Suggested song: My Back Pages, Bob Dylan (I love this 1967 version by The Byrds)
Suggested drink: Loyal Lager, Yards Brewing Company, Philadelphia

Things we’ve owned

I bought this Suzuki F-100 acoustic in 1978, at a pawn shop in Waco, Texas. It was priced at $150 and didn’t play particularly well. The action left my fingertips aching and its intonation up the neck was dreadful. It did, however, have an unexpectedly beautiful tone that touched me. I played it, put it down, played it again, then down again. After a few cycles the hook was set and haggle began. An hour later I drove home with my first 6 string.

I had arrived in Waco that August to start college in the fall. I was fresh off the farm, just dumped by a girlfriend (who was soon pregnant to a good friend back home), penniless and clueless to the world as a new-born lamb. Learning to play that guitar was the best therapy possible for this this heartbroken, homesick hippy lost in a land of redneck cowboys and supersized pickups. Guthrie, Nelson, and Dylan were my teachers, memorizing their playbooks and learning their simple chord structures. Two years in Texas gave me 2 educations: laser jock and guitar picker. Both would take my life in unexpected directions over the next 40 years. (Another essay.)

The Suzuki has found a home at Alexandra’s place in San Francisco, where I stay when in town. My boys have learned on it, just as dad did. I love having an instrument in the house when visiting, and I polish and restring it once per year (whether needed or not). While much better guitars have come and gone from the Magill collection, I just can’t sell this humble beauty. I still run through my set list of folk classics from the giants mentioned above and am transported back to those younger years in Waco. It’s magic. To some things we remain loyal.

Places we’ve lived

I’m in San Francisco for 2 weeks. There’s a wedding to attend and I never miss a chance to see my kids. And I still love the city by the bay. I lived more than 20 years in this town, going to university, getting married, buying a home and raising a family, launching a career, playing my music in clubs (that required better guitars), and chasing a thousand dreams through its foggy shroud.

San Francisco wasn’t my first stop after Texas. A new job brought me into the region and weekends free brought me into the city. There’s a mystery and romance to this town that preys on dreamers, that gets under your skin. That path has been well trod through the decades: sailors and miners; beats and hippies; techies and investors; everyone panning for gold. There are other amazing cities for lost romantics: Paris, London, and New York offer all the essentials. But San Francisco is the one that fed my wanderlust.

I know every green park and gritty alley of San Francisco, the dim sum palaces and Mexican taquerias, the coziest Italian cafés for a rainy afternoon and dog-eared paperback. There are always newer, hotter spots in a trending city like this. I haunt the places that matter. City Lights Bookstore, the Tadich Grill, Mario’s in North Beach, the Lone Palm on 22nd Street.

I still get goosebumps waiting for a downtown train in the Sunset, the cool ocean brume drifting up Sloat Avenue, the blue Pacific glimmering in the distance, the rattle of MUNI street cars, the anticipation of another night in Baghdad by the Bay. To some places we remain loyal.

Of loyalty and fealty

Don’t confuse fealty with loyalty.  Our former president is a case study in this allusion. His continued dominance over the Republican cult (was once a party) is easy to rationalize. He still commands a large and enduring following that can determine elections. If you want his nod prepare to go prone and grovel.

At the peak Trump’s Twitter accounts had almost 90 million followers and he garnered 33 million likes on Facebook. He still brings out the MAGA United despite having nothing new to share. The election was stolen, radical liberal judges are on a political witch hunt, his call with Zelensky was perfect. Rewind and repeat. But because of his unquestionable appeal to their voter base most all Republican politicians – congressmen, governors, state and local representatives – sing his glories and pledge their allegiance. He would be well served not to confuse this show of fealty with loyalty.

Hitler, too, was a messiah to the masses and his staff of sycophants and nationalists fell fervently into goosestep behind him. But at some point, all emperors with no clothes get the big reveal, and when that happens the façade of invincibility evaporates in a flash, then the worship. In Hitler’s case that started with a bad spanking in Stalingrad and the fall of North Africa in 1943. When the Allies pincered in from the boot of Italy and the beaches of Normandy that shroud of supremacy dissolved quickly. Confidence had so waned by 1944 that attempts on his life were being conspired by his closest advisors.

Trump still wears the robe of a king maker today, but the moment the surety of his nod loses its guarantee (his man in Nebraska just went down in flames) the fetid taint of his association will far out-stink it’s questionable influence. Expect the fall to be fast and ugly. Suck-ups who’ve trafficked (prostituted might too harsh, but then again…) their allegiance for ratings or votes – the Vance’s and Hannity’s and Gaetz’s – will abandon Trump World like rats from the Titanic. Well, maybe not Matt Gaetz. Even Hitler had his Goebbels.

New beginnings

The wedding was a beautiful affair. The wine country north of San Francisco shares a climate and culture with my own part of the world now along the Mediterranean rim. Warm days, cool nights, long summers, beautiful people. Endless fields of trellised vines and charming towns that revolve around all things white, red, and rosé. Trendy restaurants for the loaded (in both senses) and humbler options for the less well-heeled.

One person missing from the family gathering, a key person, was my sister Cathy, who passed away suddenly 4 years ago. And joining us was my brother-in-law’s new friend. Welcoming her into the group was easy. She was warm, open but not overeager, respectful and making an effort, and I imagined keen to be embraced by the fold. Doing so felt like a turn of the page, a moving on, a door firmly and finally closed, while a new one was opened. Cathy was gone and also her chair from this and future family tables. It left me off balance.

I have thought a lot about loyalty since the wedding and accepted that it’s not a zero-sum game. Steve’s decision to move on with his life is neither disloyal to my sister’s memory nor to us, her family. And I can honor her memory and remain loyal to a guy who filled her life with kids, comfort, and happiness. There’s a connection to my sister that Steve enables, the flash of warm moments we all spent together. He deserves only happiness with the possibilities ahead, and every evening I’ll continue to light a candle to Cathy’s memory.

Onward!

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Suggested Song: I Won’t Miss You – Demo, Bill Magill
Suggested Drink: Continuum cocktail: Gin, Vermouth, Chartreuse, Cynar, Curaçao.

A good friend stopped by the apartment yesterday for a glass of rosé (okay, a bottle) and a bit of catching up. I pulled out my trusted Martin D35 and played a new song – “I Won’t Miss You” – that will make it onto the upcoming EP, and I asked for his thoughts. Through the years I’ve gotten invaluable feedback from this practice; a living room debut with some work-in-progress tune still half baked. Maybe it needs another verse or change in tempo. The suggestion yesterday was about dynamics: perhaps bring it up a bit here, take it back down there. The song is suddenly immeasurably better.

(Note to artists of all stripes: inviting criticism is essential. Know when to accept it; know when to stick to your creative instincts.)

Where does the creative flame come from; Van Gogh’s glowing starscapes, T Monk’s jumpy piano rhythms? A magic well of inventiveness deep inside our grey folds of neurons, peptides, and proteins? Neuroscientists see synapses sparking in the anterior cingulate cortex and left inferior parietal lobule when artists get their grooves on. That reveals the brain regions being aroused, but what does it tell us about the true source of inspiration? Is it chemical, physical, …. some kernel of protein pre-programmed before birth?

