Keep Your Skillet Good and Greasy

A banjo song, finally. This is an Uncle Dave Macon song, which means that it reaches back into the 19th century. Tim O’Brien did it on the Songs From the Mountain CD, purportedly a collection of Civil War era tunes, and we’ll take his word for that. Our version owes much to his.

Argent Hotel, San Francisco

Back in my days as a corporate programmer I occasionally attended a professional conference. It was a very expensive perk, and one that I never enjoyed that much. But over the years you forget enough about how much you disliked the last one to get excited about going back again.

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In 2000 I went to the JavaOne conference at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

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It was definitely a geeks’ conference. Note the beanbag chairs and the banks of available computers in the background. I forget what all these folks are looking at. The fellow right in front has the very nice laptop bag that was given to every attendee. I still use mine, though not for a laptop.

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They fed us well at lunchtime, and of course the weather was beautiful.

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The view from the lunch area.

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I stayed in this very nice, very expensive hotel just a block away. My room was on the 39th floor.

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The room had a floor-to-ceiling window with a spectacular view. But what impressed me the most was the architectural detail on the older surrounding buildings.

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1 million ebooks in five months

John Locke is the eighth person to have sold one million ebooks on the Kindle. The other seven are hugely famous and successful writers who have sold far more print copies through traditional publishers. Locke has sold hardly any printed copies, and published the books himself. More interesting, he sold those books in five months. And he wrote a book about it, appropriately titled How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months.

I bought and read Locke’s book. It’s very good, not too long, and I learned a lot for five dollars. Locke’s system is straightforward and there’s nothing magical about it. It is designed for building an audience for series fiction, but some of it is applicable to just about any sort of ebook.

I particularly appreciated his point that you need to have a clearly defined niche, as well as a deep understanding of the readers who fit into that niche. He writes for a particular kind of reader (he calls them “the cool people”) and can describe them and their thinking to you in great detail. This allows him to create a very direct and personal connection to them, not only in his books but in his promotional efforts.

Locke is controversial among writers trying to thread their way through the ebook maze because he chose to price all his novels at 99 cents. Some others, particularly Dean Wesley Smith, think Locke is leaving way too much money on the table when he nets only 35 cents per sale. Even at $2.99 his take would be over $2, or six times as much per book. These folks also worry that Locke’s pricing scheme also somehow devalues writing in general, i.e. the reader owes the writer more than 35 cents for the work that went into producing 100,000+ words.

I’m no fan of speculating about what might have been, e.g. how much better off Locke and the other writers would have been if he had priced his books differently. Back when I was a programmer in an industrial research lab, a friend of mine was offered a position in a startup that included stock options. He asked them how much the options would be worth if they made 100% of their goals; they told him 100 million dollars.

He told me he didn’t expect them to make 100% of their goals. But if they only made 10% of their goals, he still stood to make 10 million dollars. And even if they only made 1% of their goals he would still walk away with a million.

I asked him, “But what if they make ZERO percent of their goals?”

He didn’t take the job, the company made zero percent of its goals (negative, actually, since there were lawsuits and personal liability at the end of the road), and he continued to earn his cushy corporate salary.

We can argue about how much money John Locke MAY have left on the table. But we know with certainty what pricing his books at 99 cents allowed him to take–not just money, but heaps of press, the eighth spot on the Kindle million seller list, and a how-to book title that just about any writer would kill for.

And all in less than a year. And all without locking himself into contracts, pricing schemes, or future directions. Nicely played.

I say let a thousand flowers bloom. Locke can continue his project as he sees fit, Smith and the rest can follow what they think are better paths, and those of us currently on the sidelines can watch and learn.

Coal Town Saturday Night

We don’t do this song as much as we used to, but it’s a pretty good one, one of the few in our repertoire that has some uptempo drive. This version was recorded in one take in Kevin Amburgey’s living room on a Zoom H2 recorder. Kevin is on mandolin. We submitted it to the 2010 Prairie Home Companion talent contest. We never heard back from them.

