Saturday, December 31, 2016

My Little Crystal Ball

I don't know if you have to be an economist, a market theorist, or a expert in finances (all of which I am not) to know that a big change is in the wind, economically, with our new [cough] President Donald J. Trump.

He talks a good game, or at least what he perceives to be a good game.  He has already taken credit for keeping 8,000 jobs in America by bullying large corporations from taking their manufacturing to Mexico.  The purpose of that, one surmises, is to save money in production, since the ratio of American to Mexican salaries is something along the order of 35:1.  Ford builds their small cars in Mexico, and brings them back to the United States to sell at a price that Americans of modest means (like me) can afford.

When I was a kid (the time when Trump would probably tell us "America was great") if something said 'Made in Japan,' my parents would put it back on the shelf because it was cheaply made and wouldn't last as long as something that was made here in America.  During the 1970s, American automobiles were being beaten by Japanese imports like Datsun and Honda.  Their cars were better engineered, got better fuel mileage, and generally lasted longer and held their value longer than American cars.  That seemed to set-off a tidal wave of Japanese products that made Americans think twice about buying American products.

Audio equipment, televisions, and technology were coming out of Japan in great numbers, and names like Sony, Panasonic, and Fuji were added to the Honda's and Datsun's to change American's belief that their American-made products were inferior.  Soon, 'Made in Japan' was a badge of quality and integrity.  America was hooked on Japanese technology.  We didn't care, because what we wanted was a good product at a reasonable price.

When the jingoistic Trump was elected, his mantra of "Make America Great Again" assumed that keeping jobs in America meant that the country would leap forward (or backward) to the time when our products were best and our people wanted them.  What he fails to realize is that Americans generally do not care as much about American jobs as they do about quality and affordability.  I do not believe that you can convince someone to pay 25 percent more for a product with the caveat that "it's made in America."  Your pride in buying American will last only as long as it takes for your first payment to come due.

Trump has already kept 8,000 jobs here, and he isn't President yet.  If he does what he says he will do, he will continue this process into his presidency.  So, here is my theory on how it will affect us:

One of his ideas is that he will reduce corporate income tax to somewhere in the vicinity of 15%, down drastically from whatever they are paying now - somewhere between 35% and 50%.  That's wonderful, until those corporations have to pay their American workers' salaries and health insurance, which costs them much more than doing the same thing in Mexico.  You can put money back into the hands of corporations via lessened taxes, but that money isn't immediately available, and is likely to be spent in other areas.  As such, prices of products will rise because they will have to cover their production costs.  The decrease in income taxes will be spent somewhere, and the costs of keeping those jobs in America will be passed onto Americans.

For the sake of a few thousand jobs, Americans will be asked to pay more for goods and services produced here at a higher cost than before.

He might be able to accomplish that, but where will the extra money come from?  Will our salaries increase to keep up with the cost of production?  Probably not.  Will our standard of living increase substantially so that we can justify this increase cost?  No, because the products that we are buying will be the same products we are buying now, except that they will be made in America at a higher cost.

So, what's the idea here?  What's in my crystal ball?  The only thing a saver can do to counteract the threat of rising prices and inflation:  Buy gold and precious metals.  Gold is traditionally a hedge against inflation, since the metal retains its value in the face of price increases.  There are several ways to do this.  You can buy bouillon, which is ridiculous and time-consuming.  And of course, you have to sell it at some point, which is an arduous task.
You can buy gold and silver coins - from the U.S. Mint or a retailer.  Similar to buying bouillon, you have to sell them at some point, and that is equally time-consuming.  You may or may not get true value for your coins, and you also have to add-in the collector value, and good luck with that.  You might enjoy looking at the coins, but in the end, all you have is a hunk of metal that has to be graded and certified.

The best way to do this is to buy ETF's of gold and precious metals.  They trade on the NYSE or NASDAQ, accurately reflect the going price of gold and silver, and are as easy as a mouse click to buy and sell.  There is GLD, the SPDR Gold Index, IAU, the iShares Gold Trust, or DGL the PowerShares Gold Fund.
I have invested in GLTR, the ETFS Physical Precious Metals Basket.  It's 60% gold, 30% silver, 6% platinum, and 4% palladium.  It's a hedge, but it is available to me through a low-cost app that I use, and I think it's a good mix of precious metals.

Whichever you choose, your results should mirror the overall returns of the gold markets, and if you agree with my crystal ball, you will put at least some of your savings into these vehicles.  Rising interest rates have tanked the bond market, the stock market has run to the point that many say a correction is due, and your bank savings account interest will not keep pace with inflation - even in today's environment.

Gold has gained about 7% in 2016, but it is well down from its summer high.  The best time to buy quality investments is when the price is low.  They are "on sale," as it were.  My crystal ball may be fuzzy, or it may be pure crystal.  We will see soon enough if Mr. Trump's policies will be a change that America embraces or a colossal boondoggle. 

