Sunday, July 25, 2010

When Does Magic Die?

"Oh, no... my tooth is still here!"

My heart fell. My littlest pulled her tooth out Saturday morning, while I was still lying in bed (recovering from Friday night), and here it was, time to tuck her in on Sunday night... and the Tooth Fairy had failed her.

She has been on something of a tooth-pulling spree lately. This is her third lost tooth in two weeks! I told her the Tooth Fairy probably hadn't expected her to lose another so quickly, and she seemed to accept that. "I'll just leave it for tonight," she said. "But I think I figured out who really brings the money."

My lovely bride and I are not religious people, and we try to be practical about child rearing; we don't make up a lot of pretty lies about life. My children know - as much as the innocent can know - what death is, and in general terms they know how babies are made. They know to call a vagina a "vagina" and a penis a "penis" - not a "boom boom" or a "wee-wee" or a "private area," so in an emergency the doctor doesn't have to guess where the injury is. They know that there are Bad People out in the world, and that sometimes the Good People aren't at their best either.

But we've tried to preserve some of the magic in our practical lives through some of the more obvious, persistent myths; the Tooth Fairy, Santa on Christmas Eve, and the Easter Bunny. There is a sweetness in the joy they feel when they get that tangible proof that something Other loves them, and even the bittersweet moment when they realize that it's a lie can be a practical learning moment, too. But that is a moment worth delaying.

I asked her who really brings the money with a quizzical expression, hoping I looked a bit like David Tennant's Dr. Who, and failing miserably, I'm sure.

"Your mom and dad," she said.

"You mean, MY mom and dad?" I asked, hamming it up, hoping to talk my way out of this somehow. "But they're all the way out in Phoenix!"

"No," she explained in her exasperated way. "The mom and dad of the kid who lost the tooth." She's probably not going to be a good second grade teacher with her short temper and her eye-rolling. "That means YOU, Dad."

"Well, I don't know anything about THAT," I said, unconvincingly. "You just put that tooth under your pillow, and see what happens!" I asked to see it, and she proudly raised the pillow so I could. Hard to miss, tiny as it was; it was long, sharp, and still a little bloody, not unlike life itself.

I tucked her in, and kissed her, and went about my business. I had to wait for her to fall asleep, after all. I tucked in the boys - the elder who had seen through our Tooth Fairy ruse years ago, and the younger who knew damn well who was bringing the loot, and was still mad at us for being so stingy, but pretended to believe so the funds would keep flowing.

The teenager and I went in and fired up the Wii so we could enjoy the adventures of the aforementioned Doctor, and I almost forgot about the tooth again. I only thought of it because of magic.

The particular episode we watched involved the Doctor and his companion visiting William Shakespeare in 1599, where they saved the universe by supplying the Bard of Avon with the word "Expelliarmus" at an opportune moment. The Harry Potter reference had us in stitches.

As I kissed the teen goodnight, she said something about how sad she had been on her 11th birthday, NOT finding out that she was a witch, and going to Hogwarts. She's still a dreamer, though, and I am willing to bet she is watching out for a blue Police box to appear on a street corner to whisk her away on an adventure... someday. Those dreams, no matter how silly or obviously false, those are part of us. They keep us going, for some reason.

I have my own dreams, my own private hopes, and if I told you what some of them were, you would think me a fool. You wouldn't believe that I could hold onto some of the things I dream about, as old as I am and as much as I have seen of the world. But I assure you, I do; and even though there is no reason to expect that they will, some of my dreams keep coming true.

I crept by one of my most precious dreams as she slumbered on my bed (waiting for her 0200 alarm). I fetched one of the few remaining gold dollars I have hidden in my sock drawer for emergencies like this one - this one had Andrew Jackson's face on it. I crept up the stairs, in the dark, avoiding the creakier spots in the floor. And even though it's obviously false, and rather silly, I was the Tooth Fairy, and Old Hickory was the golden treasure.

When does the magic die? Hopefully not tonight.

Hopefully, never.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Dismal Science

This is Part IV of a series of posts looking at  The Revolution: A Manifesto, by Dr. Ron Paul.

I promised I would write about Ron Paul's economics approach, but I'm having a hard time finding the angle I'm looking for. It seems we don't have the vocabulary yet to express where I think we are in the evolution of economics. I've written before about this new kind of "free market" that we seem to be developing:

Instead of manufacturing, sales and service are our bread and butter. Marketing, transportation, and information; these are what the U.S. really thrives on, now. Look at our most successful companies, like Google. They "manufacture" a product which they give away for free, and yet their value has continued to rise...

Anyone with a ~$500 set-up can record, polish, and release an album of songs, and can set up a shop online to sell (or give away) their recordings... [several artists] have offered free downloads of their music, and toured "on demand", making money from shows that were sold out before they were booked, and from selling CDs and DVDs online - again, directly to their niche market.

