"We are our choices." J.P. Sartre
Kramer's Dictum: Live in places with the most stand-up comedians per thousand population
"And I rose, In rainy autumn, And walked abroad in a shower of all my days..." Dylan Thomas
Estragon to Vladimir, "There is no rope... So let's go."
Eric Mark Kramer, Ph.D. is Presidential Professor of Communication and Affiliate Faculty in the College of International and Area Studies and the Department of Film and Media Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He is Senior Editor of The Oxford University Research Encyclopedia on Communication, International and Global Communication, Associate Editor of the Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, and a founding Director of the EU Institute for Studies in Comparative Civilizations. Professor Kramer has authored and edited 11 books in English, Chinese, and Japanese.
"About me," is not tidy or systematic. It meanders like a stream, cutting a path while also being limited by the landscape. The contents vary from season to season and place to place. The current is sometimes slow and pooling and sometimes hurrying through rocky spots. It can be murky and reflective, shallow and clear. Like Odysseus before the cyclops, you may examine me and find... nobody. But Odysseus was THE Nobody. I'm just a nobody. The articles matter. I suppose I could have written more those, but I tended to write books. Wait, what? As a wit said after the grand debate between the continental rationalists and the British empiricists: “No matter. Never mind.” So what will this one-eyed perspective reveal? Just some traces, a few two-dimensional lines, a flick of color, a hint of shading, some lingering sent. Less than Joyce's Ulysses. I'm a nobody. Don't wait for me. I may never arrive in these words. Herein I pitch between optimism and pessimism. That’s all. At best, this might serve to kill or fill some flowing time. It is glimpses. You might recognize some of yourself herein. That would be something, maybe fun.
As the old joke goes, they say, I was born in northern Ohio – Marion, but I don’t remember. As time commenced from birth, Marion, my hometown came into focus. At this writing, Marion has the dubious distinction of being the locale of one of the most serious outbreaks of Coronavirus in the nation. It is occurring at the Marion Correctional Facility (prison)… one of the last significant employers in the county – 2000 inmates and staff confirmed sick. This is the house on Cherry Street, where I lived the first five years of my life. It had a huge cherry tree in the backyard. One of my earliest memories is of my father up in the tree with a ladder picking cherries. I grew up in the Rustbelt. More accurately, I was going through my formative years when it began to rust. So what does that mean anyway? It's complex. This may seem bombastic, but I think it is true; global forces were affecting everyone and everything in my world, and the spirit of the land was changing. I watched the factories and mills close while I was in high school and college. It seemed that high school sports were the biggest thing around (several state championships in football, basketball, track…). But that was a distraction. I did a lot of sports in high school, lettered for four years in three sports, but my family didn’t notice much. Neither my father nor mother were big sports fans.
My dad, LeRoy, left home at age fifteen or sixteen and joined the Three C’s (Civilian Conservation Corps). While in the Three C’s he learned to be a “medic.” For the rest of his life, his nickname was “Doc.” He would have been so proud that one of his grandsons became a real Doc. He didn’t live long enough to see Preston go to med school. He met my mother and they married just a couple days before he shipped out with the Marines.
My mother, Helen, grew up with four brothers, one sister, her mother and grandmother. Her father left them. They were very poor. But they all worked when they got old enough and so they made it. My mother was the oldest and so she helped to raise her sister and brothers. Apparently, my parents communicated some with her father over the years because they went to Indian Lake and rode in his boat there. Candy was born but I was not. My mother said that she ran into her father once in Marion and introduced him to me, his grandson. I was a toddler. I have no recollection of him. I’m told we had the same color of “strawberry blonde” hair. I never “saw” him again. My mother’s mother, Nellie Mapes (her maiden name, from LaRue, Ohio), lived in the same apartment above a barbershop in Marion forever. We would all go to see her around Christmas, and once in a while. There was a long creaky wooden staircase up the outside of the building leading to her flat. Karl and Roy, two of my uncles took good care of her. I wonder about her life sometimes. She lived alone, mostly blind, sitting for hours listening to the radio and almost never going outside. Her skin was completely blemish free and almost translucent. The Kriders, my mother’s maiden name, were famous in Marion for being handsome and pretty. They were, actually, very attractive people. Their kids, my cousins were too. I mean really beautiful. My sister was pretty. Why I am not? What can I say? Unluck of the draw. My father looked a lot like Sir Laurence Olivier, so it wasn’t his fault. Maybe I’m illegit… Found in a dumpster or something.
Below is a picture of my parents before my dad set off for the South Pacific to fight. Everyone said the happy-go-lucky guy who went to war came back changed. My father was "hard." My uncles (all vets) even said he changed. My father always seemed angry. Before the war he was like a big brother to them. They would come by to watch Gillet Friday night fights but then, they stopped coming around. Maybe part of it was they all got married and had kids, and TV sets too. But I know they socialized with each other but never came around our house. I don’t entirely blame my dad for his anger, but I had to grow up to understand it. As you read on, you will see that there were good reasons to be frustrated. Several “dads” in my neighborhood committed suicide. Not good. But my dad’s demeanor put a lot of stress on my mother as she tried to keep things calm. A storm was always lurking. Hard to walk on eggshells all the time. That’s one reason I was so active in sports, yearbook, school newspaper, school theater (stage manager)… School can be vitally important for some kids, and not just to learn the three R’s. I spent every minute I could outside the house, with friends or even sleeping in a tent in the backyard, and finally moving out.
My dad was not a bad man. I think he had PTSD, but back then no one seemed to care about that. I remember his nightmares. A few times he woke up on the sofa with a start saying “Japs!” Then he’d look around and relax. I’m sorry to say that I think he was ashamed of his nightmares. We never talked about it. All those vets from WWII and Korea and they just coped on their own. Maybe that was part of the problem. He had trouble with what he saw as widespread injustice. He went to an American Legion Post club once and came home complaining that they all talked about their war experience over beers as if it was a great time. Then he realized none of them had seen combat. He never went back. There’s a big difference between a combat vet and those who did not see combat. The vast majority of vets are support personnel. I think the “tooth to tail” ratio in World War II, in the South Pacific was something like four, maybe five support people per frontline combat soldier. He would take me arrowhead hunting, to museums, to the Kokosing River wading and fishing and other things that I don’t remember other kids’ dad’s even knowing how to do. On the Kokosing he taught me how to catch and use hilgramites for bait… Not all dads I remember were distant of course. A few were almost like their son’s buddy. But not many. Some dads were close to their sons, my friends, but many I rarely saw around the houses. I guess they worked all the time. What my uncles did: One, Roy, drove trucks over the "Hump" in Burma to supply the Chinese. One was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge and laid in the snow, losing some toes. Another, Karl, was in the Navy, and worked in a Navy shipyard stateside. Another, Ray was younger. He was in the Marines in Korea. Another, Earl, was in the army between WWII and Korea. My father's one brother Albert, was in the Signal Corps, I think. I know he never left the states or saw combat. He lived in his basement with his Ham radio equipment.
