Saturday, December 31, 2011

Free Time in 2012?

What do you do in your "free time"? I've come to grow weary of this cliched question. I would guess that a large number of adults, certainly those with young children, would scoff at the notion that there is such a thing as "free time" in their lives. And yet--I've carved out time once a week in 2011 to write a blog post. But at this point, after more than six years, I'm not sure this qualifies as a free choice so much as an ingrained habit. And I suppose this is a good description for any of my so-called "hobbies." Any leisurely pursuits of mine in the previous year, and in the handful of years prior to that, qualify as reflexive. And I don't anticipate a change in this status in 2012.

But I still can't help but be interested in other people's answer to the "free time" question. Most of the Christmas letters I saw this year followed the same general template, with annual updates on jobs, health, new or deceased family members, and travels. But I would appreciate coming across those that indicated some kind of exotic expenditure of time (e.g. avid interest in the bull riding circuit).

If people of modest means find a way to step off the beaten path, one might expect that those who are wealthy, especially those that don't have to report to a workplace for months at a time, would have the ability to really seek out all that life has to offer. So I went to and to read the P.R.-posted bios of a sample of professional athletes. Once you get past the sections detailing charity works of various magnitude (one athlete was simply credited with volunteering at a fundraiser as a high school student to benefit a classmate with cancer) most bios listed a player's "hobbies." And far and away the top two hobbies for pro athletes:

1. Watching movies
2. Playing video games

Also, the far and away most popular TV show for athletes to watch is Family Guy. To be fair, a number listed golf or outdoors activities, but it struck me how few did anything interesting with their lives "outside the lines." I suppose it's not at all surprising--athletes get their fill of travel, and they have to physically exert themselves so much as part of their jobs that they might want to pursue sedentary "activities" during off hours (though as an English teacher it always pains me to see how much of the population is apathetic or even adversarial to reading).

Next, I went searching for information on how those who want to lead the free world spend their free time. But while there is an abundance of biographical information on those seeking the Republican nomination for president, it is surprisingly difficult to locate listings of hobbies. (Jon Huntsman is an exception: he likes Harleys, motocross racing, and taco stands). While nationally prominent politicians have resources, I suppose their full-time hobby is campaigning, so they are limited
in their ability to explore anything off the beaten (campaign) path.

So not to present too bleak of a picture, but it looks like most of us aren't in a position to pursue a new hobby in the new year, and even those who might have that capability aren't sufficiently motivated to pursue it. But perhaps what we can do (for now) is to live vicariously. We might not have time (or inclination) to devote to exploring bullriding, but we can take a few minutes to have a conversation to share in the enthusiasm of somebody who does. We might not have the time or money to set up a fish tank in our homes, but we can comment when somebody else posts a picture of his or her fish on Facebook, perhaps leading to further conversation. We might not be able to scale a mountain this year, but we could read a book by someone who has. It seems to me that any of these things would be more memorable than watching another movie or playing another video game.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Merry Christmas 12/30/11

As I write this post on December 30, I haven't seen any evidence anywhere that Christmas decorations have been taken down. Then again, it's hard to necessarily identify what is absent--it's easier to notice what is still present. And while driving through the Wisconsin countryside last night, I could see that houses were still illuminated throughout the horizon. Driving through towns, city decorations are still prominent. Stopping at a Subway restaurant,a fully ornamented tree was on display.

I imagine that at this time next week these sights will have faded into memory. I've never really payed attention to the exact day that the holiday season has transitioned. The traditional Epiphany holiday is not celebrated by stores, so the notion of 12 days of Christmas is probably known to younger generations as a concept only expressed in the words of an eccentric song.

From my understanding of the ancient world, there was really no such thing as a single-day holiday. Festivals had to be worth the logistical efforts involved in their staging, which naturally would have been rather more arduous in those days than what we are accustomed to. So the pay-off would have to be grander, the narrative of celebration more prolonged. Of course, our holidays too tend to be prolonged, particularly the Christmas holiday, it's just that the narrative has been frontloaded. Largely because of commercial interests, the buildup has become the emphasis, the climax relegated to the status of a coda, the falling action truncated.

But beyond sequences of celebration, I find this phenomena to be a troublesome element pervasive in our contemporary times. The media news cycle has also contributed to a climate of rapid obsolescence. Anything we consume is packaged with an expiration date, even intellectual considerations that may actually benefit from a longer period of digestion.

I speak from experience, having once worked in talk radio. One example that comes to mind: part of my job responsibilities involved lining up guests to discuss supposedly relevant topics. A week prior to the opening of the new Soldier Field in Chicago, an architecture critic wrote a review in one of the Chicago papers. I contacted him to see if he would be willing to discuss his review on our radio station, and when he proved agreeable, I suggested we line something up for the morning after the first Bears game. He was a bit surprised by this proposal, wondering if I wouldn't prefer to have him on prior to the game. I noted that it would be nice for people to have first seen the stadium on TV to have a better frame of reference for his expert opinion. He agreed and the interview was scheduled...then I had to repeat my thought process to the announcers who would be conducting the interview, who thought it would be better to talk about something before it happened, rather than run the risk of dwelling on "old news."

