thoughts

Respect your friends and put down the megaphone

I wish people would not assume that the “cure” for people who disagree with them is to repeat the same argument over and over, which usually consists of an assumption that those who disagree with them have some moral failing or diminished intellectual capacity.  People can come to different conclusions from a place of reason based on how they evaluate the relevant facts.  If you want to challenge those conclusions, that’s great but let’s assume from the beginning that the other side has good reasons for their belief until you discover otherwise.

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thoughts

The Human Condition

“The Human Condition” is one of those phrases used so often during my literature courses in college that it lost all meaning.  In fact, when I’d hear it I’d sort of do a mental eye roll and prepare myself for the inevitable flowery bullshit that was about to follow the phrase.  It was something that people would use to sound more intelligent or make their points sound more important.

In case you have not be subjected to the phrase ad nauseam (see, that’s another flourish used to sound more important), “The Human Condition” is supposed to refer to the shared challenges we face living in the modern age with all its contradictions and complexities.  What it often really refers to is how upper middle class white people in American suburbia deal with their ennui (again–score!).  I don’t say that to be flip–rarely would you hear of examples prefaced with “The Human Condition” that deal with abject poverty, the plight of the working class, or what it means to be in some marginalized group.  It’s something other American upper middle class white people say to universalize their own challenges, which may be legitimate but would be subject to derision among people facing more immediate crises.

So, with that healthy disclaimer showing I realize the folly of what I’m about to share, I give you an interesting thought that popped into my head last night:

The human condition is this: We feel the pain and loneliness of no one knowing who we really are, but we fear the rejection of sharing that authentic version of ourselves.  This contradiction and the resulting actions and thoughts constitute a deep dissatisfaction with a life that is by nearly all accounts comfortable, safe, and desirable.

I’d like to say this is a little more applicable to the general American populace than most of these kinds of statements, but I realize my perspective is limited by my own situation that fits wholly into my characterization of the type of person described above.

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obit

Oliver P. Huff : 2002 – 2014

Oliver P. Huff

As I write this, my old friend Oliver, canine extraordinary,  is still sleeping on his bed by my office bookcases.  I’m writing this  now because I’m not sure I will be able to write it later.

This evening a vet will be coming to the house to euthanize Oliver.  He’s always been fearful of the vet’s office and it just didn’t seem right to have his final moments be fearful ones.

Oliver’s story has a short-version: While we were living in Christiansburg, VA, we adopted Oliver from the Montgomery County Animal Shelter in early 2003.  He, along with a group of other dogs, had been dropped off on the grounds of the shelter unceremoniously, so little was known about his life before then.  He had been given the name Hershey, due to his chocolate colored coat (he was an odd mix of dogs that somehow came together to resemble a miniature Chessie).  He was renamed after Oliver Twist, which grew even more appropriate as we came to know him better.  It was estimated he was about 6 months old at the time we adopted him, which was about how long K and I had been married.  In addition to being a dog, Oliver was a marriage counselor; my wife and I would both tell you that he gave us a common purpose and forced us to work together in ways that I’m not sure we would have on our own at that age.  Oliver was not an easy dog; the first several months were spent trying to keep him from attacking K.  He mellowed with age and after battling chronic disease.  As he grew weaker, we adopted a second rescue dog named Mollie who gave Oliver a lot of comfort and aggravation.  As we had expected to happen at some point (but we were still not ready for), Oliver’s body eventually failed him in a way that his spirit never did.  He was deeply loved by my wife and I, as well as his adopted sister Mollie.  He will be missed, but never forgotten.

Of course, that’s not the full story.

Today, Oliver does not resemble the dog we knew even a month ago.  He stopped eating normally about 3 weeks ago and has only eaten what would have been a normal day’s worth of food since then.  He has become very frail.  He can only walk with great effort.  He’s not alert, but he still recognizes us.

We took him to the vet a couple weeks ago.  I thought at that time he was dying, but there was some evidence it may have all been resulting from a nasty infection.  He spent a few days in the vet hospital and was loaded up on antibiotics and had been given nutrient drips since he wouldn’t eat.  For a few hours when we got back home, he did seem okay but he still wouldn’t eat much of anything (and we tried pretty much everything).

Last week, I had a business trip it was going to be hard to get out of.  I didn’t want to leave him, but I wasn’t going to be too far away that I couldn’t drive back if he got significantly worse so I went ahead with it.  I was glad that he made it through that week, but by the time I had gotten back it was obvious that he wasn’t going to bounce back from this.

