optimism in the face of reason, or: another kaddish for new orleans

Mira wrote about having a grudge against optimism in a recent essay that has left me wandering lost in my own mind. See, I agree with just about everything she wrote. I largely agree with her worldview. But I am a persistent optimist. I am an optimist in the face of considerable clear evidence that optimism is irrational.

Mira wrote about having a grudge against optimism recently in an essay that has left me wandering lost in my own mind. See, I agree with just about everything she wrote. I largely agree with her worldview. But I am a persistent optimist.

I am an optimist in the face of considerable clear evidence that optimism is irrational.

I am the most rational person I know. I am a skeptic. I am an empiricist. I do numbers. I annoy people who ask me what my sign is by responding with a lecture they find humorless (I disagree). Do I do this because I’m a Virgo, or because I have a second-grader’s grasp of how gravity works and can therefore deduce that astrology is horseshit? Yeah, must be because I’m a Virgo.

I think Mira’s right when she lists five faiths driving optimism and abandons each of them as hopelessly fluffy, along with hope itself. I have my own issues with faith. We’ve already been over this (see “on playing kaddish“). Faith is a pretty big deal for Lutherans, but I’ve never had any.

Yet I am an optimist, even though I should know better. The biggest heartaches in my life have followed in the wake of my unshakable certainty that people will do good, choose well, act honorably. I keep managing to forget somehow that healthy people who grew up bathed in unconditional love in functional families are a scant minority, and the far more probable case is that any given individual is too broken to recognize a good choice let alone find the strength to act on it in the face of adversity.

Perhaps this optimism comes from pragmatism. On some level I do realize that many people will disappoint me, frequently, and usually without good reasons, but does it help for me to assume that they will? Does it hurt for me to assume that they will not?

In my management career, I’ve seen people trying hard to meet my expectations, which are high. Yes, they disappoint me frequently, but when they fall, they get back up. They try again. They get better. They surprise themselves—and me—with success.

So, Mira’s #1, faith in others: nope. She’s right; I assume incorrectly when I assume people will do the right thing. I get better results from communicating clearly what I think the right thing is.

In #2, Mira dismisses faith in self in favor of preparation. I think she’s right. Her devastating essay yesterday about the water going out in New Orleans has had me thinking about this:

Chicago, where I used to live, was routinely brought to its knees by less than an inch of snow.

Minneapolis, where I used to live, was routinely undisturbed by a foot of snow.

Jane Byrne famously unseated the incumbent to become Chicago’s mayor for basically one reason: the other guy couldn’t get the snow plowed. He talked about it, though. He’d get on radio and TV and go on and on about how he had all the snow plows out and working overtime, and nobody was quitting until the job was done. And it was true.

The difference? Minneapolis had a lot more snow plows than Chicago.


Which costs money. Taxes are the cost of infrastructure we expect. Disastrous failure of infrastructure we ignore is the price of tax cuts. Minneapolis had a big bridge collapse a few years back, and we’re lucky we haven’t seen a lot more headlines like that one, because not maintaining our interstate highway system is one way we’ve been paying for all those big tax cuts. But I’m getting ahead of myself—this is my lack of faith in society, Mira’s #3.

Back to faith in self, #2: not really. I have a surplus of self-confidence in most of what I do, but that’s only because I either see to it that I’m well prepared or I avoid having anything to do with it. I can walk out on stage and play horn because I’ve worked ridiculously hard at horn since I was nine. I’m not good at sports, so I won’t even watch other people play them. Right—preparation.

Which brings us to #4-5, faith in the planet and universe. Where do I even start? Let’s just say my nocturnal insomnial hours look a lot like Mira’s.

So why am I an optimist?

Let’s go back to Minnesota. And New Orleans.

