Thursday, March 21, 2013

Amazing Quote From a Favorite Work of Fiction

So I was rereading a quirky, one-of-a-kind book by the gifted Canadian author, Douglas Coupland, who will forever be famous for popularizing the terms "Generation X," "McJob" and "Microserf."

I speak of Coupland's 1994 undersized volume of thematically linked short stories, Life After God.

Each story is divided into multiple short sections. Each section is prefaced with one of Coupland's (who once attended art school) whimsical felt-tip pen drawings.

Like this one on p. 103 where he's remembering the old distaster flick from the '70s, The Poseidon Adventure:

As I'm was reading the title story I reached a section that has a drawing of what appears to be a stack of People magazines.

There ensued a conversation between the narrator and his friend Kristy:

   I mentioned to her one of my favorite fantasies: to be in a coma
   for one year and wake up and have a whole year's backlog
   worth of news to catch up on.

   "Me too!" she cried. "Ffity-two whole issues of People to
    catch up onit'd be like heroininformation overdosing."

There it was, The Van Winkle Project in a nutshell. The excitement of doing something so non-standard, so weird, and the ecstasy of when it comes to an end!

But wait a minute.

After all this time (see the counter over there on the right clicking off days, hours, minutes since I awoke) the ecstasy of information appears to me to be a bit overrated. If this is heroin, it hasn't seemed as alluring as mother's milk that I'd want to fill myself with. In fact, after going on two years of being "awake," I have yet to make a concerted effort to find out much about what I missed during 2010-2011.

No, I want to tell Mr. Coupland's characters, the real trip is the coma itself. Its's about finding a way to remain immune to the daily onslaught of stuff we don't particularly need to know. At the same time it's important to leave space in the brain for what really matters.

What really matters? The very things that depressed, over-consumed, drugged-alcoholed, junk-fooded narrators of Life After God find themselves drawn to at their better moments in these stories:
  • nature
  • friends
  • their pets
  • simple memories of childhood
  • floating in the swimming pool

Call the kind of life I'm commending to myself a "conscious coma" since the oblivion is not total. Who wants to give up the bad stuff and at the same time miss out on the good?

Hey, maybe I need a T-shirt that says that:


All this is to say that I'm once again longing for the peace and extra time made available when I cut back on my curiosity about the larger world, a world that I can't begin to effect.


Sunday, January 1, 2012

My Top News Story for 2011

Strictly speaking, it's clear to me that I'm not qualified to name the top news story.

What do I know about most of last year?

From January 1, 2010 to September 11, 2011, I was still unplugged from the news.

I was doing my best to imitate a guy named Van Winkle.  "Asleep," I was fully committed to my 365-day, 24/7 news-snooze...

Still, all things must end, and over the past few months I've caught up on some of what I missed. It seems pretty obvious what belongs on all the experts' Top Ten News Story lists. It's tempting for me to go along with them.

Likely Candidates
For example, I thought I might choose the death of Osama Bin Laden. That was a big story, right? There's a problem , though. Months have passed and I haven't had the raw curiosity necessary to wade backwards in time and dig out the old newspaper from May 1 or the Newsweek I saved and read up on what actually happened. I haven't even googled "Death of Bin Laden." How can this be my top news story if I still haven't read about it?

Likewise, when it comes to another major news story of 2011, the apocalyptic Japan earthquake, I haven't educated myself except when I read about a recent tour given the press of the ongoing cleanup at the nuclear power plant. And one time I stumbled across a few on-line photos of the devastation. They were so upsetting that I didn't want to know more.

What else might be a competitive news story? They tell me that William and Kate's wedding was one for the ages. Again, I missed it, and like a student who repents at the end of the semester, I don't see how I can make it up a class I never attended.

Whoever said, "A kiss is just a kiss..."?

As for what's happened that I've actually experienced while "awake" during the final portion of the year (Sept. 11 to Dec. 31, 2011), there just hasn't been much. This fall's Republican debates? Herman Cain's rise and fall? Rick Perry's "oops"? The playing "chicken" between Congress and Obama over extending the payroll tax cut? With news like this, I don't know anymore when to laugh and when to cry.

"It's got to be here in my notes..."
The candidate who needed a Lifeline.

A Decision
One thing the Van Winkle Project taught me is that the news is over-rated. It's an activity that constantly takes the pulse of the patient, and energetically tries to offer a prognosis (the economy is getting better, the Middle East is getting worse).

The problem is that by anxiously taking a daily pulse of the ills in society and around the world the news is prone to entirely miss what's going on with the overall healthy aspects of humanity over the larger course of time.

