Disconnected

I just got back from an epic road trip halfway across the North American continent. Unfortunately, we drove across several southern states where everything is deep-fried. Oh well, it was only 10 days. But in that time we witnessed a total solar eclipse, took part in Cherokee rituals, saw elk sightings, a bent tree, and many other strange and beautiful wonders.

During this time, I realized the 21st century has a stranglehold on us. We are constantly connected to our world via mobile devices and wifi internet. For most of us, this is a relatively new phenomenon; many of us were born before the web was fully realized, and we can remember when instant messaging meant passing notes in class. But by the mid-90’s, things were changing quickly. The generations that followed may not feel the change, like that proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water. For anyone born in the 1990’s, their expectation is that information is perpetually within reach, and like we modern, post-industrial, space-age humans who never knew a world without electricity, there is no going back. At least not willingly.

Deliberately ditching your mobile for a week is harder than you think. Being among the various parts of Appalachia, Great Smoky Mountains, Blue Ridge, Pisgah, and so on, where wireless coverage is spotty at best makes it easier to keep one’s resolve to remain disconnected. I must admit, I failed to maintain absolute isolation; my phone would periodically find a signal every other day, and a deluge of messages would drain the battery, forcing me to scramble for my charging cable. As a result, I actually turned off the device – yes, it is possible – when I could not find the cable. Problem solved: no signal, no phone. The device was reduced to a pocket calculator and a low-resolution digital camera.

This idea that being in continual contact with the rest of the world is to me a little absurd. Bear in mind I remember a time when being unreachable was a distinct possibility when leaving the house. Before we all had mobile internet in our pockets, going out into the world untethered was not as scary as it might seem to some of you. Pay phones were ubiquitous, and you always carried some change in case you needed to call someone to check in or ask for a ride. By the way, I saw more than a few pay phones in Appalachian North Carolina. Apparently, this is still a good way to connect. Wifi was available in our motel. And I took advantage of it to plan a route back home. But I felt a little guilty doing this, even though we really needed help finding our way out of the mountains. Like I said, I wasn’t perfect.

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Chimney Rock viewed from Lake Lure, North Carolina

I have to recommend trying this for a few days at least. Go to the Smoky Mountains or Chimney Rock or any of the small, isolated communities surrounded by peaks, and when you realize maintaining a connection is pointless, simply turn off the phone. After one or two days you may see things differently. I am not saying that these devices are inherently evil, although some have gone as far as to blame mobile phone use for an increase in brain cancer. Maybe we are too dependent on mobile devices. It seems tragic that we forgot how to follow a map using a compass. Maybe we have devolved a bit by losing certain skills. Without our phones, what skills do we truly have?

Most striking, I found that without my connection to the internet, and thus, no ability to instantly share my experiences, I enjoyed savoring the moments in real time. The pictures I snapped would simply have to wait until I returned. The stories, updates, comments –  everything – were being stored mentally. The experience was just mine. Naturally, I shared the moments with my wife, and in terms of the eclipse, that was a mass event, so that was pretty cool. Also, we rode the Great Smoky Mountains Railway, and we listened to stories from the people with us on the train. These moments are what life’s all about. They can be documented digitally, but they become the planar, two dimensional aspect, less than an echo, and the experience cannot be transferred with the degree of fidelity as first acquired. In other words, you had to be there.

I have been converted. I am a believer now. I’m sold on the notion of unplugging, disconnecting if only for a few hours. I was fortunate to have been compelled into isolation. That made it impossible to cheat, at least for a while. But now there is a larger question looming: if being disconnected makes life a little better for a short time, should that be our natural state? I spend upwards of 50 weeks all year getting stressed out, then take off for a few days here and there to “unwind.” Why would I not want to live my life unwound? Well, some of us have to work for a living. But it does seem a shame to put off living until retirement.

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What’s in Your Wallet?

I don’t wish to alarm anyone, but our economy is a bit of an illusion. Goods and services are being exchanged for currency, which is mostly held in bank accounts as electronic records, instead of a proper certificates and legal tender. Many of us have abandoned cash, opting instead in favor of credit and debit for monetary exchanges. Putting aside the astounding amount of consumer household debt in the US for another time, I want to talk about the economy of everyday life.

A very long time ago, people exchanged one good or service for another in a bartering-type system. For example, a farmer grows cabbage and potatoes, but he needs other commodities, like rice and wheat, milk, cooking oil, and fuel. So he goes to the market and exchanges his goods for the things he needs. This works well until he decides to hire someone to help him pick his crops. The farm hand cannot realistically be paid in cabbages, so a form of currency is needed. The various precious metals, copper, silver, and gold, are established as acceptable remuneration for any debt or fee, and would eventually be codified to a standard we accept as legal tender.