To my students before you read this next little diversion. You attend a public university supported by the taxes paid by many who never have, and never will attend the school. They do their duty, they pay their taxes. This state is not a “Duty Free” store at an airport. So, say thank you now, and try to return the favor by doing something constructive for the state. If, like me, you leave your state and do okay, perhaps one day you can at least make a donation back to your alma mater to help assure that it continues for future kids like yourself.
During the war, my dad’s brother set up an appliance store in Mount Healthy, in Ohio. He did well. He had an over-powered speed boat for fun on the Ohio River. He promptly wrecked it, then got rid of it. He had a Porsche. Caught sailfish off Florida. He complained when big box stores like Best Buy started opening. I remember my dad saying that when he got back from the war and was setting up housekeeping, he asked his brother if he could sell him a washer at cost. Nope. Okay… His wife, my Aunt Mildred worked in a bank. They were very conservative. At my grandmother’s funeral she said my grandmother was dirty. My paternal grandmother was “put out” of her house and walked down to her aunt’s (I believe it was) who took her in. She started working at age 6 and used to sell applies and sew for a living. My father was upset. He said, they were happy to take her very hard earned and saved inheritance. The money was not dirty. He used some money she saved over her seventy years and left to him to help pay off our relatively fancy, new three bedroom one bath house in the suburbs. I lived there from age five to eighteen. Things were improving for my family in the late fifties, early sixties.
I asked my Aunt Mildred once what her father had done for a living. She said he worked in some capacity involving the magnificent Art Deco Cincinnati Union train station (the architects Paul Philippe Cret, Alfred Fellheimer, and Roland Wank considered it their magnum opus). Art Deco, by the way, was launched at the 1925 French exposition at Le Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris. Expositions and World’s Fairs are a theme in this autobio, or more accurately, the optimism they embody and which feels gone, or patchy. Are we allowed to still feel that way? Was it ever real or just delusion? And if it was ever real, and is now “gone,” what are the consequences for our future? I think folks like Elon Musk are optimists. But again, some say we should not be too enamored of him… I’m not, but he seems okay. While countless established companies frittered, he took his fortune and is hoisting the world toward electric vehicles and to better communications. Is he “weird.” Sure. Everybody’s weird. That’s normal. At least he’s not wasting huge sums of money on useless wooden airplanes, vanity Hollywood schmoozing, and hiding in a casino in Las Vegas. Perfection can get in the way of the okay… and being satisfied.
The Cincinnati train station has been called a “masterpiece.” It almost didn’t happen because no one could agree on anything. The seven railroads argued for years. But the fact that railroads had been nationalized – yes nationalized -- during WWI, by that liberal Democrat Woodrow Wilson, forced them to organize and share a terminal. Cincinnati, which had been such a mess that travelers avoided it, suddenly became a major hub, and the prospect of a fantastic new terminal was planned. Along with government investment in the river port that aided resurgence in river trade, the terminal was a boon to the economy of the entire region. I believe that if you beautify public areas then people will invest emotionally and financially. What is outside of us is in us. The value created is reciprocal. Invest in the environment and that will pay dividends in people’s outlook and lead to more investment. Starvation weakens everything. But since the attacks on “big government” took off, the public sphere has been starved and the US landscape has declined along with the mood of the people. The common of our common spaces has been impoverished. And the relentless drive to squeeze everything for profits has had the same effect in private spaces. Sears stores (remember those?) used to have restaurants, carpeting, ceilings, and full-time employees that made enough to live – even stock options. Malls had fountains and cafes. You wouldn’t believe the malls in Asia. Fantastic, beautiful, thriving. They are huge and they don’t have “food courts.” They dedicate entire floors to sit down upscale dining. And the roofs have beer gardens. I’m talking Manila, Taipei, Seoul, Shanghai, Tokyo, Jakarta, Singapore... Here is a picture of just one of six mega-malls in... Ho Chi Minh City… Remember this when you read about Dave Harris below. The little mall in Marion that Harris used to hang out in, and where I bought books I discuss below, is now closed. I don’t know how I’m “supposed to feel,” but I think it has a tinge of what my dad was feeling. Now we in the US, where the mall was invented, shop in warehouses and “thrift stores” full of quality-rejected items that you can only find in quaint “night markets” in Asia, and for practically nothing. Wrong direction folks. Our common experience, is diminished. No wonder we are siloing. If you live in trash you don’t feel good. Hoarding wealth and building super-cheap and ugly strip malls and apartment complexes even in rural America poisons our souls. We internalize our environment.
It’s not Asia’s fault that they have gotten their shit together. Look at China. What a mess. A civil war during the Japanese occupation. A pathetic imperial system. The Culture Revolution, dire and widespread poverty, huge rural/urban split. Purges of intellectuals. Manmade famines. Got it. But in the blink of an historical eye, they have zoomed forward and achieved so much, it’s amazing. Are they perfect? Hell no. Xi is now emperor for life and if I have to pay taxes, I want to get a voice in what’s going on (a vote). I am clear-eyed about all this. But still… they’ve accomplished a lot and most of if has been for the benefit of their people. Is there inequality in China? Yes. And in the USA… YES! Should we become like China? NO! But we can do better than we are. Their response to the Covid Pandemic is an example. It has been much better than the US. The issue is, what the hell is wrong with the US? How did we inherit so much, including a huge global advantage, and blow it? We got ignorant and fighn proud of it. Look at Taiwan for comparison. They constantly have to deal with the threat of Mainland Red China. Due to China’s pressure, they were kicked out of the UN and have diplomatic relations with almost no one anymore. But they march on. They are fiercely democratic, in some ways more than in the US. They are capitalist with some socialist projects such as universal healthcare and very cheap university tuition. Literacy is 100 percent. College level mathematics skills are off the charts. Many are bi- and even tri-lingual. They host many religions (Taoism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism…) and multiple ethnic groups. They have many familial and business relationships with mainland China, they have a population of 23.6 million, it is one of the most dense populations in the world, and yet (according to Johns Hopkins U.), they have had only 536 cases and 7 dead as of October 12, 2020. The US on the same date had 7,762,544 cases and 214,771 dead (most experts claim it is over a quarter million dead but some are misdiagnosed). The death rate (deaths per 100 thousand) for the US is 67.3, Taiwan .03. Why? Taiwan is using technology, crowd sourcing data, digital mapping for smart phone application, and community etiquette. They also believe in science and epidemiology, which US experts taught them! Leaders in Iceland said that point blank. We are doing what you taught us, it’s working, what happened to you? Instead of forcing governors to bid against each other for personal protective gear and ventilators, China, Japan, Korea, et cetera engaged their supply chains and rapidly scaled up production. Taiwan, Japan and other countries have large elderly populations too, but they are not getting as sick and not dying. And yet… millions in the US believe we are “doing a great job fighting the Pandemic,” that, as of Oct 12, 2020, it is “going away,” as per Trump. Truth is, at this writing it’s beginning to spike and we are seeing numbers go up and match stats we have not seen in months. Maybe Trump meant the first wave is going away as the new massive second wave is taking over. But back to Cincy and the once grand spirit of community pride.
The land for the Cincy terminal, 287 acres, was donated by the people of the city of Cincinnati. It had been Lincoln Park, part of the Queensgate neighborhood. The terminal was built during the 1930s – the Great Depression. At its peak seven major railroads used the terminal with 216 trains per day. It was a small city unto itself, with a newsstand, toy shop, newsreel theater, barbershop, and charming tearoom lined with whimsical Rookwood tiles. Check out the amazing dragon fly tile work separating seating in the ice cream parlor. Beautiful. It had gigantic glass mosaics and a huge Seth Thomas clock with stained glass face and numerals. All the furniture was custom made. For the Women’s Lounge, Dining Room Alcove, and Newsreel Theater, Pierre Bourdelle created something truly unique. Using linoleum, Bourdelle carved wall murals which depicted mermaids for the Newsreel Theater, a jungle scene for the Alcove, and various flora in the Women’s Lounge. Just building it created jobs for 2000 workers and craftsmen. They not only built the great 180 foot rotunda dome but a viaduct, a cooling station, a machine shop, a power plant… twenty-two buildings. Here’s a picture of the Cavalcade of Stars stopping by in 1943, to sell War Bonds. You can see Mickey Rooney, Harpo Marx, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Greer Garson, Judy Garland, Betty Hutton, James Cagney, Lucille Ball, Olivia de Havilland, Kay Kyser, and dozens of other “Bond Bombadiers.” They toured the country in an 11 car, red, white, and blue train. As you may know, but it is worth repeating, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart (who went to Princeton where he earned his degree in architecture, by the way), Ernest Borgnine, Henry Fonda, Tony Bennett, and others couldn’t make the Cavalcade because they were fighting in the war.
After passenger service slowed to a trickle, it closed in 1972, and they thought about tearing it down, but the city managed to save it. Now it is designated a National Historic Landmark. I have to include some pictures. It was a work of industrial art. The Winold Reiss glass mosaic murals alone are fantastic, some 110 feet wide and 22-feet high (funded by the Federal Art Project, FAP, which was part of the WPA, to support artists – the investment was more than worth it). Along with Reiss’ gigantic glass murals and Bourdell’s colorful murals, there are masterful and wonderful granite and marble inlay, wood inlay, and consummate decorative tile patterns. All custom designed and executed. Fittingly, many of the murals depicted workers from significant Cincinnati companies such as Procter & Gamble, Baldwin Piano Co., Kahn’s Meat Packing, Rookwood Pottery… Outside it had a plaza with fountains and a huge step waterfall the size of two football fields (the new unit of measure in our culture).
I said to my Aunt, so, your father worked on a WPA project. She bristled. No. That would be welfare. But yes. The project was supported by City, State, and Federal money and finished off as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. It pumped $41 million dollars ($512 million in today’s dollars) into the Cincinnati economy, some supporting her family, food on her table, a roof, a life. Truth is my aunt’s family was sustained by government largess, similar to the Tennessee Valley Authority (folks in Tennessee hate Roosevelt too). By the way, the renovation that preserved this jewel for all citizens of Cincinnati to be proud of cost $228 million, and again, the money came from public sources, specifically, the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It now houses several public museums (however, the Duke Energy Children’s Museum moved in after, and was not part of the restoration). It, the Cincinnati Museum Center, remains the largest cultural center in the region.
Such ignorance is why we too often burn the ladders we ourselves used so that folks coming after cannot reach where we are. And then we can look down and blame them for being lazy and stupid. We don’t appreciate what others have done for us. We take advantage of help and then refuse to extend it to others and then, when they fail, we boast how great we are. This I find very selfish and unacceptable – the lack of appreciation and the arrogance of privilege. We don’t make it through life alone. A governor on an engine, preserves the engine so it can operate without blowing up. Government is not “the beast.” It governs the beast. By the way, Reagan also lived off of government assistance as a kid. How fast we forget? No. I think rather, how much we choose to ignore that we were once weak and needed a helping hand. That’s the problem with conservatives. They take all they can get their hands on, but see that as strength rather than weakness. But if others in need take a little, they are weak. BS. Law/regulations contain unchecked predation. Without law, we are animals. Okay, so my aunt refused to appreciate FDR’s New Deal that fed her as a child. So I wonder if she appreciated the government regulations forcing accommodation for people with disabilities at the Cincinnati Reds River Front stadium (also built by taxpayers). All those ramps they had to build, with tax support… By folks who could never afford season tickets… You’re welcome. P.S. it was FDR who pushed the button on Friday, May 24, 1935, that lit up Crosley Field, for the first game “under the lights” in major league history – the Reds beat the Phillies 2-1 that NIGHT. Let there be light.
Now you have to realize that the war my dad went to was not like many movies with soldiers hanging out at a “firebase,” or visiting bars on leave. There was no visiting Seoul, Busan, Saigon, Manila, London, or Tokyo for kicks. He wanted to destroy Tokyo. My dad went out on a troop carrier that had just come off the assembly line. He said the water tanks still had paint or something in them, so the drinking water was barely potable. It smelled like chemicals. Their destination was a group of remote islands with nothing but ferocious Japanese dug in waiting for them. The heat and humidity was intense. Dysentery, athletes foot, sea sickness, homesickness were common. He lost a lot of weight even before being dumped onto a beach. So unlike guys who liberated Paris or were in Korea (after, not during the war), or in Vietnam with R&R in Saigon or Japan, my dad had no romantic memories of his war experience. "Leave" is a curious word in this context. There was no leaving the front to visit an entertainment quarters… no “leave” no place to “leave to,” just fighting. There was no city of any kind within hundreds if not thousands of miles. He was shot and stabbed. It took him weeks to get back riding a transport ship and in the process he got severe infections. He was sent to a VA hospital in Colorado Springs and my mother quit her job as a secretary to the base commander at Wright Patterson Air Base in Dayton and took a train out to be with him. It took him a long time to recover. In some ways, he never did. But he helped liberate the Japanese people from fascism. He did that. And my mother helped by nursing him back to health. After all that, he got a wire from the Marine Corps saying that there was a clerical error and he had been overpaid and owed them some money. Welcome home.
