Election Day Thoughts

I’m reading a book on the evolution of the western world view, it’s basically a Western Civ text book. I went to arts school, it’s all new to me. What strikes me is the enormity of people, circumstances, opinions, experiences, perspectives, suffering, privileges, causes, effects, lives, deaths, etc that can get summed up into a “cultural mindset” of an era of history.. a time as chaotic and controversial as the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation.. come to think of it, when have things not been chaotic and controversial? Some folks would say the 1950’s in America, but only if you where white and middle class, and what a tiny speck of a moment that was. Every microcosm is balanced precariously, hemmed in by the ones around it, but in our brief existence an illusion of stasis is understandable. When I was a kid I naturally assumed that Sacramento was the most important city in the world, since it was the capitol of the most important state in the most important country in the world. Doesn’t that seem perfectly logical?

When I think about the horrors of, say, the Reformation – the long standing unquestioned authority of the Catholic church fracturing, the conservative backlash from the extravagance of the Renaissance, beautiful art commissioned yet paid for by the taxes of the poor, people burned at the stake for refusing to relinquish their cultural inheritance, forced to recant from honest scientific observation and deep seated personal beliefs, mayhem, terror, sickness and death, a level of poverty truly unknown in our time, control, cognitive dissonance, censorship, corruption.. It sounds like hell on earth. How, during such intense flux, did science carry on, did people get educated, poetry get written, cows get milked, did society heal and change and come to understand, respect, and protect the autonomy of the individual? How did we get from pilgrims and Indians and the fourth of July to reelecting a black president??

Obama said it well – we are exceptional because we are the most diverse nation in the world. We are largely a nation of immigrants. Only the American Natives have a cultural creation story that is actually tied to this land. Mine came from a place far across the sea that I have never been to in a desert city that is constantly torn by war, yet I grew up knowing only the foothills of the Sierras, the quiet intensity of Lake Tahoe, the soft grassy hills of the California coastline. This is the land that I recognize as home. My genes were passed on to me by people who left their homelands and went west, generation after generation, until they again hit the sea. This nation was built entirely on occupied territory – the impersonal brute forces of famine, war, society, survival, overpopulation, technology, just plain old growth – the human diaspora has as many interconnected currents and causalities as the weather. America is different (I take issue with the world “exceptional”) because relative to most other countries, it is huge and full of people who wandered here from somewhere else and tried to build a life out of what they found. Individual liberty is indispensable when everyone is a minority. I think in many ways we forget who we are and where we came from.

I can marvel at the state of Europe in the 1200’s and appreciate the madness that I myself did not have to live through; I can learn from the progressions, the swings back and forth striving for equilibrium and forever overshooting it, the major causes and effects of social movements, the people that pushed themselves to the very limits of their own understanding and beyond; I can appreciate that an entity can only build on its current model with the materials and tools available to address the next task. When it comes to my own time and place in history however, I notice I have much less patience and serenity around its evolution. It feels uncertain, volatile, frustrating fits and starts, infuriating – often times it’s hard to recognize the forward motion through the circular logic and repetitive actions against evidence. I realize how tiny an increment one generation – one lifetime – really is in the grand march of history, and I wish I could stay around for a few more to see what happens. Perhaps just as one human eventually grows up, anxiety subsides, a sense of understanding is reached, they have seen enough to know that things eventually work themselves out in one way of another – so too will a society that can truly integrate its past into its present existence, and access the fullest range of choice that exists to determine its future. Perhaps that it far too Utopian, but the only reason for living that we can all genuinely agree on is the continued propagation of our species. It is what we are built for, after all, regardless of any belief in a divine purpose that may lay beyond. As long as we continue to successfully pass the torch, we will continue to evolve. Whether I get to see it or not, that is where my hope lies.

I started writing this with a question in mind: How do you love what is when it is in such a tumultuous state? How do you love the mess, the fear driven decisions we make that shoot ourselves in the collective foot, the good works that go unacknowledged, the incredible and fundamental unfairness? How do you forgive the path chosen when there appears to be a more direct route to health and happiness? How do you get such a massive and heterogeneous group of people to agree on anything when the sources of information are so disparate and unreliable? How do you love it for what it is, and participate with clarity, grace, and abandon?

I don’t know. I guess you just do it, as best you can. Or you don’t. You stay drunk or in front of the TV or at the mall or clinging to victim-hood or at the office or whatever your drug of choice is. How you feel about something isn’t ultimately as important as the actions you take. However, in this one lifetime I get, I’ll be dammed if I let my feelings alone determine my decisions and my quality of life without my consent. The only silver bullet I can honestly deduce and accept – rigorous awareness, from the deep self to as far out as it will go.

Here’s to Obama, here’s to the American people, here’s to excruciatingly incremental change. As is the nature of the universe. Here’s to these next four years we will all witness, endure, participate and revel in – together.


