Pick Any Two

It’s a well-worn story about the hard reality of commerce.

There’s a sign in the window of an old main-street appliance repair shop.

Fast. Cheap. Guaranteed.

Pick any two.

This story captures our society’s energy problem in a nutshell. Our problem is we have come to expect our energy to be all three at once; fast, cheap and guaranteed.

How fast do we demand our energy?

Flip a switch. Lights on. Plug in our computing and telecommunications devices. Charged. Drive into a gas station. Swipe the credit card. Pump.

That fast.

Are we conscious of where the electricity comes from, how it was produced, what fuel source was used to generate it? Do we care how difficult it was to extract the crude oil that was refined into auto fuel?

Not likely.

How cheap do we want it?

Real cheap. American energy prices are low, relative to world prices, yet many political careers are still made (and lost) tilting at the windmills of rising gasoline prices. Our national expectation continues to be plentiful, accessible and cheap energy.

Guaranteed?

Absolutely. We never want to be turned away at the pump, never want to deal with daily blackouts or other service interruptions.

I once worked at a technology company that was completely shut down during the rolling blackouts of 2000. Americans won’t tolerate that again. And when push comes to shove, the guarantee of access trumps other concerns, such as source, environmental implications, difficulty for providers.

There’s a hard truth to energy we do our best to keep in the deep recesses of our collective unconscious. It is a difficult and dirty business. Drilling for and extracting oil and natural gas is rough and dirty business. It requires tradeoffs with environmental concerns. Disasters sometimes happen. People get hurt and sometimes die getting our energy to us. The people who work in the energy business know this but we do our best to think about it as infrequently as we are able.

We’re reminded when there are large events, like spills, fires or natural disasters. When these events pass so, unfortunately, does our attention. Because we don’t consciously wrestle with the inherent and necessary tradeoffs of energy, others do it for us. We cannot and, in fact, do not escape the ‘pick any two’ reality just because we wish it.

We must be conscious. We must engage. We must choose or we will have the choice made for us.

An Ode to Power

I found myself in the car a lot this past weekend, so I had the opportunity to play some of my music, and play it good and loud. (Those readers with teenaged kids of their own may understand how rare this kind of opportunity is.) And one of the bands that got heavy play on my program was a very old favorite, Oakland’s own, Tower of Power.

[Quick note here: I became a die-hard Tower of Power fan when, in 1972, they played in my high school’s cavernous auditorium. Seen them several times since. Generally better sound.]

Tower was ubiquitous on Bay Area radio when I was a young man, their horns popping, their lead vocals soaring, their rhythms hot and funky. They were unlike other bands of the time. Originals. Real musicians.

And, unlike some of the other bands I lived and died with at the time, they stand careful and repeated play still.

Start with the horns, because they are the soul of the band. The arrangements aren’t complex and fancy. They’re punches in the gut. They’re meant to be. The play is direct and precise. The musicianship is extraordinary. The horns often carry the melody, harmonies and rhythm, all at the same time. The players are craftsmen. They don’t flip and fly through scales. They aren’t trying to impress you; they’re experts and they know it. They let the songs and their play do the talking.

Read liner notes and see how often other bands and artists used the Tower horns on their own recordings. There are none better.

In addition to playing, the horn players often function as a Greek chorus in counterpoint to the lead singer. Listen, especially, to ‘What Is Hip’ and “You’re Still a Young Man,’ Tower mega-hits, to get a sense of these bandmates functioning as interrogators.

Lead vocals carry on the funk tradition of, say, James Brown. You get the feeling that, while some lyrics were penned a priori, what was actually sung was what was felt during recording sessions. A listen to Tower’s live albums pretty much confirms this. Written lyrics seem more like guidelines than laws. It takes a particularly strong voice to sing with horns as the main accompaniment and Tower always had lead vocalists who could do the heavy lifting.

Tower’s drummer was always the timekeeper. Good. Necessary. Never the dynamo some bands had. Same, I feel, with the bass and guitar. Tower of Power isn’t a string band, after all; it’s all about the horns.

Here, the message is in the metal.

Riotous Pussy

A rock band (named Pussy Riot) that dared to play a song in a Russian cathedral, as a protest against Vladimir Putin and the close ties between the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox church, was sentenced yesterday to 2 additional years in prison for ‘hooliganism.’ The three band members have been in jail since their arrest in February.

This was, of course, not intended as a joke (hardassed reactions to protests by repressive governments never are), but how can one react to something like this other than joking derision. The defendants, it was reported by NBC News, “…reacted with giggles and one rolled her eyes when the judge issued the sentences after reading the guilty verdict for almost three hours.”

The bald truth is, Putin cannot, will not, tolerate dissent of any kind, not even a little performance by an all-girl punk band.

We all applauded the implosion of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Communist bloc in Europe but are the Russian people any better off under the government of criminals, thugs and tyrants they have now? Are any of us?

This Post Is Not (Just) About Sports

If you know or care anything about baseball, professional sports, or the San Francisco Giants, if you’ve watched the news or read a newspaper in the last day, if you pay attention to issues like the use of performance enhancing drugs, you already know about Melky Cabrera.

For those who don’t, here’s the 30-second version:

Melky Cabrera is a professional baseball player for the San Francisco Giants. He was having a stellar year, leading the National League in hits and being selected the Most Valuable Player in professional baseball’s all-star game earlier this summer. Yesterday, the league suspended him for taking performance enhancing drugs, a clear violation of league policy. As a result, during a particularly critical moment in the season, his team will be without his services.

Simple, right? Cabrera cheated, got caught, pays the consequences.

Not so simple, as it turns out.

His teammates pay a pretty steep price for trusting him. They go into their final drive for the pennant (trying to win their league’s championship) without a big piece of their team. In interviews with other Giants, you could see the betrayal on their faces, in their words and halting speech.