Either way, you will need a solid foundation for your investments, and if you have time to wait and money to invest, I think that the precious metals area is ripe through at least 2017.  We'll reconvene in December and take this up again.  You can call me an idiot or a genius - and I will accept either moniker.

Live long and prosper.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

What Hath We Wrought?

A week and a two days ago Americans elected a new President.  Well, some of them did.  I cannot say that most of them did, because the majority of the popular vote was not a majority in favor of the eventual winner.

True to my word, I watched a movie ("The Silence of Mark Rothko" - highly recommended) and flipped-off the TV at 9:30pm, which I suspected would be well in advance of declaring the eventual winner.  I wished to get one more good night's sleep.

Much has been said about the inaccuracy of the pre-election polls and how some of the pundits should be made to apologize for leading us down the garden path where millions of Americans woke-up on Wednesday morning to President-Elect Donald Trump.

And, so it goes.  Regardless of your (and my) objections, we are now living in a world where we are forced to say "President Donald Trump." It's akin to saying Mayor McCheese.  He is a cartoon version of a real President.  Sadly, that is what we seem to want now.  Cartoon reality.

The people have spoken.  But, what did they say?  They said that they have had enough of Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Clinton.  They have rebelled against the status quo.  They have made a statement.  But, what sort of statement have they made?
In their view, they have elected "an outsider."  Someone who is outside of the political mainstream, and someone who will look out for our best interests as Americans.  That's what they think.   The reality may turn out to be something quite different.
The reality is that they have elected an insider.  He is inside corporate America and inside white America.  White America elected him, and surreptitiously at that.  Part of the reason the polls didn't see this happening is that millions of white Americans did not make their preference known until they got into the polling place and pushed the Trump button.  That is the only poll that counts.
So, where are we now?  We are in a world that has regressed to the 1950s where hatred and difference are not tolerated.  The Vice President has his own views on how to deal with differences, and I'd guess it's the main reason he was chosen to be Trump's running mate.   Dulled minds think alike.
Now, you should be concerned with your future - and your children's.  If you are invested in our stock market, you should be in banks, and old-school construction like Caterpillar, Honeywell, big oil and coal, and anything that builds stuff our of concrete and steel - oh yeah, and defense stocks and guns, because they are always great for fear-mongering and hate.  Nobody ever lost money selling fear and hate.
What will lose money?  Anything progressive like technology, clean energy, and things made cheaply overseas.  He wants to cut taxes to corporations and bring manufacturing jobs back to America.  That means that your iPhone will wind up costing you even more, and your televisions and computers are taxed up the Wazoo because they are made cheaply overseas.  Remember that $400 50-inch hi-def TV you just bought?  You should hope it lasts at least 8 years because you won't be able to get one that cheaply after 2018.
And your personal income taxes?  If you are middle-class or lower, don't expect that orange-haired pumpkin to help you.  His tax plan is built around helping himself and his wealthy pals.  He'll cut corporate income taxes, but that will trickle-down to you.  Your personal income tax burden will likely increase or at the very least remain stagnant.  He preaches lower taxes, but how will he pay for all of his infrastructure improvements?
His personal corporations have declared bankruptcy four times, and I suspect that his ignorance of finance will cost the American taxpayer billions (with a B) of dollars because "Tax and Spend" is the opposite of "Don't tax and Spend.".  You cannot run the government the same way you run a corporation.  You can't float bonds to pay for stuff and declare bankruptcy (which is what he did) with Federal funds.  Government monetary policy doesn't work that way.

Combine that with the fact that most of the rest of the world thinks that we are out of our minds for electing him President.  We have a bigger uphill battle than we had with G.W. Bush in selling him to the world as the "Leader of the Free World," which is another topic altogether.
Free.  Are we free?  Not anymore.  We are being held hostage by a minority of 60% of registered voters who saw this "outsider" as the best choice to lead our country.
Where he will lead us is anyones guess.  Does anyone have a guess?  I'm willing to listen.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Inside My Element

As Mr. T said in one of those "Rocky" films:  "I live alone, I train alone, I fight alone."
I don't do a lot of fighting, but if you substitute "everything else" for fighting, you could say the same thing about me.  I don't have visitors.  The last time someone was in my home was November of 2013 when someone called the cops because they thought I had committed suicide. They were not invited guests.

When I go out, it's almost always alone.  That gives me a lot of time to notice the things around me.  When your nose isn't buried in your cell phone, you can notice a lot of the world around you, and there is a lot of world around you.
Last Friday I was in New York, and Saturday I was in Philadelphia.  Both times, there were events tied into my travels.  Friday's event was a show at Carnegie Hall with Marc Maron and Nate Bargatze. Saturday's show was Gilbert Gottfried at Helium.

