Saturday, February 27, 2010

If It Doesn't Fit, You Must Acquit

Zach and I found out there is a lot to be said for building codes and product standards. He replaced his old bed thanks to a tax refund, and the best part of the deal for me was delivery and set-up, since his bedroom is on the second floor and I've done enough moving over the years. We thought the new box spring would go up the narrow, steep old staircase because there was a full size bed up there already.
We discovered why the previous owner left it. The same reason people leave old oak upright pianos when they move.
The mattress went upstairs first, thanks to its flexibility. The box spring, not so much. One wall was damaged, a chunk of the header had to be hammered out while the thing was stuck, and finally the next header was ripped out, and then there was just enough room to smash it through and up the steps.
So, in addition to the two-page list of projects needing done there, we just added three more items! One step forward, two back is the usual scenario, and the list just keeps growing like crabgrass.
I think when that staircase was built, people made beds out of straw and feed bags -- before such handy things as building codes.
The plumbing is a whole other story.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Stage of Their Own

Way back before Tal Wilkenfeld, the Pretenders or the Go-Go's there was a band of sisters who have just been remembered in an exceptional book aimed at pre-teens, Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World. The framing device tells the story through 20 poems, each illustrated, written in the voices of the Sweethearts' instruments, now silent in a New Orleans pawnshop.
Formed in a boarding school in Mississippi (how unlikely is that?), the interracial band played in famous venues in the late 30s and during the war years. Their message of joy and hope stood up against sexism and racism when that was a hanging offense. They had to sleep on the tour bus in places where blacks and whites were not allowed in the same hotel or restaurant; some even had to don disguises on occasion. Ten minutes of their jumpin' swing can be seen on You Tube ("International Sweethearts of Rhythm"); one of the gals even sings and plays a trumpet lead!

How 'bout that jive?!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

La-la Land Again

It's official! After days of tussling with US Airways and their frequent-flyer hell, we're set to return to California this coming summer. The best part is Nancy is risking chaos at work when she returns in order to spend two whole weeks with beach bum hubby.
The first year, we headed north to Santa Ynez wine country, and during the next returned to favorite places there as well as new ones (Buttonwood winery, ah -- like James Taylor says of Mexico, you just gotta go).
Last year we headed south along the coast and discovered Carpinteria. I can only say that if we could afford it (not possible in any space-time dimension I'm aware of), that would be the place we'd watch the sunset from forever. It even has its own microbrewery and three public beaches and the funkiest taco a fine library and dozens of cafes, each one more delightful than the last. And tropical fruits, serenity and sun. So much sun. No wonder we don't have any here!
In Ventura, we only visited the waterfront, the park with the singular Australian fig tree, and the Anacapa Brewing Co. where I had the pasta dish of a lifetime (as good as in Rome, which sounds impossible). We're going to explore Ventura a lot more. The actual name is San Buenaventura -- sounds like a song, doesn't it?
This year we have to head into the wild interior to see Nojoqui Falls, and there is a ranch in the same area for some more horseback riding (like a swimming pool, I don't want to own one, but they sure are fun). We each have places we must return to: me to Jensen Music to bail out my little 45-watt amp that they fortunately haven't sold yet (I should have shipped it home last year -- it will cost most of what the shipping would have just to get it back), and Nancy to Jeannines where enjoying breakfast outdoors under the flowering vines should be on everyone's bucket list.
If I never see Las Vegas or even New York again, it would be all right. But California -- oh, the golden shore...

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Piney Woods and the Course of Empire

