Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Merlyn's Advice

I'm rereading one of my favorite books, The Once and Future King by T.H. White, out loud to my son as a bedtime story. One of the joys about books good enough to reread is the discovery of what seems both fresh and familiar. 

In this passage The Wart - who will become King Arthur - has learned that his childhood companion Kay will soon be knighted while he, because of his uncertain parentage, will not. Instead, he is to be Kay's squire. What upsets The Wart is not that he won't be Kay's equal, or that he won't get to joust and fight and do all those knightly things, but that Kay, in preparation for this new life, has distanced himself from Wart and left him all alone. Mourning this loss of childhood joy and companionship, he turns to his wise tutor, Merlyn

"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then - to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be threatened by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you."

T.H. White
The Once and Future King

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Three Good Days

I needed this three-day weekend. Feeling stretched thin and dog-tired. Fighting the bug that laid my poor girls out for a week. Dug out a couple ancient rhododendron stumps out to make room for fruit trees. Flowers are nice, but I want to grow something I can eat; we're thinking maybe a fig and an Asian pear? I also went for a long run, and joined a team mate for a couple hours on a mountain bike in the mud of Forest Park. It felt good to do some riding that was out of my usual element. I'm still too tentative on downhills, but the practice was good and he was patient with me.

I've recently found myself uninspired by my bike commute. Normally, this time is precious to me, when I clear my head, fill my lungs, and get tuned into the weather of the day, or coming home when I unwind from a day spent with hormonal and awkward adolescents. Maybe it's the Coho, which seems worse this winter. Or maybe the cold rain we had last week, or the weeks or riding both ways in the dark, shoulders tensed by traffic and icy patches. Even my bike seemed weary, groaning and creaking pitifully. I suspected some drivetrain malady and took it in for a diagnosis. "Your chain is beyond stretched." was the verdict. So another thing I did this weekend was some bike doctoring. I installed a new chain, recycled a pretty decent Shimano 600 6-speed freewheel. overhauled the hubs, and replaced the cables, housing, and brake pads. Now it rides like a new bike, but cheaper. And the past two days have been glorious; clear and windless, frosty in the morning, and just a hint that any day now the sun will crest the horizon before I get to work. My bike is purring happily as well.

As I pulled around the back of the building this morning, looking down at the football field I saw this:

Daybreak, gulls face east
gilded by the sun's first flame
in a frost-bound field

I also got out for a Valentine's day date with T for brunch at the Country Cat, and our own little economic stimulus pilgrimage. Now I know I've recently been preaching the virtues of saving and I'm not backing away from that. Indeed, part of me wants to see the economy tank even further in the belief that, like an alcoholic who has to hit bottom before he can begin recovery, our economy is not yet at a place where those in charge will acknowledge the folly of a system dependent on consumer debt. However, the government cut us a check last week. Or rather, returned the part of our taxes owed back to us, and we spent part of it on a new camera. The old Canon died on us just before Christmas, and T has been talking for over two years about getting a "real" camera that takes better pictures than the dinky point & shoot we've relied on. I think we made a good decision.

It's been a revelation how much we've been missing. Colors are vivid and skin looks alive, not pasty or washed out, and we can capture motion instead of complaining about blur. With three kids who are growing up too quickly, it's a purchase I don't feel guilty about making. It helped that we were able to get a good deal from a local company instead of going the online or big-box route. I'm trying to keep my money close to home, even if a bunch of it eventually goes to a Chinese camera factory.