September snow

I do sort of miss the cooler weather we had in Colorado, especially the early fall and late spring snows. There is a large variation in the climate where we lived. Our total winter snowfall was pitiful, perhaps 12-20 inches on average, whereas thirty miles away in Woodland Park they would average 120-150 inches. So when it snowed at our house it was a special thing.

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One September morning we awoke to this.

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By afternoon things were back to normal.

 

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Except for the snowmen that the kids had scrambled to build.

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Owensboro and more

Last week was an unusually busy one for the Ridgewood Boys. It started on a Saturday afternoon, when we drove an hour to Crab Orchard to play a private event for some friends. From there we drove another thirty minutes to Harrodsburg, to the Kentucky Fudge Company, where we play every other Saturday evening 6:30-8:30pm. Then Sunday morning we made our usual drive to Frankfort, to play at the Kentucky Coffeetree Café 1-3pm.

The original plan was to leave from Frankfort for Owensboro, a three hour drive, to help Pete Wernick teach a bluegrass jam camp Monday through Thursday. But just as we were packing up I got a call from Pete asking if we could bring our sound system along. I laughed after I hung up, since I had just unloaded the sound system that morning (we use it at the Fudge Company) and I had thought about leaving it just in case. So we stopped by the house on the way to Owensboro to pick it up, a bit out of the way but not too much.

Pete worked his usual magic at jam camp, with us on hand to coach the small jam groups and provide general assistance. We also managed to squeeze in a business meeting over supper at the Moonlite BBQ, since I work remotely for Pete running his bluegrass teachers network but rarely see him in person (or even talk to him—nearly all our communication is done via email).

Over the years we’ve developed a travel routine that keeps costs down. In Owensboro the cheapest hotel room was not much more than the best campground rate I could find, so we opted for the hotel (but in two weeks we’ll be at a West Virginia music school where we’ll camp for a week). We’ve learned to be satisfied with water as the beverage of choice, and we always keep a case or two of cheap water bottles (10-15 cents apiece) in the car.

And for multi-day trips we take a cooler full of food with us. We eat Cheerios and milk for breakfast, and I use an electric kettle to brew a cup plus a thermos of coffee for the day. For lunch we we bought a baguette from Panera Bread each morning, and ate that either with butter and supplemented with cheese and summer sausage, or with deli roast beef and mayo. For supper it was either pasta salad, or potato salad supplemented with fried chicken from Wal-Mart. I figure our food budget was $10 per day total for the both of us.

The jam camp ended Thursday with a two-song performance to open the ROMP festival, which was very successful this year (at least 12,000 tickets sold). It’s always remarkable to watch dozens of students, who just three days earlier were hesitant and inexperienced, storm the stage and play well and with with confidence. I wish I had pictures, but we aren’t currently equipped to take them on the road. After the jam campers Pete and his wife Joan played a set. The evening ended with Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, who are doing a remarkable job of introducing the world at large to bluegrass. By 9:15pm we were on the road back home.

Friday we caught up on sleep and chores around the house, and then Saturday it was back to Harrodsburg, not to the Fudge Company but to the Festival of Books and Arts where we were playing. We arrived in plenty of time, which was good because the duo that preceded us walked off the stage after just twenty minutes (they were scheduled to play for fifty). We have no problem stretching, so we got an early start and played for about ninety minutes.

The next day we were in Frankfort again for our usual Sunday performance, and then finally back home to stay for awhile.

Notes on faithful presence

I occasionally mention faithful presence. It’s an idea I’ve encountered in the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jacques Ellul (and Dave Black for that matter). I haven’t yet gathered my thoughts on the topic enough to merit a full-scale post—it would probably take several, in fact—but while waiting on that I’d like to pass on a few notes.

To me, faithful presence is an anti-movement, or perhaps a way of thinking that helps me avoid attachments to movements. I don’t care much for the terms "biblical agrarianism" or "Christian agrarianism" because I think they unnecessarily spiritualize a certain way of life. I think agrarian society is very good, of a sort that is closely in tune with God’s creation, but it is not in any sense Christian. Agrarianism benefits all people, Christian or otherwise. A Christian is able to drink more deeply of the goodness of agrarian life—but a Christian is able to drink more deeply of the goodness in any way of life, being more in tune with the Source of the goodness.

More importantly, the goodness of agrarian society is found mostly in the "society" part—not just community, but the fact that all aspects of social life are agrarian-centered. This is far from true today, and no amount of wishing is going to change it. Worse, trying to live an agrarian life in a modern industrial society is a nearly insurmountable challenge; in any interaction with the non-agrarian world, an agrarian is at a major disadvantage. Industrial society is willing and able to take unfair advantage in ways not available to agrarians. I see no way to avoid this problem.

Our family tries to live with an agrarian mindset and with as many agrarian trappings as possible, not because we think that makes us more Christian but just because we think it is healthier than the alternative.

Simplicity goes deeper than agrarianism. I think it is possible to live simply in all circumstances, though some might present more challenges than others. My friend Laura Alderson and her family have done a pretty good job of living a simple life in Manhattan, and I expect them to deepen their simplicity even as they relocate to industrial Turin, Italy.

Our life is much simpler than that of nearly any of our friends or neighbors, even out here in rural Kentucky; we stay at home, spend nearly all our time together as a family, eat simple food, look for simple pleasures. The lives of our Mennonite and Amish neighbors are simpler in some ways, more complex in others.

We live simply, and therefore are different from the people around us. We are separate from their busyness and complexity, but not from them. Our separateness keeps us from adopting that busyness and complexity in our own lives.

We study these things and make conscious decisions to do what we do. But sometimes that deliberateness takes us in unexpected directions. For example, we have deliberately decided for a number of different reasons to move onto a much smaller property much closer to a large city, keeping some of the country trappings but giving up on the idea of raising food for a living.

A good way to describe our current approach to life is faithful presence. We try to live a faithful life in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, and to deal with everyone we meet in that way. We find simplicity a great aid in being able to live that way. But simplicity is not godliness, and godliness is not simplicity.

To me, when we accepted the call to faithful presence (long ago, and unknowingly), we chose to stop talking and studying about what a godly life is, and begin actually living one. Brothers and sisters are the Kingdom of God on earth, and we usher in the Kingdom to the extent that we live according to its precepts. We have learned in the living which precepts are vital and which are peripheral. And we have tried to do it peacefully and quietly, to avoid giving unnecessary offense.

Jesus said, "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven." (Matt. 5:13-16)

We are the salt that Jesus seasons the world with, the light He lit and placed on a stand, the town He built on a hill for all to see. When others see us living a faithful life, it leads them to glorify God. Our visible presence is what counts.

I think that this is our earthly purpose, to live faithfully by dying to self and devoting ourselves to the needs of others. That’s it. If we do that, God will use our example as He sees fit to extend His Kingdom.

Not only has this outlook helped us to separate the wheat from the chaff, it has deepened our love and understanding and forbearance for those who think differently from us. Living life deliberately is hard, period, no matter what path you take, and we ought to avoid placing any unnecessary burdens on the backs of our brothers and sisters in Christ. It isn’t right to shame people into the kingdom, and it isn’t necessary. An example of a life well lived is much more powerful than some theoretical discourse on how good life would be if only we would live a certain way.

A healthy amount of independence is required. Once you’ve learned to see life rightly, you are free to live life as you see fit, but others may not think so. Consequently, it is good to arrange your affairs so that you may operate freely while generating the least possible friction. If people don’t like hearing you talk about your ideas, don’t talk about them. If people think you are making an idol of your family, first be sure that you aren’t, and then proceed to ignore their opinion in the politest way you are able. If people think you aren’t sufficiently involved in the life of the church, look for polite ways to defuse their concern (e.g. you can’t afford the money, or the time, or you have other obligations) and learn to live with a certain amount of low opinion on their part.

The best defense in all circumstances is inner strength. Learn to evaluate these things for yourself, and then rest in the confidence that you reached your conclusions faithfully and honestly, and are open to further consideration of all these things. But don’t be afraid to reject the claims of others, as long as you have considered them faithfully and honestly. And be as kind and loving as you can in dealing with your differences. Go the extra mile if you need to. Your example will shine before a watching world.