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Civic Chill

In May 2022 I decided it was time to take a break from government service. I had been working with and in governments since 2015 and I was tired. I had the privilege and luxury to change jobs and start working in the climate change mitigation problem space.

Below is the spiel I gave my co-workers at Truss on my last day. Truss was a tremendous place to work and if you’re interested in the kinds of technical and organizational challenges that are their speciality, I recommend you give them a look.

I’ve duplicated the spiel text directly, so a few notes. One, Truss employees refer to themselves as Trussels. Two, Truss is a fully distributed company and so all the weekly all-hands meetings, or what they call “Prac” (short for Practioners’ meeting), are all on Zoom and most company communication happens via Slack. Three, there’s some salty language, and you may lose some of the affect in reading it versus hearing it. So just try to imagine my serene, Midwestern, public-radio-like, dulcet tones if you can.

If you have small people with you on this zoom call, you might want to mute the audio or put on headphones because I’m about to use some adult language.

There have been a few old timer Trussels who have left the company in the last few months. One of the things I’ve heard them say is they miss how the Truss culture has changed. I am not one of them. I know that culture is always an artifact of who is present, and when a company grows as quickly as Truss has, there’s no way that the culture would remain the same. One thing I have noticed, though, as perhaps a bellwether of that cultural change, is the relative decline of the word “fuck” in Prac meetings. Maybe it’s a subtle self-censorship, as if with so many new people we’re trying to practice a little more polite company etiquette. Maybe not. Certainly we’re living in unprecedented times, so my anecdata is exactly that. In any case, if you’re one of those who bemoan the loss of Truss culture, don’t worry. In the next 3 minutes I’m going to significantly raise the average number of utterances of the word “fuck” dropped during Prac.

I’m going to drop a visual aid into the #prac channel.

I’ve always thought that the word “fuck” is a little like the word “smurf” in that it can mean anything you want it to, entirely dependent on the tone and context in which you use it. If you’re offended by the word “fuck” I completely understand. I was raised in a conservative evangelical family and until I was in middle school, I thought the “f-word” was “fart.” Even to this day, I feel more squeamish saying “fart” aloud than I do saying “fuck” aloud. So now I’ve said both words aloud in a single sentence, and yes, even at age 50, I can confirm that the strange-ness persists.

My own need for therapy aside, I’d like to share my thoughts on two phrases with you on this, my last day at Truss. My dearest hope is that you will hear what I have to say and then actively resist and even reject it. Hopefully you’ll see what I mean by the end.

The first phrase is “give a fuck.” Or its inflammable counterpart, “don’t give a fuck.” I say “inflammable” because “give a fuck” and “don’t give a fuck” seem like opposites but can mean the same thing depending on how you say them, much the way that “flammable” and “inflammable” appear to be opposites but actually mean the same thing. To “give a fuck” means to strongly care about something. But if someone says, in an emotionally strong tone of voice, that they don’t give a fuck, then I suspect they actually do give a fuck. There’s a corollary: “fucks to give” as in “I’ve run out of fucks to give.” And of course, the old chestnut, “what the fuck” which is what you say when you give a fuck but wish you didn’t. I could go on. We have a funny language.

I like people who give a fuck. I feel a certain comradery with them, even if the things they give a fuck about are different than the things I give a fuck about. I have a hard time understanding people who don’t give a fuck about anything. Usually I suspect they are just in the closet about what they give a fuck about, and are afraid of disappointment. That’s what cynicism is: the fear of appearing to give a fuck. As we know, cynics are disappointed idealists. And if there’s anyone who really gives a fuck, it’s an idealist.

I mention giving a fuck and not giving a fuck because of a second phrase I’d like to introduce you to: civic chill. This is a phrase I made up to describe a particular kind of being in the world. Have you ever met another human, especially an older person, like an activist or social worker or community organizer, who seems to both give a fuck and not give a fuck, simultaneously? Like, they are ready to march in the streets, get up in the face of the powerful, agitate and advocate for what needs to be changed, and yet they seem totally chill, relaxed and trusting at the same time? That’s what I mean by civic chill. It’s a passionately detached engagement. It’s the simultaneous embodiment of believing that what you are doing and saying really matter in a crucially important way, and that they are also doomed to fail. It’s a paradoxical tension in the best Kierkegaardian sense.

Some of you know where I’m going with this. And some of you are googling Kierkegaardian.

The kind of work Truss does in and with governments may require a great deal of civic chill. Or not. Whenever you start a project, the odds are not in your favor that you will ever ship something to production. Most often, failure to ship is not a technical problem and most often it is completely out of your control. It’s one of the many tech-in-government problems that are not about technology but are instead about compliance and procurement and budgets and organizational inertia. If you manage to ship, great! Celebrate! If you fail to ship, recognize that there are many forces aligned against you and it’s likely not your fault.

So you have to start each day holding two contradictory beliefs: what you are doing really matters, and likely it will fail and not matter.

Even though I have, temporarily (I hope), currently lost my civic chill, I am still going to share with you my secret for how I keep it when I’m able to. The secret is: give a fuck, really give it. Then give it away. And then celebrate the privilege and opportunity to give a fuck. What a gift.