Because I buy one ticket, I usually get a good seat.  It may be the only benefit to going alone, other than being able to decide when to come and go, where to hang out before and after the show, and what to do and think while I'm out. OK, so there is more than one benefit to going alone.  But I digress.
SIDELINE:  Recanting my weekend, I told a co-worker that I had taken the train into New York on Friday, and walked back and forth from Penn Station to Carnegie Hall, which is about 30 blocks.
"By yourself?" he asked, wondering how I could do that.  "Yes, of course," I said.  I didn't understand how he equated going to New York alone with some act of bravery.

I got to Carnegie Hall early, as I always do when I go to shows.  I got a beer at the lounge and took a seat.  A woman my own age (imagine that) wandered over and sheepishly said, "Is this seat taken?"  Of course it wasn't, and I invited her to sit down.

We had a nice conversation.  Her name is Laura.  She was there alone as well, and knew Marc when he lived in Long Island.  We talked a little about going to shows alone, but mostly, we talked about what we liked on TV and which comics we found funny or not.  In short, just a nice conversation with a stranger at a table.  I approached it as a blind date - which it wasn't but kind of was - and we parted ways and said good night.

I felt no point in extending an invitation to join me later for something or get a phone number. There's no future in a relationship with someone who lives so far away.  Rather, I accepted it for what it was:  A nice break in my solo travels and an opportunity to speak to an adult for an extended period without having to discuss anything work-related.  It felt like a win for me, as an introvert out of his element - in public - talking to a woman he does not know and leaving without making a jackass out of himself.

Sitting alone at a show is an interesting experience.  When I got to my seat, there was a couple next to me who would spend most of the evening pawing at each other.  The woman was to my left and surreptitiously glanced over at me to see (one would think) if anyone sat down next to me.  As it turned out, the three seats to my right remained vacant all evening.

I get a lot of that - the glances.  Sitting alone at shows garners a lot of reactions.  The people will either engage me in conversation or they will look at me as the Third Wheel - society's cast-off who finds himself lost in a world of couples and groups of friends who attend shows because they are social experiences rather than what they are:  Entertainment.
It's to the point that I have to write dialogue in my head:  If they say this ... I'll respond that ... It's exhausting, and usually goes unrequited since people tend to leave me alone.  It is palpable, though.  Mostly, when I am asked, "Is that seat taken?" at bars, and I have to move over one spot to allow a couple to take my former seat and the one next to it.  My buffer space.

"Oh, you're here alone?"
"Yeah, well it's either that or miss the show entirely."
That sort of thing.

I lost myself in both shows, which I suppose is the object of the thing.   Marc's humor is more my speed:  It is introspective and self-depreciating.  He talks about addiction, divorce, and his regrets in life. It's good food for my soul.   It makes me feel better about myself because I realize that there are people who go through what I go through.  Marc and I have more in common than Gilbert and I, but I find them both funny and entertaining in their unique ways.

After both shows, on my long walk back to the trains, I began to contemplate my issues with finding companionship and living alone in a world that is built for couples.  It leads me down a path that I don't like to be led down, but it's a path nonetheless.  After all, you can't build businesses based on single people.  I'm just happy that most theater rows have odd numbers of seats so that I can get a spot that would otherwise be left vacant.

I get shitty tables at restaurants, looked at askance when I declare, "Just one," and sometimes have to put up with a lack of attention from servers who think that I'll be a lousy tipper.  Only after the meal do they find out that they are mistaken.  Perhaps that's an over-compensation or perhaps it's my personality - or both?

I am self-motivated, which allows me to travel alone and to stay at home when I feel that motivating myself to go out will only result in more self-doubt and longing to be part of the groups and couples that I see.  At some point in the evening, the idea that I am alone grabs me with such force that I am forced to leave.  The term is Irish Exit:  When you leave without saying goodbye.  I apologize to the Irish in advance, since I have no idea where that expression comes from.

It has become a specialty of mine.  Perhaps you have been on a group outing with me and suddenly wondered, "What happened to Anthony?"  What happened is, he got an emotional punch in the stomach and decided that his best option was to leave as soon as possible.  I am the wind.  I have to leave before I start to scream - as the song goes.

It happens suddenly, and inexplicably.  Whatever it is inside snaps, and I realize that I am on my island, staring out at the world around me. I have to get out of here.

It isn't easy.  I don't bother entering any contest where the prize is "tickets for two," since I know that I will not be able to find a companion.  It's rough, but I have adapted, like birds who fly south because it's too cold here.  It is very cold where I am, but I just put a coat on and persevere.

I'm rambling, and not sure where this is going; other than to say that there is a world outside of where the mainstream world exists.  There are people outside of the grid who have issues to deal with that only exist in our heads, and that is our problem.

