distal muse

observations, opinions, ephemera, and views


April 28, 2017

A Single Iris On The Verge of May

April 27, 2017

Concerts!

So there’s a meme going around on FaceBook about concerts.  Basically, list 10 concerts, 9 of which you have actually been to and 1 you have not.  Your friends are supposed to guess which one is the false claim.

I love music.  I mean, if I could I would have a soundtrack backing my daily movements. I’ve been playing an instrument, either keyboard or guitar, since I was nine, and I have been buying albums (as opposed to 45 rpm singles) since I was fourteen. I went to my first honest-to-gosh-wow concert when I was thirteen (I’ve written about that before and will not repeat it here, because it was an anomaly) and started regularly attending at fifteen.

I have not seen a lot of live acts.  Compared to some, I am woefully deprived of live concert experience.  But I treasure the memory of all the ones I did see, which, mulling over my list for this silly/fun meme, turns out to be not too shabby.

I have seen Yes—my standard, musically—about eight or nine times. The first time was their Close To The Edge tour back in 1972. Poco opened for them.

Opening acts are very important.  I mean, we usually go to see the headliner, but those opening acts are sometimes more significant.  I only saw Gentle Giant because they opened for Rick Wakeman on his first solo tour, for Journey To The Center of the Earth.

I have seen Emerson, Lake & Palmer at least five times.  My other standard in terms of music.

Jethro Tull five times. And here opening acts matter.  I have seen, opening for JT—Brewer & Shipley, Journey (pre-Steve Perry), and The Band.

I saw a more or less forgotten British prog group that was AMAZING opening for Yes—Gryphon.

I saw Livingston Taylor, who opened for ELP (and a sadder pairing I have never seen since—no one gave a dove’s fart about Livingston Taylor at that show).

I have seen Kansas three times, Styx once, Starcastle once, and REO Speedwagon once.  Of course.  I live in St. Louis and am over forty.

Cat Stevens.  John Denver (thank you, Vickie).

The Eagles, once, before their whole Hotel California period, but more importantly Dan Fogelberg opened for them.  He was all by himself, no band, with a single guitar and a piano and he blew the Eagles away.

Joni Mitchell.  Crosby, Stills, Nash (never Young). The Grateful Dead, twice.  Santana (three times?)  Deep Purple.

Phish twice.

Uriah Heep, Fleetwood Mac (twice), Jeff Beck (twice), Jefferson Starship (twice), Jan Hammer, Ted Nugent (before he decided he was more than just a good guitar player)…

Earth, Wind, & Fire.

Asia.

Mark-Almond. Focus. Billy Joel (twice).  Renaissance. America.  Wishbone Ash.  Hot Tuna.

The Moody Blues (thrice).  The Beach Boys.

Harry Chapin (twice).

Genesis (thrice).  Robert Palmer (opening for Jeff Beck).

Led Zeppelin.  And then, many years later, the Page & Plant tour. David Bowie (once, early, the Ziggy Stardust tour).

Todd Rundgren’s Utopia.

Sting.

The Who (twice).

Unfortunately, opening for the Who was Lynard Skynnard.  That is one of the downsides of opening acts, from time to time you will see (and suffer through) a real disappointment.  Opening for Uriah Heep I saw an outfit called Tucky Buzzard, which was the only time I preferred a Stones version to the cover.  (Sorry, folks, I know the Rolling Stones are up on Olympus for a lot of people, but I can’t stand them.  Love their songs—done by other people, except this time.)

Then there were a whole roster of Other Acts that may surprise.  I saw Neil Diamond, who is a consummate showman.  I saw Liza Minnelli.  Ferrante and Teicher.  Arlo Guthrie.

Joe Pass, Oscar Peterson, and Count Basie, all in the same night.  Branford Marsalis.

Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis (you can Google them and then acquaint yourselves—superb jazz guitarists).

At this point I would have to go unbury all my saved ticket stubs.  I have missed a few, I know.  More than a few, maybe.  So I’ll probably have to do this again.

