Thursday, September 23, 2021

Politically Purpule

Stirring thoughts at times deprive me of sleep. They demand to be freed from my head to the page.

The more I read about and get involved in politics the more I find myself politically purple. What is politically purple? Since, I am so for it, I thought I better define it. Does it mean I sit in the middle on most issues? No. On several issues many would call me ultra-conservative. On some they might call me ultra-liberal, and on some I am truly in the middle. But if being politically purple is not defined by being middle ground what is it? 

Does it mean I think a third party is the way to recapture our country? No. I am not opposed to the a third party but the structure of our country makes it very difficult for  third party to suceed. In fact, I think that is the smartest choice Donald Trump ever made was the decision to go after power through a major party. It was clear he could care less which party he used to gain power. He bounced around from between democrat and republican based on which he thought was the best to get him the connections he wanted to advance his career. He tried the third party thing, but in the end he realized our system would only allow him to rise in a major party. He was right, but I digress. So again if it's not the advocating of a third party what is it? That is what I will seek to define in the rest of this article.

Politically purple is a belief that there is more that unites us then divides us. That as much as Fox News trys to paint democrats as crazy left wing nut cases, and MSNBC trys to paint republicans as racist, homophobic rednecks the truth is we would do well to spend our time understanding and getting to know the other side, not belittling them. In doing so we would discover we connect and have much in common with those we thought we could never understand.

Politically purple is a belief that if politicians only worked on things where there was strong majority and support they would have plenty to do. This is an extension of the first idea. If there is more that unites than divides us then there should be significant amount of work in the areas we can agree on. The problem is we waste most of our time focusing on the small ways we disagree. Let's take a specific example, how about one of the hottest topic issues we deal with--abortion.

Abortion is one area where people would consider me conservative. I belive life begins at conception. I belive it is a horrible thing to kill life. I do support exceptions for rape and life of the mother, but in the case of rape I would still promote adoption over abortion. But forget what I think. What do we debate endlessly on? What is our focus? Pro-life vs. Pro-choice. End Roe vs. Wade or enshrine it. If you look on this issue in simple terms we do look like a divided nation. I have seen polls on this and they vary slightly as all polls do, but gallop shows the most recent poll as 48% Pro choice, 46% Pro life, basically split within the margin of error. And it's been that way for a long time, with it flucuating back and forth as to one being a few points over the other. 

But again, my belief is there is more that unites than divides us, and that if politicians only focused on things we strongly agree with they would have plenty to do. So how does that work with abortion. A strong majority of Americans are apposed to late term abortions. A strong majortiy are supportive of early term (first trimester abortion). And what about the most viable option outside of abortion--adoption? How much time has Fox News, MSNBC or any of our politicians focused on that? Very little and yet we all agree, democrats and republicans that adoption is a good, viable alternative. So why not focus on laws that make adoption easier for both adopting families and mothers who are not in a position to raise a child? I can tell you there is alot of work to be done in this area. So let's focus on where we agree rather then focus on where we disagree. I would much rather we improve our adoption system and work to convince mothers with unwanted pregnancy to adopt rather than spend all our energy and attention trying to force a legal change that will simply anger much of our country. 

Not only that do we really want laws to change against the rest of Americas will? Take early term abortion. Do I belive they should be illegal under most circumstances? Yes. But a strong majority of Americans disagree with me. Rather then try to force laws that they disagree with we need to work on convincing them. Because if we don't we it is only a matter of time before it changes back.  

Politically purple is a desire to follow open and honest debate with a deep respect for those that disagree with us. I know smart, talented, hardworking individuals who are passionate liberals, and I know smart, talented, hardworking individuals who are equally passionate conservatives.  Good ideas and really bad ones come from both sides of the isle. I think the biggest crutch our democracy has is not a lack of ideas or ways to move in a positive direction but an inability for those ideas to surface because we stifal honest debate with the need to always be right. Rather than understand why someone disagrees with our position on guns, immigration, or same gender bathrooms, it's much more entertaining to call them names, belittle their views and prop up why our way is best. Not only that politicians have learned that open and honest debate where you recongnize the value in the other sides argument is not a good way to connect with the base. It doesn't help that news organizations have figured out that finding ways to belittle the other side is really good for business. If we want to be politically purple and encourage open and honest debate we have to begin to reject those who fight hardest against it and I would put Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN at the top of the list.