When Laura and I parted ways, she said, "Wouldn't it be funny if we wound up sitting next to each other?" We both laughed a little, because the reality would be so different from the fantasy. I did not see her again.

In that grand Hollywood movie, two people from different walks of life would randomly meet, and their paths would cross at some odd place.  They would find that their random encounter would lead to a torrid romance that nobody would have expected when the movie started.

The problem with real life is that it isn't a movie.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Outside of My Element

I don't go to New York City very often.  There has to be a special event to get me to go, and even then, I reluctantly do it.  On Friday, it was a Marc Maron show at Carnegie Hall.  I've seen Marc before, but I'd never been to Carnegie Hall.
I plan it like a NASA mission. Every spare minute is accounted for, so that I can get in and get out without wasting valuable resources like money - which you need a lot of if you are going to New York City.
I like cities.  I love Philadelphia and Baltimore.  New York City makes them look like Mayberry.  The activity is relentless.
I don't drive, because it costs $15 to go through one of the tunnels, fifteen bucks on the New Jersey Turnpike, and $50 to park you car.  So, you're out $80 before you leave your vehicle.  I hate to sound like a frugal jerk, but that's ridiculous.
I take the train because I like trains, and I walk because I like to walk.
It's difficult to drive around the city.  I got there at around 2 in the afternoon, and the traffic was crazy.  It was exacerbated by pedestrians ignoring the "Don't Walk" signal and walking anyway.  It backed-up cars turning right and created gridlock.  It's hard to stop them, because there are thousands of pedestrians, and their attitude is, "Fuck it, I'm walking."
There is a lot of clutter.  Street vendors selling all sorts of junk, piles of trash, piles of ... piles. Just things in piles.  Every square inch is occupied by a store, building, vendor, or somebody trying to sell me something or hand me something.  There is a sensory overload that renders everything to one large mass.  Nothing stands out, which is probably why the sides of buildings have bright video screens, vying for our attention. It's difficult to get my attention when I'm spending so much time navigating the human throngs on the sidewalk.
I have never been bumped into more in my life as I was in the 10 hours I was in New York.  I spent a lot of walking time randomly bumping shoulders with people walking in the opposite direction.  At one point, a guy with his nose buried in his phone bumped into me so hard that I'm pretty sure I heard his cell phone hit the deck.  At least that's what I'm telling myself I heard, because it would bring me great pleasure.  Pick your head up and join society.  On second thought, I don't want you in my society.
The cell phone thing is amazing, in general.  At one point, I guessed that at least 20% of the people walking the streets had phones in their hands, and of those, 10% of them were walking face-down.  That's dangerous under normal circumstances, but in New York, it's borderline suicidal.  I try to figure out what they're looking at instead of what they should be looking at - where they are walking.
Eating becomes an adventure.  You could poison yourself at one of the many food carts on the street, or you could try to find a restaurant.  The menus are usually posted in the window.  In the Midtown/Theater District area, the average price of an entrée was $40.  Again, the frugal jerk comes out, but I don't need to pay $40 for a plate of food when I'm not trying to impress someone for sex.  It took a while, but I managed to find a little place with regularly-priced food and drinks.  I felt like Thor Heyerdahl.
After dinner, I heard explosions.  That's not unusual in New York, since the place is unreasonably noisy.  The noise is so constant that it becomes background noise.  Steam pipes venting, car horns, ambulances, whistles, and random yelling from people who seem to be yelling at themselves.
The explosions were fireworks going off somewhere in Central Park to commemorate the New York Marathon, which runs on Saturday.  From the entrance of the park, I could see them clearly.  Slowly, a crowd gathered.  Maybe fifty people.  Rather than just watch the fireworks, about half of them took out their cell phones and started making videos and posting them on some media site, which required that they not only miss actually seeing the fireworks, but watched them on their cell phones, which is about the fifth-best way to watch fireworks.  I got the idea that they would be equally satisfied to see a video of fireworks as they would the actual fireworks.  That's what a part of our society has turned into.
When I go someplace, I ask myself, "Could I live here?"  Most of the time, I say, "Yes."  As I wandered around Midtown, I wondered if I could adapt to the sensory overload.  After a lot of time in that environment, perhaps I could?  Would I become one of those guerilla walkers and life-recording cell phone users?  Could I build the emotional scab over myself that I would need to survive in that morass of clutter and noise?
No, I could not.  As the old saying goes, "It's a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there."  It's true of no place like it is of New York City.
The song says it's "the city that doesn't sleep."  I think it needs to take a nap now and then.  Just to clean-up and relax for a little while.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Why Do We Do What We Do?

