Friday, July 01, 2016

Monty Brewster, Donald Trump, and the American Dream

I watched Brewster’s Millions (with Richard Pryor) as a child; it was one of those movies my parents insisted I would enjoy even though it didn’t look like much at first to my kid brain. But it left about as much impact on me as any marginally-entertaining few hours of my first ten years, and I remember the basic premise and conclusion to this day.

More recently, after a full decade of adulthood and beginning a class in accounting, I decided to re-watch the film and investigate a new idea about what it really says about money and the people who have it.

The premise, for those of you who haven’t read the synopsis, is that Monty Brewster inherits $300,000,000 from an eccentric estranged uncle on one condition: that he spend no less than $30,000,000 in exactly a month, without accumulating any assets. If he fails or if he tells anyone, he gets nothing. A sexy accountant from the law firm is tasked with following him around and meticulously documenting his spending.

Sounds fun, right? Not only does the lower-class protag get to go on a monthlong spending spree the likes of which most of us can only dream of, but at the end of it he’s rich beyond his wildest imaginings three hundred times over. The film opens with a text crawl: “Montgomery Brewster... got handed the American Dream... on a very hot plate.”

That’s a detail I didn’t remember from my childhood viewing, and it threw me for a loop when I saw it this time around. Now, I have to admit the whole idea of an “American Dream” always perplexed me. It always seemed at once uselessly vague and annoyingly prescriptive. Middle school social studies teachers alternately described it as “wanting a better life for yourself and your family” and something about white picket fences, one of which is far from limited to this one country and the other of which is, last I checked, limited to only a small percent of Americans, most of whom live in the grayscale neighborhoods of Pleasantville. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about this supposed American dream, it has nothing to do with being “handed” anything, no matter how hot the plate is. It’s about working hard to get ahead, as implausible as that is in the real world.

But here’s the thing, and this is why I decided to re-watch the film in the first place. Most of us aren’t handed a great big hunk of cash just because some relative we may or may not know has died. Or because some relative we do know is still alive and wants to make sure we have all the best things from cars to educational opportunities to the occasional get-out-of-jail-free card. But here’s that thing I was just talking about: some of us are. We live in an unbalanced society where a privileged few do get handed a great deal that they didn’t earn.

Now many of those currently obnoxiously wealthy would like you to know that they did work for what they have. They may have had some help in the beginning - a few generous investments in their initial enterprises, a modest inheritance they spent wisely in order to make it grow rather than shrink, that kind of thing. They didn’t just fritter away what they had, as the common people would, and their current success is a testament not to their luck but to their keen skills as investors and entrepreneurs. Thus, these billionaires, despite their early windfalls, are truly self-made men.

Brewster’s Millions tells a different kind of story. Its protagonist is given an amazing amount, and he isn’t instructed “be careful, this has to last.” He isn’t told, “you need to invest this money wisely if you don’t want to end up right where you stared.” He has to spend as much money as he can in just a month. He’s highly motivated to waste it all and end up broke. He’s not just burning through a million dollars a day because he doesn’t know how to invest wisely. He wants to lose it all. He wants to have nothing to show for it at the end of the month.

And you know what? The story’s old enough that I won’t feel bad spoiling it for you. He fails. Every time he thinks he’s come up with a brilliant scheme to lose money, he ends up earning even more. He only technically wins because he gets threatened with a lawsuit with less than two minutes left on the clock, and offers to pay for that sexy accountant to get a law degree and represent him with the last bit of cash he’s got. Yeah, it was a nailbiter right to the end. But it just goes to show that losing money is every bit as difficult as getting it.

And that’s really the crux of the matter, right? We live in a world where not only is it hard for the poor to get rich, but it’s just as hard for the rich to get poor. When someone gets a windfall and later ends up on a trajectory into the upper echelons of wealth and power, it’s easy for them to see themselves as self-made. But how much of their wealth was really the result of their own hard work and good decision-making, and how much of it is just due to the nature of large sums of money to multiply even in the hands of simpletons?

And what does it say about the American Dream?

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Why I Love Cats (Featuring Tetra)

Cats are honest. Cats do what they want to, no compromises. Cats don’t do things out of pity or duty or because they’re afraid of disappointing someone. If a cat is doing something you know it’s because they want to.

Pictured: a cat.
If you want to play and the cat doesn’t want to play, the cat won’t play. If you want to cuddle and the cat doesn’t want to cuddle, the cat won’t cuddle. Cats may try new things or learn new skills, but they know when to give up and admit the task is beyond them. When they fail, they may indulge in some embarrassed self-grooming, but they won’t genuflect and grovel for forgiveness;  they have realistic expectations of themselves. You can always trust cats, because they are always sincere.

Pictured: a cat who wants to cuddle.
Dogs aren’t like that. Dogs have such a thirst to please that they can be trained to save lives, track down criminals, and do so many other tasks that make life better for mankind. But they need that training from humans, or else they’re just eager to please and unable to perform.  Unless someone puts in the many hours of hard work to train the dog, it doesn’t matter how sad it is when it knows it’s disappointed you... the dog will always disappoint you.

