Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin

For me, one of the great innovations in internet came when AbeBooks and similar sites opened their doors. I was already overwhelmed that I could go to Amazon and order just about any book in print for a very good price and with low to no shipping charge. But AbeBooks, which gathers together the inventories of tens of thousands of used book sellers and makes them searchable, was a whole new order of overwhelming. Many of the books that have been critical in my own education are long out of print. I used to spend a fair amount of time looking through the stacks at university libraries for those books, and to be able to quickly search what seems to be the entire inventory of used books on the planet—well, that was both a major blessing and a temptation that needed to be managed carefully.

In the past couple of years there has been a new twist in the AbeBooks universe, namely lots of sellers who find remaindered books and offer them for sale at a very low price, say $1 plus another $3 for shipping. Since I am usually willing to risk $4 on a book I know something about, I have bought many books in this category. (Fewer these days, though, now that we are making heavy use of interlibrary loan for books I want to see but know I won’t want to keep.) In fact, if a book comes out that interests me, I often make a mental note to check AbeBooks in a bout six months, when the hardback version will likely be remaindered for $1.

Awhile back I read reviews of Steve Martin’s new book Born Standing Up, a memoir of his days as a stand-up comic, and resisted the urge to buy it right away—not too difficult, since it was a tiny book selling for $25. Something reminded me of the book a few weeks ago, and sure enough when I checked AbeBooks there were countless copies being offered for $1. I ordered one, which came when I was off at this year’s jam camp. It is very short, about 200 pages with big print and a goodly collection of photos; it took me only a few hours to read, but I am still thinking about it.

I first encountered Steve Martin in the early 70s, on a trip home from college to see my folks in El Paso. They had cable, sort of a wonder at the time. I was baffled by the fact that I could watch TV channels from Los Angeles. And there was a channel called HBO, which broadcast fairly recent movies without commercial interruptions, plus the occasional program made just for them. One of those special programs was an hour-long performance by Steve Martin at some nightclub in California. I didn’t follow comedy much at the time, especially stand-up comedy which had yet to be re-invented by Martin and his colleagues. But I thought that program was the funniest thing I had ever seen; in fact, I made a point of watching it every time it was repeated during my visit.

I wouldn’t say that I was a true Steve Martin fan, but I followed him fairly closely after that, catching performances on the Tonight Show and especially on Saturday Night Live. I never owned any of his spectacularly successful records, but I heard enough from them on the radio. As he became wildly popular I began to lose touch with him, and then suddenly he seemed to have transformed himself from a stand-up comic to a movie star who no longer performed live.

Some of his early films I thought were funny (like The Man With Two Brains), some not so much. Then there was another breakthrough with Roxanne, which was not only funny but well-constructed and quite touching. I also was impressed with L.A. Story, although I didn’t completely understand where he was coming from. Then he started to make family pictures, which I never made a point to see but would sometimes come across anyway. Mostly he has been off my radar for quite awhile, with occasional spectacular exceptions—I think his recent film Bowfinger with Eddie Murphy is one of his funniest.

Lately I’ve been hearing about him through Pete Wernick, who has been helping Martin with his banjo playing. Martin put together a group of famous banjo players, including Earl Scruggs, who performed “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on the David Letterman show—five minutes of entertainment to folks at large, but a huge thing for bluegrass which is rarely heard on national television. Pete was one of the banjoists there. Pete also helped Martin record and produce The Crow, a CD of banjo music he had written, which is being distributed by Rounder Records. And so there have been a few stories written up by Pete on his website about what it is like to operate in such a rarefied atmosphere.

Born Standing Up is an unusual memoir, covering only his stand-up career which ended in his early thirties, adding only enough early biography to help you understand that career. More important, the memoir is really an explanation of a particular theory of comedy performance, using his stand-up years to illustrate and explain. I won’t explain that theory here, since for the most part it is not applicable to everyday life or even more general kinds of performance. But it is fascinating to watch Martin as he formulates this theory, then pursues it single-mindedly for nearly ten years with sporadic success and little momentum, then finds his groove and begins to hone his act into something very polished and specifically aimed—still without much commercial success—and then finally breaks through, to a nearly incomprehensible level of success. And then gives it all up, quite deliberately, just a few years later.

Some observations:

  • Steve Martin was one of the first to structure his comedy act around irony, presenting himself as a caricature of a comedian. To truly enjoy his act, you needed to detach yourself from the performance and observe it from the outside; quite often the funny part was that, although what he said or did was stupid or absurd, you knew it, and you knew he knew it … maybe. These days, such irony seems to be the sum total of comedy.

