Sunday, August 30, 2015

Billionaires For Dummies

It is worth reminding yourself of the factoid from a decade or more ago:  it is not worth Bill Gates' time to stop and to pick up a $100 bill that he sees lying on the ground.  Welcome to the wonderful world of billionaires.

As your host, my job is to orient you to the billionaire life that surrounds us.  Maybe you know one.  Maybe you are one (though if the $100 isn't worth your time, this most certainly isn't).  When the shift from millions to billions took place several decades ago (as humorously noted in Dr. Evil's terrorist request in the first Austin Powers movie), it led us to, all these years down that road, a tendency to take billionaires for granted.

In the apocryphal exchange where F. Scott Fitzgerald commented that "The rich are different from us," Hemingway is supposed to have responded, "Yes, they have more money."  While Fitzgerald found the comment insulting and undercutting, and while you may be thinking, 'Good insight, Captain Obvious,' Hemingway cuts to the heart of the matter.  The fact of that money, that humongous amount of money, changes everything (with apologies to Cyndi Lauper's songwriters).

Basically, to understand billionaires, you have to know what they want.  We all know what they have, but what do they want?  I break it down into 4 categories:

1.  They want to protect what they have.
2.  They want to influence the world around them in ways that are advantageous to them.
3.  They want what they want when they want it.
4.  They want to use their money in ways that bring them praise, adulation, and "immortality."

First, if you are a billionaire, you have engaged in cutthroat activity of one sort or another.  You outbid, colluded, made secret deals, squeezed out a partner, bent the laws or the rules of ethics.  And because of that, once you've got what you were after, you want to keep it.  Your vast holdings may destroy your offspring and their offspring, but that does not mean that you are going to just give it all away.  If you do give it away, you will do so in ways that bring you accolades and immortality and posterity-- say a string of public libraries or a donation to the U.N. Or some kind of African initiative.  If you don't give it away, well, no one expected you to.

Which means that you will do whatever you can to keep your wealth intact, growing, in an advantageous position for the future.  You'd be a fool not to, when you can influence politicians and local officials with any number of different and inconsequential machinations of your wealth.  A few thousand or million here or there, some dark money behind a targeted ad campaign, flat out campaign contributions--all of these protect your interests.

Because you are a billionaire, you are used to getting your way whenever you want to get your way, which is all of the time.  The people who work for you directly, and the people who can be influenced to work for you, will do your bidding and will do so in ways that do not challenge your authority.  What would be the point?  How many people who may not even know it wait to take their jobs as soon as they slow down or question?

Finally, the billionaire projects a persona that makes him or her seem untouchable.  The wealth of a billionaire is another way of saying, I am in complete control of all that I do, now and into the future (that will extend long beyond your life).  It says, I know how the world works in ways that you cannot begin to fathom, you who have to make reservations at restaurants and have to choose to spend money on one thing over another and who have debt that is not a tax advantage and who see yourselves as tied to one spouse for the rest of your life.  The billionaire knows that, with the stroke of a pen, he or she can alter the course of a city or state, maybe even a country or a world problem, in ways that will bring fame unto him or her, if he or she so desires it.  And there is nothing, no law or morality, that requires that he or she desire it if he or she does not want to.

All of which is a very long winded way of saying that if you, me, or him or her or they are staking our or their collective futures on the whims of a billionaire, any billionaire, then all of us are fools.  To think that a person that removed from the dealings, decisions, interactions, and real-life ethical choices of an average person's daily life--with law and punishment and church and debt looming--has any understanding of what is best for us or our country is sheer lunacy.

Billionaires can do most anything they want, but they can't come over to our house or our street to play.  Not if we don't want them.  And why would we?  Unless the goal of our lives is to make them all about what a billionaire wants.  No thanks.  Let them buy the street, the neighborhood, if they like, but they will still know nothing of our lives.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Tramps Like Us

Today, now tonight, is the 40th anniversary of the release of Bruce Springsteen's "coming out party," his debutante ball, aka Born To Run.

