New weblog, sort of

At the encouragement of a musician friend, I have created a new weblog and copied over all the music-related posts that I’ve made in the past eight years, both here and on the Simpler Living website. Although I won’t delete those posts from their original locations, I think that all future posts about music will be made only there.

Looking over those nearly 500 posts, I realize that they constitute an as-it-happens account of two musicians trying to establish themselves as performers, an unusual resource that might be valuable to others who are banging around on the lower rungs of the music business. I think it is good to separate them from the others, so as not to burden readers who are interested only in that part of our adventure, and those who are not interested at all.

If you are interested, please keep up with the latest news by checking the Ridgewood Chronicles, or subscribing to its RSS feed.

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Talent contest: Prairie Home Companion

I’m at liberty now to say that the talent contest mentioned in this earlier post is the annual Prairie Home Companion competition. This year their theme is “Battle of the Bands,” where the aim of the music is to get people up and dancing. Here’s a link to the contest guidelines.

And, again, here’s the recording that we will be submitting. We’re pretty pleased with it.

Knowing where to tap

I love jokes that encapsulate an important bit of knowledge. My family is all too aware of this, since it means that I bore them repeatedly by making a point with some anecdote they’ve heard many times before. But they’re kind enough to put up with it.

This morning I was reminded that a given task requires not only doing it but being prepared to do it, and sometimes the time and effort needed to prepare vastly outweighs the time needed to execute. I have a joke for that, of course. But curious to see if someone on the internet had told the same joke better, I poked around and stumbled on some variations that not only were pretty good, but got to their destination differently.

Here’s one that has a punchline close to the joke that I tell.

I’ve worked with a fabulous voiceover actor. I watched him go into the booth and nail a commercial in five minutes. When the client balked at his fee saying, "But it only took you five minutes." My friend replied, "No, it took me 20 years. You only saw the last five minutes."

But the joke I tell involves a tourist who encounters someone in a park doing sketches. Here’s one that covers that angle, with a slightly different punchline.

Legend has it that Pablo Picasso was sketching in the park when a bold woman approached him. “It’s you — Picasso, the great artist! Oh, you must sketch my portrait! I insist.”

So Picasso agreed to sketch her. After studying her for a moment, he used a single pencil stroke to create her portrait. He handed the women his work of art.

“It’s perfect!” she gushed. “You managed to capture my essence with one stroke, in one moment. Thank you! How much do I owe you?”

“Five thousand dollars,” the artist replied.

“B-b-but, what?” the woman sputtered. “How could you want so much money for this picture? It only took you a second to draw it!”

To which Picasso responded, “Madame, it took me my entire life.”

Here’s one I hadn’t heard, that gets at the same point differently.

A famous French hatmaker is sitting in a cafe when a woman approaches and begs him to make her a hat. He assents and takes some pins and some felt out of his satchel. With a whirl of hands he creates a magnificient chapeau.

The woman is charmed. The hatmaker says, "That will be 5,000 francs."

The woman is aghast. "Five thousand, francs!? But it only took you a few moments."

The man then takes the hat, removes all the pins, smooths out the felt and returns it to her saying, "The materials are free."

Here’s one that is better known but makes roughly the same point and brings out the difference between preparation and execution.

A giant ship engine failed. The ship’s owners tried one expert after another, but none of them could figure but how to fix the engine.

Then they brought in an old man who had been fixing ships since he was a young. He carried a large bag of tools with him, and when he arrived, he immediately went to work. He inspected the engine very carefully, top to bottom.

Two of the ship’s owners were there, watching this man, hoping he would know what to do. After looking things over, the old man reached into his bag and pulled out a small hammer. He gently tapped something. Instantly, the engine lurched into life. He carefully put his hammer away. The engine was fixed!

A week later, the owners received a bill from the old man for ten thousand dollars.

"What?!" the owners exclaimed. "He hardly did anything!"

So they wrote the old man a note saying, "Please send us an itemized bill."