  • A critical factor in Martin’s success was the long years of constant work that preceded his breakthrough. He says he performed his material so many times in so many contexts that he felt in complete control of it, leaving him enough mental capacity to be able to fine-tune its execution on the fly, playing the audience like an instrument.

  • Stand-up comedy is an intensely lonely thing. There are no fellow participants in the project, no band members to share ideas or camaraderie or anything else with. As good and as successful as he was at it, Martin says his life became immensely more enjoyable when he began making films, where he worked with a cast and crew the whole time.

  • Martin says he missed an important transition in his stand-up career, where he went from being the focus of attention to the host of a very large, very raucous party, where people came not to hear something new but to be reminded of and celebrate the things they already knew quite well. He understood enough about the transition to know that he couldn’t continue developing his stand-up career. But the endgame would have been smoother and more enjoyable, rather than as frustrating as it was for him, if he had known that it was already over and just needed to be wound down gracefully.

There are some points that Martin makes about audiences that I am still thinking through, because they ring true based on our own experiences with performing and I think could be helpful to us if we can digest them fully.

In summary: an unusual book which accomplishes its quirky goal, worth a read if you have some interest in comedy or performance, or if like me Steve Martin was part of your life for awhile. But you probably don’t need to own a copy, so look for a place to borrow one.

New website

Today I’d like to publicly announce the existence of a community website I’ve been working on for awhile, currently called A Simpler Life. The purpose of the website is to provide help and encouragement to beginning homesteaders, by building up a body of reference material that focuses on aiding them in dealing with unfamiliar situations and activities, and by providing a context where beginning homesteaders can help one another by sharing accounts of their own experiences.

The website requires registration, but for now registration is free and will likely stay free for a good while. There is a good chance that there will eventually be a subscription fee, but that is not certain. The work needed to build and maintain the website is enough that I probably can’t continue to do it for free. But it may turn out that there are other ways to generate the funds needed to do it.

In the meantime, please be aware that there could well come a time where the website disappears behind a paid firewall. If that happens, I plan to provide a freely accessible snapshot of the website as it existed at that point, so that the content which was added by me and by members during the free period will continue to be available to anyone.

The Simpler Life website is an experiment. Right now it is not anything I would charge folks money to use, and I may never be able to get it to that point. But I do think that, even with all the information currently available on the internet that can be useful to homesteaders, little of it is aimed specifically at the beginner. Yet the beginner could benefit greatly from the kind of unvarnished, nuts-and-bolts storytelling that the internet is so good at delivering, if only that information were gathered together in some usable fashion.

So the goal of the Simpler Life experiment is not to create an income stream for me, but to see if such a website can grow, thrive, and be a blessing to beginning homesteaders. If it can do that without a paid administrator, so much the better. If it requires the participation of a paid administrator to thrive, well, we can talk about that when the matter becomes urgent. Meanwhile, I hope you will consider signing up and taking a look around.

Another tale from Black Swan

I wish Black Swan, the commenter on Mish’s weblog, kept his own weblog, but things he has said in the past suggest that it will never happen. In the meantime, I read his comments as I see them and pass along my favorites. These are real stories, without pat endings or morals, well worth pondering.

Last night I went to a party a few blocks away from my house, that featured a live bluegrass band. I met some interesting neighbors. An Egyptian-American, who owns a large trucking business, was holding court. When he left the group he was talking to, I struck up a conversation with him and his sister. 

I noticed he was wearing a large Rolex, and he mentioned the properties he owned and the new Range Rover he had bought. Then he started talking about his trucking business.

I live in a port city, so a trucking business that moves containers that come in and go out can be quite lucrative. My neighbor told me that most of his business is done with countries in the Middle East. After we talked a while about the stock market, where he said he just made a killing buying Krispy Kreme stock (he had been transporting the donut mix to the port to be shipped to Saudi Arabia and China, where franchises were being opened), I hinted that his trucking business must be hurting. He said he was down 40%. The former engineer then went on to tell me that he got killed in the stock market with bank stocks, his real estate was all upside down and oozing cash, his Range Rover was a piece of crap that burned through tires, and that he had recently suffered a "meltdown" with his two and four year old kids, when they dumped food on him at an Italian restaurant, that was so severe, that his wife and kids went on a forced vacation without him. 