On Saturday, we took him back to the vet just to confirm what we knew already.  There were some additional measures we could take, but nothing that we had a lot of confidence that would work in the sense of returning him to normal.  He could be sustained through IVs, but that would require weekly 24-48 hour stays at the vet.  The likely cause of his infection could be resolved with surgery, but he wouldn’t survive it if he couldn’t get to a better place before he was operated on.

I didn’t think the infection was the issue–I thought this had all started a couple months back.  Oliver has always been the top dog in the house, bossing around our much larger Boxer/Staffy mix, Mollie.  A little before Thanksgiving, he had started licking her incessantly.  I did a little research and read that kind of licking was usually a sign of submission or affection.  As soon as I read that, I thought Oliver must not be doing well.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, he was still acting mostly normal but was sleeping a little more.  I remember taking him and Mollie out around midnight on Christmas Eve, after having watched “It’s a Wonderful Life”.  The sky was so clear and you could see a ton of stars.  While we were outside, I suddenly had this realization that this would be our last Christmas together.  It wasn’t some Nostradamus-like predictions–he had clearly gone downhill in the past year–but it was sort of sunk in that he probably wasn’t going to make it another 12 months.  Like my emotions often are related to Oliver, I was sad but I was also thankful for the time we’ve had together.

About 7 years ago, Oliver was diagnosed with autoimmune hemolytic anemia or AIHA.  I still remember the day I had taken him out and he started peeing what looked to be red wine.  Dogs either are born with AIHA or they develop it as a reaction to cancer, blood disease, or various toxins.  The best guess the vet could come up with based on the evidence is he either got it from eating onions or from rat poison.  Since we didn’t have rat poison around, I always assumed it was from some onions that may have fallen to the floor (we never fed Oliver leftovers or he only got “regular” food very rarely).

Basically, what happens with AIHA is the immune system destroys the dog’s red blood cells.  As you might imagine, untreated this can kill a dog rather quickly.  We got very lucky because our vet had done some work on AIHA and quickly introduced that as a possibility when he was examining him.  His quick response more than likely saved his life at that time, but the treatment took a lot out of Oliver.  In addition to the drugs that forced the bone marrow to quickly release red blood cells, he had to be put on a variety of drugs to suppress his immune system.  At the time, the prognosis was that he’d likely have another major attack within 2 years and he probably wouldn’t survive it even with early treatment.

Before he got hit with AIHA, Oliver was a very energetic dog.  He liked to jump around, climbing on top of our couch to get a view out the window.  In our cars, he’d even climb up in the back window ledge when we weren’t paying attention.  After his treatment, he never really was the same.  The days of jumping were over and while he still was as stubborn and grumpy as before, he lacked the energy reserves to let everyone know about it too much.

As predicted, about two and a half years later he did have another attack.  However, he did respond to the treatment and made it through.  Like before, he was diminished after recovery, but he didn’t have another issue with AIHA other than some minor relapses.  Due to the nature of his disease, he never made it off immune suppressants, which did make him susceptible to some other minor problems that we had to treat over the years.  Overall, given his prognosis, he had an excellent quality of life for the remainder of his time.

Oliver’s toughness belied his physical vulnerability, so there was a moment of disbelief when we had to come to terms with the fact that he was not going to recover from this most recent health challenge.  But my wife and I both strongly believed in him dying with dignity and we’ve didn’t waver with our choice once we understood what Oliver was facing this time.

Oliver was so much more than his health problems, though.  Due to the fact that I worked from home, we spent a lot of time together.  Without any office friends around, the initial transition to working alone at home all day was a little rough–even for a staunch introvert like myself.  Oliver had plenty of personality and quirks that made him a great companion during my long days plugging away on database code or learning how to be a manager.

One thing Oliver was famous for was “going on strike”.  If we needed him to go somewhere, he would often flop down on the ground to prevent you from leading him there.  You could either drag him at that point or attempt to pick him up.  If you went with the picking up option, you’d find that he had gone completely limp and had magically doubled his weight.  We decided he must have been some kind of protester in a past life.

Like most dogs, when he was healthy Oliver loved to chase squirrels and had an intense dislike for cats.  Also, he was not a big fan of small children.  One thing we discovered early on was he had a strong affinity for old men.  When we’d take him on walks in a park, he was always trying to run off with some random old guy.  That combined with his intense fear of smoke detector alarms and burning smells of any kind (even if you were just trying to make a grilled cheese sandwich) led us to create a tragic origin story for Oliver–his previous owner was some old man who lost everything in a fire and couldn’t support his dogs any longer.

Oliver loved the rare treat of rotisserie chicken and cheese, which were often employed to get hard-to-swallow medicine down.  He seemed to enjoy watching Dallas Cowboys games with me until I would start yelling–then he’d prefer to look out the window.  He loved laying in sunlight and rolling in clover.