Politically purple includes a willingness to work with the other side and find compromises and paths forward even when it means the other side gets a political win. Both parties are equally guilty of the game of stifiling good ideas in order to win a leg up at the next election. I choose to focus on republicans on this one because it comes to mind right now. Soon our congress will debate on raising the debt ceiling. If a straight up or down vote were held on the debt ceiling it would pass on party lines, democrats for and republicans against. Perhaps at first glance this might make sense. After all republicans generally say they are for less government spending (and that's very true, except when they are in power). But let's be honest, the debt ceiling is to pay for programs that congress has already passed. The majority of recent debt issues are to pay for programs that Trump and republicans passed. And the republicans had no issues raising the debt ceiling or increasing spending while Trump was in office. But now they oppose paying the bills that they voted for. But even if republicans are opposed to this why don't democrats just go to a strainght up or down vote? This is an area that can be covered under reoncilliation (simply meaning they don't need a 60 vote majority in the senate). They don't want to go on record as voting simply to raise the debt with out getting it tied to other things that republicans would look bad for not voting for. They know if they go it alone republicans will use it as a talking point (a misleading one) on commercials in the midterms. Well they want there own misleading talking point to hit back with. So, we might defalut on the payment obligations we committed to because both parties hope to get the upper hand at election time.  

Politically purple is willing to go against your own party when you feel it is the right thing to do. My favorite politicians are Susan Collins, Joe Manchin, Rand Paul, Krysten Sinema and Mitt Romney. Do I agree with them more than anyone else? No. But they are willing to buck their party when they feel it is right to do so. We need that kind of courage, and doing so doesn't generally pay. Many senators who do this we punish rather than praise. Mitt Romney is a good example. Who serves the people of Utah better Mitt Romney or Mike Lee? Without hesitation many would assume Mike Lee, and arguments can be made for both. But if you go simply by amount of Utahns that approve of the job they are doing Mitt Romeny is more popular. What? How can that be. Half of Utah hates the mans guts. Well, that is not true, about half of Utah's republicans hate the mans guts. And if you say who serves Utah republicans better, Mike Lee is the run away favorite. But you aren't elected to only represent your party (although most politicians have forgotten this). Mitt Romney has pockets of republicans that like him, and is overwelming popular among Utah democrats so his overall approval rating is higher. But if the election were held tomorrow he would loose, not in a general, I think he'd win in a general election but never get there because he'd loose in a primary. Republicans would thrown him out, why? mostly because he voted to impeach Trump. Did I agree with him, no. But I deeply respect him for doing it when he knew it would put a target on his back within his own party.

Politically purple includes a willingness to allow the people's chosen people to lead. Nothing is more vouge than political recalls and calling for your political opponent to resign after they have won an election. It can because of something they said yesterday, last year, or 20 years ago. Maybe because of one vote you disagree with or because you don't like them. But the fact is they were elected, let them do their job. If you don't like them, don't vote for them next time. The most recent recall debaucle was against Governor Gavin Newsom. Would I vote for Gavin Newsom? No. But the majority of Californians did, so let him govern. They voted for him to be their governor for 4 years. Let him do his job. The recall was, like almost most recalls, a total waste of time, effort and money. 

Politically purple includes offereing grace to others especially our enimies. This goes hand in hand with the last point. We all say stupid things, at least I do. When our enimies say stupid things or even do them, do we allow them grace or do we use it to jump down their throat, play it on repeat over and over again, use it to score political points or drive up the base and if we are the media to drive up our ratings?

Are you politically purple? I would encourage you to embrace it if you have not. Will it ever be a popular movement? I don't know, but one of the beutiful things about being politically purple is that it can bring you peace in a political world that rarely offers it. I don't mean to say I never have frustration or sorrow over our system, clearly you get the sense that I am disappointed in much of what goes on in politics, but I am rarely angered or aggitated by something that comes from the supreme court, politicians or policies. It has allowed me to see both sides value and be at peace with the outcome and that is a nice place to be.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Traveling the World in Search of...

Noelle Poulson

There aren’t too many bucket lists that don’t include in some form or another the line, “world travel.”

But some of us have been more successful at others in crossing that off the list. Noelle and I used to spend afternoons together working on Calculus homework, but no sooner had she finished that than she, her father, and mother packed up and took a year to travel Europe. What leads a family to pack up and head to Europe? “My dad was a stockbroker and he was ready for a break. Kind of a mid-life crisis.” She recalls.

They didn’t just see the tourist sites but she learned how to live in a different country. “We would find a place to live for a month or two and get to know the area. We did go into the big cities but also did the day-to-day groceries and really lived there.” She covered French, her dad German and Spanish and her mother Italian, so they had the bases covered.

After a year of travel, it was back to school, and following in the footsteps of her father she decided to go into finance and graduated with her bachelor’s from the University of Utah. Her dream was simple, help those who didn’t have the finance education or access to it understand fiance so it could work for them, instead of against them. Her particular focus was the desire to help refugees. But upon graduation, she found that there wasn’t much desire for companies to help such individuals. “I got a job at Fidelity and as most started as a stockbroker.” Helping the rich get richer was not her idea of a dream job, and she was pleased when she was able to move over to helping people and small businesses with retirement plans. “It was nice to really help people with retirement advice but it had similar problems, they didn’t want you to spend your time with people unless they had a decent amount in accounts with us. So the single mom with only a few thousand didn’t get the one-on-one help she really needed.”

