Interpreting “Nashville Obsolete” by Dave Rawlings Machine

It’s strange to think I owe a debt of gratitude to the Coen brothers for my musical tastes.  The soundtrack to “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” cemented my musical leanings and has influenced the shows I attend and the albums I buy.  Allison Krauss, Gillian Welch, Dan Tyminski, Emmylou Harris, among other great company were put on my radar.  There are a few others whose family trees (artists they’ve worked with or been in bands with) I follow like the Indigo Girls (their Atlanta influence), Nickel Creek (Chris Thile and the Watson Family) where no matter what iteration of band or related artist, it always promises to be a good show, and good music I like.

I would be remiss if I didn’t give credit to Phil Norman a folk singer of some renown in the greater Blue Ridge/Roanoke Valley for pointing out my first Dave Rawlings show to me.  It was a little more country and folky than I was used to at the time, but the show left me in a state of incredible delight.  Dave in his shows delivers a few covers, collaborations and originals in a beautiful tenor and his signature picking style, with Gillian Welch providing flawless accompanying vocals and guitar; Willie Watson fiddles and guitars while finding room for 3-part harmony and Brittany Haas plays perfect accompanying and solo fiddle.  Paul Kowert of Punch Brothers also plays upright bass with them on occasion.

I’m just beginning to love the new Dave Rawlings’ “Poor David’s Almanack” but wanted to cover my deep love of “Nashville Obsolete” as a masterpiece album of great Southern Americana.  A bit of a mea culpa to start, I have not ever listened all the way thru the track called “The Trip.”  At almost 11 minutes, I have a feeling there is going to be a little too much guitar solo and just haven’t had the patience to let it percolate in my consciousness yet.  Call it the ADHD of the age.  Lyrically “The Trip” helps establish a theme of movement and travel, and lost wandering which permeate the entire album.

The album starts with “the Weekend,” which I think is a great place to start.  It’s ironic to me that someone whose work probably often revolves around the weekend and has a crazy schedule when touring, should sing about the universal longing and almost holy experience of the weekend.  Ever since “Sweet Tooth” I always suspect some sort of drug reference in Dave and Gillian’s songs and “the Weekend” could certainly be interpreted that way, but the great thing about their poetry is they don’t have to spell out the meaning and it is open to interpretation.  I think at its simplest this song is about the infusion of hope we put into a good weekend and how sad we are once it is gone.  This can be said sadly of some relationships as well.  “The good ones never last.”

“Short-Haired Woman Blues” is an aching song about unrequited love.  “Oh, it’s just a game she told me.  I said no, I am reborn.”  The male voice felt the experience more keenly and is heartbroken when the feeling is not returned or when the relationship ends.  He looks back with a tinge of bitterness which he channels into a life lesson about “chasing wild ponies.”  “Don’t go loving short-haired women.  They’re gonna leave you crying, after thinking it was all in fun.”

“Bodysnatchers” is a song about the railroad from the chorus “20 years of lining down the track.”  Dave and Gillian have a fascination with trains and their history; you can pick up references or themes alluding to the train in a lot of their music.  In this case, I believe bodysnatchers is a reference to the sometimes forced labor and indentured servitude that built the railroads, although it also alludes to the barges up the river and Mississippi river queens.  It’s definitely a song about loss, a life spent in labor, often without choice.  I picture a son returning home after a long life of labor and his mother being fiercely protective to make sure he never experiences that life again.

“The Last Pharaoh” proves that Dave & Gillian are students of American history with the reference to “that big Kate Adams” which was a steamer ship on the Mississipi at the turn of the 20th century.  Unlike “Bodysnatchers” we see a different side of the river legacy in a card game.  The narrator is looking for “the last Pharaoh” which may be an allusion to a game called Faro popular in the early 1900s.  Faro is referenced in a lot of popular literature and entertainment of the time.  Natchez is a town along the banks of the Mississippi and King’s Tavern was founded by Richard King in the 18th century, so “lady luck makes the kings, the Natchez kings” could be a direct reference to the King family which was a prominent family in that city and the history of the riverboats benefiting from that commerce and a culture of gambling.  Discounting the possible historical influence it’s a great song about a card game and the pursuit of winning and the gambler’s belief that he can win if he can find the “next high card.”

“Candy” is a good companion song to the popular “Sweet Tooth” from “A Friend of a Friend” and has a delightful simple and repetitive lyric.  Candy in “Sweet Tooth” is a way to talk about drugs and addiction, and I wonder if there is some of that here. “Mama’s got something in her hand,” and “Does someone want a little more” could be read that way, but if we follow the historical theme of the last few songs and the style evocative of earlier folk tunes, I think it may also be an homage to the rampant commercialization of the candy industry in the early 1900s.  Brach’s, Hershey, Reese’s, Mars, all trace their origins to this time period and their success largely has to do with the spread of radio where their jingles and ads proliferated.  Maybe that’s a stretch that a song called Candy could actually be about candy, but it seems that the style of the song and the repetitive lyric signify something more than a person, more than a drug, or a relationship.  It makes me think of old folk tunes playing on the radio in between ads for Hershey bars.