Yes, I actually think that if one takes a long view there was good news in a few nooks and  crannies of the much maligned 2011. That's my top story...

What's Old is News
One of the most obvious things going on around us is technological change. This Christmas just past was the Christmas of the e-reader with Amazon's Kindle Fire racking up enormous sales. This comes after the Christmas of the iPad and the Christmas of the smart phone and the Christmas of the flat-screen HD TV and, going way back a whole ten years, the Christmas of the iPod.

A new year, a new gadget, a new way of doing things. It's become the norm.

I've noticed though that as we move old things into the garage (like two humongous tube TVs my brother has stored in his) some of us are hesitating and deciding to hang on to the best of the past. Here's what I've read about lately:

1 - Publishers are bringing out more lavish books with special covers, bindings, and artwork.

In the age of the e-reader, the books that survive as physical objects must offer something that cannot be digitized.

Heft, the smell of leather, palpable embossing, fine papers.

2 - An emerging movement in the world of runners is promoting the idea of running the way the ancients did it: barefoot. In his book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superatheletes and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, Christopher McDougall swears that it's only by abandoning the technology of the expensive running shoe that runners can be sure to avoid injury.

According to the barefoot gospel, you were born with feet, not shoes. You belong to a species with the world's greatest endurance, such that humans used to routinely run for hours after faster creatures until they collapsed from fatigue and could be captured... Yes,you were "born to run"!

3 - Wrist watches are selling more than expected. Like the aforementioned books, the more lavish the timepieces are, the more they are prized. How can this  be? Most of the people I know have the time of day (plus temperature and their GPS location on planet earth) at their fingertips via their smart phone. Yet people recognize there was something beautiful about this older mobile technology.

I've got the time, right here on my wrist!

4 - I've made my own "discovery that is a recovery". A year ago I hooked up my 1982 Parasound turntable to my 21st century amplifier and speakers and brought out some of my old records. I'd heard audiophiles tout the superiority of LPs over CDs, but I was always skeptical.

Hearing was believing. What visited my ears courtesy of four decade old records was richer, more detailed, extra realistic sound compared to the shiny silver discs.

I've become a convert to vinyl.

By the way, this is not some embarrassing confession of a Baby Boomer clinging to his youth. When I go to the local vinyl shop who do I see pawing through the bins, big smiles on their faces?

Teens and twenty-somethings.

Top Story of 2011: Taking Back the Past
So here's what I consider the most encouraging, remarkable, and unexpected thing that I noticed happening last year.

Around the world people continue to decide that some of the old ways
of doing things are worth keeping, using, and celebrating.

The old technology may be more labor intensive or time consuming, but whether it's a happy, flavorful chicken you raised in your backyard or the original Atlantic pressing of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's Deja Vu in the pebble-textured, gate-fold jacket with the paste-on cover photo, here's the deal: the quality is better.

The world may be hurtling head-long into a science fiction future, but more than a few of us are determined that as we make the journey we will not be worried about going the fastest or taking the shortest route.

You see, we're bringing along some of our old stuff with us. We'll arrive eventually at the "future," but we may just do it barefooted - a.h.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

End of a Year: Dreaming in 3-D

Marty invites you to put on the 3-D glasses
for his latest film.
 A couple of weeks ago I did something that was forbidden to me one year ago when I was still Van Winkled. I went to the Century 21 Cinema and took in a newly released film.

My son and I bought tickets and a box of buttered popcorn. We settled back in our chairs and put on 3-D glasses for Hugo.

What's in the Box?
There's a scene in this latest Martin Scorcese's movie (based on the Brian Selznick hybrid novel/graphic novel) that makes me think of what it's like to revisit this blog after choosing not to post for several months.

Hugo Cabret and his intrepid girl partner, Isabelle, explore a room in the house of her mysterious Uncle Georges (Ben Kingsley). There's a wardrobe looming tall in the room and, guess what? The two youths detect a secret panel in the top.

After a precarious bit of balancing on a chair, Isabelle opens the panel and, yes! there's a wooden box secreted there. As Hugo watches from below, Isabelle eases the box out but uh-oh! it's heavy and suddenly! the chair topples, the box hits the floor, the lid separates, and papers fly all over the room.

Hugo: The box reveals its secrets--all the thoughts and visions of one man.
A discovery is made. Each sheet of paper is a sketch for costumes and scenes from early movies.

Revelation: Uncle Georges is the once-famous French moviemaker Georges Melies.

This is startling news because Melies, after early successes in the movies, is thought by some to be dead. No one has heard anything from him since shortly after the Great War when he quit making movies.
Uncle Georges intrudes upon the scene. A defeated and frustrated artist, he has responding by withdrawing and hiding away the wellsprings of all his work--these pieces of paper meticulously filled with ideas and sketches.

He picks up a piece of paper, looks at the children, and crumples it in his hand.

Van Winkle Redux
Coming back to this blog is a bit like opening Uncle Georges' wooden box. In this case the box is stuffed with posts someone diligently produced for 52 weeks when he was sequestered from all news, weather, sports and entertainment.

The person who posted here called himself "Van Winkle" and further protected his identity by never naming where he lived or worked.

One year ago: Blog readers could see my shoes, but not my face.
Van Winkle knew almost nothing about what was happening in the larger world (except for a few leaks that got through to him), but he was a fairly persistent observer of the minutiae of his life.

I can go back and read about his impressions of his ficus tree, holes in his T-shirts, a concrete cherub named "Reginald" on his patio, his dog Bullwinkle, a red piece of paper snagged in a bush in his front yard.

He also relived intensely at times his youth in Alaska, and he made more than a few attempts at finding what is humorous in the surrounding commercial and social side of America.

I'm fine with what Van Winkle wrote. I'm not going to react like Uncle Georges and try to destroy my posts or hide them away and try to forget them. However, I've begun to look back on my experiment with a deepening perspective as I try to answer the question, "Was it worth it?"

Trying to Reclaim the Old "Normal" 
I've had most of the autumn of 2011 to reintroduce myself to the world of news.

Like a fisherman setting out again on the news sea, I've been able to reel in as much (or as little) of Reality as I wish.

So I indulged myself...

As you probably know, there's been quite a bit going on, even in just the past 60 days:
  • Politics (the rise and fall of Herman Cain! Rick Perry's oops! Newt's surge in the polls!)
  • The economy (payroll tax holiday debates! Black Friday! Internet Monday! Mega Monday!)
  • Historic (the U.S. leaves Iraq, North Korea has a new leader, Steve Jobs dies)
  • Sports (the Angels buy themselves a super team, Tiger Woods finally wins a major)
  • Entertainment (Mel Gibson's record divorce settlement, the new iPhone introduced  us to Siri)

The Future?
Even though I don't want to go back to my unnatural state of one year ago when I, in effect, buried my head ostrich-like in the ground, I have reached the following conclusions: 
  1. Reality, as constructed by what we call "news," is not so great. More, it's not even particularly necessary for successful living. There are other realities all around us, realities that teach, nurture, and inspire.
  2. News is a product that is constantly shoved at us. Producers of the news shrewdly choose what they think we will grab us most emotionally. This is not the same as choosing what is news-worthy.
  3. Because news appears to be "free" it is easy to consume too much of it.
  4. Is news free? I don't think so. It taxes us emotionally and intellectually.
  5. Most news stories will soon be forgotten. They are not worth following in the first place.
  6. A few news stories do have historical import, but it's not necessary to watch them unfold and be analyzed to death day by day, hour by hour. One would do well to catch them at the beginning and at the end.
  7. There's a news paradox: The most useful news usually isn't in the headlines. What we really need to know tends to be the small bits about human triumph and tragedy. These stories are typically reported by lone journalists, not well financed news crew with vans with a satellite dishes on top with a feed to a network anchor.
  8. Big news (essentially useless) tends to drive out small, useful news--to our own detriment and diminishment as human beings.
So, based on what I learned during my newsless experiment, and what has happened since, how do I propose to move forward with my life in 2012?

Ah, that is a good question. A little voice whispers in my ear, "Save it for another post...but this time don't wait so long..." - a.h.


Thursday, October 20, 2011

Baby Baby: Thoughts on a Crowded Planet

Is it coming to this? Packed in tight, togetherness...

As I very slowly get caught up on some of the news I missed during The Van Winkle Project I still haven't looked at the newspaper I saved that heralds arguably the biggest news story of 2011: the death of Osama Bin Laden.

That's where I thought I'd be today. My nose and eyes and mind tipped toward Pakistan. But history surges ahead.

Rather than moving backwards in time, I'm reading about the inglorious, cell phoned to the world death of Colonel Gaddafi.

I suspect that though this event will lead to larger things--some kind of shaping of civil war riddled Libya into a country again--the news reporters will move on to the next dictator to fall and the next. The world is not yet in short supply of these bad guys to topple.

Frankly, as far as I'm concerned, there are other things that interest me, worry me, play upon my emotions more than that drainage ditch outside Surt or the mysteries of how the Navy SEALS got Bin Laden.

Pop! Goes the Population
The other day I read a news article that suggests that while I was "asleep" there was possibly the "mother of all" stories going on--and I don't mean the "Arab spring" or the Japan earthquake.

