Archive for November, 2010

30
Nov
10

guilty plea

The Bismarck ND newspaper broke the news yesterday that Nick Caspers, whose trial was to have begun today, has been persuaded to change his plea to guilty as part of a plea agreement.

His maximum possible sentence under the agreement—though not the sentence itself—has been reduced from mandatory-life-without-parole to twenty years. A felony murder conviction will be on his record forever, and even when his as-yet-undermined sentence is served and completed, he will suffer the consequences for the rest of his life.

I tried calling his mother Mikki last night, but there was no answer at her South Dakota home. She is almost certainly in Bismarck on their joyless business. Nick’s attorneys are probably doing their best to raise her spirits, but I am certain this is a difficult undertaking as she comes to terms with the fact that her son and family are entering a frightful and previously unimagined new state of existence.

I’ve been silent about Nick’s case and its background because his attorneys asked me to. I will not be free to tell the full story until the court proceedings are completed, but it’s now becoming clear to me that when I do share it, it will be a narrative about how bad things do sometimes happen to good people.

How bad is still too early to say. It will depend only in part on the severity of the sentence the court will hand down. It will depend more on how Nick uses this experience to learn and to improve his life.

Nick is a young man with very positive qualities, some of which helped get him into this situation. You’ll understand when I tell his story. Those same qualities will, I believe, ultimately be his salvation. Anyone who knows Nick must have faith that he still has a promising future.

It will just be a different future than everyone imagined.

۞

Groove of the Day

Listen to George Harrison performing “So Sad”

29
Nov
10

icelandic music

The day is starting off warm and promises to be a beauty. I need to take a writing break today and get outside.

So I thought I’d continue yesterday’s “ice” theme and share with you some of the remarkable music that has been coming out of Iceland over the last decade and more.

I hope you will find these selections as enjoyable and intriguing as I do.

Bjork is possibly the best-known Icelandic performer. She has received something like 13 Grammy nominations and sold over 15 million albums worldwide, including two platinum albums and one gold album in the US.

Aniima is a quartet composed of Hildur Ársælsdóttir, Edda Rún Ólafsdóttir, Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, and Sólrún Sumarliðadóttir. (This is a long one, so maybe you’ll want to play it as background music while you’re getting something done around the house or office.)

 

Sigur Rós is a post-rock band known for its ethereal sound and lead singer Jónsi Birgisson’s falsetto. This is my favorite video of the day.

 

Today’s Groove is a song by The Sugarcubes, an alternative rock band of the 1980s and ’90s in which Bjork got her start before her meteoric solo career:

۞

Groove of the Day

Listen to the Sugarcubes performing “Hit”

28
Nov
10

runic new year

Happy New Year! Today is the first day of the New Year on the Runic calendar.

Our secular New Year is an arbitrary date, an artifact of history and custom associated with the Gregorian calendar; the Runic New Year, on the other hand, is earth-based. On the circular Runic calendar, this day is 23½ degrees from the Winter Solstice—a measure which, if you will recall from grade school science, corresponds to the tilt of the earth’s axis.

This is the first day of the fortnight in the year ruled by the rune Isa, which literally means “ice.”

The runeform is like a sans-serif capital letter “I” and recalls the form of an icicle. The nature of the rune’s power is as fluid water becoming resistant ice.

Just as flowing water literally freezes to an icy stop, the rune signifies a cessation of apparent progress in the cycle of transformation. Isa traditionally reflects the principle of static existence, inertia, and entropy. Isa is thus associated with death. However, as the story of Lazarus reminds us, the appearance of death can be deceiving.

When you behold a glacier, it is a mountain of ice that seems to be lifeless, permanent, immovable. But you’d be woefully mistaken if you were to build a house upon it. Your “mountain” is actually a river of ice that’s moving slowly, irresistibly, towards the sea. Were you to site your house on a glacier, the ice would exert a constant, relentless force against the walls, and eventually even the strongest walls would buckle and tumble down. When Arctic sea ice surrounds a sturdy ship, it can crush the hull in its jaws.

