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Friday, August 15, 2014

Two Virutous Concepts that are Not Really That Virtuous

The Good Provider:  This is a well-known and honored concept - a  virtuous individual, stepping up to take care of a group of people, usually blood relations (but not always).  It is a "talking point" when folks describe their primary relationships.  A wife tells her friends at the play group, "I can be a stay-at-home mom because my husband is a good provider; I don't have to work."   The husband tells his buddies at the bar, "I can pursue my passion for music/art/golf/whatever because my wife is a good provider;  I don't have to work."  Offspring of the Good Provider tell their friends, "I can use mom's/dad's credit card to buy dinner for all of you because he/she is a Good Provider."  Those receiving the support of a Good Provider have economic security and a less difficult path through the financial jungle. The Good Provider gains contentment and a sense of fulfilled responsibility through his/her ability to "take care" of the family. 

But there is a dark side to the Good Provider concept...

The working member of the single-earner household may be physically absent from the family or emotionally distant or abusive or sodden with drink every night, but he/she can wrap himself/herself in the golden banner of "the Good Provider" to offset these faults.   The Good Provider concept is totalitarianism on a very small scale.  It is a concept that breeds dependency and authoritarianism.  It is corrosive to human relationships - those receiving support are fearful of losing it and resentful of the power of the Good Provider.  The Good Provider may be angry and judgmental when the dependents do not perform up to his/her standards, and can engage in economic blackmail to force compliance.  The folks that depend on the Good Provider learn how to be helpless, or may develop a sense of entitlement, or may turn consumption into a weapon to keep the Good Provider focused on his role. And the Good Provider is trapped - he/she has to labor diligently to maintain the flow of treasure required to support the family unit.  If a job is lost, or a business fails, or health problems prevent continued employment, the Good Provider can sink into despair over the loss of his/her purpose.

The Good Provider can be a virtuous concept, but it often leads to misery and pain for all that have believed the hype.

Never Give Up:  "Never Give Up" is a concept that is hard to resist.  Steely determination and persistence in the face of resistance and adversity are almost always judged to be virtuous.  It is memorialized in clichés - "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."  If you Google "never give up quotes" you will find nuggets from Winston Churchill,  Harriet Beecher Stowe, Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Clint Eastwood, Alice Cooper and Nicki Minaj.   Successful people almost always overcome some setbacks before achieving success, right? 

Well, yes, but...

I had a great boss who once told me, "It is always best to escape with your life."  People sometimes end up in dire circumstances because they refuse to accept a core reality - some things can't or won't happen no matter how much effort and determination are expended to achieve those things.  And, yes, there are clichés backing this concept, too - "Cut your losses."  "Live to fight another day." And so on.  Fighting for an impossible outcome, or clinging to a doomed relationship, or pursuing goals without the resources to achieve them - these are examples of times when it is best to quit trying.

These two "virtuous concepts" have guided me my entire life.  It is humbling to realize that the organizing principals of my life may be fatally flawed.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Jeff Bond, drummer and great guy - RIP

I know that there are massive tragedies happening in the world - Syria, Israel/Gaza, Ukraine, Sudan and on and on.  But tonight I want to talk about an individual human tragedy.  Even great disasters are just a mass accumulation of individual human tragedies.

I went to high school with a guy named Jeff Bond.  Jeff was the son of the choral music/drama teacher at our school.  Everyone in his family had talent.  His dad was an operatic baritone, his brother, Bill, played the tuba; his sister Claudia was an excellent violinist.  Jeff was a very high-energy drummer.  He could kick the high school jazz band and make that group of youngsters swing harder than teenagers are supposed to swing.  He could play funky drums that would make James Brown squeal.  He was a dancer and a trickster.  His sense of humor was infectious.   It was an honor to play in the jazz band with him; he was an exciting fireball of a percussionist.  Whenever I hear that old Todd Rundgren tune, "Bang on the Drum All Day, " I think of Jeff.  I found 2 pictures of Jeff - his high school yearbook pic from 1973 and another, more recent shot. I also found one of his drum solos on the web.  Jeff just wanted to play, man.

So Jeff graduated from Pacific High and headed out to beat the drums for a living.  He played with some very big names - Mel Torme' was one that I remember, but there were many others.  After doing the road thing for a while, Jeff settled in Reno and made a living playing drums in the casinos.  He married, had a couple of kids and worked at being a good family man.  Like most working musicians, Jeff felt the impact of the digital revolution and the  "music for free" cultural shift - the casino work became less plentiful.  He finally took a full-time non-musical job as a school bus driver in Carson City NV.

So we lost Jeff last Friday to cancer.  I thought of him often, and we communicated once in a while via email.  But I let the friendship slip away - I knew better, but Chicago is far away from Reno and I was wrapped up in my family and work. I didn't see Jeff much at all after I left California in 1976.   I heard that he was sick a little while ago; Jeff was not one to call old friends with his troubles, so the news had to come via third parties.  He died too goddamn young.  He left a wife and two daughters who loved him to pieces, I'm sure.   Jeff's death is another individual human tragedy.

Jeff, I am sorry you are gone, brother.  And I apologize for being a shitty friend.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Main & Chicago Avenue, Evanston IL - Update on a vacant lot

Feast your eyes on this ugly beast of a building!    It is what has been proposed for the vacant lot on the southeast corner of Main Street and Chicago Avenue.  Yes, it does match the other ugly beast buildings on the northwest and northeast corners of the intersection, but that doesn't make this a good idea. For those of us who live in south Evanston, this is another injury.

I see this vacant lot almost every day, and have come to appreciate the open space.  There used to be an old two-story commercial building at that location called "the Main," but it was knocked down by some developers right before the financial crisis.  I wrote about the loss of The Main when it happened.  The vacant lot is sometimes used by dog owners now.  It is good to have a vacant piece of land in the concrete valley.  The new building will increase the grimness of the landscape.  It also appears that the developers are not including enough parking for a multifamily development of this scale, so there will be more folks searching for street parking - already a scarce commodity in the neighborhood.

The new development will add a bunch of living units to the neighborhood.  Congestion is already a problem and this building will make things worse.  There will be first-floor retail space; the neighborhood is rotten with empty storefronts already.  I foresee more national chains/fast food places taking up the slots (we have a Subway and a Starbucks at the corner already; I expect Dunkin Donuts, Panera Bread and the rest of the usual crowd of homogenized retailers.

I sound like a grumpy NIMBY.  Certainly we need tax revenues in our town, but it isn't clear that this development will make a significant difference (especially in view of the Tax Increment Financing deal that the city government has awarded to this parcel). I know that this vacant lot needs to be filled and the location at the transit hub of Main and Chicago makes this a great place for a high rise.  Nevertheless, the proposed structure will not be attractive and will increase the hassle of living in the area.  Maybe I am wrong and it will be prettier in real life than it is in an artist's sketch.  Maybe the congestion won't be any worse.  But I think these outcomes are quite unlikely.

For anyone who is interested, here is a link to the presentation the developers made last fall to a community meeting.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Finding the lost key


This little story began a few weeks ago.

Like many people, I have a safe deposit box.  I use that box to store important stuff - some valuables, some papers, etc. - that I want to protect in case my house burns down.  I also get a kick out of having a safe deposit box; I like going into the basement of the bank building, pulling out the old-school key and unlocking my box, which is in a wall of boxes, all protected by a two-inch steel doors.  The safe deposit vault smells like the bank of my childhood, metallic and slightly stuffy.

I had an important item that I wanted to put in the safe deposit box a few weeks ago.  I went to the corner of the kitchen where I store the key, and it was GONE!  I often shuffle things around absent-mindedly, so I wasn't too alarmed.  I put it on my list of things to do ("find lost key").  It has sat on my list for a while.

My daughter woke up yesterday and decided she wanted to open a bank account.  We went to the bank but couldn't finish our chore - the bank needed to see government-issued ID and my daughter doesn't have a driver's license yet.  We went home to get her passport, but we couldn't find it.  I thought, "maybe it is in the safe deposit box."  "Find lost key" moved to the top of my list.

I turned the first floor of the house upside down, emptied out drawers, looked in the car, went through my coat pockets, etc. etc.  This took a few hours and killed my Saturday, basically.  I ended up feeling frustrated, dispirited and angry with myself for misplacing such an important item.  Lack of organization has been the bane of my existence, and I truly hate it when I lose stuff.

So I gave up and tried to forget about it.  I couldn't, of course.  It is hard work to kick yourself all day for being a scatter-brained idiot.

As part of my effort to get more organized, I am going through each room of my house slowly to de-clutter, categorize and file.  A good friend of mine used to do this type of work for a living, and she has been kind enough to lead me through the process. My friend came over late in the day yesterday, and we attacked one corner of my basement office.  On the corner of my desk was a pile of papers that my daughter dumped into my office last fall.  My friend and I attacked it - old bills (all paid), junk mail, 3-year old birthday cards, the usual pack-rat pile.

And in the middle of the pile I found.....

the lost safe deposit box key!

There is no joy on earth quite the same as finding an important item that has been lost.  I was hopping up and down in relief and excitement.  It is a huge hassle to drill into a safety deposit box, and they charge at least $100 for the service.  A load of worry and self-loathing was lifted from my shoulders.