But it sent me down into the archives and I came back with some terrific memories. We stopped going because the scene grew progressively less tolerable.  First when the drug of choice changes from pot to beer.  I’m sorry, it’s true—sitting in a crowd of several thousand beer-swilling people can be a bit dangerous.  Whatever else you might say about it, marijuana makes for a much more pleasant audience.  Then the security situation got ridiculous.  I don’t care to be patted down just to see a concert.  And to be fair, I don’t care for big crowds to begin with.

But occasionally, you just have to go see a performer you love.  So this summer we’re going to see Santana.  Again.

So thanks for the meme—er, memory.

 

 

April 17, 2017

Perceptual Drift

Once in a while, something comes along to knock us out of our course, drives us to take a look at things from a perspective long discarded, and calls upon us to reassess.  Shocks that set us not only back but prompt the kind of deep re-evaluations we sometimes believe we do all the time. It’s fair to say one such shock is this election just past, which many of us, on both sides of the political divide, are puzzling over, conservatives no less than liberals.

Coming upon the heels of that we may be fortunate to find a book or two, hear a lecture, find revelation in an analysis that brings us up short and calls into question everything we took for granted for, well, decades.

Thomas Frank, known for his first book, What‘s the Matter With Kansas?, most recently published such an examination—Listen, Liberal is as complete an indictment of the Democratic Party and the assumptions of liberalism as I have seen in one place in many years. What is particularly troubling for me—and perhaps for many like me—is that all the points he raises are based on history which I knew, events that I remember, paths taken that at the time seemed inevitable, but which I never interpreted this way. I indulged a fairly banal process of explaining it to myself so that all these things became acceptable, even normal, in a way that now, looking at the shambles of where I always thought we were headed, I find bewildering. None of us, ever, are free of self-deception, especially in the face of specific alternatives we find unacceptable at the time.

Then Frederick Dutton, Democratic Party power broker, went farther: he identified workers, the core of the New Deal coalition, as “the principle group arrayed against the forces of change.” They were actually, to a certain degree, the enemy. Dutton acknowledged that it was strange to contemplate such a reversal of the moral alignment that had put his own party into power, but you couldn’t argue with history. “In the 1930s,the blue collar group was in the forefront,” Dutton recalled. “Now it is the white-collar sector.” Specifically: “the college-educated group.” That was who mattered in the future-altering present of 1971.

This was in the aftermath of the 1968 debacle of Democratic failure which put Richard Nixon in office and announced the coming Age of Plutocracy which has come upon us with the inevitability of an ice age glacier. The “student” movements of the Sixties aligned with the perceived betrayal of the Johnson Administration over Vietnam and the chasm of perception between generations that placed the youth movements on the opposing side against their traditionalist parents’ generation. The Republicans capitalized on the Old Guard vote in the wake of Johnson’s resignation and the year of political chaos that was 1968. The anger exploded in Chicago and the Democratic Party leadership saw the future as one in which the educated class would be the group to court.

Yet somehow this was seen as something that had to be done at the expense of labor, which was suddenly perceived as hopelessly archaic, a drag on change. Even though Labor, as an organized body politic, was still solidly Democratic, they were seen as a burden. Of course, they were also seen as a reliable source of votes. They were, in short, taken for granted.

This is the story Frank narrates in his new book and it is a hard thing to realize how correct he is. That basically the Democratic Party—and by extension America itself—left Labor in the ditch and committed itself to fostering a class of voters who are in many ways indistinguishable from the so-called upper 10%, if not in money then in aspirations.  And it is in those aspirations that the tale is told most painfully, because we have witnessed the betrayal even of them, despite the fact that they are exactly who the Future was supposed to be about.

I have a slightly different take on the path Mr. Frank describes. I remember all that with a different emphasis.