This is the popular meme going around Facebook and other social media, vis-a-vis Colin Kaepernick and his supposed disrespecting of our National Anthem over this past week.
The idea here is that he should be grateful for his huge salary, which has been provided on the backs of American citizens whom he is supposed to respect by standing for their anthem.
First - we can't be sure that Dr. Carson said this. There are too many brackets and parenthesis to suit me.
Second - if you took the time to read the lyrics to the anthem, you might have a different idea.
A long time ago, I stopped celebrating Christmas, because I found it to be a Pagan holiday perpetrated by modern society.  That was my choice, and not  a popular one.  If I had more friends it would have been a less popular choice.
The song (poem) is about a war we lost, and the idea that "the flag was still there" is human emotion creeping into an ideal that was all about keeping the American way of slavery and its ideals alive. Hence, the third verse...
Few people know this because we only ever sing the first verse. But read the end of the third verse. The song (poem) literally celebrates the murder of slaves - and you’ll see why the Star Spangled Banner is not just a musical atrocity, it’s an intellectual and moral one, too:
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
It's all about that "land of the free, and home of the brave" crap that we've come to believe as history, when in fact, it's revisionist history - which we love more than real history. I'm not here to say that Colin Kaepernick understands all of that, or even that his protest has something to do with it.  What I am here to say is that -  you need to examine your beliefs and ask: "Why do I do what I do?"
Why do you stand for the anthem? Do you stand if it's being played while you are at home watching on your television, or only when you are in a crowd who are also standing?  Those are worthy questions, and you should be asking them of yourself instead of having me ask them of you.
We do a log of things mindlessly - because society tells us to: Christmas shopping, attending funerals and viewings, thanking people for doing things that they should be doing as a part of being in society - the list goes on.  It's only when one of us stands up and protests does it become a national outrage and force us to examine our behavior.  Such is this.
The Star Spangled Banner, Americans hazily remember, was written by Francis Scott Key about the Battle of Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the War of 1812. But we don’t ever talk about how the War of 1812 was a war of aggression that began with an attempt by the U.S. to grab Canada from the British Empire.
However, we’d wildly overestimated the strength of the U.S. military. By the time of the Battle of Fort McHenry in 1814, the British had counterattacked and overrun Washington, D.C., setting fire to the White House.
We have been conditioned that The Star Spangled Banner (which is actually the flag, and not the song) is a sacred thing, and we should pay respect to it accordingly. What it is, is a poem about a war we lost and an honorarium to an object that happened to be visible to its author at the time. The song has become an object of jingoism, and those who do not observe are outcasts.
Over the years it has become one of our customs: Remove your hats and join us in honoring America ... when in fact, it is possible that we could honor America in any number of ways without removing our hats ... or standing.

As it turns out, the NFL has no rule about players standing during the anthem, so it appears that the whole thing is a matter of peer pressure, and not society.  If Kaepernick doesn't want to stand, he doesn't have to stand. Doesn't that fly in the face of your viewpoint? Yes, it does.

By 1833 Key was a district attorney for Washington, D.C. As described in a book called "Snowstorm in August" by former Washington Post reporter Jefferson Morley, the police were notorious thieves, frequently stealing free blacks’ possessions with impunity. One night one of the constables tried to attack a woman who escaped and ran away - until she fell off a bridge across the Potomac and drowned.
“There is neither mercy nor justice for colored people in this district,” an abolitionist paper wrote. “No fuss or stir was made about it. She was got out of the river, and was buried, and there the matter ended.”
Key was furious, and indicted the newspaper for intending “to injure, oppress, aggrieve & vilify the good name, fame, credit & reputation of the Magistrates & constables of Washington County.”
Maybe Kaepernick has a point- even though he may not know what it is.  I don't pretend to give him more credit than he deserves, but I do give him credit for at least examining our customs and asking himself why. That's an 'out of the box' idea for a lot of meathead athletes.
Perhaps we, as non meathead-athletes should be asking ourselves the same things?

Sunday, August 21, 2016

What Hath We Wrought?