This story wasn't a one-time thing. It was happening every day. And it's still happening.

There are about to be 7 billion humans occupying this planet.

It's Not Getting Crowded In Here, Is It?
One way to think of the earth's new population landmark is that it's just a mildly interesting statistical moment, not something alarming. Ever since the rate of the overall  population growth began declining to where it is today ( a steady 1.8% annual increase) it's been easy to assume that everything is well. After all, in the days before contraception and awareness humans reproduced themselves at a higher rate.

What this overlooks is that we're reached the steep end of a long-time growth curve and even a 1.8% global population increase adds another 212,000  people to the planet every day.

That's like twice replicating the population of where I live (Abilene, Texas) every day of the year for the foreseeable future.

At this rate, every 13-15 years there we find ourselves with another one billion people on earth.

What really caught my attention in an article I read was this: when I was born back in the 1950s the earth's population was a paltry 3 billion. This means the world's population has more than doubled in my lifetime.

Is it noticeable? You bet it's noticeable.

Virtually every place in America I remember either visiting or living in during my youth has been radically altered whether it's Anchorage, Alaska or Houston, Texas. Where there used to be open land, one finds houses and strip malls. The cities bulge outward in all directions. Cars and parking lots and big box stores that I never imagined in my youth abound.

And that's just places in the relatively uncrowded U.S. of A.

There goes the rain forest...
Of course, crowding and a loss of aesthetics is not the real problem with an ever-increasing population. There's still enough land to put the people and when that becomes too scarce we can build upward and stack people in upthrusting skyscrapers as my former writing teacher John Hersey imagined in his cautionary short novel, My Petition for More Space (1974).

The real problem is that humans, in their pursuit of the kind of lives they believe will make them most happy, have become a hugely resource intensive species.

We need staggering amounts of fossil fuel, metals, timber, and water. We also need a disproportionate amount of the planet simply to place our waste products whether its in the air or on the land or in the seas.

And there's the bit that isn't discretionary. We can't help the fact that somehow, some way 7 billion people have to eat and get along with each other.

The Special "K" for Earth
I've learned that there are people who think of human population growth as the number one problem facing us. Not global terrorism or nuclear proliferation or global warming. They warn that the earth realistically can only support so many people. After that bad things are bound to happen.

One of the bad things is called the "Witches' Hats" theory. It's named after the orange marker cones used in driver's test. As you drive through a winding course, knock down too many cones and you fail the test and don't get your driver's license.

Likewise, governments who fail to provide enough basic services to their bulging populations are like bad driver's who topple witches' hats. The citizens will eventually revolt and overthrow them.

If you have too many people to feed, shelter, and keep healthy, you have a formula for political unrest. Some have said that bread prices that rose 70% and a population that went from 18 million to 80 million in only fifty years explains what happened in Egypt earlier this year.

If you wear the "witch's' hat," you worry that a crowded world is a world that is less likely to be a peaceful one.

Does this mean we're doomed? I won't automatically assume so. I also encountered this opinion:

"Overall, this [population increase] is not a cause for alarm — the world has absorbed big gains since 1950," said Bongaarts, a vice president of the Population Council. But he cautioned that strains are intensifying: rising energy and food prices, environmental stresses, more than 900 million people undernourished.

"For the rich, it's totally manageable," Bongaarts said. "It's the poor, everywhere, who will be hurt the most."

I also should take into account that the 1.8% world growth rate is an average. Some nations are not in danger of overcrowding, especially in Europe, where the population growth is actually nearing negative: more people are dying than are being born. This causes a different set of social issues. There are not enough young workers to keep the economy growing or to support the retirement of the old people.

It could be that eventually the great areas of population growth will eventually reach a point of mirroring the development of the "rich" countries and start to reach zero population growth. In other words, we're not doomed to a growth curve that keeps pointing to the sky, but in the best case could be headed toward one that plateaus and finally starts to drop as the orange and green lines in the U.N.'s 2004 projections show. It's an alternative to the dreaded RED LINE of population Armageddon...

But what if none of that really matters? What if  this is not really about how many people may or may not be too many in the future, but about already having too many people?

This is a debatable point...

The optimists say that the magic number of people the earth can sustain or "carrying capacity," which is symbolized by the letter "K," is 10-12 billion people. But it's just a guess. Much depends on technology and innovation and how they can leverage available resources as well as what kind of standards of living people are willing to find acceptable.

The pessimists, on the other hand, say, "Just look around. Is this the kind of world we want?" We passed "K" long ago. The magic number was 5 billion people.

