. I couldn't really name a single song, give you any lyrics, or tell you much about this band at all. But here's one that stands out in my memory among a very listenable collection of great ambient, background songs.

16. "Live and Die," The Avett Brothers

A band that I listened to on repeat back in 2009 or 2010, but one of those bands that gets slightly worse and worse as it gets more and more popular. Yes, that sounds like a douchey hipster thing to say, but what I mean is that the more they clean up and pop up their sound, the more they lose the raw edge that made them fun in the first place. 2012's "The Carpenter" certainly was not the Avetts' best album ever, and everything I like about "Live and Die" is catchy-poppy and not what I loved about Avetts past. But it's a fun song and worthy of a solid No. 16.

15. "Lonesome," Dr. Dog

Here's one of the few songs on this list that I don't actually own in my iTunes library, but thanks, KRCL, for letting me hear it lots and lots this year. "What does it take to be lonesome? Nothing at all."

14. "Dance for You," Dirty Projectors

I love Dirty Projectors' quirky harmonies, meandering vocals, and fairly straight-forward melodies without a lot of extra clutter. This song seems like the most traditionally Dirty Projectors song on their new album, and I like it.

13. "Flavor," Tori Amos

When Tori's album "Abnormally Attracted to Sin" came out in 2009, it was definitively my biggest Tori-related disappointment ever. Worse than "Strange Little Girls," which had the fortune of coming out when I was still just obsessed enough that even a bad album was good to me. I only listened to "Abnormally Attracted to Sin" a handful of times, and "Flavor" was one of the least memorable songs to me. So when I saw it released as the first single from 2012's "Gold Dust" remakes album, I was bummed. Turns out, if you throw some strings behind it, give it some shiny new production, and cap it off with a classically Tori video, it's a pretty awesome song. Chock-full of a oh-so-very-Tori message - "What does it look like, this orbital ball, from the fringes of the Milky Way? ... Raining fla-fla-flavor..." - the video beats you over the head with that message, but it's a good one: Simply, it's the diverse people who fill this planet that give Earth all this flavor that makes it so special. Just the hippy-dippy stuff that makes me love Tori so much.

12. "Myth," Beach House

Please just listen to this gorgeous song, and imagine yourself, I don't know, lying back in a tiny rowboat slowly drifting on a calm, glassy pond in a golden sunset. Or something like that.

11. "This Dead Bird is Beautiful," Lost in the Trees

If it wasn't for Frank Ocean's "Channel Orange" coming along midway through the year, Lost in the Trees' "A Church that Fits Our Needs" - which I discovered sometime around February or so thanks to my friend Mary taking me blindly to a Lost in the Trees concert - would have been hands down my favorite album of 2012. It's still a very strong second, and coming in a very strong second to "Channel Orange" is an amazing feat. It's an album written by the lead singer, Ari Picker, as a way of dealing with his mom's suicide (which she committed immediately after leaving Ari's wedding). It's a very moving, never-morbid, sad-but-not-depressing homage to his mom and her painful life, and this song smacked me in the face the first time I heard it (live, at that concert, before I had any idea that a dead mom was at the heart of this music). Ari says that when he was called to the scene of his mother's death, the cops told him that when they found her, "She was just lying there, crumpled - she looked like a dead bird." Listen to backup singer Emma Nadeau's sad, angelic song - she plays the spirit of Ari's mom, hanging around and visiting him on empty staircases and making sure "hell won't come into my house, not when you're around." Or even better, just listen to this lyric: "She has my eyes. She has my eyes, a golden glow, they glowed all night. Don't you say she was weak. Don't you say she was weak. I'll carry her. Because she breathed I breathe." Oh, and listen to those strings.

10. "Super Rich Kids," Frank Ocean

I spoiled it in the last entry, but for anyone who has spent much time with me since this album came out, the surprise was spoiled a long time ago: Frank Ocean is my new favorite artist, and "Channel Orange" is my new favorite album. I must have listened to this thing straight through, from beginning to end and then on repeat back to the beginning again, more than 50 times before finally allowing myself to listen to another album. I probably made it through three or four songs before going back to "Channel Orange" for another 25 or so listens. "Super Rich Kids" deconstructs the piano line from "Benny and the Jets" and uses it to explore a different kind of troubled youth: the super-rich, the kids for whom "the maid comes around too much; parents ain't around enough." Super-rich kids with nothing but loose ends; super-rich kids with nothing but fake friends. The boredom of a life devoid of any meaning because everything you could need or want is handed to you leads to tragedy, and this song drips of that emptiness.