Consciousness and the Jailbird

The Sacramento Valley is held by mountains to the east and west, and on a clear day you can see the foothills of the Sierras, if not the snow caps from the right vantage point. You have to get a little further west on 80 before the Coastal Ranges come into view. Otherwise, the valley is as flat as Kansas. Power lines run all along the gridded two lane roads that connect still small farms in various levels of productivity; the encroaching housing developments will only make it so far south before they hit the Delta, with its levees and sloughs, peat and marshland, unfit for higher population density. A few acres of solar panels starkly confront the older industries as the dairy cows look on, RVs rust, and barns decay in the fields. Mustard flowers and spring green grass contrast with the cloudy early morning sky, pink in the east, gray in the west. A partial blanket of clouds hang overhead like a low ceiling. This is driving south on Bruceville Road to the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center, or “R triple C.”

I pick a metal stool in front of a window with a phone hung up on my left and wait for the inmates to come in. There is a mother with a one year old to my right and an Asian woman to my left. The door to the hallway on the other side of the glass opens, and the inmates file in looking for their visitor. My brother Robert, in a faded thermal and orange pants, sits down on the stool on the other side of the glass, and we pick up our phones.

Protective Custody (PC) is reserved for gay guys, child molesters, older or disabled men, and gang dropouts. They are housed in a wedge-shaped room, or “tank”, with bunks along the back wall and high ceilings with a catwalk so guards can look into many such rooms at a time. There are a few tables and chairs and two bathrooms. They get to go outside twice a week into a yard with high walls and a net across the top. Visitors can come Tuesdays at 9am for one hour. Three of his friends happen to be in his tank, and they sit at a table and play cards, gossip, and share ideas about what they might do when they get out. They pool the money that gets put on their books, and sometimes will combine graham crackers and chocolate pudding to make a pie, or crush up a candy bar in coffee to make mochas. Robert says the gay jokes are mild and rare, no one really cares much to puncture the monotony. They eat at 5am, 11am, and 3pm, so their commissary is very important to them, as well as the welcomed relief from the boredom it provides. The cinder block walls are painted grey and the high florescent lights are either on or off, obscuring the contours of the day. There are no recovery programs, no classes, no job training, no therapy, no library, nothing that might actually prepare them for re-entry into the world. Almost everyone is serving time for a drug or alcohol related offense. Robert’s friends will all leave months before he will. He has eight long months ahead of him.

The idea of “serving time” coaxes me into rumination.. Is that the most we ask of those who disrupt the social order for whatever reason, to forfeit a specified amount of time from their lives? We don’t insist or even ask that they educate themselves on the consequences of their actions or on the factors that may have led them to take those actions in the first place, not to mention help them to not repeat the behavior. There are obvious conflicts of interest here, few people want to open the can of worms marked “Class,” particularly those who benefit from its structure, who also happen to include the private industries that own and run the prison systems. It is not in their interest to rehabilitate inmates, the profit is in repeat offenders. These are the cold hard turning gears of capitalism. It is proven that education, prevention, and treatment produces better results and is far more cost-effective than incarceration, saddling someone with felonies that limit their employment opportunities, burdening them with social stigma, and setting them up to repeat the same behavior. Robbing someone of precious years of their lives while securing them on the path that led them there is cruel, if you ask me. Time is the only thing we really have, for without it, no dreams can be built and seen through to fruition.

I don’t have a better answer for Robert. Social change happens as a reaction to the current state of things, and often only affects the next generation, if it happens quickly enough. Robert has been to rehab many times, he knows the recovery programs well, there is nothing more anyone can give him that is available. I don’t think he really understands the breadth of why he is where he is. At least I know he is safe in his tank, and at the moment isn’t selling drugs to some young person who hasn’t yet seen many consequences and may have a chance of escaping the black hole of addiction and incarceration. I don’t know what would work now, it is really up to him. The adversities are great, but hey – people do it, and this is the only life.

The walls of my tank are silent, the clock on the computer ticks on. The light through the windows turns dim and bright again from the passing clouds and intermittent rain. Everything that exists in our human world in its current state is only an adaptation of the previous model. Evolution is a response to changes in the environment, and the process often times cannot keep up with quick and drastic changes, which is why species perish. Our world is now a blur of quick and drastic changes. No one would have designed us, nor the systems we depend on to function, as we/they are now; an organism cannot develop a trait to help it survive in an environment it hasn’t yet experienced. Consciousness, as in a group or an individual, denotes “a part of the human mind that is aware of a person’s self, environment, and mental activity and that to a certain extent determines his choices of action.” I would add that full consciousness requires an understanding of exactly what state we are in, how and why we got here, and to what extent is it serving the greater good. Those questions being answered (and they can be), a course of action usually reveals itself in a very obvious way. I venture to say a broader social consciousness is a trait that is naturally developing, however tumultuously, and will surely have a huge impact on the lives of individuals and the community as a whole. Conscious evolution may be our adaptive short cut to the long unconscious process of trial and error that has served us up to this point. The change in environment we must adapt to or perish – the quickening pace of change.


