Thursday, November 03, 2016

The Ritual of Rituals

This isn’t one of those “The Good Ole Days Were Better” columns.

This is about ritual, and its place in our lives. Ritual is under attack in the modern world, pushed aside by efficiencies, data, and the bottom line. As a writing instructor, I see this when I get essays that were written on iPhones. As an innkeeper, I see this when people tell us they are staying at the Auberge based on “our mix of reviews and price point.”

Ritual doesn’t work well in the modern world because it’s hard to quantify. Ritual is devoid of data, even though the medical profession (which is different from the act of people taking care of each other) tries to tear rituals down to their nanodata, to see into their DNA, to discover the switches and cogs that trip and activate so that they can be identified, classified, and monetized. But ritual is a force of the Universe, and while tinkering with my old turntable the other day, I got a good dose of ritual.

I have an old Pioneer PL-516 turntable, and I was tinkering with it, trying to get it to work—it just stopped spinning one day a couple of years ago, so I shrugged my shoulders and pulled out my iPhone and started streaming Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ, and never gave it a second thought. I de-ritualized myself in the blink of an eye. But ritual, that force of nature, asserted itself on me, and so I found myself working on my turntable, lost in the thought of vinyl records as ritual.

The vinyl experience was ritual for several reasons. Before you could get the vinyl, you had to hear a song on the radio. To try to understand the randomness of radio listening in the 70s it’s important to remember that most cars had only AM radios. Music wasn’t as pervasive as it is today: You didn’t hear music in every story you walked into, every restaurant you ate at, and every device you wore on your wrist. Music was not fully monetized.

So you heard a song, and if you wanted to hear it again, you had to wait. If it was a new song, none of your friends had it yet. You were at the mercy of the program director of whatever radio station your dad liked. So you waited. And you thought about that song, wondering what hooked you. Was it a lyric? A chord progression? A melody? You didn’t know. That was the magic. That was the Universe at work.

While you were waiting, the music percolated in your head, dripping down into your body, infusing you with its smell, its taste. This was your imagination at work. It was busy embellishing the song, mingling parts of you with it, blurring the lines. Real alchemy. You couldn’t wait until Friday night so that you could get together with your friends and talk about it.

Finally the song came out, either as a 45 RPM single, or a cut on a new album. And buying an album itself was a big deal. First, you had to wait for it to be released. Albums were usually released several weeks or several months after singles. This created anticipation. (Many of your know anticipation through her sexy sister, foreplay.) Anticipation and foreplay are difficult to find in a world where bounce rates for web pages are measured in milliseconds. But anticipation and foreplay make people happy because they focus their thoughts and make them pay attention to someone else. When you got the album, sometimes it didn’t live up to the waiting, the anticipation, and the foreplay. Then you were disappointed, and you had to deal with that disappointment, usually by listening to another song. Or eating Twinkies.

Buying an album was not easy. First, you had to have a car, or someone with a car willing to drive you to a record store. If you were me, that record store was called Strawberries, a chain store that was okay for big, national, pop acts. Not so good if you were looking for the Live Full House album by the J. Geils Band. And albums cost seven to ten bucks, a significant investment.

When you got the album, you brought it home the way a dog brings a bone to his secret spot. You played the entire album once, twice. You listened closely. You thought about things like sequencing (the arrangement and order of the tracks) and how much space was between each song’s grooves. You examined the label (not while it was playing, of course) to see who got the songwriting credit, and who the record company was. (Island Records? Chrysalis? I.R.S.?)

Then you turned your attention to the packaging. You read the liner notes. You studied who played what instrument on which track. You memorized the lyrics. You critiqued the artwork, because your friends were sure to ask you about it later, and since you would not walk around with your own music (what a dumb idea), you committed everything to memory. Records that came in a plain, white paper sleeve were a disappointment. (Unless it was a Clash album. Then, fuck you.)

Finally, you went back to your friends, and talked about the album. That cemented the album’s place in the world. If many diverse people felt the same way about the album, you knew that the Universe was at work. Something magical was happening. We didn’t know everything about albums and music instantly. We had to hold on to our thoughts. Knowledge and information were drizzled into us through other human beings who were standing a few feet away, looking into our eyes. And those human beings were usually holding a beer, or a glass of wine, or a cup of coffee, depending on which stage of recovery or denial they were in. And we marveled at the world. We marveled at the ritual.

I think we used to have more rituals in our lives, but I don’t think there’s any technological or modern reason why we can’t have as many now as we did then. There’s nothing about the world we live in today that is any better or any worse than the world of 20, 30, or 50 years ago. The reality is what we make it.