Until yesterday, construction progress on our house had been frustrated by the presence of a derelict bus we had inherited with the property and which served for a time as Paul’s dismal “bedroom.” It was parked under the roof in an open area we intend to make into two guest bedrooms. Not only were our construction plans frozen by this immovable obstruction, but our plans for the entire property were, too. How can we provide spiritual hospitality if we cannot make our guests comfortable?

Yesterday, after several expressions of interest and unfulfilled promises by others, our friend Robert came up to Estrella Vista and hauled the bus away. It will become a chicken coop on his property.

We didn’t plan it this way, but the removal of the bus happened on a runically appropriate day. Now we can begin pushing against remaining impediments to our goal: the need for money, labor, and materials (including water). I have no doubt we will succeed in time.

Yet we must be careful not to inadvertently overreach. Ice is easy to misjudge. Ice can form slyly and silently, sealing up open waters overnight. It can bridge an inlet with a sheet so thick and hard that people can drive their trucks on it. Yet ice should never be fully trusted. It can prove to be thin, soft, and treacherous where, beneath a dusting of snow, it appears safe. Unwary travelers may be thrown down on its slippery surface or fall through and be lost without a trace.

Beauty is part of its allure. As the Old English Rune Poem says:

 Ice is very cold and slippery.

It glitters clear as glass, jewel-like;

It is a floor wrought by the frost, fair to behold.

Ice is deceptive. An iceberg, for example, shows only one-ninth of its true mass above the surface. The rest is dangerously hidden below, a hazard to shipping.

According to author Nigel Pennick, this deceptive quality establishes the rune’s polarity as female. (Does this statement also establish Pennick as a misogynist?)

The wisdom of the rune reminds us the potential is present in ice of its melting again and becoming liquid. According to the esoteric tradition of the North, all ends and begins with ice.

This is the first day of the Regenerative third of the solar year cycle. Thus, the wisdom of the rune and of this day promises hope for the New Year.

۞

Groove of the Day

Listen to Foreigner performing “Cold As Ice”

27
Nov
10

yin

It’s a clear and sunny morning here, but beastly cold.

We are at that point in the annual solar cycle when the rate of growth in nature has slowed to its lowest—full Yin, according to the ancient Chinese Yin-Yang model. Up North especially, nature has taken on the appearance of death. But all is not dead. Nature is merely in hibernation, like a person in a coma who will one day awaken. Just like the economy…

In the spirit of the season, I thought you might enjoy seeing some famous photographs from eighty years ago which speak for themselves.

Today the top 1% of the population owns 37.1% of all assets in the US. The bottom 80% owns 12.3%. That leaves the middle 19% with the remainder—and four out of 10 Americans who consider themselves part of this middle class believe that they will be unable to maintain their social status.

Here are some sobering facts which appeared in a recent article in Der Spiegel:

According to the US Department of Agriculture, 50 million Americans couldn’t afford to buy enough food to stay healthy at some point last year. One in eight American adults and one in four children now survive on government food stamps.

Until the real estate crash, the country’s borrowing spree and excessive consumer spending masked the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans derived almost no benefit from 30 years of economic growth.

Because they lacked savings, Americans began borrowing money to cover their expenses. The suffocating burden of consumer debt now totals about $13.5 trillion. Some 61% of Americans have no financial reserves and are living from paycheck to paycheck.

Less affluent Americans stand only a 4% chance of becoming part of the upper middle class—a number lower than in any of the thirty OECD industrialized nations except Mexico and Turkey.

While 90 percent of Americans have seen only modest gains in their incomes since 1973, incomes have almost tripled for people at the upper end of the scale. In 1950, the average corporate CEO earned 30 times as much as an ordinary worker. Today it’s 300 times.

In 1979, one third of the profits the country produced went to the richest 1% of American society. Today it’s almost 60%.

It is a mistake to blame the politicians for this state of affairs—at least as long as the Federal Reserve Bank is in control of our economy. The politicians deserve only our distain for having abdicated responsibility and ceded control to a cabal of private bankers which represents the interests of the world’s real power elite. Congress is a flock of wannabes.

Yesterday Mike, one of the Diary’s readers, sent me a link to this short film which explains the Fed’s policy of “quantitative easing.” (Thanks, Mike!) I think you will find it illuminating:

 

All of this reminds me of one of George Carlin’s greatest lines: “The reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

I just stepped outside and the day is warming—a reminder that better days will surely come.

