A look back, fondly…

I miss the early days of the Great Plague. Chalk that up to yet another unpopular opinion, but I said what I said.

I miss the complete lack of traffic on the roads during those moments when I couldn’t avoid leaving the house. I miss the wide berth that everyone gave one another as they scurried through the grocery store, masked, and avoiding eye contact. I miss living my best life “safer at home.”

For a guy who has never had much use for people at the very best of times, those days were a glimpse into a world I never imagined could exist. Despite the lingering threat of sudden and unexpected death lurking on the breath of every passerby, my blood pressure went down and my general level of annoyance became almost entirely manageable. You might even be forgiven for taking the impression that I enjoyed it.

Look, I’m not sociopathic enough to advocate for having ongoing, continuous waves of deadly virus spreading around the world just to make me more comfortable, but it has painted me a picture of a world that could be. The lately departed plague season feels increasingly like a preview of the world I’d want to build myself once I get past the stage of life that involves trading time for money. After that it’s venture out for food, venture out for books, and to hell with most everything else.

I wouldn’t have suspected it at the time, but it seems that those first, uncertain days of the plague will be the ones I look back on most fondly.

Nothing gold can stay…

The Great Plague era, for me at least, will always be remembered as a golden age. 

I estimate that I avoided driving about 40,000 miles over the last two and a half years – saving on fuel, maintenance, and general wear and tear both on the vehicles and on me too if we’re being honest. 

It was perhaps the first time in my life when being an introvert positioned me uniquely to thrive in a world that is normally built to service and reward extroversion. Staying home, hanging out with the animals, reading as many books as I could get my hands on, and doing almost all of my own cooking is almost entirely the life I was really built for. 

Most weeks for the last 30 months, I got to spend four workdays out of every five working from home. No commute, no small talk or interruptions, and not listening to the guy two cubicles over hack up a lung while suffering from “just allergies.” It was a chance to knock down whatever work was thrown my way using a brave, new approach. It feels like, for a while there, we almost embraced it. 

I’m enough of a student of history to know that no golden age ever lasts. Eventually the conditions that fuel them gives out and the world then tends to revert to the mean. I’m told that my own personal golden age now has an official expiration date… so now all that’s left is to take a few weeks and mourn the future that almost was. 

The world has been and continues to be in a rush to “get back to normal.” You’ll have to forgive me, because I just don’t see the appeal. 

An environmentalist…

A few months ago, I kicked around the idea of starting up a weekly limited feature focused on topics that some people might consider controversial, unpopular, or otherwise not appropriate for polite company. Nothing much came of the idea then, but it has stewed in my head ever since. This is the first of what I like to think will be a recurring series of Friday evening contemplations. If you’re easily offended, or for some reason have gotten the impression that your friends or family members have to agree with you on every conceivable topic, this might be a good time to look away. While it’s not my intention to be blatantly offensive, I only control the words I use, not how they’re received or interpreted.

In my own way, I’m an environmentalist. I’m not the kind of wackadoodle hippy that ties himself to the high branches of a tree to stop logging or only eats soy because cows fart too much. Still, I believe one of the greatest dangers facing the world today is the almost eight billion of us extracting resources from the planet at an unprecedented rate.

I enjoy nature so much that one of the key points in picking the house I currently live in wasn’t just the structure, but its location adjacent to protected state owned and conservation easement land as well as that the neighborhood covenants and restrictions placing strict limits on the amount of the “natural woodland” on each lot that can be removed for development. I lived in one of those clear cut subdivisions with nothing by lawn and pavement as far as the eye could see once and never will again. 

None of the above is probably controversial, but here’s where I’m going to lose my Republican friends: In addition to generally enjoying the outdoors, I believe global climate change is an existential threat to civilization. 

Like any other large problem we’ve ever faced, the fact is, we can fix this. The catch is, of course, it means that many things have to change – not the least of which is transitioning away from using fossil fuels. Those systems were built up over two centuries and (to agitate my environmentalist friends) I don’t expect we can reasonably expect to simply turn them off over two years or even twenty. The sooner we start implementing real solutions to mitigate climate change the better off we’re going to be – if only because the longer we wait to take it seriously, the larger will be the cost and greater the drag on the economy.

Getting a grip on climate change isn’t just for the benefit of people. If it were, I’d probably shrug it away, because people are the cause I’m least inclined to get behind. I mean have you met people? We’re collectively awful. If I’m inappropriately honest, I’m far more troubled by the impact of our continued behavior on the whales and the fishes and the turtles and the apes and the polar bears and the big cats and the birds and the whole host of small mammals whose habitat we’re systematically destroying, cutting up, and constricting. I’ll take my chances with a mass die off of people, but the animals never did anything to us.

I’m not optimistic that there’s the political or social will to get our arms around the sheer volume of things that need fixing. The more likely course of events in my mind is that the climate will continue to shift and at least some of us will find ourselves living in a world that’s much more violent, far less productive, and considerably less populated by creatures great and small.

I want my money back…

I’m going to a few weeks of physical therapy in an effort to resolve some lower back issues. I don’t love it. Being laid out flat on my back (or front) in an open bay storefront getting worked over by a perfect stranger just isn’t my idea of high jinks. That’s not the worst part, though.

The worst part is the five pages of “homework” that I’m supposed to lay down on the floor and do three times a day. Firstly, have you ever tried laying down on the floor in a home occupied by a young dog who lives for attention? Yeah. Then thrown in a cat who thinks he’s a dog and insists he should also be part of the program. Something that’s supposed to be 30 seconds and three repetitions takes approximately nine minutes to get through. Then there’s four more pages of things to do, each more ingeniously designed to provoke more attention from the resident canine who’s determined it all means uninterrupted playtime.

I’m pretty sure I dislocated my shoulder trying to keep the dog from licking my eyeball this afternoon. I guess that’s something I can bring up with my new PT guru next week. Maybe there’s some other kind of supine bend-twist-arch-single-elbow-tuck I can try out to get after that one. 

I can’t believe we’re living here in the 21st century and this can’t all be solved with a pill or a shot. This isn’t the future we were promised and I want my damned money back.

Where no one wants to live…

For a while on Sunday afternoon my Twitter feed was near filled with what I’ll generally call serious lefty climate people. Look, I’m there. Climate change is a real thing. It’s a topic worthy of serious discussion by serious people. I’m not in any way sure that’s what was happening on twitter. The one theme I kept seeing over and over was the call to “reimagine” cities.

That’s fine, I suppose. Cities have been reimagining and rebuilding themselves for as long as there have been cities. I’m sure in 3428 BCE some Sumerian urban planner in Ur was convinced there was a better way to build a ziggurat. 

The trend of growing urban populations increasing while rural populations decline is not in any way a new feature in this country. It’s been happening since nearly the beginning as people left the farm for new job opportunities in the city created during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. There’s no reason to think that trend will stop as we move forward, so our cities should absolutely plan for dealing with larger populations in the future.

What I always struggle with in these discussions is these “thought leaders” on social media never seem to take into account is the number of people who have never, do not currently, or never will have any desire to live in a densely urbanized bicyclist and pedestrian paradise. I just don’t care how many bus routes you have or how wonderful the subway is, trading my patch of land with its flora and fauna for 600 square feet on the 87th floor just sounds awful.

Good luck with it, though. The more people you convince to be warehoused in towers of steel, concrete, and glass, the more green space I’ll have out here “where no one wants to live.” You might want to talk about nature, but I value seeing it from my back porch. We’re not the same.

Closing time…

The good news, I suppose, is that after months of screwing around, I’ll be closing on the new mortgage for the homestead on Friday morning. The new rate, 1.26% less than the original note, will save me several hundred dollars a month. 

As far as I can tell, all the paperwork is in good order and there theoretically shouldn’t be any problems getting to the closing table. The team I’ve been working with to get this work done have been spectacular – as johnny on the spot as any bunch of paper pushers I’ve ever dealt with. Color me cautiously optimistic.

I looked into a lot of options this time around – and strongly considered going with a 15 or 20-year mortgage to slice years off the life of the loan. Ultimately, though, reducing the overall cost of housing was the more important consideration. I can certainly allocate the savings to more entertaining or remunerative uses than keeping a roof over our heads. At rates under 3%, there’s very little incentive not to use other people’s money for as long as possible while seeking out a better ROI for my own dollars.

The only catch in this otherwise good news story was the moment I read over the estimated pay off date – sometime in 2051. As a child of the middle-to-late 20th century, 2051 doesn’t even feel like a real year. It’s some Jetson’s, deep space, basically unimaginably distant point in the future. Although I’ve spent nearly as much time in the 21st century as I did the 20th, I don’t think I’ll ever be entirely settled with it.

Under other circumstances, I’d be concerned about having a mortgage sticking that far out into the future – well past the date I expect to throw off the yoke of working for a living. As much as I like this house, though, staying here forever has never been the endgame. I think I’ve got one more big move left in me, hopefully to something built to suit my own undoubtedly quirky specifications. With this latest refinance, I won’t be paying off a hell of a lot of principle over the next 15 years, but I’ll make a modest dent. Throw in a decade and a half of (presumed) appreciation and there should still be a respectable nest egg to throw at building the last and final Fortress Jeff. 

We’ll just have to see how well that particular plan holds up to the intervening years… but again, on this point I’m choosing to be cautiously optimistic. 

Thoughts on the death of a pipeline…

I was raised in coal country. My childhood memories are punctuated with the sound of a CSX locomotive and open coal cars rumbling through the center of town. I don’t have to tax my memory to recall its whistle screaming as the engine pulled its load across the level crossing at Union Street. Those trains were as much a part of town as any of the buildings that stood overlooking the tracks. Still, they haven’t run coal south through Midland in a long time. Then again, a lot of those old buildings are gone now, too. 

My home town’s entire reason for being was to support the men who went down the mines in the 19th and 20th centuries. I grew up riding bikes in the shadow of draglines and immense tailings piles carted out of the deep mines a hundred years before I was born. Even those “coal banks,” pressed hard against the backs of the town’s two churches, are long gone following a spate of reclamation and restoration efforts made a decade or two ago. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that, for good or bad, we’re living in the closing era of the coal industry. Government – and the people – are going to demand “clean” energy options going forward.

You can rage against it all you want.  There’s no silk weaving mill in Coney anymore because it didn’t make economic sense in 1957. There’s no Kelly-Springfield plant in Cumberland because it didn’t make economic sense in 1987. There’s no Bethlehem Steel in Baltimore because it didn’t make economic sense in 2012. Maybe you see where I’m going with this line of thought.

Sure, hang on grimly to your plant or pipeline. Get out of it whatever you can in the time it has left. The oil is still going to flow – by rail or truck or one of the hundred other pipelines crisscrossing the continent. A few mines may hang on for decades yet, but the battle is over. Coal from western Maryland will never again fuel the ships of the Great White Fleet. Oil, over the next few decades, is going to be phased out. The future is ugly ass wind turbines marring every mountaintop and offshore vista and acres of solar panels where there use to be open fields.

The economy has always been built on creative destruction. It sucks when you’re on the “destruction” side of the equation. Ask the men who built wagons what happened after Henry made the car affordable to the masses. I take no pleasure in acknowledging this, because the end of this type of industry is going to have real and lasting negative impacts on my old home town and the people I know there. Pretending it’s not going to happen, or that we can somehow reverse the inexorable march towards the future isn’t going to help them, though. 

Times change. Technology evolves. King Canute couldn’t order the tide to go out and we’ll fare no better trying to resuscitate dead and dying industries and ordering the future to be an exacting continuation of the past. 

That’ll be an unpopular opinion where I’m from, but as a lifelong holder of unpopular or controversial opinions, I’m ok with that. 

Home is a funny place…

I grew up in what many people would describe as “the sticks.” The town where I grew up was so small it didn’t warrant having its own stoplight. You had to drive to the next town down the crick if you wanted to see one of those in action. Most of the towns in the area were so small that for all practical purposes that if a particular service was available in the county, it was considered fairly local.

Once upon a time, the region was a powerhouse of both light and heavy industry. Generations of a family’s men made their living by “going down the mines.” By the time I was a kid, most of that world was dead or dying, though I’m old enough to remember the last of the coal trains rumbling through the center of town to be used out there in the wider world beyond the ridges and valleys of home. Some bits of that life have clung on grimly, but it’s a world gone now for 30 years.

You’d never know it from listening to people, though. Even now, there’s an inexplicable feeling that tomorrow or maybe the next day an enormous, smoke belching factory will spring up along the banks of the Potomac and all will be well again – that the future can be exactly as it was in the past.

I’ve got an expatriate’s love of my home town (of the region, really), even while knowing I’ll likely never do more than visit occasionally. Maybe I see its charms and its flaws a bit more clearly because I’m looking from the perspective of someone who hasn’t lived there in over two decades.

Home is a funny place. 

One of the favorite local sports is bitching that business don’t want to open, or industry has left, or that six other things are fucked up and use to be better… but then immediately bitching and complaining when someone opens a new business or has the audacity to try something different.

The county is getting its first Starbucks. Already people are out of the woodwork bitching that burned coffee, overpriced, unpatriotic, corporate chain Starbucks would dare to open a shop locally. My favorite bit of local-ism is that “Having a Dunkin would be better.” Some of us are old enough to remember when there use to be one of those, too. It went out of business, so maybe it’s not as popular an option as people seem to think.

A few weeks from now, the furor over Starbucks will dry up. Everyone will be back to bitching that they want more stores or restaurant chains. Bring on a Panera or a Chipotle or an Outback. But take my word for it, as soon as one of them announces they’re coming, that business will be awful, their food will be overpriced slop, and we don’t want them here.

You’d be hard pressed to find an area more desperate for new business and economic development… as long as it changes absolutely nothing.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Masks. Yes, I know they make at least a marginal amount of sense, but that reality just doesn’t make wearing one to conduct day to day business any less annoying. That’s mostly because I can’t social distance while wearing my mask. Despite the various application of dish detergent, shaving cream, and other home remedies, my glasses are fogged over and I literally can’t tell a stationary person apart from a soda machine.

2. Hummingbird feeder. I put out the hummingbird feeders a few days ago. Because I have “less processed” sugar that’s about the color of nice beach sand, it looks for all the world like I’ve hung bottled urine in my backyard. Very soon thereafter I also learned that you should only use normal white sugar for hummingbird feeders, so the whole issue turned out to be a short lived and regrettable test run for actual spring feeder deployment.

3. Maybe the thing that surprised me most about how people are individually responding to the Great Plague is what I’ve started thinking of as the general lack of ability or interest in seeing the long view, opting instead to focus on the next day or week. Maybe I’ve always known people en mass tend to be short sighted pleasure seekers, but I was happily oblivious to how little thought they were putting in to the months and years ahead. So many seem to be bumbling through the day-to-day without any thought at all about what lies beyond that brief horizon. I’m not saying the here and now isn’t important, but hey, maybe cast an eye out towards the future every now and then.

On the downhill slide…

Even though I should have been happily ensconced today in my home office, I walked in to the building this morning with a little extra spring in my step. Unremarked and unknown to anyone I have slid past an auspicious milestone and that knowledge has, at least for today, has helped give me a little better perspective. 

You see, I’ve rolled by the halfway mark of my anticipated career as a professional bureaucrat. That means, should everything go to plan, I’ve already spent more days sitting in a cubicle than I’ll have to spend sitting in a cubicle in the future. 

Yes, an extraordinary number of things have to go right to make this reality – the stock market needs to match or exceed its historic rates of return, I have to avoid doing anything egregious and getting fired, and I need to not drop dead or otherwise completely wreck my health. 

Still, though, for the first time I’m on the right side of the countdown and I have a rough plan for the way ahead. It’s hard to believe that finding myself on the downhill slide could possibly feel so good… but it does.