But I'm of the opinion that there is no such thing as "old news." I think it would be just as relevant to have that critic on a sports radio station today, given that the stadium still stands and nothing has really changed in its architecture. Anything that is worthy of conversation isn't worthy just because of the calendar (and things that are "current" aren't always worthy of conversation).

I'm not suggesting that Christmas trees be displayed year round. But on the other hand, on a cold, desolate February night, I don't think I would mind seeing houses illuminated throughout the Wisconsin countryside.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ramble On

I re-heard a word this week, a word that I've heard probably hundreds of times, but never once originally uttered live my entire life, at least in the particular context I am referencing.

And if it sounds like I am rambling, that is by design. Taking a break from Bob Dylan's Christmas album, I was listening to a version of his 1965 song "Live Minus Zero/No Limit," which contains the lyric: "The bridge at midnight trembles/The country doctor rambles." I don't think Dylan is implying that the country doctor is spewing verbage...which I believe is the only context I've actually heard the word "ramble" applied to in my lifetime. But just off the top of my head I can think of a number of rock songs of the 60s era which use the word to refer to traveling, likely aimless traveling. The Rolling Stones had a hit with "Midnight Rambler" in 1969. Led Zeppelin released "Ramble On" that very same year. A few years after that the Allman Brothers charted with "Ramblin' Man."

Perhaps the explanation is simple. Perhaps all these references trace back to Robert Johnson's 1936 recording of "Ramblin' on my Mind," a song all of the above artists would likely be familiar with (Eric Clapton certainly was, as he recorded his own version). As the blues lexicon has faded from our popular culture, it would make sense that this particular usage of the word would become obsolete, even as the songs are preserved by classic rock radio.

But if you've ever read this blog before, you know I'm not going to settle for the simple explanation. I've got to think that based upon word usage, for a particular time in the 20th Century, "rambling" was an action valued by large segments of the culture, a value that is no longer widely held. Certainly, it was a part of the beatnik/hippie ethos of the mid-20th Century to take to the road and explore parts unknown--and not just by driving themselves. A recent blog/podcast from the Freakonomics authors explored the decline in the practice of hitchhiking, also offering up the theory that a revival of the practice would be of a net benefit to society.

Their argument is that fear of crime was just one factor in the decline of hitchhiking. The other factor was that there has been a large increase in automobile availability. Some used to hitchhike out of a sense of adventure, but most did so out of necessity. And for most of them, the necessity just isn't there anymore. Even if someone breaks down, roadside assistance is a phone call away---and it is obviously much easier to make that phone call since the invention of the cell phone.

While hitchhikers were forced to "ramble," out of necessity, I've got to think that even motorists were sometimes forced to become ramblers. With no cell phones, no Mapquest or Google maps, no GPS systems, and no websites that allow one to plan destinations ahead of time, there was by necessity more randomness involved in covering territory. And randomness leads to rambling.

There is no way to ever know such a statistic, but I would like to know how many people every year set out in an automobile without a fixed destination in mind. And I would like to see a comparison of this number over the years. My guess is that at the time period when the word "ramble" was finding its way into songs, the number of real life ramblers was at an all-time high.

And now, for most of us, our rambling is much more abstract. Now, perhaps the only way we are free to travel without a map is when we give expression to a stream of consciousness. But the risk we take then is that we get accused of rambling.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Most Repetitive Time of the Year

"Joy to the World" was written in 1719. "Silent Night" is from 1818. "Jingle Bells" was first heard in 1857. "Here Comes Santa Claus" found its way into the world in 1934. "Holly Jolly Christmas" came around in the mid 1960s. But to anyone born after 1970, these songs have all existed for their entire life, so there is really no distinction to be made in point of origin. It's a little bit difficult for me to fathom that there ever was a time when people would have known "Joy to the World" but not "Silent Night." It's even odd to consider that there was a time when kids would have sang about Rudolph without ever having heard of Frosty.

As the graphic above points out, out culture has canonized, codified, and now closed off its Christmas standards. While there was a boom in additions to the Christmas canon during the middle part of the 20th Century, by 1970 we'd reached a critical mass. That year's "Feliz Navidad" became the final entry. (Though first John Lennon and Yoko Ono and then Bob Geldof and Midge Ure have found a bit of a backdoor to inclusion by coming up with a subgenre of Christmas protest songs).