The Gods of Song

The Law of Conservation dictates that energy, whether thermal, electrical, mechanical, or other, can neither be created nor destroyed, simply transformed (first postulated by Émilie du Châtelet, a brilliant mathematician and close companion to Voltaire. … ah the French and their love of entangled affairs!). Can creative energy be governed by the same law?

Imagine that the gods of song lord over the reallocation – but not creation or destruction – of all musical creativity. They glean the energy burning off musical dynamism – the teenage frenzy at a Beatles concert; the rapture of baronesses swooning at a Mozart recital – blend it with other tuneful emissions of emotion at any given moment, recycle it, distill it, reshape it, then gaze down from upon high for the best possible artist at that particular moment to reinterpret it.

This process steps through a lot of conversions, as does power from original source to your wall outlet, but the principle of conservation remains inviolate, honoring Madame de Châtelet’s original premise.  No mystical origination deep in the limbic system at debut, no final extinction in the cemetery-of-song at end.

Antennas Up

As a creative you need to keep the receptors up at all times. The gods above are constantly surveying the flock for the perfect agents of delivery: who to best capture these water lilies in Giverny, the stars over Saint Rémy, to take this newly formed bundle of musical melancholy and write something tender about love lived and lost. The energy is floating in the ether. It just needs the right channel for conveyance. And that just might be you, if your creative soul is pure and open to divine inspiration.

A final note that I’m not the first musician to believe in the gods of song. You can find interviews with some of our greatest lyricists, the Dylans and Caves and Cohens, who claim that the process is as mysterious to them as anyone, that when inspired they are just a medium for the message and spill it out. The key? Stay inspired, live deeply, keep the heart open to joy and pain and all emotions in between, and always keep that figurative brush and palette close at hand.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Suggested Song: Love is the Drug, Roxy Music
Suggested Drink: Botanical Buzz cocktail: vodka, honey syrup, lemon juice.

This simple, emphatic text was sitting in my WhatsApp box this morning:

“Just finished!”

No more needed said. A close friend has been working on a massive creative project for the past 3+ years. Blinders-on, head-down mode has been le rigueur since early 2021; behind schedule, under fire, and digging hard. I could almost feel his endorphin flood when tapping that final period of the last sentence of his closing chapter. YES!

Endorphins are hormones in our brains; large molecule neuropeptides that temper pain and lighten our moods when stressed out. Open that valve wide enough and a sense of euphoria sweeps over us like a Hokusai wave. It feels amazing and has a lot of health benefits to boot. Google it.

Exercise can provoke endorphins into action. The runners’ high, yeah, that’s it. So can a burst of laughter or a slow hot bath (or for that matter slow hot sex, reportedly). These activities hit the pleasure buttons hard, which release our peptide friends and make us feel even better. A virtuous up-cycle. Oh yeah, give me more of that!

The easiest avenues to endorphin nirvana come through acts of achievement, ours and with those in our love circle. Parenting offers plenty of moments: opening a near perfect report card or watching your child accept a diploma in her cap and gown (their pride is our joy; I get weepy). Work too can be fertile ground: learning that you just earned a hard-sought promotion or year-end bonus; getting the news that a new client (the one you’ve been jumping through hoops to woo) is coming on board; passing your CPA exam or the state bar after months of study.


At some point post midlife our kids graduate to their own lives, we retire from core careers, and slow hot sex becomes less common (reportedly). The need for regular endorphin boosts remains acutely important for emotional wellbeing, however. What to do, what to do?

There are plenty of natural-high options outside of kids and work, of course, but not through the usual pleasure activities associated with retirement: boozy golf outings, vacation cruises, trips to see the grandkids. These things can make us feel happy, but a vitamin E BANG! tends to come from the big moments of achievement as mentioned above.

So how do you catch that buzz? The good news is the opportunities are endless. Flow-inducing activities are prime ground, throwing your natural strengths and passions into projects of real challenge. My brother bought a crumbling french estate and built it into a stunning countryside showcase, mostly through his own labor. My friend Laura joined a sailboat racing crew in the Caribbean. Oh, she also started a school for elementary kids in Haiti, a challenge on an entirely different level!

Artistic endeavors offer all the key conditions for massive endorfic (made up word) release. They demand an intense amount of concentration and effort, then a moment of exhausted, exhilarating completion. Most creatives love the journey but surely look forward to the IT’S DONE! finale. When the last brush stroke is applied, the final period punctuated, or recording production mixed and mastered. These types of moments provide emancipation from a deeply rewarding but all-consuming journey of love.

At my side hustle the Interprize Group we embolden people to pursue audacious life ambitions of deep personal meaning. We’ll get you mainlining the endorphin buzz. Reach out to learn more, or just swing by Provence for week. I’ll get you sorted.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Suggested Song: I Believe in a Dream, Bill Magill
Suggested Drink: French 75: champagne, gin or cognac, lemon, simple syrup. (a virgin version included in link)

Like almost everyone at the break of a new year I’d been plotting a different start to the next phase. A revival. Covid was diluting down, I was vaccinating up, and my system was primed for an animated resurrection of dormant, or perhaps entirely new, ambitions. Bring on 2022! On January 1, nothing. January 2, …still drawing blanks. Midmonth found me even more aimless and adrift. My reliable custom of new-years rebirth had abandoned me. What was happening?

Entropy : en·tro·py
/ˈentrəpē/
noun
A process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder. (Merriam-Webster).

Covid has been an easy out for getting sidetracked on life’s plans. Can’t travel. Hate Zoom. Off balance. Fair enough, now it’s time to get over it. Nature’s natural order is always toward disorder. Plants wilt and die. Cells in our bodies corrupt (and we wilt and die). Gears rust and software gets buggy. As Neil Young sang, rust never sleeps. Entropy never rests. When all bogs down one needs a strategy.

My very first vocation, pre suffusing in rosé on hot Provence afternoons, before teaching business, prior to financing startups, previous to writing reports on stocks and markets, earlier than wrenching on Star Wars lasers, … no way, way before all of that, I worked on cars. I’ve been up to my elbows in axle grease and wrapped many a rusty tailpipe in muffler bandage. A car mechanic makes his living on entropy in action.

All grand ambitions lose momentum and yield to gravity without an equal or greater force to keep them in motion. The bigger the plans (and the best plans are absurdly audacious), the greater the effort required. Consider this Magill’s 3rd Law of Life Motion. When inspiration flags and ambitions suffer from the entropy affliction, return to first principles and apply a dose of Spartan discipline. This is the antidote.


First Principals :  first prin·​ci·​ples
/ fɝːst ˈprɪn.sə.pəlz /
noun (plural)
The basic and most important reasons for doing or believing something. (Cambridge Dictionary)

Near the end of January I shared a coffee with Jonathan Simons (more on him below) and had a breakthrough: I needed to get back to first principles. When I upended my life 12 years earlier – when I quit my job, divorced my wife, and moved across the globe – what the hell was I thinking? That was a deeply disruptive decision to all involved, so what was the motivation, the justification, behind that madness, that moment of this I must do now!? What were my first principles?

First, some backstory.

When I moved to Aix-en-Provence in 2010 I had a big basket of mid-life dreams to pursue: write essays and books, record music and produce a musical, teach, give workshops on audacious life leaps, suffer a mad love affair, and try being Bill in entirely new and not yet understood ways in an unfamiliar land. The cable cars, foggy slopes, domestic surety, and San Francisco’s world of high-tech finance were in my rear-view mirror; ahead was nothing but alien green field.