Fast-forward a little, and we find ourselves in our current state where money is held in accounts, not in safes or mattresses. When we pay for something, we whip out a debit card (if there’s money in that account) or credit card and authorize payment. We don’t really think about it, but what’s keeping all this going? Maybe it’s just my mind being manipulated by watching Mr. Robot,  and I do get a little anxious with each episode, but I’m bothered by the way our modern banking system seems to control everything. And what’s stopping the whole thing from falling apart? (I’m searching for a specific passage in a science fiction novel where I read that the end of the world was not caused by plague or war, but by cascading failures of electronic banking computers. The entire world economy was in memory somewhere, and something went wrong, horribly, catastrophically wrong. I was sure it was Arthur C Clarke, but I haven’t found the reference.)

My point is that the economy is extremely vulnerable. If you recall 2008 when the housing market crashed, the whole thing was caused by bad loans and greedy investors. If it happened once (and it has repeatedly) it can, and will, happen again. Except this time maybe it will be caused by hackers like the ones in Mr. Robot. What will happen if money is useless? What is money, really? Like I said, that legal tender concept is nice, but it’s just paper. And coins are not worth much. They contain very little precious metal, and no silver or gold. Pennies aren’t even made from copper anymore. Money is only worth something if the authority backing it says so.

So, let’s imagine what the world would look like if banks stopped working. You couldn’t use a debit card, and there’s no electronic “wallet” or other e-payment. Online bill payment is not an option, and no one accepts checks. The little cash there is might be accepted, but it’s only paper, like I said. In post-WWI Germany, inflation was so high that people used bank notes as fuel to keep warm. Eventually, a new economy would appear. Food and firewood are the new currency. Maybe you can trade some commodity for either. If you have a particular skill like making soap or metalworking, that is definitely worth something. If you’re thinking Fight Club you’re following me.

This vision of the future frightens me. It should frighten everyone, because not many people will thrive in this environment, and those who can are dangerous. This is why the governments of the world are working hard to keep economies flourishing. They will even go so far as to artificially prop up currency valuation or offer bailouts to prevent the unthinkable. By 2009, the US had spent $700 billion from taxpayers to prevent catastrophe (according to the Forbes article, it’s much more). And I think we were closer than is generally known.

When I go to the supermarket to buy coffee or potatoes or strawberries, I am participating in global trade with many different players. Coffee plants do not grow in the continental US. They require a specific climate that is best found in mountain regions in the tropics (high altitude, lots of sun and moisture). Strawberries in February come from Chile. We have to assume that people are getting paid all along the way. But if we paid what is fair – and whose definition of “fair” are we going by – that coffee would cost five times more. And strawberries in February would be cost-prohibitive. But through a careful balance of trade deals and other machinations, we can get what we want, and we don’t worry about what we can’t see, right?

Now I don’t recommend hoarding cash. And I am not condoning a policy of austerity and self-deprivation. That said, I am not the consumerism fan-boy. Capitalism is highly susceptible to greed and corruption. Marxism is also deeply flawed. Wherever there is a monetary system, it seems that people tend to fuck it up. We could theoretically live in a society where everything is traded; no one takes advantage, and there is trust. Borrowing and lending are simplified yet rarely implemented, but everyone buys only what they can afford. In this utopian economy, would money exist? I guess if that world could exist, maybe not. But unfortunately, we live in the real world, and that world must get paid.

The Good Old Days?

I am not an old man. That being said, the 1990’s were a long time ago – not in grand, geological terms, nor to most “boomers”, but the flow of time continues with no hint of slowing, and we who are left to suffer under its tyranny are forced to watch the suffering of those who were caught under the wheels of this temporal juggernaut. Then again, 25 years ago isn’t such a very long time now, is it?

The other day, I was listening to streaming music – unavailable in the old days – when Mariah Carey’s “Emotions” began to play. A great song – not her very best, but a good one, nonetheless. I decided to look up the song to get some details, and there it was: release date, August 13, 1991. 25 years ago. Now this song has been around a long time, but I wouldn’t have considered it an “oldie”. But back when I was in high school, we listened to “classic rock” from the 60’s – less than 20 years earlier. Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin. I think it’s funny, or strange, that I perceive the late 60’s as such a long time ago, but more time has passed from the advent of the web (not the internet – that has been around a lot longer than people realize) to the present day than from Nixon’s inauguration to my high school graduation. Yes, when I graduated from high school, it had only been 16 years since Richard Nixon was sworn in as the 37th President of the US. The first website was launched more than 25 years ago.

A lot of us can remember the world before websites and mobile phones. We can remember having to use pay phones and going to the library to look things up, because even if you had a computer in your home back then, it probably wasn’t connected to other computers. That was kind of normal back then. I wonder what the world will be like 25 years from now. Will we have RFID’s implanted in our bodies? Will self-driving cars be a thing, or will that plan fizzle like Beta-Max and New Coke? Nowadays, the things I miss are strange to think about. Like going to a record store, or being unreachable by phone. There was a time when no one could text you. It just wasn’t an option. When you wanted to be out of reach, all you had to do was leave your house and go to the movies. Oh, that will probably disappear soon, too.