I know where I was. I was at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, a music and camping extravaganza somewhere outside of the city.  I was with a friend, now deceased.  I was already a Springsteen fan; he was not, and he would never get there.  Like everything else folk-related, by 1975, the festival was a blend of electric and acoustic, traditional amateurs jamming in the parking lots while the main acts had embraced the power of a thumping bass, an electrified violin, even a plugged-in guitar.

From the cars near our tent, we could hear the first tastes of popular tracks from the album.  "Born To Run" had been a mainstay in Philadelphia for about a year, and I had heard via cassette tape or something else.  My older brother was in college at Penn, and he had come home a year or two earlier with Springsteen's first two albums.  I was immediately hooked, especially by the second record, The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle.  A rocking guitar and keyboard heavy album of drawn out tales and crisp instrumentation, with sax sprinkled throughout, it was like nothing else I was listening to at that time.

But at the festival and listening with my friend, I found myself having to defend the dense, sometimes muddy, production of a record that I would later learn sought to emulate the "wall of sound" Phil Spector had made his signature.  It sounded simpler than the previous record.  The anthemic "Jungleland" was dismissed as little more than a ripoff of Elton John 's "Tiny Dancer. ". But I was already a believer, and I either tried to refute or kept my mouth shut like any good acolyte, I don't remember which.

Born To Run hit me exactly where it needed to.  As a disenfranchised college student, its themes of alienation and the desire for something better were what I was waiting to hear.  Rock music in 1975 was not really sending that message--it was focused on either the cosmic or the intensely personal--and it was Bruce who offered the way out, at least musically, for a child of the suburbs who knew some privilege but didn't know the world around him.

In a career of powerful lyrics, some of Springsteen's best gems reside on that 1975 record.  For example:

"And the poets down here don't write nothin' at all,
They just stand back and let it all be."

Lyrics like this, meaningful in a mythical Jersey shore town, now reverberate in Ferguson, MO, or anywhere else where the events of the day seem to have no connection to reality.

Springsteen does not stunt one's growth, either thematically or musically.  He has gone any number of places since that moment 40 years ago.  Still, four decades on, I tend to divide the world between those who get Springsteen and those who don't.  He remains that vital, simply because he learned with Born To Run that he could speak for others.  Beautiful and meaningful as many of the songs on his first two records are, they do not contain the universality of BTR, Darkness On The Edge Of Town, and several of the records, now CDs, since.

With Born To Run, Springsteen tried to speak for a lot more people than just kids in Jersey who didn't fit in.  In reaching for that, he couldn't have known that he would be forever drawing the line between the romantic dreamers and the rest who just couldn't hear him.  But in a world where we all look for the next Dylan, the next Stevie Ray Vaughn, the next Springsteen, no one has stepped up, at least not successfully, to take the mantle and the crown from the young man from New Jersey who turned the cars and highways and failures of one of our smallest states into a voice for America.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

We Walk

There is no reason that you should care about this, but right now, at 10:37PM, I have walked 11,066 steps today, the equivalent of 5.14 miles.  I have climbed 31 flights of stairs.  My resting heart is 59 beats per minute, though right now I'm at 71.  Today, I have spent 2 hours and 7 minutes in "Fat Burn," but a mere 2 minutes in "Cardio."

I slept last night for 7 hours and 3 minutes.  Though I wasn't really awake at any time, I was "Restless" 16 times for a total of 31 minutes.

Welcome to the world of FitBit, of Jawbone, of the Apple version of the same kind of exercise digital record keeping.  I have to say, it is a world that I enjoy being a part of.

Late last May, I bought my wife and I FitBit HRs for our 32nd wedding anniversary (As well as a related joint Spotify account).  Since then, we have rarely looked back.  Instead, we walk.

There is something silly about wearing something on your wrist that keeps track of your various metabolic functions.  There are probably actuaries somewhere receiving the data to update their projections of when people like me are going to die.

Still, it is a world that I have quickly come to love.  Why?  Because we walk.  Tonight we circled the block twice, racking up 1000 steps each time--me, wife, and dog--to our mutual benefit.  Without the FitBit, we never walked the neighborhood.  Now, we walk it all the time.  It sits on the side of a ridge and, as such, offers ups and downs, hills and flat spaces, huffs and puffs sometimes and easy conversations sometimes.