These things I mostly did, but to little acclaim and largely unnoticed (the love affair excepted). My first compilation of essays – Postcards from a Runaway – was published in 2014 on Zook, which summarily folded. My 2018 album – Last Night at the Ha-Ra – was self-released and still hasn’t generated 1,000 listens on Spotify. The musical I staged around that album score has yet to gain traction with stage or screen producers. I did find a home at INSEAD teaching startup creation, so that gets a check. And I managed to convince Sorbonne CELSA to let me to teach entrepreneurship through the lens of life change (what I call interpreneurship), which they accepted with a puzzled look: Interpreneurship, c’est quoi ça professeur Magill? Bless them.

Regrets? Anyone telling you they live life with no regrets either (1) is being dishonest, or (2) lacks the humility to admit that every now and then they seriously fuck up. Do I question the move to Provence and abandonment of my former life? No. Am I frustrated at my continued obscurity? Yes. But I didn’t take this path expecting quick celebrity and riches (I’ll take them). I pursued a deeper life wild in new experiences, relationships, and possibilities that would fuel a body of celebrated work that would outlive me. When I recalibrated on these first principles, which nowhere state the words rich or famous, a crippling sense of frustration washed out, a deep sense of ease washed in, and I exhaled. Revival. I was good.


If you find yourself adrift at this point into the year, take a moment to define (or redefine) your first principles, then reengage. How? These 3 steps are working for me:

  1. Reset: Firstly, chill and don’t do jack for a few days or weeks; focus on getting back to your baseline. (For non-American readers, jack is short for jack shit. If you’re confused as to why shit is proceeded with jack I have no idea, it’s an American thing. … Speaking of American things, you’ll find a tune of that very same name on my 1996 album Eskimo in the Sun. Click here to listen. Big bobaloo kahuna baby!).

    During this reset (1) go minimalist and (2) feed the basics. Get as many distractions out of your daily quotidien as possible. Embrace your hermitude. Books. Netflix. Hikes. Meditate. Contemplate. Get healthy. Go naked. Baths (with plenty of bubbles or salts; your skin and soul will thank you). Don’t overthink your principles or ambitions, just re-find your balance. That desire to make a big reach will start to stir again.
  • Apply Discipline: There’s a time to be Athens, a time to be Sparta. All night decadence, all day recovery, bank-breaking adventures and other fun forms of hedonistic mischief will be waiting once you’ve relaunched. Athens reveled in grand displays of indulgence and creativity; Sparta in restraint and prowess. It’s a moment for minimalism and structure. When resetting to first principles get your Sparta on.
  • Reaffirm: Once you’ve established a stable state rewrite those first principles. If you no longer believe them, change them. If you never had them, craft them. What do you stand for now? What is your personal doctrine? What needs to be said about you at your eulogy? Find that supreme north star that guides all of your actions and major decisions. A distilled, incontestable, single statement of your name here raison d’être. Stew on it, write it, test it, reshape it, and then honor it.

    Companies refer to their first principles as a mission statement. Some good examples:
    • BBC: To enrich people’s lives with programs and services that inform, educate and entertain.
    • Walmart: We save people money so they can live better.
    • GE: We bring good things to life.

A powerful mission statement propels all employees toward a common, worthy, and clearly-defined corporate goal. Your first principles should similarly get you oriented toward a bright north star, cutting through all the turbulence and lulls that separate now and the realisation of your grand life ambitions. What gift do you want to leave behind? This will help get you there.


Two final notes:

The Analog Sea Review #3

A big thank you to Jonathan Simons. Our chat at Mana Cafe in January pulled me out of my creative stupor and back to first principles; the breakthrough mentioned above. Jonathan is the founding editor and publisher of The Analog Sea Review, a collection of poetry, essays, fiction, and fine art for those “wishing to maintain contemplative life in the digital age.” He is a most inspiring purist, unavailable by email, text, or phone (he doesn’t own one). No online presence, no digital wake. Exchanges require pen and paper. I love it. If The Analog Sea Review is not yet available in your neighborhood bookstore, please press them to carry it. Contact me for an introduction if curious.

To those of you whose grand ambitions center on artistic creation, if you too are toiling in anonymity take solace in the fact that some of history’s most revered artists – Schubert, Van Gogh, and Brontë being just 3 examples – left this world still largely unappreciated outside their small circle of supporters. This did not, however, corrupt their artistic vision or provoke them to toward conformity. Be provoked; never conform. If you are to be remembered for anything it will be that singular gift that only you could offer.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Suggested song: The Real Me. The Who.
Suggested drink: Curtain Call cocktail. Rum, champagne, lemon juice, simple syrup, bitters.

Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable. Be honest and transparent anyway.
– Mother Teresa

June is Gay Pride month. The San Francisco parade has been cancelled this year and that’s a shame. I have colorful memories of that brilliant cavalcade: the vibrant floats and flamboyant dance troupes and butch bikers tattooed up in black leather and blue denim. Loud and proud.

I was called into a group-wide meeting one morning while working at Livermore Labs back in the 80s. Our area supervisor announced (paraphrasing) that from this point forward John should be addressed as Joanne and will be dressing accordingly. Expect female attire and makeup. She’ll also be using the ladies’ toilets. Any questions?

This coming out was one of the most startling and bravest things I’d ever seen. The John I had known was a burly guy’s guy and husband with kids. To be considered for reassignment surgery he first needed to live full time for a year as Joanne. I couldn’t imagine the courage it took to share that decision with family, friends, and now coworkers.

We all have our closets. We perform on an open stage and let our hair down with the cast and crew when the curtain falls. A very few good friends get invited back to the dressing room, but then there is the closet. I’m hoping that I’m not the only one with a scary closet.

There are few resentments worse than feeling like a fraud, of being inauthentic. Real honesty requires a precarious journey from closet to stage in full drag, and that can be a tough walk. The good news is that as we get older this gets easier. A certain “let the chips fall where they may” settles in with age. The urgencies that guided our earlier years – career and vows and status – become the lesser priorities to authenticity; leaving this world with a history that reflects our truest selves.

Martin Whatson: Behind the Curtain

Being honest with oneself is of course step one, and often the most difficult of conversations. I lived most of my adult years in San Francisco and didn’t bat an eye (or even a heavily mascaraed lash extension!) at people being true to their sexual and gender orientations. But professional orientation was a different beast altogether. It is convenient to suppress misgivings over career choices when those positions are filling the bank account and feeding the ego. Damn I’m special! I was front and center of that line but in good company, particularly in the investment banking and venture capital industries.

There’s no shame in pursuing pay over passion when young and in one’s prime income-generating years (I’m happy to debate this over a glass of rosé). There’s great dishonor when continuing to shelter in the closet post mid-life, to oneself primarily. What you do, where you live, and whom you love. The legacy you leave. Are you getting these right? Are the what, where, and with whom choices you are making now reflect the most authentic and beautiful you? Will your eulogy be delivered by people whom loved you most, reflecting on things for which you wanted to be celebrated, in a setting that defined your spirit?

That is a lot to consider.