“Pilgrim (You Can’t Go Home)” is a song about the traveling artist.  It speaks with a longing for home, knowing that the lure of the road will always pull the narrator on despite the struggles of what the open road brings.  “And pity those who never felt inspiration’s cold wet nose.  It wakes you up out in the ditch where you’re tumbling round where the four winds blow.”  There’s alcoholism, poverty, drug abuse, suicide, but “what those devils called your greatest sin, Gabriel and I called your great escape.”  At the end of the song there is a reference to St. James Infirmary which may allude to the Louis Armstrong “St. James Infirmary Blues” which would make sense because both songs deal with the nature of a traveling life, the temptations and the consequences, and Armstrong’s song is from the time period that Dave & Gillian seem to reference throughout.

The theme of movement is thick in this album, whether by train or riverboat.  Loss is felt keenly here, lost love, loss of home, loss of time, and there is a conscious or unconscious age to the material through the style of music, reference to times long gone, and the influence you hear in the music which is a legacy of the great musicians past.  And finally what’s in the album title?  Nashville Obsolete seems to be a challenge, a question, and maybe a self-afflicted label for Dave and company.

Dave and Gillian are masters of their craft and I think he sums it up best when asked how to interpret his work, “…I can talk about the language we work in with Gillian and our personal mythology, but it’s like asking James Joyce why he’s obsessed with certain themes in his books. I’m sure he can tell you why he’s interested in them, but at the deepest and truest level, none of us have any idea.” (excerpted from No Depression interview)

A Defenders Review:  Emotional Tension is Missing (Spoilers Galore)

The Hand as a criminal organization is pretty rad in Daredevil and Iron Fist, but in Defenders they suck pretty hard and are bad cannon fodder for the newly assembled team.

Sigourney Weaver – I’m not using her name in the show, because as we find out, she has many names.  Outside of a scene where she subdues Elektra, she is the least scary villain we’ve seen in the Hell’s Kitchen MCU.  It is a waste of her talent, because she could have been so much more ruthless and insidious.  There is no superpower or threat that backs up her authority.

The team-up — Okay, we get that Matt struggles with actually enjoying the DD life and wants nothing more than to cling to normalcy.  Jessica doesn’t really play well with others.  How they all end up at Midland Circle at the same time is not very well scripted except in how Jessica gets there.  Danny is a little too impulsive going on his own.  Murdock tailing Jessica I can kind of get behind, but Luke randomly showing up is the biggest stretch.  This needed more work because it is the crucial plot point in the story.

The fingers of the Hand-

these behind-the-scenes ruthless immortals are a joke in Defenders.  Bukido does not seem like he belongs in the same room.  He seems like he should be a lower tier bad guy, and it’s sad that it takes Misty, Colleen, and Claire to take him out, when it really should be a Colleen Wing badassery moment.  

Guy that speaks Japanese-I honestly don’t remember his name because he is so unmemorable except that he likes to speak a different language often and disembowel rare bears.  Nobu was ten times better than this guy.

Madame Gao- Is the best villain in this whole group and is wasted playing second fiddle to Ripley (Sigourney).  The unsanswerable seems to be how is Gao this powerful force-wielding old lady, but everyone else is just good at karate.  My hope is that she survives to play behind the scenes bad guy again.  Gao is the only one-even underutilized as she is-that seems like she should be leading the bad guys.

Remember the tension between her and Kingpin, the way she plays up her age and speaking a different language that she uses intermediaries and such.  Gao deserved to have better characterization more loyal to her DD and Iron Fist portrayals.

Misty Knight and the NYPD precinct – Anyone else feel like sidelining all of the super friends’ friends was just asking to put them in harm’s way?  Instead they were safe in the precinct.  No stealthy ninjas to capture them for the end game.  And Misty has a wasted role as well.  There is no detective work in her role, no revelations she stumbles across.  Her only function in the entire show is to ask questions and not get any answers.  

To be fair, the actress did the best with what she was given, but the Misty character serves no purpose other than to wander around and get threatened with her job repeatedly.  It would have been better if she could have taken a hard line with any of the superfriends, or been fired, or gone rogue.  She spent 8 episodes doing nothing.  That is a waste.

Karen Page-another wasted opportunity is Karen Page safe and sound as a reporter who can’t report and stowed away in the NYPD.  The writers missed a golden opportunity to pit Matt’s feelings for Karen against his feelings for Elektra.  She is never in danger and so there is no emotional tension for the Daredevil character.  Karen also doesn’t go rogue for the story of a lifetime.  She’s out on the shelf and it’s not a good place for her to be.

