New York Times this week has thoughtful coverage of the life and career of Jimmy Buffett, who died this past Friday Sept 2. Here’s one of the articles (“Jimmy Buffett, Roguish Bard of Island Escapism, Is Dead at 76”); there are many more.
This post is not a musical critique of the pop-cultural icon or of his life. Personally I’m not fond of his music, but that’s not with this post is about. The fact is that Buffett served as a channel voicing the heartfelt yearnings of millions upon millions of people for a sweet simple life.
And I’m not setting out to critique him as a person; from what I hear he was very kind and giving. Among other things, he donated money and other resources to coastal Florida communities hit by hurricanes.
No, this post here is simply to suggest what the popularity of Buffet’s multibillion-dollar lifestyle brand might say about USA culture, and some things we might want to change.
Jimmy Buffett’s music has always triggered a sadness in me, which I could never quite articulate until the past couple of days when I really sat down and thought about it.
In a nutshell: Life shouldn’t be something we have to escape from. Jimmy Buffett’s brand of tropical escapism has massive widespread appeal in the USA for a reason: We have created a culture where the default settings of life are quite dreary.
It struck me that each mode holds the other in place. The dreary, hustle-and-drudge treadmill culture is the thing that needs to be escaped from; the Key West lifestyle packaged and commodified by Buffett’s music and spinoff products is the perfect “place” to escape to.
Now, in bygone days, it was arguably easier for people of a certain level of means to move to just about any geographic location. Anyone could have picked up and moved to Key West. The thing is, though, there are always some trade-offs. For example, the office life up north may be a drag, but there is that $40 hourly pay which most people aren’t willing to give up even if it means living by a sunny beach.
That mail-boat that comes once a week may sound romantic in a song or a vacation, but the year-round reality may not be something that everyone is willing to put up with. And a coconut telegraph is probably too low-bandwidth for most people, considering that a lot of us can’t even put up with anything less than high-speed Internet.
Speaking of, I found out there’s a story behind “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” Apparently back in the day, once you got further south than a certain point in Florida, it was hard to find anything to eat other than seafood. So getting to eat beef was a big deal!
Another pitfall of trying to move to a paradise place is that in many cultures you’re forever considered a foreigner even if you’ve lived there for decades.
But the fact is that a person could choose to live there. And do that. The thing is, though, we tend to want to have the best of both worlds. We want to cherry-pick our realities. We don’t want to give up that $40 an hour job. So I guess on some level it becomes preferable to live our default reality in a dreary universe that needs escaping from, and just content ourselves with that week-long annual escape.
Ironically, Jimmy Buffett and his wife moved away from Key West way back in the 1970s, when his wife said that Key West was obviously no place to raise a child. (According to one of the articles I read in the New York Times.) Excuse me? It’s a real place, and any real authentic place is a fine place to raise a child, provided you have a village. Probably a better place to raise a child than Anytown USA.
Actually, a beloved member of my city’s public works department grew up in the Keys. He and other kids had a great childhood of swimming, fishing, surfing.
It occurred to me that it’s possible that we get some kind of “melancholy high” for lamenting our hard daily life and working our fingers to the bone to earn the brief chance to relax.
How about if we never in the first place had created a culture that was so hyped up and incapable of relaxing? It certainly would’ve been easier on the rest of the world, and on us as well.
Well, we can’t invent a time machine, so no use crying over spilt margaritas and lost shakers of salt. And it may not be easy to retrofit relaxation into our jacked-up capitalist culture, where people can’t even give the leafblower a break on Sundays.
But, there are signs that USA culture is ready for some resistance to the grind and hustle. I’m just starting a book called Rest Is Resistance: A Manifesto, written by Tricia Hersey, who founded the Nap Ministry.
Along similar lines, Jenny Odell’s book How To Do Nothing has found an eager readership.
I keep meaning to write a book called How To Save the Planet by Slacking Off, but I seem to keep not getting around to it.
There does definitely seem to be an appetite to build more slowness and relaxation into our culture, but there are a lot of currents running against that.
Jimmy Buffett and other peddlers of escapism may continue to be needed as a kind of pressure-release valve.
That said, I am always going to keep being an advocate for creative and occupational freedom for all. I feel like having that freedom as one’s default setting is important not only for our own personal well-being, but also for our families and communities, and for the whole planet. If we can ease off on ourselves, maybe we’ll start easing off on the planet.
There’s that tale of the rich guy who goes on vacation to a sleepy beach town where he meets a fisherman. The fisherman just catches enough fish for what he needs for the day. The yuppie feels like the fisherman should get organized and catch more fish and earn enough money to put by. But the fisherman is like, Why? It turns out the only reason why it would be so that he could someday retire and live the exact same sweet, slow-paced life he is enjoying now.