The man sent a bill that read:

Tapping with a hammer………………….. $ 2.00
Knowing where to tap…………………….. $ 9,998.00

In this same vein, I am old enough to remember cameras that used disposable flash bulbs. When those were first introduced, there was a significant amount of resistance to them because the cost of the bulb was far higher than the bit of film that it exposed. It took some time to make people understand that what was important was whether it was worth the cost of both the film and the bulb to have the picture, i.e. no bulb, no picture.

Talent contest entry

With the help of our friend Kevin Amburgey on mandolin, Chris and I recorded a song that we hope to submit for a talent contest which is billed as a Battle of the Bands, where a “band” has at least three members and the music is designed to get people up and dancing.

It’s a bit outside our normal kind of performing, but we had a few songs we thought would make good dance tunes, and after running through them with Kevin we settled on this one. We recorded it this afternoon in one take, in Kevin’s living room.

Does it make you want to dance?

Testifying through our actions

Here are two striking examples of how patterns of living can be clear and direct testimonies:

In 1562 a certain Caspar Zacher of Waiblingen in Wurttemberg was accused of being an Anabaptist, but the court record reports that since he was an envious man who could not get along with others, and who often started quarrels, as well as being guilty of swearing and cursing and carrying a weapon, he was not considered to be an Anabaptist.

On the other hand in 1570 a certain Hans Jager of Vohringen in Wurttemberg was brought before the court on suspicion of being an Anabaptist primarily because he did not curse but lived an irreproachable life.

No golden ages

I’m skimming through Stephanie Coontz’s book Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. I never intended to read the whole thing, because I mostly wanted to know how marriage was among pre-modern Christians, and Coontz is much more comprehensive, providing a broad anthropological survey in the beginning, and spending the last half covering the transformation of marriage that has occured over the past two hundred years. But even skimming through the parts that didn’t interest me has taught me several things.

Coontz emphasizes that although romantic love has always existed, before 1800 or so it was unusual, and had nothing at all to do with people’s reasons for marrying. Up until then people married for economic reasons, broadly conceived; some scholars have argued that the best way to describe marriage universally is as a process of acquiring in-laws, i.e. joining families together. Falling in love was not essential; it was something that happened after the wedding, if at all. People married primarily to create a sustainable family economy; individuals were unable to do the work needed to survive without the help of a spouse and children.

Various historical forces combined to prepare the ground for a shift to modern day love-centered marriage. The Protestant Reformation promoted the family over the community as a source of fulfillment, sometimes to the point of idolatry. The rise of wage labor turned couples from equal partners in labor to breadwinner and homekeeper, with the labor of homekeeping being severely devalued (since no one paid for it). Increasing affluence led to a declining birth rate, since the extra hands were no longer needed. All this set the stage for the Victorian shift to the nuclear family as a “haven in a heartless world,” with husband as the brains and brawn and wife as the heart.

Coontz’s most interesting point is that this shift was actually a radical transformation, from a pattern that had stood the test of time since the beginning to one that was completely untried—and that the new pattern does not work. One aspect of the change she highlights is that originally marriage was of a limited duration; late marriage and early death led to an average length of fifteen years. Today a marriage has the potential to last fifty years or more. Combine this tripling in length with the removal of most of the old pressures to stay married—social disapproval, economic need, family ties—and the addition of one novel reason to be married—romantic love—and perhaps it isn’t surprising that the modern version of marriage is unable to endure.

What struck me as I read the book is how much the pattern of marriage has responded to whatever social and economic forces were present at a given time in a given place. Coontz’s anthropological survey shows that, beyond the core purpose of extending the family for economic reasons, marriage has taken on many different forms—yet each one makes sense in context. And her historical survey of European marriage from Roman times up to today demonstrates that things we take for granted as bedrock (e.g. church and civil involvement, grounds for divorce) are in fact recent innovations, just some of many things on the list that have come and gone as historical circumstances changed.

This seems to me to be completely at odds with the eternally popular pastime of divining a biblical standard for marriage. I don’t deny that the Bible has things to say about marriage, but I do think that most people aren’t satisfied with how little it has to say about that blessed estate, and so many things are added to the biblical standard which sound good and healthy and pious, but are in fact biblically indifferent and often of dubious earthly value.