Trish Talk – Trish and Karen have a brief moment talking, but otherwise have their journalistic instincts thoroughly repressed and neither encounter any threat or danger.  There is none of that tenacity or search for truth they have in DD and Jessica Jones.  That role is given to Jessica herself who is the only curious person of the bunch.

Mister White Hat- This is the least memorable of the Hand.  There is virtually no tie to the Harlem vibe we felt in Luke Cage or his potential African influence, no sense of his power, and in that regard I felt like Defenders was nearly entirely whitewashed.  This is the guy that is in charge of Africa and is supposed to have some powers, but is pretty easily subdued (off camera I might add) and killed.  There is no character development.  At least with Gao and Bukido we have seen where they came from or at least what they do in other shows.  What’s sad to me is he is never given a chance to be anything but a token black villain with a very minor role.  And the white hat gimmick has no sense of mystery or threat.  He casts it aside at the earliest opportunity.

Other missed opportunities:

So we’re just going to let Claire ignore that Luke has basically hooked up with half the female cast.  He’s such a nice guy he’s given a pass.  There’s no tension there.  A perfect brief scene would be them getting it on and Luke being a little too rough and Claire getting a little banged up.  Then Luke could be like, “I really like Claire, but at least I don’t have to worry about hurting Jessica physically.” No?

No tension with Matt and Claire, no tension between Jessica and Claire, no jealousy between Elektra and Karen.  Colleen Wing is continually thrust into a supporting role instead of closer to the action.  Also last time I looked Claire was training with Wing and had some cool hooky claw things, but we see very little action from her. 

There was that scene where Jessica is talking to the architect’s wife and the grandparents are let in upstairs.  This seemed like a perfect opportunity for Sigourney or another of the Hand to pretend to pay their respects and for Jessica to get into a tense staring match.

Pep Talk #1: Procrastinate

I am a notorious procrastinator.  It is a sign of my intelligence, or at least that is what I’ve decided to believe.  I don’t even know if anyone knows I’m notorious, which I guess is the definition of notoriety.  Maybe I’m not well known for it.  But I do it.  You do, too.

So let’s get it out of the way, then, shall we?  Maybe a quick run-down of procrastination habits will help get it out of the way and we can return to being productive.  Of course, there is social media.  If I don’t like, share, and comment on at least a dozen posts several times a day, people will think I’m dead.  And then of course, I must overshare how my day is going, what my kid did, the picture of the food I created, maybe some pictures of my family at their absolute best.  I probably need to read a book, some articles, and watch some TV before I do any work.  I am so multi-talented, I should probably find time to practice guitar, and you know what, I have a regular job I should probably be getting to, so all that procrastination has led to zero productivity.

I have no time.  This is one of the biggest reasons we never get started on the dream project.  If you’re like me, you think of time in hour increments.  If I don’t have a spare hour, I don’t even think about getting to the gym, sitting down to write, or anything else on my coulda-shoulda-woulda list.  But I think if we can get comfortable with 5 minute increments, we can get in the habit of taking advantage of those discrete intervals and setting mini-goals that are attainable in that time frame.

A goal or purpose should consume you and fill your mind with a determination.   I think in many cases, this purpose must be manufactured and built slowly, like a setting a fire in a rain forest.  It can be done, but you have to be meticulous and intentional about building the right environment for success to thrive.

BHAG.  Our BNI area director, James Barber, talks about having a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG).  And I’m going to borrow that term and call it my Sasquatch (Scary Audacious Super Quest Universe at the Crap Handler…okay I’m still working on my acronym).  Maybe yeti would be shorter.  I’m trying to think of something big and hairy to tie to the BHAG.  But anyway, you have to come up with something larger than life, something that requires a naivete or foolishness, a confidence, to say that you’re going to do.  It’s not bragging, because you haven’t done it yet, but if you say it and you can continue to say it until it consumes your every thought and continues to daily motivate you to make progress toward that goal, then that is what matters.

It’s not enough to say what you want, you have to say what you are, what you will accomplish.  There can be no doubt in the statement.  You must say it loud and proud.

“I am going to be an international bestselling fantasy and scifi writer whose books change hearts and minds through the clever humor and mystery contained therein.”

There you go.  Let’s do this!

Or…maybe it can wait…

Remember This…If You Can.

I watched a Ted Talk on memory a few months back and it has embedded itself, working through my subconscious mind until now.  Joshua Foer is an independent journalist who became interested in writing about a group of people who participated in the US Memory Championships.  He became so infatuated with the topic that he trained himself in the techniques and won the Championship himself in 2006.

If you are a fan of the BBC production, Sherlock, then you may be familiar with the Mind Palace, a memorization technique.  The idea of the Mind Palace has been around since the early Greek philosophers as a concept called the Method of Loci (no, not the Norse trickster god).  It is essentially associating something you want to remember with a place or an image.  To remember multiple things you build a Memory Palace or a house with things in it that you then associate with what you want to remember.