His sister had been staying at his house for two months after leaving Dubai. She had been making a killing selling real estate in Dubai until the market crashed. She sold mostly to the Saudi Arabians, who, she said, were the biggest suckers and worst businessmen a real estate salesperson could hope for. She said they stopped being suckers once the price of oil dropped. She told me that she left her $10,000 Chinese car in Egypt to move back to the states, where she has yet to find a job. She was very grateful for her brother’s hospitality. 

After giving my neighborhood trucker my doom and gloom prognosis of how long this depression would last, I asked him how he planned to get by. He told me that only months ago, he had prayed for lower fuel prices which had been cutting deeply into his profits. He said he would never have guessed that receiving the answers to his prayers would would cause those Middle Eastern fuel producers to seriously cut back on their US consumption, and hurt his business far more than the price of fuel. He hinted that the shipments of US weapons to Saudi Arabia had become a more important part of his family business, but that there wasn’t enough there to make up for the shortfall. He said that his only course would be to do what he always did, keep working hard and God would see him through.

Portable media toolkit

Over the past few months I’ve been assembling on the cheap what I think of as a portable media toolkit, and today the latest piece of the puzzle arrived. Here’s the entire collection:


The first piece of the kit is the Zoom H2 audio recorder, the R2D2-looking gizmo on the lower left. I’ve had this for a couple of years now, and am very happy with it. It makes excellent stereo recordings, straight to mp3 files on a SD memory card which I can easily remove and insert into a computer with a reader, meaning one less cable to carry around. I’ve used this to make weekly recordings at church, reference recordings of songs that Chris and I are working on, demo recordings for the website, live recordings at jams and performances, and even interviews. I paid $200 for it, but I see that it is available for as little as $130 right now.

I had the idea of building this toolkit when I started reading about netbooks, the mini-laptops that have become so popular. As I investigated I started to think that the makers might finally have hit on the right combination of size, weight, capability, and price. The netbook I ended up with is the ASUS Eee 1000HE, for which I paid $350, a price I think is remarkably low for what the machine can do. It doesn’t have an optical drive and the screen is small (wide enough, but short at 600 pixels), but it has a 160mb hard drive, excellent wi-fi, a great keyboard, and long battery life (6+ hours). It really is a grab-and-go machine.

On the lower right, the little silver gizmo is a Creative Labs Vado video camera, which I bought for $60. It is the ultimate in portability, able to store up to two hours of video, which you can copy onto your computer by flipping out a USB connector and attaching it; the camera also recharges its battery through the USB connector. Video quality is OK. Operation is simplicity itself, with one big white button that you push to record, push again to stop. One weak point on this camera is that it doesn’t pick up sound well at a distance. However, since the similar camera with good sound (Flip) costs about three times as much, I opted for the Vado.

Just above the Vado is an Olympus FE-20, the camera that arrived today. I bought one directly from Olympus at their online outlet store for $60. It is more capable than the Canon G5 I bought six years ago for $500, and it is tiny by comparison. The point of having the tiny Vado and the tiny Olympus is that they are both truly pocket-sized, meaning I can keep them in my shirt pocket and have them available for picture-taking wherever I happen to be. In the past we’ve been fairly faithful about recording events around the farm in photos, but even the minimal hassle of tracking down and carrying the sizeable G5 has led to more than a few photos being skipped. I’m hoping that these two cameras will make it easier to generate lots of pictures for the archives, especially since it is dirt cheap to store photos anymore.

To either side of the netbook in the back you will see small speakers. These are Logitech V20 USB speakers, which I bought on eBay for $26. Not as small as the smallest you can find, but the sound is loud and very high quality. Most important, the speakers are powered by the USB port, meaning the only wire you connect is to the computer—no power supply needed.

I should mention that it was a joy to fill these gizmos with the memory they needed. The audio recorder and the netbook both got 2Gb of memory added, for less than $20 apiece. The video camera came with 2Gb memory built in. The still camera was even better, accepting the 2Gb memory card I had bought for my cell phone two years ago (for $20) but had never made use of. I’m old enough to remember what memory has cost each step of the way, and I’m always surprised at the next step down in price.

The resulting toolkit is already getting a lot of use. When we’re on the road, there is usually wi-fi available somewhere and so we can check email and otherwise stay connected. Our entire musical library is loaded onto the netbook in iTunes, meaning we can check a song anywhere we happen to be. Chris sets it up with the speakers at the dining table and uses it as a practice workstation; just the other night he was using an audio processing program, the Amazing Slow Downer, to help him learn a fiddle tune. The wi-fi gives us access to the network from anywhere in the house, letting us take the machine to where the problem is, or just to sit in a comfy chair while composing or browsing. We’re practicing using the video and still camera to illustrate various common events around the farm. And so on.

