Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Open Space

Too much open space is too freaky deaky for me. When I drive across these large expanses of land where there are no buildings, no people, nothing but open land from horizon to horizon, it is just as freaky as being out on the water with no land in sight from any direction.

I have come to realize that I am one who is much more comfortable in urban environs. A public park is a nice amount of open space as far as I am concerned. I like being around people. I like watching people when I am in public spaces.

Of course, not everyone thinks this way, and that is how the west got settled. A couple generations back, I had uncles who came out west to work on ranches, and eventually own them. I remember one uncle telling me how he didn't have any neighbors for 20 miles in any direction and he liked it that way.

But others of you who are reading this may have had one of those incidents in their past when your car broke down in the middle of nowhere and you could do nothing but sit and wonder when someone might stop who would be able to help you.

That happened to me when I was moving from Los Angeles to Atlanta. I had just passed through Barstow and the sign that lets you know that there are no services for the next hundred miles. And yes, 50 miles beyond that was where my car decided to quit running. Barstow is one of those town on the edge of nowhere. Once you leave it, you head into high desert. Nothing but rocks, sand, little shrubs, cactus and rattlesnakes for as far as the eye can see.

The best thing I can say about this kind of landscape is that it is one place where you can set your cruise control for 90 mph and not worry about getting a speeding ticket.

So I was standing by my broke down car, wondering when a cop or tow truck or any kind of help might wander by. I had some water, but there was nothing resembling shade and the sun was relentless.

Finally, a young man on a motorcycle pulled up behind me. He told me that he had been riding his motorcycle around the country and he was tired of it. So he told me that he would give me a ride back to Barstow so that we could find some help.

Of course, this was back in the day before cell phones had been invented and there are no pay phones in the middle of nowhere. And as uncomfortable as I am riding on the back of a motorcycle, it beat frying out in the desert. This was also way back when gas stations still had mechanics who could fix cars. I know that some of my younger readers might think that gas stations were always convenience stores, but no, once upon a time gas stations were also called service stations because their business included servicing and repairing cars.

So we found a gas station that also had a tow truck and they went out and hauled my car back 50 miles and then I got to sit around waiting all day while they found parts to fix it with. The young man parked his motorcycle there and just left it, and we were driving back through Oklahoma when a blizzard hit, the roads were icy and interstate traffic was suddenly going a whole 10 mph. For those of you who enjoy such contrasts, that probably would have been a regular Disneyland of the senses.

Fortunately, I got out my little black book and looked up a woman I knew in Oklahoma and she let us stay the night. By morning plows had made headway on the snow and we continued on east. We just kept on going until we found arrived in the humid, verdant south, and did that ever feel good.

I know that others of you may be like my uncles and feel that wandering around in places where everywhere you look in any direction is nothing but miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles.

We each have to find our comfort zones and mine is definitely in a town or a city where there are people all around, and normal life consists of places where a person can stop and meditate on the joy and beauty of being with others even if you are alone. There is comfort in human interactions and I find navigating a sea of people far easier and more preferable, no matter how difficult it can be at times, than being in a place of all landscape and no people.

Now being a resident of the west once again, my life has opened up in unexpected ways, and I feel that the towns on the front range of the Rockies have a different kind of spirit of adventure. This mix of hippies and cowboys, enclaves of eastern religions in the midst of evangelicals, artists and musicians mining the territory that used to be populated by gold rushers and those who want to drill and mine anywhere and everywhere are interspersed with the snowboarders, triathletes and people whose idea of heaven is to trek up and down every 14er they can find.

This heady mixture makes for a strange brew perched between endless open spaces and urban developments. And for the last several years and who knows how many more years to come, it has been very invigorating.

This is one of those moments when remembering the past can lead forward, even if it is not clear what going forward means or where exactly it leads.