A final note. I founded the Interprize Group in 2013 to help people, mostly at 50 plus, pursue grand life ambitions of deep personal meaning. If I’m being honest, I’ll admit to using these workshops as much for self-discovery as for guiding others. Authenticity and purpose are 2 topics that get a lot of attention in these workshops. For the past 3 years I’ve been focused on a grand ambition of my own and the workshops have been on hold. We are offering a new and completely redesigned Life Leap Workshop this October in Provence. You can find more information here. If you are curious to know more please get in touch and we’ll set up a time to chat. Let’s get you out of the closet.

Suggested Song: Virus, Björk
Suggested Drink: Strawberry gin and tonic. Strawberries, gin, tonic water, bitters, lime.

It’s mid-May and those touchstones of our pre-Covid quotidian are reemerging from this long winter of lethargy and isolation. Cafés are hosing down their terrace tables, the boys of summer are taking the field, pétanque parties are back on the Provence calendar (bring your rosé passport), and one feels encouraged to consider summer travel plans, maybe. We’re not yet back to the bis(ous) in France, but air kisses are pollinating the breeze.

Everyone is ready for the world to turn again, but part of me is suffering a post-pandemic partum blues. New rituals and routines were grudgingly adopted, and now, to my surprise, I’m resisting their repeal. How about you?

Most of us entered wartime kicking and complaining. The masks and curfews and comatose streets where a tiresome affront. Then something unexpected unfurled: my adaption slowly evolved from noisy surrender to covert embrace.

Four things in particular have grown on me: hygiene hysteria, hermitude, travel restrictions, and a damn good cocktail. Let’s take a closer look.

Hygiene Hysteria

I’ve gained a new appreciation of protection against bugs, adopting a certain compulsive prophylaxis. Start with the mask.

I hated the mask at first. The fogged-up sunglasses; the hindered breathing; the constant “damn it, forgot my mask again.” Then a realization: that cloth cover was the best antiaging solution in my arsenal! The sags and the creases and the two-tone lifetime tan, all beautifully concealed, at least for that brief walk about town or trip to the grocery. I lose 10 years when masked up and love it.

I also appreciate that layer of discretion when slipping through the back alleys of Aix avoiding the predictable paths of this person or that. We all have those days, right? One gains an appreciation of the burka. There are days when I wouldn’t mind having a big black sack hanging in the closet. The Covid mask/sunglasses/wide-brimmed hat combo: perfect for a Howard Hughes steal through town.

Antiseptic hands are another new thing. I was raised on a farm in rural Pennsylvania and my childhood hands were perennially dirty; my bare Huck Finn feet even worse. Chasing salamanders along muddy creeks is blissfully messy. I’ve never given much thought to the germ history of stuff I was touching. Jostling with strangers on the Paris metro or forwarding hotdogs on down the row at the ballpark? Never a problem. I was firmly in the camp of it’s all good, I’m boosting my immunity. Now I travel with a small gel bottle, head to the sink after outings, and am setting perimeter strategies for the café life after Covid. I didn’t see that coming but accept that it’s just good practice, pandemic or no pandemic. Old dog, new tricks.

Hermitude

Covid put a serious dent into our social lives. The indoor seatings were taped off, then the terrace tables pulled up. We resumed in our homes until gatherings over 6 were banned. Okay, surrender.

Place des Cardeurs, Aix-en-Provence. Courtesy of Velasco, La Boitte Sauvage

And then, … I didn’t really miss it. The raucous dinner parties and late-into-the-evening drink ups, the restaurant tabs, the home turned upside down and head inside out while washing dishes at 3 am.  I was happy to give all of that a break.

This reversal had mostly to do with the temporary nature of confinement. I knew that we’d be sitting along a leafy boulevard lined with sycamores in Aix sipping rosé or flocking to this home or that beach soon enough again. So, I decided to embrace the hermitude and to quote Katy Perry, I liked it.

There’s a Lebowski appeal to stained sweatpants and frayed sweaters, dusty homes, hair gone to seed, sole control of the playlist (Siri, play the Bay City Rollers again), pedestrian wine in 5 liter boxes, locked in by dusk, books in bed by 9, lights out by 10.  There was time for curiously odd things like tarot readings and kimchi canning; activities and a comportment that I wouldn’t entertain should others be visiting regularly. Serene solitary confinement.

The travel ban is winding down and curfew rolling back in France. The apéro season is upon us. Confinement is ending, and I’m mostly ready. But the hermit has had run of this place for over a year now and not going back in the bottle graciously.

Travel Restrictions

The air travel experience has become insufferable. We all put up with it but who enjoys it? Some people apparently. Airlines were offering trips to nowhere during lockdowns; the flights were popular.

When it comes to finding points unknown (or known) I love being there, just not going there. A road trip is the exception. Lockdowns and quarantines provided a convenient excuse for avoiding that entire cattle call experience: boarding pass and ID here, now this slow queue, shoes off and everything in that bucket (“c’mon people let’s keep it moving!”), another line and more ID, the duty free mall and overpriced food, then a long sit at the crowded terminal, another cattle chute at the gate, boarding pass and ID again, buckle up and elbows in for the next few hours, try not to pee, … then it starts again at arrival.

No excuses were needed for avoiding travel these past many months. I missed people a lot, particularly my kids in faraway San Francisco, but not the process of getting there. I’m stepping back in the wading pool tepidly with a train trip to Paris in June and then we’ll see. I’m bribing the kids to visit me in Aix. As to that deep dive into a wide body across the the big blue sea? It’ll happen, don’t rush me.

And now to a damn good cocktail

Curfews and lockdowns force a reconsideration of one’s attitude on personal temperance. Some of us find all of that alone time a caution to curtail the evening tipple(s). Others find it an excuse to widen the guard rails.

I considered the abstemious option and locking the wine cave at first but was advised against it by a sage friend. A third option was to explore new directions, reasoning that the intake was neither more nor less, just different.

Hence, cocktails entered the equation. The art of preparing a good cocktail is no different than the secret to kitchen confidence: quality ingredients prepared with good tools and a lot of love for those whose company you most enjoy. Staying in season is key to both. The cold winter greys inspire Russian vodka creations comrade; the fresh spring greens calls for British gin old bean.

So, Moscow Mules have yielded stubbornly (it’s the mule) to strawberry gin and tonics (recipe here) as the weather warms and local berries fill the market stalls in Provence. Strawberries are in particular abundance and cheap at the moment, their perfume an irresistible siren seduction that demands purchase. My limes come from Maïtaï, who mans (womans?) a produce table at the Place de Richelme on Tuesdays. Anything she touches is as blessed as her sunny smile. The final key for me is the cocktail shaker from C&D Tools: an heirloom American-made bar tool offered as a gift from Kris, the company’s founder. How I became friends with this American diplomat stationed in Kinshasa, DRC is another strange tail for a future essay.

This is the time to consider your own permanent adoptions after a season of compulsory adaptation. Good luck with reentry. It’ll be fine, get out there!

I received notice today that the script for the audio theatre adaption of Last Night at the Ha-Ra received The Best Genre Script award by PRIX ROYAL Paris Screenplay Awards for 2020 Season IX. Now that was a nice piece news after a year of challenges and complications for this project; for most everyone’s projects this year.