The advantage to writing this ahead of time is I haven’t felt the real pain of loss yet.  This evening will be really difficult.  The first time I forget he’s not around and go to do something with him will be hard.  Over time, though, I know the pain will subside and I can comfort myself knowing that he did not suffer much in the end.

Oliver was a remarkable animal and an excellent friend.  I’m so glad he’s been a part of our lives these past 11 years.

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thoughts

Own It

If we want to solve problems, we have to admit our mistakes

I think a lot of the problems in our country, with our dominant set of values, and with our culture is this idea that something must either be without flaws or it is without value.

We have a very hard time telling the truth about ourselves, our families, our culture, and our national history. Why can’t we see the problems and failings as opportunities to improve? Why can’t we accept that we have made and will continue to make colossal errors, but do our best to right the wrongs when we understand that we’ve screwed up?

Our current values turn denial and delusion into the preferred way of dealing with problems—no wonder we rarely solve any of our real issues.

One of the bravest things someone can do is to say: “I’ve really messed up, I’ve hurt you, and I’m so sorry. I’m going to do my best to change so it doesn’t happen again.”

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thoughts

How I would fix Congress

Assuming I have magical powers

  1. We change Congress to a more Euro-style legislative body with many, many parties. This way any fringe parties can win their 1-4 seats, speak their lunacy, and have almost no real power. Also, this would mean no single-party majorities unless that party was extremely popular. So most of the time, by necessity, the people elected will actually have to compromise and negotiate.
  2. Elected officials who take special interest money must not only disclose all contributions, but they must wear advertisements for those special interests on their clothing like a NASCAR driver.
  3. 2 consecutive term limits for all elected officials. You can run again after sitting out a term, but you only get 2 terms consecutively.
  4. Performance-based incentives for things like passing a balanced budget, passing bills with a low pork index (independently calculated), and reaching certain productivity metrics (also independently calculated)
  5. If you run for another office, you must resign your current elected position
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dreams

Dance Atrocities and Nuclear Response : A Dream

One of the crazier dreams I’ve had in recent memory.  This was the most interesting part (forgive the writing, I wrote it immediately after waking up).  “K” is my wife.

*   *   *   *   *

I head up stairs and it’s the White House. I’m in a tuxedo, as is everyone else. Many rooms, lots of fancy people.

In one of the rooms is a Chinese modern dance group. They are doing their routine when gunmen come in and shoot all of them. Lots of yells and screams, but the party resumes.

I head outside to look for K and can’t find her, but I start to hear this deep rumbling from above. I can’t see anything but I recognize immediately that those are booster engines. I head back inside and see John Sununu getting ready to cry and saying “My God, it’s finally happened.”

I turn to another guy and I asks, “Those are booster engines, right?” He says yes. As I walk around everyone is freaking out trying to figure out what happened.

All of a sudden the TVs come on and there’s some Chinese letters on the screen and dramatic music. The top Chinese leaders are shown up on a stage with many stairs. The camera closes in on the top leader and he says, “Now the time has come for a deep sleep” and the leaders’ chairs turn into beds. Everyone starts to freak out at the location where the stage is and in the White House.

As the chairs hit full recline, inflatable characters come up from where the beds are. When they fully inflate, one character turns to another and says “I guess this means we’re in charge now. Ooh, I’ve always wanted to do this.” The character reaches over to the table with a box that has a giant button on it and pushes it. The characters clap.

CNN cuts in and says they have exclusive footage of the missile and it looks like a giant lizard flying like Superman (think Godzilla).

Everyone is distraught at the White House. Someone is trying to call the Chinese and it’s on speaker. The Chinese person says, “You promised us you’d keep them safe. America always gets to do what they want and threaten everyone else with annihilation. Now you are going to get slapped.” The White House person is trying to convince them that the shooting was just part of the dance routine and they get the cameras out. The dance group is back and performing. CNN is airing the dance when gunman show up, for real this time, and gun them all down supposedly in retaliation for the missile launch.

Everyone knows we’re screwed now, so people start accepting that we’re going to die. Nosegays are passed out with these little twigs that people break and smell. CNN figures out that the missile is going to hit a communications center for NYC but for some reason we believe we’re all going to die from this attack because of the size of the warhead.

I start walking around to find K and I can’t. I see people embracing. I walk around a corner and see a flash out of the window. “It’s happened” someone says. I see the mushroom cloud on the horizon and K is walking around the corner. I grab her and we kiss just as the shock wave hits.

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essays

Why I’m Quitting Football

I didn’t plan for this to happen. It snuck up on me, but once the realization came it was an obvious choice.

