The Tools to Be Believed With
455 · 16 October 03
The Weakerthans: Reconstruction Site
In the summer of 1999, when the stock market was starting to get a stupid look in its glassy eyes and the private company I worked for was thinking about going public, it seemed within the realm of possibility that I could be a millionaire. I was employee number 5 of what had grown to be a well-regarded 200-person software developer, and although at the time we weren't yet actually earning more money than we were spending, for a while that didn't seem to have any bearing on stock values. Already-public companies of similar size and fortunes were seeing higher and higher trading prices, and I had a whole lot of our still-hypothetical private stock. Multiplication became an amusing distraction. On one hand, I consider the stock market to be one of our culture's primary engines for the generation of evil, and think society would be significantly improved if we gutted it (by, perhaps, limiting minimum fractional ownership to 1%, requiring a one-year holding period before reselling ownership stakes, and abolishing ownership dilution). And yet, I stood to maybe make a lot of money from it.
And then I didn't. The SEC paperwork took too long to go through, and by the time we were legally able to go public, the market implosion had begun. We delayed, and delayed, and it gradually became painfully clear that "Waiting for conditions to improve" was going to be a task for years, not weeks or months. In retrospect, of course, this was probably what saved us. If we'd gone public right before the crash, the crash would almost certainly have destroyed the company. Instead, we rode it out largely unharmed. While the public companies I'd monitored for comparison saw their nominal values reduced by factors of hundreds, we reached cash-flow break-even and later net-profitability. We kept working, our software got better, I kept getting paid. I hadn't planned for windfalls or anything.
A year ago this week, more or less, I arrived at work to discover that the company I worked for was being bought by a larger one, and a public one at that. A couple months of bureaucracy and some byzantine conversion formulae later, my hypothetical shares of the old company became actual shares of the new one. In the post-internet-crash stock world, this was rather significantly less dramatic than my idle fantasy scenarios had imagined. My calculations of never-have-to-work-again levels and my promise to fund SETI projects were moot by an order of magnitude or two. But if I managed my portfolio carefully, paying off my mortgage looked doable.
But if I loathed the stock market on principle when I had no direct stake in it, I resented it even more vividly once it represented the bulk of a "net worth" it hadn't previously made much sense to think about. The routine random daily fluctuations in our stock price were sometimes larger than months of my salary, which made me wonder what the point was in doing my actual job, especially as the acquisition began to change what my job entailed. Every time the stock went up, I wondered if this was my last chance to cash out. Every time it went down, I wondered if this was the beginning of having missed it. Either way, it was nonsensical, imaginary fortunes surging and dwindling in recognition of no act of mine. I was supposed to care about our stockholders, but I didn't, and it wouldn't have helped much if I did. I design software, which I try to do in such a way that the lives of the people who use it are made less annoying by it, not more. Even if this affects the stock price in some indirect way (and it isn't at all clear that it does), the stock price can't help me make work decisions. I'm not sure "help" is the right word for how it affected my non-work decisions, either, but I did eventually pay off my mortgage.
This Tuesday morning I arrived at work to discover that the company that bought the company I worked for is itself being bought by an even larger one. My 5-person fish grew to 200 before being eaten by a 1000-person fish, and the resulting 1200-person fish is now going to be eaten by a 17,000-person fish. My employer is about to become vastly more powerful, and my employment is about to become hilariously trivial. And yet, I still have some stock left, and it just became a bit more valuable. I will not be a millionaire, I still have to work, and SETI is on its own, but Belle and I will have something to start with.
I alternate between two views about this. The personally petulant but socially realistic view is that my coworkers and I have basically been fleeced. This acquisition was announced as worth $1.7 billion. My old company represents about a sixth of my current one, by various measures, so we might simplistically say it turned out to be worth $300 million. Hand this out equally, and all 200 of us would be momentary millionaires before taxes. Apportion it by years of service, never mind influence, and I would be indisputably rich. In any scheme, that's a lot of millions we didn't make. Bankers and venture capitalists kept most of it. Our two founders are now millionaires ten times over. The CEO of the company that is buying my new one makes more in one year's base salary than every bit of stock, salary, benefits, equipment, travel and training my company spent on me in seven years. The people who do the hardest jobs at my company may come out of this deal with new cars. Many labor, few reap. I can't personally complain, but I should.
The sensible, personally realistic view, obviously, is that I have been incredibly lucky. Countless people on this planet do jobs at least as socially valuable as mine, and do them at least as well as I've done mine, and vanishingly few of them will ever be materially rewarded as richly as I have been. I don't need or deserve millions. The thousands I've been handed are not a prize, they are a challenge. Over the weekend Belle and I were at a wedding, and found ourselves repeatedly asked "So what do you do?" We need better answers. Two years ago I had a passable answer. A year ago I had an answer that was neither bad nor great. Last week's answer is bad. There's a small chance this acquisition will offer better answers, and a very large chance it will disgorge a hailstorm of truly terrible ones. So while this money can't simply free us, maybe it can spur us to free ourselves. It isn't enough to live on, the way we've been living, but maybe we can live some other way.
So I sat in my office, Tuesday and Wednesday, watching the stock tickers and wondering what I could do with my life instead, and listening to the best art I know of that people have made this year. I've got time to change my mind, still, but as of now, the Weakerthans' Reconstruction Site is my favorite music of 2003, and more inspiring than the best movie I've seen, or the two books I've read that have 2003 copyright dates. As my job gets swallowed into anonymized corporate oblivion, this is a small, stubborn noise. "This company is all about winning", my current CEO assured us over a speakerphone, in a weird breathy voice like we were five years old and he was explaining that we weren't going to see our gerbil anymore. To be "about" winning is to be about nothing. The difference between winning and losing is the difference between ornament and art.
The Weakerthans are all about losing. The name is about losing, the piles of bears and people on the cover are about losing, even the music is about losing. "(Manifest)" slides from rattling percussion and splayed guitar chords into melancholy trumpet asides. "The Reasons" snarls through one chord at a time. "Reconstruction Site" twangs blearily, like a "Leaving Las Vegas" with only the lights of Winnipeg to look back on. "Psalm for the Elks Lodge Last Call" pings and ticks in slow goodnight. "Plea From a Cat Named Virtute" rises as a means to falling. "Our Retired Explorer (Dines with Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961)" is a rally hymn for obsolete heroes. The spare, pretty "Time's Arrow" channels Del Amitri and the Gin Blossoms, and "(Hospital Vespers)" is backwards save the vocals and a twinkly piano, like Amis's gimmick arriving a song late. "Uncorrected Proofs" is arena rock for an empty stadium, "A New Name for Everything" a country lament for empty city streets. "One Great City!" is the best doomed protest folk song since "Eve of Destruction". "Benediction" could be the later Replacements with pedal steel and Sarah Harmer singing backup. "The Prescience of Dawn" justifies the topographically oceanic title by lasting longer than anything else here, but also has the album's noisiest scrawls. And "(Past-Due)", the brief finale, limps out like a wounded robot salvaging its pride. This isn't angry enough for punk, loud enough for rock or bouncy enough for pop, and even where it strays towards one of those, John K. Samson's relentlessly reedy voice holds it ever back. These are the sad, frail, human songs behind every glib Green Day sprint or cheap Goo Goo Dolls grandstand. They will be acclaimed by neither large factions nor small, and part of my conviction that it's the best thing I've heard this year is my boundless confidence that virtually nobody will agree with me. If you aren't sure that some of the things you're wrong about are right, how do you ever function?
But even if you never love or never hear this album, you should read it. Samson is the best lyricist currently working, and if you want to disagree with me about that, do it inside your own head. Every single one of these fourteen songs transfixes me. "(Manifest)" begins the album with maybe my favorite first line in recorded musical history ("I want to call requests through heating-vents, and hear them answered with a whisper, 'No.'"), and twines incomprehensibly around the impassable spaces between people. "The Reasons" is a love-song of our forgetfulness and complacencies, "How whole years refuse to stay where we told them to, bad dog, locked up whining in a word or a misplaced souvenir." "Reconstruction Site" stitches together pageant queens, hospital patience, mortality and a boy curled up in a new coat.
In most other hands, the overwritten title triptych of "Psalm for the Elks Lodge Last Call", "Plea From a Cat Named Virtute" and "Our Retired Explorer (Dines with Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961)" would be egregiously woeful, but to me Samson pulls off all three. "Psalm..." is what a faded sepiachrome photograph of the assembly would show if old cameras could read naïve souls. "Plea..." is one poem if you hear it without looking at the track listing, a second one when the first four words of the title tell you the narrator is a cat, a third when the last two admit to metaphor, and a fourth when you realize the last one is actually "Virtute", not "Virtue". "And listen, about those bitter songs you sing? They're not helping anything." But of course they are. And "Our Retired Explorer...", despite a title like an Woody Allen short, is a fondly compassionate version of exactly what it claims to be.
"Time's Arrow" unwinds Amis's conceit and sings what backwards feels like, which is much subtler and more important than spitting out sandwiches and carrying garbage in from the curb. "(Hospital Vespers)" should be required listening for everyone who operates human infrastructure. "Uncorrected Proofs" is the bravest song about fear. "A New Name for Everything" is what happens when you rewrite a Justin Currie song out of his romantic cowardice and lazy substitution of fleeting lovers for lasting self. "All our accidents went purposeful and fell, stripped of providence or any way to tell that our intentions were intangible and sweet", John and Sarah sing in "Benediction", "Sick with simple math and shy discoveries, piled up against our impending defeat." "The Prescience of Dawn" sounds lost, to me, right up until the scolding last line: "But four words fumble for the microphone: you should have known." And "(Past-Due)" teases grand hope and indelible purpose out of what you don't see in obituary photographs.
But the record's simplest music, the cycling finger-picked acoustic guitar on "One Great City!", is the accompaniment for the album's unmistakable lyrical and moral centerpiece. It's quite possible that nobody has ever written a better song about a city. I would trade this for everything Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Joe Jackson, Laurie Anderson, Tori Amos or Stephin Merritt ever wrote about New York, and certainly anything anybody ever wrote about LA. I'd trade it for "Stratford-on-Guy", "The Only Living Boy in New Cross" "My City Was Gone" and "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton". I'd trade every song about places I've actually lived for this one perfect backwards promise to a city I have no plans to ever visit. It may be not just the best song about a city, but the best song about the way we inhabit cities, or not even just a song about cities, but about the difference between how we want to feel and how we settle for acting. I'm listening to "One Great City!", and my old CEO and my new CEO and my future CEO are talking about three great companies, and I know that if greatness is no longer possible in this job, at least it's no longer at risk. The key to losing this one with grace, I suddenly understand, is realizing that the leaders didn't notice the moment when they lost because they never knew what they had to lose. From here on out, there are billions of dollars at stake, but nothing of consequence. My job is done, so I can keep doing it exactly as long as I want. What do I do? Last weekend I had nothing but bad, confused answers that I knew were wrong but said anyway. Today I have no idea. I used to work for a company that sold togetherness to people who don't want to talk to each other. Then I worked for a company that sold organization to people who don't want to remember. Soon I will work, at least for a little while, for a company that sells boxes for keeping information from rotting into knowledge, and tools for thinking that truth is reached by accumulation. And if they won't learn, maybe this time I will, that wisdom is not the plural of data, and victory does not obviate defeat.