Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Beauty Economy

I recently was alerted to a new group in town calling itself "Slow Money." I was interested, at first, by their philosophy, and the people behind it--a San Francisco restauranteur, the founder of Terra Chips, etc. gave it legitimacy in my mind.

The economy, they say, has gotten too big. Too complicated. Too fast, and out of scale with humans. The antidote, in their view, is to slow it down, turning towards the old way of life which involved knowing your neighbor and buying your corn or peaches from the family farm down the road.

All well and good I suppose--and in many ways an understandable backlash against the economic mess we're in right now. I love farmer's markets. And living on the California coast, we have access to wonderful fruits and vegetables. One of my favorite local farms on the coast is run by an Italian family that has been in the Half Moon Bay area for generations. They don't spray most of their crops, but they do use some chemical fertilizers, and therefore don't qualify for the vaunted title of organic. But they farm with love, something you can see in every potato and head of broccoli. Visiting their stand off Hwy. One is a treat.

What I didn't like about this Slow Money group, or their philosophy, is the implication that the economy must be reshaped in some whole new image in order to be beneficial, or in their words, "beautiful."

As they put it:

"We must bring money back down to earth. ... We must bring our money home. We must put money back into local economies and carbon back into the soil. ... there is something beautiful about a diversified organic farm. There is something beautiful about a CSA. There is something beautiful about Terra Madre. There is nothing beautiful about bovine growth hormone or Red Dye #4 or high fructose corn syrup. We must invest as if beauty mattered."

For me, this was when the alarm bells began to ring.

Some of what we humans do is beautiful, by the definition above. Some of it just isn't. Doctors perform ugly surgery and save lives. Teachers slog away in depressing classrooms. Some people sell things that have no real social value -- gadgets that break way too soon, sites that hawk stupid pet videos, search technology for the above sites, storage to ensure that all of the videos are kept online, and so on and so forth ad infinitum. None of this is particularly pretty. Would I suggest that we make any of that go away? Definitely not! In fact, I would even go so far as to say that I wouldn't make bovine growth hormones or red dyes go away. I would try to keep them out of my personal food supply, and I would expect and be rewarded as to find that many others will feel the same, until the company that has introduced them realizes that they're fighting a losing battle, and slowly takes them off the market. (This is in fact what is happening in both these cases.)

And this, my friends, is the messy wonderful world we call the money economy. I don't particularly like the word "capitalism" because to me it is a very limiting terms. Nowadays, many of the most exciting innovations are running on little to no capital. In fact, when you're in the midst of a place like Silicon Valley that seems to be where we are heading. And that, to me, is a beautiful thing.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Tribute

The title of this post reminds me of the Tenacious D song of the same name. I want to offer a tribute to someone who mattered a great deal to me, and who left me with the most valuable legacy--a sense of my place in the world, an abiding belief that I am a writer, and that this isn't a crazy career choice. But when I try to come up with the right way to express all this, it seems that the real words are already gone.

Just as it happened for the guys in Tenacious D, who while playing for a demon that was threatening to eat their souls:

And we played the first thing that came to our heads,
Just so happened to be,
The Best Song in the World, it was The Best Song in the World.

But later, when they tried to remember it, they couldn't. And so they wrote another song, which was a tribute to the first song, which they had forgotten.

So it is with me. The picture above is of my grandmother, Madlyn DeWitt, who died one week ago, on July 16 at the age of 91. She was much more than just a grandmother to me. She and my grandfather raised my sister and me from the time we were very small. This was the result of a number of forces, not least the fact that it was the late 1960s and my parents were pretty far gone into the boho world of the hippies and beatniks of the Lower East Side.

My grandparents turned out to be pretty darn good parents, all things considered. Madlyn was my first--and my best--editor. She managed to simultaneously support my creativity, while giving me heavy duty lessons in grammar and sentence structure. Later, I knew the rules so well I was able to play with them. Turn them into games for my mind. She also taught me that great writers are usually great readers as well. She didn't have to tell me this. The evidence was all around me. In the evenings, rather than turning on the TV, we generally all settled down to read. There were books of course, but also many mysteriously erudite magazines to choose from--The New Yorker, something from England called "Punch," and many others. For years, all I could really read were the cartoons, but eventually I found myself delving into those long articles--the ones that went on in tiny black print for page after page--and was amazed to discover that there were other people who wrote like my grandmother spoke.

She wasn't a known writer, but she had her moments in the sun. For four years, from 1972-6, she was the editor of a tiny literary journal that became something of an insider's secret among what my uncle has termed the "literati" of our local area, called The Barrytown Explorer. She contributed many of the articles, and her style--a combination of witty bon mots and sincere appreciation--captivated the audience, which ballooned during her tenure. She managed to wangle contributions out of any and all good writers in the Hudson Valley, including the celebrated writer Saul Bellow, who was spending some time there, and New Yorker contributors of the time who maintained homes there.

Many of my recollections of those early years of my life involve the sound of my grandmother click-clacking away on her Underwood manual typewriter--she couldn't think, she said, when using an electric, because there wasn't enough time between each key stroke. To this day, anything that sounds like that keyboard sends me back to age five. I sometimes hovered outside the door of her office, playing with my toys in the hallway, and listening to something that sounded like what I knew would be my sound when I was a grownup.

I wrote my first book at age six, when I was confident enough in my writing abilities that I figured it was time to start publishing. Madlyn never treated me like a little kid when I was involved in such serious matters. She helped me staple the pages together, and gave me a few suggested edits to the text of the story, which was called "The Big Gum Chewing Boy." I was, at the time, obsessed with bubble gum, because Madlyn didn't allow it in her house under any circumstance. It was both a forbidden fruit and something I could stand in judgment on others. And so the book told the story of a boy who partook of this sinful item, and was punished with the loss of his mother. (Yes, I now see the significance.) In the end, the gum actually saved him. He used it to fly away and get home.

Madlyn was of a time and place that doesn't exist anymore. She made jokes that required you had a provisional grasp on at least three languages. Mealtimes were for serious conversation. Either you kept up with the adults, or you stayed quiet. When you were done, you had to ask, "May I be excused?" My sister and I honed the phrase until it was uttered so quickly it became one word, "MayIbexcused?"

Madlyn was passionate about politics. She expressed this through an intense and vocal opposition to the Vietnam war. But there were other more subtle ways that she revealed her political views. For example, if we had soup, we were all allowed to pick it up and drink it directly from our bowls, because "Mrs. Roosevelt" did that. Later, she was actually hired by the Roosevelt Library to write books commemorating the centennials of both Franklin and Eleanor (Mrs. Roosevelt)--a chance to express her gratitude and respect for a presidency that was as personal to her as the Kennedy administration was for a later generation. I wonder if I'm inheriting this, as I find myself feeling a personal connection with the Obamas in a way I wouldn't have expected.

Her passing is a personal loss to me. And, as so many of her friends are saying, it also feels like the end of an era.