The Last Night theatrical recording is working its way through post-production now, in the hands of Dan Logan, producer of the fully casted script recording and sound effects, and Russel Cottier, who is massaging the original album that we recorded in 2018 for the theatrical release. Early cuts are incredibly impressive and I’m excited about about getting this out in early 2021. We had hoped for this fall, but COVID had a way of plaguing the best of plans. We remain undaunted.

What’s next? Here is where things get interesting. I’m a big believer in the future possibilities of Virtual Reality (VR) in entertainment. The hook was set back in 2015. I was sitting in a San Francisco cafe and got to chatting with a product evangelist from Oculus, which has done much of the pioneering work in VR. I allowed him to fit me up with a headset in the cafe and lead me through a couple of programs, one being set in a theatre. (Here’s a blog post I wrote of that week, with a photo of him in the headset at the bottom.) Fast forward to 2020, I’m thinking of how to make this musical really sing; how to bring the viewer deeper into the drama and songs of my piece. Light bulb goes on, brightly.

Imagine this: you’re not enjoying the Last Night at the Ha-Ra musical on a 2-D screen or 3-D stage. You are IN THE BAR, surrounded by the characters, and immersed in the sound and action. Now that would be intense. That’s where we’re going. Please stay posted.

I wish everyone a safe end to a very unsafe year. There’s a sunrise ahead and we’re all ready to bask in its glory.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Suggested Song: Let’s Go Crazy, Prince
Suggested Drink: Isolation Ale, Odell Brewing Company

Shutdown Redux

Le confinement has returned to France. Home detention is once again le rigueur, the daily walk/run (keep it brief and close to home) and occasional trip to the grocery excepted, hall pass in hand. Our neighbors at all points – Germany, Italy, Spain, England – are exacting similar decrees. Note to America: stock up now.

This lockdown is different than the spring fling. The winter months are looming with darker days, dryer air, vacations over and kids to school. All are standard ingredients for a thriving flu season, and now Covid is piling on.  

It’s going to be long winter.

Strategy v1.0: Preservation

Getting through the first confinement was a short course on adaption. We were debutantes at this no, you can’t leave your home thing and trying to minimize the disruption. Preservation of a semblance of normalcy was the guiding principal: maintaining our active social calendars through Zoom; eating out through delivery in; uninterrupted spending through Amazon Prime; the Sunday cinema on Netflix, microwaved popcorn in hand. See, it’s not that bad!

https://www.stylist.co.uk/images/app/uploads/2020/05/10174634/why-zoom-meetings-are-so-exhausting-crop-1589129268-2048x1073.jpg?w=1680&h=880&fit=max&auto=format%2Ccompress

What did we learn? There is a reason we pay up for the restaurant experience. A television display is a poor substitute for the majestic silver screen. Online shopping is fast, easy, and antiseptically void of any neighborhood rapport. And apéros with family or friends over Zoom are a struggle in spontaneity and flow. Yeah, kind of sucks.

Strategy v2.0: Reinvention

So here we are again and may find ourselves repeatedly through 2021. Do we stock up the shelter, lock down the shutters, and prepare for more concessions? Is there another option?

One could consider this a unique moment, a golden opportunity really, to veer off the rails and defy everything everyone, including yourself, believes about you.  Covid may just be your horrible excuse to try something radically, beautifully different; to go a bit nuts. Less cheapened preservation and more fresh invention, even if just for a few gloriously whimsical months.

Where to start? Everyone’s crazy angle is different, and what makes you beautifully bewildering during these mundane weeks – has she gone mad? – is unique to you. Read the taro, learn some hip hop moves, dye your hair green, start a vision board for a brand new you. Here’s what I’ve been doing:

  • Less glitchy video, more indigo ink. There are few joys that salve the soul better than penning a note on quality paper to someone whom you care about deeply. A good fountain pen is indispensable. I’m not sure what is more satisfying: writing the letter or waiting the few days it takes to navigate the post and imagining that smile when opened. I’m lucky to be in France, where shops that specialize in paper and pens remain common. And guess what? My fountain pen doesn’t get a bad connection.
  • Less home dinner delivery, more kitchen creation. Our local restaurants are suffering badly now and deserve our takeout orders. But, when you’re locked in for endless hours spending a few more of those in the kitchen is a healthy distraction, wine in hand of course. To make the experience more engaged I’ve been diving into ethnic inspirations far removed from the usual list of the tried-and-true. A friend turned me on to the art of Korean kimchi earlier this year and I’ve also been experimenting with Japanese udon soups. Neither are particularly to difficult but far enough out of my comfort zone to keep things unpredictable.
  • Less One-Click impulse buys, more patience that the local shops will be back open soon. Our neighborhood economies rely on a diversity of commerce to thrive. You come for a coffee, buy a dozen tulips, and pick up stationary for those letters to loved ones. The flower shop owner takes your tulip money and buys a sandwich at corner café. The café owner says come back again, then spends the sandwich margin on new novel from the corner bookstore. Payrolls are met, rents are paid, the commercial equivalent of a coral reef is in full bloom.

Amazon is a neighborhood commerce killer. The sole proprietor is helpless against the impressive machine that Bezos built. It is convenient, cheap, expedient, and leaves our neighbhorhoods bleached of diversity like a great coral reef in decline. Amazon doesn’t need more your money. Their stock is up 85% since Covid Wave-1 hit in March, while your local guy is struggling mightily to hold on. Many won’t. What do you want your neighorhood strip to look like next year?

Oh yeah, I’ve been reading some stuff lately that I never imagined would be on the bedside stand: Brontë, TE Lawrence, my grandmother’s African travels diary from 1912-14. It’s the year for it.

I’d love to know what you’re doing to keep your sanity in a world gone mad. My advice: meet crazy with crazy. Please stay safe, there’s a sunrise ahead.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Play this Song: This is the End, The Doors
Make this Drink: Negroni (to my friends suffering in Italy): Campari, vermouth, gin.
Now read

When traveling to intriguing places I enjoy writing real-time observations of the trip in short dispatches. My much-loved San Francisco is a guaranteed source of fascinating discoveries – always – and I’ve recorded them often in my Dispatches from the Magic Kingdom. When in Beirut last October I chronicled the fall of a government and pulse of the streets with a short series.

For this journey I’m at home – for an extended lockdown in France – and again facing an intriguing moment. We’re all facing moments of the unknown now. I am writing observations on a frequent basis for the next few weeks, mostly short, to provoke readers to share your own experiences. It is a healthy outlet in an unhealthy situation. … And if I don’t find something creative to vent my energy things could soon get ugly for the cat.

I’m posting these dispatches in a bubble-down system, latest essays posted at the top.

Winter’s End

spring has sprung on me
and it’s sweeping me off my feet

I saw my first oriole of the spring one sunny morning last week. Koiche Kunibe was standing in the center of a very deserted Place de Richelme enjoying a cigarette. He is the chef and owner of Naruto – my favorite Japanese restaurant in town – and let me know he’d be opening the doors for take-out the following day. Hallelujah.

Au Verre Levé in Aix selling gourmet coffee, wine, and fresh veggies from the street.

In the past week an increasing number of shop owners in Aix have been getting creative and offering services without violating the lockdown. Limited hours and doorway exchanges perhaps, but it’s a welcome sign of thaw in the winter ice. Wine caves and cheese shops, bookstores and magazine kiosks, fruit and vegetable stands, and a few restaurants like Naruto are back in limited business. My good friend Hervé had his butcher shop on rue d’Italie humming this morning for the first time in 5 weeks and a line was forming.