Please Take a Number, Get In Line
Somewhere today there is a woman with baby number 7 billion inside of her. That child we be born in less than two weeks. What kind of life will it have? Will it be able to even imagine what it was like to move around on this planet when there were only 3 billion people on it?

Are you old enough to remember life before this?

For us middle-aged people who still recall our youths, we have a message to pass on. I don't want to tell others that it was even close to a perfect world then (I have only to think of our American apartheid and the Cold War), but as humanity's work and play space starts to get ever more crowed, we now have problems I for one never dreamed of.

Back in the days of yore no one talked about smog, and the rain forest was still standing and as a child I walked along a beach and didn't see crap washed up onto the sand and I never would have considered it normal for anyone to take 40 minutes or longer to drive 10-20 miles to get to work.

There's now 7 billion reasons (and another billion more coming up in 2025) for me to think these problems have the potential to get worse, much worse. - A.H.


Friday, October 14, 2011

The A,B,C's of the News - C is for (Sorry) Charlie Sheen

Today I conclude my brief foray into learning about what is probably some of the least consequential news of last year. 

Casey Anthony? Innocent? You're kidding! Brett Favre? I'm sorry to even know about what that man did.

And now we come to the last of the news not worth knowing.

Charlie Sheen.

My only excuse for this exercise of diving to the bottom of the fetid American cultural ocean and indulging in several hundred words of bottom feeding is that it's a matter of avoidance behavior.

As I contemplate getting caught up on the real news of the last 365 days, or at least some of it, I find myself hesitating. The death of Bin Laden, the Giffords shooting, a Japan earthquake and nuclear reactors gone wild, Arab revolutions, famine in the Horn of Africa.

It sounds so heavy.

It's much easier to delay with C: Charlie Sheen. Tabloid junk food. Come to Daddy.

Gesture of the Jester
I have come not to slam Charlie Sheen nor to criticize him. There's little point. In a way, I think we want there to always be a Charlie Sheen around.

Kings desire a jester. In between wars, public executions, wrangling over laws and resources, the goofy clown provides a welcome lightness.

Enter the fool.

I've also come to believe that we Americans in particular need someone who counters our basic tendency to idolize people who are good looking or gifted or both. The antidote is a star who tanks. Acts outrageous to the point of alienating the very people who made him or a star. Haven't we been through this before?

Britney Spears.

Like Brittney we may eventually re-invite Charlie back into our passive viewing lives. Celebrities spoiling on the shelf become an obsession. Like an ex- we can't get over.

Perhaps this explains why in my own tenuous exploration of old news I found it unexepectedly easy to settle down on a patch of google and try to figure out what people meant when they told me Charlie Sheen had a "meltdown" in February.

Some of them even opined that Charlie was seriously crazy.

And they didn't think this before? Fancy that.

So I learned about Charlie's taunting and mockery of Chuck Lorre, the creator of Two and a Half Men, of Charlie's proud claim of "epic partying," his less doubtful assertion that he is now clean and sober, of his prediction that his army of loyal followers will lead him back into his cherished spot on the number one comedy show.

That was about the extent of what I uncovered. It left me shaking my head. This was definitely tabloid fodder, but beyond that who cared?

The most interesting thing to me was that I learned Charlie was the highest paid actor on TV, making $1.8 million an episode (and demanding a raise to over $2 million as recompense for the grief his meltdown had caused him).

This is truly an astonishing figure but so is $100 million paid by the Eagles for Michael Vick, a guy who was recently in prison and one of the more despised people in America because, you know, lots of people love their dogs.

The man who wanted to be a clown...
Perhaps the reason I was so unimpressed by Charlie saga was that I didn't see any of this unfold in real time. And I didn't augment my bare bones information by playing any videos or recordings of Charlie being Charlie during interviews and on talk shows. I'll just have to take people's word for it.

Charlie, a guy who had already pushed every boundary practically known to man, including beating on women, had finally found a way to reach a point of no return. No wonder Charlie was shocked. Based on all his past indiscretions, he thought he could get away with anything.


"Based on the totality of Charlie Sheen's statements, conduct and condition, CBS and Warner Bros. Television have decided to discontinue production of Two and a Half Men for the remainder of the season," the press release said.

Now I understand. Charlie had reached the fabled point of "totality." A partial mess is fine. Become a total mess and you're exiled from laugh track land.

Still, I think it was the right decision. I discovered that Charlie actually called Thomas Jefferson a "pussy". That's where Mr. Sheen personally crosses the line for me. Anyone who would say that about the man who put together the best home library in early America, is worse than a Philistine. He has a very small mind. More, it's clearly empty. Charlie, you pussy and clown, try reading a book. - A.H.

Jefferson's library recreated at the Library of Congress