If You’ve Got the Money

If a millionaire sat in front of a fire and burned one dollar a second, it would take a little over 11 days to go through the million dollars. A billionaire sitting at that same fire, burning money at the same pace, would have to keep it up for over 30 years. Someone with 100 billion dollars (and we have a few of those around) would still be burning money after 3,000 years.

The impetus for this little thought exercise was the statement made by Bezos at the end of his recent flight. Evidently he had decided some time back that a trip to the edge of space would be fun/a good idea, and ordered a rocket ship to be built for that purpose. (I’m looking at the sentence I just typed and can hardly believe it even though I know it happened.) He picked a few friends, rocketed up to the edge of space, floated around for a short time, and came back. Upon his return he exited the capsule, went to the microphones waiting for him, and said he’d like to thank all the people who bought stuff on Amazon, because they paid for his trip. Clueless or arrogant, or probably a little of both, it was a striking thing to say. It could be argued that his workers also paid for the trip, since it was their labor that resulted in his gigantic bank account.

His choice to spend his money on this, as well as on a yacht so large it needs its own smaller yacht, instead of rewarding his workers with better wages, more vacation, premium health care, improved working conditions, or any number of other options, is reprehensible. If capitalism is the art of what you can get away with, he is a master. Henry Ford, a man with many faults, was also the man who doubled his workers’ wages because he understood that if the workers couldn’t afford the products they were making, he was missing out on an enormous market. I’m not sure he did it because it was the right thing to do, but he did put a good sized chunk of money back into circulation that another in his same position might have kept for himself. The fact that Ford was seen as bucking the system and Bezos is seen as an example of the success of it says to me that the system is deeply flawed.

There is a verse in the Tao Te Ching about men with fancy swords and women in fine gowns, parading their wealth at court. Lao Tzu said that this is like robbers boasting after a looting and, as usual, I think he’s onto something.

I’ve seen a lot of posts and ads over the last few years attacking one or the other of the two main political parties here in the US. Some make an attempt to be well-reasoned and fact based, and others are just mean, showing no regard for truth or decorum. Politicians are easy; they generally love the sound of their own voice and so provide ample opportunity for anger or satire. Just because they are easy, though, it does not necessarily follow that they are where the focus should lie. An indicator of this is the fact that the people “in power” change but the core problems persist.

It seems to me that maybe, if being angry is a useful stance (and I’m not convinced that it is), we’re getting mad at the wrong people. Maybe, instead, we should be looking at ways to improve, revamp, or completely reorganize the system. It’s working very well, but only for a vanishingly small percentage of people. Another solution, less often considered but probably more likely to have long-term success, was proposed years ago by Buckminster Fuller. He said once that we shouldn’t fight the system; we should create new ways of doing things that make the old system obsolete. I think he’s onto something as well.

Ellen Reid’s SoundWalk

Ellen Reid is a sound artist who creates custom music linked to specific landscapes. This morning my wife and I sampled her newest project at Ijams Nature Center here in Knoxville.

Ijams is a 300 acre natural area a few minutes from downtown. Trails both paved and unpaved wind through the park, and for a group of these Reid composed music that can be downloaded to a smartphone along with the SoundWalk app, which uses GPS to match each particular piece to the specific trail the listener is walking. Performances by the Kronos Quartet as well as a group of fifteen musicians (the SoundWalk Ensemble) created the sonic landscapes to accompany the physical ones.

Ms. Reid has done SoundWalks in a dozen locations before turning her creative energy to Ijams, from Athens, Greece, to Central Park in NYC and to Wolf Trap, from Golden Gate Park to Fairmont Park in Philadelphia, and more. The Knoxville project is being presented by Big Ears, the same organization that creates the yearly Big Ears Festival and, some five years ago, brought John Luther Adams to Ijams for a performance of Inuksuit.

Ijams is a beautiful place, and SoundWalk adds another dimension to the enjoyment of the trails there. If you can make it to Ijams, I highly recommend the experience. Suzanne and I will definitely be returning to walk the trails we haven’t traveled yet, and probably revisit the ones we have. The SoundWalk is scheduled to run for one year, and I look forward to the changes in the experience as we move through the seasons.

There is no charge for enjoying the trails at Ijams, and the SoundWalk app is also a free download.

Many thanks to Ellen Reid for a fine listening experience that I’ll be enjoying several more times this coming year, and to Ashley Capps and the folks at Big Ears for another high quality musical experience for those of us lucky enough to take advantage of it. Also, to the staff at Ijams for providing us with such a wide variety of opportunities, from trails to canoeing to musical performances to movie showings, art exhibits, educational programs, and I’m sure I’m leaving out many other things. Y’all do good work.

Walking Mother Home

Ram Dass said once that we’re all just walking each other home. These days I’m thinking about my father in light of that insight.

It’s been almost a month since my mother died. She was ninety and we had a good long time together, but losing her still hurts. I imagine it will for a while. She lived, and died, in the home that she and Dad shared for about fifty of their seventy years together.

