Monday, December 16, 2002

Of Popcorn and the Internet

The Internet, and its best search engines have made a dramatic difference in researching all kinds of facts, and this fact is often extolled. For example a recent David Kippen piece in the San Francisco Chronicle noted that tracing the origins of popular expressions, which was next to impossible before, is now often a simple matter of wading through the Google hits.

It's all true as far as it goes, but the truth is there is still a limit to how far that is, and how revolutionary Internet research actually may be. There is a lot of information that isn't on the Internet, or isn't generally accessible. There are still proprietary data bases and search engines that cost big bucks to use (Lexus/Nexus being the prime example, but there's also the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary for etymologies and origins that go back past the last scouring of web sites on the net.)
And of course there is all the inaccurate and/or contradictory information endlessly replicated as it echoes across cyberspace.

I ran into some of these difficulties in trying to trace down what would seem to be a simple fact--- trying to find a kernel of truth as it were, concerning the origin of popcorn.

I was reading a collection by the eminent contemporary American essayist Edward Hoagland, specifically an essay about a cross-country train trip. One brief aside caught my eye: in recounting his transit through the American Midwest on one of the Amtrak Zephyrs (a route west from Chicago), he produces this catalogue: "A bulldozer factory at Aurora; pig farms at Princeton; the Spoon River at Kewanee. Popcorn was invented in Galesburg. Monmouth is where Wyatt Earp was born."

Popcorn was invented in Galesburg. I don't suppose that would be of more than momentary interest for most readers, but I went to college in Galesburg, Illinois, and I had never heard that particular fact stated before. I knew that Galesburg was the birthplace of Carl Sandburg, that Ronald Reagan lived there for awhile in his boyhood, that Eugene Field, Edgar Lee Masters and Jack Finney (Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, etc.) went to college there at least briefly, that Lincoln and Douglas debated there and that it was an important stop on the Underground Railroad, that Dorothea Tanning escaped from there to become the only woman surrealist painter in France and to marry Max Ernst and then become an important American painter. I even knew that the inventor of the Ferris wheel, George Ferris, was born there, and that Galesburg had once supplied the nation with bricks. But I'd never heard anything about popcorn.

Still, the place was and in surrounded by corn fields, so popcorn made sense. Then shortly after I read this, I found myself mentioning it in a book review I was writing, on a book about the French New Wave filmmakers. It so happens that I saw my first French New Wave films---in fact, my first non-Hollywood films---in Galesburg, thanks to the Cinema Club at Knox College. The Cinema Club was a student run organization; in fact, a one-student organization, and that one was David Axlerod, who has since been involved in movies and TV. (Unfortunately, there are a number of David Axlerods in the entertainment business, and I'm not sure of his resume. A problem, incidentally, one would encounter when researching on the Internet.)

David and the Cinema Club constituted my first education in film. As I recall, these films were usually screened in the big theatre in the Fine Arts Center. It wasn't a bad venue for seeing movies, but it wasn't a real good one, either. It was an multi-purpose venue, used mostly for main-stage live theatre productions. I saw my first production of Hamlet there, starring a student named Jim Eichelberger, who later became known as Ethel Eichelberger, a theatrical legend on the East Coast. I've seen a half dozen film versions and probably that many stage productions of Hamlet since, but that was the definitive one. That was Hamlet. The only time I acted in Shakespeare (the absolutely key role of the Thane of Ross in Macbeth) was on that stage.

But it wasn't the best place for watching films. Even if it had been, I'm sure my memory of the "foreign films" I saw there would be murky. I didn't know the language. Not just the languages the films were in---French, Spanish, Swedish, Italian, Japanese---but the film language. It took me a year of just showing up and watching before I knew how to see what I was seeing.

I mentioned this, with much greater brevity, in the first paragraph of my review. I thought it would be amusing to identify Galesburg as the birthplace of popcorn, since these days especially, popcorn is the more reliable pleasure to be found at the movie theatre. So I put it in there as a coy parenthetical, and sent my copy hurtling through cyberspace to my editor's email account.

It was days later that I started having second thoughts. I think it was one night as I was falling asleep, although it may have been just as I was waking up. But it was in one of those regions of foggy illumination that a nagging suspicion that had been in my mind from the beginning forced itself to the surface: that popcorn thing just didn't sound right.

Specifically, I had the image of a popcorn necklace in the Pilgrim's Thanksgiving story. And something about the Mayas. I realized that I knew that popcorn was a Native American legacy, and unless Hoagland's source referred to the Illinois Indians, the Galesburg reference was wrong.

Of course I should have researched it before. I learned at least as long ago as high school debate and probably even in seventh grade not to trust a single source. What does "invented" popcorn mean anyway?

Still, there was probably---here it comes again---a kernel of truth in this corny story. Galesburg probably had something to do with popcorn.

So I went to Google. And therein lies my tale about Internet research.

First I tried "popcorn invented Galesburg." (Google ignores "common words" like "in," so I didn't bother writing "popcorn invented in Galesburg"). Sure enough, several references popped up. One was an article by the travel writer Paul Theroux, an even better known source that Hoagland. There were several others. But oddly, they all said the same thing in almost exactly the same way: Galesburg, where popcorn was invented.

One of the sources was, and I think this is the mother of them all. From what I can tell, Amtrak must supply a list of fun facts about places along the way (I don't think they were doing that when I traveled these routes, which I did pretty often from my college days through the early 1980s.) It looks to me like Hoagland and Theroux were cribbing from the same cheat sheet (especially since that bit about Wyatt Earp comes right after Galesburg in both their accounts, and in the Amtrak p.r.)

I did find one additional bit of information in this search: that the inventing was supposedly done by someone named Olmstead Ferris. Well, there were Ferrises in Galesburg, I knew that from the story of George and his Big Wheel. But a search for "Olmstead Ferris" on the web turned up next to nothing.

So I tried another approach. I typed in "invention popcorn" and "popcorn invented." This yielded a completely different set of sites. They told several different stories. said popcorn was invented by Quadquina in 1630 at the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Another site ascribed popcorn to Chinese war lords. But most referred back to the "Encyclopedia Popcornia" at The origin story on this site said simply that Native Americans invented popcorn, and that the earliest fossil popcorn found was dated at 4,000 years old.

Other sites gave different dates and facts, often enough contradicting each other. One site said popcorn was 5,000 years old. Though several said Native Americans simply threw corn on the fire to make it pop, one credited Indians with inventing the first popcorn machine, some 1500 years ago.

Europeans found popcorn being popped by Native tribes throughout North, Central and South America (though its presence at the Pilgrim's first Thanksgiving is disputed.) The Aztecs introduced popcorn to Cortes in 1519. Spaniards munched some in Peru in 1650. And so on.

But among all the names and places these sites mentioned, none referred either to Olmstead Ferris or Galesburg. In other words, there were two parallel universes coexisting on the Internet: one in which popcorn was invented in Galesburg, and one in which Galesburg had nothing to do with it at all.

As we all know by now, computers exist to help us waste time. The Internet is an admirable instrument in this effort. After several hours of frustrating and ultimately ridiculous research, I tried a computer age variation of an old research stand-by: I thought I'd ask somebody.

I pretty easily found the Galesburg Historical Society site, and a name to contact. I sent a somewhat frantic email outlining my problem and the urgency of its resolution, since I needed to correct my copy before exposing myself to ridicule and worse. (On the other hand, I might find out if people actually read book reviews. But maybe that's something I'm better off not knowing.)

I got a quick reply from Joel Ward of the Historical Society, who wrote: "To the best of my knowledge, popcorn was not invented here, but Olmstead Ferris is claimed as the man who introduced it to Europe. There's even a children's story book about it"-and he provided this Internet link:

At this site there's a 1997 Kirkus Review of Popcorn at the Palace, by Emily Arnold McCully, which tells the story of Olmstead Ferris and his daughter traveling to London with Europe's first supply of popcorn, and popping some for Queen Victoria. She liked it.

So for my more urgent and narrow purpose, I had an even better story---that Galesburg first supplied Europe with popcorn, thus contributing to the French New Wave movie experience in France. I accept this popcorn story with a grain of salt, because---well, that's how I like my popcorn. Although Joel Ward suggested a couple of other people to talk to, I thought his statement plus the children's book was sufficient evidence for a much more modest claim, so for a parenthetical reference in a book review, I went with it. I sent my editor the correction, and the explanation for same, and with noticeable tact he simply accepted it. The review has not yet been published, and I fully expect this line to be cut in editing anyway, but I did my duty.

About the Internet I learned one has to employ the same standards for evaluating information as in any other research, because the Internet is simply not going to do the work for you, especially when it involves judgment. One cannot count on the Internet to (yet) carry all the information you might require: there are lots of un-digitized books that presumably tell the history of popcorn, and the history of Olmstead Ferris, as well as where they might intersect, in greater detail, perhaps even with attributions. One also cannot count on Google or any other single search engine to turn up everything that is on the Internet. (The reference to this children's book didn't turn up on my searches, though when I varied the terms a little on a later search, it did.) And on the Internet as in other kinds of research, persistence and creativity count.

And finally, that even after exhausting every reference on the Internet, you may still not know the answer. Either it isn't there, or you need some other reference you can trust to help you know what to believe. For instance, a person with credentials and credibility, who will answer your questions.

By the way, Olmstead Ferris was George Ferris's uncle. Somehow popcorn and the Ferris Wheel do belong in the same family.

Of course, there is a site that says that George's uncle---the one who introduced popcorn to Europe---was named Nate.

Sunday, December 15, 2002

The Inner Beatle

A Paul McCartney concert was broadcast on one of the TV networks in prime time recently. I didn't see it all, but I gather it was from his most recent U.S. tour, perhaps selected from several shows.