Now, it is tempting to insert a cheap metaphor into this narrative.  I won't.  All I am saying is it sure feels good to find a lost safe deposit box key.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Following Your Musical Dreams vs. Facing Harsh Reality

I was in New York a couple of months  ago and looked up an old friend - a really old friend.  I met Chuck when we were both about 13 years old.  We were in the John Muir Junior High School bands together - concert band, jazz band, orchestra, etc.  We were in thrall to the high-energy music teacher at Muir, Tony Caviglia.  Mr. Caviglia played lead trumpet in the Oakland (California) Symphony and  he was also a monster jazz player. Chuck was a Caviglia protégé on trumpet.  I was a mediocre, but ambitious, trombone player.  We both had dreams of musical glory then, and throughout high school.  Chuck made a commitment - he was going to play trumpet for the rest of his life, and he would do the best he could to become an elite player.  I was a big chicken and hedged my bets - I went to Cal Berkeley and became a music major with an economics minor.  Within a year, I was an economics major and my musical pursuits were restricted to extracurricular activities. 

When you are a brass player (especially a trombonist), you eventually have to face harsh reality.  Fact #1:  It is a stone cold bitch to become an elite brass player.  It takes 5 - 10 hours work each day; mostly solitary, physical, tedious work.  Of course, this work will only pay off if you have talent and passion, but fierce determination to master your instrument is the most important thing.  I lacked the steely will to master my horn.  Chuck had the will, in spades.  Fact #2: Even if you succeed in becoming an elite brass player, that doesn't mean you will make a decent living.  There are many more aspiring trumpet and trombone heroes than there are paying positions for brass players.  You must possess  a thick skin and a certain Zen-like serenity to get through the ordeals and rejections associated with auditions.  You have to patch together multiple sources of revenue - teaching, private lessons, gigs, and perhaps even the hated non-musical job.  I know great musicians that are part-time IT consultants, restaurant wait staff, bus drivers, you name it.  The time you devote to making a living outside of music is time you can't spend practicing or seeking employment as a brass player.  The day job keeps you alive, but reduces your chances to succeed as a musician.

I threw in the towel early and became a working professional person in an office with a MBA and all that.  The trombone went into the closet; I took up harmonica (easier to carry and you can practice while driving to the office).  I felt some regret because I didn't pursue my dream, but I was convinced not every dream should be pursued.  I still believe this.

Chuck refused to give up.  He went to San Francisco State and received degrees in music education and performance.  He moved to New York and got a masters from the Manhattan School of Music.  He studied and practiced the trumpet for countless hours, he taught others, he auditioned, he got gigs, he became an adjunct professor at a college in New Jersey.  Chuck is one of the top classical trumpet players in the country, but it is a hard profession.  This is not a path to massive wealth.  If you are a top player, and hustle, you can make a good living.

I have deep respect for my old friend Chuck.  He is still working on his art and taking auditions.  The quest for musical excellence is a lifelong pursuit.

I have forgiven myself for putting away the trombone, but I still feel a small ache when I think about this road not taken.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Depression -Why?

Several months ago, I heard on the radio that depression is not simply caused by low levels of serotonin in the brain.  This is a canard, embraced by people that yearn for simple solutions to questions that are complex and mysterious.  And of course, the prescription drug industry loves the theory because they sell zillions of pills.  Researchers don't know if low levels of serotonin cause depression or whether depression causes serotonin levels to drop.  Correlation and causality are two very different things.
Depression is caused by a mix of factors – biological, genetic, and environmental.  I am feeling more confident in my own theory that the only way to combat this problem is through discipline and force of will.  Taking care of your physical self, doing things that are good for you when you don’t feel happy, and refusing to be defeated by negative emotions – that is the path.  It isn’t an easy path.  The negative emotions may never go away.  The fight will continue for as long as you live - every day, every minute.  It is daunting, but it is the only way.  Talk therapy, medication, exercise, meditation, a sustainable life structure, pursuit of passionate interests, the human touch – these are the tools.  But they don’t cure a damned thing.  They just keep the beast outside, growling and scratching at the door, instead of inside, creating terror and sadness.  And when the beast gets inside, don't panic!  Tolerate the misery, and use the tools.  Soon, the beast will be outside the door again.  The good news about depression is if you fight it, you will win - eventually.
I laugh when it is suggested that depression is a sign of weakness.  Depressed people have to be much stronger and resilient than people that aren't afflicted with the disease in order to function; to even stay alive. 

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Linda Twyman Murder - Update

The brutal murder of Evanston single mom Linda Twyman remains unsolved.  Her friends and neighbors have not forgotten her, however.  This is a "cold case" for the Evanston Police, but the case is still being actively pursued.  The Evanston chief of police Richard Eddington granted an interview on Evanston's murders (solved and unsolved) to the local community newspaper, the Evanston RoundTable.  here is a "snip" of the article in the paper that dealt with Linda:

The 2005 murder of Linda Twyman remains unsolved, said Chief Eddington, though “we continue to work the case [and] there is a person of interest” whom the police are pursuing. It is “not anybody on the public radar,” he said. The person of interest is currently in prison and “not going anywhere,” said the Chief. He added the case is “a tough one, but there is some hope that we’ll eventually prosecute” someone for Ms. Twyman’s murder.