Alex Mullen has recently surpassed Foer’s accomplishments to be the 2-time and current US Memory Champ.  He runs a non-profit that works to disseminate and encourage these types of techniques.  On his website, one of his intro videos shows you how to memorize a list of 20-words.  He does so by walking around his house and inside and associates each word with a different item, and gives a description of the image that he would picture.

I am just at the tip of the iceberg on memory training.  His initial video seemed unnecessarily complicated, but he’s the memory champ, not me.  I took the same list and told a story-kind of like my dreams go where I make a decision and am in a completely different environment, almost like a Rube Goldberg device where one seemingly unrelated thing leads to the next.  Telling the story of those words in a visual way, once I had composed the story (maybe 5 minutes), I was able to fully recall all 20 words.  Amazingly, an hour later, after unrelated work, starting the story, I was able to recall the 20 words again.

I have a lot to learn about memorization, but in a remarkably short time I was able to memorize something fairly random that I had no real reason to memorize other than for the novelty of it.

 

Iron Fist Proves Viewers are Smarter Than Critics

Iron Fist is outstanding.  Let me get that out of the way.

Before it even dropped onto Netflix, the critics claws were out and determined Iron Fist was the first failure of the Netflix/Marvel partnership.  Let’s look at the common criticisms.

Non-Asian lead.  For some reason Batman gets a pass on this as well as Arrow.  All of these characters were written by white folks and I’m sorry they didn’t want to write an Asian character as the lead, but that’s the way they were written.  There are however some outstanding Asian characters in Iron Fist, Colleen Wing, Madam Gao, for some.  You might also consider Davos or Bukido as strong Asian characters.  The real solution here is to write an Asian lead from scratch and not borrow or change other established characters.  It’s not a fair criticism for a show that does a tremendous job of honoring the origin story.  Also I hope Rosario Dawson is making some major bank, because she is fantastic!  She is the best thing ever for each story as she provides a much needed anchor to reality and some sense of normalcy.  Her struggles, fear, her unwillingness to back down, make her the real standout, and it’s really unfair to everyone else.

Slow pacing.  This one I don’t understand as I watch an elaborate shoot and punch scene.  It’s not constant action, but neither are any of the other Marvel/Netflix shows.  Maybe it’s that the producers didn’t decide to do the shaky cam fight perspective they used in the Bourne movies.  There is great character development as the layers of deception are peeled back one by one and you think “how much more messed up can these people get?”  Mysteries are not allowed to languish.  Compared to Jessica Jones, Iron Fist is non-stop action.

Fighting sucks.  Again, I’m not sure we watched the same show.  My favorite fight scene for Danny is the hatchet-wielding Triad where he kicks and punches, but also does so in a way that uses his opponents’ energy against them.  As the series develops his fighting style becomes more offensive as he struggles to control his anger and properly harness his Chi.

Danny Rand.  Finn Jones is not Batman and is not the Green Arrow, but that is what we are expecting.  Despite harsh training, he is ultimately a protector, and has the same emotional maturity of the kid left for dead in the snow.  I see where the writers are trying to go here in not trying to write the same origin story as Batman or Green Arrow.  He comes back to search for his lost childhood and is forced to slowly come to terms that he can’t really go back and reclaim it.  The Rand character is an adolescent and again despite his training is prone to outbursts, emotional swings, and I think that is what the writers and actor are trying to convey.   For me, it was not a distraction, but I see how for others it was what they picked up on to criticize.

The White Savior.  I find it hard to believe that cultural appropriation wasn’t a consideration by the writers and producers.  Luke Cage was intentionally an African-American Harlem story, culturally through and through.  Iron Fist is an Asian American movie, that links Asians from the old world to the new world.   The lead is white trained by Tibetan-style warrior monks, the music is intentionally hip-hop, but many of the supporting cast has some sort of Asian heritage.  Maybe I give the writers too much credit, but I have to believe it’s a statement about Asian culture in America.  When we think about minorities in the US, we typically think African American and Latino.  Asians in the US are at least a standout minority in the US, but are incredibly diverse within that continental and cultural designation.  Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Indonesian, Phillipines, Vietnam, and more countries make up the racial designation of Asian in America.  And I don’t know if you noticed in the series, but the Fist is not a bad-ass on his own.  He requires a LOT of help, and royally screws up just about every time he faces an opponent, partially because he can’t always reliably access his Chi.

I believe the ultimate statement in Iron Fist is that Asians in America are not a recognized minority because of their incredible diversity, so they are overshadowed by a white lead or another minority that has a strong identity.

Or I may give the writers way, way too much credit and it really is just a comic book story about Iron Fist as relayed in the comics.  And if that’s the case, it is fun and interesting story to me, too.

Disclaimer:  I’m a white privileged non-immigrant US citizen, so what the hell do I know?