I was impressed by one thing I did see: the audience. Unlike some other concert films (the famous Simon and Garfunkel appearance in New York's Central Park which was recently rebroadcast on PBS, for instance) there were lots of shots of audience members while Paul and his new band were performing. Not wide pans of screaming and waving figures, but shots of individuals. That's perhaps partly in deference to the Beatles' first film, A Hard Day's Night, which also focused on individuals in the audience reacting-screaming, crying, moaning, jumping joyfully up and down, swooning, mooning and so on, to wonderful effect.

It still seems especially appropriate during Beatles songs. They don't scream anymore, though they do cry---more because of the songs and the lyrics (to "Let It Be" for example) than because they're overwhelmed by a Beatle's presence. But mostly they sing.

As far as America was concerned, the Beatles existed for maybe six years, from 1964 or so until the end of the decade, from "She Loves You" to "The Long and Winding Road." But their music-and some of the music made by each member since the Beatles broke up-has been essential to lots of people in several generations now. And it's not just one generation introducing another to this music. I remember visiting some college friends in the 1980s whose son had seen "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" with that great "Twist & Shout" parade scene, and at first he thought the Beatles were a new group. Several generations have discovered the Beatles on their own.

So as Paul sang his Beatles songs, the camera found many individuals in the audience, of all ages and races and genders, transported not just by listening but by singing along, or at least lip- synching the lyrics. And clearly, it was more than audience participation. You could see it in their faces: though the only person who actually looked like a Beatle was Paul, they were all Beatles inside.

That was the secret of the Beatles. Girls swooned, women were turned on; they wanted the Beatles. But boys and men wanted to be the Beatles. There's even a line like that in a short film I saw in the late 1960s I'm convinced is the fabled "Amblin'"-Steven Speilberg's first film, the one he named his company after. A young woman picks up a young male hitchhiker and takes him to a secluded cabin. As they sit before the fire she asks him what he wants to do with his life. He shrugs and says he wants to be a Beatle.

We are who we pretend to be; or more properly, we are some ongoing mixture of what we were born with, what happened in our lives, and an amalgamation of everyone we pretend to be.

The first way we learn is by imitation. Kittens learn to kill mice by watching their mothers. The Haida woodcarver learns by imitating a master. Humans probably learned to sing by listening to birds and animals.

Imitation deepens with admiration. Observing, we identify. Later we may enact what we observed, and become who we imitate. This is very probably how dance and narrative began: enacting the animals.

Our era gives us thousands of fully enacted stories in books, pictures and especially on screens of our choosing. We identify; we experience vicariously. It is another way we learn, and another way we become. For the length of a movie, we are the hero. We are the bard and the star, the singer, the words and the music, for the length of the song.

Now when they hear those songs, everyone can get in touch with his or her inner Beatle. That part of them that wants to sing their heart, the "crosscurrents of wit and pain" as somebody once described the Beatles music, that swirl from their lives.

For those moments, you can see they are transformed. It doesn't matter what they look like on the outside. They become what they see and hear, and for a moment they experience a communion not only with the real Beatle up there, but with something otherwise hidden, partly formed and unexpressed but important, essential, in themselves.

Friday, December 13, 2002

Being Mechanical

In the same week or so our household experienced the following: the dishwasher stopped draining the water after the dishes were washed, the stereo refused to play the last cuts on CDs, the dryer stopped drying though it kept tumbling, and my computer began opening e-mail with excruciating slowness and would no longer download anything, although it navigated the web normally.

Things are in the saddle and ride mankind, Emerson said, before horses were obsolete. Horses and saddle metaphors were replaced by machines and machine metaphors, which were replaced by whatever hybrids we have now. As I watched the first repair guy take it apart, I was somehow comforted that the dishwasher seems to be still mostly a machine, without computer circuitry and little in the way of electronics. He couldn't figure out what was wrong, though. I was less enthusiastic when the second repair guy said that the motor needed to be replaced after only four years, which actually means that it's more cost-effective to buy a whole new machine. Machines should last. But then there's planned obsolescence. Theoretically, computers should last longer, but then there's progress, marketing and Microsoft.

I have a fairly complicated relationship with machines. My father and one of my grandfathers worked with machinery-my grandfather had a tailor shop, with sewing machines and a big pressing machine. My father made his living selling and sometimes repairing sewing machines and vacuum cleaners. But I am not what you would call mechanically inclined, although I can actually program a VCR and I'm not bad with stereo and recording equipment. Once when I was trying to impress a lady, I actually repaired her sewing machine with very little idea of what I was doing. But I know nothing about the insides of cars. It seems like prying.

I know some things about machines. For instance, machines are supposed to work. Shakespeare uses "mechanical" to refer to people who work. Julius Caesar begins with the Tribune Flavius protesting to a carpenter and a punning cobbler that they shouldn't be idly hanging about in the streets of Rome. "Being mechanical," he says, "you ought not walk, upon a laboring day, without the sign of your profession." He complains to the carpenter that he is not wearing his leather apron and carrying his rule, and so on. Now mechanicals have been replaced by mechanical devices. And they aren't supposed to be idle, either.

The other thing I know about machines is that they are supposed to make sense. They are the physical manifestation of cause and effect, input and output, lever and pulley, wheels within wheels, male and female (electrical connections, that is.) Newton showed that the universe makes sense as an intricate but rational machine. Even now we think of our brains and our bodies as machines, more or less; if we give them the right fuel and maintenance, they work, but if they break down, we have experts who know how they work and can usually fix them.

But machines-and those computerized, electronic hybrids-get complicated, and pretty soon, so much can go wrong in so many combinations that they are no longer easy to figure out, even for the people who work with them and repair them professionally.

As we know from Star Trek, anything of sufficient complexity can be alive, and even sentient. Essayist Maria Lauenstein married a Buddhist from Sikkim in the Himalayas, who (back in the States) talked to their car and trusted it to find the way when they were lost. It usually did, even when she was driving. That's one kind of evidence. There's also an opposite kind: Sometimes when cars and other machines break down for no apparent reason, they start working again, also for no apparent reason. Entities that do things for no apparent reason must be people.

Machines are important personages in just about every room and every part of our lives. People who aren't Buddhists talk to their cars, and not always in profanities. Some may pat their TV set affectionately as they pass. We conspire with the dishwasher, and feel a sense of common accomplishment when the silverware shines and the wine glasses twinkle. We have relationships with our machines.

Which is why they upset us when they break. It's not just the inconvenience, the cost of repair; it's the betrayal. And it's the guilt. What did we do wrong? Can this relationship be saved? Was it something I did, or is this just another indication that I am not in harmony with the forces of the universe?

This is only my second dishwasher. I hated the first one. I liked this one, mostly because in addition to making noise and noxious fumes, it washed and dried the dishes. You got clean dishes out of the first one only if you washed them before putting them in.

I've only had two cars in my life, and I'd still have the first one if I'd been confident it would make it over the Rockies. I try to do my part in meeting the needs of the machines I'm entrusted with, and I do think of the machines in my life as alive. I'm grateful for their efforts and I take sort of a parental pride in their accomplishments. I don't mind if they have little idiosyncrasies, as long as that doesn't include additional noise or fumes.

Also I don't take machines for granted, and I try to keep them to a minimum. I don't own a cel phone. I've never used a pager or palm organizer. I'm still using a stereo amplifier, now hooked up to a portable CD player, that was built in 1970. It's a good amp. I expect the best from the machines in my life. And I can be stubborn. I'll keep after a problem, no matter the time or energy wasted, which is almost always considerable.

But these days, I am totally surrounded and there are just too many. I don't know why that stereo is skipping like mad just on the last CD cuts. Or why the computer won't download, even after I ran the recovery program which restored all the programs to their original state. I'm sure there are reasonable explanations. But it seems like they've just gone nuts. Or gotten old before their time.

The dryer, however, just needed to breathe better. The intake pipe is free of lint now, and that dryer is hot and tumbling, as good as new.

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

"The power to create context is the recipient's skill...He or she must acquire that skill by learning or by lucky mutation, that is, by a successful raid on the random. The recipient must be, in some sense, ready for the appropriate discovery when it comes." Gregory Bateson
Mind and Nature


"FEAR, fear, is a man's best friend," John Cale once sang, only partly in jest. In some ways it must be---after all, such a strong emotion must have had survival value in repeated situations. Healthy fear, we call it: the fear of large and noisy, fast-moving objects that keeps pedestrians wary at the sidewalk's edge. But like the famous fight- or- flight response set off a dozen times during a normal day in western civilization, fear can be inappropriate, disproportionate and misdirected.

Fear's frenzy contends with areas of awareness, intention and responsibility that are our best excuses for calling ourselves human. Fear abides in the darkness, especially if we see "consciousness as the light of clarity," as does poet Charles Simic, "and history as the dark night of the soul."

Fear is our most important media product, as seen in Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine." The rush of fear jolts our attention, the promised prize of every sponsored moment on television. Fear sells papers.

Fear as entertainment exorcises the tension, but it ritualizes the fear. We don't admit it, but we know it's there. In every act of violence we see, we are victim and executioner. We feel their fear.

The swoon of fear demonstrably clouds our judgment, but then, judgment isn't the point of fear. The point is to move real fast out of harm's way. The body would rather be wrong about the threat than dead from it. The body will forgive mistaking the benign for the dangerous over and over---and perhaps has adapted the laugh response in compensation---in preference to the one possibly fatal mistake of failing to fear the mortal threat.

But for the body politic, it's another story. Fearing the wrong threat blinds the ability to see the real ones; even if the target is correct, excessive fear-and obsessive fear-- can lead to disastrous decisions.

Fear can distort our perceptions in less fraught moments, more quietly, but with greater consistency. A persistent background fear that shapes incoming information, even blocking some out entirely. "It is difficult to get a man to understand something," observed Upton Sinclair, "when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

Fear-mongering is a tried and true tactic of the unscrupulous. These days it is injury accompanied by insult. We threaten your job unless you convince us you're doing it for love. When you're downsized, you're cut down to size: it was your fault. You know they rule by your justifiable fear, but you can't ever let them know you know.