The caption on the graphic takes a cynical view of the matter, theorizing that the reason we have a frozen canon is because Baby Boomers are looking to constantly replicate their childhood experiences. While I don't doubt that the American Christmas is a nostalgia-driven phenomenon, I don't think it's just Boomers that are imposing this replication on subsequent generations. The Xers and Millenials are apparently all too content to adopt the same standards, without demanding any new additions themselves.

But why then did we have a time period where we suddenly did see an explosion of new Christmas songs? Many will notice the secularization of the holiday in the titles in the graphic above. And the process of commodifying Christmas began in earnest right around this time (for example, Rudolph was created by a department store chain in 1939). In moving the center of the holiday from the church to the shopping mall, it would stand to reason that a song like "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" would assuage the guilt and encourage the consumerist impulses of the holiday shopper. Whereas "Gentle Mary Laid Her Child" might inspire one to quiet reflection, a center of commerce would rather the customer be inspired to different impulses in hearing "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree." And you might regard the inclusion of Santa Claus in any song as a code for "toys and goodies"--i.e. "Toys and Goodies are Coming to Town," or perhaps "I Saw Mommy Kissing Capitalism."

And the other obvious factor that led to the popularization of those songs of the mid-20th Century was the rise of mass media. Many of those songs were first introduced to society in films. Many wouldn't have been created in the first place if not for the demands of the (then) new media. If Bing Crosby had been born 50 years earlier (or 50 years later), nobody would care if we had a white Christmas, but because he was born in 1903 and was at his career peak during the golden age of radio, meteorology this time of year is placed under increased scrutiny.

In light of these factors, it's not surprising to me that our holiday soundtrack is stagnant. The novelty now is only to be found in anticipating what artist will release a Christmas album and what particular songs they will record. And certainly now that our monoculture has been smashed by the World Wide Web, I don't anticipate ever living to see a radical alteration of the increasingly entrenched roster of standards. But I'll try not to let it get me down. I'd rather not have a Blue Christmas.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Pleasure Seeking Trouble

Last week, my favorite professional football team (the Green Bay Packers) and my favorite college football team (the Wisconsin Badgers) won important games. The Packers all but sewed up their division with what turned out to be a pretty easy victory over the Detroit Lions. The Badgers shellacked Penn State to advance to the Big 10 Championship. Despite the magnitude of the games, I don't recall too much conversation about either one in the succeeding week.

This week, both teams won again. But for me, there has already been a noticeable difference in the level of interest. Everywhere I went today there was conversation about last night's Badger game. I haven't been out in public since the Packer game ended a few hours ago, but I would predict the same level of conversation about the Packers tomorrow. The difference between this week and last week? This week's games weren't nearly as easily won. At times the Badgers looked like they would certainly lose. They overcame some obstacles, made some unlikely plays, and escaped after an odd penalty against their opponents. The Packers appeared at times to be vulnerable for their first loss of the season, most notably when their opponent tied the game with under a minute to play. Overtime seemed certain, but the Packers mounted a furious drive in that closing minute and kicked a field goal to win as time expired.

In both the Badger and Packer game this week, analysts referred to the contest as a "heavyweight fight." I tend to laugh at this metaphor, because the few heavyweight fights I've seen in my life (I've seen few since most are on Pay-Per-View) have been boring--a couple of fat guys hitting each other with no noticeable effect, until one inexplicably tips over (Such as the 1990 Cooney vs. Foreman fight). But to borrow another cliche, these games were "seesaw battles."

And that's fine and good if you don't have a vested interest in the outcome. Seesaw battles are going to be entertaining if you are watching for the sake of being entertained. But theoretically, fans don't watch for that reason. They invest in the success of a team they choose to affiliate themselves with, and then take pride (or suffer humiliation) with that team's fortunes. Therefore, victories in "heavyweight fight/seesaw battles" shouldn't be as savored as those in which your guys run roughshod over the opponent.

And yet--we tend to celebrate victories the greater if they have a measure of agony in the achieving. Actually, St. Augustine noticed this phenomenon long before football was invented. He wrote:

The conquering commander triumphant; yet had he not conquered unless he had fought; and the more peril there was in the battle, so much the more joy is there in the triumph. The storm tosses the sailors, threatens shipwreck; all wax pale at approaching death; sky and sea are calmed, and they are exceedingly joyed, as having been exceeding afraid. A friend is sick, and his pulse threatens danger; all who long for his recovery are sick in mind with him. He is restored, though as yet he walks not with his former strength; yet there is such joy, as was not, when before he walked sound and strong. Yea, the very pleasures of human life men acquired by difficulties, not those only which fall upon us unlooked for, and against our wills, but even by self-chosen, and pleasure-seeking trouble.

I like that as a definition of sports: "Pleasure-seeking trouble." From now on, instead of saying that I'm going to watch a football game involving one of my favorite teams, I'm going to announce that I will be engaging in "Pleasure-seeking trouble."