Fans, too, have every right to their anger and disappointment. The team itself? Sure. Vendors, stores selling Giants merchandise, restaurants and bars around the park? Yes, them too.

Turns out, Cabrera’s decision to use banned drugs was anything but personal. His deliberate cheating affected a great many people.

And here’s why this is not (just) a sports story. We have, in recent times, seen many examples of public figures choosing to engage in self-damaging behavior that causes widespread ‘collateral damage’ as well. Sandusky/Paterno/Penn State is simply the latest and best known example in a very long and very sad history.

My professional life involves helping people and institutions in moments like these. I have seen firsthand the damage people can leave in their wakes, sometimes quite blithely. Melky Cabrera is a successful professional athlete, so we can watch the pain he’s inflicted on others in the newspapers, on television and playing fields.

Other cheaters do their damage in darker, quieter places.

Overpass Prayers

The other day, a little after lunchtime, I happened to stop by the interstate near my house, just to make a couple of phone calls and send off a few emails. As usual, traffic was heavy, loud and fast. It was all I could do to concentrate for all the engine noise and honking.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man with a yoga mat rolled under his arm walking down the grassy strip that outlined the freeway off ramp. He went down a ways then stopped abruptly. He unrolled his mat and turned to face the noisy traffic below.

Then, and I recognized the characteristic movements at once, he began to pray. He was an observant Muslim and it was time for the daily Zuhr prayer. He had oriented himself more or less facing east, interstate traffic be damned.

I watched until he concluded, rolled his mat, walked back up the ramp and out of my view.  Seeing him creating his own sacred space in the midst of our society’s secular noise reminded me very much of the many business-suited people I’d see walking the labyrinth at lunch hour when I was on the staff of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral.

No matter which particular traditions of practice we follow, if any at all, it would be a much different (i.e., better) world if we all set a few moments aside in our busy, hectic and noisy days for prayer, meditation, or even just conscious self-reflection.

Not What I Heard

The soundtrack of my young life went something like this: my mother played classical pieces on the living room piano, my dad played Sinatra and Johnny Cash on the Hi-Fi, my brother played the Beatles and the Rolling Stones on his transistor radio.

I try to remember that personal context thinking of the day (I was around 10 years old) when my friend Anthony brought a new album to the clubhouse of our neighborhood playground. He said to me, in dead earnest, “I know this isn’t what you listen to at home but you have to hear it.” And with that titillating introduction, he pulled James Brown’s ‘Cold Sweat’ out of the sleeve, itself looking strange and unfamiliar to me, and placed it on the playground’s antique record player.

What happened next isn’t entirely clear to me now, many years later, but when the ungodly-long (it was over 7 minutes) song ended, I knew something buried deep inside me had been released. I thought I knew music before hearing James Brown but this was something I’d never heard before; I’d never ever heard anything remotely like it. My wee 10-year-old brain was well and duly blown, and blown for good. When, sometime later, I finally saw Brown perform in ‘The T.A.M.I. Show,’ a concert film, a true happening of cosmic scale, I sat slack-jawed throughout. Not only was his music completely different than anything I’d heard before, he moved in ways I’d never seen.

My family recently gave me ‘The One,’ a brilliant biography of James Brown by RJ Smith and I inhaled it practically overnight. The New York Times review is here. It made me remember what I felt when I first heard his music and it made me appreciate or, more properly, re-appreciate just how revolutionary a figure he was. And to say I loved the book is in no way to sugar-coat Brown’s street-tough life, personal inadequacies, or thorny personality.

James Brown lived hard and righteously pissed off nearly every single person he ever met. That said and understood, he laid a foundation for all that followed him. If you don’t know James Brown, his music and performance, do yourself a favor and discover him now. If you do know him, get Smith’s book; it will be a revelation.

You’re welcome.

Another Pilgrim

The other night, along with many thousands of other visitors, we found ourselves on the Mall in Washington, DC.

It had been a sweltering day in the capital and many, I assume, were outside to escape the heat in cramped apartments and hotel rooms. But most, myself included, were there for other, more site-specific reasons.

The Vietnam Memorial, a black granite gash carved into the cool grass of the mall, attracted quite a lot of visitors for that late hour.  Most displayed that singular combination of excitement, appreciation and respect I’ve seen there all the many times I’ve visited.

But it was the Lincoln Memorial that had, by far, the largest crowds. The enormous white statue of the martyred president sits alone, with the exception of his own words, high in a neo-classically Greek temple, itself perched atop many many stairs. The path upward to see Lincoln is extraordinary, the view of Washington from his feet, amazing. His face looks down at his visitors, not with fatherly kindness, nor happiness, but stern judgment.

There is no mistaking the intended effect: awe. We are showing near-sacred reverence for someone we placed in deliberately shaky control of our nation’s future during a time of unprecedented challenge. And then, just at the moment of the Union’s and his victory, one of our fellow citizens murdered him. Along with the battlefield at Gettysburg, the Lincoln Memorial may be our secular nation’s only great temple.

Few leaders anywhere in the world have such memorials.

Up those many steps, I saw the climb of individuals, families, other groups, large and small. I heard voices speaking in many languages; some I understood, some I recognized, others were completely foreign to me. No matter the language, on the faces and in the gestures, I could read the respect of pilgrims to the site.

People come from all over the earth with deep and sincere appreciation to visit this place of tribute to the man who preserved the union during our greatest crisis.

Is it at all possible to find, to recognize, to appreciate that level of greatness in our country today? Are we all pilgrims to dead American characteristics? Are we all visiting Lincoln’s memorial like schoolkids looking at reconstructions of the dinosaurs?