My parents were born during the Great Depression. One thing that bound many of them together, ideologically, was a conviction that their children and grandchildren would not have to suffer through what they did. They were solidly blue collar people.  College was a fantasy for most and I think it was understood that the upper reaches of white collar sinecure would always be for the few. But they would try. If at all possible, they would get their kids into college.  I remember my father telling that he wanted me to be able to make a living without having to cut my fingers. Also, the assumption for many was that white collar was more secure, despite the realities at the time that union jobs represented the better security.

They succeeded beyond their wildest expectations, but it didn’t turn out the way they hoped, for many reasons.

The other thing was the Space Race.

I know, this seems an unlikely cause of our present calamities, but consider—with Sputnik, the United States entered into a technology showdown of unprecedented configuration. We were suddenly in a do-or-die competition over knowledge-based innovation. This was a Cold War initiative that got sold to the public in the guise of exploration—which it was, in many of its parts—so we could count political coup and perfect missile technology along the way.  Industry had to be conjoined with science and for the coming Age of Space we needed scientists and engineers—not Teamsters or Auto Workers. The National Science Foundation made a big push to transform education to meet the coming requirements. Education had to be remade.

The experiment turned out to be a disaster in slow motion. In spite of the success of the space program, teachers found themselves at odds with the new requirements, students were being short-changed in basics, the ability of the massive edifice of public education to turn on a dime and create the Future turned out to be a pie-in-the-sky wish. And of course in the midst of all this came the convulsions of the Sixties, by the end of which even the basic assumptions of education were called into question, along with all the confidence in government that had existed since FDR.  Unions were seen more and more as stodgy repositories of old school billy-club thinking (not without some justification—but there’s the rub, of course: all of this transpired with “some” justification), more in the way than not.

(My father was screwed over by his union over technological innovation. This was a real thing. Many unions sensed the coming problem all this innovation was bringing, because the basic question that was asked last if at all was “What about the displaced workers?”)

We were about to Build The Future. As of 1969 we were on the Moon, we were going to the other planets, space stations would soon be orbiting the planet, the future the future the Future!

And it didn’t happen.

Instead we were made ripe for a political realignment that sidelined Labor in the name of that Future which was then turned into a source of votes to undo the New Deal. Instead of going to Mars, we got the Shuttle; instead of universal healthcare, we got the benefits of skyrocketing medical technology along with skyrocketing costs the government refused to take on, leaving more and more people unable to pay for what should have been medical care the envy of the world; instead of full employment, we got a war on the poor and demands for “welfare reform” that created a permanent underclass of poor by which management threatens workers with banishment if they unionize or demand a fair share of the burgeoning wealth owned by fewer and fewer.

All aided and abetted by a Democratic Party that decided its political fortunes were best cast with those people who didn’t want to cut their fingers to make a living.

Frank calls it the Professional Class.  These are the people who don’t join unions because they more or less see themselves as independent contractors, quasi-libertarians, loners, wannabe entrepreneurs. Without benefit of the formal structure, they also make up one of the strongest unions in history because they keep nonmembers out more effectively than any organized union ever did.  They do it by social category, not by skill set or paid dues.  Although if one wished to see it this way, college degrees represent paid dues of an extortionate level. They like to believe they represent a merit-based social hierarchy, but in fact out-of-the-box skills trouble if not frighten them. The idea that someone may be able to “do what they do” and in some cases do it better without benefit of matriculation through the unofficial union membership program they prefer is inconceivable and anyone who comes along to show that this is an error on their part is not welcomed for his or her abilities but shut out because they have rough table manners.

And just as the base of the GOP seems unable to see how their party is not doing well by them, these shiny professionals are dismayed by their party’s inability to challenge the GOP on the state and congressional level because the Democratic Party is serving a class that is simply in most ways too like Republicans to draw a base of natural allies, namely Labor.

What should be a merit-based society has become what might be called a Credentialist Society, which is not the same thing, though in many respects the two resemble each other. Bernie Sanders’ call for free college is a blunt attack on the chokehold universities have on who is or is not to be allowed to participate. The price of that union card has grown all out of proportion to the benefits it confers on the membership.