We seem only to recognize how leaders cynically exploit unjustifiable fear years after they are successful in doing so. I will slay the invisible enemy, the emperor cries, and I will tell you when it's been slain. Wearing our fear as a shining suit, this emperor would otherwise have no clothes. Neither would the enemy.

How is it that our enemy is always wrong about us, but we are never wrong about our enemy? Until perhaps these two are no longer enemies, but allies against a common foe. Sometimes fear is all we see.

A society that thrives on fear forgets the future. It burns up the present. The rich oil barons fear a future of taking risks on renewable energy and a different kind of economy, perhaps a different kind of democracy. The middle class fears the loss of the warmth of status even more than the loss of cool stuff. Without hope and without imagination, we fear a future that might be too much like a fearsome image of the past.

" You would think global warming and extinction of species would scare us to death," says author Frances Moore Lappe, "but the truth is that we're even more scared of being different, of breaking with the pack."

What happens to humans when fear becomes a permanent condition? What does it look like then? Is it invisible?

The primal fear is death, or is it? One's definition of death depends on one's definition of life. There is also the fear of losing what you depends on for life, regardless of whether life is possible without it. Or fear of losing yourself, or your conception of yourself. Fear of abandonment. Of insufficiency from within, without, around.

When you face a threat that others don't understand, your fear is amplified; your fear may be of them as much as of the threat itself. "Nobody loves you when you're down and out…Everybody loves you when you're six feet in the ground," John Lennon sang, and everybody loves him, now that he's dead. But during his lifetime: "Everybody's hustling for a buck and a dime. I'll scratch your back, you knife mine."

Fear is not itself an illusion. Fear is felt, tasted. When the object of fear is not an object but a subject, a situation, an idea of safety, normality, peace…then fear may be mistaken, misdirected, misconceived. Or it may be dead on. It may tell you what you don't want to know. Fear, fear is a man's best friend.

But fear awakens fear. Fear may be where the night goes hunting. Fear is the dark forest where the mind stalks itself.

Fear is not an illusion. Fear has to be faced.

And what happens when we lose what we fear to lose, because we fear to lose it?

Or because we are so afraid of the invisible enemy, that we don't pay attention to the ones we could see if we only opened our eyes?

The face of fear may be the face in the mirror.

Wednesday, November 06, 2002

We Were Warned

by William Severini Kowinski

"Power is a poison...The effect of unlimited power on limited mind is worth noting in Presidents because it must represent the same process in society, and the power of self-control must have limit somewhere in face of the limit of the infinite." Henry Adams

"From a marketing perspective, you don't introduce a new product in August."
White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, explaining why the administration waited until after Labor Day to push for war with Iraq

With an apparent election day mandate and a UN Security Council resolution on the way, an American attack on Iraq again looms on the near horizon. But if it happens, we can't say we weren't warned of the consequences.

One such warning comes in a book by an ex-President, about prior calls to get rid of Saddam. "Going in and occupying Iraq, thus unilaterally exceeding the U.N.'s mandate, would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression we hoped to establish," he stated.

The ex-President's name is George Bush.

"Trying to eliminate Saddam, extending the ground war into an occupation of Iraq," according to Bush the First and his National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft in a 1998 book, "...would have incurred incalculable human and political costs. Apprehending him was probably impossible. We had been unable to find Noriega in Panama, which we knew intimately. We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq....Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land."

Besides ex-presidents, the columnists and analysts warning of the dire geopolitical, economic and moral consequences of attacking Iraq, we have the benefit of other voices speaking with the authority-and anguish-of experience in past conflicts.

Notably among them are two men who observed and to some extent participated in decisions early in the Vietnam war. Daniel Ellsberg began working for the Pentagon the same week that Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964 authorizing President Lyndon Johnson to openly deploy American bombs and troops in Vietnam. In what he describes as an unhappy coincidence, Ellsberg was promoting his new book, "Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers" in September, as Congress was passing its authorization to attack Iraq, which Ellsberg called "Tonkin II."

In media interviews and promotional appearances Ellsberg drew strong parallels and lessons from Vietnam to Iraq, from the questionable facts behind the reasons given for attacking, to the lack of understanding concerning the historical and political dynamics of the region.

He also asserted that the U.S. military leadership is unanimously against an invasion of Iraq. Other have pointed out-perhaps Ellsberg's book does as well-that many U.S. military analysts concluded as early as the 1950s that America could not win a war in Vietnam.

Coincidentally or not, Ellsberg's views--that an unprovoked attack would violate international standards and American principles, that it would never lead to democracy in Iraq but would embroil the U.S. in wider warfare for years to come-showed up in a Doonesbury series depicting "previews" of future years' cartoons.

Ellsberg claimed that as in the Vietnam era, American citizens are not getting the information they need. He praised those who have leaked information from inside the government which cast doubt on the official premises for a war on Iraq. He especially emphasized that others should not wait until the killing starts to leak documents, as he did. It wasn't until 1969 that Ellsberg finally sent to the New York Times a top secret Pentagon study revealing that the government had repeatedly and knowingly lied to the American public to justify the war in Vietnam.

Bill Moyers was President Johnson's press secretary in 1964. In a commentary on his weekly PBS program, "Now," Moyers emphasized constitutional and moral issues in arguing passionately against an invasion of Iraq. He recalled that President Johnson became so distraught over the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam war that he sometimes took to his bed and pulled the cover over his eyes. Moyers urged President Bush to heed this lesson before he had to face such consequences.

October marked the 40th anniversary of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and in a commemorative event at the John F. Kennedy Library, Kennedy aide Ted Sorenson pointedly contrasted the decisions made then with the proposed attack on Iraq, in particular the decision that a large country like America should not invade a small one like Cuba without being attacked first, not even with nuclear missiles in place there.

Both Sorensen and former Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara noted that President Kennedy made reference several times that week to "The Guns of August," Barbara Tuchman's history of the beginning of World War I. Kennedy emphasized the book's descriptions of miscalculations on both sides that led to the prolonged tragedy that engulfed the world.

Just as Vietnam was America's trauma, there was turmoil in Europe for a generation after World War I. Many Europeans hadn't believed a war would really come, and leaders on both sides were confident of quick victory once the war started. The length and savagery of trench warfare, the growing destructiveness of weaponry and technology, and the huge number of deaths and crippling injuries were intensely shocking.

When I heard from friends who said Bush would never really invade Iraq because it is so clearly self-destructive, or I saw the TV commentators assuring the U.S. of a brisk and easy victory, I thought of World War I.

Then I read a Jon Carroll column in the San Francisco Chronicle which said, "Folks with a sense of history think of the days before World War I, when everyone was sure that somebody sensible would stop this madness and no one sensible did, and the century of unprecedented carnage began."

Seeing that thought in print produced a real jolt. That my private fears were shared now made it really scary. It sent me to three remarkable films released when war seemed imminent again in the 1930s, including two that directly depicted World War I.

The most famous of these films is "All Quiet on the Western Front," released in 1930. The novel by Erich Maria Remarque about a group of young German soldiers in World War I was an international best seller. The movie version had an equally profound effect. "Image after image was burned into the brain of all of us for whom seeing All Quiet was one of the major experiences of growing up in the 1930s," writes Harvey Swados in the foreword to the novel's paperback edition.

The novel is a first person account from the trenches, simply but eloquently told. The horrors that comprise their daily reality soon transform these young men forever, so that they will never again quite fit into civilian life. "The war has ruined us for everything," the narrator says. "We will be superfluous even to ourselves." After reading this book, no one could think of "post traumatic stress syndrome" as new, or anything but tragically predictable.

At least until recently, this novel was taught in American high schools-possibly because it is short. But it also has a long history of being banned (by the Nazis first of all) when a nation is about to go to war.

The film version, adapted by American playwright Maxwell Anderson, featured mostly American actors playing German soldiers. Their obviously American regional inflections (not yet homogenized a standard mid-Atlantic movie accent) has an odd effect. Their accents and American expressions aren't distancing or awkward at all, but give the film an additional innocence and immediacy, serving the point Remarque makes that soldiers on both sides had more in common with each other than with their leaders, or even with civilians back home. This aspect of the film inevitably also results in some weird moments of displacement, as the viewer realizes that the soldiers we are observing and rooting for, are being attacked by "the right side,"---our side--- in that war.

Remarque quietly dramatizes the disconnect between the realities of war and the noble-sounding shibboleths leaders used to promote eager participation in it. Anderson's adaptation emphasizes this with additional scenes of a teacher whipping his students into a frenzy so that they march off to enlist. The teacher shouts the same Latin phrase ( "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori," meaning "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country") that British poet Wilfred Owen, killed in action at the front, used as the title of a famous war poem published in 1920, calling it "The old Lie."

Another movie pointedly using the horrors of World War I was "J'Accuse," directed by one of the great film innovators, the French auteur, Abel Gance. He made this film twice-a silent version in 1919, and a new talking version in 1938. Though it was mostly a love story, the "special effects" climax showed dead soldiers rising from their graves to warn the populace against another war. The 1919 version was shot during World War I, and real soldiers played this scene, including some who were killed in battle shortly afterwards. The eerie power of this sequence is indescribable.

Scenes in a third film of this era also convey an eerie power, though in a different way. When H.G. Wells adapted one of his books for the screen, his primary intention was not necessarily to produce a cautionary tale about war. Wells was more interested in suggesting a new, better and more sensible world society of the future, but he believed that only a major war would shock humankind into creating it. The resulting movie, "Things to Come" (directed by William Cameron Menzies) has since become something of a science fiction classic. But those first scenes depicting the war to end all wars (which was Wells' phrase before Woodrow Wilson adopted it) turned out to be the most prophetic.