I also tried to get one of these so I could make one of these. Almost pulled the trigger because I thought I had a big team discount at River City, but it turns out the discount I hoped for didn't apply to "bikes and frames" which the xtracycle apparently is - because you attach a wheel to it. And feeling cheap and stubborn, I balked at the lesser discount they offered. I'm regretting it, a little, but we're getting closer to the transformation from THIS


Finally, as February wears on, the allowance envelope was getting thin. I was down to my last $14 and was unsure if it would be enough for the new M Ward which was released Tuesday. So that night, after washing up the dinner dishes I did what any desperate music fan would do - scrounged up some cans and headed to Safeway. 4 dollars richer I figured I could swing the purchase and skip the lattes until the end of the month. Even better, MM had it on sale, (My 30+ year love affair with Music Millennium, and my regrets for straying in search of better prices at Best Buy/Target/Amazon I'll save for another post) so I took a look through the used bin and found this. T and I had just been talking about Tapestry at dinner - how it's one of those seminal albums that I never actually owned, probably because in my younger days I just wasn't into "chick" music. Now that I have a wife and 2 daughters who are big fans of the Gilmore Girls, and I listen to the lyrics more than I used to, so I've developed an appreciation for some music that I used to ridicule. Rumours by Fleetwood Mac is another example - I can remember in high school how much the music nerds I hung out with hated them (though I'll bet more than one had a Stevie Nicks poster in his bedroom.) Now I see Rumours for the masterpiece it is, and though I still don't much care for Stevie Nicks, I have to admit that "Dreams" is a pretty decent piece of writing for a 28-year old heartbroken coke-head. And Lindsey Buckingham was - and is - a genius.

Monday, February 9, 2009


I couldn't decide, so here's two versions:

Riding in the dark
no sign of the sunrise yet
a bird is singing

Lone bird in the dark
sings from bare tree as I pass
he knows what I know

Saturday, February 7, 2009


I realized after the last post that I hadn't really finished at a place I was satisfied with. I was trying to say that I'm both frustrated with tired and backwards thinking regarding consumerism, and hopeful that a sea change is occurring in how we move forward. It seems like common sense to me that the foundation of our suddenly collapsing economy was built on sand. Steady growth fed by credit and consumerism worked for 50 years, but was not sustainable indefinitely. In Deep Economy, Bill McKibben explains why when he points out that economic growth is bumping up against its limits because of climate change and peak oil (which supplies both the main ingredient as well as the chief source of power in most manufacturing.) He points out three central challenges to the belief that the economy must continue to expand in order to remain healthy.

First, there's now plenty of data to show that - despite what business leaders and official say - growth is producing more inequality than prosperity. A very few have been getting very wealthy, while the majority have seen their incomes fall (when adjusted for inflation.)

Second, the energy resources simply don't exist to support the current rates of growth.

Third, growth and "prosperity" is not making us happier. To the contrary, nearly every study measuring general life satisfaction shows otherwise.

So if the growth model is broken, what are we left with?

I'm with McKibben in believing that what we want and need is community. That word is vague enough that there's a danger of it sounding Utopian. What I mean is that we must learn to see buying and spending as the relationship commitments they are. All spending is a kind of investment. If I buy a meal at McDonalds, I have made a small investment in that company; I have cast a vote in support of how they raise and slaughter meat, prepare the meal, take care of their employees, and dispose of their waste - all of it. Of course, If I choose instead to spend my money at The Country Cat, the meal will almost certainly cost me more money. But I will have invested in a local business that I know prepares meals from animals and crops raised locally and sustainably. I can be confident my money is an investment in the livelihood of people I know who are part of my local community and who are making a living wage. As McKibben says, this type of spending will yield less stuff but richer relationships. He calls this "The Durable Future."

What do you think? I'm really curious to hear how the current economy is affecting people, and how others are dealing with the tension between cutting back and trying to support local businesses.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Joe Henry

You know how certain albums become the soundtrack for periods your life? I just automatically assume this is true for everyone, but when I talk to others about it, I realize that not everyone sets their life to music. I can return to certain albums like Led Zeppelin III (you know, the "acoustic" Zep album?), Bob Dylan's Desire, Inner City Front by Cockburn, or U2's October and each will transport me back to a specific time in my life when it was the soundtrack. This is even true for Out of the Blue, by ELO, which I can't listen to without thinking of the summer of '78 and working at Old Faithful. I remember the deadheads in the kitchen threatened murder every time I put it on. I still like ELO, and I still don't much like the Grateful Dead.