So, we could just short-circuit that mainstream hustle-culture nonsense and all of us go directly to being our own versions of that sleepy coastal town fisherman. Whether it means running a costume shop in Manhattan, writing that book that’s been in you for all this time, deciding you want to be a stay-at-home parent regardless of the trade-offs, deciding to open a bookstore. Making crossbows for hunters; designing chainmail for Rennies; building tiny houses; weaving baskets from invasive vines. Offering legal counsel to residents of oppressive HOAs. Teaching sewing. Starting a forest bath ministry … Working on a farm with horses … and so on. Or just plain working as little as possible to meet your basic expenses, and simply enjoying life without needing to be defined by a profession or work.
One thing I’m seeing widely, from the mainstream news media to my friends’ Facebook posts, is just an immense love and appreciation for Jimmy Buffett.
This being the case, it could be that the best way to honor the memory of somebody who helped a person articulate and find a channel for their yearnings is to start to live one’s life more in keeping with what he represented. I don’t mean everybody should retire to Key West and start making shell windchimes; even if that were possible; I mean everybody needs to find their boatyard or their Margaritaville or whatever it is that is so attractive.
Another thing that I realized bugs me is that it feels like people are sort of getting off on the wistfulness. Like “Oh, life is so hard, but I’m going to escape blah blah blah.” Maybe it’s our culture’s fast-food version of mono no aware; I don’t know.
People shout the rallying cry “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere” as a sort of defiant throwing-off of workaday demands, but then when actual 5 o’clock comes around in their actual day, more likely to be breaking out the weed-whacker and the leafblower than firing up the grill. It’s a darn shame!
Jimmy Buffett songs and associated products were originally inspired by Key West. However, one can argue that other places in the world have been sort of commodified, Margaritaville-ized by association. Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Mexico, Hawaii. All places with beautiful tropical cultures that appear slow and relaxed to industrial people.
I’ve heard comfortably-off retirees here in Florida say “hee hee, we’re living on island time now.” Meaning “We retired; we’ve made it; no more rat race for us.”
But real, actual island time is the pace of nature. It appears slow to industrial people because people are working within nature’s rhythms, often using hand-tools and so on. But that slow-looking life involves a lot of hard physical work, improvising, and adapting.
To be able to adopt that “leisurely pace” selectively in a vacation mode is a mark of privilege.
To live on it for real is to see that mail-boat just once or twice a week. And maybe to have no hospital right nearby.
Personally, I would choose a traditional village culture if I had to choose someplace to live outside of my country. Myself, I particularly love and identify with Japan and also England. I could be very very happy in either place.
Or quite honestly, probably almost anywhere else in the world, because that’s how I’ve been wired up. To be able to drop in anywhere and make it home. I guess I’m sort of an invasive plant. A lot of it comes from being a military child, I suspect.
But since I’m here, I’m trying to make my life and help other people make their lives more rich and authentic. So that we’re not having to escape, and not having to go modify someone else’s real live place.
Full disclosure: I am not immune to the pleasures of an occasional umbrella drink.
The deepest underlying reason for the emotion that Margaritaville culture sparks in me boils down to colonialism. Our colonizer culture invaded these slow-paced, laid-back beach places and turned them into factories and mines and tourist traps. And now we have the gall to try to reverse-import this laid-back lifestyle that we ourselves caused to become scarce! It’s a very convoluted construction. Seems like high time to deconstruct.
• New York Times coverage of Jimmy Buffett’s life and career https://www.nytimes.com/search?query=buffett “Jimmy Buffett Was More Than Beaches and Booze. There was wistfulness behind party tunes like ‘Margaritaville.’ Buffett helped listeners feel like they’d earned the good times just by holding on.” etc.
• Mono no aware wikipedia https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mono_no_aware “Mono no aware (物の哀れ),[a] lit. ’the pathos of things’, and also translated as ‘an empathy toward things’, or ‘a sensitivity to ephemera’, is a Japanese idiom for the awareness of impermanence (無常, mujō), or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life.”
• A really good book about growing up an island culture is Sidney Poitier’s memoir of growing up on Cat Island, Bahamas. The title is The Measure of a Man. Here’s a blog post I found about it: https://www.outofthepastblog.com/2023/02/the-classic-film-collective-7-amazing.html?m=1 (The Classic Film Collective: 7 Amazing Facts from Sidney Poitier’s Memoir The Measure of a Man).