There’s nothing anti-American about this, though.  While we boast of our founding as a nation of immigrants and a society based not on pedigree but ability, the fact remains that we have a history of exclusion, attempts to keep certain people out.  We are functional snobs.  Real equality scares us, because individually we fear we won’t measure up on a level playing field. Some of us, anyway. And both parties have played on that fear to achieve essentially the same result. While the Republicans are an Us vs. Them party for the rich, the Democratic Party has become an Us vs. Them party representing those who want to be the rich—and feel like they have a shot at it if they can just find a way to free themselves of their declassé roots.  Consequently, most of us have been left in the lurch.

A friend of mine who is a thoughtful conservative once told me, when I asked, that one of things about the Democratic Party that troubled him most was its racism. I thought that was odd, since in recent years it was fairly obvious that most of the racists seem to adhere to the Republicans. I’ve since rethought that. Not that I believe the racism of the GOP is any less real, but the Democratic Party exhibits a kind of circumstantial racism, a racism by default because the economy has been engineered in such a way to assign poverty along broad racial lines, casting such people into labor pools that suffer the most when the jobs are lost and technology displaces them and the housing prices of the upwardly aspirant make it impossible for them to live in desirable neighborhoods.  The Democratic Party would rather fob them off with entitlements than do anything to address the economic situation that makes them, essentially, the Left Behinds.  The GOP at least is more honest in saying they aren’t interested in those people at all, if not in word then deed.

But going back to Thomas Frank’s argument, the Professional Class is where we all wanted to be.  And we didn’t want to be unionized because unions are drags on upward mobility—or so we believed.  We collaborated in the current situation by failing to understand our own preferences—our own prejudices.

Which has brought us to our current situation.

There is nothing natural about the the 1%. There is everything natural about their success.  Why?  Because that’s who we wanted to be.  Many of us.  And we went along with changes in our political reality because we were told that the Future was going to come about by virtue of innovation and technology and the concomitant methodologies of investment portfolios and fey capital.  We were played—by both parties in their own way, yes, but also by our own conceits.

There are a number of quibbles I have with Mr. Frank’s narrative—those technological innovations are not phantoms and are having very, very real effects on they way work is done. The reality we have now is that we simply do not need as many people to make all the things we need to have made.  When Obama talked about “shovel ready” programs, the reality he evoked no longer pertained.  When Roosevelt did that, building a highway could employ ten or twenty thousand men.  Today a hundred people can built that same road.  What we have failed to realize is that while the labor requirements of the mid-20th Century no longer pertain, neither should the economic structures of the 19th Century, which is what we have.  Just because a business owner can do the same work with less than half the workforce previously employed doesn’t automatically mean said owner gets all that money personally.  “Share in the wealth” used to mean one thing by participation in its creation, but the human component in that creation has changed and now it means something else.

In any event, I recommend Thomas Frank’s new book. Argue with it, by all means, but if nothing else it should dislodge preconceptions and open us to the possibility of redoing our political expectations.

April 06, 2017

Your Money

Richard Cordray, head of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, was interrogated on Capitol Hill by Republicans who want to shut his agency down. The agency was set up under Obama. Originally, it was to be run by Elizabeth Warren, but she received such violent resistance that she stepped aside, making way for Cordray, and then ran for the Senate, where she has been a burr under the GOP saddle ever. They might have been better off, by their own thinking, to leave her alone, but thinking long term doesn’t seem to be their chief strength.

You might ask why the CFPB is the target of so much bile. If you really don’t know, then you’ve never been strapped for money, in need of a loan, and then taken advantage of by a lender with all the morals of a Glyptapanteles. The CFPB stands in the way of banks picking pockets.

No, really, it’s that simple.

Back in the 1980s, we were thinking about buying a house. We went to our then bank to get pre-approved. Good to know what you can bring to the table when it comes time to actually buy. We sat with a lending officer who crunched our numbers and announced how much we qualified for. Both of us swallowed audibly. It was an absurd figure. I did some quick math and laughed.

“You’re joking,” I said.