9. "Yet Again," Grizzly Bear

I've never been able to describe very well what it is I love about Grizzly Bear, but I have, for a long time - in true "I was listening to them first" fashion, I can prove it, with this video, and this video, and this video, from a Grizzly Bear concert I went to alone at Salt Lake City's Kilby Court back in 2007, when not many people knew who Grizzly Bear was and when digital cameras' video and sound quality was horrible. But whatever it is I love about them, it's being vindicated as they've become the indie band, the band that Stephen Colbert called "it on a stick." This is my favorite track from their 2012 album, which isn't my favorite of their work so far but still holds up. I'm embedding a YouTube of this song, even though there's no video, just album art, because singer Ed Droste hates Spotify.

8. "Elephant Head," Cold Specks

As has happened so many times before, I first heard Cold Specks in a Take-Away Show from La Blogotheque. Al Spx, aka Cold Specks, has a voice that.... Um... Wow. So listen to it and enjoy.  I'm embedding the Take-Away Show rather than the studio version, just because that moment of watching/listening for the first time blew me away. "I predict a graceful expulsion." (The whole album is phenomenal. Buy it.)

7. "Forrest Gump," Frank Ocean

When Frank Ocean revealed that his first love was a man when he was 19 years old, he caught a lot of people's attention. But listen to his love/unrequited love songs, and it really doesn't matter what gender he's singing about. It's that feeling of helplessness in the face of our emotions - and the uncontrollability of someone else's emotions - that is such a universal thing. The fact that Frank uses the pronoun "he" so casually and easily is admittedly pretty exciting and represents a pretty big leap forward for pop/hip hop/R&B, but whatever. "Forrest Gump" is that classic teenage love story, subtly punctuated with gay innuendo but so timeless in its theme that it's one giant reference to a movie from the early '90s about a guy literally running through several decades and glancing at history as he zips past. It's also catchy, simple, and fun.

6. "An Artist's Song," Lost in the Trees

Ari Pickler's mom was an artist, and her art is clearly a strong symbol to Ari of the darkness and pain of her troubled life. But like I said, this isn't a dreary or morbid album, so in his mom's art he finds ways to get to know her as he never could when she was alive. I think it's gorgeous, and this is another song that really grabbed my attention when I saw Lost in the Trees live the first time. "A fearful song played by trumpets for my heart. I have a fear of darkness. So sing your hymn of faith, cuz I have none. Your song is my fortress."

5. "Bad Religion," Frank Ocean

There are three or four major themes in "Channel Orange" - I've actually graphed them out in my head; ask me to show you sometime and I will - and one of them is grappling with that intersection where spirituality, sexuality, and love collide. One thing I love about "Bad Religion" is that it's not guilt or shame or fear that's troubling Frank spiritually. It's the self-defeat of clinging to an unrequited love. I've been told by a fellow unnamed Frank Ocean fan who shares much of my DNA that this song is "pretty boring." I think he's very, very wrong.

4. "Golden Eyelids," Lost in the Trees

It's going to get pretty old if I keep writing about how much and why I love all these Lost in the Trees songs, so for this one, if you've stuck with me this far, just sit back and enjoy this gorgeous song and this gorgeous video.

3. "Garden," Lost in the Trees

So throughout "A Church that Fits Our Needs," Ari sings about his mother's suicide in a pretty sympathetic way - pained, questioning, introspective, but never really angry. Finally, in "Garden," nine songs in, he lets himself get a little mad, and the payoff is worth the wait. "The peace our music brings - our song is a garden, and what we sing will grow, unlike your killing song, cuz out your mouth come weeds. And my how the winter will turn the forest gray. It's so peaceful here, it's where I think I'll stay. And as you walk away I hear I you sing, 'Love, you're on your own.' You kill the peace our garden brings. Oh, what sorrow!"

2. "Thinkin' 'Bout You," Frank Ocean

The first single from "Channel Orange." He wrote it for another singer, a woman, and she recorded it and it was just fine. But then he took it back and made it his, and it was the best song that was played on radio in 2012. Period. "Do you not think so far ahead? Cuz I've been thinking 'bout forever." "Yes, of course, I remember - how could I forget? - how you feel. You know, you were my first time - a new feel."