Noelle realized that if she was ever going to help the people she wanted to help she needed to change gears a bit, and she always felt a special connection to London. She decided to fulfill both passions and began to pursue a degree in international relations at Webster University. She loved London, but graduation brought a problem, without school to go to she couldn’t keep her visa.

She decided to take some time off and traveled to Thailand and Asia. There while hiking in the Himalayas she met a kind Brit who hiked with her, Chris.

Noelle at Annapurna (the Himalayas for less worlded traveled like me)

Noelle Hiking in Manang, Nephal

He too was a world traveler and was currently working as an English teacher in the Middle East. They parted as friends and Noelle went back to America. But she no sooner landed than she felt London pulling her back. “It’s more than just the history. The city is alive, you can fill it in the streets. It is its own organism. And I love it.” She states. And you can tell, she has truly become British, throughout the interview she speaks of her internet being “rubish” and about when they go on “holiday”. The problem was how to get the Visa to get in. She looked into it and the best way was an entrepreneurial visa. So she started a business in London.

Noelle at the River Thames (not the Thames River)

Now in our world of crazy tech startups, I have heard of some crazy businesses. But taking people to see sights of London sounds fairly normal until you learn the details. She wasn’t taking tourists to see the place William the Conquer learned how to use a toothbrush. No, this was locals, to find places to hang out. Like a very personal yelp. “People take go front their home to work and make the same stops every day and they may not realize they pass by a really cool speakeasy type pub only a few blocks from work.” And they paid her to find these. She admits she wasn’t getting rich, but she had enough to survive and enjoyed being in London. During this time she kept a blog, where she walked every street in London and wrote about he experience. She was on TV and interviewed by BBC, here is a great article about it. She really grew to know the city she loved in a way few if any can say they have.

Noelle in a small London Street

The biggest change was Chris came back home to London to visit and their friendship turned into more. And they decided that life together was the right thing, even though that meant she would need to leave her precious London and move to Oman in the Middle East. Oman was a new adventure but not exactly the freedoms and culture of London. But it was here Noelle found a new passion, Scuba Diving. And with it a new dream, for her and Chris to start a small dive shop.

Noelle diving in Timor

This dream sent them in search of a perfect dive location. They found some great ones. But one grabbed their attention, a small and fairly new country Timor-Limor. They looked into it and they were planning to do it when they happened to see a job for an English teacher that matched up with Chris’s skills. He got the job and they moved, and have been there on and off ever since.

However, the dive shop hasn’t happened. But her desire to help and find a way to contribute in a positive way has not changed and in Timor, there has been some opportunity. She was approached by NGOs to do some work for them. She took the job and has begun to do work for Oxfam and others. In a country where most people sustain themselves on small farms, there is a lot of need for investment money in infrastructure and other areas. However, in this, she has seen both the good and the bad. “Organizations want the big name projects they can send out to donors but not always what is needed or wanted. They fight over things like whose flag lines up where or who gets their name first on a program.” She mentions several examples. There is a need for irrigation projects but small sustainable ones. That is what the farmers want, but big organizations with donors are included to look to a large dam for a solution (hey I get this, who doesn’t love dams!). It a big project, with lots of spotlights but would it help? Could the farmers even afford to maintain it?

Another great example is the trash in Timor. People place all their trash into large concrete containers on the street. An organization came in and built beautiful new concrete boxes designed to allow for the separation of trash for recycling throughout one of the cities. It made great social media posts, the problem? They have no recycling program or place to send it so there are zero actual benefits.

And it’s not just in getting the right programs. Noelle has seen the unintended consequences of organizations' involvement. When Timor-Leste joined the United Nations in 2002 this fairly new country got a huge influx of cash and projects going to it. That sounds like a really good thing but it had its downsides. UN sent in a lot of staff, that staff had higher wages and with it per diem. That meant that they got their housing reimbursed and the amount they could afford to pay for rent was several times higher than rents on Timor-Leste. As they came landlords realized they could charge much more and get it because the UN was around. Rents skyrocketed and pushed forced many locals out, into worse living conditions, or left them with no money after rent was paid.

But all is not bad, “There are some really good dedicated employees working on some projects that will really help the people of Timor-Leste.” Noelle notes. And she clearly sees value in what she and her husband do as they continue to live and work in Timor-Leste.