“No,” he said. “This is was you qualify for.”

“But we can’t afford that.”

“Sure you can.”

“Not and continue to eat.” I then laid out our budgeting constraints for utilities, food, insurance premiums, and so forth. At the end of the month, we were shy the amount he had just given us and not by a small amount.

“That’s not our concern,” he said. “According to us, you can pay this much. How you manage the rest is up to you.”

We were appalled. I stopped short of telling him that was unethical to say the least, because I realized that according to him he was being ethical. He didn’t lie about anything—not technically, at least.  But the tables and formulae he used to arrive at his figures were industry standard. He was following the rules. It was entirely up to us to take him up on it.

But when you consider how innumerate people are and how little many of them understand about finance, added to the unadorned desire to own a home, you can see how being told by someone in authority—a banker—that you can afford the house of your dreams will roll right over any prudent misgivings you might have but cannot quantify.  This is what led to the 2008 meltdown—bad loans, made with the full awareness that many of the people taking them could not sustain them. Add to innumeracy the widespread illiteracy among the most vulnerable demographic groups—illiterate not in the sense that they cannot read a sentence, but in that they do not know how to comprehend complex writing—and you have a recipe for abuse.

Which is what happened.

The CFPB was established as a bulwark against such abuse. A barrier between banks that frankly don’t give a shit about people as other than ledger entries and people who are ill-equipped to defend themselves.  And really should not have to. We’re supposed to be a country of laws, but in the last few decades it seems that any law keeping a banker from your money is bypassed, repealed, set aside, ignored, or smashed into useless pulp by people who for no reason they seem willing or able to explain claim to be doing this “for the people.”

(To be fair, there were many people in lending at low to mid-level who knew this was going to be bad, some even tried to avert some of it, tried to act responsibly, and were told by higher ups to just make the loans. Many quit their jobs, unwilling to screw their customers, others were fired for being moral actors, a lot just shrugged and went ahead, because after all they had their own situations in need of tending.)

Now, if you, Representative Consumer, have a major case of the Wants and go to a bank to get a loan to satisfy it, and the bank says no, according to these guys over here (the CFPB or some similar agency) we can’t make those kinds of loans to people “like you” and you get annoyed because you still have your case of Wants, you might want to consider that you just can’t afford it. And if you do get that loan, eventually you may default and that will hurt other people.  If enough of you say be damned to “afford” and force the lending institutions to hand over the loans whether you can afford them or not, and most of you default, well, a lot of bad shit happens. (In reality, though, no one had to force the banks to do anything, because the real money was being made on bundling—part of the whole credit default swaps thing that even insiders had a hard time understanding—and it never mattered if anyone could “afford” their mortgage, it only mattered that they had one that could be bundled and sold with thousands of others.  Small banks got hurt, homeowners got hurt, but the major financial institutions made out, as they say, like bandits.)

So when critics of regulation claim that the 2008 crisis was really the fault of the people receiving those loans, they have a point.  Not much of one, but enough that it can’t be ignored.  But that point is like pretending one tree is a forest.  (Even so, if that one tree catches fire…)

When people who should know better—and do, actually—oppose regulations to keep you from being abused by a system that has no regard for your dreams or your situation, you should be very angry with those people.  You shouldn’t be voting them back into office.  They are not on your side.  They see you as sheep and they want to make it easier for you to get sheared.

Because those loans were not made in good faith. Those loans were bait. Those loans were made to be swallowed so all the rest of your money could be reeled in. Once you made one of those loans, your money ceased to be your money—for a long time.

We might debate that things are not that simple, but let’s be honest—they are that simple. A banker tells someone they can afford a loan that will consume up to 70% of their monthly income—or more—and if you don’t have the savvy to know you’re being suckered, while it may technically be your responsibility when you go ahead and take those terms, we all know an agreement based on a lie is in no one’s best interest.  Lie?  It depends on how you interpret “afford.”  If one side of the discussion is depending on the vagaries of language to get in the other side’s pocket, the result is dishonest.