I’m quitting football.

No, I’m not a player. I was a fan, a viewer, a consumer of merchandise, a fantasy player, a talk show listener.

There was a time when I would watch almost any NFL game on TV. I loved the game—the strategy involved, the excitement, the violence.

I started following the NFL closely when I was about 11 and listened to Dallas Cowboys games on the radio (this was before you could get every game on TV). I was spoiled early on—the Cowboys were dreadful when I started following them, but within a few years they had won 3 Super Bowl championships in 4 years.

Being fan was more than just the game itself, it became part of my identity. At least where I grew up, a lot of interaction with my male friends centered around which football team you supported. Even as a man in my mid-thirties now, I still have a group of friends where our primary topic of conversation is our favorite football teams.

Even when I mentioned on Facebook that I was quitting football, some of these guys chimed in to rib me about why I was doing it. “If I was a Cowboys fan, I’d be doing the same thing,” one said. “Don’t worry, you’ll be back,” said another.

I know I won’t be back, though. Not unless the things behind my reasons for leaving change, which I don’t expect they will.

The process has been gradual—last season was the first time in many years that I didn’t watch every Sunday Night and Monday Night game. I stopped watching the pre-game and recap shows on Sunday. I rarely read the blogs dedicated to my team or the NFL in general.

As things were ramping up for the NFL this year and fantasy football invitations were going out to rejoin my leagues, I had decided this is the year I stop. So, I backed out of the fantasy league I had been in for the last 7 years. I cancelled my Red Zone channel subscription. I deleted my football-related bookmarks. And I haven’t watched any preseason football or football shows.

So, why the change? Here are my reasons.

No Fun League

The NFL has long been home to outspoken personalities. These are the guys you love on your team and you love to hate on other teams. They mess with the standards, they flaunt the rules, they are the monkey wrenches in the football machinery.

Commissioner Roger Goodell, at the behest of the football owners, has implemented several policies over the last few years to limit what these field jesters could do. Fines and suspensions for “bad behavior” became more severe. Penalties for touchdown celebrations and taunting were increased. Players were fined for wearing socks too long or wearing the wrong colored shoes.

To me, all these attempts to control the player behavior has made the games a lot less fun. The NFL wants to deliver a uniform product (I’ll cover this more later)—they no longer want to be the home of the outlaw, they want the boys next door.

If the game isn’t going to be fun, why should I watch?

Strictly Business

The NFL is a money-making machine. Revenue for the 2011 season reached $9.5 billion (an increase of $500 million from the year before) and starting next season they will be getting nearly $5 billion per year just from television contracts (an increase of almost $2 billion per year from the current 7-year contracts that are ending this season).

One of the ways the NFL controls costs is by using a salary cap system for teams. This cap is sold as a way to “level the playing field,” but really is a cost-control measure to keep the high revenue teams from sending salaries higher and higher every year. The current salary cap is $123 million, so if every one of the 32 teams maxed out their cap (which only a few teams actually come close to doing; for example 5 teams this year have almost $20 million of their cap available to spend) the total would be $3.9 billion. Assuming a continuation of the revenue increase from 2010 to 2011 for the 2012 and 2013 seasons, that leaves about $6.6 billion in revenue for all other costs.

In other words, the NFL is doing just fine financially, thank you very much.

One of the more galling aspects of the NFL is despite the revenue-sharing system for owners, many still have the nerve to request new stadiums funded mostly or in-part by local taxpayers.

In the past, the salary cap has roughly kept in proportion with television, but that is no longer the case. So, the owners will be getting a larger percentage of the league revenues and the players are getting a smaller percentage.

That inequity, especially given the physical price those players pay, has made it difficult for me to continue to pay for NFL-related purchases.

Parity

This is the least of my complaints, but I thought I would mention it anyway. Part of the reasoning behind the salary cap and the rules of free agency is that it’s better for the league if all teams have the same ability to spend money on player contracts. “Better for the league” means that the teams have a closer amount of talent on their rosters than in previous eras of the NFL. This is known as parity.

Parity makes for an overall more exciting fan experience because the playoff races go on longer—often to the last week of the season. Also, teams are able to rebuild faster if they were not doing well.

Where parity can be a bad thing is creating a good team over time is much more difficult. Other teams pick off players from the good rosters as they become free agents. Teams are not able to build up the quality of depth at multiple positions as they did in the past. That lack of depth means teams are much more susceptible to falling apart if a star player is lost to injury. Finally, due to shifting weighted schedules, the best teams have the hardest schedules (based on the previous season’s record) the following season .

Parity rewards the casual fan—the ones who just like to watch the hot teams each season. It’s great for them because almost every year you have a new crop of teams fighting for the title.