As I interview Noelle I can’t help but take away two lessons. Life is complex. We often see life in Cliche’s but so few lives fit one cliche or another. I ask her if she ever would write about the people she has met in Timor-Leste. “People tend to think of people hear as one of two extremes. They see them as living impoverished incredibly sad lives, or they see them as living romantically simple lives. While that is somewhat true it is much more wrong. And it is difficult to convey the complexities of what is going on.” She also notes it is a very small nation and she isn’t sure how people would take her writing about them, but there is no doubt it would be incredibly interesting.

She notes a similar complexity in the life she has lived. “When I speak to some people they sound almost jealous of my life, going from country to country and having very diverse experiences. I see it as that I have had a life with significant breadth, but not so much depth. Many people build a strong community around them and stay put in one place for a long time and they get depth in that community. There is value in that, and sometimes I wish I had it.” I appreciate this insight and realize we all balance depth and breadth of experience.

But the last lesson I take away is the freedom many in my generation have to live a life for a cause. Not that those who went before us lived meaningless lives but historically most people have had to take what jobs they could get to put food on the table. Increasingly, we as a society have enough free time and wealth that we have more flexibility in our profession. Many, like Noelle, have used this to try to help the world be a better place. But even when our intentions are the best, it isn’t always easy. When you really peel back the curtain, helping a good cause is a complex thing. Corruption, human jealousies and imperfections, and so many other limitations flood into the world of non-profits, just like they do in the world of profits. That isn’t to say it isn’t worth it. It just means that like most worthwhile things in our lives it isn’t easy.

I wish Noelle and everyone who continues to try to improve this complex world we live in the best. The more people who are willing to dedicate themselves to trying to improve rather than tear down the better this world will be. And while Noelle may do it through non-profits and NGOs, I’m secretly holding out hope she gets to do it by owning that little dive shop.

Doing a cartwheel at the Taj Mahal...doesn't everybody?

Thanks, Noelle for the chance to interview her. If you liked my writing please check out my other blog posts or you can really make me happy and purchase my book. Amazon link.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Buying a Drunk a Drink

I slowly pull up to the gas pump and hop out. Like most Saturday nights in the home of my youth my father is playing a classic movie, something I always enjoy but unfortunately I have to leave because I remember I am out of gas and want to fill up before the Sabbath. The wind is biting, which should surprise no one who spends much time out at night in the winter in Salt Lake City, and I quickly put my credit card in the pump hoping to limit the time that my fingers and every other part of me has to spend outside. A large man who had been chatting with someone on the street corner holding a sign approaches me. “Can you spare some change?”

I reach into my wallet, all I have is a $5 dollar bill. “Here you go.”

He absolutely beams. “Thanks so much man, you’re the best.”

“You're welcome.”

As I put the gas handle back, the man makes a beeline to the store portion of the gas station. I hop in and prepare to drive away. “Hey Dad.” I nearly jump out of my skin.

“What are you doing Hyrum?”

“I don’t know, I knew you were leaving and thought I would hide in the back seat.”

I was suddenly very glad I hadn’t decided to go through a drive through and sneak myself a snack. But once over the shock of not being alone was gone I thought back to my friend with his newly found five dollars. The gas station was all glass so it was easy enough to see inside. So I drive by the front of the store as I leave.

He was at the checkout, buying a large beer and a snack.

“Dad did you just give that man some money to buy a beer?” Hyrum asks.

“Well I...I guess I did.”

That night I reflected on that moment. Something about having my son there made me reflect even more than I might otherwise. The phrase is so common for actions that no one wants to take, “buy a drunk a drink.” That is most likely what I had done. We call it enabling. And throughout my life it has been a common excuse for why I don’t give more often.

And at that moment “buying a drunk a drink” took on a very different meaning for me. How many times had God blessed me abundantly, I chose poorly with those blessings and yet his blessings did not cease? How many times had God allowed me to buy the drink when I should have known better? 

I am not saying enabling is a good thing. But God allows the rain to fall on the just and unjust. He allows us free agency and ability to learn from our errors even at times when we make those same errors over and over again. Justice will come, but I am ever in awe at how much Mercy God pours out on me, even when I so often misuse his gifts. Perhaps if we are to be like him, we at times will do the same.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Giving Her Five Options


City of Henderson Green Valley Pool- This is where the story occurred.

Kathleen only has Medicare Part A. She was able to get an important surgery, but beyond that, there wasn’t a lot of help. During her recovery from surgery, rent was just too hard to keep up with. She has been sleeping in the desert for 10 months.

I met Kathleen outside a public pool. She wore a nice-looking dress and walked behind her wheelchair. She has the Las Vegas bus system figured out because for the last fifteen years, she hasn’t been able to afford a car. You see, social security only goes so far. So, when the income doesn’t stretch to meet the usual needs, a proud woman like Kathleen redefines her needs. She has decided she needs neither a car nor a roof over her head. She’s seventy.

“The people where I stay have seen me a few times over the years. They’re really sweet to let me sleep on their land,” she says without a hint of bitterness.