Recently I've been listening to this:

This is poetry, which I suppose could technically be said of all music. So, since this is my blog, I'll claim I think this is good poetry. Really good. Joe Henry's music is evocative of Tom waits without the gravel. I also hear echoes of Randy Newman. In his haunting remake of "When you wish upon a Star" from the children's compilation Mary Had a Little Amp I'm reminded of the much-missed (by me) Harry Nilsson. In places he reminds me of beat poetry, maybe because of the obvious jazz influences. The song "Parker's Mood" is in tribute to Charlie Parker, and Ornette Coleman plays on his earlier tunes "Scar" and "Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation" (which is as phenomenal a song as the title suggests.) Here's a sampling of lyrics from Civilians:

The carriage horses stamp and fume
Until all color's gone,
They leave the street in black and white
And bring the evening coming on.
Lovers tug their way out of gloves
Out of shoes, and gray chiffon,
The driver pulls his blanket high
And pretends to look beyond.

Oh, pray for you, pray for me.
Sing it like a song -
Life is short but, by the grace of God,
This night is long

from "Civilians"

or this:

lovers laugh and cross this way
weaving out into the street
it seems we never were so young
or it was never quite so sweet
but the world is always beautiful
when its seen in full retreat
the worst of life looks beautiful
as it slips away in full retreat

from "God Only Knows"

The centerpiece of the album is the tune "Our Song," in which the narrator says

I saw Willie Mays
At a Scottsdale Home Depot
Looking at Garage Door Springs
At the far end of the 14th row
His wife stood there beside him
She was quiet and they both were proud
I gave them room but was close enough
That I heard him when he said out loud

This was my country
This was my song
Somewhere in the middle there
Though it started badly and it's ending wrong

This was my country
This frightful and this angry land
But it's my right if the worst of it might
Still somehow make me a better man

The song is a beautiful meditation on what is right and wrong about our time. I have added it to my playlist, which you can listen to in the sidebar. I'd like to know what you think.

As I did a little poking around, I discovered some interesting Joe Henry trivia. He's a highly respected producer of some albums I really like, like Aimee Mann's The Forgotten Arm, the Elvis Costello/Allen Toussaint collaboration The River in Reverse, and the multi-artist soul & gospel album I Believe to my Soul. He knew the famous killer Jeffrey Dahmler in junior high. He went to high school with Madonna and has been married to her younger sister, Melanie, since 1987. Madonna has recorded a couple of his songs, and the two performed the number "Guilty by Association" for Sweet Relief II. Joe Henry sounds nothing like Madonna.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Another Thing I Don't Understand

I read this morning that the senate thinks Americans should get a tax break for buying a new car. This is part of the "bipartisan" agreement on the ever-evolving economic stimulus plan. Republicans have been insisting that in order for them to sign on to a plan that includes all kinds of spending for infrastructure and job creation, they want to see the plan include more tax cuts. I'm having difficulty seeing the logic of cutting taxes as part of a package that is, in essence, a enormous tax bill. Keep in mind, this is a bill that we, and our children, and probably our grandchildren, will be expected to pay - the 900 billion dollars (last count) has to come from somewhere. So the senate has decided to kill two birds with one stone. By giving Americans a tax deduction for sales tax and interest on a new car, they can "help" consumers and aid the auto industry.

I truly am sympathetic to the plight of auto workers being laid off. These are hard working folks who were fortunate enough to have decent living-wage jobs and most have families to support. The last thing I would wish on anyone doing an honest day's work is for them to lose their job. The trouble is, the companies they work for put quarterly profits ahead of long-term viability and backed themselves (and their workers) into a corner by producing vehicles that no one wants to buy. They knew this was coming, but apparently the "big 3" were watching each other and waiting for the other guy to blink. They kept on producing inefficient and wasteful vehicles when they should have been investing in the tooling and technology that would create vehicles that made sense. I know I'm over-simplifying, but apparently the best solution our lawmakers can come up with is to throw some money at them and dangle some carrots that will get "consumer[s] into the showroom" so they can unload some more of those SUV's and "stimulate the economy."
This kind of says it all:

This is one consumer who won't be visiting the showroom. I'm saving for a bike. A locally made one.

I did find it encouraging to hear Obama come out swinging in response to the Republicans insistence that tax cuts produce wealth (ala "trickle-down economics") when he flatly stated he rejected that theory, as did the American people when they cast their ballots in November. Exactly. For what it's worth, both of Oregon's senators were in the minority when they voted against the auto tax break. Thank you Senators Wyden and Merkeley.

And is anyone else annoyed when government spokespeople refer to the rest of us as "consumers," like our primary responsibility as patriotic Americans is to "consume?" You don't hear the word "citizens" nearly as much these days, do you? And it seems we're "fellow Americans" only when someone wants something from us, like our vote.

On a closely related note, I was listening to Marketplace this week and the commentator was talking about the "danger" of thrift becoming a habit. Apparently, saving money is a good thing. But when everybody cuts back and starts saving, that's bad. It becomes a habit because people who stop buying stuff realize the stuff they were buying was unnecessary and pretty soon lots of people figure out they can survive just fine without all that cheap plastic crap from Walmart. As a matter of fact, many find their lives becoming richer in ways they hadn't imagined. The next thing you know they're planting gardens, raising chickens, making meals from scratch, blogging about shopping locally and sustainability, and choosing to ride bikes instead of drive. It starts looking like an anti-consumption revolution. Fortune magazine (of course) calls this "the trouble with virtue."

At this point I realize I'm bordering on violating the Baiku code - to focus on beauty and keep it simple. So here's where I wanted to go. Our economy - and therefore our culture - are changing in ways the history books would describe as revolutionary. Each of us gets to choose, every day, what that change will look like and how we will personally participate in it. I believe this. My wife and I recently made the choice to set a strict budget for ourselves. This was too long coming, but wasn't done out of desperation or, thankfully, unemployment. I have $100 to spend on myself every month. It's in an envelope. If I want a latte and a scone, a CD, a race registration, or a new saddle for the bike, it comes out of the envelope, and when it's gone, that's it. The point wasn't so much to save as it was to spend more thoughtfully. Instead of whipping out the debit card, my purchases have to be deliberate, and that has made ALL the difference. I believe spending is a form of voting. If I choose to spend my money at the Academy Theater, that's a vote in favor of a local business I think is good for my community. Conversely, if I chose to spend my money at Walmart (I don't), I'd be casting a vote in favor of their business model and labor practices. This kind of spending - and not spending - is empowering. I even kicked my Craigslist bike paraphernalia habit - I haven't visited the site since early December. As my wife said, there's always a good deal; the question is not whether I want it, but whether I need it. I'm slowly learning the difference. I'm also finding this type of thinking is spilling over into other areas of my life, like whether I choose to buy new or used, or what I want to grow & serve & eat, or what I watch & read, and most importantly, how I spend my time. Because like money, time is also finite and can be spent recklessly and thoughtlessly, or with deliberation and care. These lessons are good. It feel like I'm not the only person learning them.

Read. Ride. Repeat.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Saturday Tabor Run

Climbing through the fog
Until sun shines on rooftops
Riding on the clouds

Technically I guess this should be called a "Raiku" since it came fom running, not biking. It was icy as well - I was trying to run flat-footed to keep from slipping. Passed a group of 4 bikers out for a training ride coming down as I was heading up. "Careful, it's slick as snot up there," said one.  All of them were on the brakes and dabbing one unclipped foot. Be careful out there.