I read all seven volumes of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire but understanding the forces behind what transpired remained illusive. Like not feeling satisfied after a large and skilfully prepared feast -- strange. A comprehensive and beautiful book, Late Antiquity, an encyclopedia of articles approaching the vast subject of the Mediterranean/Near Eastern world of 400 - 1000 A.D., provided much more insight by covering social mores, religion colliding with politics, social history and especially economics, a discipline not very well developed (I sure won't call it a science) during Gibbon's era.
Believe it or not, a series of historical novels by the author of The Thorn Birds helped immeasurably in pulling all of this together into a synthesis that worked. If there is a college course that ranges this widely to make a complex subject come into focus, I'd like to hear about it.
The Rule of Empires, recently published, states the theory that had seemed most plausible to me after plowing through all the above sources: empires are created by looting the wealth and exploiting the labor of conquered peoples, and die due to a fatal contradiction which causes the financial basis of the empire to crumble away. That is, stable rule requires the cooperation and assimilation of imperial subjects which makes it progressively harder to profitably exploit them. After confiscating the gold of the Celts in Gaul (who had excelled in mining) and the Jews (70 AD), and enjoying a huge regular income extending back to the days of the Republic by selling millions into slavery, the balance sheet for the Romans reversed itself: the subjects of the empire were now citizens with rights (unthinkable during the heady days of the expanding Republic) who cost a lot to protect and maintain and whose wealth remained more local. The modern Belgians, under King Leopold, were cruelly smart: after brutally robbing the Congo, they just left -- no maintenance costs. The French followed the empire model instead, trying to hold on to the rubber plantations of IndoChina as well as North Africa (were date palms and cheap wine that important?) after World War II. Predictable results.
Dmitri Orlov (website: club orlov) observes the striking similarities between the collapse of the Soviet empire and our path to that same fate: delusional self-image, inflexibile ideology, and an unresponsive political system which even while intact is essentially paralyzed. Being much more highly developed, complex and energy-dependent, however, we have much farther to fall and will incur even more damage.
On the lighter side of history, how about we dig out some Historical Fun Facts? In the pine woods of southern Mississippi, there was once, sort of, a Free State of Jones. A Woodstock Nation/Petticoat Junction for 19th century rural folks, who much preferred doing their own thing their own way. Around 1830, Jones County was depopulated when former Choctaw lands to the north and vast stretches of Texas were opened for settlement. When county officials were at the end of their terms, the positions stayed vacant; there was no crime and no courts were held. In this poor but happy utopia, the few residents there were went to church barefoot and carried their muskets everywhere in case there was some tasty wild game passing by. With no plantations or slaves to defend, they were largely against secession, even though three companies of Confederates were raised (probably just because some excitement was in the offing). Many, however, deserted and came back home. One Jasper Collins said he "did not propose to fight for rich men who were at home having a good time." Confederate conscription policies were lenient on planters, manufacturers and the connected (remind you of the 1960s instead of the 1860s ?). Captain Newton Knight organized a group of anti-Rebel rebels with headquarters on a river island in late 1862, which conducted raids on the Southern forces and fought three battles with them. Jones County had more or less seceded from Mississippi and the Confederacy, and after the war was not bothered by carpetbagging (there was nothing to steal) or Reconstruction policies (few ex-slaves). The state changed the name of the county and its seat to Davis and Lee, respectively, in revenge, but that was undone in 1869.
So let us raise a jar of white lightning to the independent rascals of the Free State of Jones, who were far wiser, and a lot more fun to hang with, than the murderous mavens of empire.

Friday, February 12, 2010

"Conventional Wisdom"? It's One or the Other, Bro

The Feb.15th issue of Newsweek featured a cover story I had to read immediately: "Layoffs Are Bad for Business." We don't have a personal stake in this miserable topic unless Blue Cross loses a major client (possible these days), but business and economics are fascinating because they, along with natural disasters or health problems, either always or possibly loom large in our lives. A couple of my loyal readers are thinking, "Oh, yes, indeed" right now.
The essay opens with a recent and clear example: after 9/11, all airlines except Southwest immediately laid off employees in anticipation of (temporarily) declining business. In 40 years, Southwest has never had an involuntary layoff and believes that if people are your most important asset, why would you get rid of them in the face of a short-term problem? Why would you pay executives so much if they can't work through such situations? The flying experience has deteriorated to a level of unpleasantness comparable only to a root canal. Companies now "routinely cut workers even when profits are rising." Locally, Hershey started this a few years ago and has lost a lot of talent (while retaining unstable perfumed princes with advanced degrees). The loss of institutional memory is one of the greatest costs of the layoff mentality; I think it is the crack in the dam which eventually leads to the collapse of the dam. One of the first things that happens when downsizing is announced is the flight of the best people for the door. (Then, realizing but not admitting their mistaken thinking, management pays them to come back as consultants after handing them huge severance packages. Okay, that didn't happen for you guys). If the drop in demand, and revenues, is temporary, that is a much different scenario than being in an industry facing inevitable decline, like carriage makers in 1910. You have to credit the foresight of the tobacco companies, who have used their accumulated wealth to move into foods, beverages, packaging and other steady enterprises.
The Wall Street Journal reports stock price upticks for companies after downsizing, believing in and perpetuating the myth that the two are always causally connected. "A study of 141 layoff announcements between 1979 and 1997 found negative stock returns to companies announcing layoffs, with larger and permanent layoffs leading to greater negative effects." Another canard, repeated constantly, is that layoffs increase individual productivity (I see this reported every day). But, data shows that increases in productivity were just as likely to have followed the addition of workers as the elimination of them. With "labor costs per employee decreasing under downsizing, sales per employee fall, too." A perfect example is the way Circuit City commited hari-kiri by ridding itself of its 3400 highest paid sales associates. I experienced this personally when encountering two teenage employees there after that bloodbath, who knew exactly nothing about what they were selling. Like thousands of others, I walked out.
And one final myth to bust, about laying off to boost profits: "a study of firms in the S&P 500 found that companies that downsized remained less profitable than those that did not."
We don't have to wonder what this fashionable but misguided business principle does to individuals, families and the community: suicide, violence, despair, unquantifiable lost potential...and Wal-Marts full of Asian-made junk brought home by people with less to spend.
So managerial behavior across the corporate landscape resembles a killer virus more than shared wisdom.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The One That Got Away