In a way, we have become more purely Capitalist... and at the same time, with the means of production (almost) freely available to everyone, we have also become more purely Communist (without the purges and bread lines). So what gives? What do we call ourselves in an age where you make a profit from giving your stuff away?

-"It's Not Capitalism Any More - But What IS It?", November 22, 2009

Even money isn't really the "coin of the realm" any more. What is money, after all, but a digital record on a computer of a value that has been mutually agreed upon? What was our last decade of supposed "wealth creation" but a gigantic inflation of that value, which failed when enough of us stopped trusting that it was real?

The coin of the realm - the thing that drives our lives and determines our worth to each other - is information. Not just any information, but information that can be trusted. If you think about it, trust is the only thing that has any real value any more; if you don't believe you will get a return on your investment or be rewarded with a safe and comfortable retirement, you won't invest and you won't remain loyal to one company. If you don't believe that your government will protect you and the world in which you make your livelihood, you won't support it.

I don't claim to be very knowledgeable about economics. I understand a lot of the same "basic common sense" things that most of you understand: supply & demand, and interest, and return on investment. But I also understand that there are a lot of concepts that seem to work counter-intuitively. Insurance seems like a bad idea, gambling on whether the money I give to the company will ever benefit me; yet it's the only investment we made that survived the collapse last year. It's tempting to believe Dr. Paul's claim that getting rid of the intrusive and ineffective government will improve our lives, and yet without the government, all of our "free and unfettered" businesses would have dissolved along with their imaginary wealth, taking the rest of us with them.

But again, I don't think we have the vocabulary to describe what is really happening to our world. We talk about Government and Markets, Corporations and Individuals, "special interests" and "activist groups" as if they are not all the same thing: groups of people trying to get by, get along, or get one over. We all fit into those same groups in some fashion, and no matter how innocent or virtuous we try to pretend we are, we all try to balance our own welfare and that of our fellow humans according to whatever beliefs we identify with most strongly. (Some of us even include non-humans in that balance.)

Dr. Paul spends a lot of time trying to identify with a group of people we Americans call our "Founding Fathers." In passages too numerous and generic to quote here, he calls upon all of us to trust in their mutual vision for this country. He calls on us to protect our freedom and liberty, as those founders would have done. Freedom from what to do what, he would leave up to you to figure out, which plays into the American conceit that as long as you leave me alone, whatever you do is your choice. But these Founding Fathers didn't have a unified approach to things, either.

As Sarah Vowell discusses in her exploration of the Puritans who founded Massachusetts Bay Colony, The Wordy Shipmates, there were a lot of contradictions involved in the founding of our country. The Puritans were a people who believed strongly in personal integrity, industry (in the original sense), and morality - but also in self-sacrifice and the common good. Check out this passage describing a government built on their ideals:

"The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: it is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good."

That passage is an enigmatic encapsulation of what America is all about. It sums up exactly what I was trying to describe in my earlier post on government, and depending on how you read him, that social compact is either the summation or antithesis of Dr. Paul's entire life of public service. Any American running for public office builds on that idea, whether advancing it or demonizing it. It unifies and divides us, all in one sentence, and that self-contradiction is what makes our country so beautiful and frustrating all at once.

It was written by John Adams in the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Reading Dr. Paul's book, I can appreciate his criticism of our government. We've drifted away from John Adams's ideal, whether from the idea of "voluntary association" or from the idea of "common good" - our systems and institutions have been corrupted by the worst impulses of the free market. But I don't trust his solution: to remove Government from the equation.

When you have a government that looks like the one Adams described, it is the extension of the will of the people it governs to operate in everyone's best interests. The reason we don't have that is because of apathy and neglect from the voting public; the participants who ought to be controlling the government. Dr. Paul should be calling for more involvement IN government, not freedom FROM government.

That is where the Founding Fathers agreed. They wanted to claim more direct control over their own lives and affairs, not throw away control altogether. Our government is supposed to be an extension of our own self-control; it is supposed to reflect our will and our desire for integrity, industry, and personal responsibility. I suspect that the reason we are all so unhappy with it is that it is doing just that.

As for economic theories, I think the new coin of the realm - information and trust - will move us in the direction we need to go. In that sense, Dr. Paul is right; no government body can dictate that trust or earn it through corruption or political wrangling. But that will mean we need figure out better ways to determine who and what to trust. Perhaps that will mean less Government, but it will definitely mean smarter government - and a voluntary involvement in the common good.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Fully-clothed Gentlemen

I have maintained for 17 years (give or take) that Steven Page is the finest male pop vocalist around, so when I learned that he was leaving Barenaked Ladies, I felt some concern for what might happen to the band. 