There are lifetimes within lifetimes. Sometimes, it feels like what Hemingway said at the end of one of his books "all of this happened long ago and in another country" even though we know we are still in this same country and long ago can often resemble the present, although we may have these moments when the present may feel like exploring the unknown, the open spaces, no matter how big or small they are.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

B is for ?

Today I went picking through the bones of the Borders that is closing for good. I didn't buy anything because there was not much left. It was a strange experience to be standing in a hollowed out space that used to be a store where I enjoyed shopping for books. In the Borders stores in other cities, I sometimes attended talks by authors or meetings of discussion groups with kindred spirits.

Cycles are happening so fast that it is easy to watch them come full circle. Back when Borders (and Barnes & Noble)began their rapid expansions in the 80s and 90s, that put the squeeze on lots of small independently owned bookstores. Quite a number of them went out of business as one of the Bs opened a store in every mall and strip mall in the country. If they were not everywhere, it seemed like they were. And they appeared to be a permanent fixture on the American retail landscape.

Ironically it seemed that way for another vacant property right next door, Blockbuster. During the same time frame when Borders was putting a store in every mall, Blockbuster was at least as prolific, and they too, seemed like they would be a permanent part of American retailing. Now most of their stores are closed and some of the remaining ones appear to be focusing on video games.

What the B named stores have in common is that they failed to evolve with the markets. Amazon and Netflix came along and ate their lunch. At one time, parking lots were full of people waiting to pay $5 to rent one video for 3 nights. Now a person can watch all the instant download movies they want for $8 a month, and you never have to drive to a store to exchange hard copies. Most customers made the obvious smart choice.

There is another former chain that began with a B which also is now just another empty property, adjacent to the former Blockbuster and Borders sites, Boston Market. Guess it is just irony that there is so much going on in that part of the alphabet.

Similarly, there were times when I would go to Borders and want to buy a book that was not in stock, maybe a harder to find title. So they would tell me that I could get it in a week or two and that it would cost full retail. Of course, it didn't take long to figure out that I could go online and get it for less than full retail and in less time. Once again, the choice was obvious. Customer loyalty had switched before Blockbuster even tried to offer a competing strategy.

The smaller bookstores held their own for a while by having deeper selections of titles, community bulletin boards, hosting local group meetings and local authors, and the survivors still do such things to establish a place in customers hearts.

So even though I have no plans to open a retail store of any kind, there is a lesson here for everyone who owns a business. Survival requires that we constantly modify our offerings and tailor our services to our customers. We might have started off doing things one way years ago, but reevaluation is necessary, even if we decide not to change anything. There are some businesses that may not need to change from what they have been doing, but increasingly, those seem to be rare.

Small businesses can be fragile because they have less operating capital, but small businesses can also be more nimble, more capable of changing course to adapt to new market conditions.

It is fascinating to watch how rapidly trends evolve. It is a lesson in raising consciousness to recognize how exactly a business cycles through from an idea to a dominant market force to a defunct entity. Even though my business is unrelated to these other businesses, it prompts me to think, and it has strengthened my resolve to alter my overall strategy.

There are valuable lessons in these retail ghost towns. It is up to us to discern what they might be for us.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Making Music

Years ago, making music was the most common kind of invitation to get people together. People would invite each other over to make music. At that time, guitar was the instrument most commonly brought. Plus, of course, singing. In later years, people would bring drums and we made music that way. Sometimes it was just singing and chanting.

Recently, I have had these kinds of opportunities coming up again. Quite a good mix for meeting people and having fun. Recent experiences have included people getting together to sing old popular tunes, some gatherings for doing chanting, some for drumming, and others more old timey music featuring mandolin, piano and fiddle. no matter what the format, music is always a good way for people to meet and have a good time.

Music has always been an active part of my life. It's just that it takes different forms from time to time. And of course, I still like to dance every week.

Music never fails to lift my spirits, no matter what form it takes. After years of letting these types of social gatherings slide, they seem to be coming back around. I am sure that I will be doing more music. It has never left my life, just gone back and forth from being a major part to a minor part, but never gone.