Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Monks aren’t going to make money anymore!

A fragment of a blog post that I managed to salvage from my crash... What did I mean? I have no idea. Obviously, I was thinking a lot about issues of financial ethics, even before my computer crisis.

It's been a month now, so I'm beginning to to let my grief go, and it is seeping away, slowly. I keep trying to explain to myself and to others what it was I lost. My obsession with data perhaps borders on the clinical. I spent a year (2010) figuring out how to salvage metadata—not just song files themselves, but also play counts, play dates, ratings, and album art—from my two previous computers.

Not just how to salvage it, but how to combine libraries together so that they became a seamless whole, and in February of this year, after a full year of trying, I managed to do it. So I experienced exactly eight months with my beautiful, whole, complete iTunes library, which gave me more pleasure than perhaps is reasonable. I obsessively catalog actual photographs from actual concerts for each of my Bob Dylan and Bob Marley bootlegs, for each Elliott Smith demo, for each inherited mp3. When a song plays, I check the last-played date and remember where I was when I last heard a song.

Remember that night when we sat around and listened to _____ while we both spread art all over the floor and collaged and drew? Remember where we were on __/__/10? Remember the last song we played on Secret? Remember that night when friends came over and we stayed up until three in the morning listening to ____? When I see the long strings of __/__/11s, I remember.

I did. But all of those blanks are now empty forever. It's like losing a year of my life. Even if I get all of the music back that I remember I had, which I should be able to do for the most part, that metadata is gone. And losing all of that photographs from that year, too—losing my catalog of the summer's wildflowers that were supposed to sustain me through the long winter, losing the film of my niece painting in her bedroom in Oak Park, losing the footage of my runs through the back of the land with Shadow in front of me, the footage I wanted to compile into an Aroostook County documentary. The loss is the destruction of memory, and that's what hurts.

The worst thing is that it came from a company I trusted. Maybe the only company I continued to trust. I feel so foolish for trusting it wouldn't happen, for trusting a multi-national corporation that doesn't give a crap about me or my data. They've been extremely helpful, but it's still a matter of corporations having absolute and complete control over most of our lives. If they control our memories, then don't they control our lives?

I can't help but think that all of them would be happier if lost my data forever because then I'll be forced to buy it again, forced to participate in the consumer economy and contribute to their bottom line.

My politics have become rather radicalized as a result of living in Maine, and I encountered complete shock last week when I realized a friend living elsewhere hadn't even heard of the Occupy movement. It's increasingly difficult for me to sustain a belief that money itself is not inherently evil. That what's evil is the influence that people with money have over our lives and our politics.

Listen to this podcast, if you have a spare second: Republic Lost

Lawrence Lessig believes that the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement need to unite, which is the most revolutionary idea I've heard in a while. Free-market capitalism and liberal politics are not contradictory. Crony capitalism and liberal politics are. Crony capitalism, the way that corporations and the rich control policy through campaign contributions, is corruption, pure and simple. All of us can agree on that, and all of us can insist on change. I believe in democracy, in the Republic and I hope I can do my small part to again seize control of my own life.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011


My guilt, the bad karma that I believe brought this on myself, was not paying artists for their work. But do I really believe that? No.

I keep thinking about electronic copies of media—books that friends download on their iPads, how CDs are just promotional items, ripped and passed on, that help musicians sell concert tickets. How do artists make money in an age when no one spends money on art? When everyone, even me on occasion, believes it should be free? I've never been the kind of person who buys albums, but I always accumulate music. When I buy albums, but I buy them from the very-scratched bin at the used CD store for 97 cents. Even now.

I swap books on paperbackswap.com, I check out CDs from libraries, and when I do pay for a “new” book, I buy it from a used bookseller on Amazon. Even though I'm an avid book and music consumer, there are few artists who have ever earned a penny off me. I do go to concerts, or I used to. I used to buy new books, too, back when I wasn't suffering through the economic indignity of trying to write them.

It's not the end of the world for the publishing industry or the record industry. No, it's a brave new world. We need new economic models for the arts, models that deliver money to the people who need it most, the people sacrificing to create the art. Every album, every book, should be available from each artist's individual website, for less than what it costs to buy it used on Amazon. Maybe. That's one idea.

How very much money do I spending for data recovery, how very much money I spend on electronics that deliver media. How much money all of us give to telecommunications companies to bring us data, to stream movies on our cell phones or listen to music delivered live by fiber-optic cable. But the people actually creating what's streamed to us--bloggers and filmmakers and rappers—get nary a piece of that money. Maybe they need a cut.