Despite their racy name, the five fully clothed Canadian goofs had a unique, wholesome, and geeky charm that grabbed me from my first listen to Gordon in 1992. They could be dangerous, but it was okay because it was absurd. And even though absurd wasn't cool yet, it served them well. Best of all, while the music was obviously all about them, it was also about me.

I got into the classroom but my knowledge was gone
I guess I should have studied 'stead of watchin' "Wrath of Khan"
-Grade 9
Unlike most pop acts, you could tell these guys thought their popularity was a big mistake. It had to be a joke, right? Five overweight nerds with a joke name? But they weren't a joke or a mistake; they were earnest musicians who had a mile-wide silly streak - who else could pull off a Star Trek reference on their first album?

And when they began to realize that it was real, and no joke, they weren't afraid to transition into real song-writing, sometimes leaving me breathless when I realized that there was no ready joke buried in the raw emotion of certain songs. And like my own transition from high school to adulthood, I found it easy to follow them wherever they went - even though there were some dark moments hiding under the bed.
And you said...
What'd you think that I was gonna do,
Try to make you love me as much as I love you?
How could you be so low?
You arrogant man,
What do you think that I am?
My heart will be fine
Just stop wasting my time
-Break Your Heart
This dark-edged but upbeat chemistry carried them through the brilliant Stunt andMaroon, and left them sounding baffled, happy, and a little bit tired on their back-to-back independent releases,Barenaked Ladies Are Me and Barenaked Ladies Are Men (the "BLAM" albums). I didn't know anything then, but I suspected they were feeling the strain of prolonged existence - a theme that Steve's songs had hinted at since the beginning.
A party at a friend's
Toronto's coolest scene
I thought I'd bring a tape
To show them where I'd been
And listen for a while
The lyrics made them smile
They said that it was fine
Although it's not the style
I said it wasn't me
Running Out Of Ink
What made this such a great band went beyond the song-writing - which could be a varied mixture of tender, witty, acerbic, sentimental, or naughty. There was a mixed-up collaborative feel to the songs that extended into their famous live improv work, and found its way back into the studio somehow. Whatever else you could say about them, The Ladies were there for a good time, and that's what they were good at providing. Everyone seemed to be having fun.
"A is for attitude I can't help but wield
A is for arrogance; emotional shield
A is for acting, A is for abhorrently
A is for asshole, which is what I am, how rude of me.
I owe you an apology I'm sorry"
If you know them, you don't need me to tell you this, but that chemistry came from combining 5 distinctly different and intensely creative personalities into one unit. We're not talking about Lennon/McCartney level collaboration, but you could tell each member did their own thing, brought it into the studio, and took turns going "Yeah, I like that! Want me to do THIS?"
I thought that Alcohol was just for those with
nothing else to do
I thought that drinking just to get drunk
was a waste of precious booze
But now I know that there's a time
and there's a place where I can choose
To walk the fine line between
self-control and self-abuse
It's probably no secret why Steve left the band. After a drug bust in 2008, his lifestyle appeared to be veering into the self-indulgent and self-destructive. I don't know the details - whether he wanted to leave, or the rest of the band wanted him to leave; whether he needed to get away to get better, or what - but it's not hard to see the effects that years of continued adulation, success, and hard work can have on a group like this. They went farther than they ever expected they would, did more good work than any of us had a right to expect them to do, and delivered on the promise to keep getting along and to keep the ride running.

It's no wonder if they got tired.
She got a new apartment it's out on the escarpment
And in her glove compartment are my songs
She hasn't even heard them since she found out what the words meant
She decided she preferred them all wrong
Kind of like the last time with a bunch of really fast times
If we're living in the past time soon gone
-Testing 1,2,3
And that is why I worried. I was afraid that I would miss the voice of Steve in the mix. Maybe it was hard for him to play the role, but the dark edge of his wit, and the honesty of his voice combined with the levity of the group to create great pop music. I knew that without the more upbeat influence of his friends, his solo work would probably not satisfy me, but I held out hope that they would be able to make something enjoyable even without him.
But I'm warning you, don't ever do
those crazy, messed up things that you do
If you ever do
I promise you I'll be the first to crucify you
Now it's time to prove that you've come back here
To Rebuild
Call And Answer
If you've come this far up memory lane with me, you may have noticed - I haven't mentioned anything about the new album. I intended to. I was bracing myself for having to write down in words what I thought and felt listening to it; but I decided that what I had to say would be unfair. There were some comments in my head, using words like "lassitude" and "lackluster"... but to aim them at people who have been so good to me over the years just seemed mean and pointless.

You might go ahead and check out All In Good Time; you might even find something there to enjoy. You might also like Steve's The Vanity Project. But all I heard was the voices that weren't there.

I hope they'll come back someday and rebuild.