Saturday, August 02, 2008

The Best Guitarist

Before things fell apart, we used to have an office Christmas present exchange of one sort or another every year. We did that every year I was there until my own personal entropy asserted itself on the office and I took down Office Christmas and Office Golf Outing along with Office Secret Santas and Office Treat Day.

My own personal entropy is this effect I have on social traditions and occasions: I destroy them, breaking them down little by little, like the Colorado river flowing through the Southwest, until they are no more. I destroy them because I don't care for them, or I don't do them right, or I have to have surgery (that was what took down "Office Golf Outing" a few years ago; I had to have back surgery and couldn't golf that year, and we haven't had Office Golf Outing since then.)

It's always a different method and reason, but the end result is the same: Another social tradition falls. Like "cards with presents." Everyone gives birthday presents with a card. We all read the card and think "Great. Now that's over," and move on to the present. Then, one year I dared to wonder Why? Why are these cards $4.00, and why am I buying a card to go with the present when I will be right there wishing my nephew a Happy Birthday and also giving him a Jump-O-Line? I stopped buying cards with presents, and explained what I'd done to people, and now I get almost no cards whatsoever and never give them.

It's not always a conscious decision I make, though. Four years ago, I quit smoking and didn't have a lighter anymore, so I had no way to light birthday candles on the cake, and the fancy oven we bought with the flat top, the oven I have craved for a long time, can't light the candles either, so there's no candles on the birthday cakes anymore. That was an unanticipated side effect, but one that worked out; we no longer worry about birthday candles, and we still sing Happy Birthday, and birthdays are still fun. They're just not candle-lit.

A lot of my decisions work that way. I try not to snack at the office; and I also try not to socialize overly much at the office. I'm at the office to "work" -- surf the internet and blog -- and if I'm not "working," then I'd much rather be at home blogging or reading the Internet; to me, time spent in the office not actually working (i.e., most of my workweek) is better spent doing something that doesn't involve standing in the conference room around a tray of food someone else brought in, trying desperately to remember if it's "Jessica" or "Becky" that I'm talking to. (It's "Todd.") So when coworkers organized Office Snack Days or other similar get-togethers, I arranged to not be there or be on the phone and forget to bring in my onion dip. Eventually, Office Snack Days stop, too.

What I'm trying to say is that my powers have been used for both good and evil. Because as great as it is to not have to buy birthday cards anymore -- seriously, there are only two reasons you're buying a card for someone: (a) you're too cheap to send an actual present and too lazy to think up your own sentiment or (b) you're sending money, in which case, okay, you need the card to wrap around the money, but also in which case part of the money you could be sending is being spent on the card, so at least get the cheapest one and send a couple of extra bucks -- there are down sides to destroying beloved social institutions.

Those downsides are something I have to suffer, because those social institutions often have to be destroyed. Like when I take down something like returning phone calls immediately; when I do that, everyone should thank me because I'm doing a service for people before you even realize that you need the service. Think about this: why do you feel you have to take a phone call, or return it immediately? That's the question I ask myself, often as I'm listening to Jessica/Becky/Todd go on and on: Isn't the phone just another way of communicating? What makes it such an urgent thing that I have to take this call, right now? Or looked at another way, why don't we think it's rude when people call us? If someone were to just come to our house, bang on the door until we came upstairs, and then begin talking regardless of what we were doing a minute before and regardless of how soggy our cereal is getting over on the table, we would think they were unspeakably rude. But have that same person call up on the phone, and somehow it's okay? I don't think so. The phone is every bit as intrusive as a pop-in visitor; worse, maybe, because I don't have to cradle the pop-in visitor in my shoulder while I cook dinner.

People treat the phone differently than other forms of communication. If someone sends me a letter, or an email, I don't have to open it or read it immediately. But if someone calls me on the phone, they think I'm rude if I don't pick up the phone and instead just go on watching How I Met Your Mother.

If I do get a letter or email (and I get a surprising amount, given how antisocial I am and how bad I am at remembering names and birthdays; I'm always having to cover up until I eventually say stuff like... what's your name again? to which the person invariably says "For the third time, it's Todd") -- then I don't have to answer it right away, either. I could let it sit an hour, a day, a week. Nobody insists that I have to run out to the mailbox the minute the mail arrives.

But phone callers assume that I'll hop up the minute the phone rings; and if someone leaves a message on Monday, and I call them Wednesday, and they are always saying things like "Where were you yesterday?" and if I say "Nowhere, just watching 'How I Met Your Mother'" they act offended.