Much has been said about Ryan Lochte and his lying to Brazilian police over what he said was a robbery at gunpoint - yada, yada, yada ... I am not here to re-hash that nonsense or attempt to rationalize his actions.  I do have an opinion, as you could imagine.
We live in an age of entitlement, where parents of children feel that they are entitled to ... whatever ... a cell phone, expensive clothes, a college education; all that the teat of their parents who feel like they have let their children down if they do not provide these privileges - like the other kids get.
It's the highest and most invasive form of peer pressure.
I don't know any of the athletes who competed in Rio this year.  What I would assume however, is that somewhere along the line, they were given a break or three in order to pursue their dream of, I don't know, beating people from another country at something.  It is what it is - whatever it is.
The overriding assumption is that they are people of privilege.  People whose parents, guardians, or trust-owners found a way for them to pursue their athletic goals at the expense of (oh, I don't know) working for a living or otherwise earning their way through life. Cut through your Politically Correctness, and you'll scratch that itch, too.  After all, how can a person working a 40-hour week possibly train enough to compete in a sport that provides no remuneration?  Ask yourself - how can a person go to Rio de Janeiro for two weeks to participate in a sport that has no professional league or possible financial remuneration?  The answer: Privilege.
And, that is the point.  We live in an athletic society that gives out Participation trophies and awards everybody equally - until they get to a point where winning matters.  By then, it's too late.
They have been trained that (pardon my French) their shit doesn't stink, and that the idea that they are faster than everyone else matters somehow, in the grand scheme - which is the only scheme that matters.  The fact is, their shit does stink - when they shit it.  It stinks to people who otherwise don't care that they can run, jump, or swim faster than anybody else.  The problem is that the athlete has never been held accountable.
When they are, the proverbial shit hits the fan; and they have to scramble to explain something that, long ago would have been swept under the rug because "[our boy] is going to the Olympics, and we can't let anything derail that."
The danger is in treating some people differently than others.  That flies in the face of our world of equality, where one person's belief system is equal to another.  Teachers are fired for posting racist views on Facebook. People are ostracized for drunk driving, petty crimes, and odd behavior.  Athletes are a different matter.
Michael Vick found a new career after abusing animals. The Eagles just signed a known drug abuser who pushed a woman down a flight of stairs. The list is almost endless. If you can run fast, score touchdowns, swim, hit a ball ... we have a place for you.  If your skills are more "pedestrian,"  well ... good luck.
We are building a society that will offend us.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Moving at the Speed of Life

"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."
- Ferris Bueller's Day Off

It does, Ferris. It surely does. I've stopped and looked around a few times.  It's a nice thing.  Once, at the Grand Canyon, I had the fortuitous circumstance of being in the dark without the moon in the sky.  I laid on a block wall near the rim of the canyon, and once my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see the Milky Way in all its glory, in the sky above me.  For a moment, I contemplated my place in the Universe.  It's a tiny place.
So, here I am, an old man of 58.  Marketing ignores me.  Women ignore me. I am left to my own devices.  I have idea whether I have 2 years left, 20 years, or 50.  It's part of the mystery of life.
It seems not all that long ago that I was a young man, full of dreams and habits of young men. It was long ago, but the "seems like" has been replaced by the ravages of time.  Time that passes before us like the wind.  I still have some of the habits of young men, but as an old man, it seems that they should have been replaced by old man habits.  Youth is a tough habit to break.
In some ways, I feel as though I have wasted my life.  A strange feeling - that of unresolved quests and misplaced priorities.  Would the younger me have listened to the older me, like Biff in "Back to the Future," or would he still have driven into that pile of manure?  That movie is full of plot holes ... but I digress.
I feel as though I still would have, if the older me had met the younger me at some point and said, "Don't waste your life, son."  I was too busy wasting my life to listen to an old man telling me not to waste my life. Would it have mattered if I had listened, or would I still be in this place, questioning my choices?
It's funny how your decisions culminate into other decisions, and form the life you have led. Sometimes, the bad decisions you make lead to good ones, and the good decisions you make lead you to a bad road.  When you play the "What If" game, your head explodes, and that's never a good thing.
At some point, we are at the mercy of the wind, like that feather that drifts around in "Forrest Gump."
“I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze.  But I think maybe it's both.  Maybe both are happening at the same time.”
Maybe it is, Forrest.  Maybe, as they say, there isn't a damned thing we can do about it.
What is it about life that gifts some people with enviable destinies and others with envy?  It can't be purely effort-related.  Some of it is the breeze.  Too much of it, I say.
I'm still waiting for the breeze to blow my way.  Accidental-like.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

... and another thing

OK, so I decided I wasn't done writing about Keith Emerson.

One of the things about being a fan of the so-called prog-rock movement of the 1970s was that it opened me up to other forms of music, specifically jazz and classical. It took me out of my little world of Top 40 radio junk and thrust me into a realm that I would not have otherwise been exposed to.

It was fun.  A time before sampling and massive overdubs, there was an adventurous quality to it.  From one day to the next, you'd never know what was coming.  One day, Yes was interpreting Paul Simon's "America," and another day, Focus was yodeling "Hocus Pocus" all over the place. Part of it was the innocence of the time, and another part of it was the necessity to find the stuff.  We had to hear about it though word-of-mouth or (God forbid) the radio, and then, travel to a local record store and hope that they had the damned thing.  Part of the fun was tracking it down.

By the way, we also had to stand in line for concert tickets. "ELP tickets go on sale at 10:00am on Saturday," so we'd line-up at the local Record Museum two hours beforehand and hope that the clerk didn't scoff-up all the tickets for himself.  And, we didn't even have a seat. It was only after The Who fans trampled people in Cincinnati that seats started being assigned ... but I digress.

When Emerson, Lake, and Palmer released "Pictures at an Exhibition," I went out to find the root of it.  I bought an album of Vladimir Horowitz playing it on solo piano.  Since then, I've heard countless versions of it and (dare I say) I'm smug and opinionated about the orchestral versions of the piece.  It's either too rushed, too slow, or not emotional enough.
It helped me develop a love of music that I wouldn't have otherwise been exposed to.
Finding ELP led me to The Nice.  Carl Palmer started out in The Crazy World or Arthur Brown, and Atomic Rooster.  The latter is especially wonderful, if you have the time.

Greg Lake, of course, started with King Crimson.  I already knew that, but once you get into Crimson, you find yourself in another rabbit hole.

In March of 1973 I was sick with the flu.  My sainted mother was going out shopping.  She asked, "Can I bring you anything?"  I asked her to find "Lark's Tongues in Aspic," the new King Crimson album.  I knew about it because Bill Bruford (ex of Yes) had just joined, and I wanted to hear it.  Sure enough, she brought it home.  That started another journey.

The point is (if there is one) that we need a catalyst.  Someone or something to break us out of our rut - musically or emotionally - and force us to find something new.

I'll always go back to Keith Emerson for that spark.  His music was the first thing that I found that spoke to me.  I can trace every inclination to music that I love back to him and that band.  Whether it was to think about what else is out there or to explore something different, that was the spark.

Their music wasn't for everybody.  No music is for everybody.  But I found myself arguing and defending them to people who just didn't get it.  In the end, that's OK - you aren't always going to "get it."  Some see it as pretentious, others as excessive, and some as just noise.  But I think, if you go back to the roots (popular now) of what it is based on, you'll find that their inspirations were the same as the inspirations of countless musicians.

So many artists of that era have a special place in my heart:  Keith, dear old Peter Banks, Jan Akkerman, Robert Fripp, Peter Gabriel, Gentle Giant, Focus, Manfred Mann, Renaissance  ... they all grew out of that seed.  It warms my heart to hear their music.

The seed that Keith planted.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Keith Emerson (1944 - 2016)

I think it was 1972 - I was 15, and visiting a distant cousin in his family's Southampton, PA home.  Bored with the adults, I had wandered out to their garage, where there was a stereo system and a stack of albums.
I remember listening to Thunderclap Newman's "Hollywood Dream," and Jethro Tull's "Thick as a Brick" (thumbing through the newspaper that was inside the album cover) and ... Emerson, Lake, & Palmer's first album - the one with "Lucky Man" on it.  I'm not sure where the adults were, but I was having quite a time listening to some wonderful music.
Perhaps that's where it started, I don't know; but at some point I decided that I loved the adventure of music.  Prior to that, I had been spoon-fed "pop music" on our local radio stations, and buying whatever records were available in the local W.T. Grant's record department - that is to say, the Top 40.
If your musical tastes only go as high as forty, you're missing out on a lot of good stuff.  Especially in the early-to-mid-1970's, when all sorts of clever music was being created:  Focus, Manfred Mann's Earth Band, Yes, Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Genesis, and too many more to mention here.
As it turned out, those bands were at least partially influenced by Keith Emerson's band (No, not ELP) ... The Nice.  They took Dylan tunes and classical music and turned them into 3-piece rock tunes, which sometimes included a full symphony orchestra.  Perhaps that's where the term "Symphonic Rock" came from?  (I always hated that term, as well as "Progressive Rock," but that's another topic)  Jon Anderson said, "Saying Symphonic Rock is like saying Strawberry Bricks. It doesn't make sense."  But, I digress.
Once I figured out what was going on with ELP, I needed to go back and find their roots.  Whenever I could get $4 together, I would make a bee line to a record store (remember?) and pick out a new record.  Once, it was a Nice album called "Autumn '67 - Spring '68." Back in 1967, there he was, playing this incredible music.  Interesting that, historically "Sgt. Pepper" gets WAY more recognition, even though musically, what The Nice was doing was light years beyond the producer-heavy stuff The Beatles were up to.  But, I digress again.
The first big-time rock concert I ever saw was Emerson, Lake, and Palmer at the old Spectrum in Philadelphia on April 12, 1974.  I was not yet 17 years old. My cousin Joe and I were barely old enough to ask for a ride to the joint, but there we were, with our $5.50 tickets in the upper level.  A concern was that we wouldn't be able to hear the music from so far away.  Little did we know that when "Jerusalem" started up, their quadraphonic sound system could have been heard in the parking lot.
I don't know what 17-year-old's are listening to now, but it can't possibly be as interesting as that was.
There they were, cranking out tunes from the newly-released "Brain Salad Surgery" album, and somehow holding together the music that was clearly more complicated than any trio should have been able to perform.  Note:  Those were the days before pre-recorded tracks or sampling, so it was real music, kids.  If I wasn't already hooked on the stuff, that did it.  Hey, real music can be played LIVE and still sound great.  It didn't have to be over-produced pop fluff.
I was a sucker for the rock magazines back then.  There was no Internet, so the news we got was from monthly mags like Creem and Circus.  They liked to turn music into a competition.  Usually, pitting one against another, like Beatles vs. Stones, Deep Purple vs. Black Sabbath, or ELP vs. Yes.  As though it wasn't possible to like both.  One article I remember was titled: Keith Emerson's Favorite Cup of Blood - Genesis.  Well, if it was good enough for Keith, I should give them a go.  And off I went into Nursery Cryme and Foxtrot.  Again, a topic for another post.
Some didn't care for his showmanship.  Daggers in his keyboards (as a replacement for wooden spikes to hold notes down), a spinning piano, a Moog synthesizer that opened and "exploded" at the end of Karn Evil 9, and countless other efforts to entertain us.
When they interpreted a classical piece for one of their albums, they would take it to the composer and play it for them, seeking approval.  For Alberto Ginastera's "Toccata," Keith said, "I was dubious about taking my arrangement to such a famous man.  He didn't speak much English and his wife had to translate everything. Finally, Ginastera said, 'Diabolic!' I was terrified. I thought he hated it or thought I was the devil or something. But then, he smiled. He turned to me and said, "No one has been able to capture my music like that before! It's exactly the way I hear it myself!"  That surely must have warmed Keith's heart.
His interpretations of Copland's "Hoedown" and "Fanfare for the Common Man" are inspired and amazing.  Their third album, "Pictures at an Exhibition" was a full composition adapted for the trio, reminiscent of The Nice, and I imagine made Modest Mussorgsky smile in his grave.  Countless other tunes are spiked with pieces of Leoš Janáček, Béla Bartok, Joaquín Rodrigo, and Sergei Prokofiev. Today, it might seem trite, but in the 1970's it was innovative, fun, and critically panned as being pretentious.
Famous disc jockey (oxymoron) John Peel called them, "A waste of time, talent, and electricity." Hoo boy.  Their albums came out to mostly critical pans, because that's what they were supposed to do in those days.  Music like theirs was pretentious, overbearing, and excessive. I loved every minute of it, and perhaps the fact that most critics hated it made me love it even more.  I think there is a tendency for people to hate what they don't understand.  After all, there were huge pipe organs, giant drum kits, synthesizers, and (egad) classical music.  What's not to hate?
Keith wrote a Piano Concerto for their "Works Volume 1" album in 1977, and I remember reading a review by the cranky Matt Damsker, (who seemed to hate anything that wasn't mainstream) in our local newspaper.  He complained (complained!) that the concerto lacked a theme.  I wrote him an angry letter, because a concerto doesn't need a theme.  It's a composition in three movements.  I thought (and still do) it was a beautiful piece, but sometimes critics need to hate to get attention.  I suppose it worked.
I had tickets for that tour - where they were supposed to be accompanied by a full orchestra - again, at The Spectrum. Alas, they ran out of money and had to sack the orchestra.  The show went on, with the three of them.  I figured they could have financed it if they had charged more than $8.50 for a ticket.  Today, that show would probably cost $150. In those days, concerts were loss-leaders to promote record sales and pump-up interest in the band.  Now, they're profit centers.  Again -- another topic.
The band ran out of steam about the time "Love Beach" came out, whose title should have alerted us to the fact.  I lost track of Keith, outside of his soundtrack to the Sylvester Stallone film "Nighthawks."
I've never been one for going backwards or "tribute bands."  I prefer to remember greatness and move on with life.  As much as I loved him, I never went to see any of the incarnations of ELP-style bands that formed, including Emerson, Lake, and Powell or The Nice reunion.  Once the original energy is gone, something intrinsic to the music is lost, and I have no interest in re-living past glory.
What I have to remember from him is the musical wonderment that he brought me.  How could someone find that spark?  Where does that creative inertia come from?  His energy, verve, and passion.  I didn't (and still don't) know beans about playing the keyboards, outside of where the notes are, but there was something about him that inspired awe and wonder.  Every note had a purpose, and everything he did was inspired.
Whatever caused him to decide to take his own life is his business, and I can only imagine was done with much forethought.  It makes my heart ache, but he leaves a legacy of great music.  The wonderful thing about art - whether recorded, written, spoken, or drawn - is that it lives beyond our mortality.  We have memories, sure; but there are also tangible objects that we can carry along with us.  I'm sure Keith realized that, as did the others before him.  It is sad, but glorious at the same time.
His work here was done.  Whatever made this poor soul take his own life, I hope he is in a happier place, because he certainly left me in one. Rest in peace.