Wells' had a remarkable ability to foresee the technologies of modern war: he was the first novelist to describe what aerial bombing might mean for warfare, as well as predicting armored tanks (which he called the 'land ironclads') and the atomic bomb ( which he named). Perhaps his visions also inspired Menzies' direction in the film's opening sequence, set in London just as war breaks out. To today's veteran movieviewer, these scenes may appear similar to many films depicting the London blitz, perhaps merging newsreel footage with artificial re-creation. But that perception changes as soon as you realize that this film was made in 1935, before any bombs had fallen on London, and before any major bombardments of English or European cities.

This was the aspect of "Things to Come" that Jorge Luis Borges praised in a contemporaneous review, for its salutary effect on "those people who still imagine war as a romantic cavalcade or an opportunity for glorious picnics and free tourism." It can still remind us that bombs meant to punish Saddam Hussein will randomly kill and maim the innocent in Iraq.

How strange it must have seemed to the first audiences of "Things to Come," to see the center of a city, populated only by civilians, suddenly destroyed by the bombs and missiles of an invisible enemy, when it had never happened in reality. This scene, too, was science fiction. But today it is a reality of every war. All of these movies are about the realities of every war. We can't say we haven't been warned.

While several of these films are blatantly anti-war, not all of these warnings say or imply that war is never necessary. Ellsberg and Moyers, for example, are not pacifists. But the consequences of war must be realistically anticipated, and the decision to inflict war is extremely serious, requiring (unless in the act of actually repelling an attack) scrupulous consideration, honest information and debate. It is very easy to get swept up in war fever.

It is interesting what might break that fever. Perhaps one of these voices, one of these films. Or something as simple as a painting.

I was struck by something Robert MacNamara recalled during the Kennedy Library symposium (shown on C-Span), about that fateful week in 1962 when the world faced imminent nuclear destruction, and a group of men around a table in Washington were deciding the fate of the earth.

The meetings of that committee had to be secret, and so they weren't held in the official offices of the White House. These leaders met instead in the Yellow Oval Room in the presidential residence portion of the White House. MacNamara recalled-forty years later-that sitting there they were surrounded by the paintings of Cezanne.

It seemed to me to be a remarkable thing to remember. It obviously meant something to him. Intrigued, I checked with the Kennedy Library and learned that there were indeed two Cezanne paintings in that room in 1962 ( "House on the Marne" and "The Forest") and perhaps one other elsewhere in the White House. A single donor had given eight Cezannes to the White House; the others were transferred to the Smithsonian.

MacNamara's comment seemed to suggest he saw more than two paintings, but perhaps their effect was powerful enough to produce a memory of more. Even two Cezanne landscapes would certainly stand out, especially in comparison to the paintings in the West Wing and the Oval Office itself, which tended to depict historical moments, battles and western scenes painted by American artists.

If MacNamara remembered these paintings, isn't it possible that sitting there that week, those men were affected by their presence? Could they have played a part in reminding them of the beauty that would disappear forever if they got too caught up in the Great Powers, Cold War, standard catalogue of acts and responses? Could "The Forest" have cooled the fever? Could beauty really tame the beast?

Wednesday, October 23, 2002

by William Severini Kowinski

From the Pony Express to the expressway, America has always loved speed. We invented a culture based on the efficiency of the assembly line and time-saving technology, on rapid promotion and upward mobility, the can-do and the quick fix, hot jazz and hard rock, instant coffee and instantaneous communications, the quarterly report and doing better than dad; on fast cars on fast highways making fast deliveries of the newest products, promising quick results and fast relief for those on the fast track. Among our icons are Speedy Alka Seltzer, Quick Draw McGraw, Fast Eddie, and a number of fast women.

But now we're not so sure. America looks increasingly like the land of the frazzled and the home of the frayed. What was once America's pride is becoming a cause of collapse. It's crept up on us unconsciously but now in one way or another we're saying it out loud: We're worried about the speed of life.

Some years back, in the early 1990s (does anybody remember?) we made a book called The Overworked American a best seller. Its author, Harvard economist Juliet Schor, contends Americans in every income category are working much longer hours than forty years ago. Even the rapidly diminishing number of women who stay home put in more time doing housework, despite their "labor-saving" devices.

From the ups and downs of the economy through the 1980s and 90s until today's uncertain economy, one thing remains consistent: many people are either working longer hours in the hopes of keeping their jobs or businesses, or putting in frenzied unpaid hours looking for work, while spending a month once a week coping with the stolidly maddening bureaucracy of the unemployment office.

The impact of so many hours spent wrapped up in scrapping for sustenance sends out devastating ripples through private life and society. More and more must be done in less and less time, leading to stress-related health problems, and contributing to alcoholism, prescription and illegal drug use, child and spouse abuse and neglect, suicide, and accidents on the job and on the highway caused by the sleepy and the wired.

But it's more than overwork. The speed of life involves many other factors, such as technology, values and the subjective experience of time in this paradoxical society where people wait impatiently for their instant dinner to emerge from the microwave oven.

We experience the speed of life as too many things happening too fast. It's split focus, divided selves and cognitive dissonance that have become the norm. It's disappearing leisure, but also vanishing civility, tolerance, deliberation, craftsmanship and reflection. We're outrunning our own senses--of sight, smell, taste and hearing as well as of perspective, decency, hope and humor. It all adds up to a dizzying, exhausting and distressing daily spin. Increasingly we're confronted with a vital question: does life have a speed limit, and are we exceeding it?

No institution has felt the impact more than the family. When half of American fathers and a third of mothers work more than 40 hours a week, poor parents must often leave children unattended, and even higher income parents rush around from jobs to child care, schools to swimming lessons, scheduling residual "quality time" when they can. Meanwhile their hurried children are pressured to learn more faster, take more tests affecting their future sooner, while spending more time in the work world, learning valuable lessons in fryer management and smileology. While time management consultants offer to start with six year olds, the tension of overorganized lives can reach the breaking point--we never know when one of us will snap like elastic, or like an overregimented postal worker with a grievance-loaded gun. The Girl Scouts now give a merit badge in stress management.

It's this speed that has helped turn the suburban dream of peace and surcease into a blur of entrances and exits, and made the famous New York Minute seem about forty-five seconds too long.

Friendships and community bonds also take time, and so they suffer. Our community institutions wither: no one has time anymore to volunteer for the food bank or the art museum. Combined with our individualism and the breakdown of all binding forms and loyalties, the speed of life makes us lonely: it leaves us bereft when we feel a loss, and even forlorn when we triumph.

Meanwhile, speed batters our hearts and minds. Information floods us constantly, but it blips and vanishes faster than we can take it in; every item masquerading as vital knowledge in the competing clutter is a perishable product clamoring for our attention so insistently that inflated claims and distortions routinely add to the constant rush of inescapable ballyhoo.

Our memories are overrun, and our battle to just keep up obliterates our appreciation of the present and our vision of the future, so that today we are literally destroying the forests for the trees. In what Joni Mitchell memorably calls this "land of snap decisions, land of short attention spans", we are overbooked, overextended, overstimulated and overloaded; but we are also spiritually, intellectually and experientially underfed.

Time seems abstract and ethereal until you realize you don't have enough of it. Then it becomes clear that time is the very substance of life. But the quandary is how to slow down without giving up: how to get control of the speed of life.

To the jobless and underemployed as well as to those who are working harder in the desperate hope of staying even, the problems of speed and time may seems secondary but they are not. As Schor's statistics show, working longer hours does not mean being more productive, nor is an virtually indentured workforce necessary to a strong economy. Constantly responding to the same pounding uncontrollable schedule leads to high stress, fatigue, boredom, hostility--and inefficiency. Some American experiments as well as contemporary European practices indicate that more leisure and a workday "slowed down" by meaningful participation can increase productivity.

Still captives of obsolete Industrial Age attitudes towards time, American companies irrationally resist flex-time and parental leave, while both work and workers suffer. The quality of intellectual work clearly deteriorates in the manic clamor. But workplace innovations such as quality teams, fostering creativity and honoring achievement, and new forms of employment security, can also contribute to slowing down the speed of life.

That's because the speed of life is also subjective. Anxiety frenzies time; security blesses it. Powerlessness poisons time; autonomy reifies it. The paradox of time is that a moment experienced fully--a moment infused with meaning--slows down the overall sense of life speeding by. We need to assert more control over our time and begin to seek meaning as a way of slowing things down.
The issue of control is crucial. We feel empty and impatient standing on line and sitting in traffic partly because we're conditioned to constant stimulation and anticipation--we don't know what to do with the moment when we're not struggling to ride the tide. We've ceded control over how we experience our time. We have to reclaim our own rhythms.

In many ways, speed is a boundary problem. Americans started out with the motto, "Don't fence me in." Although we still crave for the minimally wide-open spaces of suburbia, we seem content to let everyone and everything invade our time. But even if we can move to a better place, we're stuck in our allotted space of days, moments, years. And the time may have come to defend the boundaries around the substance of our freedom: the integrity of our time.

If we start looking at societal problems in terms of time, there's hope for structural and attitude changes that allow us more variation, more control and more leisure. We can also slow down the speed of life by changing our experience of time. We've learned to ignore what our bodies and spirits tell us. We ignore the world's time--the cycles, the seasons, our life time. But our experience of speed involves our relationship to the rhythms of the natural world--from the seasons of leaves to the lifetime of a redwood, to the seasons of a child and the lastingness and goodness of what we leave behind for them and future generations. We must reintegrate cyclical time into consciousness and culture, as counteractive to the linear rush to nowhere.

We have to reintroduce some forgotten elements into the mix of our days--such as dreamtime, reflection, reverie--and legitimize and readmit to daily life a sense of the sacred. We can see ourselves in the fabric of generations, through art and culture.