So while I’ve been ritualizing my old turntable, I’ve also been ritualizing my digital music. I recently downloaded a digital file of Bruce Springsteen’s final concert of the year from Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. It was a significant investment for something I couldn’t touch--$15. So I downloaded it onto my iPhone, put the headphones on, closed my eyes, and listened to the music.

“There I was,” Springsteen said, beginning one of his stories that introduce a song.

There I was, leaning back, the sound filling my head. I could hear individual people yelling, screaming, hooting. I could hear Garry Tallent’s fingers plucking the bass strings. I could feel the breeze of Max Weinberg’s drumming. And I could hear the words of the songs begin to lift me away, to disengage me from the now, and take me to a place accessible only through ritual.

Rituals are good. Rituals are good because they honor the process. Rituals aren’t about a payoff, or a goal, or a bottom line victory. Rituals are about the way we do the things we do. If we suffer from anything in the modern world, we suffer from chronic demystification. We know too much about everything, and we are paralyzed by that knowledge. We’ve abandoned the process too easily, and it’s that process that holds all the secrets to our selves. And understanding our selves is what we need now.


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I don’t know if I can get this turntable to work. I think the platter is warped, and I don’t want to throw any more money at it. I suppose I could buy a new one, but maybe I’ll look for a used one for sale, one that will require a little more ritual than simply tearing the wrapping off a box.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Beyond the Numbers

About two years ago we listed our inn for sale. We have innkeeping for a long time (16 years), and with both of our sons in college, the time was right to look for new adventures. At first we listed with a broker; now we are selling the inn ourselves. We have shown the inn many times, received a couple of insincere offers, and had one serious offer that didn’t work out. During that process, one theme emerged over and over: the numbers.

Like disciplined business school students, potential buyers want to see the numbers—our financials, that is. Profit and loss. Income and expenses. Occupancy. The nitty gritty. And potential buyers should want to see the numbers.

Or should they?

It says a lot about potential buyers that they should want to see how we ran our business. Note verb tense choice: ran. Past tense. Also note the use of “we,” as in Shawn and Chantal. Maybe I’m overthinking this, but I think the last thing a potential buyer would want to see is the numbers. My numbers. I think a much better indicator of future performance would be an analysis of the market—both the larger national and economic trends, and the local market, which in this case is Stowe, Vermont.

Even though potential buyers are also buying the business, and rightly want to understand what they are getting for the money, my past numbers are not an indicator of their future numbers. After all, I could just be the crappiest innkeeper/businessman on the planet. I am a writer, after all. What good are the numbers then? The thinking here is that a poor financial showing could be used as a negotiating tool. I get that. But to think that past performance by someone whose motives and skills are unknown could scotch a deal is silly.

Of course there is the argument that an underperforming business holds potential, and the only way to evaluate that is to look at the numbers. But the price is the price, and essentially a buyer is getting the real estate, the location, and the good will—the customer list, the name, the website, and that’s about it. So underperforming or not, the numbers won’t make much difference in the price.

Probably the best indicator of being a successful innkeeper is your own past performance—at business, at relationships, at problem-solving. Have you ever run a business before? Have you ever run a service business before? Have you ever run a business where you share an identity with not only homemade jam, but plugged toilets? That will determine your BF—your burnout factor. We’ve seen people last as little as three years, while others continue to do this past the 20-year mark. The griddle arts can be taught. Demeanor? Not so much.

Another good indicator is money—namely, how much money do you bring to this game. Do you have mystery money? Are you a trustifarian? Or will your wealthy in-laws finance this for you? What about a down payment? Potential buyers don’t need to see our numbers to see how many rooms we have, what we charge, and what average occupancy rates are for the industry, or even in this area.

In many ways, buying an inn should be what the French call a coup de foudre—literally love at first sight. An emotional decision. Something in your heart that says, “Yes!” Because if your heart is in this, if you are risking emotional capital, that means you are the kind of person who will make a good innkeeper. And being a good innkeeper is the way you become a financially successful innkeeper. If your heart is in the game, people will recognize that, and they will respond with repeat visits, with word of mouth, and with positive feedback in the wonderful world of social media.

You have to love yourself, you have to love where you live, and you have to love doing what you do. I struggled with that for the first few years. Then I went to graduate school, got my MFA in Creative Writing, and became a teacher. After that, I enjoyed innkeeping a whole lot more. That’s because innkeeping is about solving problems: where to eat, where to play, what to talk about. It’s not about what the innkeeper wants; it’s about what travelers need. And what travelers need is you. They need to know how you met your spouse. They need to know about your kids. They need to know how you feel about dogs. They want to hear about how you broke your shoulder, the time you had kidney stones, and which chef at which local restaurant just got divorced.

In other words, they need stories. And innkeepers have to tell them. Stories make us human, and that is what the traveler is looking for: humanity. They are not really looking for a finely appointed room with your every need anticipated in a luxurious getaway built to suit your need to be wowed. They are looking for you, and they are looking for your stories.

So while you shouldn’t forget about the numbers, they aren’t the most important thing about the inn. They are just a little piece of the story.

Beyond the Numbers

About two years ago we listed our inn for sale. We have innkeeping for a long time (16 years), and with both of our sons in college, the time was right to look for new adventures. At first we listed with a broker; now we are selling the inn ourselves. We have shown the inn many times, received a couple of insincere offers, and had one serious offer that didn’t work out. During that process, one theme emerged over and over: the numbers.

Like disciplined business school students, potential buyers want to see the numbers—our financials, that is. Profit and loss. Income and expenses. Occupancy. The nitty gritty. And potential buyers should want to see the numbers.

Or should they?

It says a lot about potential buyers that they should want to see how we ran our business. Note verb tense choice: ran. Past tense. Also note the use of “we,” as in Shawn and Chantal. Maybe I’m overthinking this, but I think the last thing a potential buyer would want to see is the numbers. My numbers. I think a much better indicator of future performance would be an analysis of the market—both the larger national and economic trends, and the local market, which in this case is Stowe, Vermont.

Even though potential buyers are also buying the business, and rightly want to understand what they are getting for the money, my past numbers are not an indicator of their future numbers. After all, I could just be the crappiest innkeeper/businessman on the planet. I am a writer, after all. What good are the numbers then? The thinking here is that a poor financial showing could be used as a negotiating tool. I get that. But to think that past performance by someone whose motives and skills are unknown could scotch a deal is silly.

Of course there is the argument that an underperforming business holds potential, and the only way to evaluate that is to look at the numbers. But the price is the price, and essentially a buyer is getting the real estate, the location, and the good will—the customer list, the name, the website, and that’s about it. So underperforming or not, the numbers won’t make much difference in the price.

Probably the best indicator of being a successful innkeeper is your own past performance—at business, at relationships, at problem-solving. Have you ever run a business before? Have you ever run a service business before? Have you ever run a business where you share an identity with not only homemade jam, but plugged toilets? That will determine your BF—your burnout factor. We’ve seen people last as little as three years, while others continue to do this past the 20-year mark. The griddle arts can be taught. Demeanor? Not so much.

Another good indicator is money—namely, how much money do you bring to this game. Do you have mystery money? Are you a trustifarian? Or will your wealthy in-laws finance this for you? What about a down payment? Potential buyers don’t need to see our numbers to see how many rooms we have, what we charge, and what average occupancy rates are for the industry, or even in this area.

In many ways, buying an inn should be what the French call a coup de foudre—literally love at first sight. An emotional decision. Something in your heart that says, “Yes!” Because if your heart is in this, if you are risking emotional capital, that means you are the kind of person who will make a good innkeeper. And being a good innkeeper is the way you become a financially successful innkeeper. If your heart is in the game, people will recognize that, and they will respond with repeat visits, with word of mouth, and with positive feedback in the wonderful world of social media.

You have to love yourself, you have to love where you live, and you have to love doing what you do. I struggled with that for the first few years. Then I went to graduate school, got my MFA in Creative Writing, and became a teacher. After that, I enjoyed innkeeping a whole lot more. That’s because innkeeping is about solving problems: where to eat, where to play, what to talk about. It’s not about what the innkeeper wants; it’s about what travelers need. And what travelers need is you. They need to know how you met your spouse. They need to know about your kids. They need to know how you feel about dogs. They want to hear about how you broke your shoulder, the time you had kidney stones, and which chef at which local restaurant just got divorced.

In other words, they need stories. And innkeepers have to tell them. Stories make us human, and that is what the traveler is looking for: humanity. They are not really looking for a finely appointed room with your every need anticipated in a luxurious getaway built to suit your need to be wowed. They are looking for you, and they are looking for your stories.

So while you shouldn’t forget about the numbers, they aren’t the most important thing about the inn. They are just a little piece of the story.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Pornification Nation, Part Two

The Boston Globe today published astory on maple sugaring in Vermont. I have lived in Vermont for sixteen years and I have a keen interest in maple sugaring. To me, it’s like writing, or innkeeping, or dairy farming, or any other kind of small, crafty, individual pursuit that characterizes Vermont and Vermonters. Sugaring is an intimate activity, requiring the sugar maker to interact closely with the sugarbush, tapping trees, running tubes or hanging buckets, looking after the health of the trees…it’s the very definition of an organic, human activity. The sugar maker was typically a farmer of another kind who used the end of winter to supplement income with the harvesting of another resource.

It is now difficult to drive around the back roads of northern Vermont without seeing the woods crisscrossed with colored tubing tied to thousands of taps as sugar makers capture every sap run, whether it comes in late November or January or during the more traditional time of late winter/early spring. While nobody wants to begrudge hard working Vermonters some extra cash, as the Boston Globe article describes, there’s a new sheriff in town, and his name is Big Business. Big Business is the harbinger of pornifcation, because Big Business is beholden to one thing only: the bottom line. When this model succeeds, the same thing that happened to Vermont’s dairy operations will happen to its sugaring. Small operators will be bought out, consolidation will occur, the environment—divorced from the intimacy of the sugar maker who was tied to the land by blood and toil—will suffer, and low-paying, futureless jobs will be all that’s left. Soon the iconic Vermonter will be nothing but a corporate symbol distantly reminiscent of a noble and relevant past: the Gorton’s fisherman, Ben & Jerry’s, Budweiser.

In my last blog post, I talked about how we can turn to baseball to satisfy some of our most basic human longings during a tumultuous election year: peace, community, and the meaning of life. I called that blog post “The Antidote to Pornification Nation,” and I only touched on the concept briefly in the text of the blog: 

        [B]aseball offers an antidote to the pornification of our world. Pornification           is a the gross and grotesque exaggeration of everything, the silicone-injected         ballooning of everything from breasts to B-movies, the “bigger and shinier           is better” ends-justifies-the-means philosophy that has trapped us in a                   Salvador Dali painting come to life.

The notion of pornification is an old one; the concept of porn itself has gone through its own pornification, which is where the term comes from: When we refer to activities around pornography as an “industry,” we acknowledge its commodification, its corporatization. The platform of the corporate moniker also serves as a way to legitimize its descriptor, which can be toxic to the product being commodified, taking it from a small, personal thing, to an industrial-level concept requiring marketing, lawyers, and even regulation. When that happens, humanity is lost. Even in porn.

I’ve written extensively about innkeeping in this space over the past decade. I have shared my observations in a frank and entertaining (I hope) manner. Innkeeping has gone through its own pornification, as it has moved from adjutant to senior on the scale of occupations. When I was a little boy, my father was a lobster fisherman. Years later, he would often comment on what made a lobster fisherman successful, and it wasn’t how many lobsters he caught. He said that fisherman who had a wife with a steady job always managed to do all right and grow their fishing business. That’s because with another steady income, fisherman were able to withstand the vagaries of the ocean and the environment. Of course, with the advent of factory fishing ships, that occupation has undergone its own pornification.

An innkeeping friend recently attended a big conference for innkeepers (another sign of pornification), and he returned to report that he felt out of place among many of his cohort. They were managers, he said, running their inns like portfolio business investments. That’s quite different from welcoming people into your home.

Skiing has been going through a version of this for decades. Skiing almost killed itself the first time through irrelevance. Then it transcended its own costs, pricing out middle- and lower-income American skiers. Then the environment began to change; snowmaking stabilized it then. Finally, skiing has become a real estate and destination park operation, with skiing itself only a sideline curiosity, while zip lines and water parks and mountain biking complement shopping and dining in a Vegas-style experience. While we cannot argue that these new revenue streams have helped the skiing experience, funding new infrastructure and more and better snowmaking, it has also begun the inevitable upflow of money to the top, which can only result in fewer people being able to connect with the organic experience of skiing itself, which started the whole thing.

I wrote about this in my book ABrief History of Innkeeping in the 21st Century. At the end of the book, I made a prediction about the future, and so far I have not been wrong. I ended the book with a line from the Ringo Starr song “Photograph.” It’s a beautiful song written by Starr and George Harrison, whom many consider the lesser Beatles. But it’s a song that highlights the importance of not always listening to what the zeitgeist considers the biggest and the best, a song that turns the notion of lesser and greater Beatles on its head. When the biggest and the best gather too much gravity, we miss out on something human, something genuine and organic. We miss out on the drip of sap in buckets, the shuffle of cows through the grass. We miss out on Starr and Harrison.

Ringo Starr sang, “Every time I see your face/It reminds me of the places we used to go/But all I've got is a photograph/And I realize you're not coming back anymore.” This is the crux of life. All we have is a photograph of the past, and we can’t go back to it. It’s gone. The realization Starr sings about is simultaneously melancholy and hopeful—at least he has the memory, the photograph. It is a song grounded in realism, a realism that allows us to move forward. That realism is missing from our daily approach to living well, and it has resulted in the pornification—or corporatization—of everything.

So if you like Vermont maple syrup on your pancakes—or in your seltzer water, or your vinegar, or your booze—get ready for big globs of porn on your plate. Until we decide to accept the small and simple joys of this life, unless we are willing to stop looking at everything in our environment as a means to get more stuff, we will be treated like the foie gras producing geese that we are: slaves to a system interested only in our narrow market value and our bloated livers.