 

A Crisis of Faith: The Decline of Organized Religion

Some statistics say that US church membership is in decline.  Every person I speak to that  doesn’t go to church wants something more than a single book from 2000 years ago to find meaning in their lives.  They also don’t want someone telling them how terrible we all are.  In a world that at times seems hopeless, they are looking to faith for inspiration and reassurance rather than fire and brimstone.  For me personally, sitting in church on one of the few days off I get during the week, singing old music, listening to a speech, and studying an ancient book all fail to make my life feel meaningful or make me feel a part of a community of like-minded individuals.

A man-made faith For every person that tells me a holy text is divinely inspired, I ask why have their been no additional divinely inspired texts recently.  Where is God today?  The answers are many, but one reason church attendance may be down is a failure to recognize new ideas, to update rituals of worship, to leave out the thee’s and thou’s and begats.  Men, and I do mean it as gender-specific, have written all of the canonic religious texts.  The fact that religion excludes half of our population or seeks to limit their role or potential is a non-starter for me.  The fact that some countries are governed closely with their dominant religion and that women don’t have a place at the table (except to prepare the food and bear children), is another reason I have not to like religion much.  Men sat down together at the Council of Nicea and said, “Here’s the Bible, here’s the church” and from the earliest iterations to the multitude of denominations and practices this is the church we know today created by men for men.

The Fallible Document  Every time I hear that the Bible is infallible, I always wonder why being so unimpeachable it is the most interpreted and contentious text in history.  It is easier for Christians to look at the Middle East as an illustration of how differences in interpretation have led to wars, and definitely to extreme suffering, but it is true of Christianity as well as any large religion.  The Bible now over 2000 years old is supposed to be the instruction manual for my life.  Even textbooks get a second edition every other year.  Why is this document so relevant that it will continue on down throughout history unchanged?

It is readily apparent to anyone who spends enough time reading the Bible that there is good content and moral instruction, but the morality comes at the price of belonging to a religion and a church and holding one text above all others.  It is the exclusion and resistance to change that leads to its own decline.

Comparative Religion Moral instruction, a monotheistic religion, and a promise of eternal life are found in at least 3 major world religions.  Why is one better than any other?  My answer would be conquest, war, and aggressive missionary practices (yes, both kinds).  These acts and not the morals they espouse have made one religion more widespread than another.  If the quality of a good religion is moral instruction alone, you could hold up most major religions as good examples that can be basically distilled into don’t kill people and don’t steal from people.

Unfortunately there is no moral GRE that qualifies only people with high ethical standards to be in places of leadership in the church and without, so some of the worst people in history have been practitioners of religion.  It is from a place of conquest that majority religions have spread, not from their moral imperative.  Conversely, it does not require religion or religious understanding to have high moral standards.

The Enlightened Community Although the US is a majority Christian nation, it’s church attendance and membership population is in decline.  This could be partially in relation to freedom of religion becoming freedom from religion.  Church for many is no longer the center of the community as people find their interests and community link them to societies, hobbies, and other memberships that to them have greater meaning than a church family.

Some in the church decry this as a slide toward hedonism or consumerism, a soulless unfulfilling life that will always be lacking.  Instead of facing a modern society and watching the unaffiliated churches that are filling the pews, the establishment church is fine with business as usual, a stale bureaucratic existence.  If they don’t adapt, they are doomed to continue to decline.

There are those also who like what the Bible has to say, it’s parables, but choke on the promise of eternal life, forgiveness of sins, and/or the one true God.  Looking for an explanation for life, the universe, and everything, Douglas Adams exclaimed that the answer was 42.  Those fleeing the church have found the Biblical answer equally unsatisfying and frustrating.  Science has advanced to a point where our understanding of the universe is deep and nuanced and we can spend our entire lives searching for more answers.  The answers that science provides in many ways refute a religious view of our world, but in one way there is an irrefutable immutable answer that always eludes science: creation.

God vs. Science  The evidence we have shows that our planet is billions of years old, and why this is a refutation of religion, I don’t know, but it is a sticking point with creationists who declare the world is flat and less than 10,000 years old.  Science can take us back as far as the Big Bang, but does not currently have an explanation for that first force that set the Big Bang in motion, nor does it explain what happened before that moment in time.  If that isn’t the greatest evidence for some sort of supernatural deity, I don’t know what is.

From the primitive worship of Greek and Roman, Hittite and Sumerian gods, to the new monotheism, we have always looked to a supernatural beings to explain what we don’t understand.  We still do.  What happens to consciousness and individuality at death?  The thing we greatly fear is oblivion, the loss of being, and from that fear springs a belief in a neverending afterlife.  We as rational amazing animals cannot accept that our only purpose is to live and die and survive.  So we have fabricated the promise of eternal life.  But why should we live this mortal life, if we can have eternal life on another plane of existence?  Even typing these words is difficult and produces in me a great deal of existential angst.  Religion answers these questions and fears in a way that science cannot, because science has an answer we do not want to hear.  Energy is neither created nor destroyed, but we don’t know about your personality, your individuality, or your soul.