Getting back in control of the speed of life is not easy.Not everyone can fold their mortgaged tent and head for rural villages in search of a simpler and slower life. But giving time its value and priority can lead to slow progress in slowing things down. Schor asserts that one reason Americans work so hard is to finance the time and money they spend in what another author (I believe it was me) called our cathedrals of consumption, the shopping malls (real or virtual.) When economic pressure forces reappraisals of consumption, we may come to realize that the real material of life is time. When calmer and fuller moments of your life begin to mean more than status or a new speedboat, then you can begin to design a lifestyle according to how much money you can make in the time you want to devote to making it. (Today's underemployed have an unwanted but perhaps valuable opportunity to begin this reevaluation.)

This is an inevitable component of seeking a better future while creating a better present. In addition to a sustainable economy and sustainable environment with sustainable energy sources, we must find a speed of life that we can sustain, and that can sustain us.

Monday, October 07, 2002

West Nile Virus: Tip of the Global Heating Iceberg?

It's perhaps an intemperate metaphor-and one tending toward the wrong end of the thermometer-to suggest that the West Nile virus outbreak throughout North America is the tip of the iceberg. But so far, few seem to realize why this might be so.

Media attention has focused on the geographical progress of the virus which has infected hundreds and killed at least 45 by mid September, and whether the blood supply is contaminated. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont suggests it could be a bioterrorism plot. While there are many factors potentially involved, one is conspicuously unmentioned in most reports: global heating.

But even though the dots are all there, nobody is connecting them.
The September 14 San Francisco Chronicle reported the first confirmed case of West Nile virus in California. The front page of the same edition proclaimed "Hottest summer since 1930s" and "2002 drought worst since Dust Bowl."

Why press reports aren't making the connection is suggested in another pair of story in the next day's Chronicle: one story reports that the West Nile virus is killing more than 110 species of birds, including red-tailed hawks and great horned owls "by the thousands," and naturalists are worried about the endangered California condor. On the very next page, there's a story headlined "EPA report ignores global warming, with White House OK" by Andrew C. Revkin, reprinted from New York Times. It begins "Nearly every mention of global warming has been stricken from the annual federal report on air pollution..." quotes an EPA official "There's a complete paranoia [in the White House]about anything on climate...and everything has to be reviewed widely."

But at least one observer close to the ground at least alluded to the connection. When press attention was focused on the outbreak in Louisiana earlier this summer, a state health official commented, "As long as the warm weather lasts, we're going to have a problem."

As global heating continues, we're going to be having the problem for a long time. West Nile virus is only one of a number of diseases carried by mosquitoes and other bugs that are flourishing because of global heating. In many places in North America, the summers are not just hotter, they're longer. The winters are also warmer in places like Pennsylvania, so the usual diebacks in wood ticks, for instance, during the cold months isn't happening as much. Ticks can carry and infect humans with Lyme Disease, among other health hazards.

The drought in California is driving animals from their usual niches and into suburban and even city neighborhoods. Rats are drinking from the swimming pools in Beverly Hills.

The West Nile virus is in the news now, but the problem of mosquito-borne diseases has been quietly growing. Locally transmitted malaria outbreaks were recorded from Texas and Florida to New Jersey and New York, and as far north as Toronto in the 1990s, which was the hottest decade in 600 years. In September of 2002, malaria-carrying mosquitoes were found in Leesburg, Virginia, near the homes of two teenagers infected with the disease.

Malaria has also been found in southern Europe and parts of Asia and South Africa. Globally, the areas on mountain tops where it remains below freezing all year have shrunk; now mosquitoes are mountain climbing. Insect-borne diseases have reached the highlands of South and Central America, Asia and areas of Africa. There were cases of dengue fever in Mexico a mile from sea level.

The connection between global heating and the spread of these diseases has been made by scientists but hasn't yet reached the press or public. But if global heating ever becomes a major emotional issue in the U.S., it will likely be because of disease epidemics. Chunks of Alaska could sink into the vanishing permafrost without bothering anybody in Manhattan (NY or Kansas) but an epidemic of Lyme Disease in the Hamptons or malaria in Los Angeles might break the ice.

Note: This essay is also a kind of prologue to a longer piece, "Empire of the Ants," which enlists H.G. Wells and the 1950s sci-fi classic "Them!" to discuss the cultural evolution of human self-extinction. You can find it over at

Friday, September 27, 2002

Something unusual happened to me the other night: I got involved in an intellectual conversation. Since I live on the fringes of academia, and what little socializing I do is likely to be with professors and students, you might think this kind of thing happens all the time. But in my experience college teachers talk mostly about the same things that other middle class American adults talk about: office politics, their houses, children, food, health, absent friends and colleagues. Here in northern California there is a lot of talk about gardening. Did I mention food? People love talking about food.

I don't know what students talk about amongst themselves these days, but when I was a student we did have intellectual discussions, even though we didn't know very much and we had little in the way of life experiences, however many we were getting at the time. We also had intellectual discussions with faculty members, not only in class but in their offices or informally around the oak tables in the campus coffee shop. I remember taking my paper cup of coffee to a table where two faculty members were talking-I knew one of them pretty well, but not the other one. It took me a moment to understand what they were talking about. Was it Sartre or Hemingway? Was it particle physics or analytic philosophy or political organization in Southeast Asia? No, it was tires.

They were talking about tires. About buying tires, the different kinds of tires and which was better for what vehicle, and how much they cost. I think disillusion is too weak a word for what I felt. I actually felt embarrassed for them. Here they were, two professors, caught talking about tires.

But of course that was before I went out into the world and learned the hard way that poets don't talk about poetry, but about money, grants, publication and enemies. And so on. Some of the topics change according to age and relationship status: untold hours describing and analyzing sex and sex partners and identity crises, which eventually morph into years of hours on children and midlife crises, followed by descriptions of surgeries and senior moments. And the gender, class and race variations: so we add sports, shopping, traffic, travel and encounters with the law and bureaucracies, to the staples of job, family, stuff and other people. And food.

It wasn't always so. Among educated people, conversation used to mean what we call intellectual conversation: a combination of inquiry, wit, storytelling and gentle debate that involved matters of broad importance and meaning even when grounded in the specific. In Europe through the nineteenth century those who could talk well, who had wit, powers of description or analysis, were prized as friends and dinner guests. "In my opinion the most profitable and most natural exercise of our minds is conversation. To me it is a more agreeable occupation than any other in life, " Montaigne wrote. Jane Austen's heroines prize it; even Lewis Carroll's Alice is fond of it.

This kind of conversation, which in the west must go back to the walking talks in the Greek gymnasium and Persian gardens, defined civilized discourse at court and in the salons in many cultures. It can be characterized by a light and breezy wit. But it can also excite the mind and heart and spirit.

At various times the prevailing styles of such conversation veered towards superficial sophistication and poseur cynicism. But three other possibilities occur to me as reasons why conversation has largely died out in our time and place. The first is front and center in Sinclair Lewis' Main Street, in which a barely educated young American woman finds herself trapped in a small town on the American prairie in the early twentieth century, where rigid and narrow mercantile values suppress any intellectual inquiry, political dissent or even much fun.

Carol Kennicott, the American Bovary, yearns not so much for sexual romance as for a little bit of transcendence from the everyday. She yearns specifically for what she calls conversation: the entertainment of ideas, the play of serious questions.

Our society is more affluent and less rigid in some ways, but the values of Main Street have hardened to become the ground of reality. There is what you do to earn and how you spend, and that's pretty much it.

On the Main Street of my hometown there was a public library. In high school in the early 1960s I took out a book by historian Richard Hofstader called "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life." When I was back in my hometown researching and writing "The Malling of America" I went back to the public library-now housed in a much bigger building a block below Main Street-to look for the Hofstader book. This was the early 1980s, before computerized card catalogues, and the books still had those pockets with cards in the back. The cards had the names of borrowers and the date due. I found "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life"---it was the same dark blue bound copy I'd taken out in high school. And there was my name at the top of the card. It was the only name on the card.

As Stan Lee, the great intellectual of comic books was wont to say, 'Nuff said.

The second factor stems from the increase in the sheer amount of knowledge-or let's say data-and especially the resulting specialization that became a fact of everyday life in the twentieth century. Nobody today can possibly be familiar with as high a proportion of the available knowledge as an educated person in Europe or England or perhaps even America in the eighteenth or even the late nineteenth century. Along with specialization has come the special languages, which at best allow specialists to communicate efficiently about their specialty, but more often results in jargon impenetrable to any non-specialist, and not terribly meaningful even to those who purport to understand it.

This must certainly be a factor in the rarity of intellectual conversation in academic circles, where people from different disciplines may be engaged in very specific topics perhaps too complex or just of little interest to anyone else even if they could understand the jargon, but in any case the jargon itself is sufficiently discouraging. (My own view is that jargon is often an elaborate mask hiding its own triviality and emptiness, but that's another story...)

The third factor is how rushed and overstuffed most lives are today. Much of that is unavoidable, but much of it would lessen with less consumption and less TV, but again, that's another story.

What they add up to, I fear, is a culture which avoids and suppresses intellectual conversation. Somehow it has become suspect, embarrassing almost. It's particularly eerie here on the fringes of academia. You meet all these people who supposedly know something, but they never talk about it. They talk about tires. Does that mean they don't care about their subject-it's just their job? After hours and years of teaching, are they tired of talking about it? Do they think we're too dumb to understand, or that we'd all really rather talk about tires? Or maybe they all know something I don't, which is that talking about food is much more interesting to people and there's something wrong with me. Which, to be frank, is how I feel most of the time in social situations.

Sometimes I've thought that academics believe others are uninterested in their subjects, or that if they talked about them they would sound elitist and snobbish. But I have some evidence that they don't even talk this way with their colleagues.