Alright my friends. I wish for you the freedom to both give a fuck, and not; to dwell in your civic chill, and not; to make good coffee, and not. Peace.

Charlotte’s Web Day, part 10

Today is the tenth anniversary of Charlotte’s Web Day. It has never caught on widely, despite the shoutout from Wikipedia, but I have it on my calendar. This year I re-read the book again in a single sitting and, as usual, new sentences stuck out to me. Here’s one.

“I only distribute pigs to early risers,” said Mr. Arable. “Fern was up at daylight, trying to rid the world of injustice. As a result, she now has a pig. A small one, to be sure, but nevertheless a pig. It just shows what can happen if a person gets out of bed promptly.”

Happy Charlotte’s Web Day!

Abilene

Just after Christmas in 1997, I loaded up all my worldly possessions into my 1989 Honda Civic (which got 40+ miles to the gallon even back then!) and drove south from Saint Paul toward Atlanta. I was going to enroll at Emory’s Candler School of Theology and work on a master’s degree. I stopped in Arkansas on the way, left my car parked outside my sister’s double-wide trailer, got in her car and we drove together to Tucson, Arizona for a family reunion. My younger cousin was the first of our generation to get married, and we were going to celebrate her, and my grandfather’s birthday. I think we drove overnight so we could arrive on New Year’s Eve. I don’t know if you’ve ever driven east to west across Texas, but that is one really wide state of the union.

My sister really knows how to drive. Puts the pedal down and locks in and goes. So it was 4 a.m. when we finally traded places. There’s something about the hours between midnight and dawn, the small hours, that gets me pensive. Just headlights, few other cars. The buzz of the overhead lights at the empty gas station, and the moths trying to stay warm. Hours and hours of straight lines and, if I’m lucky, stars.

I wrote down the lyrics to this song at our next stop, when we traded seats. I set it to music a week later, after I finished my trip to Atlanta (because yes, we had to drive back across Texas just a few days later).

I realized, recording this last winter, that I had never told my sister about “Abilene” or played it for her. So it was fun to make that connection 23 years later.

I am especially grateful to my friend Andrea who contributed background vocals to this track. She’s in Sydney, Australia, and thanks to the magic of the internet her voice was in my ears as I mixed this one. She’s a great musician and songwriter.

I never ended up taking any classes at Emory. Instead I wrote a lot of songs, and then moved back to Saint Paul and re-joined the House of Mercy Band, and we made some records.

Sunny Georgia

The House of Mercy Band recorded several albums from 1999 to 2010. We were the host band at the House of Mercy church in Saint Paul. I don’t think I’m overstating things to claim that the band would not have made any records at all, and maybe never started a record label, if I hadn’t wandered into the church one evening in the fall of 1996, then again in the summer of 1997. There’s a good origin story for how Chris Larson and I met, and how I got Peter Rasmussen involved, and how one thing led to another until we found ourselves setting up mics in the church baptistry on a cold Saturday in the winter of 1998/99. A good origin story I’ll tell another time. I will mention Heidi Olson and her beautiful violin playing on that first record, which we called the white album because it originally had no art or title, just a white cardboard sleeve. Heidi and I met through our mutual friend Heidi Van Schooten. Heidi O and I played music together at Heidi VS’s wedding in the late summer of 1998, and it was so magical that we tried to play together several more times before life logistics intervened. One such time was that original recording session at the First Baptist church building in Lowertown Saint Paul, and I’m forever grateful she made it there.

I wrote the lyrics to “Sunny Georgia” in the autumn of 1998 and gave them to Chris. I think Chris and Doug Trail-Johnson worked up the melody/chords together, and I remember them playing it for the band at Chris’s house at a practice night. It must not have been solid enough to make it on to that first record, but it was the lead-off tune on the next record, “Too Many Treasures“. I wrote lyrics for four of the 11 songs on that record, but “Sunny Georgia” was always my favorite to play. I told Chris once that it was one of the few songs I never got tired of.

The walking bass line in the song is ripped straight from “Stray Cat Strut“. It’s one of Chris’s genius attributes that he does not realize he’s borrowing from other songs, which is what frees him up to write familiar sounding melodies and chord progressions. I’m always afraid to sound too much like other, more famous songs. Chris once told me that Hank Williams Sr was the same way, borrowing music freely from other songs and adapting his own lyrics. It’s a freedom I’ve never felt and sort of envy. I suspect that one of the reasons I don’t get tired of playing “Sunny Georgia” is that I always really liked the lyrical construction and the music feels like an old friend.

Since I stopped playing in bands my cheap little classical guitar has been a source of comfort, and I often pick it up in the evenings and play old songs, my own but mostly others’. So when Russell Rathbun reached out in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic to ask if I would contribute some songs to his podcast, I was glad to set up a mic and just play like I often do in the evenings, one old friend after another. They were all first-takes with no overdubs, which is my eternal bias for recording anything. I did go back and take out some of the hiss and add a little reverb, but otherwise it’s just me and my nylon string guitar (the same one that appeared on the first Brett Larson record) and a microphone.

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