Thomas Friedman has probably the most depressing beat in journalism, the Middle East, with side trips to economic globalism, and yet he describes himself as an optimist—a description that anyone who follows his column in the New York Times would be hard-pressed to refute. The guy even managed to find cause for hope in Dubya’s plan to get back at Osama bin Laden by bombing Saddam Hussein to kingdom come. I may be an optimist, but that plan had “insane” and “quagmire” written all over it.

Friedman’s explanation for his optimism? He says he grew up in Minneapolis. He describes Minneapolis as a city that works in a state that works, and he thinks that is the source of his enduring optimism that places can work, that politicians can lead, that policies can do good.

I think there might be something to this.

I grew up in the snow belt, too, and I went to college in Minnesota about an hour south of Minneapolis. I found Minnesota politics more interesting, but I always voted absentee in North Dakota, because North Dakota needed my liberal vote a lot more than Minnesota did. Mind you, North Dakota is practically a socialist state, with its own bank and its own mill and elevator (a farm thing—don’t worry about it). At the time it was also the world’s fourth largest nuclear power, or would have been had it seceded from the union, so don’t tell me Reagan wasn’t worried about us liver-lilied liberals up there. But compared to Minnesota? Republican enclave.

Perhaps you’ve forgotten. Reagan was reelected in a “landslide” with all but thirteen electoral votes. I’m not sure how a 59%-41% split of the popular vote could be described as a landslide, or how a candidate that almost half the population couldn’t stand could be considered universally popular, but this isn’t supposed to be an essay about why we need a third political party and ranked-choice voting, so never mind that.

But those thirteen electoral votes that Mondale got?


The map in 1984 showed the entire United States in red except for Minnesota, wearing a lonely coat of blue up there in the frozen north.

Minnesota is the state that sent Paul Wellstone to the US Senate, may he rest in peace. He was a poli-sci prof at the college across the river from mine. A rumpled tweed sportcoat kind of guy—probably with the elbow patches, even—a thoughtful liberal who made sense, cared about doing good, and quietly stole the election from the shoo-in who paid for it fair and square.

What does all this have to do with optimism?

There is an essential optimism to this kind of consistent progressivism. Linguist George Lakoff argues that progressives lose a lot of elections because conservatives frame politics in selfish, fearful terms where a strict father protects his family against the evils of the outside world. By contrast, progressives frame politics in empathic, positive terms where a nurturing parent teaches children self-discipline so that they can realize their potential and be responsible for others. That second worldview is a whole lot more optimistic, and optimism just doesn’t play as well on TV. Fear sells. Nurturance is wimpy.

Minnesota was a place, though, where that optimism crowded fear out. Perhaps I’m an optimist because I, like Thomas Friedman, grew up in that place that worked.

I think long winters and all that snow had something to do with it, too. You don’t get through six months of below-zero temperatures on your own. As Mira knew to share water in the Sahara, I knew that “neighbor” is the person whose sidewalk also needs to be shoveled out before you go back inside to warm up, and whose car might start when yours needs a jump.

As for New Orleans—well, I almost moved there.

Eighteen years ago, I won the assistant principal horn audition in the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, which was the co-op struggling to rise from the ashes of the New Orleans Philharmonic’s bankruptcy. I was ecstatic. This was the first audition I’d won for a real job—the job I’d been preparing for since I was nine, playing horn full-time in a symphony orchestra. And it was in New Orleans, a city I’d spent the weekend exploring and falling in love with. Where I’d enjoyed staying with a role model-turned-friend, whose company I could now have regularly.

I didn’t expect this, but within a few minutes of winning the audition, I knew I had to turn the job down. I asked about details of the wage forecast the job announcement had left vague and got grim answers. I asked about the schedule and learned details that ruled out any hope I might have of continuing my software work on the side. I asked about teaching work and chamber music work and learned that there was little demand in town for either.