I have mixed feelings about being so gadget-dependent. On the one hand, it keeps me immersed in a world that I often wish I could leave behind for good—and I often suspect I would be better off if I did so. On the other hand, given my background I know these tools inside out and can put them to good use. I suppose it’s irony verging on hypocrisy that I am employing them in the service of a project to help myself and others to wean ourselves from exactly the dependence on modern industrial technology they embody. I do my best to stay aware of that.

Life before a watching world: own your words

Whether online or in real life, I never communicate with the expectation that my words will remain private. If someone has something I have written or said, they are free to use it as they see fit. As a result, I try never to write or say things that I would not want to stand behind if they became known.

This does not mean that everything I say or write is intended for public consumption. I will say things to close friends that I would prefer other people not hear, for the sake of not hurting feelings or not giving unnecessary offense or not having to explain myself to people who don’t know me well enough. And I will also speak freely, though not as freely, to people who aren’t as close but whose character I trust. But I never ask for confidentiality, and I never expect it. Instead, I entrust the listener with what I have said, knowing that they might have their own reasons for passing on what I’ve said to people to whom I would have not told those things directly. And when that happens (and I know about it), then I swallow hard and deal with whatever consequences those words bring.

I suppose at this point I should say that, even though in principle I am mostly opposed to the concept of intellectual property (I think), in practice I have no problem with folks who claim intellectual property rights, and in fact I have no qualms about asserting such rights myself as a practical matter. For example, even though I consider the words I write on this weblog to be in the public domain and freely usable by others, I would have no problem copyrighting a book I had written, or using that copyright to make a profit from that book. I don’t think that a system of intellectual property rights is wicked, just one that on balance does more harm than good. But it is part of the system we currently live by, and I am long since resigned to compromising my ideals on a regular basis in order to do things that need to be done.

I bring this up in order to make my next point, namely that I think it unwise to use intellectual property rights as a way to control the spread of one’s words. There is only one honest reason to do this, namely when someone else is using your intellectual property in a way that will deprive you of payment for it; either they ought to be paying you for its use and aren’t, or they are distributing it for free to people who ought to be paying you for its use. But I have seen several times where people have tried to use intellectual property rights as a bullying tactic, insisting that they not be quoted or that an email they sent to a person not be published by that person, not to preserve their right to make money from the material but to prevent the material from being made public. This is disingenuous, and everyone who sees it knows it.

There are at least two ways I know of to legitimately control the spread of one’s words, only one of which I recommend. The first, which I don’t recommend, is to get the recipient to agree in advance that those words will be kept confidential. The second, which I recommend and try to adhere to myself, is to avoid the problem entirely by keeping such words to myself to begin with. There may be situations where I would think it was vital that I say or write something to someone that I absolutely would not want repeated. But I haven’t yet run into such a situation. And those times when I think I have, it is usually because I’ve assigned way too much significance to my own opinion; after a second or at most a third thought, I realize that the intended recipient can likely get along without them.

This is only a rule of thumb, and I will not be surprised to run into the situation where I need to share words confidentially. But if it exists, it must be fairly rare since I haven’t encountered it yet. Meanwhile, this rule has kept me from saying and writing many rash things. And, maybe more important, on the few occasions when something I thought would be kept private was later made public, I was able to stand behind what I said before a watching world.

Ridgewood Boys in Cincinnati, May 9-10

The first time Ginny Hawker and Tracy Schwarz asked us to back them up, we were ecstatic. They are both major heroes to us, and so it was an honor for them to help them out, as well as a major compliment to us that they were willing to have us do it. That was last year in February, when we helped them with a couple of songs during a program they were part of in Morehead, Ky.

Since then we’ve appeared with them twice, for a few songs at the Appalachian Festival in Cincinnati and for two full sets at the Gathering in the Gap festival in Big Stone Gap, Va. We almost got to do it again at the upcoming Appalshop Seedtime festival, but Appalshop asked if they could get Kay Justice to come for a reunion concert; she agreed, and so we’ll be in the audience for that one in June (and very happy about it, since we never saw them perform in the day).

Just a few weeks ago Ginny wrote to ask if we were available to help them with a couple of performances at the Appalachian Festival in Cincinnati this year. Of course we would have moved heaven and earth to make ourselves available, but it turned out not to be necessary. So we will be appearing with them there, once on Saturday evening and once on Sunday afternoon. Ginny also leads a gospel singing there on Sunday morning, and we’ll be there just like we were last year.