۞

Groove of the Day

Listen to the cast of “Annie” performing “We’d Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover”

26
Nov
10

what’s a dollar worth?

The short answer is: Not as much as you think.

The other day Alana was driving into town and asked me if she could pick up anything we needed. Yes, thanks, I said. Would she please pick up a dozen eggs, a pound of butter, a block and two ten-pound bags of ice?

Eggs, butter, and frozen water. That’s all.

I gave her a $20 bill and, a little more than an hour later, Alana returned with these items and $7.81 in change. “Is that all?” I thought. I’m not much of a price shopper, so I guess I’d expected to see a Hamilton and some change, not a Lincoln and two Washingtons. The change seemed so puny it bothered me.

But why was I surprised? I write about our eroding money value all the time. I shouldn’t have been shocked at all. But this time I was, and I took it personally.

Alright, let’s think about this… why would I be so surprised? Obviously this experience shows there is a disconnect at work between what I expect a dollar will purchase and its real buying power.

So using the Consumer Price Index (CPI), I did a calculation to see how much these same items would have cost at various points in my lifetime. In 1949 (a year after I was born) these items would have cost $1.36. In 1959, they would have cost $1.66; in 1969 $2.08; in 1979 $4.12; in 1989 $7.05; in 1999 $9.47; and today $12.19.

If you look at the CPI numbers for my eggs+butter+ice shopping cart, you can see that its price in dollars accelerated sharply after the US stopped backing its money with precious metals in 1971. Yet this ninefold increase over sixty years was a gradual process which at any particular moment was not especially noticeable. After all, I only noticed just now.

It’s a fact that cognitive awareness of change and making appropriate adjustments in our “frames of reference” do not necessary take place at the same time. Frames of reference may lag 3 to 7 years or more behind cognitive awareness. This lag is recognized, for example, in research conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis showing that changes in the growth rate of money are not fully reflected in the inflation rate for five years.

Looking at my CPI calculation and squaring it with my assumption of how much change I should have received, there’s no conclusion other than that I’m a slow learner. My internalized “frame of reference” is (or was until now) ten years out-of-sync with reality!

This perceptual lag is a normal phenomenon, and one economists, investors, and business people regularly take into account in their pricing and buying decisions. They count on all of us being “slow learners” to some degree. Were it not for this phenomenon, arbitrage (which takes advantage of simultaneous differences in perceived values of the same thing between markets) would not be possible. There’s got to be a perceptual lag for an Ivan Boesky to make money. (By trading with insider information, Boesky was just better—and sneakier—at getting out ahead of the perception lag.)

The problem, of course, is the money. It’s the most confusing thing because a dollar is never what you think it is. Even though the numbers on a piece of paper money always remain the same, the buying power is always fluctuating along a downward trendline. It’s hard to keep this in mind and adjust your behavior accordingly. Even though we know the earth is round, it’s easier to act like a flatlander. And folks like our friends at the Federal Reserve count on this and use our flatlander tendencies against us to get what they want. I wish we still had commodity-based paper money so I wouldn’t lapse into this laggard thinking so often, so I could keep things real in my head.

Failing this, we need to begin producing something here at Estrella Vista that we can use in barter and trade. I can think of a lot of reasons why they wouldn’t be practical for use as legal tender, but the first such commodity to come on line will be eggs. In about a month or so, our chickens should start laying. At today’s prices for organic free-range eggs, each egg will be worth about 25¢.

So what’s a dollar worth? Four eggs!

Yesterday at Jerry’s and Eva’s Thanksgiving I was sitting at table with John Wells, who told me he is about to start selling picture postcards from his Field Lab blogsite. He retrieved a packet of the postcards from his truck, and there were some I really liked. This is one of my favorites.

I congratulated John on the launch of his new postcard venture, and mentioned (a little jealously) that we are still a month or more away from egg production.

“How much are you charging for a packet of postcards?” I asked him.

Five bucks for 12 postcards, postage included.

Hmmm, I thought. That’s twenty eggs per packet. It’s “Black Friday” already, and I haven’t got a clue what to give as Christmas gifts this year. Money is tight. Maybe my chickens will come through for me in time…

“Would you take your payment in eggs?” I asked.