A few years ago my partner and I went to a play with another couple and chatted afterwards in the car coming home. Two of the four occupants were teachers in the same department, and they chatted about a faculty meeting earlier that day. One of the faculty members in the car-the one I wasn't living with-was a full professor who just returned from an interesting teaching experience while on sabbatical, and he mentioned a colleague who had just returned from a year of research in a foreign country. What was this colleague researching? I asked. The professor didn't know.

It was then I spoke wistfully of my old naiveté, when I thought departmental faculty meetings were occasions for professors to discuss their research and current thoughts in the discipline that they presumably all had in common. He was astounded at this idea, and a little excited. He vowed to bring it up at the next meeting.

Later I learned that indeed he did: he suggested that all the faculty members talk briefly about whatever research or ideas in their field was occupying them. The response was tepid, I was told, a little confused and with some suspicion that it was trick, a kind of covert performance review. The topic failed to become a regular item on the agenda.

Then, I imagine, somebody asked if anyone knew of an ongoing special on oil change, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

Of course, now that I have a car (which I didn't as a student) I also talk about tires. I talk about daily life, and enjoy the exchange of information and opinions of others about their daily lives. Even about faculty meetings. (Not about food, though. Unless it's Italian.) It's just that I'd like this to not be the only topics or kind of conversation.

So in many ways the other night was a surprise. My professor partner and I went to the home of friends-one of her colleagues (though in a different department) and the colleague's husband, a musician and lately a student, finishing a degree in English. A friend of his from New York, another musician, was visiting, which was the occasion for this gathering. We've had enjoyable afternoons and evening there before, of conversation and music (and food-though it is not high on my list of conversational topics, I do enjoy consuming it.) But this time it was a little different.

Maybe it was because we got there early, and there were only six of us, sitting around the living room, eating from the buffet and drinking wine.
We talked about New York, about northern California, and several of the above mentioned topics appropriate to our age and class. We talked politics and war. Then our mature English student mentioned the reactions of other students to some tenets of deconstruction, and suddenly, we were off.

We went flying across literary theory, the reputed death of the author and romantic concepts of creativity to whether it was possible to know Truth or define Nature, swooping down to the conflicts over rivers and water here in California, the relative efficiency of rural versus urban life, and so on. We disagreed, challenged each other, threw support one way and then the other, got ticked, laughed. I had a great time, and I can tell you a little of why.

Conversations like this are explorations, not only of the topics, but of the process of discussion and argument. They are explorations of ourselves and of each other. The experience is far from being only cerebral. I enjoyed hearing myself say things I didn't know I knew, but I also rolled my inner eyes at hearing myself pontificating, and I felt bad when I realized something I said might have sounded insulting. I enjoyed what others said and how they said it. Sometimes it struck a nerve. It was exciting.

I discovered aspects of people I didn't know about. One was a stranger, an environmental sciences student who came in a little later and was immediately drawn into the debate-his immediate and impromptu comments on the water issue were pertinent and well informed. I admired his knowledge and his eloquence. Hey, this younger generation might not all be like the students across the street, bullet headed hulks drinking beer while being pulled on their skateboards by one of their huge dogs.

One of the original six-the hostess of the evening, wife to our mature English student-added her comments on Derrida (a primary deconstructionist). She is a scholar who has published a book in her field and is working on another. But I've never heard her talk about the substance of her work. I had no idea she had read Derrida. I had no idea it was even possible to read Derrida-what little I had read was impenetrable. (I had to turn to essays and commentaries by reliable interpreters to tell me what it said. But of course that doesn't stop me from pontificating.) It was a different side to her. And in a few words it told me something about how she thought and approached things beyond deconstructionism. More perhaps even than learning the name of her favorite restaurant might.

This conversation, this part of the evening, lasted no more than a half hour, but it stayed with me the next day. I felt I had to learn more about the water issue, and I should have more specific information on how agri-business wastes water. I thought about the urban versus rural uses of energy, and what else was involved in evaluating their relative merits.
I even thought about looking up a little Derrida, but that feeling passed almost immediately.

I was motivated to learn more, which became a more generalized feeling. I felt validated in my concerns and preoccupations that ordinarily seemed to have no relevance to anyone or anything else in the day to day.

We are more than our jobs and daily worries and wants. We are more even than our families and webs of relationships. We are more than our stuff. That "more" is not just an add-on either. It is as essential and as integral. It contributes to the form and the contents of our lives, our relationships, our moment on the planet. It's worth going there once in awhile, and sharing that aspect of ourselves.

It's easy enough for me to remember that, since I never stopped consciously being a student, even though I left school long ago. It's not so easy when other responsibilities take precedence, and particularly when you need to fit into the cultures of a particular place or occupation that don't include this kind of expression or these concerns.

But here we are, adults of some education, with years of living and intellectual, emotional, spiritual and practical experiences, who have seen and participated in history simply by virtue of being around this long, who have tested ideas in the world and in our internal responses, who have observed and shared aspects of many other lives and possibly other cultures. Why should we limit ourselves to a culture of the exclusively mundane?

What are we doing here? What is Truth, what is Reality?

Here, let me fill your glass.

Friday, September 20, 2002

What they did on their summer vacation

As the summer of 2002 comes to a close, here's the best story I heard this year about a summer adventure. It's an old fashioned American story, and it starts on the Fourth of July. And it's all true...

What could be more American than watching fireworks on the Mississippi River on Independence Day? But for Bara Dockolova, a twenty-five year old student from the Czech Republic, a different kind of American experience was a few days away---an unexpected afternoon speaking the Czech language with residents of a tiny town in South Dakota founded by Czech immigrants more than a hundred and thirty years ago.

Bara is a student at Charles University in Prague, which was the first university founded in the Holy Roman Empire in the 14th century, and is perhaps the oldest university in continental Europe. Though she spent last year studying drama at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, she didn't see much of America. So she returned for a seven week visit this summer.

At the top of her wish list for what she wanted to see was the Mississippi River. "I read Mark Twain when I was eight or nine," she said. The Misssissippi figures in much of Twain's writing, including the novels Bara read as a child, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. "And I knew it is a really big river, bigger than any we have in the Czech Republic. So I wanted to see it."

John Heckel, Associate Professor in the Department of Theatre, Film and Dance at Humboldt State, was Bara's sponsor for her academic year in America. Since he was going to be in Iowa when Bara was scheduled to arrive in the United States, he volunteered to take her to the Mississippi. John had gone to college in Iowa, and knew the area well.

John met Bara's plane at the O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, and drove through Illinois, arriving on the banks of the Mississippi in the evening, just in time to watch fireworks erupt all up and down the river. It was the Fourth of July, America's Independence Day, and all the river towns were celebrating by sending rockets of light into the night.

They spent the next day on the Iowa side of the river, at a state park near Dubuque where the Mississippi is widest. "It's farther north than Huckleberry Finn went," Bara said, "but the smell of the river, the heat and the feel of the air-it was one of my favorite days, that day on the Mississippi."

But Bara's adventure was just beginning. John's plan was to drive the 3,400 miles to California in seven days, staying off the major highways as much as possible so they could see more of the American landscape. They would be traveling through the long heartland in the middle of the continent, from flat farmland and prairie in Iowa, north to the high plains and mountains of South Dakota and Wyoming.

Taking backroads requires planning, and it was while Bara was studying a roadmap that she came upon the name of a very small town in southeastern South Dakota that sounded familiar. "I saw this little spot on the map that said 'Tabor,' and I thought, 'this sounds Czech-this is a Czech word," Bara said. "'Tabor' means 'camp' in Czech, and it's also the name of a town in the south of the Czech Republic, a very old town. I told John and he said 'do you want to check it out?' and I said 'yes,' so we went there."

"'Do you want to check it out' became an ongoing, continuous joke," John Heckel added, "especially when we got to the outskirts of Tabor and saw the billboard sign: 'Czech it out.'" It was obvious then that the name of the town was more than a coincidence, or something from a forgotten past.

Many cities and towns in America have names that refer to places in Europe that immigrant settlers once called home, but as these towns grew and people of different ancestries arrived, the connection to these origins was largely broken. That's not true of Tabor, South Dakota, as Bara and John quickly learned.

Tabor is a very small town-its official population is 403-located in Bon Homme County, in an isolated corner just over the eastern South Dakota border, about 62 miles south of Sioux Falls and 144 miles north of Omaha, Nebraska.

The first place they saw in town was the "combination gas station, ice cream parlor and grocery store" (as John described it) called "The Czech Stop." The 17 year old girl behind the counter confirmed that "Everybody here is Czech," and directed them to the home of Mildred Cimpl for information on the town's history. (Though the name would be pronounced "Chimp-el" in Czech, Bara said, everyone in Tabor pronounced it as the Americanized "Simple.")

John and Bara were greeted at the door by Leonard Cimpl, who waved away their explanations and invited them to come inside out of the heat. "He didn't seem surprised, " Bara said. "It was as if he was expecting us."

Bara and Leonard immediately began speaking in Czech. "He apologized for his accent," Bara said, "but he spoke Czech very well. His vocabulary was excellent." In his 70s, Leonard Cimpl was born in the United States, and learned his Czech in Tabor. Some Tabor citizens visit the Czech Republic often, but others who learned the language from parents and grandparents and in local Czech language classes have never been there.

After meeting Mildred Cimpl, the treasurer of the Czech Historical Preservation Society, Bara and John followed Leonard Cimpl to see Vancura Memorial Park in the center of town, which contains several of the original buildings from Tabor's early years in the 19th century.

Czech pioneers settled here in 1869. Among the buildings preserved in the park is the original 1873 log schoolhouse, believed to be the oldest surviving public building in South Dakota. Also reconstructed was the first church built in the Dakota Territory by Czech pioneers, and an early Czech log house which Bara recognized as a "chalupa"---a house commonly found in rural areas that sheltered a farm family and livestock separately but in the same structure.