Everything is Free Now

That’s what they say. I’m inclined to agree, although I think the fundamental ways we acquire, exchange, and utilize energy are changing rapidly. Transitions are seldom without friction, however. Rent still must be paid at the end of this month. Somehow.

The astounding response in protest of PIPA/SOPA and internet censorship has awakened me early with thoughts about copyrights and the viability of my line of work. I write songs and sing them in public. I record them and sell the recordings. These are the two main ways I have made money. The cover charge at the venue is dependent on what the region is used to paying; in some places folks are willing to pay $10 or more to see a show, sometimes I’ve seen people balk at $5. If thirty people pay five bucks that’s $150, give 30% ($45) to the venue and you have $105 to split between two people, and you drove 4 hours to get there and bought two sandwiches and an oil change along the way. You can see why we slept in the van for so long. Coyote Grace makes the bulk of its income by – you guessed it – CD sales.

Now, in the early days we highly encouraged CD sharing, burning copies, and even gave a ridiculous amount away assuming that spreading the music around would eventually generate more revenue than the $15 for a CD sold in the moment, and I believe we were right. Ingrid and I also are not numbers people and tend to make decisions on emotional intuition rather than financial pragmatism. To this day we still have an open policy of music sharing with our fans on an unspoken honor system, feeling that dividends will come back to us somehow and knowing that people are broke and will do it anyway. I do it. My personal policy is that I try only to “steal” music from folks whom I deem well established and not needing the money as much as my kind, the self-produced unsigned artists who do everything and pay for everything themselves, who live on food stamps and sleep in the car. “Try” is the operative word however, sometimes the money just isn’t there. The other side of the coin is that after touring with folks I assumed to be well established, I have learned that the era of the sweet ride from the record label is over and many artists really do need the money, now more than ever.

The music industry now mirrors our current economic divide – all the resources are concentrated at the top, and there is an ever widening gap between the corporate world and the independent world. Technological advances have a lot to do with it as well. Back in the 20’s and 30’s, dancers could make a hell of a living and achieve rock star status. With the advent of television, it was no longer novel to see someone dance on a stage from the nosebleed seats, and now almost every dancer I know in the states has a day job. I have often wondered if this is my fate as a folk singer. Home recording and the internet has enabled Coyote Grace’s very existence, though I do wonder if the file sharing and CD burning that make copyright laws porous will require me to at some point to get a real day job. People don’t often seem to be that aware either, stating flat out at the merch table that they are going to burn the CD for everyone they know, or friends who state flat out that they don’t pay for music. I think there is a general assumption that there is some line of success that an artist crosses (like opening for the Indigo Girls) that people think brings them good money, or at least the money they think the artist deserves. That’s what I thought before I jumped into the business. Sadly though, this is not so. Things like massive exposure, fancy videos and photos, bookings at huge venues and mainstream radio play are reserved for the folks at the top who are employed by the folks who own all the venues and radio/TV stations and magazines, not the most talented. That is the way it is, but – necessity is the mother of invention, and I believe that folks naturally tire of the whitewashed formulaic media they see everywhere and go searching for something more human.

So CD sales and performance fees it is, supplemented by teaching and odd jobs. And, as true callings go, we’re going to do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay. Rent, schment. All the hubbub about PIPA/SOPA is really between the big corporate music and movie industries who lose money on pirated copies of “Twilight” and websites like Wikipedia and Google who make accessible a lot of information that would be ridiculous to try and police. I agree that copyright laws should be protected and enforcement should be updated to reflect current technology, but I feel that any law that gives the government the power to blacklist sites on the internet is veering into extremely dangerous waters. And this law won’t help the independent artist much; there certainly isn’t a surge of international companies racking in millions of dollars by hawking Coyote Grace albums tariff free. We must be extremely careful with laws like these, especially now in our counter-intuitive and volatile political climate. And screw it, things ebb and flow, and there is nothing we are stuck with permanently. If I can write and make music and learn stuff for the rest of my life, I will be content. In any event, I don’t have any desire to live in a house that is bigger than I can clean by myself. Throw in your chips, and hope for the best.

Often times I wonder if I am being too personal and sharing too much. Sometimes I think that the ones who hold their cards close to their chests might have a greater advantage and at least more mystique and intrigue. Evidently though, this is not how I am programmed. I’m all for transparency in many ways, I suppose personal transparency is no exception. Here’s to We, The People for preserving the right to acquire knowledge and keeping the internet sovereign over itself, and for supporting independent artists 🙂 Let’s keep it that way.