We found out the first public pool where we happened to meet was closed, so I put her wheelchair in my car and we drove to a different one, and talked while waiting for it to open. We spent the time under a tree with the car windows open, comparing the four Gospels in the Bible to get the full story of one of the disciples (Peter) cutting off the ear of the high priest and seeing Jesus Christ miraculously replace it where it belonged. It takes all four tellings to get a full view of that story.

I wish I had four views of Kathleen, but I’m happy with the single glimpse I got of her. Our conversation ranged from Bible insights to relationship advice. She probably the happiest and one of the wisest women I have spoken to for the whole year. I’m a person whose life is filled with happy and wise women, so that’s really saying something.

Kathleen quickly summarized the cycle of abuse in a relationship with an unstable man. It’s a cycle she figured out so she didn’t receive much physical abuse during a few of the recent years of her life. She had spent six years with a man whose pattern was easy to decipher: “First, he’s nice to you; second, he begins to pick at you, finding small faults; third, he threatens you; fourth, he follows through on the threats.”

It would have been a chill-inducing goose bump moment. Only it wasn’t.

“It’s not like you don’t have any warning. You just have to get out when the threats are happening.” She delivers her advice in a matter-of-fact way. Again, when I’m looking for bitterness, I really detect none.

Kathleen is articulate. She summarizes the five personalities the man had. Only one of them was a scary one, and she dwelt the least amount of time on explaining the scary one: Satan. The man’s voice would change to a deep and aggressive tone. That’s all she said about him, but I surmised that when she scary voice came out, it was definitely time to leave – for a while. You see, Kathleen did go back. The other four personalities in this guy were such a joy: The Motorcycle Cop, The Plantation Owner’s Son, the Ladies’ Man, and the Little Boy. Each one she described with pure delight in her eyes. Again, there was no bitterness when she was done talking about that man, who left her life in a simple way. He stopped calling and Kathleen was set free.

“I think I must have done him some good, though,” Kathleen told me, “because he’s better. Well, enough better that he’s been with the same woman for twelve years now.”

She seems satisfied that after his five failed marriages, his six years with her, and the twelve years in another relationship, he is probably in a good place. I couldn’t offer any opinions about that. I do hope his current woman has as much innate wisdom as Kathleen, though, and knows when to get out – temporarily.

When the pool opened, Kathleen explained, “I take a short swim and a long bath. I like to get clean and make sure I have time to do my hair.”

After my swim, she was again in her long pink dress with black summer sweater, and I told her, “Your hair looks fabulous.”

You know what? Her hair really did look fabulous.

When Kathleen is offered a choice between five good things, she selects carefully: food, health, clothing, shelter, relationships. If the money can only get her a few things, she’ll carefully budget. When shelter and good relationships are too costly, she’ll do without. Homelessness, for her, is a temporary condition, and she approaches it with the same practicality and faith she seems to have used to get her through surgery and challenging relationships. Kathleen’s perspective and her type of endurance without bitterness made me a less fearful person. Although I only offered her two things: a ride and a swim towel, I think I came away with a lot more than I brought to our morning.

Paige Ladd worked two sizzling summers as a park ranger in Southern Nevada. She kept her cool with lots of laps in public pools. That's how she got this fantastic opportunity to talk with a desert mermaid older than her, but very much a kindred spirit.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Living In History: The Coup d'etat in Burma

 There was a coup yesterday. 

I’m not talking about a guy with viking horns taking selfies in front of congress. Coup as in the military going into parliament building, capturing the most prominent politicians, and declaring a new government. Few coups are on film. Saddam Hussein seizing power and few Latin American coups are the exceptions. They are all quite frightening, as exactly as I would expect a coup to be. This coup from yesterday, at least the film of it is not at all what I imagined when I thought coup. She was aerobics class when she accidentally captured this. (link in case embed is not functioning:

New meaning to Dance, Dance, Revolution

A girl doing a dance routine to electronic music while a coup takes place is perhaps as emblematic of our times as could possibly be captured on film. A strange pairing of military force and happy everyday life filming an online fitness class. A strange reminder that while we go about playing basketball and watching Netflix, history moves forward around us. We may think Burma is far away and won’t affect us, yet the last military coup in Burma affected me, and millions of others, significantly. Growing up in the 90’s it often felt as if History with a capital H was over. We were wrong. We assumed sometime around the fall of the Berlin Wall everyone collectively decided “Okay, we're done here, wrap it up boys!” There were no more great wars, or communists about to blow up Washington D.C. It was over for us millennials, all we had to do was to play basketball for those who could, or play video games for those who could not. 9/11 was a wake up call for everyone in America. For a quick moment we realized we were not as Post-History as we had thought. But after a month of everyone with an American flag, life returned to normal and we were once again playing basketball if you could, and video games if you could not. There were however several of us that took up writing poetry as we felt we perhaps had something to write about. There were other occasional slaps of history, like when we watched the invasion of Iraq on live TV. But at the same time it felt different than history. Did people during the Revolutionary War or the Battle of Britain, take a break from playing Super Smash Brothers to watch a city get bombed thousands of miles away, before returning to their game? The notion was absurd. Our poetry reflects it. Peace is a beautiful thing which like many beautiful things are not fully appreciated when you have them. We wanted adventure. I went to Thailand where I lived in a refugee camp. I was among people who lived history. I had already met dozens of Karen, an ethnic group from Burma, not a middle-aged American woman in America, before I left for Thailand. They had been relocated from the refugee camps to begin their life anew. I loved learning about their often tragic and often beautiful stories. People who had lost family, who had their lives and villages burned before them, about traveling through the jungle in the dead of night to escape the oncoming forces. Having hunger pains so intense that tree bark seemed as a viable alternative to food.

A picture I took of Mae La refugee camp which I took from behind the school at which I taught

Tragic, but in it there was also beauty, they left their homeland they had fought for and created their own in mountain jungles on the edge of Thailand where they were out of reach of the Burmese forces. There they built churches and had families, and lived their lives. In as beautiful and normal a way as someone who had their lives previously burned to the ground. In December when I was there it didn’t feel a lot like Christmas, there was no snow, there were no Mall windows filled with ideal scenes of London. But large numbers of the Karen are Christian, and I was invited to go to I believe it was a presbyterian church that day in December. You can imagine my surprise to see a full probably 30 or so piece orchestra. I have been to Abravanel hall and seen some of the best orchestras in the world, but none were as beautiful as seeing this group, of people living in literal bamboo huts, yet carefully maintaining their instruments in about the worst circumstances imaginable so that I and those around me deep in the Jungle of Thailand could hear Silent Night that Christmas day. Out of great terror often arises the most sublime beauty.

There were a few beautiful monasteries in the refugee camp. I knew several of the monks, one attended the school I taught at. They were incredibly friendly and generous to share their food with me, despite having almost nothing themselves.

The history that created these unfortunate events fascinated me, perhaps in part because I knew people who had been there, and knew all the key players. And the worst chapter of it all began, in a similar way yesterday, with a military coup. The conflict between the Burmese and the Karen goes back hundreds and perhaps even thousands of years. Its modern form re-spawned in 1949, just a year after Burma gained its independence from Great Britain, which was only a few years after Burma had been liberated by Britain from the Japanese. The Karen wanted their own country, the Burmese didn’t want to give it to them, and the British, had given up caring about that part of the world, with far too many other fish (and chips) to fry. Civil war broke out. It was technically a war, but skirmishes and casualties were few. Burma had other troubles and did not have the military might to do much more than keep the situation at a stand-still. Then 1962 happened. The general Ne-Win rolled into the then capital Rangoon and took over the government from then president Win Maung. I doubt there was a girl doing her aerobics class in front while this happened, but I’m sure, just like today, many thought it was an ordinary day with a strange blip in the news, which surely would not change their lives much. Ne-Win’s reign would mean the building up of the military and the most brutal aspects of the civil war against the Karen. Hundreds of thousands of people were forced to flee their homes as their lives burned behind them.

The border of Burma and Thailand where I crossed illegally into Burma, and likely where many of the tens of thousands of Karen who had fled Burma during the war had crossed as well.

Living in that refugee camp, I met people who knew all the main characters in that story, who were there when Ne-Win crushed the 8888 student uprising in 1988 which was bigger and more deadly than the well-known Tiananmen square protests a year later. It was history, it was exciting, and for them it was just their lives. Humans will get used to anything, and they had. It had become life, and what is more, the war itself had come to a close, well technically it had not, the war is ongoing to this day and remains the longest ongoing civil war in the world. Though at that time we didn’t think it would continue much longer. In 2012 the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) had entered into a cease-fire which had kept a tense, if not complete peace. After 50 years of strict military rule, Burma had returned to democracy, as well as a tentative peace with their neighbor tribes. It appears that democracy lasted 8 years. 

I crossed into Burma to attend a celebration of the KNLA. One of those moments when aesthetically at least it feels as if you are part of history. I only spent a day in "Karen Country" inside Burma, possibly the only time I stayed a night illegally in a country, a night I spent sleeping literally on a pile of straw under the stars.

Sitting among those refugee camps, I felt, as I believe many of those I spoke to felt the war was essentially over. Cease-fire had been signed, and it was only a matter of time before Noble peace prize winner, daughter of former leader of Burma, and current leader of the largest party in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi would make a deal with Karen and peace would return. I think they felt, much as I had in the 90’s that perhaps they were also “Post History.” Yet they were not. 