Pictured: a cat who wants to be between two shirts.
I’ve begun to think of people in this way. If you’re dealing with someone who’s eager to please, they may commit to what they lack the training to do. When they fail, they’ll be genuinely sorry to disappoint you, but still unable to change their ways. If you’re dealing with someone whose motives come from within themselves, who does only what they want and know they’re able to do, you can trust them.

Pictured: a cat making no promises concerning the welfare of your flowers.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t rely on people who desire to please; it’s an admirable and positive trait that sometimes makes people very reliable indeed. But if you ever do, make sure that person is capable of what you ask of them. Often, they’re blind to their own shortcomings, and will overcommit.

Like all “metaphors for life,” this lesson is oversimplified and not universal, but may help in certain specific contexts. I welcome you to apply it or not apply it as suits your needs.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Why you should not get angry if someone tells you what you already know

1. It does not actually hurt you in any way. If you make the argument that it’s wasting your time, I’ll point out to you that you’re on facebook right now.

2. It isn’t meant as an insult. By telling you what you already know, the person doesn’t mean to imply that you’re stupid or ignorant. Just that the information is relevant, and they’d like to say it just in case you didn’t know.

3. From the other person’s perspective, it’s better to tell you something you know than to not tell you something you didn’t know and let you flounder, so they chose the safer option.

4. There is no knowledge so obvious that every intelligent human already knows it. By getting angry at someone for telling you what you already know, you are getting mad at them for not reading your mind. And that is mean.

5. Redundancy is arguably a positive thing. You make backups of important computer files, and you have a spare of important tools you want to keep handy. Telling you what you already know is the equivalent for communication. Sometimes, it really does bear repeating.

6. It does not actually hurt you in any way. Take a deep breath, count to ten, and let it go.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Tattoos of the Future

In the summer of 2007, when I was nineteen, I got my first tattoo. Three and a half years later, in winter of 2011, I got my second tattoo. My third was in summer of 2013, and the fourth - and latest - in summer 2015.

Having spreadsheeted the dates as I remember them, I was able to calculate that the interval between tattoos has gotten shorter by about 25% with each successive tattoo. In other words, my rate of tattoo accrual is increasing at a relatively steady rate. This means that, assuming the rate will remain steady, I should be able to predict the timing of future tattoos and estimate my tattoo count at future dates.

 About twenty-two months passed in between tattoos three and four, so I project that my fifth one will be about 16.5 months after that, in October 2016. Considering the timing, it will probably be to celebrate my first wedding anniversary. The sixth will be about twelve months later, October 2017, probably to celebrate my second anniversary.

My seventh will be in July 2018. 2019 will be the first calendar year when I will get more than one new tattoo; they’ll be in February, July, and November.

In 2020, speed will really begin picking up. In that year, I’ll get my 11th tattoo in February, my 12th in April, my 13th in June, my 14th in August, my 15th in September, and 16th through 20th in October. By then, I’ll be getting each new tattoo before the most recent one is even healed. Considering the cost of even small tattoos, I’ll spend more on them than on groceries that month.

By the second week of November 2020, I’ll be getting a new tattoo every day, and spending more money on them than on any of my other living expenses. Starting November 13, I’ll be getting more than one new tattoo each day, and on the 14th will probably have to take up permanent residence at the tattoo parlor. Soon after that, I will have to get multiple artists working on different parts of my body, since each new tattoo will be started before the previous one is even finished.

By the time I turn 33 at the start of 2021, who knows if I’ll have any bare skin left. Presumably I’ll be layering tattoos on top of one another, if I have not already died from the shock of months of constant needling.

Maybe assuming that all established trends will continue indefinitely into the future isn’t the best way to make predictions.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

All My CDs, pt. 123: The Magic Position

The Magic Position - Patrick Wolf

In the year and a half that I’ve been trying to hold myself to listening to my entire collection in the order they’re shelved in, this is the one I’ve most played out of turn, during the couple of weeks here and there that I’ve taken a break and just listened according to my immediate whims. I don’t think that’s because I like it any more than the rest of my collection - I think it might just be because it’s so late in the order that it’s been more of a strain on my patience than the others. It’s also unique - there is little about it that I could easily get from another album.

That said, I recently noticed that Patrick Wolf has some similarities with Rufus Wainwright, whom I reviewed a few weeks ago, although it’s hard to put my finger on exactly what it is they have in common. Certainly Wolf appears to be less mature and complex, a bit more angsty, but the majority of the songs on this album have an infectious joy in them that I see in Wainwright’s happier songs. Compare the title track, The Magic Position, to Wainwright’s Beautiful Child. Both were on the playlist I played at my wedding because of that joy that they embody.

Even the darkest songs on The Magic Position are a little hard to take seriously, not because they seem disingenuous but because they’re so enthusiastic in their angst. They’re far from boring or cliche. More often, the songs convey a sense of childlike wonder and pure appreciation of life, even its more painful aspects. A longtime favorite is the penultimate track, The Stars, which at one climactic point simply makes its central thesis:

Look up
look up
the stars!

and then lets the music show us their beauty.

