Halloween and Elections

I arrived at work this morning to find people dressed like pirates entering the back door at City Hall.  I wasn’t surprised, of course, because this is Albany where “Pirattitude” was invented.  Later this morning, Cruella DeVille, a group of Dalmatian puppies, and their owner appeared in my office.  Some kind of ghoul also stopped by and handed out candy.  Bob Woods in the office next door looks like a cross between Mary Poppins and Bozo the Clown.  Diana Eilers is attired in stripes, and I noticed an angel operating the copy machine as I walked by a few minutes ago.  Dressing up in strange costumes is not rational behavior; yet, every year at this time, young and old alike engage in the practice.

This year we are also on the verge of a critical national election.  We face grave economic challenges; our country is at war; and we must make choices that are likely to have a profound effect on our future.  I think it’s fitting that Halloween falls so close to the election.  The celebration should serve as a reminder that human beings are not entirely rational and neither are most of the choices we make.

Whether it’s dressing up in strange costumes or picking a candidate because we like something about him or her that we can’t really define, our choices are a reflection of the fact that there are many things about the world and about ourselves that we don’t fully understand.  As a city manager, I think part of my job is to push for rationality in how we conduct city business.  We devote many of our resources to this effort, and we are always working on ways to do it better.  As much as I believe in the importance of rational, evidence-based decision making, I also realize that it’s not a bad idea to recognize the importance of feelings, crazy impulses, and having a little fun.

I think that’s how I will deal with any results from the upcoming election that I don’t like.  I will never control all the variables in life and make it conform to a rational model.  I remind myself that my challenge (and a big part of what I am paid to do) is to make sure the model gets to the table.  I think the other part of my job is to reconcile the rational with the irrational.

So Happy Halloween and best wishes for Tuesday’s elections.  Regardless of the outcome, I plan to remain hopeful and continue working for my family and my community.  My attitude may not be entirely rational; but it feels right, and I think it beats the alternative.

Taxes, Value, Democracy, & Dead Animals

People complain about taxes because they have little individual control over high they will be and they don’t feel they are receiving a good return on their investment.  The current presidential campaign is developing into a series of sound bites that boil down to whether people should be attracted by a pledge of no new taxes or taxing the wealthy to distribute to the rest of us.

My response to political leaders is that I’m less concerned about taxes than I am about the value I receive for my investments.  Some of my limited wealth has been going into retirement plans for a number of years which means I’ve lost a fair amount of money in the past few months.  I have never complained about the amount of money going into my retirement funds or how that money was invested, probably because I’ve had a lot to do with how the funds were spent.

A fair amount of what I earn is invested in taxes that support a huge array of purposes.  Some of it is invested in national security, and some of it gets spent to pick up dead animals on Albany’s streets.  I occasionally grouse about spending priorities at the national, state, and local level, although I generally recognize that living in Albany, Oregon, USA, is a pretty rare privilege, where the benefits greatly exceed the liabilities.  I also know that when I am dissatisfied with the apportionment of my tax dollars, there are things I can do to make changes.  My ballot arrived last weekend, and I’ve already made most of my selections based on my beliefs about who and what will deliver the greatest value to my family, my community, and my country.  Our form of representative democracy is far from perfect, but it is one of the few things that distinguishes the United States from any other place on the planet.

I would rather hear more discussion from candidates this year about increasing the value of my tax investments and less about lowering my tax expenses.  A prosperous life in a good community with real opportunities for growth and satisfaction is worth a lot to me.  I chose to work in local government because I believed it was a place where you could have a direct effect on making people’s lives better and still make a living.  My belief has not changed over the past 20+ years; and, in fact, it has only grown stronger.  My opinion is reinforced almost every day when I visit a library filled with patrons of all ages or see a professional ambulance crew respond to a medical emergency.  I also know I can call someone at the City to pick up a dead nutria on a given day; and, thanks in part to my tax investment, it will be done.

We are now in the midst of an important election at all levels of government.  I am grateful for this chance to mark my ballot and contribute to a process that has, thus far, delivered great value to my family and me.  With so much at stake, it is the least I can do.

When Weird is Normal

I received an e-mail from an Iraqi friend last month asking me to join him on Facebook.  I’m proud to say that I knew what he was talking about even though I had not previously seen the need to construct a MySpace or Facebook profile.  I hadn’t heard from my friend for awhile; so I decided to go through the Facebook enrollment process and see if we could get in touch.

I dutifully put in more personal information than I wanted to and even downloaded my picture from the City’s Web site that makes me look fatter than I really am.  I shipped all this off into cyberspace; and, although I’ve had no response from my Iraqi friend, I now have made new friends with a whole bunch of very young people.  My home e-mail account contained messages from several of my children’s friends declaring that I’m now their friend, too.  I guess Facebook opens up intergenerational communication in ways that I never imagined.  I enjoyed seeing pictures of a number of young people I hadn’t seen in years and learning about what they’re doing.  Most of them have children of their own and seem to be doing well.  I suppose it would be inappropriate to list bad things about yourself on the Internet.  None of this may seem weird in a world where mores change as frequently as the weather, but I don’t know how I would even begin to explain Facebook to my grandmother.

Shortly after the Facebook experience, I found an e-mail message in my inbox asking me if I would be willing to travel to Beirut for a few days to do a workshop.  I travel enough to know that you can get around the world in fairly short order, although I’m still amazed at how quickly you can get from one place to the next.  My first trip abroad was aboard a ship headed to England in 1959.  I think it took about five or six days to travel from New York to South Hampton.  I can now travel to Beirut, engage in a series of meetings, and return home in less time than it took to make the trip across the Atlantic 49 years ago.  It also seems strange to me that anyone would want me to go to Beirut to help conduct a few meetings.

I guess we all know that the world is changing rapidly; and, if we didn’t, we only have to read a newspaper, watch television, or scan the Internet to have it driven home.  Everyone’s attention is directed to the current economic crisis, and it’s easy to get depressed thinking about what might happen.  The best reassurance I can give myself is that weird is normal, and it’s not necessarily bad.  Most of us have the tools, not just to cope, but to flourish in a world where threats and opportunities routinely appear in equal measure.  Our greatest challenge is keeping our own attitude afloat in a flood of changing circumstances.