History, like life follows Kierkegaard’s axiom that it, “can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forward.” Nassim Taleb elaborates on this in his famous book The Black Swan. He lived through the Lebanon civil war and everyone he talked to thought they understood what was going on, yet no one actually did. They all thought they were going to be done with the war in a matter of weeks, just a small blip and they would get back to their lives. It carried on for over a decade. Everyone seemed to understand what was happening, but failed to see how everything they predicted didn’t come true. “History is opaque. You see what comes out, not the script that produces events, the generator of history. There is a fundamental incompleteness in your grasp of such events, since you do not see what's inside the box, how the mechanisms work.”Taleb writes. 

When we look back at events, we see them fundamentally different than when we are going through them. Nassim says the book that influenced him most was not many of the great history books or philosophical thinkers, but rather Berlin Diary by William Shirer. It is as the subtitle says, “The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934 - 1941.” What it provided was a look at history as it happened, versus what we usually read, History, the narrative of the past. The journal of the moment lacked the big narratives and meaning that we as humans put on a collection of facts, mostly because the author didn’t know the facts going forward. He didn’t know World War II was going to break out, or who Hitler was. 

If we had the ability to ask some bloke in England in 1776 about what was going on, my guess is he might mention the Revolutionary War, but doubt it would be any more prominent in his mind than say the latest fashion trends in London. We don’t know exactly what they would say, but I think it is a safe bet that it wouldn’t match the narrative we have read in our history books. 

Unlike in the 90’s we seem to now feel that as opposed to History being behind us, it is now right before us, that we are on the precipice of something huge. History goes forward, despite the fact that we still are playing basketball for those who can and an increasing many who can’t having diversified our activities from playing video games to playing video games AND watching Netflix. All the world’s a stage, and we are but actors, yet we don’t know our lines, and are confused when our cue is supposed to happen. 

There is little we can do to change the future of history, but we can do our best to make it the best for those we love around us, and pray for those that we cannot help directly, like the people of Burma, who we hope will not suffer nearly the pain, war, and chaos that took place after the last coup that led to countless death, sadness, and destruction.

Regardless of how this play develops, I hope we can find some beauty and comfort, regardless of how crazy and chaotic our world gets. May we be able to have the peace, tranquility and resolve to keep on going, whether it be with our electro-music aerobics, or like this man, of this piano player during some riots in Spain, making beautiful music.  (link in case embed not functioning:

Friday, January 29, 2021

Why the sideline is the best place to be in the Gamestop fight


My argument is clear, please watch this GameStop scenario from the sidelines, but I write to two audiences. First, the general public who don't have a strong opinion on who is right and who is wrong between the billionaire hedge fund managers shorting stocks and the small guys who write on reddit from their parents basement. And second, those who care passionately about this fight. Since, my arguments are different for each I will write this post in two sections.

Section 1, those without a dog, cat, large rodent or any other animal in the fight.

Whenever you see a stock blow from $17 a share to $450 it becomes easy to say, "Why didn't I buy it last week?" But of course realistically back when it was selling for $17 a share you didn't even know GameStop had a stock, but you did start to hear on the news about it when it had only jumped to $100 a share. Why didn't you jump in then? You could have made more money in two days then you make in a month. But why sit here and kick yourself for not getting in yesterday? Why not get in today? Maybe there is still money to be made on this thing.

The simply answer is there is still money to be made. This stock is not done with crazy fluctuations and if you guess correctly on which way those fluctuations have to go you could make money, lots of  money. Oh wait, no you couldn't. Here's why.

Be realistic when you start to day dream about what could have been. How much money do you have sitting around that you could throw at this anyways? How much would you be willing to miss? If you are like most people you don't have $100,000 sitting under you couch cushions waiting for a wall street battle to take advantage of. So, $1,000 if you feel really risky. Turning $1,000 into $4,000 would be nice and all, but it's not going to set you for life on a beach somewhere. 

Second, there was an IF a big IF in my previous statement. That is, there is money to be made IF you know which way the stock will fluctuate next. Depending on who decides to back this fight GameStop may have just begun to rise, but it could plummet tomorrow. If I had to guess there is much more downside than up in this stock, but it could rise for a long time before the ultimate crash. So do you buy or short? Neither. Because while buying stock is not always gambling, here it is and gambling is never a good idea.

But all of that is not the #1 reason you should stay on the sidelines. And to explain the #1 reason, I want to take you on a little journey. You happen to be scrubbing the cabinet underneath the bathroom sink, you have never done this before, after all, it's the cabinet under the sink. But you feel ambitious and you touch the p-trap and the door hinge at the same time and are magically transported back exactly 24 hours. You find that every time you touch these two objects at the same time you again get transported back 24 hours. You repeat this a few times and you find yourself back a week or so ago and GameStop is selling for $20 a share. You could take a second mortgage out on your home, put it all on GameStop and be set for life. Should you?