I can’t think of a better way to end my collection than with such a lovely, love-filled album as this.

End of All My CDs

It’s been more than ten dozen  reviews and a year and a half since I started this project. I had a goal I hoped to achieve in the process: a better knowledge and appreciation of my collection, so I don’t become one of those people who mindlessly consumes without stopping to really enjoy things. That’s why I resolved not to buy any new CDs until the project was completed. I ended up breaking that rule once, but it was quite late in the game and I don’t think that single lapse kept me from nurturing that sense of appreciation. As for knowledge, I feel I know my collection better than ever, and learned quite a lot about the music that I was neglecting over the years. In that way, I think I’ll call this project a success.

What’s the future of my collection? There’s one change I would like to make now that I’ve taken a full and deep inventory of its contents. I decided that alphabetical order is not the ideal organizational structure for music. Not when my collection is so large and diverse that I can’t immediately bring to mind the name of the band I would like to listen to at any given time. I always disliked segregating music by genre, the way record stores often do, because some of my favorite groups belong in multiple categories or none at all. I may compromise between those two strategies and categorize artists by why I like them, so that I can seek out those qualities when I’m in the mood for them. I already have an idea of what artists will end up grouped together.

I didn’t aim for it, but I think it’s fortuitously appropriate that my last review be posted on New Year’s Eve, so I can begin 2016 with a sense of accomplishment and an opportunity for future projects and new music. There are a couple of albums I have my eye on as new additions to my collection, although I don’t think I’ll be quite as acquisitive as I was in the past. In the meantime, I am very much looking forward to using my blogging powers for good in other areas of my life.

So see you next year, with who knows what kind of new subject matter. I’ll be sticking to a regular update schedule, but going down to once per week, on Thursdays.

Monday, December 28, 2015

All My CDs, pt. 122: Earth to America

Earth to America - Widespread Panic

This might be my most rushed review yet. Not only did I not give this album a proper listen when I first grabbed it at random from the bargain rack a few years ago, I didn’t get a chance to listen to it all weekend either. Now I’m supposed to have a review posted by the end of the day, and I haven’t yet heard more than half the album. I’m forming my first impression even as I write. But I have a schedule and really want to finish this project by the end of the year, so please forgive my haste.

I had zero knowledge of this band or their music before picking up the CD. I’m actually getting something of a Dave Matthews Band vibe from it; similar genre and vocal style at least. It’s fun rock music with a decent beat; it's got some jazz and blues elements but not enough to completely turn me off. It’s definitely not something I’d have sought out, but as a randomly-picked unknown, I’ve definitely had worse.

I can’t say anything about the lyrics at this time. It’s rare that they’re sung in a way that’s easy to follow without reading along, and I can’t say I’ve caught a single line of words that I’m confident I heard correctly. Not that I mind; the music itself is quite entertaining enough.

Overall I’m not sure why I never gave this a listen before now. I seem to remember it was one of two or three CDs I bought that day, and one of the others was by a favorite band. So I just never got around to listening to this one, to my detriment.

Next: The Magic Position
And: The End of All My CDs

Thursday, December 24, 2015

All My CDs, pt. 121: Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are: Motion Picture Soundtrack - Karen O. and the Kids

When the film Where the Wild Things Are came out, it was often said in reviews and various other writings that it may be a movie about childhood, but that didn’t necessarily make it for children, in that it dealt with a lot of darkness and complexity that would make it more suitable for adult audiences. Media like that hits a delicate demographic niche: it runs the risk of offending audiences that are expecting more lighthearted fare, and people who would appreciate the subtlety of the narrative may not even see it because of its childish appearance - filled with funny puppets and costumes and based, as it is, on a short picture book.

Media that is about childhood but not necessarily for children can be particularly difficult also because it is almost always made by adults - and understandably so, because children usually lack the resources and skills to make large-scale popular art. So media about children and childhood necessarily comes from an outsider perspective - yes we’ve all been children before, but how many of us still remember the visceral experience of it and can accurately describe it without injecting our mature perspectives?

What I’m getting at is that this soundtrack, like the movie it was made for, is made by adults trying to capture the perspectives and experiences of children. The most commonly heard voice on the album is of Karen O., an adult woman sounding remarkably similar to a little boy. Other voices are clearly trying to emulate the energetic and undisciplined sound of children singing, shouting, playing, fighting. The instrumental accompaniment is reminiscent of other large-group indie ensembles like The Polyphonic Spree and The Arcade Fire (possibly why a song by The Arcade Fire was used in the film’s trailer).

The exceptions are Hideaway and Worried Shoes, which sound calmer and more adult than the rest of the songs, with contemplative lyrics and simple piano accompaniment.

My favorite tracks on the album are Sailing Home and Building All Is Love, the latter because it’s one of those extra-long songs with several false endings that I generally find myself attracted to (if I’m enjoying something, I like having it go on longer than I expect). Both songs are just so hopeful and springy.

Two more CDs and I’ll be done with this project.

Next: Earth to America