If you grew up in a cold weather climate then you understand the deep stir of spring fever, particularly as a teen. Euphoria is the word. The mercury breaks 60°, the coats come off, car windows down, radios on, girls on the street, the boys of summer in spring training. You spot that first red breasted oriole swooping through the yard. The build up of anticipation after a long winter freeze is overwhelming.

The shelter-in-place lockdown France lifts on May 11 and it’s easing elsewhere as well. Time will tell if the timing was right or wrong. But with temperatures climbing and the trees turning green, the pressure to be outside and enjoying some level of social reconnection is swelling.

My 1996 album Eskimo in the Sun was a paean to the ache for personal release. The song Come With Me, in particular, slipped off the winter shackles. The burning to do anything, go anywhere, be anyone. The fact is we all accept obligations and compromises, like lockdowns when plagues roam the land. But the freeze is melting, trickle by trickle, and we’ll be sharing a glass with friends over a socially-distanced table soon. Hang in there.

Be safe, be well.
April 30, 2020

Where Were You?

About a third of the world’s population is in some degree of lockdown because of the coronavirus. We are experiencing it globally through the news and locally through our various hellos to neighbors and friends. How we see it now, and how we remember it in the future will differ. While we are all impatient for a return to normalcy – whatever that means going forward – we’ll look back at this moment with selective memories of fondness and connection.

I’ve been through two natural catastrophes that upended life for days to weeks. In both cases the sights, sounds, and smells remain vivid, and the passion to share these memories with others who were there, then endures. Where were you?

Hurricane Agnes swept through the eastern seaboard of the US in 1972, killing 128 people and wreaking its heaviest damage in Pennsylvania, mostly through flooding. My hometown Newport, which slopes down to the normally languid Juniata River, experienced water levels into the second stories of houses. Carp and catfish were swimming through the windows and rotting days later on many a muddy living room carpet. It was a mess.

A few families took up residence in our large farmhouse, safe and dry on a ridge above the town. Dinners for 20 or more were common and I can still hear the kitchen full of moms making flood pudding and anything else delicious they could scrape together for this temporary encampment of Agnes refugees. Sharing their stories of escape. Troubled about what they were returning to.

Seventeen years later I was sitting in our apartment in San Francisco when my chair started to vibrate queerly, and then the building frame began to heave and rumble. The roar of an entire city in geophysical convulsion was deafening. From my 3rd story perch above Noe Valley the seismic waves rolling through town could be seen. Unnerving. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake left 63 dead and caused $10 billion in damage.

San Francisco was out of power for a few days, which meant cold meals, candle-lit nights, and a transistor radio. I had made a large batch of chili the day before, so at least my girlfriend (and later wife) Alexandra and I had plenty to eat, that with cold canned soup. The Dubliner Bar on 24th Street was open that first evening, the owner Vince Hogan making approximate change with cash out of a cigar box, and everyone eager to be with others and share their stories. Where were you?

With both disasters lives were disrupted for extended periods. Those hallmarks and comforts of daily life were thrown into serious disarray, and after the first few days of novelty people were eager to get back to normal routines. Irritations emerged, and longing for the way things had been before the big event.

I think back to those moments with fondness now. Conversations between long time residents of San Francisco often turn to, “were you here in ’89?” It creates a bond. Strangers love to share recollections of disastrous communal experiences like old warriors comparing battle scars.

I don’t want to minimize the scale of the Covid-19 epidemic and horrible impact it’s having on us all. Each day brings a new celebrity infirmity into the headlines and many of us know someone struggling with a positive diagnosis, or worse. But we will get through this. It will mark us. Each of us will be changed by this moment in ways big and small, expressed and suppressed. And for the rest of our lives we’ll be sharing our stories and eager to hear those of others. They will connect us; brothers and sisters in arms.  Where were you?

Be safe, be well.
April 18, 2020

 

Witness to a Punctuated Equilibrium
(or How 1 Simple Virus Changed 1 Big World Forever)

A landmark study on evolutionary biology was published in 1972 positing that Darwin was wrong about 1 big thing: Many species – particularly those in isolation – do not evolve slowly and gradually over long evolutionary periods. Rather, many species attain an order of invariable statis that extends over many eons until a single climatic event forces rapid transformations in their biological properties. This theory was called punctuated equilibrium.

We may bear witness to a period of punctuated equilibrium now; not biological, but behavioral. The catalytic event, of course, is the coronavirus.

If you were born in the 20th century you mostly likely adhere to the concepts of self-reliance, consumerism, egoism, and the pursuit of economic prosperity. One could argue that these traits are uniquely American. I would reflect that while they are truly American, most societies have tilted in the direction of open markets, wealth, and consumption as the enabler and primary measures of success (and happiness) in life. Capitalism won, communism lost, now go live it up.

Ideas and products and messages and behaviors
spread like viruses do.
Malcolm Gladwell, from “The Tipping Point”

Covid-19 is a climactic event causing sudden changes in our routines and habits. We can’t work, can’t spend, are asked to consider the welfare of others, and now rely on government direction and support. Will it also portend a sea change in our lifestyles and measures of happiness?

Prophesies (getting back to my biblical theme) are the works of wiser women and men than me, but this I have seen in the past 3 weeks:

  • Family and friends are getting more of our personal time. We are more aware of those relationships that truly matter (but too often consigned to when-I-get-the-time status) and connecting with Zoom calls regularly. The focus is a bit less on me, a bit more on us. That is a good thing.
  • Work is going virtual. My teaching at INSEAD and the IAU has gone online, and the many of us that can continue to work are getting it done outside the office. This trend is causing a stronger adoption of collaborative tools and investor interest in the companies that invent them. Better work-life balance and fewer cars on the road, and I believe a higher productivity per hour. These are good things.
  • Artists are creating content and sharing freely. Musicians –

    Chris Martin of Coldplay

    megastars and the lesser known – are holding concerts from their living rooms (check out the NPR list), painters and photographers are giving tips from their home ateliers, and everyone is taking a break from monetizing their art (which is the great destroyer of brave origination). This is a good thing.

  • The air is clearer. Cars are parked and planes are grounded. Mother earth is getting a sudden reprieve from the CO2 infusion. There is a growing awareness that at least from an ecological perspective, … this is a good thing.

Are these observations sustainable trends or temporary anomalies in our practices and priorities? It is too early to tell, but I’m rooting for possibility #1.  I’d love to hear about the positive changes you are adopting or observing in your part of the quarantined world.

As always, stay healthy.
April 4, 2020

People Get Ready

People get ready
There’s a train a comin’
You don’t need no baggage
You just get on board

There is little good news out there. The fever seems to have broken in certain parts of Asia, but everyone is holding their collective breath. Italy continues its descent into hell, with Spain at its deadly heels. The rest of Europe is existing along a spectrum from the unnerving quiet-before-the-storm (Sweden) to full-on war footing (France). The US appears to be gliding along a rudderless spectrum of its own frightening path.

So what to do?

These days of plagues and pestilence have the feel of a biblical moment, whether your book is the Bible, Torah, Quran, or Mother Jones. I’d like to think that there’s a train a coming, rather than the death cart from the Black Plague. You’re probably going to be fine, … but just in case there is something to this rapture stuff, it might be wise to get your books in order, regardless of whether there is a golden ticket with your name on it or not.