John looked at me a little funny but said he guessed he would.

Here is a link to John’s blog in case you’d like to buy some postcards: http://thefieldlab.blogspot.com/. John says he’s just set up a PayPal button to facilitate your purchase.

Only problem I can see is PayPal doesn’t take eggs.

۞

Groove of the Day

Listen to Bob Kames performing “The Chicken Dance”

Oh I’m sorry—that was a diabolical, evil, earwormy thing for me to have done.

This one will “clear your palate” and give better energy for Black Friday:

Listen to the Wood Brothers performing “The Chicken Reel”

25
Nov
10

thanksgiving reunion

Today we will be celebrating Thanksgiving at Jerry’s and Eva’s house. They are putting on a big meal for the community, most of whom are customers of their Grub Shack. But anyone’s welcome to come.

To tell you the truth, there is no one else out here  whom I more want to be with today. As I get older and experience these milestone holidays in new and changing circumstances, I do miss those meals spent with loved ones long gone. Being with Jerry and Eva is a way to simulate the old feelings.

I couldn’t think of a better thing to share today than this essay I wrote several years ago about one of my most memorable Thanksgivings ever.

It happened when Paul asked me to drive him to Colorado to meet his biological father and a family he had never known:

A Thanksgiving Reunion

Paul became more and more quiet as we neared the small Colorado town where his father Ron lives. You could feel the tension rising in the car—not because of the snowy mountain pass road or even the sight of a Lexus that had skidded off a hairpin turn and now clung precariously on the edge of a cliff—but because Paul was about to meet a family he had never known in his twenty-nine years of life.

When we were within an hour of our destination, we saw a Chinese restaurant and Paul asked, “You want to stop for lunch?” Are you hungry already? “Well, yeah,” he said, “plus, I’m a little nervous.”

After the meal, our waiter brought us fortune cookies. Mine said “Good to begin well, better to end well.” Paul’s said “A family reunion will be a tremendous success!” Paul thought this was pretty amazing and laughed. (I was still puzzling the meaning of mine.)

It was mid-afternoon when we found the house at the top of a mesa. The front door opened and a middle-aged man with a beard and pony-tail emerged. “You must be Paul,” he said, and the two embraced before he invited us in.

“You and I have the same nose,” Paul said. “We do?” answered his Dad a little nervously. “And the same eyebrows, too,” Paul added. “Looks like you got my teeth,” Ron said. “I did?” Paul asked hopefully, and then smiled.

Inside the front door was a narrow table with a framed photograph of a young man with long black hair and eyes and lips much like Paul’s. A blue votive candle burned next to it. This was Gabriel, Paul’s half-brother who had died a year and a half earlier in a tragic accident. Paul’s appearance so soon after the family’s loss of their favorite son was a cosmic coincidence not lost on anyone.

We passed by the closed door of a home office where Peggy, Ron’s wife, worked at her computer until late into the evening. She refused to come out. Ron apologized and said that Peggy was angry with him. “Ron sort of sprung this whole thing on me,” Peggy explained later. “I was also scared to death that Paul would remind me too much of Gabriel. Gabe’s death is something I’m still working through. This all just seemed to throw my holiday plans into chaos.”

Ron, Paul, and I drove to a pizza restaurant, where I spent the evening listening to Paul and his Dad each recount a lifetime of experiences that the other had missed. Paul spoke of growing up in the large family his mother had created with the man who adopted him at age four—a life of farm chores, fort-building, cherry-bomb adventures, and later, fast cars, pretty girls, a marriage that didn’t last, and a cross-country bicycle trek that landed Paul in West Texas. Ron told Paul about his travels around the world, his two marriages, his moves from Arizona to Oregon and now to Colorado where he works as a soil sciences professor at an agricultural research center.

The next day was spent on chores, watching wildlife graze the surrounding hills, playing cards—but mostly waiting for the arrival of Conor, Paul’s twenty-four-year-old half brother who was driving from Denver with his girlfriend Johanna. Paul and I napped while Ron waited up late into the night. Finally, at about one-thirty in the morning we roused ourselves as we heard the muffled sound of car doors slamming. The front door opened, and the two brothers finally stood face-to-face.