Now, people get upset with me if I don’t respond in a timely fashion. What’s “timely”? Well, some of my acquaintances get miffed if they have to wait more than a few minutes for me to respond to a text message. And these are people my age or older! Don’t they remember the “good old days?”

The 90’s were a long time ago. An entire generation exists with no memory of that decade. My niece is about to graduate from high school, and she was born in 1998. She only knows a world where the web was well-established, and most people had mobile devices. Her generation has never used a pay phone or had to reference an almanac. It might sound like I’m complaining, but in reality, I’m looking ahead with optimism, and a little concern. No one can predict what will come next. Could anyone have predicted reality television, or better yet, the obsolescence of that medium? It looks like the new wave of our culture will be to elect personalities rather than candidates. Fame will be instant – the term “viral” is already part of our lexicon.

Do I miss the 90’s? No. Nor do I miss any other time before. I miss long lost friends. I miss those who are gone. I miss cool rainy days in the heat of summer. If I could go to any other time in history, I would hesitate to go because I rather like it here. It can be scary at times, and aging is a bitch. But looking forward provides a better vantage point; that’s why I love road trips. I like to see what’s just over the horizon. I look forward to seeing the future. But forgive me if you find me listening to some “oldies” on Spotify. It’s not nostalgia; I just like the sound.

Things are getting better all the time. This medium allows me to publish, when in the past I would have to find someone to print it and distribute it. And I would have no idea if it reached anyone. In the 90’s you had to rewind your VHS tapes or be charged a fee when you returned them. Now, we have streaming, on-demand video. Oh, I missed SNL. No problem, it’s on Hulu. That’s some righteous shit! Really, things are better now. Yes, there’s still a lot of sexual harassment in the workplace. People are still being denied basic human rights all over the world, even here. And there is exploitation and discrimination the same as before. But anyone can serve in the military now. Anyone can get married now. And anyone can have a voice, instantly, globally.

What do I look forward to for the next 25 years? Everyone pays their fair share in taxes. No corporate golden parachutes. An end to predatory banking. Real campaign finance reform. Affordable higher education. And equal wages. Just to name a few. These are the good new days. Is it perfect? Hell no. But the world will change. It always has, and nothing seems to have ever gotten in the way of change. Just be prepared and embrace it. But don’t forget how we got here.

Big Band Sounds Abound in Cowtown

If you live in or around Fort Worth, Texas (or in my case, within 120 km), and you like swing music and dance, you will enjoy the First Friday Dance at Southside Preservation Hall in the hospital district just south of Downtown. This historic location, maintained by the Southside Preservation Association, was originally a Methodist church, then a boxing gym, and now hosts weekly Tuesday night swing lessons and the monthly dance event. Buddy’s Big Band covers many of the classics, including “Moonlight Serenade”, “In the Mood”, and “Nice Work if You Can Get it,” to name a few. They feature guest singers from time to time. And their sound is phenomenal.

The dance hall is expansive, with tables lining the outer edge. The event starts at 8:00 PM, and it’s clear that people are in it for the duration, with some veterans staking claim to a table early in the evening. The night we visited, we saw many young people, teenagers and early 20-somethings. There were some in their autumn years but with lots of energy. A collection of ringers swarmed the center of the floor for the most part. It was obvious these folks had practised for a while, and they gave the appearance of gearing up for some dance competition in the near future, and they needed to test their skills. Whatever the case, it was a blast.

Swing dance has been in a slow-cooker comeback since the 90’s, with groups like Cherry Poppin Daddies and Squirrel Nut Zippers, and movies like “Blast from the Past.” The Dallas Swing Dance Society keeps a calendar of local dance events, workshops, classes, and more on their site. However, they do not include the First Friday event listing, furthering the chasm between Dallas and Fort Worth.

Buddy’s Big Band is the real deal, and the lead trumpet and tenor sax players were quite good, belting out solos all night. We ducked out for a little while to grab a bite, but on our return, the party was still in full swing (no pun intended). I recommend a high-protein meal. Swing dance requires a lot of energy.

This is a neat little secret in the area, and it surprised me that the dining crowds a few blocks up didn’t even know about what was happening. Dancers were dressed in various levels of formality, some with a t-shirt and a jacket, others wearing a tie and vest combo, and ladies in 1940’s era dresses. One young woman wore a pink poodle skirt. It was fun just being part of the scene.

Early in the evening, the band played a charleston rhythm, and those in the know took to the floor. My wife and I attempted to join in, but clearly, this was a rehearsed number. In any case, we all had a lot of fun.

Four hours of sanding is enough for anyone, and my legs are still sore. It’s obvious I need to get into better shape. I applaud the real dancers. They were really impressive, and the band seemed to take that as some sort of a challenge, playing yet faster tunes. The mirrored ball threw disorienting patterns around the room, but that didn’t seem to have deleterious effects on the dancers. And the band played on…

The next event is scheduled for March 4. We will probably skip it, but only because there is a dance workshop in Dallas that Saturday, and we need pointers.

Allons-y!