There are the obvious steps, like preparing a will and naming an executor. But that’s a morose undertaking for times that are already plenty dark. I will suggest 5 more rewarding, but equally important, assignments that you can start while quarantined at home:

  • Prepare your top 10 list. These are the songs you want played at your funeral, wake, or rapture. My kids think I’m out of my mind when I bring this up. But are you ready to accept someone else choosing the music that will frame your life and set the tone for your remembrance? I sure as hell don’t and always keep my list updated. It’s a fun reminder of the artists I loved and the music that has so moved me. I won’t share my list here, but the drum cadence that kicks off the party when the doors close and the pews are full will be Don’t Worry Baby, the Beach Boys. Get your list together now.
  • Read great books. Most of us love to read and find so little time to do it. When I review lists of the best writers or top literature, I’m amazed at how poorly read I am. Blame it on the American public education system. French teens are pouring through Flaubert and Zola. In the past 2 years I’ve started a new regime of mixing one piece of respected literature for each piece of pulp I find entertaining. I like this list compiled by the New York Times, but google around and you’ll find plenty of other rankings. Start reading now.
  • Listen to great music. When it comes to music, ditto to the previous bullet. How many times has someone mentioned a band or song and you think, now I haven’t listened to them or that album in a long, long time? There are some artists that need to be heard or your life isn’t complete. Right? Can you pass through the pearlies without having been haunted by Schubert’s Ave Maria or mystified by the Beatles A Day in the Life? Your list will depend on what you love, be it the classics, or jazz, or perhaps African funk or rap. Spotify makes it effortless. If rock is your thing then a good place to start is Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It’s a bit dated (2003), so you can throw in your own favorites from the past few years. Start listening now.
  • Plan your travel. With the beast at our doorsteps, our days, months, or years left to explore may be more limited than previously assumed. Review your bucket list of destinations now, while sitting at home bored, and make a loose calendar of when and where to go. Maybe your interests are international and exotic, or perhaps more local or regional. There is no magic list. When prodded about taking a trip to some far off destination my dad used to respond, why would I want to go there when I haven’t been out to the western corner of Perry County in years? Everyone has their own horizons. Start planning yours now.
  • Cover your love list. Most of us are negligent at letting our loved ones know that they fall into that category. We often put off telling those people most important in our lives that we love them until it’s too late. It’s a good time to make calls or write letters. Sorry, but emails don’t pass the emotional grade. If you are uneasy with being emotionally open it is enough to just get in touch. They will appreciate the effort and know that is comes from a very warm place. Who’s on your list? Make it now and get started.

Okay, these should keep you busy as the next wine bottle is popped. As always, stay healthy.
March 25, 2020 

 

We are the Corona Generation

If you are reading this post then you are officially part of the Corona Generation. It will impact how you comport yourself and mingle with others for the rest of your life. It will help define us as a global cohort for future historians, although that definition – what it means to be part of Generation C – won’t be fully etched and understood for years to come.

My parents were part of the Great Depression Generation and it marked them for life. They weren’t miserly, but clearly tight and selective with their spending.

As an example, our summer family vacation was spent in Ocean City, Maryland each July. One of my most pleasurable and vivid life memories is that drive down Highway 50 leading to the Atlantic seaboard. The roused anticipation at the first sight of billboards advertising beachside hotels and seafood restaurants. The briny smell of the ocean wafting through the rolled-down car windows as we got within perhaps 20-30 miles of town.

The Surfside 8 Motel, Ocean City, Maryland

We always stayed at the Surfside 8 Motel on 8th Street. It was a fantastic central location for kids: turn left out of the parking lot and it was 3 flipflop blocks to the amazing boardwalk and beach. Two blocks to the right led to the 9th Street pier on the bay, where I would fish every afternoon with a bait box full of frozen squid or blood worms.

Our small efficiency apartment at the motel had a single bedroom with 2 queen beds, so my 3 sisters and mother commandeered that luxury space. My brother and dad took the pullout sofa and I, being the youngest and smallest, camped out on a rollaway cot. The official room limit was 6, so upon arriving in town I would be booted from the car about a block short of the parking lot and told to generally loiter for 30 minutes. And then I could meander confidently onto the property and someone on the balcony would discretely wave me in.

See what I mean? Tight.

How will the Corona Generation be marked by our common experience? Who knows truly? Obviously, a heightened attention to hygiene is being instilled into everyone now. Wash those hands and wipe down the counters. If this scare passed in a month or two it wouldn’t have time to take root in our psyche, but it’s not going to pass quickly and its going to take a toll on people we know and deeply care about. A vaccine is at least a year out and even if effective treatments are uncovered before then, it’s ability to turn lives upside down is going to keep us on edge and vigilant for a long, long time.

I’m an eternal optimist – please forgive me that – but I believe that the social distancing being forced on us now will bring us closer in the end. Board games may make a comeback, a return to touchstones of deep connection like letter writing and regular telephone calls, and we’ll be looking in on our neighbors and loved ones more regularly.

What changes to our routines and behaviours do you imagine – good or bad – as a result of this extended homebound interlude? The Great Depression was a horrific nightmare for families who struggled through, but left most of them stronger and more appreciative of authentic happiness as a result. This is our challenge now.

Stay healthy.
March 21, 2020

 

A Bit of Context, Please

“The last thing I remember of Syria, before we left, was when my mother was taking me from our place to our grandparents. The roads were full of dead corpses. I saw dead people with no heads or no hands or legs. I was so shocked I couldn’t stop crying. … Back at home, I left a friend in Syria, her name was Rou’a. I miss her a lot and I miss going to school with her. I used to play with her with my Atari, but I couldn’t bring it with me. I also used to have pigeons, one of them had eggs, I would feed them and care for them. I’m worried about them, I really pray someone is still caring for them. But here I have a small kitten that I really love! I miss my home a lot. I hope one day we’ll be back and things will be just like before.”
– Alia, 7 years old, on fleeing her home in Aleppo, Syria.(Source: the Italian NGO Gruppo Aleimar.)

“They killed all the men, they raped all the women, they stole all our wealth. I don’t know what more they can take from us. They kidnapped nearly all of us (in my village), and killed all but 16 men. Children between 12 and 17 were sent to institutes (to be trained for fighting) and those under 12 stayed with their families. Many women were taken as sex slaves in captivity. In other areas, Yazidi males were forced to convert to Islam and if they refused they were killed.
– Rozina, a 22 year old Yazidi woman, recounting her escape from ISIS captivity after her mother, father, and 2 brothers were killed. (Source: Global Fund for Women.)

I made my escape down 7 rue Manuel this morning to the open air markets of Aix-en-Provence. Subdued would be a good word for the pulse of the plaza, with about half of the merchant stalls typically crammed into beautiful Place des Prêcheurs on a Thursday morning missing. But I was still in a land of plenty as I made my rounds, picking up green olives in garlic and basil and a beautiful block of aged cows milk cheese for my apéro late afternoon, 2 pork chops and a dozen spears of fresh asparagus for dinner (just coming into season now). The vegetable and fruits options remained bountiful, bronze chickens were crackling on their roasting racks, the poissonnieres still offering life from the sea of every sort and size.