For the single-team fans, it’s much not fun. Sure, occasionally there is the fluke successful season, but more often it’s bad—season down the drain because the starting quarterback hurt his knee, the team finally is successful and loses their core players to free agency, or the team gets stuck in a yo-yo where they are moderately successful one year and then bad the next.

Parity could really be named mediocrity and it would be a more apt description. Fans can stick by teams through the tough times with the idea that when things are better, the success could be sustained for a little while. Parity makes chance a much bigger factor in the success of your team and that’s just not much fun to cheer for as a fan.

Treatment of Veteran Players

Related to parity is the treatment of veteran players in the league. As maintaining depth and resigning a team’s own free agents became more and more expensive, teams focused much more on young players who had better health and were cheaper. This meant that older players were pushed out much faster than before.

One thing many non-football fans do not realize is apart from the signing bonus, money in a football contract is not guaranteed (unlike baseball and basketball). So, while a player may be stuck with a contract they are out-performing, if a player starts under-performing their pay they can be cut by the team. There may be some ramifications to the team’s salary cap, but legally they can cut ties with the player without owing any additional money.

As a result, team rosters have heavy turnover between season. It’s become pretty standard for most positions that once a player hits his early thirties, he’s being pushed out of the door.

As a fan, this bothered me for a couple of reasons. One, you don’t get to cheer for that favorite player anymore who stays with your team his whole career. Second, the system is set up so apart from the first-round draft picks, the initial contracts players sign is for relatively little money. Even for those first-round players, that initial windfall has been lessened for them due to the rookie contract restructuring from the last collective bargaining agreement. So, the idea is you have to play well to earn a good second contract.

What often happens to the players that do earn that good contract is either due to injury or getting older, the don’t play as well and they end up getting cut from the team or forced to take a pay cut. Teams often back-load deals so the contracts sound very large, but the guaranteed money is a small percentage. So, that player who signed the big 5-year, $46 million contract, may only get his $4 million signing bonus and a couple of years at $3-4 million before he gets cut.

Again, the inequity here seems wrong. You have owners making more and more money, while players are signing these bad (for them) contracts that may only pay a fraction of what the team had “committed” to. Players in the most violent professional sport with the shortest careers (average of 3.2 years) are getting the worst contracts in the sport making the most money.

That’s just something I can’t support anymore.

Injuries

I don’t remember which 60 Minutes style sports show I was watching a few years ago (possibly Real Sports on HBO), but they were the first major program to highlight the scary and serious issues some recent players who had left the NFL were having due to brain injuries. It forever changed the way I viewed the game.

The best quarterback the Cowboys had during my time as a fan was Troy Aikman. He was a great leader, a very accurate passer, and was someone who did not put himself above the team. He was a tough player, but he wasn’t very mobile and got hit a lot. Some of those hits resulted in concussions—by his count he had at least 10 concussions during his 12-year career.

At the time, concussions were viewed—at least by fans—as something that caused some temporary issues, but cleared up after a few minutes, hours, or days for the bad ones. They weren’t taken any more seriously than other injuries that could knock a guy out of a series of plays. There was even a video game commercial that was sort of a joke on Aikman’s woozy appearances after he had taken a big hit.

Near the end of his career, I remember the hits that were knocking Aikman out of games didn’t seem that serious (except for the last hit). Realizing now the successive impact of repeated concussions, it makes total sense. These weren’t “dingers” or something these guys could “shake off”—these were serious brain injuries.

Over the years, more and more information has come out about the impact of repeated concussions and the long-term effects on the brain. Ironically, my late grandfather suffered from a brain disorder that was never identified—they called it Alzheimer’s but the symptoms didn’t exactly match up. I realize now that he may have actually had the neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated concussions from his time as a boxer.

Hearing former players discuss what they were going through with their brain injuries and recognizing many of those same issues from my grandfather, I lost a lot of enthusiasm for the game. I would say at this point watching football had become a guilty activity for me. I loved the competition and the strategy, but when I saw another player carted off or almost paralyzed, it was hard to say I enjoyed watching.

I don’t want to make this post longer by going into how former players have been treated, but that was also a factor for me.

There’s a fundamental issue with the NFL: it values money over everything else. That’s fine—they can run it as a business and rake in all the profits they can. But doing this at the expense of players who in some cases give their bodies and futures to the game it’s not something I will cheer anymore.

Yes, the players have a choice not to play in the league or sign the bad contracts or blow the money they do receive. However, I don’t believe that lessens the culpability of the league for what they are doing.

So, NFL, it’s been real, but you’ve lost this fan.

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