Leonard Cimpl and another man in his seventies conducted a private tour for Bara and John, and the two Tabor men delighted in speaking Czech with Bara as they did so. One highlight both John and Bara remember was viewing the interior of the log home, and a living area furnished as it would have been in the 1870s. This area was roped off, and they stood for a moment silently appreciating it. "It was like looking at a picture of how people used to live," John said. "But then one of the men suddenly crossed the rope, stepped into the picture, and pulled out a book that had been sitting on the desk there, and handed it to Bara."

John was startled by this museum piece suddenly taken out of this picture of the past and placed in the real world, but when Bara saw what the book was, she was even more surprised.

"It was an old Czech prayer book," she said. "At Charles University, we study books like this in our language classes, to see how grammar has changed, how the language has changed over time. But to study them we have to go to the archive, fill out a special form and have the book brought to you. You can't have any food or drink, and you must turn the pages very carefully. Now someone had just handed me a book like that, and I was holding it. It was amazing for me to imagine that long ago a woman carried this book with her in a ship from Europe and then in a wagon across the prairie-she didn't know what was in front of her, and the only thing she had, her only hope, was this book, and she looked in it every day to pray-it was very strange to be holding it now."

If they thought the surprises and coincidences were over at that point, Bara and John were in for at least one more. They were escorted into another room where photographs lined all the walls. The photos were of actors in the annual Czech play, done in Czech by Tabor's townspeople.

"That was amazing-to walk around that room and see pictures from plays in 1905, 1908, 1892," John said, "and to see these people from the town all dressed up in costumes, and the sets they made."

"They told us that the play always includes young people, so even if they haven't learned to speak Czech fluently, they can at least learn a few words by being in the play," Bara said.

Did the men from Tabor react to the information that their visitors happened to be involved in theatre, and that one of them performed in plays in the Czech Republic?

"Not really," John said. "I think for them the plays they do-19th century Czech melodramas-are still more of a community event, rather than theatre pieces."

Still, "I might send them some new scripts," Bara said.

The annual play is not the only Tabor heritage event. Every June for the past 54 years, the community has hosted "Czech Days." This year the weekend program featured band concerts, the Tabor Beseda Dancers, a Czech Polka Mass at St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church, the crowning of a festival king and queen, and of course plenty of food-especially the Czech pastries called "kolaches." The event typically begins with a big parade, which has attracted as many as 5,000 people to Tabor.

They missed the parade and the play, but for Bara Dockolova, the accidental visit to Tabor was a unique experience in a week of wonders. "It was one of the best weeks of my life," she said, a day before she was scheduled to fly back to Prague.

For John Heckel, the best part of the afternoon was seeing how pleased the two Tabor men were that Bara was so interested, especially when Tabor is starting to change, and its identity is endangered by growth from a larger nearby town. "I was really neat," John said, "to see these two older guys enjoy the fact that somebody Bara's age would appreciate what they had spent their whole lives keeping alive."

Thursday, September 12, 2002

Will Bush Invade Florida?

Today's newspaper carries an article that says America wants to bring democracy to Iraq. It also contains an article that suggests America is having enough problems bringing democracy to Florida. Two years after the 2000 election debacle, several Florida counties are again having problems counting ballots. There's a picture of two officials apparently hypnotized by the chads they're staring at-and it's déjà vu all over again.

But two years has also allowed Judge Mark Wagstaff of Florida's Fredonia County Superior Court to refine his instructions on how to intepret the ballots. Though his instructions are specifically about the 2000 presidential election, they can be applied to primary races through a second document not available at press time, but which reportedly involves a manual, a spreadsheet and a pair of dice.

The Judge's instructions read in part:

1.Hanging or dangling chads: If the chad appears to have a noose around its neck, assume it is a black voter. Count for Gore.

2. Swinging chad: if the swinging chad appears to be holding a martini, count for Bush.

3. Pregnant chads: If the chad became pregnant in wedlock, count for Buchanan. If the chad is now married but became pregnant out of wedlock, Bush. If the chad is unmarried, Gore. If it is a false pregnancy, Nader.

4. Dimpled chads: Is it a Shirley Temple type dimple? Bush. Is it a Cary Grant type dimple? Gore.

If a chad detaches itself while you are examining it:

Ask one of the TV camera operators to rewind the tape to the appropriate moment, and review in slo mo. Note that the evidence must be convincing to change a previous ruling at the table.

If after detaching, the chad begins dancing on the table, take an immediate one hour break.

If you are still not sure, call anyone in the county named Chad and ask how he voted. In alternate cases, do the opposite of what he says. However, Chad's response is disqualified entirely if:

1. His response begins with "Gosh"

2. He says he must first confer with current or former fraternity brothers.

If a ballot appears completely unmarked, open the door and throw it on the floor in front of the ladies and gentlemen in the brown shirts being led in screaming and pounding by a genial p.r. person. After 30 seconds, retrieve the ballot and begin interpreting the tears, holes and smudges. See the John Cage Method for Decision-Making for further instructions.

Wednesday, September 04, 2002


This is an unpublished piece I wrote last year, shortly after 9/11. It's something I'd been thinking about for awhile, but it also represents as aspect of the 9/11 aftermath most apt to be forgotten at its anniversary: the expressions of a social ethic, of brotherhood and altruism and what I consider the social contract of community.

But as the 9/11 anniversary approaches, America is apparently abuzz about a television show called American Idol, which seems to mostly celebrate meanness and zero-sum competition. This show, along with the brief popularity of "The Weakest Link" and various permutations of "Survivor"-a show with a dishonest premise (that this is how survival in the wild is accomplished) carried out dishonestly (i.e. manipulated if not rigged)-seem to say that people are reveling in the opposite of altruism or that spirit of 9/11. They want to watch people being mean and manipulative.

I tend to think the entertainment value of such programs has less to do with a social ethic than with a compensatory rebellion for all the forced niceness and phony images of "have a nice day" friendliness demanded in most jobs today, from corporate managers to badly paid fast food clerks.

Still, if 9/11 changed many things, its effect on civility wasn't all that lasting. But its anniversary shouldn't go by without a reminder of the kind of behaviors we're capable of, and perhaps even desire.

"You'd Do the Same for Me"

A few days after the World Trade Center towers came down, a fireman from Michigan or some other place distant from New York City was explaining to the TV reporter why he was starting a 24-hour shift digging through the rubble: because the firemen working there and buried there were his brothers. And because "they'd do the same for me."

That phrase once before had prompted a moment of illumination for me. I was living in Pittsburgh at the time, nursing a coffee one afternoon while reading and writing at a table in a restaurant in my neighborhood. I knocked a pen to the floor which was immediately picked up by a maintenance worker, a black man who I judged to be past 60 years old. As he handed it back to me I thanked him, and he said simply, "You'd do the same for me." He said it with a casual gravity, as though it was something he said regularly, but it also had the quality and weight of a personal mantra of some importance.

It wasn't the first time I'd heard it of course, but this time it hit me differently, mostly because of who said it to me and the sound of his voice. Gradually I realized what an important statement it is. It sums up entire philosophies and puts many book-length ethical treatises to shame. "You'd do the same for me" is nothing less than the basis of civil behavior, from courtesy to heroism.

By saying it to me, moreover, this man was stating both his own moral standard and his faith that others share it in the delicate informal system of day-to-day civilization. In the simplicity of this statement, in its simple assumptions, he was educating me and challenging me to rise to this standard. It is in some ways an ultimate equality, and a testament of faith in human possibility and the human heart.

I've thought about this for years. I wanted to write about it, about how I saw its truth in the ordinary behavior of so many ordinary people, there on the Murray Avenue and everywhere I traveled, and now where I live in Arcata. I confess I hesitated. I really don't need more rejection in my life, and this idea seemed so counter to the attitudes that news media, entertainment and books like to present as the prevailing one in society: Look out for number one, dog eat dog (and top dog fires disposable little dog); he who dies with the most toys wins.

And then after the shock of epic violence came the surprises of the response: not just the volunteers in the hell of lower Manhattan, but the people bringing food and flowers to them, or giving blood and contributing money when the economy is doubly uncertain, and being conspicuously kind to each other. Such behavior may be temporary, or our attention to it may be what's fleeting. And its opposite has also emerged in racist violence. But I am struck also by the biographies of the random victims in this deadly episode. So many of these people are remembered for their dedication to others, their efforts to benefit future generations as well as those around them in their lifetime.

And among them are heroes, quite probably including someone from our own community. Those who study altruism notice that people who go to extraordinary lengths to help others often don't think there's anything unusual about it. "They'd do the same for me" is the foundation of beliefs they can't otherwise explain.

That fireman's words-spoken diffidently, as if he didn't expect anyone to really understand-also illuminated a very different phrase that was stuck in my mind. I don't remember who said it but it struck me as true, though I couldn't say why: "the reason academic infighting is so vicious is that so little is at stake." In the light of those too-often repeated explosions, I realized this could be applied to any arena-business, family, politics, small towns.

Compared to life and death and to our common interest in the basic behaviors of living together, the envy, betrayal, cynicism and denial that rule so often in so many arenas can't be accepted as the inevitable responses of human nature nor the unfortunate byproducts of a generally beneficial economic system. They are what some in past generations would call them: small and mean. Because most often so little is really at stake for the perpetrators, while the consequences are profound for others, and for the fabric of our common lives. In times of crisis our best instincts seem to tell us this.

All of this emboldens me to assert that "you'd do the same for me" is a mantra in the heart of millions. Perhaps they do not always hear it, or even literally believe it, but it is our common faith, the ideal we live by as citizens of human civilization. It gives new meaning to the concept of the brotherhood of man. Beyond gender, and beyond any other distinction, this is what brotherhood means.

It is not too early to say that not honoring and acting upon this impulse enough is one reason-not the only reason, but one reason-- we're in this tragic mess.

Of course, the terrorists probably consider themselves brothers (and some may actually be brothers), but if they are who the U.S. government thinks they are, their reasons for loyalty are different. They are loyal to a dogma, to leaders, to blood. They are not really loyal to each other, or to any others who do not conform to their specific beliefs. The dispossessed of the world have grievances against the powerful who have ignored and abused them. But our fates excuse none of us-powerful or abused-from decency in our dealings as individuals.

"You'd do the same for me" may not tell us much about those who name themselves our enemies, but it might tell us something about ourselves, and what we need to defend in our own lives together.

Copyright 2001 by William S. Kowinski

Sunday, August 25, 2002

Finished reading Milan Kundera's Slowness. The inventions continued, the two time periods (which meet in one scene towards the end) the planes of reality that suddenly intrude on one another, the multiple points of view and voices---at one point, a penis speaks. If all this seems irredeemably postmodern, consider that Tolstoy does much the same in Anna K. At one point in that novel, we hear directly from a dog. With Tolstoy I got the feeling of sheer exuberance, of the writing itself taking over. Tolstoy's art was so much more powerful----and so much smarter---than the man. With Kundera it seems more controlled, but who knows? I'm curious how he wrote this book: did he improvise and then select to illustrate his ideas, did he have it all worked out before he started, or did he just improvise and let it all dictate itself...?

A few of the philosophical passages in the last 50 pages or so:

"In a sudden flash, his whole past appears to him not as a sublime adventure, rich in dramatic and unique events, but as a minuscule segment in a jumble of events that crossed the planet at a speed that made it impossible to see their features....When things happen too fast, nobody can be certain about anything, not even about himself."

....I recalled the well-known equation from one of the first chapters of the textbook of existential mathematics: the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting. From that equation we can deduce various corollaries, for instance this one: our period is given over to the demon of speed, and that is the reason it so easily forgets its own self. Now I would reverse that statement and say: our period is obsessed by the desire to forget, and it is to fulfill that desire that it gives over to the demon of speed; it picks up the pace to show us that it no longer wishes to be remembered; that it is tired of itself; sick of itself; that it wants to blow out the tiny trembling flame of memory."

"Be happy you've forgotten. Snuggle into the soft shawl of universal amnesia. Stop thinking about the laughter that wounded you-it no longer exists just as your years on the scaffoldings and your glory as a victim of persecution no longer exist. The chateau is quiet, open the window and the fragrance of the trees will fill your room. Breathe. Those are three-hundred-year-old chestnuts...."

And then this intriguing ending:

"I beg you friend, be happy. I have the vague sense that on your capacity to be happy hangs our only hope."

Sunday, August 18, 2002

When I lived in Cambridge, Mass. in the early and mid 1970s, I had one Saturday ritual for awhile. The Boston Globe published a column on Saturdays called "The Lit'ry Life," by George Legendary (note: sometimes I make up names to protect the innocent, sometimes the guilty, and mostly myself, but in some cases-like this one-because I can't remember the real name...) It was mostly odds and ends about people in various print media: the Boston book authors and publishers, periodical poets and the newspapers, including the ones I wrote for (the weekly alternatives, and a couple of rock music/pop culture regional rags).

I lived in east Cambridge, in the ragged end of what I believe was John F. Kennedy's old congressional district. It was a healthy walk up to Mass. Ave (pronounced "Mass Ave") at Central Square. I got my major groceries at the Purity Supreme supermarket, which had a deli attached next door. Before or after my weekly shopping, I stopped there for a sandwich (always had the same kind--tuna, I think, but I definitely remember the pickle) and coffee, and to read "The Lit'ry Life" column in the Globe.

Even though I was at various points the book review and book supplements editor, and then the Managing Editor (Arts) for the Boston Phoenix, and had some poems published in Arions Dolphin and other locally produced magazines, I never got a mention in that column. (Though I did get a complimentary one in the famous "Ear" in the Washington Star some years later.)

At the moment I have no lit'ry life to report on but my own, so in what I gather is the true spirit of Blogging, I'll do my own Saturday chatter.

Current Reading: Apart from the books I'm examining or reading for assigned reviews (My two-book review of The Atrocity Paradigm and Altruism and Altruistic Love is nicely placed at the top of page two of the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Book Review tomorrow, 8-18-02. The Chronicle is at, and the Sunday sections are retrievable for the week, and the reviews are searchable. But I won't have an actual link until tomorrow.)-

As I was saying, apart from those, I am reading:
Almost finished Milan Kundera's short novel, Slowness. On the surface his books are very absorbing, entertaining monologues, you can almost hear him inventing. He explores ideas through character and story, and I often wonder which came first (assuming at least some of the characters and events are based on "reality"), the character or story that suggests the idea, or the idea that he works out by inventing characters and story. I suspect it's a mixture, but that's one of the things you don't usually get to explore in reviews-maybe a very astute reading group with a penchant for research would be interesting-so you can go into detail about which parts are invented from ideas, which involve actual people (several in Slowness are public figures.)

I'm also re-reading the first book I ever took out of the library as a child. It's called The Space Ship Under the Apple Tree by Louis Slobodkin. I remember it was a hardback with a red cover, with white letters and a white flying saucer line drawing. I found a thrift store copy of the paperback edition. The basic plot is a lot like E.T. More as I get into it.

On my visit back in Pittsburgh this May, I had dinner with an old friend, Jim Hayes, who later emailed me a list of the books he'd talked about. I've started with Mark Epstein's "thoughts without a thinker", which is excellent. This is one of the areas of what you might loosely call spirituality that I'm exploring, and at the moment the chief one: which is Zen. (The other would be Native American spiritualities.) I've read a few really good books in the field, Joko Beck's books, Shunryu Suzuki (he makes me laugh). For a bit I was into a book called Zen and the Brain but my interest in neuroscience is limited. This one is more like it---it relates Zen and western psychotherapy, and it's very, very good. Thanks, James!

One of the reasons I re-reading "Space Ship..." is that I'm getting into the science fiction section of the book I'm writing, SOUL OF THE FUTURE. I've spent part of the spring and all of the summer so far on the first sections: introductory chapters about apocalyptic futures, which involves 9-11 but mostly the nuclear age apocalypse scares that I grew up with in the 50s and 60s; and many chapters about London in the 1890s, H.G. Wells and The Time Machine.

Now I'm bridging the science fiction gap between Wells and Gene Roddenberry, since Star Trek is going to be a major focus for the next set of chapters (right now they're tending to be about 2,000 words long.) I'm about to read through (rather than just reference) Brian Aldiss' Billion Year Spree, a history of science fiction that so far is the most nuanced of the several I've already read. I don't share all of Aldiss' tastes but I do share his enthusiasm for Olaf Stapledon, the obscure (in the U.S. anyway) novelist of the 1930s on. Something of a disciple of Wells (they came to know each other, and eventually it was Stapledon who influenced Wells' last science fiction and other books) I'm almost finished with what I regard as Stapledon's masterpiece (and Aldiss does as well), called "Starmaker."

My book-in-progress addresses scenarios for a hopeful future of the two basic kinds (which, with a different outcome, are also the two basic kinds of apocalyptic fictions for a really bad future), and they are: with technology, and without technology (meaning without so much, or so dominant.) So science fiction-particularly through Wells and Star Trek, and the familiar stories they tell---addresses a hopeful future in which technology is emphasized. Then comes the second kind of story, which emphasizes ecology and spiritual emphases. Then finally a synthesis of the two, to suggest what qualities and activities today can help create a hopeful future.

Which is a long way to saying I'm only getting started. (Though a lot of research and preliminary writing is accomplished. After all, I've been working on this stuff for several years.)

But I've got a lot of other work to do before I can get back to SOUL OF THE FUTURE-and a lot of work to FIND. The paying kind. So progress on reading these books is apt to be slow. I'm also tempted by Robert Johnson's "Ecstasy," another thrift store find, partly because he's an easy read, and it's short.

FILMS OF THE WEEK: We saw "Signs" at the theater, which I suppose is obvious from the preceding column. (Although I guess it's the following column in this format...) What I liked most about it is the director's style of storytelling, and how well Mel Gibson and the other actors responded to it. The mixture of (realistic) family comedy, the dead-on characterizations, along with how the suspense aspects are structured, are all admirable, and advance current filmmaking. The scene in which dad is outvoted by the kids on whether to stay or head for the hills (or the lake) to escape the aliens is really good. Shamalyan (I'm probably not spelling that right) has absorbed Speilberg (of E.T. and Poltergeist, say) as well as suspense directors, and he is very good at the pacing etc. necessary to keep his elegantly wrapped mysteries moving, and keeps you surprised, even when you sort of know what has to happen. The man of the cloth loses faith and collar, regains same, is still a cliché and is a serious flaw. I don't quarrel with spiritual content, but that was too heavy handed.

Another film we saw was on video, Preston Sturges' "Christmas in July." I had a big Sturges phase a few years ago, and this was the first time since then I'd screened this one, his first. It's a very interesting film to watch during the current corporate revelations. The idea of businesses being "a family", and of people thinking of others first, all seem sadly obsolete. Sturges movies are utterly unique-nobody else does comedy like his, and his scripts are gems. The characters are at once recognizable as movie characters and with complexity and individuality. You pan in on some of the minor ones, convinced you're going to meet a cliché, and by the time they start talking they turn out to be more nuanced and surprising, like the office manager in this film who at first seems to be the stereotype of the bean counter, but turns out to be a dignified, intelligent and kind man, bearing his disappointment and compromise with honor.

Poetry: In the past few weeks I've read A. R. Ammons for pretty much the first time, read a little Shelley, but find myself fascinated with Yeats. Really for the first time-I read the required work in college, even saw one of his plays performed, but didn't care for him much in comparison to the other Moderns of that moment, Pound and Eliot. Now I'm content to let Pound and Eliot fight in the captain's tower, and explore Yeats, from the early work to The Tower.