This is not very edifying, but it is the first public police comment on Linda Twyman's murder in a long time.  It is important to Linda's memory to find and bring justice to the perpetrator of this atrocity.

Monday, January 06, 2014

A Highly Skilled Stranger Saves My Butt

You want a "feel-good" story for this new year?  Here ya go.....

My two daughters and I were driving our 12-year old Subaru Outback wagon home to Evanston IL from Santa Fe NM, having finished a great visit with my eldest son, his wife and baby.   Santa Fe to Evanston is a 1,352-mile journey.  The old Subaru cruised through the long drive on the way out to Santa Fe.  The car was working well as we hit Highway 40 to go home on January 3.

We crossed the New Mexico border and around 4:30PM, I noticed that I no longer had power steering.  We pulled off the highway into a gas station and topped up the power steering fluid.  This did no good.  I was worried, but got back on the road. Immediately, my car started freaking out.  The gauges all went to zero, all the hazard lights went on and the engine began to cough and sputter. I got off the highway at the next exit, pulled over and called the roadside service folks.

We waited an hour for the wrecker to arrive; the bearded good ol' boy winched the Subaru onto his flatbed and drove us to the teaming metropolis of Clinton OK - population under 10,000 located 100 miles west of Oklahoma City.  The good ol' boy dropped our car at K&S Tire and drove us to a motel near the highway where we piled into a couple of adjoining rooms for a restless night.

I was convinced that the alternator was dead.  I began to worry about finding an alternator for a 12-year old Subaru in Clinton OK.  I worried about the quality of mechanics employed by a tire shop. I worried about being stuck in the middle or rural Oklahoma for quite a while.  Flying back from Oklahoma City would be impossible because we were traveling with Tai, the one-eyed wonder dog.  I would never put Tai in the cargo hold of an aircraft.

I begged a ride from the motel desk guy and showed up at K&S tire at 7:45AM on Saturday.  At about 8:05AM, the guy pictured above loped into the store.  His name is Martin King, a new resident of Clinton originally from Austin TX who is the lead mechanic at K&S.  He looks like an Austin guy - lean, shaved head, scraggly goatee, and a tattoo on the back of his neck that traveled halfway up his skull.  I wasn't sure if his appearance indicated extreme expertise or extreme incompetence.  I took hope in the guy's demeanor - he moved purposefully and confidently.  I crossed my fingers - really needed to get home to meet scheduled obligations...

Martin went into the shop, popped open the Subaru and took off the engine cover to have a look.  He came out to see me and said, "Sorry dude - I can't fix this.  Your idler pulley threw a bearing and the serpentine belt is shredded .  Nobody in this burg has the parts and it will take until Tuesday to get them delivered.  You could tow the sucker to the Subaru dealership in OK City but I think their service department closes at noon."

Well, this wasn't happy news, and I fell silent while I absorbed it.  I finally asked the mechanic to show me the problem so I could better understand it.  He took me into the shop and pointed out the wrecked bearings in the pulley and showed me the shredded belt (it looked like black, rubbery spaghetti).  Martin held up the pulley and stared at it and said "Hey, wait a second."  He turned abruptly, threw open a drawer in a cabinet and started rummaging through used parts.  He made a triumphant noise and held up a part - another pulley.  "Took this off an old Chevy truck I was re-building."  He held it up to the Subaru pulley - it looked about the same!  "Let's see if this sucker will go on your car."  He bent over, whirled his wrenches, and said, joyfully, "Sumbitch!!"   The old truck pulley fit perfectly.

"Now we need a belt."  He started working the phones, talking to various sources of parts.  One of the local auto parts stores had a belt that was almost the right size - just a bit shorter than the original, but the right width.  Martin dispatched a sleepy-looking kid to the parts store to fetch it.

Once he had the belt, Martin called up the diagram of my car's pulley and belt system on the internet.  He, threaded the belt through the various rotors and pulleys.  He got in the car, turned the ignition key and Presto!  It worked!! Power steering functional, all gauges working, all systems go!!  Time elapsed from Martin's statement of defeat to his glorious victory - 30 minutes.

This service cost me about $50.  I drove 900 miles to Evanston IL on a rigged repair job with a junked part.

So I tip my hat to Martin King, mechanic extraordinaire, Austin hipster in a small Oklahoma town, just fixing cars and feeling justifiably confident in his ability to rig and hack his way through problems.  Martin, you rock!