If you do what are you really accomplishing? As tempting as it would be I feel strongly the answer is a resounding NO. Why? Are you putting money into a company that will use that money to do good, get the world a product, make lives better with that money and thereby get a return on your investment, or are you simply seeing lots of money flow from other peoples pocket into yours? While it may go through a stock trade at the end of the day all that is happening is money flowing from others to you. That is not much above stealing. It hurts the people who loose the money, but not near as much as it hurts you. 

The greatest value money has, is the journey we take in earing it. The lessons it forces us to learn, the people it forces us to become. Money for nothing, especially large sums of it can have devastating results. So, don't do it. Just sit back relax and hope that this all works out without you playing winner or loser.

Section 2- For those who want to buy GameStop in the name of social justice.

For you, I hope you noticed the very stereotypical way I introduced the two sides above. Wall street fat cats against reddit users in their parents basement. Neither of these stereotypes is likely very accurate. That is important to point out because on both sides of this fight you have little guys and on both sides of this fight you have billionaires. And there will be more losers than winners, and most of the losers will be the little guys and most of the winners will be billionaires on both sides. 

While we are breaking stereotypes I don't think these evil hedge fund managers are as evil or conspiratory as many think. I know, arguing for hedge fund managers is not a popular thing, but here I go. I do not believe in shorting stocks. But there are valid reasons for doing it. The argument is they spend all day bad mouthing stocks, promoting why they should go down, pushing hard working companies down over and over again and make money on it. There may be some truth to this, but not much. Most people short companies not in an evil conspiracy to make them go down in value, but because they think the company is overvalued and they put their money where their mouth is. And they have less ability to fluctuate a stock than we may think. 

Did short sellers hurt GameStop stock? Yes, but that is not why GameStop has been going down for years. It's because they are losing money, market share and value. Those have much more to do with this stock going down than anything the short sellers are doing to it. And those short sellers are taking a risk. Could GameStop through innovation turn around and prove the short sellers wrong? Absolutely. Tesla has, so far. Lot's of people were shorting Tesla because they felt it was overpriced (and for the record, it is). But the company kept moving forward and most of those who bet against it lost and lost big. 

The problem is when you mislead or tell outright lies to push a stock one way or another to make money on it. This is done by short sellers and buyers alike, it's wrong and illegal. But it's very hard to prove if someone is pushing a stock or short because they honestly believe the company is good or bad, or simply to make money. It's not only hard for those who are listening it's hard for the person who is saying it. Anytime money is involved we are not a good judge of our own motives.

And that is another reason why I am apposed to buying GameStop or AMC as part of a cause. First, are you really doing it as part of a cause or are you secretly hoping it works in your favor? "I will fight those big fat cats, and if I get a little money on the side while I do it, well then..." Also, are many of the people pushing this really in it for the right reasons or is their righteous indignation simple a pump and dump scheme. Maybe it started as righteous indignation but has turned into a pump and dump. Some of the "good guys" on this fight have already cashed out to the tunes of billions. 

Lastly, what are you trying to prove? The little guy deserves a break? I can tell you when there is a huge run up like this many little guys throw their money in and are left holding the bag.

Maybe you are anti-hedge fund. But what is a hedge fund? It's not just a bunch of billionaires anymore than reddits all people in their parents basements. Hedge funds are often risky business and part of that risk is it's often on borrowed money. People are loosing their livelihoods, homes and lives over this and other hedge funds. But will this make hedge funds less or more common? The things that fuels risky behavior on the market is this type of volatility. People will be doing crazy things for years because they think it's the next GameStop.

Maybe you are anti-shorting. While I understand the argument to short, I think it's really bad idea. I would be supportive of getting rid of the ability to short a stock. It's highly risky, not well understood and you are betting on people to loose. But with that said, what is happening with GameStop will convince more, not less people to short. Why? Everyone knows this game will end. GameStop is not worth $400 a share. It's not worth $100 a share. Those promoting it admit that. So where does this ultimately end up? Smart money is that ultimately GameStop will return to $20 range. So while a few hedge funds may be crushed, there are more in the wings. And my guess is some of them have begun to short GameStop and as it continues up are expanding their short position. So you might be convincing the little guy to push money into GameStop so it can fall into the pockets of the very people your fighting on the way back down.

Stocks when used correctly are a wonderful thing. They allow us to put money into companies we hope will make our economy and world a better place to live. When they do, they give us some of that profit in return. But neither side is this battle is using the stock market wisely. And some will make large sums of money in this, some will loose large sums, but like most wars there will be far more casualties than victors, and ultimately no one will really win.