I don’t think it’s a bad thing to add to the biblical standard—as long as we recognize that those things are not themselves mandated by God. Having an established, tested pattern for marriage saves individuals from having to reinvent the institution for themselves. But those parts of the pattern which are not divinely dictated need to be tested, and re-tested as historical circumstances change. And Christians need the freedom to deviate from them as they see fit. Likewise, we need to ponder the inability or unwillingness of individual Christians to adhere to those parts of the pattern, seeking to understand if it might be the pattern that falls short.

The pitfall here is what might be called golden age thinking. We like to think that for any given aspect of life there is a golden age, perhaps somewhere in the past or perhaps yet to come, where everyone adhered to a particular standard and life was good as a result. But when we start poking around to find out whether there ever was such a golden age, or whether adherence to the standard ever brought us any closer to such an age, the answer is generally no, not really—but the reason is not that the standard failed us, but that we failed to live up to the standard. When the mechanism of the free market is criticized, the defense is not to point to a time where the free market was successful, or to show that society benefits to the extent that a free market exists, but instead that we’ve never really had a free market, and if only ….

Similarly with biblical marriage. Different teachers have drawn very different pictures of what a truly biblical marriage looks like, each one exhorting their flocks to adhere to the standards they have divined from scripture. Two patterns are especially popular. One draws from the ancient Jewish pattern of marriage—but not comprehensively, of course, because modern-day life is so different that much of the pattern is impossible to recreate (e.g. betrothals that are as binding as a marriage). Another draws heavily from the Victorian pattern—but, again, not comprehensively, because much of the pattern is connected closely to the deep flaws in Victorian culture (e.g. promiscuity of husbands, lack of passion in wives).

So I think it’s fair to say that anyone promoting a biblical pattern of marriage today is promoting something that has never been tried, much less proven successful. And there’s no problem with that—to the extent that the pattern being promoted adheres strictly to scripture. But in those areas where the pattern goes beyond scripture, we need to recognize that these may be valid ways to live, but it is equally valid—imperative, I’d say—to question them, and to look for historical evidence which may tell us whether those ways will bless us or curse us. And, again, we need to accept that Christians are allowed to differ in their approaches to these areas.

My main concern about golden age thinking is that we tend to use it as a substitute for wisdom—the standard is the given, and any failure to be blessed by it is not a problem with the standard but with our inability to live up to it. This leaves us totally unequipped to say anything wise to someone who doesn’t accept some part of our standard, since we really have no idea how the rules fit together or why they were formulated as they were in the first place. A shame, because Christians are exactly the people who should be able to bring wisdom to bear in any and all circumstances, whether or not they deviate from our own pattern of living.

The burden of defined benefit pension plans

So many different elements of the modern economy are on the brink of failing that it is worth pondering which one might end up dealing a fatal blow. Mish Shedlock has long maintained that the next major shock will be a quick tumble into insolvency by city, county, and state governments, and that one of the primary causes will be the untenable pension plans that civil servants have managed to obtain for themselves over the past fifty years.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has just announced that his state is on the edge of bankruptcy, and that the main culprit is the state’s pension system. He gave two examples that illustrate how much more the government is required to pay out to pensioners than it takes in from them:

One state retiree, 49 years old, paid, over the course of his entire career, a total of $124,000 towards his retirement pension and health benefits. What will we pay him? $3.3 million in pension payments over his life and nearly $500,000 for health care benefits — a total of $3.8m on a $120,000 investment. Is that fair?

A retired teacher paid $62,000 towards her pension and nothing, yes nothing, for full family medical, dental and vision coverage over her entire career. What will we pay her? $1.4 million in pension benefits and another $215,000 in health care benefit premiums over her lifetime. Is it “fair” for all of us and our children to have to pay for this excess?

Whether or not it is fair, the important point is that it is impossible. For whatever reason, the government made rash promises to its employees that it now finds itself unable to keep. Unfortunately, unless the ones promised the pensions agree to renegotiate, the only way a city, county, or state government can escape their legal obligation to pay them is to declare bankruptcy.