1. "Pyramids," Frank Ocean

Ten minutes long. A story spanning thousands of years, from the jilted lover of Cleopatra to the emasculated lover of a Las Vegas stripper, this is an epic song, and easily my favorite of 2012. Yes, Frank Ocean caught everyone's attention by telling the world he was in love with a man, but he's also spent many years dating women. And whether that was because he's bisexual, because he was trying to hide his sexuality, or something else, the power struggles a gender-obsessed society crams into a heterosexual relationship are no stranger to Frank. I think this song is all about how men have long wielded their power in a sexist society while secretly harboring insecurities and powerlessness because they're ultimately slaves to their sex drives. So many hip hop songs are filled with the bravado of a guy proud of his sexual prowess. These songs are misogynistic, ugly, and inherently untrue when you compare them to "Pyramids."

There are three narrators in this song. The first guy, Cleopatra's husband or boyfriend or whatever, sounds like he has a lot of political power - he's ordering the legions of Egypt to launch a massive manhunt for the missing queen and Sampson, who she's having an affair with - but he's clearly weak and jealous and helpless and completely at Cleopatra's mercy. When he finds her dead of a snakebite, he's absolutely defeated, and you can hear it in his voice. "Oh, remove her; send the cheetahs to the tomb. Our war is over; our queen has met her doom. Oh, no more - she lives no more - a serpent in her room - oh, no more - it has killed Cleopatra." But even before that, he's been defeated by her: "The jewel of Africa - what good is a jewel that ain't still precious? How could you run off on me? How could you run off on us?" I think it's really interesting the way there is gendered as well as racial belittling happening to this poor guy who can't help but define himself by his ability or inability to rein in and own this powerful woman: " "I found you laying down with Sampson and his full head of hair. Found my black queen, Cleopatra - bad dreams, Cleopatra."

The second and third narrators are the pimp and the boyfriend of a stripper/prostitute in Vegas in the 21st century. She works at the Luxor, and both of these guys are in a power struggle with each other but ultimately with her - she's the one in charge, and they're just desperately trying to own her and prove their worth as men by their ability to claim some control over her. The pimp does not sound like a very successful guy, but he's so enamored of this idea of being the classic pimp, so he puts on the braggadocio: "Pimpin' in my Convos. Bubbles in my champagne; let it be some jazz playin'. Top-floor motel suite, twistin' my cigars. Floor-model TV with the VCR. Got rubies in my damn chain. Whip ain't got no gas tank, but it still got wood grain." But even as all that bragging sounds a little weak - floor-model TV with a VCR? - he caps it off with his ultimate power play: "Got your girl workin' for me." She may be "your girl," but she's working for me. And it keeps him in business: "Hit the strip and my bills paid - that keep my bills paid." Notice how he calls her "that." Go ahead, objectify: That proves you're in charge. Good luck with that.

And we end by hearing from the stripper's boyfriend. She stops by to see him after a shift, and he does what he can to take care of her, to show her he loves her: He gives her a bath, he touches her in places only he knows - he tries as hard as he can to keep his claim on her sexually because he's obviously very in love with her and is terrified of losing her. The whole time, she's the one in power and he's weak. Even the line about penis size - the line that in any other hip hop song would be shameless bragging - is sad and a little condescending. She's telling him what he needs to hear to keep his pride in tact, and even he knows that's all that's going on. "The way you say my name makes me feel like I'm that n****, but I'm still unemployed. You say it's big, but you take it. ... But your love ain't free, no more."

Yes, it's kind of dirty and sad and tawdry and tough to listen to, but it's a story so beautifully told, with an emotional backdrop so clear without ever being spelled out or in-your-face, and the music is phenomenal. I really, really, really love this song. It pretty much ensured that 2012 was going to be one of my favorite years musically in a long time.

Monday, April 4, 2011

All Up Out This Beltway

So when you run, make sure you run

To something and not away from.

– "The Weight of Lies," The Avett Brothers

After more than 3½ years in our nation's capital, it's time for a change. Mr. Smeath is leaving Washington.

April 22 (you know, Earth Day) will be my last day at the U.S. Green Building Council, and on May 2, I will start work with Western Governors University, which Time Magazine called "The Best Relatively Cheap University You've Never Heard Of."

It was one of the easiest hard decisions I've ever had to make. The Avett Brothers quote above really describes well my motivation and my mantra in this move. Returning to Salt Lake City is all about running to something, not away from something, and that's an extremely nice position to be in. Sure, I wish I could say that I was fed up with D.C., that I hate my current job and that I just can't wait to get out of here. It would make parting all sweet and no sorrow. But when it comes right down to it, there's something to be said for leaving behind something you love because you're going somewhere you really want to go.

When I moved to D.C. in September 2007, I was motivated by a desire to spread my wings professionally and stretch my legs personally. I knew no one in D.C., so I was leaving family and friends for a strange new city, taking a strange new job in an industry I had very little background in – which is kind of what it was all about. Jumping into a new adventure head-first that way led me to 3½ years of more personal and professional growth than I could possibly have expected.

But this time it's different. How do you decide it's time to return to loved ones on the other side of the country when it means leaving behind the new loved ones you've attached yourself to in your home away from home? How do you know when it's time to go back to what's familiar, your hometown? How do you know when the adventure is over?

Well, for one thing, I don't think the adventure is over. I return to Salt Lake changed in a lot of ways. Now that I know what's "out there," now that I've had the kinds of new experiences that come from uprooting yourself and heading out on your own, I think life in Salt Lake is going to be a fairly different experience for me this time around. I always knew I loved it there; now that I've tried somewhere else, I can really put my finger on what it is that I loved about it, and why I really can't wait to get back there.

Not to mention, now – when I finally become Uncle Doug in September – I won't have to rely on photos and phone calls!

And how do you decide it's time to interrupt your career path in one organization and start fresh as the new guy somewhere else? I have way, way too much to say about everything I've learned at USGBC. Our CEO, Rick Fedrizzi, has often pointed out that, for the vast majority of us who work there, USGBC will not be our last job, but it will almost certainly be our best. I happen to agree with him. If you don't work at USGBC, I can't really explain it, and if you do, you know what I mean. How many people get to spend the pivotal part of their careers, when they're still young and energetic and learning what they expect from professional lives, suddenly thrown into one of the world's fastest-growing, most-successful non-profit organizations? How many get to say they took part in transforming the entire marketplace? I started USGBC as a passionate believer in green building, but back then I had no idea what I was talking about. I leave USGBC as more than a believer – I'm sort of like someone emerging from an inexplicable spiritual experience who is forever changed, fundamentally and at his core, by what he's just been part of. I know that's dramatic, exaggerated and pretty over-the-top, but it's hard not to wax hyperbolic when talking about the green building movement and the against-all-odds optimism it represents for an environment, an economy and a human society desperately in need of that optimism.

So how do you leave behind an organization whose mission has so engrained itself on your soul? Well, you go on to work for an organization with a mission of its own, one that also resonates with you for its optimism and potential to make big changes for a lot of people. I still have a lot to learn about WGU, so I may be misrepresenting something I read, but I think it's the nation's largest accredited, non-profit online university. What that means is that it provides flexible, accessible, affordable education in a number of diverse degree programs – a mission of extending the benefits of an education in a more economically and socially equitable way.

So D.C. peeps, keep your eyes open (probably on Facebook) for news about going-away parties and happy hours. And Utah friends and family, well, get ready for me to jump back into your lives feet first! That is, if I can figure out the logistics of this pending relocation...

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Oscar recap

So here is my recap of my correct picks and my incorrect picks. I did very well, but I stand by my opinions and everything I got wrong was a mistake on the part of the Academy, not on my part. Just sayin'.

My correct picks

Supporting actor
My pick: Christian Bale
Winner: Christian Bale

Leading actress
My pick: Natalie Portman
Winner: Natalie Portman

Supporting actress
My pick: Melissa Leo
Winner: Melissa Leo

Art direction
My pick: Alice in Wonderland
Winner: Alice in Wonderland

Costume design
My pick: Alice in Wonderland
Winner: Alice in Wonderland

Documentary short
My pick: Strangers No More
Winner: Strangers No More

Original score
My pick: Trent Reznor (The Social Network)
Winner: Trent Reznor (The Social Network)

Writing (adapted screenplay)
My pick: The Social Network
Winner: The Social Network

Writing (original screenplay)
My pick: The King's Speech
Winner: The King's Speech

My incorrect, sad, pathetic, loser picks

Best picture
My pick: 127 Hours
Winner: The King's Speech

Best actor
My pick: James Franco
Winner: Colin Firth

My pick: Black Swan
Winner: Inception

My pick: Cohen Brothers (True Grit)
Winner: Tom Hooper (The King's Speech)

Documentary feature
My pick: Restrepo
Winner: Inside Job

Film editing
My pick: 127 Hours
Winner: The Social Network

Visual effects
My pick: Alice in Wonderland
Winner: Inception

My Oscar picks - now more scientific than ever!

Every year at Oscar season, I love to try to predict the winners. Every year, I try to correctly balance all the variables for each film — did audiences like it? did critics like it? did I like it? — and then pick my favorites for each prize. But every year, I fall a little short — there are always many movies I haven't seen, so I can't weigh in completely, and besides, it's hard to choose between what you want to win, and what you think will win.

This year is different. For the first time in my 31 years, this time I've seen all 10 best-picture nominees, a fact that makes me a little proud and a little embarrassed. But whether it's a sign that I'm on top of the popular culture, or a sign that I need some new hobbies and a life, the fact that I've seen them all helps improve my picks a little. Also helping is that this year, I have a foolproof* method: math.

*Note: May not actually be foolproof. Probably isn't foolproof.

After every movie I watched this year, I went to Rotten Tomatoes and gave it a personal rating out of five stars. RT stores that info, so I can go back and remember my exact impression of each movie after seeing it. It also gives a percentage average for how critics liked each movie, and how audiences liked it. My formula is simple: I convert my star rating to a percentage and then come up with the average overall score for each movie. (You'll see what I mean, below.) I like this formula because it gives equal weight to my own rating, critics' rating, and audience ratings. Since I'm just one person, my personal opinion carries a lot more weight in this formula than the hundreds of critics and thousands of audience members, whose opinions are all diluted by each other's. Also, since I'm working off of star ratings, my rating is much more volatile — the difference between 4 stars and 3.5 stars is 10%. So while my pick probably won't be the ultimate winner, it maintains a personal flavor while still factoring in what critics thought and what audiences thought.

OK, here's the breakdown, ranked from highest overall score (i.e., my prediction for best picture winner) to lowest. And the winner is... (You'll have to scroll down because for some reason Blogspot is reading my HTML table weird...)

TitleMy star rating out of 5My rating as a percentageCritics' ratingAudience ratingAverage rating — overall score
127 Hours4.590938890⅓
Toy Story 3480999190
The Social Network480978988⅔
True Grit480958787⅓
The Fighter480909086⅔
The King's Speech3.570959586⅔
The Kids Are All Right480957382⅔
Black Swan3.570888681⅓
Winter's Bone3.570957479⅔

Sunday, December 12, 2010

When I die...

When I was in fifth grade, I was the worst kind of nerd. I was determined to get 100% on every assignment. My teacher didn't help things by giving us regular updates on how many points we had overall, how many were possible, what our overall percentages were, and what sort of grade that translated to.

I was never in danger of anything short of A+. Extra credit opportunities abounded, and I took advantage of every one of them. I probably was somewhere in the range of 120% when, in science, we entered the "circle of life" portion of the curriculum. It was all about the food chain and homeostasis and the way an ecosystem was one big machine in which every member gave as much as it took. I was fascinated by this idea.

Well, one day I came into class, and it suddenly occurred to me that our weekly extra-credit assignments were due that day. I didn't need extra credit — I was a nerd, remember? But I loved to build up that stock of extra credit to pad my grade and ensure that I remained in the A+ range. So I panicked. I looked over the list of extra-credit opportunities, and I settled on one: Write a poem about the food chain.

There were about 10 minutes until class started, so I decided I would take a stab at writing that poem. It was, after all, worth 10 extra-credit points, and I wanted them. Here is what I came up with:

There was grass on the ground.
It grew all around.

There once was a rabbit.
Eating grass was its habit.
It ate the grass on the ground
That grew all around.

There once was a hawk
With a nest on a rock.
It ate the rabbit
With the grass-eating habit
Who ate the grass on the ground
That grew all around.

The hawk choked and died
Nevermore to glide.
It fertilized the ground
And the grass grew all around.
I remember that poem well, not only because my teacher printed it up and hung it on the wall but also because it reflected my early understanding of how amazing our ecosystems really are. It sounds so nerdy — some things never change — but that idea really resonates with me.

I've spent my entire life engaged in one duty: ingesting organic material, metabolizing it, and turning the byproducts into parts of my body. Every cell of me bears components of some broccoli, a little chicken breast, a bowl of ice cream and millions of glasses of water. And lots and lots of other stuff. The food and beverage I have ingested in my life represent probably millions of miles traveled, tens of thousands of gallons of oil consumed, and thousands upon thousands of plants and animals whose lives were lost in the interest of feeding me.

When I die, I don't want all of that effort to be sealed up in a hermetic box, my entirety embalmed with chemicals meant to prevent my cells from breaking down, and then all of it encased in concrete before being dumped into the ground. It might sound a little hippie-dippy, but I want to become a tree. I want nitrogen-fixing bacteria to hang out at a party of worms, and for all of them together to identify the parts of me that most whet their appetites. I then want those bacteria and worms to excrete their little excretions, and for those excretions to become the soil that nurture the next generations of plant that becomes food for some animal, who poops me out to become yet more food for yet more plants, and on and on until I'm truly dispersed throughout the metabolic systems of countless types of flora and fauna.

But in our hygienic times, dumping my body into a hole and filling it with dirt isn't only culturally shocking — it's illegal. Cremation doesn't really thrill me because I harbor this irrational fear that despite being dead I still might suffer the pain of being melted down for parts. And besides, ash surely must be a less-effective nutrient than unadulterated moldering Doug, right?

So I have no idea what I want to happen to me when I die. What about you? If you were to write a last will and testament, what would you ask to have done with your remains?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Holidays!

So here I am, coming out of blogging hibernation, to offer once again my unsolicited opinion. But it's Thanksgiving, which officially kicks off the holiday season, and I want to preemptively disagree with a certain cadre of pundits before they launch into their wintertime assault on our collective sense of peace and goodwill.

Because to my mind, that's the most important part of this season, the common thread that ties together all the holidays and celebrations that our diverse country recognizes this time of year: It's the time of year when we focus on gathering with our families and friends; the time when we donate time, goods, food and money to help the people who have less than us; and the time when we imagine a more peaceful world.

But the last decade or so, it's also become the time of year when a few loud-mouths try to stir up trouble, to say, "Peace is nice, but what I really want you to focus on is war - a false war that we've made up, a conflict that doesn't really exist, but a great opportunity for you to feel like a victim and to hate your neighbor!" It's the "War on Christmas" conspiracy theorists, and before they launch into their yearly grinchiness, I have to explain why they are wrong, wrong, wrong.

It's not a war on Christmas. It's free-market capitalism. As conservatives, you shouldn't bemoan it; you should embrace it.

They always trot out lots of anecdotal examples of how the "secular-progressives" are trying to steal Christmas from the good people of America, but at the heart of their thesis is the phrase "happy holidays." They squirm with delightful victimization every time they hear someone at the mall utter that phrase, and they call on their fellow martyrs to save Christmas, Christianity, and perhaps Christ himself by joining in a mass rebuke of that phrase. "Down with 'happy holidays' - up with 'MERRY CHRISTMAS'!"

But my take on the rise of "happy holidays" - if its use really has increased as much as these pundits claim - is that it's a side effect of the free-market capitalism that our country is based on. If private companies recognize the religious and cultural diversity that defines their customer base, and if they recognize that wishes of good cheer and holiday salutations add to a positive shopping experience and create repeat customers, and then they recognize that a more generic phrase like "happy holidays" casts a wider net and manages to cover all their customers - not just the Christian ones - then that's just good business. That's capitalism.

It's not like any governments have been banning the phrase "merry Christmas." It's not that a junta of non-Christians has overtaken all of our retailers and decided to eradicate Christmas from our culture. It's no different from fast-food chains setting protocol that their drive-through operators say, "Would you like to try a Frostee?" instead of "Is that everything?" at the end of a customer's order. It doesn't symbolize a conspiracy to give America one giant cold headache; it just reflects the idea that, by asking everyone that same question, you're likely to sell a few more Frostees and pull in a few more bucks.

And by calling on all their employees to say, "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas," retailers aren't calling on their employees to denounce their belief in Jesus as the savior of mankind and to start a jihad against the faithful; they're simply realizing that by using the more generic phrase, they're more likely to reap the benefits of spreading holiday cheer among their Christian, Muslim, Jewish, agnostic, Sikh, Buddhist, pagan and other customers equally, bumping the repeat customer rate up by a percentage point or two and boosting the bottom line. With "happy holidays," it's really only the Jehovah's Witnesses they're alienating.

Back to those pundits and the angry masses they stir up. These people aren't truly afraid that their children's children will live in a world without Christmas. What they're upset about, and why it's so easy to fuel this idea of a war on Christmas, is what "happy holidays" represents. Because they do recognize that it's a result of the free market, and it terrifies them that they are part of an increasingly diverse marketplace. They long for the days when "merry Christmas" was sufficient because everyone was Christian. Of course, in America there never were any such days, but the across-the-board use of "merry Christmas" had the built-in assumption that white Anglo-Saxon Protestants were the "norm," which meant WASPs were the undisputed rulers of the culture and of the country.

That's the power of words: It's not so much what they mean, but the assumptions they embody that provide their greatest effect. And the move in the free market away from "merry Christmas" toward "happy holidays" represents the increasing assumption that the American dream is working, that someone who celebrates something other than Christmas this season is still a valuable and valued demographic. And in a capitalist society, being a target customer means you've made it as part of our culture. And that's a good thing.

And one more thought: Even if you don't celebrate Christmas, or Kwanzaa, or Hanukkah, or Eid (which of course isn't always a winter holiday), or any other religious or cultural holiday this time of year, the traditional "holiday season" here in America is bookended by Thanksgiving and New Year's, which are by and large secular, national holidays that celebrate two things we all share in common: an appreciation for the people and things in our past and present that have made us who we are to day, and an optimism for a prosperous and peaceful year to come. So if nothing else, next time someone at Target wishes you "happy holidays," don't assume they're belittling your love of Jesus; assume they are joining you in celebrating the common ground of thankfulness and hope.

Happy holidays!

Monday, March 22, 2010

My take on health care

After a long hiatus, it looks like I'm blogging again. Sorry that my return to blogging is political in nature, but it took something like this to get me back to the blog. A lot of conversation is going on today about the health care bill, but a lot of it is happening on Twitter and Facebook. As great as it is that Americans are debating and discussing an important issue, this issue is too complex to be boiled down to 140 characters and status updates, and it tends to devolve into people trying to get off one-liners that are more clever than their opponents'. That's not helpful. I've had a lot of family and friends asking me why I support health care reform, and the only way I can give my thoughts on it is if I have more than 140 characters to do so.

I think the easiest way to explain my position is to lay out the problem and the various proposed solutions as I see them.

Most people who are covered get their insurance from a private insurance company through their employer. That's how insurance works - people pay into the pot even when they don't currently need health care so that people who do get sick or hurt can tap into that pot and pay for expensive care. But a few flaws in the system have made it so that people who need coverage the most can't get it - people who are sick, people who get into an accident, or people who are unemployed, self-employed, or employed by small businesses that don't have a large enough pool of people to qualify for affordable rates. Pre-existing conditions, dropped coverage when you get sick, and prohibitive premiums for individuals buying insurance without the backing of their employer prevent these people from getting the coverage they need.

The way to solve this is to have everyone in the country paying into the insurance pot so that there's enough money that the sick don't lose their coverage, that pre-existing conditions don't bar you from coverage, and that you can afford insurance regardless of your employment situation. There are a number of ideas that have been used to achieve that, and here is my description of them, listed from most liberal to most conservative:

  • Socialized medicine, like they have in England. In this model, the government runs health care. That means the service providers - hospitals, doctors, dentists, etc. - are government employees, and the costs are totally covered by taxpayers. This has always been deemed way too liberal for the United States and was never up for discussion in this health care debate. It's the kind of model where you're most likely to find that doctors are underpayed and therefore underqualified, where patients face long wait periods before they can get an appointment, etc.

  • Single-payer health insurance, like they have in Canada. In this model, health care providers are private companies, but they bill the government rather than an insurance company. Because the providers are private companies, there is more room for competition, innovation, etc., but there is still a strong government role, so there is arguably still a risk for many of the problems that go along with socialized medicine. In my mind, it's a workable system, especially because the insurance coverage is a nonprofit endeavor, so premiums, deductibles, etc. aren't jacked up to turn a profit. But again, too liberal, so no one seriously discussed this option during the debate either.

  • A plan that keeps private health care providers and private health insurance intact or at least in the mix. Within this option, there are a couple of approaches, again from most liberal to most conservative:

    • A public option, the most liberal option actually considered during the American health care debate. In this plan, private health insurance remains as an option, which individuals and employers can continue to buy into. But there's an additional option, a government-run insurance plan, that individuals and employers can also choose. Health care providers (doctors, hospitals, etc.) are still private, but you can choose to buy insurance from a not-for-profit government insurance plan. Competition from the public plan forces private insurers to be less reckless in raising rates and cutting coverage, but the fact that private options remain means that those who distrust or dislike a government plan are free to remain on the private market. It's a lot like the education system: There are private schools, and there are public schools. Private schools are more expensive, but you are able to shop around for one that most closely meets what you're looking for; public schools face problems like overcrowding, tight funding, etc., but they at least provide SOME option for people who can't afford a private education. I really liked this approach and would have liked to have seen it given more of a chance in this debate, but again, conservatives were able to paint it as too liberal, and it died.

    • The plan that passed. In my mind, the plan that passed is the most conservative workable solution to health care. There is no government-run insurance here (except, of course, Medicare, veterans' care, care for federal employees, etc. - government-run plans that already exist). The government does, of course, play some significant roles in this plan. For one thing, the government mandates that all Americans have health insurance. This is necessary to ensure that there is enough money in the insurance pot to cover people when they need it, but it also requires the government to create subsidies to help people afford this now-required purchase. (This is where the cost comes in, but remember that taxpayers already subsidize a HUGE chunk of health care coverage when people go to emergency rooms, when people go bankrupt because their health care costs too much and end up defaulting on their medical bills, etc. - not to mention Medicare, veteran's benefits, etc. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office says this plan will reduce the deficit over the next 10 years.)

      So once we're all buying into insurance, the government is able to ban insurers from setting up bans on pre-existing conditions, dropping kids from their parents' plan when they hit age 21, increasing premiums willy-nilly, etc. And for individuals buying insurance on their own (rather than through work) or for small businesses with too few employees to be able to afford insurance on the open market, the government will set up health care exchanges. Those are basically like catalogs of approved insurance companies, companies that are required to follow certain regulations to be approved (regulations regarding pre-existing conditions and things like that). It allows individuals who are in the same boat (self-employed, unemployed, or employed by a small business) to pool their buying power the same way larger companies can. Basically, employer insurance plans are like discounts for buying in bulk - since you're buying insurance for a lot of employees, you get it cheaper - and on a health care exchange, individuals can also team up and get the same bulk discounts.
Of course, there are a lot of peripheral issues – abortion, coverage of immigrants, etc. – that muddied up the debate. But those are not central to the debate over which model of insuring all Americans is most cost-effective.

And, of course, there are a lot of flaws in this plan. For example, one way that health care costs could have been dramatically cut would be if we could import drugs from Canada, where they are much cheaper. This was illegal under the existing health care model, and it remains illegal under the new plan. But this isn't a sign of liberals mucking up the bill; it's the influence of big pharmaceutical companies and conservative/protectionist interests that want to protect the profits of American pharmaceuticals. Taxes on elaborate "Cadillac plans" that could have helped cover the costs of this plan were left out, partly because of the influence of unions and also because of conservatives' tendency to label ANY tax as excessive. And in a lot of ways, the private insurers win big because they now have 32 million more customers who are being required by the government to buy private insurance. But that's what happens when you want to lower health care costs by making sure everyone is insured but you don't want to provide for a publicly run, not-for-profit plan.

I'm sure I got some of the details wrong. I'm certainly no expert. But I have followed this debate closely and tried to wrap my brain around all the different issues, ideas, claims and counter-claims, and this is how I've been able to make sense of it. In my mind, the bill that passed last night is the most conservative option that stands a chance to clean up our health care mess.

As I see it, the only way you can deny that this was the right thing to do would be if you believed the health care system was working just fine as it was. But I can't imagine how you'd believe that. People who are employed by large companies that provide them with good health insurance may feel comfortable with the system as it was. But first, under this plan you don't have to abandon that coverage at all. And secondly, and more importantly, you will now be protected from being dropped by your insurer if you get sick or get into an accident.

I had a realization the other day. Under the health care system as it existed before this deal, imagine this scenario: If I went to the doctor tomorrow and found out I had a terminal illness with one year to live, I'd be in a tough situation. I have great insurance right now, paid for entirely by my employer. But the insurance company we use is a private company, and there's the risk that they would find a way to drop my coverage once I got sick. But even if they didn't do that, I'd have a problem.

I live several thousand miles from my family, and if I was dying in a year, I'd want to move back to Utah and spend my last days with them. But, of course, that would require me quitting my job and losing my insurance. And once I got to Utah, it would be impossible for me, as an unemployed individual with a pre-existing condition slowly killing me, to find new insurance coverage that I could remotely afford. So I'd probably be stuck, forced to stay in D.C. and keep my job so that I could afford health care at the time I needed it most. In my mind, that's a fundamentally flawed situation, and it's a situation that no one should find themselves in. It's why I believe that health care is a basic service that we should all be entitled to, just like military protection, education, fire and police protection, mail service, sewer and water, garbage pickup, etc.

The right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness hinges on the ability to do what you need to do to keep yourself as healthy as possible for as long as possible. This bill is the most conservative step we could take as a nation to work toward securing that right for everyone.