But if we focus our collective intellects on a better understanding of our universe, we discover that the sun is not a god in a chariot driving across the sky, but a giant ball of burning gas.  Jupiter is really a gas giant and not a star, and stars are similar to our sun.  Only not all stars are the same.  Some are older, some are younger, and when they go supernova, some create black holes.

And to me these explanations while not as fanciful are infinitely more exciting and meaningful.  And so far they have done nothing to diminish the possibility that beyond the Big Bang we live in a created Universe.  As long as there are questions left unanswered, there lives my God.  And really my God is a god of discovery and curiosity and creation.

If I had my way, ancient religions and practices would fall away in favor of soulful community, the pursuit of discovery, and instilling in every person a feeling of purpose for the betterment of themselves, their families and humankind for now and for the possibly infinite future.  But what do I know?  I’m just some damn fool idealist.

Social Media Feed:  A Healthy Diet

I am alarmed in daily conversations with the number of seemingly high-functioning adults that talk about social media exhaustion or bombardment and have made the decision to quit these platforms–even if only temporarily.  My wife and I like to call them “the Facebook suicides.”  How often do you see someone who posts that they’re taking a break from Facebook usually around a particularly contentious political campaign or a contentious post that leads to argument?  Even in that “suicide note” there is either a play for attention or a feeling of obligation to others.  Although, my reaction is sometimes “bye, Felicia” I think that it is a cry for help.

I have a few tips, personal rules, and advice to give on this subject to help protect ourselves not only from bad people and circumstances, but also to protect ourselves and not invest our emotional capital in too many stories.

Social media rule #1-You Are What You Eat.  If you consume a steady diet of bad news, don’t be surprised if you don’t become cynical and depressed.  Feed yourself inspiration and you will be inspired and inspire others.  There is a cultural phenomenon I’ve noticed where people feel they are obligated to care for the world or for a certain caliber of literature or to care about all the terrible things happening in the world.  It is the same with people that become trapped in the 24-hour cable news cycle.  I don’t know where this obligation comes from, but I do know that escaping it can be difficult.  Some do it for the schadenfreude, some to stay informed, but others increase their own suffering by reading about the suffering of others.  It is one thing to stay informed about world events, but it is another to wallow in the rampant misery that can be found in the greater world.  News media gravitates toward the most terrible events and sensationalizes them.  There are 7.5 billion people on the planet and we cannot possibly hope to experience all their suffering to be informed about all their lives, nor can we have the empathic capacity to care for them all.  Nor does it do us any good to hear about something we cannot have a reasonable impact on.  The news tends to follow anything related to death, so if that is all we consume, we can quickly form a world view that does not acknowledge the good things that are happening all around us.

Conversely, some people worry that only focusing on good things means you are ignorant and unprepared for the real world.  By my way of thinking, the world is what we make of it.  If consuming good news gives me hope, optimism, and energy, these are things I think will help me make my bit of the world a better place.

The great thing about Social Media is that it is a tool.  It is one way in which we can experience the world, and we can set our filters, use our privacy settings and be largely in control of what we see.  We must remember that we have control.  Facebook, for example has some amazing tools that let you see more of what you want, less of who you don’t, or let’s you begin and end friendships every day.

Social Media Rule #2:  Friends.  How many do you need?  Let’s be honest that social media is a popularity contest.  That is what drives you to have 500 friends on Facebook, 1000s on Twitter and Insta.  We have an innate desire to be well-liked.  Although social media can be a powerful tool to connect, there are few personal, intimate, and meaningful connections we actually make online.  We certainly can’t be good friends to hundreds or thousands.  I can sit on my feed and like posts all day long trying to honor every acquaintance I’ve ever made hoping that out of a hundred likes, they see mine, and that they appreciate how I’m cultivating that relationship, but it does nothing to strengthen the deep connections I have with my closest friends.

Don’t be friends on social media with people who upset you on a regular basis by what they post.  Unfriend.  It is simple.  If this person a) notices and b) is offended enough to ask why, you can honestly say that your posts upset me and I found I was no longer enjoying my feed because of you.  Sometimes it’s what someone needs to hear, and if they can’t accept the criticism and become abusive, it is time to cut that person from your life.

On the other end of this argument are the connections we choose to make online that are good for us.  For example I have a friend I went to college with who lives far away.  I don’t know if I will ever see him again or talk to him on the phone for that matter, but our beliefs and interests are such that we find a lot in common and online it is a wonderful friendship that I find worth cultivating.  He also makes me laugh.  Humor is an important component of my friendships and that’s what makes me want to get out of bed in the morning.

Social Media Rule #3:  Comments.  Nothing more than a few sentences at most.  What an incredible tool we have to start conversations, but it is fairly easy to get drawn into arguments, name-calling, and again feeling terrible.  I try to limit my comments to something brief, because it is really easy if you disagree with something to start typing a letter.  The problem with this type of rant is that you aren’t composing an email to send, but are immediately responding to something usually from a very emotional place.  So again, if I start to get a couple paragraphs deep, I know that it is something I’m passionate about and that I need to reconsider my response.

Often what I will do is copy and paste my comment into a blog post, and then if someone wants to read it later they can after the emotion of the moment is spent.  The comment is usually for my benefit anyway.  And sometimes writing it out in something I’m going to edit allows me to carefully think about what I want to say and sometimes I will delete, leave for later editing, or find a more succinct way to say what I want to say.

I still believe that conversations of a serious nature in order to be productive should be had in person, or on the phone at least.  There is so much room to interpret tone and meaning in the written word.  I break this rule from time to time and almost always regret it.  If a long response starts a contentious conversation, you can always ignore additional responses.  As tempting as it is to tell someone how wrong they are and point out their inconsistent arguments, it is almost always fruitless.

Social Media Rule #4: Post Frequency.  Have you ever experienced the dreaded anxiety of wondering whether someone is reading your post?  Did they click the video?  Do they understand the essential you-ness of you?  If you look to social media for all of your validation, it may be time to get out of the house a little.

I follow a rule of three most often.  I can easily find more than 3 things I want to say or share in a row, but I know that frequent posting is a turn-off for many, so I try and distill my posting to once a day, two to three times if I can’t help myself.  Now, if you are blogger or make your living by cultivating an online audience, you might follow different rules, but for most of us, this is a good rule not to turn off the people who already like you and appreciate your insights and informative posts, pictures of family and food, the memes, the humorous articles.

There is so much to consume, but it is good to stop and take stock from time to time about how beneficial it is to us and get back in control of our social media diet.

 

We Have Nothing To Fear…

I have a passage I have tried to memorize known as the Litany Against Fear. It is from Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic Dune.  It is a mantra repeated by a group of very wise sisterhood in the book called the Bene Gesserit.
It reminds me of how many different aspects of our lives might be governed by our fears. Our careers, family, friendships, community, our dreams, desires and distractions. And it reminds me not to let fear overcome my thoughts.
It goes like this:

“I must not fear.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.

I will face my fear.

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.

Only I will remain.”

In Dune, for the people of the desert known as the Fremen they had two great fears.  One was the Coriolis storm, a sandstorm of such strength that there were stories it would kill a man and leave nothing but bones behind.  The other great fear was the great Worm or Maker, giant sand-worms that burrowed through the desert and were attracted to the sounds of machinery or human activity.  They too would destroy anything in their path and leave nothing behind.  These were the fears they faced.

Our real fears are a trifle less fantastic, but no less significant and can metaphorically consume us if we allow them.  Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of difference, fear of letting your guard down, these are all very natural and common fears we face every day.  My hope is that we each find courage whether in a mantra, a litany, faith, or other means to face our fears and overcome them, and can witness our own potential.

The only other thing I can say about overcoming fear is that it is easier if you can share it with others.  Bringing your fears into the light of a shared kindness and understanding makes them shrivel like raisins in the sun.

Personal note:  I say this to myself as I run.

To Combat Distress.           A Top Ten List.

1.  Sleep.  Take a nap.  Fall asleep on the couch.  Get as much uninterrupted sleep as you possibly can.

2. Laugh.  Watch a comedy, a romcom, or a stand-up special.  Humor is the antidote.

3.  Eat.  Unless this is a hang-up, a decent meal or satisfying a craving or a special treat is a balm for the stressors in your life.

4.  Water, part I.  Take a shower (or bath).  Baths are not my thing, but some people find great pleasure relaxing in the tub.  The shower has a similar effect.  Immerse yourself in water and let your worries recede.

5. Exercise.  Running, biking, hiking, or walking get you out of your house and take you someplace.  Use distress as a motivator to propel you off the couch…after that nap.

6. Travel.  Whether to the shop around the corner, the next city, or another country, the successful completion of a trip can give you a sense of accomplishment.

7. Water, part II.  Ice-cold water.  There is a great bot on Twitter @hydratebot that reminds you to drink water.  Dehydration can effect mood tremendously.  Get that water so cold it hurts.

8.  Hugs.  Hug a human or animal.  If you don’t know another human willing to make physical contact, animals are less picky and appreciate affection.

9.  Create.  Write poetry, a story, paint a picture, sing, play your instrument, do some macrame.  Having a creative outlet is a way to express emotion in a healthy way.

10.  Read.  Reading takes you out of your yourself and into a different place and time.  It requires a concentration and immersion that at times is an escape and at times is an enrichment of the soul.