When you have a FitBit and if you can get into it, then you are always, at least in the back of your mind, a little conscious of how many steps you are walking.  The goal, at least right now, is 10,000 steps for me, about 20% more for my wife who has shorter legs.  For both of us, that comes out to about 5 miles.  And, frankly, you don't know if you are walking anywhere close to 5 miles a day until you strap on a device that tells you that you aren't, at least not in a "drive by" city like Chattanooga.  If we lived in New York City, it would be pretty us.

But for us, we have to be pretty intentional about getting our mileage, whether it means looking forward to cutting the grass or walking down the hall to the drinking fountain a few more times than usual or taking a few spins around a shopping mall while the rest of the family actually shops.  Wearing a Fitbit and embracing it means discovering new worlds in the endless quest to walk enough.  Would I have been on Chattanooga's Riverwalk last Saturday otherwise?  No.  Would I relish helping my daughter move in to a second story apartment otherwise?  No.

Wearing a FitBit or similar product turns drudgery and distance into a chance to meet a goal and to feel good about that goal and to see, over time, tangible results from that goal.

There is a temptation, as a friend of mine succumbed to this summer, to dismiss this as a fad.  "There's no way that you are wearing that thing a year from now," he said.  Which I get.  Anytime something enters the picture that makes healthier living relatively easy (or difficult), it is a perceived threat to all who aren't doing it.  It is a financial stressor to the spouse whose better half suddenly wants one.  It is First World activity, another game, another gadget for those who can afford.

Still, I evaluate it on different terms.  Now we walk.  Before we didn't, not with this intentionality or record-keeping or distance.  Now we keep up with something together that we didn't; we share our mutual goals.  Now we look for active days and are disappointed when rain or work keeps us from that.  I've got no complaints that a little electronic device is responsible for those changes.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Wanna Know What I Think?

"Opinions are like mixtapes. I don't want to hear yours."

These words are a jagged little pill for a blogger to swallow, especially one who frequently obsesses over music. Now, I don't want to blame my month-long hiatus from BOTG merely from the scathing wit of a high school graduate's yearbook quote. But dammit, she has a point.

Want proof?

I made a mix of songs inspired by my 6 1/2 weeks in Nashville. Wanna hear it? If I gave you that CD of 19 songs, would you play it all the way through?

Don't worry. I'm not offended. Who even burns CDs anymore? 

The past few months, I've been distracted by a few questions:
  1. What does it to be an expert, to know something more or better than other people know something?
  2. What is an opinion worth when people vomit them thoughtlessly and endlessly on comment sections across the Interwebs?
  3. Must we be an expert in something for our opinions to matter or carry weight? Should we expect that of others who spout opinions? Or is our society so focused on the priceless value of self-expression as its own reward -- because what makes you feel good and righteous (or right) is all that matters, right?
  4. Am I an Expert in anything? Who decides this?
  5. If I'm an Expert in something but don't feel like an Expert, am I still an Expert?
  6. If I'm an Expert in something and do feel like an Expert, am I just an asshole?
  7. Can anyone be an expert at mixtapes?
OK that last question is more kidding-not-kidding, but the other ones have really occupied my spare thoughts. And it shouldn't take long to realize why such thoughts are pernicious to the productivity of a blogger.

This isn't to say I suddenly stopped having opinions or stopped enjoying them. Rather, I've struggled to find the motivation to compose them into longer, considered (or flippant) exercises in prose writing.

I’m sick of everyone being in such a gallderned hurry to spout an opinion -- with minimal information and minimal reflection. We’re a culture that thinks anything more than 140 characters is “too long,” that any response that takes longer than half a minute is “late to the game.”

I saw the documentary “Amy,” about Amy Winehouse, three weeks ago. Damn film is probably gone from theaters altogether, and I haven’t quite come around to forming my full opinion of it.

I went back recently and reread two essays from David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster.” There was a mindful, reflective guy, DFW. Sure, he killed himself. But still. His essays were rarely in the moment. The titular essay is a review of the 2003 Maine Lobster Fest. DFW didn’t publish it until a year later! He turned a review, a genre dependent upon swift turnaround, into a work of transcendent art. And dadgummit, that kind of feat took time. And care. In every sense of the word (or at least two senses).

“Reflection” and “mindfulness” are big buzz words in education right now. Professional educators have too little time for reflection, for meditation. We don’t take enough time to think about what we’ve done, nor do we take enough time to be mindful about what we will do. If educators take that time, it comes at the expense of the constant fires demanding to be put out. Something, in other words, will burn if the educator removes himself or herself to reflect.

In writing, it feels like if we take that time, someone will beat us to our ironic quip, our unique (but not) opinion, our chance to be the first commenter or the first expert.

And so, in 2015, we beat on, boats in the current, borne relentlessly into the future.

On the days I feel I can slow the flow of my own boat long enough to fairly and judiciously gauge the waters around me, I’ll publish a blog. I sincerely pray for many of those days in the weeks and months to come.

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Glorious Life

"How was your vacation?"
"Where did you go?"
"No place special.  Florida for a little while."
"What did you do?"
"Nothing of note. Read, walked, played the guitar, ate some grouper."
"Ah, that does sound glorious."

It is a given that no one, at least no one that you like, will play up his or her vacation.  You will get positives, but they will be bland and general like "It was awesome" or "Nashville is awesome" or "We had the best time" or "I didn't want to come home."  But nothing in there to give you the powerful specifics of days and weeks spent in a glorious, different world, whether because of topography or cuisine or culture.  No one wants to hear about the glorious life, especially as represented by the vacation time and freedom and money to travel beyond the dry corners of home.

I think, though, that we live the glorious life every day.

In the glorious life that I am living, every day provides something for me to write about. Vthat doesn't doesn't mean, of course, that I do write about it, but more often than not, I at least file it away and get to it.

The last two summers have been blog summers where I have shined, mostly because my partner (my blog partner!) Billy has been occupied with grad school work, as in the first, overwhelming summer, or the looser, broader social life in a grad school program in its second year in a cool city, as in this summer.  It's hard to be social and write.

In any event, the circumstance took me back to the first days of our blog when each day or couple of days was a new challenge to fill a blank, white space.  Back then, some eight years ago, we faced each day with wonderment, not sure. When our how our little shop would continue, and if it did, if it would have any readers or relevance.

Admittedly, those readers have changed somewhat over the years.  Some of our stalwarts have disappeared into cyber-oblivion. Some of our family members, much as they might want to support us, simply can't keep up.  And so we are always surprised, I think, when someone mentions having read one or more particular blog posts.  We don't know who you are until you tell us, and then it is like, oh, you are our readers.

But I want to tell you about the glorious life.  Because writing matters to me, probably more than most other things, the glorious life that I celebrate here is the one that reloads nearly every single day.  It is the one that tells me that something has happened today that is worth writing about, that is worth other people reading it.  And the glory comes from figuring out how to tell it.

My blog partner Billy sent me an essay this week from a former student of mine.  I hadn't thought about that student in years, but now here he is articulating a position as a teacher, as a PhD.  And I wrote to him.  And I said, "Here is your reward: no one else can write the essay that you wrote, not with the same use of irony or the sophisticated use of language,"

The way that you are different from, if you are different from me, is that you are not using each day, each week, each month to find those unique perspectives of the life and the world that swirls around us.  We may lack for energy, we may lack for initiative, we may think we lack for insight, but we do not lack for topic.

Today, alone, I could write about one friend's circumstance, another friend's inability to control his emotions, the pleasure of reuniting with another friend, the physical distance between me and three other friends, the complexities of mixing friendship and work, the disappointments of friendships that dissipate in the summer, the concerns that a group of friends have for a friend in a. Icu stance that he did not anticipate.  And that is only friendship--one part of life.

The glorious life is the one that demands examination at every meal, every encounter, every gathering.  The glorious life is the one that tries to make sense of those aspects of living that seem anything but. So I hope that I speak for Billy, too, in saying that we are not stopping anytime soon.

There is too much to ponder, to examine, to critique, to minimize, to make a grand statement about.  Our own small little world contain galaxies of ideas, most of which we will never get to.  And some of the ones we do get to will be minimally-interesting, false steps, much ado about, silly overstatement or leap from the specific to the general.  Still, we push on.  Stay with us, because who knows?

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Another Song, Another CD

Traveling to and from Florida in July afforded me some wonderful listening opportunities.  Again, I offer a couple that could or did slip past.

THE SONG: Kurt Vile's "Pretty Pimpin'" came out a week ago Friday and somehow the song insinuated itself, at least for awhile, among the higher offerings on Spotify's "New Music Friday."  Built around a mostly-ascending acoustic guitar progression, the song is a comic variation on the notion of not being able to recognize the person who is looking back at you in the mirror.

"Pretty Pimpin'" is a punchline song, and while I won't give that punchline away, 11, 12, 13 listens in, I still laugh, often out loud, when that line is delivered.  Why is an acoustic ditty by a War-On-Drugs-type white guy called "Pretty Pimpin'"?  Well, that's the joke.

I like these kinds of songs that sound kind of lazy and effortless, but that reveal their craft after repeated listenings.  I have a friend who sends me his demos from time to time, and on first listening, I thought this was him in both vocal style and temperament.

THE CD:  While I have mentioned the band Richmond Fontaine on these pages before, it was a passing mention, maybe a song.  But while cleaning out my office this summer, I came across the only CD of theirs that I own in hard copy, Post To Wire.  The others I own digitally.

Post To Wire is nothing short of a masterpiece of Americana, of Alt-Country, but it is unlikely that you've heard it for any number of reasons, but the one I'll focus on is this: the veracity of this CD's snapshots of middle America are too visceral, too real to allow for a casual listening.  And that alone is too much for a music listener in 2015.  Oh, but for the discerning and the patient, there are great rewards.

The CD opens with a song told by a narrator who takes a girl on a trip after she gets suspended from school, though the parameters of the relationship are unclear.  The tone it sets, however, is one of people trying to escape their circumstances, whether it is the relatively-sweet story of a couple on vacation at a cheap casino ("Barely Losing") or the barely-subsisting stories referenced in "Always On The Ride."  Imagine a song that opens with these lyrics: "Maybe you'll wake up/ On a floor somewhere,/ Or in some kind of sanitarium."  Lead singer/songwriter/ novelist Willy Valutin's experiences have taken him closer to the edge than most of us have been, and the lyrics pull no punches.  Valutin's character are not romantics, not dreamers; some days are simply better than others.

Take, for example, the newly-married couple in "Polaroid" who celebrate their wedding in a local bar where everyone is trashed, where the bartender is the one who has to take a picture and make a toast because no one knows where the bride's father is-- he hasn't show up to work in days and no one knows where he lives.  Still, the narrator celebrates the fact that,

Not everyone lives their life alone,
And not everyone gives up or is robbed or always stoned.

I suppose that as a precursor to Valutin's later published works, the CD also has a running series of connected musical vignettes, letters from a guy named Walter who is on the run, who writes a series of letters to "Pete," a friend from whom he stole money and pawned his parents' wedding rings, but to whom he is always apologetic and trying to make things right, even as he slips into more desperate circumstances.

But it is the moments of light that keep the listener engaged-- from the previously-mentioned "Barely Losing," a gambling metaphor that spreads beyond to "Allison Johnson," whom the narrator wants to do right by to the title track, a duet with an unknown female vocalist, which argues that "I don't care anymore/ Who was right and who was wrong/ Who was left and who was leaving."  In arguing for staying together, the best that either can offer is "I know you're worn out/ But I'm worn out too."

Despite my focus on the lyrics, Richmond Fontaine is a tight, veteran band who can support anything from the harrowing to the hopeful, electric, acoustic, or country style.  Their music sounds like the heartlands, both in its space and desolation and in its multitude of influences.

Authentic songs deserve an authentic listening.  If you are ever up for that, Post To Wire will not disappoint.  Even for one who enjoys the confessions or the starkness of better known songwriters, the songs of Richmond Fontaine have a hyper-reality that you may not have encountered before.