“As soon as I saw Paul, it seemed like he was a person I’d known my whole life but had never met,” Conor told me. “He seemed so much like one of us, I just knew he was for real and no con,” Conor said.

Conor and Paul are so much alike, it reminded me of stories you hear about twins who are separated at birth but live parallel lives. Conor and Paul have the same sense of humor. The same political beliefs. They both can watch a movie and remember the dialog word-for-word—and apparently have watched and memorized many of the very same movies. The two shot lines of dialog back and forth, and repeatedly disintegrated into laughter and private jokes that were lost on everyone else.

When the laughter subsided, Conor intimated to Paul, Johanna, and me a recurring dream he’d had since he was ten. “My Dad, Gabe, and me were on a tower, fighting off a big crowd of people who were attacking us. I told Gabe about it, and the amazing thing is he said he’d had the same dream, too. But there were a couple other strange things about that dream. The first thing is that Gabe wasn’t older than me as in real life—he was a little kid. The second thing is that there was a fourth person helping us fight off the attackers. Paul, I’m pretty sure that fourth person was you.”

A little later, I joined Conor on the patio as he smoked a hand-rolled cigarette. “Isn’t this just the weirdest thing?” he asked. “Have you ever seen anything like this?” I replied that this reunion was one of the most positive things I’d ever witnessed.

The night before I’d joined Ron on this same patio as he, too, smoked a hand-rolled cigarette. I’d asked Ron if Paul’s visit made him at all uncomfortable. “No, not really,” said Ron a little hesitantly. “It’s just weird. I only saw Paul once before, when he was just a baby.”

Conor offered a slightly different perspective. “Until now, Paul had only been a rumor. He was a deep, dark secret. It was my Mom, not my Dad, who told me there might be another brother out there somewhere. A few days ago, I talked to Dad on the phone. He was pretty nervous and scared. But now he seems happy. It’s nothing like he’d feared.”

The day before Thanksgiving, Paul’s grandmother arrived bearing bags of fruit and baked goods. After she and Paul embraced, I asked her if Paul looked like one of her own. “Yes,” she answered emphatically, and then immediately began giving orders to Paul and Conor for the unloading of her car.

As the day progressed, the family seemed to close in on itself. It seemed the years of separation, abandonment, and wondering no longer mattered. Genetics overcame all else.

“Good to begin well, better to end well.”

I decided the best way to end my visit was to leave the family to itself on Thanksgiving. So the next morning I said my good-byes to everyone including Paul. He would stay behind and spend the next month in Denver with Conor and Johanna.

“Thanks for bringing me home,” he said as we hugged goodbye. “I feel so comfortable with these people. I feel like I belong.”

۞

The month Paul spent with Conor in Denver turned into more than a year and a half, during which they sailed from San Francisco to La Paz, Mexico at the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula. Conor and Johanna parted ways in La Paz and Conor subsequently married Isis, his childhood sweetheart; they now have a beautiful and brilliant daughter named Ramona. Paul and Conor remain close to this day as brothers should be.

۞

Groove of the Day

You were thinking, “Please make it klezmer today,” weren’t you?

Listen to Oi Va Voi performing “7 Brothers”

(Yes, Paul is one of seven brothers.)

Happy Thanksgiving!

24
Nov
10

glorious day

There’s outdoor work waiting for me—at least what passes for work. When I finish this posting I’ll walk out to one of the “gates” I’ve created where the road meets our property lines.

A “Posted—Private Property” sign has blown away with the wind, and I must replace it so hunters and other predators are warned away. The other night I heard the sounds of heavy hoofs coming off the desert, and smiled to think that Estrella Vista is a refuge for the animals, a protected and safe place.

While I was on the phone this morning with Whitebear, he saw a mountain lion. He and his dogs went nuts, though for different reasons. Whitebear finds satisfaction in knowing that his valley is a refuge too.

Anyway, I’m getting outdoors into the warm sunshine. I hope you enjoy your day, too.

۞

Groove of the Day

Listen to Artie Shaw and his orchestra performing “I Got the Sun In the Morning”