I don't have a Ph.D in Economics. I can't answer these questions. I'm attending an Occupy Aroostook march on Friday, where I plan to chant: We Are the 99 Percent. Occupy Aroostook is the local branch of Occupy Wall Street, although I don't believe there's even a single one-percenter in the County.

But I stand with all these protesters in saying our financial system is fundamentally broken. The rich get richer and the poor make art. The poor grow vegetables in urban gardens. The poor start businesses and don't have health insurance and lose money in the stock market. We need a new economic model, one where the market is truly free. In the sense that it brings freedom to all.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

"We're pretty certain that this life was the life that we were born to live"

--horse ranchers from British Columbia, on CBC's 75th anniversary special.

I'm sitting on the couch, watching Canadian television, received on an antenna over the air from Nova Scotia. When J., who has a smart-phone, comes over from Caribou, it blows the signal out. Canadian television is one of the best things about living in northern Maine. Tonight they're airing "1 Day, 24 Hours, 34 Million Lives," a day in the life of Canada, where all Canadians everywhere sent in footage of themselves on a single day in late April this year. In a little inn in California, on the Pacific Crest Trail, I saw a coffee-table book that had a similar theme--Life magazine had sent out photographers to each corner of the country to film an entire day in the United States in the late 1970s-early 1980s. It's one of the coolest collections of photography I remember seeing, but I haven't seen anything similar since. The first photograph in the collection, of course, was sunrise atop Mount Katahdin.

So this documentary series one of the best I've seen, with self-filmed footage of people from Prince Edward Island to Alberta, and my tolerance for documentaries has become extremely high with all the PBS I watch. We also get must less spectacular television from Canada, for example, Battle of the Blades. It's a reality show with ex-hockey players ice dancing with ex-figure skaters. Not as compelling as it sounds, believe me--I tried to watch.

You'd think with fewer channels I'd watch less television, but I find instead that my tolerance for crap, and documentaries, just increases, especially when I'm depressed, and winter looms, and I don't have internet access at home or a computer that works to do any of the things I love. Except to put text into a blank text document—that I can still do, and am beginning to do again, although with every word I type that evil demon that lives inside of my head says: crap, crap, crap. If every word I type is ephemeral as wind, then what's the point? Might as well go watch some Canadian television.

I press on. I'm enrolled in National Novel Writing Month again this year, although already marvelously behind. I have to believe that the simple exercise of putting words onto the page has to have some value. One of the stories I keep telling myself is that of my grandfather, who used to troll bookstalls in both Cairo and Manhattan, looking for elusive out-of-print theology texts, many of which still line the bookshelves of my parents’ basement. I keep thinking about those books that he spent his whole life collecting, how they're just as easily destroyed as the books and music and photographs that I lost last month. My sister has a friend who built two houses in the last five years, both of which burned to the ground. Another Chattanooga acquaintance had her childhood home, an antebellum mansion with a colonnade, go up in flames just two weeks ago. All of that material, lost forever.

Time's arrow moves in only one direction. If I had to say one good thing that has come out of this disaster, is that I'm trying to live more fully in the moment. We all know it's all we have, but it doesn't mean we live like it.

The theologians who wrote those books in my parents' basement are long gone, their families long since dead. The author's heirs have stopped collecting royalties, and most of the books are in eminent domain. Most likely no one will read those books again. The theories propounded in them are debunked or outdated. People want to read new theology, post-deconstructionalism, theories of God in the digital age, shiny new trade paperbacks or e-books on their iPads and Kindles. My grandfather's books gather dust, await fire.

In some ways, this whole argument is about money. If I had $3000, I could get my data back. That's what data-recovery services cost. But I'd much rather give that $3000 to musicians and artists, the people creating the art stored in digital form. That's my resolution—to spend as much money as I spend on recovery on art, and the amount's already climbing slowly upward. My next investment has to be a new circuit board for the hard drive, because I'm unwilling to give up yet, even though I know the hunt is rapidly attaining the level of an obsession.

Some days I give up. I retreat to my crocheting on the couch, and watch Canadian television. I watch horse ranchers who wake up at one in the morning to check on their foaling mares. I think about the life that God has given me to live, with its foolishness and grief. And I post Psalm 90 above my desk:

Lord, you turn men back to dust,
saying, “Return to dust, O sons of men.”
For a thousand years in your sight
are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.
You sweep men away in the sleep of death;
they are like the new grass of the morning—
though in the morning it springs up new,
by evening it is dry and withered.
Relent, O Lord! How long will it be?
Have compassion on your servants.