I’ve never been so happy to linger in a line, soaking up the Provence sun and enjoying a short moment of a beautiful day that will be enjoyed mostly from my apartment window, in my airy 17th century flat with its impossibly high ceilings and terra cotta floor tiles colored in the sun burnt ocre of Provence clay. The internet is working, Netflix options are endless, my piano and guitars at the ready to ward off boredom. When I turn the tap I get fresh potable water, and hot when I want it to be. The fridge is keeping things cold. My bed is comfortable and the comforter clean and warm.

This virus is disrupting our lives and may get really frightening. Some of us will get sick and people we know may die. But let’s try to keep it all in context, okay?

Stay healthy, stay safe.
– March 19, 2020

One Sure Bet
(or, Where to Invest in Days of Plagues and Pestilence)

Before him went the pestilence,
and burning fever went forth at his feet.
Habakkuk 3:5

It’s mid-March and Covid-19 is sweeping the globe like a ravenous swarm of desert locusts. In the Horn of Africa billions of the real thing are turning day into night and leaving a trail of destruction unseen since the days of Moses.

Just across the Red Sea the world of oil is going bonkers as Saudi Arabia and Russia get into a Mexican standoff over production limits. Crude oil prices fell 30% in the course of just one morning recently, and are at their lowest levels in almost 20 years.

We still have the fire season to look forward and the US just experienced its warmest winter months since 1895. All this and more, to quote a 1977 punk epic from the Dead Boys.

Stock markets hate nothing more than uncertainty. It’s no surprise then that the indexes are lurching severely, plunging down one day and roaring back the next, sometimes over 10% in a single session. So where does one invest in times of plagues and pestilence, when all that is certain is that uncertainty will reign?

You are the best investment to be made in times of uncertainty. The asset of YOU (not a bad market ticker) and its condition are 100% under your control, and you suddenly have a lot of time to focus on enhancements. For starters think about your health, and that comes in 2 flavors. So here are some tips from Bill.

Physical health:

  • Work out. Find a regime today that fits your interest and home situation and do it regularly. I have a small apartment so a mix of yoga, an exercise wheel, and 2 dumbbells are all that’s possible but needed really to keep me in form, .. despite my beer tab. Toss in a daily walk or run if allowed out of the building. It doesn’t get simpler than that.
  • Eat well. With restaurants shut down it’s a great time to brush up on your kitchen confidence. Focus on seasonal recipes with locally-sourced ingredients and you can’t go wrong health-wise. And the cooking sacrament is a great stress reliever, so excellent for your mental health as well.

Emotional health:

  • Write: Few things feed the soul better than a letter written tenderly to someone you love or greatly appreciate. It’s even more enjoyable with a good fountain pen in hand, scribbling on high quality parchment paper. I’m blessed to be in France, where boutiques – papeteries – focus exclusively on the materials for this dying art. It’s all on Amazon as well.
  • Read: Now is the time to tackle that book stack that’s been growing by your bedside, or start building a new one. By the fireplace or propped against your pillows, is there anything more relaxing, … and more nourishing? I’m a supporter of the local bookstore, but in a crunch you have online options.
  • Pamper: Your budget has suddenly eased up on luxuries like restaurant tabs, bar bills, and travel reservations. Why not divulge in a few guilty pleasures with that new found trove? Go on, before the world collapses around us. High-end chocolate and a good bottle of wine are the low-hanging fruit for me. I’m sure you won’t have to think too hard about it.
  • Create: Art is a healthy release valve when bored or feeling anxious. Music, painting, drawing, writing: these are just the obvious possibilities. So many more options exist as well. Lost as to where to find inspiration? Just Google around; the options are endless.
  • Travel: Wait, what? You probably can’t leave town or even your apartment, but you can still explore the world through films, podcasts, and websites. There is an endless array of travel documentaries on Netflix and other streaming media, and this link to museums online has been making the rounds on Facebook recently. Go exploring.
  • Meditate: It’s proven to calm the mind and lower the blood pressure. Again, there are plenty of resources online if you don’t know where to start. Find a zen ritual that is natural for you, and 5-10 minute sessions are enough to get you quickly addicted.

I’m off to the grocery. At least that’s what I’ll tell the gendarmes should I be stopped. The truth is I’m just dying to get out for a bit. Stay healthy and add your own tips for staying sane. À bientôt.

– March 18, 2020

Suggested Song: Let It Be, The Beatles.
Suggested Drink: Champagne, your choice (it’s almost New Years!)

A brief aside

Few cities are more beautiful than Paris, and fewer still more magical than Paris during the winter holidays. I’m in Paris this week, with the Champs Elysees ablaze in holiday lights, the winding sidewalks through Montmartre strangely clear, tables at the trendy Marais restaurants available, and museum lines, … well there are no museum lines. Merci grévistes!

We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned,
so as to have the life that is waiting for us.
– Joseph Conrad

Holding on

I skated a lot as a kid on the lakes and streams of chilly Pennsylvania. My friends and I loved to play crack the whip out on the ice, forming a chain glove to glove and pulling a wide arc, the person on the far end holding on for dear life as the sweep of the line grew taut and picked up speed. To stay up on 2 blades as you careened around that bumpy winter glass took every bit of energy and concentration, slipping and scraping and fighting to keep your balance core. Exhilarating, terrifying, dangerous.

I left some blood on the ice once, getting spun over a small damn on a frozen creek near home. You have to know when to let go and I held on just a moment too long. Six green stitches to the chin and I was lacing up the skates the next day after school.

I’ve had jobs that paid too much, girlfriends who looked too hot, and vices that felt too good to let go. They fed the ego and enabled myths about who I was and what I deserved. And then would come the realization that this brilliant sun around which I spun was instead an all-consuming black hole, and that great sucking sound was my authentic self being perverted by its massive gravity. More blood on the ice and stitches to the chin.

I find consolation in good company. Many of us suffer from this stubborn reluctance to let go of reckless situations. We know when we’re getting too far over our skates but don’t want the ride to end. As the sweep around whatever dark star is keeping us in orbit picks up speed and the inertial force pulls harder, we hold on even tighter. Ride ‘em cowboy.

The bad news is that we are ego-driven creatures prone to peril, if said ego gets a little tickle. It’s wholly unfair to blame the source: the situation, person, or vice that is wrenching us around. We step in harm’s way and convince ourselves that all is cool. Why the hell did you spin me so close to the dam god dammit? Well why the hell didn’t you just let go?

Letting go

Exactly. The good news is that we’re not buckled in, we’re holding on. The moment we let go we spin off on a new trajectory of our own making, and it’s 100% up to us to decide when to release the grip. We are in total control of our next moment, next day, next year. Just … let … go.

When a lot of wild coiled up inertial energy is released into straight-line momentum, you are a radiant shooting star on a thrilling new direction. You are at the wheel, no one and nothing is tugging your chain, and a new bearing is completely in your hands. Few things in life are more invigorating than that realization.

So as the new year approaches let me ask you this: is that center of mass that keeps your life in orbit a bright shining star that lights the way and warms your heart, or something more troubling and ominous? If it’s #1 you are truly blessed and if it’s #2, .. well it’s time to let go. Just a little blood on the ice, nothing that a few stitches can’t heal.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence