Monday, July 28, 2014

The Good, the Greedy, and the Little Bowl

“I built this company with my own two hands,” the CEO says. In the backdrop are the fields of grapes being picked by two hundred pairs of hands. He built it alone. Beyond the workers are the machine operators and the truckers who carry the grapes, and beyond them are buildings and roads built by hundreds more to transport the grapes. He built it alone.

Does anything grow on its own? The CEO had an idea. The CEO took a chance. He invested his money; he took the risks. He acquired the knowledge needed to produce good fruit and to market it well. He worked mornings and nights and suffered droughts and kept going. Along with him, the pickers and handlers worked hard. Without them, would he have produce to sell? Without the workers building the roads, would he be able to distribute what he grew? The people together worked.

It took more than two hands. Southern plantation owners grew rich quickly with slave labor. Did they build their empires with their own two hands?

Ego. Sometimes it’s ego that drives a person to success. Ego rooted in a need to prove oneself, to make a grand show of success, a desire for riches to give credence to one’s name. When ego motivates, are others ever recognized?

The same weekend that I watched the movie Cesar Chavez I also watched The Wolf of Wall Street. Whom do we admire? The person who puts his own financial security and safety at risk to help others or the person who puts others at risk for his own financial success? Do we admire trickery and the ego that justifies it as talent?

When a person has knowledge, when a person has talent, does a person have an obligation to use it well? In The Wolf of Wall Street, the stockbroker had talent. He could sell. The CEO of the grape farm would have done well to have him market his product. The small business owner, the migrant worker trying to establish a union, they would benefit from the stockbroker’s talent. Drive and creativity, the power to persuade, these talents get the world moving, help bring new things to our awareness, raise production and bring more jobs.

What makes one person choose to use this talent to help others while another uses it to deceive and abuse the “suckers of the world” must come down to personality, innate or learned. In one movie I saw a compassionate heart and a mind with knowledge and drive to fix a failing situation; in the other movie I saw a greedy heart fixed on gathering the envy of others. It isn’t the money that corrupted. It’s the impetus of ego.

My daughter had a friend whose father was a pilot and whose mother was a university professor. Their incomes allowed a nice house, education for the kids, frequent travel overseas, grand vacations. Knocking on their front door brought the pilot dad skidding across the floor in his socks. He’d jump up and down like a kid. And the mom would invite you inside, talk about the kids’ latest art projects, ask advice about turning forty. Their wealth provided fun times and education and the chance to help people, without the need for praise. They were involved in democratic campaigns and their daughter aspired to a political office where she could do something good. Their jobs, their income, their possessions were never for show. What defined them were their kid-like pleasures, their sincerity, and their respect for people. Money did not corrupt.

Why is pride the deadliest sin? Is it at the root of greed? Deception? Envy? What does it mean to aspire to greatness rather than to arrive at greatness unsought? What is the difference between focusing on the deed and focusing on the reward? I think happiness. Is the reward ever as good as the doing?

Why couldn’t the stockbroker give up the company he created? He loved what he did. He had great talent for what he did. Exercising that talent undoubtedly made him happy. But he became addicted to the rush of each deception he pulled off, each new woman or toy he acquired, and each new man he impressed. Did he begin to mistake the reward for the happiness? The rewards that were never enough?

In raising kids, I couldn't embrace the reward system. It seemed somehow inherently wrong. I’d tell the kids that studying hard would give them confidence to take the test, and that was a good feeling. And whether or not they got an A, if they knew they tried, they’d handle the consequence. My daughter would come home and say her friend got a trip to the Dells for her good grades, but she'd laugh as she said it, knowing I’d just smile and say, something horrible like “That’s great for her, and you worked really hard and it shows. What you did wasn’t easy. But you did it.” Boring but focused on the doing?

What does it mean to get a prize for ordinary, even immoral, actions? What definition does that give to happiness? Does the excess portrayed in The Wolf of Wall Street come from a loop of striving for happiness with constant failure? Do we all fall into these patterns at times, in places in our lives?

Addictions, bad habits, false searches, all with the target of ultimate joy? I like the rush of excitement at something new, and I like working toward something I love. But life is as full of letdowns as accomplishments, and the process toward something seems to be what’s best. So should we forget happiness as a goal? The student monk who journeyed to Tibet to seek the wisdom of the old master at the mountaintop, said, “I am new to the monastery, what can you teach me?” To which the master asked, “Have you eaten your rice porridge?” He had, and the master responded, “Then go wash your bowl.”

Maybe Cesar Chavez always washed his bowl and made sure his neighbor had a bowl too. Maybe the Wall Street wolves prefer a new bowl every day and want to be sure it’s better than their neighbors’. Where does it begin, our pursuit of happiness and our means to getting there? What people helped or hurt us along the way?

My spouse is greasing trailer tires and gave me a job to do to help him. My daydreams of something fun tune into the moment; I'm washing the bowl. And life keeps moving forward.


Patricia J. Esposito, author of Beside the Darker Shore.
Novel Reviews: Goodreads, GLBT Bookshelf,

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Poetry: The Service Prince

The Service Prince

When the wide white store evaporates
and he stands in mineral warmth,
unassuming at the service desk,
there’s nothing to do but relinquish.

Relinquish gladly, there’s nothing else
in this fighting world, in this controlled
space where we cling to composed identity,
as he stands with black rain on his forehead.

As he stands comfortable in a body
that comforts the famished eye, climbing
a precipice of shoulders, T-framed, slinking
down the narrow, down the passages of him.

Nothing to keep the body melt from cascading
when he looks with gold-flecked eyes, sees
through narrow black-framed glass, stares
with the coursing goal of silt-silk rivers.

When you set the pen to the counter, a sword
before the prince, and his tender lips spread,
the fluorescence at throne in his smile, when
you beg to kneel at the gate of his tower,

 and he says rise, and he says flood me.

Originally published in Midwest Literary Review, 2011

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Take a Deep Breath of Music

 You can't listen to one song from The Remains of an Effort by Train Company and think you know this band. There's no pigeonholing a collection that ranges from gritty rock to nightclub jazz, from sexy blues to timeless pop, with genres I can't name in between. There is something for everyone. How this core band of five plays together with such diversity is astounding in itself, but what's even better is how energetic, sincere, empathetic, and joyful it all sounds together.

There's nothing like falling in love with a song, finding the kind of connection that makes you want to hug the music to your heart. I said you can't listen to one song to know this band, yet it takes only one song to know you're in love. Whatever genre they're playing in, the heart of Train Company comes through to create a full, cohesive work that in the end tells a story you want to hear again.

While exploring themes of change, the kinds of mistakes we all make, the kinds of growth we all need, there's both a sense of the drive to find yourself ("Look at you/Your face in your hands and you don't know what to do"; "to fill the void you make some noise") and a sense of compassion ("Through the air the numbered masses stay connected"; "'Cause I know, I've been there before/I know I'll be there once more") always recognizing the patterns of life we all go through ("You never know you're goin' round and round/Still fallin' up/All the way") with the feeling it's all okay, maybe even the point.

The musical arrangements (with added horns and strings) are the sound of seasoned players who know when to embellish and when to hold back. The music doesn't always go where expected, breaking the formulas with an understanding of layers and the power of nuance. Keyboardist Sam Wyatt taps tempos and crescendos from elegant to joyfully wild, as saxophonist Mark Alletag blows svelte seduction or a playful bounce; bassist Mike DeWitt tantalizes with rhythms that fix in our stomachs, as drummer Rob Lejman controls us with his steady beating or, with expert elation, rolls everything out; and singer/guitarist John Zozzaro buoyed on it all, responds to what he feels, tickling up guitar melodies, luring us around corners, seducing us with a bluesy lust, or pounding a dynamic rhythm to get even non-dancers dancing. 

As a songwriter, Zozarro, seems to have a vision, and it's played out in his lyrics, as well as in his emotionally textured yet astoundingly smooth, clean voice that is tender, sexy, triumphant, and playful.  He can wail with a voice of silken seduction, rip out guttural need, or soothe with the tenderness of a friend who cares. 

The opening song, “October,” is a beautiful testament to the band’s fearless experimentation and talent. It’s followed by the driving “City Down by the Shoreline,” a catchy song that then builds to a wild mesh of sound that demands relinquishment. “Leavin’” feels like the aftermath of a final night of sex and the thrill of new adventure,” and beside “Look at You,” leads the listener on in an album that begins to feel like a story. Bold assertion and sexy nonchalance blend in songs like “Still Can Feel the Heat” and “Myself in Two,” while the world turns moody and psychedelic in the midway gem “The Otherside,” then quietly compassionate in the lovely “Real Digital,” which I can’t believe isn’t a radio hit yet.  The feeling of story continues in songs like the rat-pack sounding “Face in the Crowd,” the vivid streets and voices of the cleverly constructed “Steve,” and the mysterious ambiguity of “Remains of an Effort,” while the charming “Bannister” pops up as one of the sweetest sexy songs I’ve heard in a long time.

When The Remains of an Effort ends—to snag a new meaning from "Face in the Crowd"—"You take a deep breath, then you start over." Train Company is the band to listen to if you’re “lookin’ for some change.” It’s time, isn’t it? 

Get a taste of them here! 

Reviews by Patricia J. Esposito
author of Beside the Darker Shore 
Goodreads Review 
Romance writers review 
GLBT Bookshelf review