Affording Middle Class

In my career as a banker, I have been privy to a large number of tax returns over the years, W-2s, 1099s, K-1 Statements and every other form of taxable and non-taxable income.  I have seen almost every trick in the book to legally avoid taxes, which always makes me wonder about income statistics reported and collected by various agencies including the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Median Household Income is the most popular stat I see when we talk about the health of the American middle class.  So we hover at $51,000 for a household as a gross figure, and no I don’t mean disgusting.  Out of that gross income you would expect to take 15% in income taxes, although someone with that gross and a couple kids could seriously reduce their income tax burden.  Outside of income tax, you have to pay for Medicare and Social Security if you’re a W-2 employee.

“What is a household?” you ask.  Well, a household is everyone living at the same address.  It could be one, two, three, four or a dozen.  Many of you know someone down the street that has about 6 cars in the driveway and you know there are three generations under one roof.  So the measure of income there seems a bit skewed.

Cost of living for a single person averages $2731 a month, or $28,458 annually (1).  For a married couple with two kids it goes up to $5466 or $65,597.  Average rent in the US is $934 (2).  With a 30-year mortgage at today’s rates, that payment would probably get you a $150,000 house if you include the escrow, but the average home price in US today is closer to $190,000.

If you take into account cost of living for a family of four of $65,000 and median income of $51,000, there’s a bit of a shortfall.  Now granted, there are adjustments that can be made in any budget, but overall middle class America doesn’t make enough money to afford the middle class.

As healthcare costs continue to rise in the US, incomes have failed to keep pace.  We can also look at trends in education costs as well and see that it isn’t productivity or a spike in welfare recipients, it is the huge increases of cost in these two areas primarily combined with regular rise in housing and other comestibles.  Thank god the $5 gas gallon never materialized!

All the evidence would point to a squeeze on the middle class, but I often wonder how many are masquerading in the middle class because of how self-employment or business ownership income is reported and recorded by labor statisticians.  An S-Corp filing is required to pay owners a “reasonable” salary, but that is probably not often challenged, and so owners have little incentive to pay themselves a high W-2 income.  So say I pay myself $30K in wages, but the company makes $200K in a good year and I pay taxes on that money, but does it get measured as wages? No.  At least not by labor statisticians.  Self-employed or business owners make up about 10% of the labor pool and employ another 20% of it (3).

So how can we bring middle class more within reach and easier to afford?  Follow the money.  Healthcare spending continues to tick upwards and despite the gains at the lower end under Obamacare, the middle class cannot receive a subsidy and must bear the market cost or do without and be penalized.  Healthcare must be fixed on the insurance side or become a government entitlement.  Insurance follows a pretty basic principle generally speaking:  the lower the risk, the lower the cost.  When we insure regular visits to the doctor, it is akin to insuring an oil change at the auto shop.  Free market capitalists want government out of health insurance to encourage competition and innovation.  Progressives socialists want government spending to fund and manage healthcare.

Education spending is at an all-time high and why shouldn’t it be?  Anecdotally, I talk with very few people whose undergraduate college experience has led directly to a job.  I often question why we spend 13 years in public education in order to spend another 2-4 years matriculating before we join the middle class.  You can spend 19-21 years in school and still not attain that upper class life we are told education will bring!  When you consider that less than half of the US gets a bachelors or associates (4), it means to me that we need to make that education more attainable or more meaningful.  When I was a kid, my parents sold me on the tale that you go to college and you get a job and Bob’s your uncle.  The dream Boomers grew up with has changed.  Most Millenials will never walk down the street and get hired on the spot, nor will they get a pension, and their employer may not subsidize their healthcare or offer other benefits.

What can the middle class do to reduce cost of living?  Major metro cities have a higher cost of living based on housing, transportation, taxes, and other factors, and a minimum wage in rural Hiram, GA looks much different than the ATL.  The idea of raising the minimum wage to $15, more than doubling the national standard some would argue would put small business owners out of business.  It would certainly increase income, but may have the effect of reducing employment especially at entry level positions. Some research has been done by the Federal Reserve in San Fransisco on the effects of raising minimum wage and the evidence points to a negligible but measurable decrease in employment on the lower end of the income spectrum.

For a more reasonable cost of living, flee to the suburbs, flee to the smaller towns.  Many companies looking to relocate or add a new location are very conscious of their costs, and like Caterpillar did in Athens, GA, many large corporations want to keep their wage and other costs down by keeping them out of major metro areas.  If finding gainful employment discourages you from small town life, start your own business.  Business owners have several advantages.  First, working for yourself means never having to suck up to a supervisor, not having to punch a clock, and your success is entirely in your own hands.  Second, depending on how you are structured, your income taxes should be lower because you now have very legitimate business expenses that will reduce your taxable income.

Don’t over-educate.  Many jobs can be done without a bachelors or associates.  Most of my friends in IT have bachelors in a different field but got into IT with certificates in different programming languages or by understanding networking architecture.  Also, don’t spend $30,000 on a degree that makes you $30,000 a year.

Oh yeah, and don’t get sick.  There is virtually nothing you can do to reduce your healthcare cost besides going uninsured and not getting sick.