Seventy years. Dad would say “seventy years and two months.” From the world as it was in 1951 to the world of today. I don’t think the external change is the important thing, though; the important thing is the journey they took together, in all the different stages of their lives, the lives of me and my sister, of our children and our children’s children. I think I know them pretty well, and I’m realizing as I write these words that much of what they went through together, learned about each other and themselves, the battles fought and milestones shared, the joys and sorrows and everything in between, I will never know in any meaningful way.

For the last couple of years Mother was in poor health and very frail. As far as I know Dad never wavered, never hesitated in his role as caregiver. I’m sure he figured that was part of marriage; the one who needs care gets it from the one who can give it, and home is where it’s supposed to happen. The house they lived in was built by my great-grandfather on land that had already been in the family for a generation. I’m not sure Dad ever considered anywhere else as a fitting place for the end of their journey together.

Mother and Dad had a long walk, with twists and turns, mountains and valleys, that only the two of them saw, and last month he finished walking her home.

A Long Week

Many thanks to all who responded to my post about the death of my mother, or who reached out in other ways. Your love and good wishes were heart warming when I received them and continue to be as I move through this difficult time. 

This afternoon I played my dulcimer at the service, just about ten minutes while everyone was entering, finding their seats, and so on. These are the tunes I played:

Si Bheag, Si Mhor

Planxty Irwin

Shepherd’s Wife’s Waltz

Hard Times Come Again No More

Healing Springs

I chose songs I had a good chance of making it through, even if the emotions of the moment started getting to me. There were more than a few stumbles, but mostly during the noisier times before everyone settled in, so I was probably the only one who heard them. The service was short and bracketed by my nephew and a friend singing hymns. They did a fine job.

And then it was over. People said their goodbyes in the reserved kind of way the pandemic has forced on us, and made their ways to their cars and then to Atlanta or Nashville or Knoxville or just across town. We made it back to pick up our dog from where she was boarded with five or so minutes to spare, and took her home.

This week has been a full one, and not in a good way. Mother’s death, the discovery that one of our pets has an inoperable tumor, my son and daughter-in-law testing positive for Covid, and the preparations for Mother’s service have all combined to create a week that so far has lasted about a year and a half. I’m a little tired.

And I’m also grateful, both for having had her in my life for so many years and for the love and kindness of friends and family. I’m trying to respond individually to as many of you who reached out as I can, but I’m certain to miss some. My apologies for that. 

As my friend Jenny once said, we are, as always, stepping into the unknown. It’s true of every moment, but usually I don’t notice. Not this time.

The Chocolate Shake

After a long life spent caring for and about her family, my mother has left us. It happened early Sunday morning, at the home she and Dad had shared for close to 50 years (of their 70 year marriage).

My sister and I sat with Dad and we talked about Mother, and about the decisions that had become necessary. We didn’t decide anything, really, just recognized some of the details that now needed attention. Meetings, paperwork, phone calls, all that was for later on. That morning we just sat together.
Mother was 90, and the last time I saw her was a little over a week ago. We stopped by on the way to Atlanta to visit our daughter and brought her a chocolate shake (her favorite) and I played a few songs on my dulcimer for her. In retrospect, I am so very glad that we made that stop on our way out of town.

A chocolate shake and a little music. Not a bad way to say goodbye, even though I didn’t know that’s what I was doing.


The first day of testimony in the Congressional hearings into what happened on January 6th fell on the same day as the anniversary of the shooting at my church. On that Sunday morning, a man entered our sanctuary with the stated purpose to kill as many liberals as he could. He believed that we were ruining America, and called us “termites” in the four page manifesto he left in the cab of his truck. The similarities between his rhetoric and that of those who stormed the Capitol are striking. And disturbing, and horrifying, to those of us who have already been through this once (although on a much smaller scale).

I didn’t watch the hearings, or listen to them. The current ubiquitous nature of media coverage makes it next to impossible to completely avoid hearing about things like this, so I knew some of it would get through. It was enough to leave me shaken. The officers’ statements were hard to hear and brought back some deeply unsettling memories. More frightening, though, have been the statements of those who seem determined to ignore, minimize, or justify the actions of that day. That drumbeat has been going on for a while now, and gets a lot of coverage. I expect it to become louder and more insistent as the hearings progress. This both saddens and scares the hell out of me.

I was not physically injured in the attack at my church, but the woman sitting in front of me was, as were others before the attacker was subdued. Two people lost their lives, and many of us live with the aftereffects on a daily basis. I’m still hoping we can all take a step or two back from our current level of tension, but I have to admit that hope is a difficult thing to maintain. Dickinson helps. Sometimes I feel like I am, in her words, in the chillest land, straining to hear the tune without the words, looking for a little warmth. When hope returns, it comes from those close to me and from those who don’t make the news, and I realize that, just as the poem says, it never stopped at all. I’m grateful I can still make out the tune; it steadies me and I think, yeah, we’ll get through this.

I do hope not too much damage is done in the process.