I asked about the LPO’s financial situation and the factors that had led to the previous orchestra’s collapse and didn’t hear anything that had changed. I thought about the city I’d been enjoying and how I hadn’t seen one speck of classical music. For that matter, I hadn’t seen any music that was being produced for anyone but tourists, and I knew that tourists aren’t known for keeping orchestras in business. I hadn’t seen much of a local population that could afford symphony tickets. I saw an awful lot of people who couldn’t afford lunch. I saw an awful lot of dilapidation.

I knew what all these things meant: New Orleans was not a city that worked.

So on the long flight home, I had a big argument with myself, trying desperately to find any reason whatsoever to believe that I should take the job. All I could come up with was a variety of story-lines that all ended with me too poor to buy a plane ticket to an audition for a better job. (I also got a bit hung up on knowing I’d never be able to afford air conditioning.) The next day I phoned and mailed my decision.

Thing is, I didn’t give up the job out of pessimism about the LPO or New Orleans. I kept my job in Chicago out of optimism that I was on my way to winning a better horn job somewhere else and appreciation that the situation I had in the meantime was a good one.

A few years later I moved to San Francisco with the optimistic plan of trading software for freelancing—a plan that lasted only a few weeks, until a Rottweiler bit me in the face and I couldn’t play horn for the next four years or, for all I knew, ever again. I made the optimistic—and pragmatic—decision to carry on with software. Which is how it came to be that I watched Katrina on a big TV in a house I own in the beautiful Oakland hills.

I was heartbroken along with everyone else. It took me a week to reach my friend. And I couldn’t figure out why anybody was surprised that a town that was known for tourists and poverty fell apart when a big storm blew through. The only surprise was that it didn’t happen sooner.

About New Orleans I have no optimism. I never never, as much as I loved what I experienced in 1992—as much as I’d like to visit again now. A city that makes its money by being a place for tourists to get drunk isn’t spending any of that money on its infrastructure. Nobody’s flying in and buying tickets to see levies. New Orleans’ news-making entrepreneur post-Katrina is a guy who dispatches big, shiny black trucks to the tourism centers every single night to pick up the garbage and hose the vomit out of the streets with a pleasant-smelling detergent, and anybody who doesn’t find that depressing is delusional.

By erin

Erin Vang, PMP, BMus, MMus, is Owner and Principal Pragmatist of the consultancy Global Pragmatica LLC®, offering custom JMP scripting, localization program management, and facilitative leadership services. She is also an orchestral horn player who freelances in the San Francisco Bay Area and plays assorted brass for the celebrated dance bands Midnight Smørgåsbord and contraPtion. More about Erin…

5 replies on “optimism in the face of reason, or: another kaddish for new orleans”

I don’t think that faith has to be faith “in” something, and even less “that something” will happen. This was the thing that came to me the very first time I was at Quaker Meeting (hosted by one of the professors at that college across the river where Paul Wellstone z”l taught). My faith is no more or less than the confidence that the sun will rise tomorrow morning, whether or not I’m awake to greet it — and that I don’t have to pull any strings to make that happen, or prepare, or plan, or pay for infrastructure. Secondarily, it’s the optimism that I will, indeed, probably be here to greet it. It’s the fact that things do happen in a life-and-health-promoting way, at least in the short term, over and over and over again: That the little cells in your body are constantly making new ones to replace the ones that are constantly dying, and therefore you are still alive and standing here today (Atem nitsavim…).

It doesn’t mean that the country isn’t going to hell in a handbasket. It doesn’t mean that I have confidence either in the masses or in an enlightened despot (that’s a paraphrase of Heinlein, via Lazarus Long). It doesn’t meant that entropy won’t eventually triumph, nor does it mean that I will exist in any recognizable form/formlessness by the time that it does!

It just means that life is good, here, now, today, and probably tomorrow, and mostly yesterday.

And in my experience, being able to feel that on a regular basis, as opposed to just noticing it at special moments, has a lot to do with having enough serotonin traversing the … wait, I’ve forgotten the details if I ever really knew them. Anyway, it’s partly biochemical, one’s tendency to wallow in the horror and pathos and tragedy and travesty of life, or alternatively not to. Learnable, too, but it helps a lot to have the biochemically stable platform to stand on.