Why are so many people so willing to be had?

 

April 05, 2017

I Have Returned

I am a marginal Luddite. My friends tease me about it, not without justification. “What do you mean you don’t know how work that? YOU’RE A SCIENCE FICTION WRITER!”

A rather uncharitable way to look at it, but not without some merit. It is, however, like telling a scientist he’s an idiot because he can’t program his VCR (!). Or maybe criticizing an engineer because he can’t solve a Rubic’s Cube.  Be that as it may, I have a rather antagonistic relationship to modern tech and I do not feel entirely unjustified. The last time I was upbraided for being unable to deftly wend my way through a computer problem and the science fiction writing came up, my retort was “Dammit, it wasn’t supposed to work this way!”

(Dammit, Jim, I’m a writer, not a software engineer!)

Constant upgrades, byzantine interfaces, labels on functions that do not make intuitive sense…it’s easy, perhaps, to decipher a language if you already speak it.

Anyway, I was recently blocked from the internet by virtue of aging equipment.  One morning I simply had no access.

I’ve been with Earthlink for years now. Partly, this is because I have little patience for shopping for this kind of thing. I had a bad experience with an ISP when I first connected and Earthlink has been reliable. As time passed and I did more things, they have been far more helpful than not, so I stuck. I am a loyal customer given a bit of useful attention, courtesy, and spoken to in English (this is to say, not talked to like I’m a 15-year-old digital nerd who lives and breathes this stuff).

So I called them. Turns out, my DSL modem was over nine years old. Well past the average life expectancy of such things. Back and forthing, finagling, and communing with the service techs, I opted to purchase an upgrade to a fiberoptic connection with a new modem and higher speed.

Then I discovered that my router was also ancient and decrepit and may have been the culprit all along. No matter, I had a spare, which worked fine.

Until last weekend, when I lost all connectivity and had to simply wait till the install guy showed up.

Which was supposed to happen today.  But instead, he knocked on my door yesterday, just as I was about to leave for work. After a moment of panic I chose to go with it, because who knew when the next available time would be?  After two hours, I am back online.  The connection is faster. No, really, I can tell.  It is.

Which then prompted going around the house re-entering passwords and upgrading the other machines, etc etc etc.

And going through the sixty-plus emails that had stacked up in my inability to access my online world.

But it also means my distractions are back.

Oh, well.  What is life without distractions?

Just in time, however, as the final notes from my agent on my new novel are about to pour down the pipeline into my lap for me to tend to and get back to her so she can start pushing it to all the people who don’t yet know they want it and want it badly.  Timing.

Which also means I have to get back to work on the other projects sitting here.

I am, unfortunately, easily distracted, but I’ve come to understand that the thing that distracts me most, more than anything else, is when things don’t work. It nags at me when something of mine is broken. Nero Wolf once described rancor as a “pimple on the brain” that muddled his thought processes. In my case, it’s knowing I can’t do something I ought to be able to do but a glitch is blocking me.  Pimple on the brain.  Annoying.

But for now, problem solved, and one hopes I can glide through all this unperturbed for another nine years.  At which time, some other something that shouldn’t be a problem (and wouldn’t be in one of my stories, where technology works as it should, unless its not working is a plot point) goes wrong. Meantime, a bright day ahead.

I would say something about other things, but I don’t want to spoil my mood.  I am back, my window (pun intended) to the world is open once more, and I have what is in this modern day and age the All Important—Access.

I will say that Coffey, my dog, was delighted to have the technician here. She followed him around, scrupulously checking his work, making sure he was doing everything according to standard—her standard, which may be higher than my standard in some things—and enjoying having me around an extra couple of hours.

The pimple has cleared up, for now. I’m back working on…things.  (I’m writing this instead of what I should be writing, grumble-mumble…)

To close, I will offer up a staple of the internet realm, something I seldom indulge mainly because I don’t have the subject on hand with which to indulge it.  I have to borrow one for such purposes, but…

I give you a cat picture.  Have a good day.

 

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