LP albums were about $10 back then (you know when I mean), a large sum when you earned 90 cents an hour. If I bought one, it was after careful consideration, and I kept them all, taking good care even though the cheap high-acid paper sleeves and covers deteriorated over the years. The last of the rarities (Peter Green's End of the Game) just sold and the buyer sent an e-mail thanking us for the great condition it was in. I know he'll listen to it several times this week; each note from Green or Jeff Beck in their solo releases is worth savoring over and over.
I was so lucky to get a treasure trove when WFMV decided to go all classical and drop the great jazz and folk music in their collection -- our local NPR station did the same years ago and I drifted away. I love classical, but they just play the hits like most radio, and that's just not all there is that is worth the time.
There was another source for new releases of greatly varying quality. WGOE-AM, in the cramped studio next to ours in the now-gone building opposite Willow Lawn, got a steady stream of DJ promo albums each week, and the ones the employees didn't want went into a box. They didn't play albums, and eventually not even 45's -- the songs were copied onto "carts" (like 8-track tape cartridges) just like the commercials and promos. In any form, the music was of no value. What counted were car dealer and furniture ads (yech).
"GO" was a low-wattage daytime-only station, so when I was at "work" at night by myself, I'd check the box every once in a while. Boy, if I had known then! I left behind so many that I wish I had now -- but the thing about it that I regret is I got rid of a lot of albums after one play because of lack of space and -- I'll admit it -- snobishness. First releases by the Cyrkle and the Innocence that I thought juvenile are collector's items now, and someone would really enjoy them. The worst was getting rid of very good, even great, records I liked but were not noticed, much less successful. I foolishly did not value them because no one else seemed to. One was producer/bassist Felix Pappalardi's Hard Rock from the Middle East -- just up my musical alley; wish I could play it again today.
But the one I should never have culled...
Today, The Remains from Boston are regarded as "America's Rolling Stones" (the one guy even looked just like Brian Jones), and their British-invasion sound was part Stones, part Beatles, part Yardbirds and Zombies, and all garage rock-n-roll. I just loved this record and played it over and over, somewhat surprised no one had heard of them. They had four regional hits (not in Richmond) and the 1966 Epic record (worth $200 in mono now; $300 in stereo) that I had snagged from the WGOE reject box was their only LP, since they had disbanded just before release. They had, however, opened for the Beatles for 21 days in August 1966 during their final tour -- so a lot of people heard them, unless they were too wrought up to pay attention to the American act. Appearances on Ed Sullivan's Christmas show and on Hulaballo were part of a very good start too.
Epic reissued the album in 2007, and their legendary Capitol Records audition tape eventually appeared on Sundazed (SC6069), and the now-64-year-olds are playing again in the US and Europe to packed audiences.
Some things you have to learn the hard way.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Should You Stay Or...Part II

It sounds so simple I just got to go
I never really been so I don't really know
Guess I'll have to go now

We knew what Punx Phil would have to say yesterday; this isn't Florida so there are, of course, six more weeks of winter (not) to look forward to. Cabin fever has replaced swine flu as the Disease of the Week... Time to cure that by making plans and getting some outbound movement happening. A couple of years ago, feeling the same way, we decided to go to Atlantic City on Valentine's Day, through the worst frozen ice storm in quite a while. We scraped sizeable portions of the car's underside off getting over the frozen mound at the end of the driveway, dodged sliding tractor trailers on the Turnpike, and got socked into a snow hill quite solidly at a rest stop when I couldn't see the signage which was covered in snow and slush. We got there, many hours later, and the Borgata was lively and warm. The car didn't look so good, though.
You don't have to brave the Interstate or the Turnpike to go exploring. The local musicians, performers and artists are coming to a boil, it seems, especially with the annual Millenium Music Conference about two weeks away -- hundreds of events at venues all over, including New Cumberland's The Local Beat. This weekend, if the next snowstorm is as mild as last night's, we can go see Memphis Charlie at Carlisle's version of Richmond's Penny Lane Pub, the Market Cross. I wonder if drummer Jack will be playing much this summer, or mostly recovering from sunburn from days on his speedy boat...
This coming Valentine's day weekend, I hope we'll have enough sense to stay local and finally go to the new Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center (HMAC), pictured above, a surprisingly successful labor of love and the investment of much money. A couple of intensely creative guys from New York had done well and decided to build their dream arts center here, of all places. The very old Police Athletic League building downtown had been vacant for decades, and while it may not look like much in the picture, imagine it roofless, unpainted, with the right side windowless and scorched by fire. It even has an indoor pool from the days when it was the Y! When they partially opened with Open Mic nights on Wednesdays, it was such a hit that other established places had a terrible time attracting their usual audiences. What made it work was the stage -- I hear it's very well done (the musicians know right away if it works or not), with pro sound and lighting. While people in the state and national capitols with law degrees and hotshot staffs can't get anything done that even slightly resembles common sense, progress or good governance, the brothas and sistas in humble Harrisburg and in Richmond are doing it with talent and energy.