It may not be irrelevant that my (Jewish, therefore acquainted with troubles at least in the past) family also came from Minnesota, and that I lived there long enough to absorb a recognition of a place where, indeed, even the human systems work more often than, perhaps, in other places.

This is a public reply to comments made privately by Zoe and her mom, that perhaps I missed some important parts of New Orleans during my brief audition visit. They wisely point out the community-building aspects of adversity and its influences on culture, how death and dying inspire creative response, and other good points.

You and your mom make good points, that I agree with wholeheartedly. I did see those parts of Nola, actually—those are the parts I fell in love with. (Along with the pleasures, of course, of being a tourist in a community that knows how to make tourists happy.)

Exactly—a rich culture is born of adversity! When you can’t afford much or fancy food, you learn to make what you can afford taste amazing. You learn how to cook things other people don’t consider to be food. This is how Chinese cuisine came to be so darned popular—they figured out how to make the weirdest stuff taste great, because they had to. Same with Cajun and Creole food, I think. Fantastic food is not all about poverty and making do, of course—it’s also about creatively blending multicultural culinary genius and local ingredients, about expressing love through food, about celebrating life’s triumphs and tragedies by gathering the ones you love around the table, about persevering in the face of both goodness and hardship.

The music is similar—you have nothing, you make something. Nola’s live music scene is a rich tapestry woven by a whole bunch of people learning the hard way—oral tradition, hard work on a beat-up horn, bootstrapping yourself up through any gigs you can get to the gigs you crave, and enacting a lifelong process of improvisation on a musical heritage that is as real as the air they breathe. The guys who make it to the top in that scene (and it’s mostly guys, alas) can play. God knows it wasn’t because they had an amazing music program in the public school system, a free ride to Juilliard, and money to burn on the best instruments money can buy.

I didn’t miss that part of Nola at all. New Orleans’ vibrancy was as plain to me as its dilapidation.

New Orleans felt real and fake all at once to me; a tourist’s playground where the town puts on a show, and the real town behind the curtain where the town goes grittily on, and where real lives are lived.

What I didn’t write about, because my essay was already two miles long and full of tangents, was the extrinsic knowledge I also had about Nola’s infrastructure, even then: that it’s built in swampland that was reengineered by the Army Corps and other tamperers-with-nature before that.

All that water management has been found to be misguided. Wetlands have a certain inertia that overcomes misguided rearrangement, especially when that rearrangement is allowed to deteriorate and its flaws aren’t addressed when discovered, systematically, for decades. We read all about that in the newspapers in the weeks leading up to and years following Katrina, but it’s not like it was news, at least not to all of us.

No, I didn’t do a ton of research on the Louisiana wetlands back in 1992, but I didn’t have to. I grew up in North Dakota, where the disastrous effects of misguided water “management” are just part of the backdrop. We lived in the floodplain of the mighty northward-flowing Red River, and the epic floods in Grand Forks, ND, a few years back were a familiar, amplified echo of the flooding that made every spring in North Dakota exciting. My childhood springs were filled with talk of sump pumps failing, weekends spent helping people bail out their basements, and several years where the community called all hands to sandbagging.

North Dakota dammed up the Missouri River in the infamous, ginormous “Garrison Diversion Project” that got most of western North Dakota’s floodplains screwed up, and the pile-on effects of that are felt in Montana, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. A bunch more water mismanagement on Minot’s Mouse River, aka the Souris, regularly delivers farm toxins (pesticides and fertilizers) to the nice folks in Manitoba. All kinds of misguided drainage, irrigation, and associated redirection efforts for the convenience of the potato, sugar beet, and wheat farmers of eastern North Dakota have led the so-called “Devils Lake” (known to earlier North Dakotans as “Spirit Lake”) to swallow up most of its county, and don’t get my brother started on what that’s done to biodiversity.

I’m no expert on civic engineering. When you grow up with this stuff, it just seeps into your awareness. Communities built on floodplains and in swamplands either adapt to nature or they adapt nature, and the latter approach doesn’t work out too well. The more we try to change our environment to suit civilization, the bigger the shock we have coming to us when nature—as it inevitably does—eventually regains its power.

When you take a region built on the foundation of misguided water management, throw in callous disregard for the costs of maintaining infrastructure, and stir with a dash of poverty, you have cooked up disaster. I don’t claim any great prescience about the disaster that was Katrina. But it’s not like it was a big surprise to anybody who was paying attention. That the disaster struck such a remarkable oasis of cultural vibrancy has been heartbreaking.

Natural disasters seem to exact an unnaturally large vengeance on the poor, but it’s not nature that we have to blame. It’s that we have a greater tendency to mismanage and then neglect the areas inhabited by the poor, and when disaster strikes, the money just never quite makes it in there to fuel a real recovery. The infrastructure gets fixed up where the money lives. I quantified this trend in a post on my consultancy’s blog entitled “Putting natural disasters in perspective.” Here I’ll just make one quick comparison:

The San Francisco area had a bad earthquake in 1989, and it recovered pretty quickly. Through the 1990s we saw all but the poorest areas undergoing seismic retrofitting. Haiti had a far worse earthquake in January, and what we see now is not rebirth but further degradation. I need to use the word “heartbreaking” again to describe the promising new career for poor men (yes) in Haiti: diving into the waterways unprotected to clean out the muck by hand for a hundred dollars or so a week. Because instead of civic renewal fueled by seismic retrofit efforts, what Haiti is experiencing is a modern-day cholera outbreak.


Scientists tell us cholera is caused by a bacterium, vibrio cholerae. Reading the newspaper tells us cholera is caused by poverty.

Somewhere I read once that there has never been a famine in a democracy. QED, famines aren’t caused (primarily or solely) by lack of food brought on by, e.g. drought.

A comment from Mira posted at

There was a piece done today on Public Radio’s ‘The World’ that reminded me of your post. Lisa Mullins was interviewing some Canadian farm woman who took in a bunch of stranded motorists from the highway yesterday, during what may have been a blizzard (I have no ‘snow’ vocabulary, despite having lived briefly in Michigan). At any rate, there was over 6 ft of snow. Lisa’s ‘interview’ was no more than the expression of incredulity that these modest farm people would take in strangers, give them coffee, toast, and ultimately a corner to sleep in that was not the barn floor.

I’ve been trapped in blizzards in western Pennsylvania where people did exactly the same. And loved Maine in the Winter (much more than the Summer) for its collectivism even in cooking vats of baked beans as entertainment on long winter nights. Fine. Survival in the northern climes is dependent on Kropotkinian mutual aid.

But so is the Sahara. And so is the Middle East. Hospitality and good will are very much alive in the Middle East and North Africa on a daily basis, and it doesn’t take extreme weather (in any direction) to make it happen. Crossing the Sahara during a drought year, I found starving Tuareg more hospitable and generous than (the few, thank god) Americans on the truck we were traveling on.

“Why should we share our antibiotics with them?” said one sour Midwesterner. “I might need it at some point down the road.”

This truly embarrassing episode occurred when a Tuareg child fell out of the only tree standing for hundreds of miles in any direction, and whose cut up leg had become infected. Of course, we cleaned out the wound. Of course I tried to explain how to use the medicine (their Arabic was about as bad as mine was at the time).

Altruism, mutual aid and cooperation — oh, and collaboration, of course — require no more than action.

And you (the optimist) and I (the pessimist) are very good at all of the above. We take action. And we follow through.

And whether New Orleans lives or dies — that’s what the people of New Orleans do as well. With music. And attitude. And rage that the rest of the country seems pretty slow on the uptake in this regard.

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