Why? The phone is nothing more than just another communication device, no better or worse than blogging or letters or carrier pigeon. It may ALLOW instant commuication, but that doesn't mean it REQUIRES it, and I have slowly been teaching people who have the (mis)fortune to try to communicate with me on the phone just this: The fact that YOU think it's important to talk to me right now doesn't mean I agree.

Eventually, society as a whole will benefit and people will stop leaving me three messages in a row hoping that this time I'll actually pick up the phone. And even if society as a whole does not benefit, I will benefit and that's really what it's all about.

Like I said, it's not as though I don't pay a price for destroying social institutions. I do; I take a few hits on the way to improving the world for all of us (although mostly for me). Like when Office Christmas Present Exchange ended because I pointed out that it was kind of silly for us to all buy presents for each other when we don't really know what each of us likes (and in some cases -- again, mostly me -- we are not even sure what everyone's names are) and wouldn't it make more sense to just go out and use our $15 to buy ourselves something?

People laughed at that and said things like There he goes again but I'd struck home because I was right; presents are silly, especially in that context, because I'd spend time and $15 buying something for what's-his-name (Todd) and he probably wouldn't like it and he'd spend $15 on me and I wouldn't like it, but if we'd each just taken our $15 and bought ourselves something, then said Merry Christmas to each other, the cost would be the same but the effect would be much better because we'd each have something we wanted and would be a little merrier.

That's in general how I feel about presents: wouldn't it be better if we bought things for ourselves, instead? On our birthdays, we could go out and buy ourselves a present, and everyone could gather around and we'd show them what we'd bought and they'd say Happy Birthday and we'd eat candle-less cake and everyone would go home. We'd use the money we would otherwise spend on the 10 other birthday presents we have to buy for people throughout the year, so we'd get something really really nice, and would have a great birthday, and everyone else could do that, too, and we'd all be a lot happier, wouldn't we?

You can see, I'm a fountain of great institution-destroying ideas like that; I also advocate having social security begin paying people at 16 and end at 36; that way, you get 20 years of retirement without working but you get it when you're young and can take advantage of not working but still having money by doing things like living in Cancun or traveling the world or starring in reality shows; then, at 36, you settle down and get married and get a job and have kids and work until you're 85. Wouldn't everyone's life be better if we did things that way?

As I said, though, I take some hits for doing this for everyone, and one hit is that I no longer get the occasional surprisingly good gift like I did when one year one of the partners in the firm got me as the Secret Santa, and having no clue what to get me, called Sweetie, and learned that I "liked guitar."

What Sweetie meant is that I played guitar (which I still can can do but I don't do it often because I never progressed much past the point where all the songs kind of sound vaguely the same: they all sound kind of like Michael, Row The Boat Ashore). But what the partner understood it to mean is that I liked guitar music and so he got me a Leo Kottke CD.

I believe that with that, I have just earned an award for the Longest And Most Irrelevant Intro to a Nomination, as Leo Kottke is The Best Guitarist for two reasons.

First, because he's incredible. It's like he's playing with four hands and two guitars. Or four guitars and 8 hands. He's definitely got more than the usual quota of guitars and hands. You hard rockers who will want to beat me up for nominating Leo Kottke have got to get over your Steve Vais and Eddie Van Halens and Ani DiFrancos and the like and just listen to, and watch, Leo Kottke. He plays hundreds of notes at the same time and on most of his songs he plays just the acoustic guitar and yet each of his songs sounds different than the others (and none of them sound like Michael Row The Boat Ashore) and just listening to him makes me appreciate how hard it is to do what he does, and also to appreciate the complexity of the music, and to also appreciate the music itself, which means it's working on three different levels, and I like that because it means the music sinks in deeper into my mind.

And second, there's a part in his song "Accordion Bells" that makes my heart ache. It's at about 4:14 into the song, and you'll have to listen to it to hear what it is because I can't really describe it. With no words or symbols or anything else, with just an acoustic guitar and a few notes, somehow he makes me feel like crying and laughing at the same time and I don't know how he does it, but he does.

So, social institutions have their points, I guess. Not all of them; it's still dumb to spend four bucks on a card, but some of them could maybe stay around, since if it wasn't for Office Christmas Present Exchange, I'd have never heard "Accordion Bells" and if not for that, I wouldn't know how an acoustic guitar can pull emotions right out of my chest and into the open, and I wouldn't have picked Leo Kottke as The Best Guitarist.

This is not Leo, but it gives you the idea. Listen to this, and then go buy his CD, for Pete's sake!

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