After the war, the US was on top of the world. Industry had transitioned back to consumer goods and Marion was heavy industry. I mean HEAVY. Remember the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland because that’s where the name of that kind of music was coined by Alan Freed at WJW, and Marion was all about heavy metal. Marion Power Shovel built all the steam shovels that connected Asia with Europe via the Panama Canal. That canal in turn enabled steel track and huge locomotives to be shipped from the east coast of the US to the west coast for the Transcontinental Railroad (the Union Pacific end) . You know the Transcontinental Railroad. The rail line that unified the nation. The rail line that Lincoln fought so hard to build. The one where the last spike was driven at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory, May 10, 1869. The one that spelled the end of a way of life for the Plains Indians. The one that featured a moving town called “Hell on Wheels," pitched every night at the end of tracks as they inched out into the vast West. The one Chinese built in the west before they were kicked out of the country. That one. More than one multi-ton locomotive was lost at sea during the journey, via the canal. A couple of them lay at the bottom of San Francisco Bay due to capsizing barges. Those locos were so fast that the US had to institute time zones. People were arriving before they left due to all the local times getting mixed up on schedules. Some locos were fancy with all the “bells and whistles.” Yep, that’s where that phrase comes from. In 1876, you could just sit back and travel from New York City to San Francisco in just 83 hours! The West was “open.” Open for what? Everything. John Muir wrote in 1872, that the train “annihilated” space and time. Well not exactly but, it had a huge impact. The modern nation was speeding into the future. Historians estimate that seven thousand cities and towns got their start as depots and water stops. The canal dug by Marion Steam Shovels made it possible. So blame or praise, marvel or shudder in disgust. It’s your call. Or, for me, the one caught between waiting and going, optimism and pessimism, both. But I digress. Dots need to be connected.
And what about the Indians? Well, contrary to some false beliefs, they are still here. One, Colbert Hackler, a Chickasaw and Ph.D. in Music Ed., taught my sons violin. His great grand mother came to Oklahoma on the “Trail of Tears.” When he told me, I was sad. But he said, why sad? If that had not happened, I wouldn’t be here. Historical judo! My neighbor is a Choctow , one of my colleagues, Phil Lujan, is a Kiowa. I had a grad student who is Osage, another a Ute. Oklahoma has the largest population of First Citizens in the US (except Alaska). They survived. They are not gone. You’ve probably been taught about the attack on Pearl Harbor, a day that will “live in infamy,” December 7, 1941, or the date 9-11. Well, do you know the date November 26, 1868? Probably not. I didn’t. Just the other day my neighbor, Randy, was telling me about the Black Kettle Massacre on the Washita River in OK, where Custer's (yes that guy before he made General) troops killed over 100 Cheyenne, including women and children, in their winter encampment. White historians used to, and might still, call it the “Battle of the Washita River.” More like a massacre. It followed on the heels of the Sand Creek Massacre perpetrated by Chivington in Colorado. Black Kettle and his people had been at peace and were seeking peace. The Washita was called the Lodgepole River by the Natives for the pine trees in the area. Along a 15 mile stretch of the river, thousands of people had winter camps including Comanche, Kiowa, Arapaho, and Cheyenne. Notice I did not say Osage. Custer’s scouts were Osage, and to this day, folks in OK remember that detail. Sheridan wanted to punish the Indians for a raid so he ordered Custer in and he attacked the Cheyenne village as usual, at dawn. Afterwards, Custer reported 103 dead Cheyenne warriors, and “some” women and children. In this picture are some of the surviving women and children Custer “arrested?” “detained?” abducted, kidnapped, snatched, whatever, took and imprisoned at Fort Dodge in Kansas. Digression… Fort Dodge was on the Cimarron Cutoff along the Sante Fe Trail. It’s still there, as is Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma, where Geronimo is buried. Geronimo died in Lawton after passing out drunk and falling off his horse while returning to the fort from a night of hard drinking in town. He laid out in the cold until he was found the next day. He soon died of pneumonia. I saw similar behavior increase in Marion as jobs disappeared.
Back to Fort Dodge. It was named after Grenville Dodge who used his position in the Union Army during the Civil War to make a fortune, smuggling contraband cotton from Confederate States. After the war, Thomas Durant and Dodge would fleece the US out of millions of dollars through Crédit Mobilier, one of the most corrupt businesses in US history. It was explicitly set up by them (and a couple of other con artists) to, ostensibly, build the Transcontinental Railroad (yep, that again), which it sort of did, but only after being forced to by government threats to withhold further funds due to lack of progress on the construction project. The real reason for the founding of the company was to sell stocks and pocket US government grant money issued for construction of the railroad. Important point: when people attack the government for being inept and corrupt they have to understand that the government does not build anything. It contracts private sector companies and they are often inept and very corrupt. Without strict oversight you are letting the fox run the hen house. But oversight and regulation is “bad.” Of course it is, if you are a private sector contractor trying to steal tax dollars. The Transcontinental Railroad is a spectacular example of the fleecing of taxpayers. A handful made huge fortunes off of the project, including land grants along the rails, and moved on to more cons. Much of the track was so poorly built that it had to be immediate rebuilt to be of any use. The master crooks named cities and universities after themselves -- Stanford Leland, Durant, Ames (Iowa), Dodge City and Fort Dodge, where survivors of the Black Kettle Massacre ended up.
Back to the Black Kettle Massacre. The “other side,” meaning the Indian perspective, witnessed a different story than the official US Calvary tale, which Custer used to embellish his image as the great “Indian Fighter.” According to the Indians, the US Army used women and children as shields against the warriors. Nice story.
The point is, many of the First Citizens have a different history than is taught in most schools. I would suggest an addition to Muir’s observation about the railroad. More than just space and time were annihilated. Who are the “good guys” in this epic story? Conflicting isn’t it? It’s like when you actually read the Bible, it’s not a rosy story. Now, when you watch the movie “Little Big Man” (a name borrowed from Little Big Man, or Charging Bear, an Oglala Lakota war chief and close friend to Crazy Horse), starring Dustin Hoffman, you will better understand the lines he says in the movie warning/taunting Custer not to attack the Sioux village Medicine Tail Coulee along the Minniconjou Ford of the Little Bighorn River, “This ain’t the Wash E Da River, General. Them ain’t helpless women and children waitin for ya. They’re Cheyenne Brave and Sioux. You go down there if you got the nerve.” Because I don’t want to spoil it for you, I won’t tell you how it ends.
The West is filled with ghosts. True. But also real, living people. It was never “empty” and free for the taking or to develop. The price in moral debt and blood was very high. It had already been occupied for thousands of years and those folks were already “developed.” What were they supposed to “develop” into? Whites I guess. That’s impossible for many reasons and so here we are. But they survived. And, like everybody else, some thrived. Let me digress a little more. A few years later, a half-Cherokee named Jesse Chisholm, along with his partner Black Bear, started to use an old Indian hunting trail to drive Texas Longhorns across Indian Territory up to the railhead in Abilene, Kansas. They paid local tribes 10 cents a head to cross their lands. Hard work droving. Why do it? Cattle in Texas were worth $4 per head but ten times that amount up north. Chisholm and Black Bear did okay.
The point about that single track, four feet eight-and-half inches wide (they call it Stephenson’s Gauge), this tiny steel thread that punctured and wound through the great western expanse, a conveyor of invasive culture, was to tell you that it was, in part, enabled by Marion Power Shovel. Funny (or not) how the word “wound,” means to twist and bend, and also to gash, gouge, and lacerate. It depends on your perspective and context. The reach of this heavy industry even effected our sense of time and space – and pride, and justice, up for some, down for others, and both at different times, and the same time – dissonances (cognitive, emotional, cultural, perceptual, historical, moral), turbulence, churning globalization. People on the move like never before, not just hunting, gathering, wandering, but with destinations… and destinies. And they believed, manifestly, aggressively so. This was the purpose-driven, acquisitive life. The industrial world was all about speed, distance, and power. Marion was right there.
Then when the country decided to go to the moon, to explode a tiny tin can with three guys in it out into the vastness – this one not inhabited but a terrible void -- they turned to Marion again. Many problems had to be solved. Marion Power Shovel built the "crawlers" with steel made in the largest electric furnaces in the world (at that time) a mile away at Pollock Steel. And those furnaces required some of the largest electric load capacity ever devised. Ohio Edison… where my dad worked, made that happen. The whole community was involved in the moon launches. I don’t know what people built where you grew up, but the guys in my small town, that’s what they did for a living. They built the Rolls Royce, hell, the American made Dusenberg, of rocket launchers. Erie Lackawanna had it’s turntables and maintenance yards in Marion, and the trains ran all the time to feed the steel mills that produced the steel that was custom crafted into gigantic machines, way bigger than cars and airplanes, and not just crawlers for NASA but huge drag-lines for coal.
So what’s the mission? Well you can’t build the giant 363 foot (111 meters) tall Saturn V rocket outside. Okay, so we’ll build the world’s largest building and assemble it inside. Then what? Well, we’ll build a mobile launchpad. You can assemble the rocket on the launchpad and then we will drive it out to the launch site. WHAT?!! A mobile launchpad?! Yep. One that can carry something that weighs 6,540,000 lbs (2,970,000 kgs). Oh, and one more thing, it can’t tilt as it moves over gradients. It has to stay level all the way. Can’t have a giant one-of-a-kind rocket tip over on the way to the launch. Oh, and one more, yes one more thing. It has to be able to not just drive around but withstand the heat of the explosive liftoff. Oh, and one more one last thing. You need to design and construct this thing from scratch pretty fast and deliver a couple of them. We’re on a schedule.
They did it. The men and women I grew up with did it. Okay, so Marion helped us go up, up, up to the moon and also, however, down, down, down into coal seams. We love our gizmos; all of us to be fair. They require electricity. Appalachia delivered with massive strip-mining. Praise be to progress, or… masochistic history-writing? For three months I lived in the midst of giants such as the Big Muskie, the Gem of Egypt, the Captain, Brutus, the Silver Spade because I wrote my Master’s thesis about the social effects of large scale strip-mining. I moved to Cumberland, Ohio to interview people there and watch the machines my hometown built devour the Earth. Like I said, my life is a tension between optimism and pessimism. Waiting for some good news, for Godot to finally arrive.
Whole communities were surrounded so they had to drive 40 miles for a gallon of milk. One scoop would take out 220 cubic yards, 325 tons of earth. The Big Muskie operated by Central Ohio Coal Company (a division of American Electric Power) worked just a couple miles from where I was staying. Day and night the thing would move, silently, because it was electric powered. Its giant boom all lit up, operating through rain and snow. The Muskie was 222 feet tall with a 300-foot boom and total length of almost 500 feet. Imagine something that was bigger than a football stadium moving, dragging coal out of the earth, sucking 13,800 volts of juice through a massive cable with eighteen, 1,000 horsepower and, ten 700 horsepower electric motors consuming the power of about 27,500 homes. What? Could it even, break even? The electricity needed to operate the drag-lines disrupted TV and radio signals in the area. Folks were sorta isolated. Many sold their farms and moved out. Those who stayed were conflicted because the ones still there worked the mines. They lost their grandparents’ farms and ended up strip-mining them. But… it was a paycheck, the only one for miles. If you want to stay you ain’t got many choices. That’s rural America. Super industrial technology on one hand, and coal and dirt on the other. Working 24/7, idle only on Christmas, these behemoths roamed the hills of southeastern Ohio. They could never be idle otherwise they lost money. They were all made by Marion Power Shovel or Bucyrus-Erie (just 13 miles north of Marion). The biggest terrestrial machines ever made. They rolled and “walked.” Huge CAT bulldozers and trucks tidying up around the giants looked like little toys next to them. The Big Muskie was scrapped in 1999. Bucyrus-Erie and Marion Power Shovel merged and has become a company with the perfect name (drum roll), “Global Industrial Technologies, Inc.” Nothing is made in Marion now. Coal is playing out. Thank god. But the environmental damage remains. And now we’re told that natural gas is not much better. Sigh. Still, to this day you can be walking along in old strip-mining country and suddenly come to a cliff wall. Every once in a while a hunter or some kids unfamiliar with an area will walk, or ride their dirt bike off a cliff. Some are hundreds of feet of sheer drop. Surprise!
There were many factories in Marion, and across northern Ohio, such as a big Fisher Body plant a few miles away. So local pride was pretty serious. You might run into some guys at the local dinner who fought wars and built the NASA crawlers and they might well tell you, you sucked in the wrestling match last night, or you dropped the pass cause you’re afraid to take a hit. You gotta kinda think about it. They proved their metal (yeah I know it’s “mettle.” It’s a joke). They had authority, legit authority (as Habermas might say). Why? Cause they did things, they made things. Everybody was somebody; uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors… regular guys who did amazing things. So, to watch this all start to unravel was, I guess, traumatizing. At first, I didn’t get it. But then I did. I’m not sure many in the US have gotten it yet, probably because they weren’t there. I was. I can say these guys weren’t afraid of the bosses or to unionize, let alone strike. And most of the bosses were decent guys too. Their kids all played together. Inequality was not so great. It was the culture. They came from the same cloth. They were promoted from the lines. They weren’t the kinda guys who would be impressed by a fluff like Trump with his golden toilet and puffy hair and fake tan. I remember he responded to the question if he’d ever had a job, and he said his father once sent him down to work with some carpenters and he quit after a couple of weeks. His star rose after the world I grew up in ended. Make America Great Again? That generation has passed. We need to find a new way. Right now we are a bit lost in the waves.
So, up until I went to college Marion was still okay. Lots of jobs. Good pay. I worked at Tecumseh Products in a summer program they had just for college students. I worked in the “ovens.” That’s another story. Hardest job but the best pay in the plant. I made enough in three months to more than pay for a year of college (tuition, room and board) after I gave up my wrestling scholarship. But globalization was about to hit and hit hard. Labor markets were going global. This was new. Before and during the war, the US made its own stuff. Initially, most of the people of Marion didn't even realize they were on a giant market block, competing with eager people on the other side of the planet. My dad and mom did. Many Americans thought the war was over. But Japan had decided that it could win the war by economic means. Salarymen samurai were working overtime. Japan Inc., was rising. A huge change was unfolding. When US workers did catch on, they realized that going on strike could not stop the tsunami. They didn't own the factories; they didn't call the shots. And they could not live on 1960s Japanese, let alone Mexican salaries. Even though American labor was the most efficient in the world, you could hire 4 or 5 Japanese, or fifteen Mexican workers for the price of one in the US. In Mexico, no labor regulations, no environmental regulations, no health insurance or pensions necessary. The folks in Marion had no chance. Even giving up concession after concession, fact was the cheapest house in Marion was at least $15,000, and you needed a car and a private doctor (not a doc in a factory infirmary). People didn't live in dormitories next door to the factories as in Japan and Mexico.
It was strange. When I was in junior high, one of my friends, Julie James, from across the street had to move to Japan because the Bridgestone tire factory her father worked at was moving. He was transferred. Japan? The family had to take classes in how to live in Japan. Where's that? My dad knew. Over the years I have wondered how my friend fit in. At twelve or thirteen, she was practically 6 feet tall and a great swimmer. As my dad watched management make decisions to move factories to Japan and the Maquiladora Zones in Mexico, he could not believe it. He did not disrespect Japanese. He knew they could make things and work like hell. He just did not like them after seeing what "they" did to captured Marines. His opinion of the legendary code of Bushido? Well, in his words, "It's a crock of shit." A fancy way to justify war crimes. No arguing. He wouldn't hear it. He'd seen it himself.
So, when I brought an Asian girl home from college... I learned to stand my ground. Later, he loved I-Fan, his daughter-in-law, and would walk through fire for her. But then, she was Chinese. Anyway, Japan is perhaps my favorite country to visit, and I have many former students from Japan that are wonderful. Am I better than my parents? No. In the history of the world. In the history of the US, the country has been at perpetual war somewhere. For me to have avoided war and its impacts, to have come of age in one of the narrow gaps between wars, is pure luck. The Vietnam draft ended just months before I would have been eligible. I am one lucky bastard. My father was miserable. My father insisted, vehemently that war, even when necessary, is neither noble nor glorious. He had a couple of medals. He used to say "this Purple Heart and a quarter will get me a cup of coffee." Courageous acts occur but mostly out of desperate efforts to just survive. It is terrible, period. He disliked movies that glorified war (really disliked John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, and other "chicken hawks") and adults for brainwashing kids. I admire his sacrifice, but I do not envy it. He was disabled from the war. He taught me this important lesson. He made sure that I never felt like a lesser man for not going to war. Too many are just wasted. Even when we feel we must, destroying things is not virtuous or ennobling. Peoples' labor is ruined. He respected effort, work. To destroy it is shameful. Even to vanquish a great enemy vessel like a battleship, and watch it sink beneath the waves, let alone watching cities; libraries, universities and schools, hospitals, zoos, museums, homes, people burn... what a disaster. In conflict, including interpersonal conflict, we lose sometimes alot, even when we "win." He taught me to find purpose without such "orders" (fraternal or maternal). I have never felt the need for organization to have identity (a gang, club, association, guild, lodge). I guess it is fair to say that I am not an avid joiner. I've been told I should network more, especially professionally. Probably. Academic tribes are very real and consequential. But it's a little late now. Never been a follower. But I digress.
In the 1960s, the reality of global capitalism surrounded us. It wasn't just Ford versus GM anymore. The people calling the shots didn't care about neighborhoods, community, or flags. They didn't care about brands or about loyalty of any kind certainly not to workers. If you can manage or sell, you can manager or sell anything to anybody, anywhere. You can sell cars one day and real estate the next or, the same day. Sell Hondas today and Chevys tomorrow with equal sincerity. They are both the best car! Everybody's an actor, a salesman, a liar. No culture promotes lying as much as capitalist culture. It's a pretend world, with rampant alienation. And we are told that true manhood and self-improvement is in sales. The "brass balls" of Glengarry Glen Ross. Markets are full of salesmen, sophists, in the worst sense of the term. The word “think” does not appear on the venerable blackboard in the alpha’s lesson on rhetoric reduced to strategic business communication. Pozzo would be indignant. Formulaic talk. But nobody's heart is in it. They have to be bribed or threatened. Why? They are not making anything that is of their own design. Fear and greed do no make the bases of a great civilization. By contrast the NASA crawler was unique. As Kennedy said, we choose to do these things not because they are easy, but because the are hard. The more the responsibility, the harder the task, the more accomplishment, the more pride. You can play chopsticks, like everybody else, or you can play Bach like nobody else (or at least try). With no ownership, control or craft, there is no pride, no joy. A spreadsheet is a spreadsheet is a spreadsheet. A worker is a worker is a worker. General issue. General Foods, General Electric, General Motors, Standard Oil, suburban tract housing -- a template world. Minimalism was depressing aesthetics. The monotony of "punching" the timeclock (I guess the redundancy of "time" and "clock" is for emphasis? to instill fear?), the mono-tonality of life became a ringing hum in the mind. I worked in a factory. I couldn't, or wouldn't do it for long. No, that’s not right. Because of my privileged position of having opportunity, I didn’t have to work in a factory. Standardization and redundancy is utterly forgettable. Emphatically, people are just doing time. I'm all for automation of some jobs. But we have to create new ones. We have to rehumanize work and time.
Even as a working-class kid, in the 1960’s and 70’s I had some choices. I had to work for them, but they were available. And because the US had given opportunities to people, my grandmother was able to work and save leaving money to my father that went into our suburban house. My grandparents didn’t need to use a “reverse” mortgage, aka a mortgage (with mort as the root word, death), to live during their retirement. My grandfather had a good pension from the Cinncinati Traction Company. Poor families today are losing that familial resource of legacy wealth. I guess they understand that by mortgaging their house, they are leaving nothing to their kids. Nothing. Unlike the ads for these lenders, it is a way for the bank to get your house… Not your kids. Why? Because in today’s economy with fewer and fewer unions/pensions, and with massive wealth shifted upward (thanks to Reaganomics), millions have to cannibalize their home to live. Thanks to my grandmother, I lived in a house that my father was able to pay off much sooner than he had planned. That, in turn, enabled him to help me out with school, go fishing and do other things that made our lives better.
That’s how he could send my sister to the World’s Fair in NYC for a second trip and go out and buy her a brand-new Ford Mustang in 1965. That’s with no high school diploma but a very strong work ethic. He never missed work. Me, with a Ph.D., could not do the same favors for my kids. I made sure they didn’t have college debt, but I didn’t go out and buy them brand-new cars or send them on trips. The rich guys in my father’s day were not hurting. They were rich, but not as incomprehensibly wealthy as today. More sharing was going on. We don’t share as much anymore. That’s a major problem for our society. So, Kramer what’s the problem? People are losing faith. The massive inequality is teaching us that human beings are beasts by nature, evil, full of avarice, lacking in empathy (we elected an example). And that is making us distrust each other, our institutions, everything. I remember when my parents took me to get my polio vaccine. There was a drive. I remember long lines of folks with their kids. I took a little drink and was immune for life. Every kid got it. Now we have a significant “anti-vaxxer” movement, and distrust of the vaccines on the way for the Covid-19 virus. Many don’t believe in science or trust each other. Everyone has a gun now and house alarms. We don’t let our kids out to play (they might be snatched). We believe we are all lazy and won’t work without threat of starvation. The social bond is fraying and that’s a big problem. While they watch a handful accumulate fortunes beyond comprehension, many people are poor and not seeing opportunities. Even folks who think they are well-off are just one major health problem away from bankruptcy. Health issues are the major cause of bankruptcy in the US.
Back to mechanical clock-time. With the invention of the mechanical clock, the line could start and stop. People could be amassed and coordinated by the first broadcast signals of bells (and later horns and lights) connected to clocks. No wonder they are called, "alarms." People could be early and late, and hurry and wait, and wait. And they could be tired and re-tired. There's a good reason why the wristwatch is called the handcuffs of our time. We are under surveillance all the time, and being late is a moral judgment. A good person is dependable, just like clockwork. Since the beginning, one of my branches of research has focused on time generally, and time as measurement, and how it is an essential part of the modern panopticon. We all have deadlines in our lives. But I have had jobs with, and without the timeclock. If you have never worked on a timeclock-governed job, you cannot understand what it does to a person. Time-freedom for human happiness cannot be overstated. Conflating time with money (the two great quanta of our times), ala Ben Franklin, may be the most distinctive quality of modernity. It has plunged us into a chronic sense of urgency. Time-as-measure, has encouraged acceleration from the blitz in war and annihilation via supersonic intercontinental ballistic missiles to speed reading, speed dating, speed chess, and ever faster calculating itself. We have trapped ourselves in this manifold of measures. The irony is that the faster, more efficient a society, the more its inhabitants insist that they don't have enough time. The modern world is gripped by a time famine. We are in a hurry to go somewhere, nowhere -- utopia. In our haste we missed "it." This is it. There is nothing to wait for or rush to. The more we hurry, the fewer memories we have. All the meetings, reports, e-mails, and memos blur into a fog of nothing memorable. And in the end, our memories are who we are.
The more "conservative" and organized things became, the more it, life, became abstract, formalized, with every man for himself. Pensions for workers needed to go, but golden parachutes got bigger and bigger. Rivalries were no longer friendly. The managers who had nice headshot photos in the newspapers cared about profits -- accumulating them as fast as possible. Business schools were proliferating. Learning a trade, apprenticing for years in a business was no longer the way to the top. Business schools increasingly taught, you don't need to know anything about the product or how to make it, just sales and accounting. Efficiency was the key. Cut every corner. The war proved that if you could make more airplanes than the enemy could shoot down, you win. Our captains of industry were fat and pompous -- winking hotshots. We were taught that capitalism is natural. That it is Christian!!!
Oh, Kramer's a radical! He's "political." See Pope Francis' message on capitalism October 4, 2020. I summarize: the coronavirus has proven that "magic theories" of market capitalism have failed and that the world needs a new type of politics that promotes dialogue and solidarity and rejects war. I completely agree with the Pontiff. But he's a little slow on the uptake. Okay, so you think the Pope is a Communist maniac. How about the famed naturalist Sir David Attenborough? During a BBC Radio 5 show that aired during this writing on October 10, 2020 he, very optimistically said, we can save ecosystems and the peoples of the world if we seize the opportunity at hand given to us by the Coronavirus Pandemic and the lessons it is teaching us about sharing the planet. We still can protect the Earth from the ongoing threat of climate change, which will increasingly dwarf the COVID-19 pandemic. I quote him, “The excesses that the capitalist system has brought us have got to be curbed somehow… That doesn’t mean to say that capitalism is dead. But I believe that the nations of the world, ordinary people worldwide, are beginning to realize that greed does not actually lead to joy.” Noting the lack of international collaboration at many climate change conferences he has attended, Attenborough added, “I believe that there’s a time when we can begin to realize that the time for squabbling, the time for saying, ‘I’ve got to get the best bargain for my nation,’ is over… We’ve all got to realize that we’re living on the same planet, and some of us have been very lucky, and some of us have taken rather a bigger share of the glories and wealth of this planet than we deserve. And there are many with much, much less. Well, now we have to sort that out.” The pandemic has exposed alot. But mostly to those who already saw the problems. For others, denial is a hobby. For yet others, it is a vocation. "Fratelli tutti" indeed. If only we felt it.
I want to be optimistic like Attenborough. I must. The alternative is extinction, or a grim long decline in civilizations worldwide. But, surveying history, it’s hard. Some would say that our “selfish gene” will make sure of its own survival. Maybe. But selfishness has proven to be its own problem. The self-contradicting backwash of waves clashing within our own wetware, our DNA. We need a new ideological program for the system. Predatory capitalism is reaching its limits. We’ve conquered and subjugated just about everything on the planet. The “last first contact” with isolated human groups in the Amazon has already occurred in my lifetime. We have to find a new goal other than conquest. A truly conservative goal, not the fake conservatism of endless exploitation without any “guiding hand.” Preservation? Can that satiate our need to “be somebody.” A thought from a nobody.
I want to be optimistic, but I’m not sure “ordinary people” worldwide, are beginning to realize that greed does not lead to joy, nor am I very convinced that they will not scramble ever more aggressively and nationalistically as things get tougher. I want to believe but I look at authoritarian tendencies around the world and in the US where people are shouting how they want freedom while supporting the very people who are trying to control and censor science and other democratic institutions for the sake of power, people who would deny us freedom by increasingly tighter surveillance, people who are trying to coopt the Department of Justice to silence their political opponents, people who are trying to block voter participation while calling for more feedback/control, race-based vigilante violence, and police state operations in the name of law and order. In the case of the Sand Creek Massacre I mentioned above, the one launched by Chivington, the one Black Kettle survived only to die later in another massacre at the hands of Custer’s 7th Cavalry… well 500 volunteers (“militia”) were involved.
Thanks to testosterone, I am guessing, across cultures and throughout history there are always bunches of young idle men aching to have a purpose and there are those ready and willing to exploit that desire “to be part of something,” to give them a cause for which they can be the effects. “Defense of the cause” makes sense, especially if you are an effect thereof. Without the cause, what are you? You’d better defend it! However, unless you can see some freedom, some light in between the two (cause and effect), some tolerance, some wiggle room, the great chain of causation, cause-effect, cause-effect, its mechanical logic is inescapable. You are utterly unfree and totally predictable. Good news. You don't have to defend the cause. It is you. Like the doctrine of original sin it predetermines you. Maybe random accident? Quantum uncertainty? But no. Chaos theory is not chaotic. The deductive force of logic runs through probability too. The math we use to calculate probabilities, is not itself just probably right.
If you convince young, eager-to-please, volunteers that they can be salvific, that they can be the great protectors of the sacred faith and the clan, doing no less than god’s will, they will become berserk. The more righteous the cause, the more virulent and justified the violence in its name. God, country, family says it all. The more demonic the enemy, the more praiseworthy the kill. People clamor to become an instrument of god’s will. This is the ultimate cause for which to sacrifice and obliterate enemies. Religious crusades, defense of the “homeland” and the family property (most especially the bloodline) are all righteous causes that justify terrible violence. It is rooted in the adoration bestowed by the collective ego upon those who “fight for us, the chosen ones.” And they, anointed conscripts, so ecstatic to be chosen, to be worthy, relish the chance to “prove their loyalty” onto fanatical proportions. Augustine's dream: sitting next to god taking ultimate, absolute delight in watching the righteous torment of the damned. The dungeon has the best shows, and all in the name of being right. Acknowledging, obsequiously, the boss’s inerrancy, the prospect of joining in on the absolutely justified and infinite sadism made Augustine wriggle with glee. I'm not making this up. Read his Confessions.
Dread filled, we arrive at the true meaning of terror, and with the intensity of white-hot conviction – pure unfathomable wrath -- infinite and eternal torment. You can’t kill the enemy, the devil, enough. The more you hate, the better person you are. We see it in lynching. We see it in inquisitorial justice. Hate manifested as a sequence of stabbing, garroting, mutilating, hanging and then burning (or feeding the body to animals). Mediating forces? Reason? Compromise is thus demeaned as “date rape.” No compromise. No quarter. The women too, are involved of course. Even to suggest mercy is suspect. We’re talking the devil here. Anything outside the holy script is outside. There are no shades of gray. So, science, philosophy, thinking/questioning, as opposed to heeding -- debate and doubt are rooted in evil. Be careful. You’re skirting the edge. The ice is thinning fast. You can feel the heat. Threats. From here, it makes sense that my catechism would unravel (as you will read) and that the church would claim that curiosity is a sin. Failure to acquiesce to faithful (or blind… my bad), submission is all wrong. I confess. I embody a modern western individualism, not an antique middle-eastern way of thinking. I hope the punishment is not too dear, but I’m told it could be beyond all comprehension of sadistic mania. The path of avoidance is also different. Just submit. I do in the face of evidence. But I think threats of monstrous violence should be resisted.
Now in this little autobio of mine, I am trying to be honest and not even to convince you of anything. What about Pascal’s wager? If I’m right, I’m right. If I’m wrong, YIKES (that is a funny word, especially in the face of absolutely dire consequences). So just go with the flow. But I believe in free choice. Now free choice sounds redundant but there can also be unfree choice. We are condemned to choose and the options are preset. I cannot opt-out of the game. I’m stuck. And I agree with Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and many others, that to surrender out of sheer terror is an affront to human dignity. And as Betrand Russell opined, if god is a jilted lover who won’t leave me alone, in peace, if I don’t love him back, but instead will stalk and kill me, then I’m already in hell anyway. It’s a monstrous story of our existence. A being we cannot escape from, not even in the sanctum of our inner-most thoughts, and who has all the power. To surrender on these threatening terms is also supremely selfish. Save yourself, is the motto. Whatever; just let me into heaven. That’s a strange ego that would be happy to just gain compliance without sincere commitment. That’s slavery. There’s no conviction there. But… I’m always open to other options.
Okay, so then why are so many enamored of religion globally? Is everybody an idiot Kramer? First religions are not all the same. Many have no absolute binary structure with a hell and eternal damnation. But that is contingent. More essentially, we pose a fundamental question as human beings, who am I? And we have a fundamental need for meaning, sense. I understand the Catholic church’s prohibition of the horror vacui, the prohibition of looking into the abyss. It is not only “nature” that “abhors” a vacuum. Much more so, we are terrified of nothing. Only a few are willing to even look deep into it and speak of it. Sartre wallpapered over it in Being and Nothing with dense thickets of philosophizing. But without our creations, our words, our arts, crafts, sciences, our stories, we have no defense against the empty immensity that makes us so small that we vanish. As Wittgenstein noted, at the edge of language we fall silent. And as Nietzsche warned, when you look into the abyss, it will look into you. Nothingness is a black hole that swallows meaning. It defies sense-making. It is terrifying. We flee the dark and run back to our campfires and friends. I get it. And there we tell our stories. We attempt to escape the gravitational pull of nothingness that can suck meaning out or our hearts and minds.
My neck is stretched way out here. But let’s go for it. To ask, what is the meaning of life, and then to sit and wait for the answer, is wrong. That is the wrong question. The question is, how do we make life meaningful? We create. No guarantees it will always be “happy” or “beautiful” or “good.” Rather, I think I can guarantee that your life and creations will not always be happy, beautiful, or good. But your life and efforts will have meaning. And when things are not happy, beautiful, and/or good, then when you encounter the sad, the ugly, and the bad, those experiences make the happy, beautiful, and good possible by contrast and give you something to swim toward. The point is, as Dory says in the choppy seas, just keep swimming, just keep swimming. Things will happen to you. Just keep swimming through the never ending waves and currents. Life is unpredictable. If it were predictable, it would not be worth getting out of the bed in the morning. We continue because we don’t know what’s up around the bend. We want to see. Don’t be afraid of life.
You may be surprised what authors have appeared on the Index Libororum Prohibitorum (the Index of Banned Books). Dante, Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Kant, Newton, Girodano Burno (the first 1600), Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, Pascal, John Calvin, Francis Bacon, Descartes, Montaigne, Spinoza, Milton, Locke, La Fontaine, Berkeley, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, Addison, Hume, Rousseau, Erasmus, Bentham, Balzac, J. S. Mill, Comte, Flaubert, Victor Hugo, Henri Bergson, Sartre… Simone de Beauvoir had two books banned; The Second Sex and The Mandarins. We were told that the flame for burning books came straight from the holy ghost through the hearts of the saints. Not only should we believe that everything revolves around the Earth but also men (not women). But I believe the Congregations to ban books have all been dismissed within the mainline Catholic Church, but of course not everywhere and not by everyone for sure, such as the Board of Education of Texas. You can kill people all day on video games and in movies but race and sex… we have trouble with those (To Kill a Mockingbird, really?)… But no more Auto-da-fé. Progress. Just watch out for the exorcists still running around.
In so far as we need meaning, we produce stories. Cosmologies, origin stories, end stories, mythologies have proliferated around the world to combat this threat. I disagree with Ernest Becker who says that culture and religion was invented to combat our fear of death. Death, can be very meaningful. No. We invented languages, cultures, and religions to combat the horror vacui – nihilism. We look out into a vastness that is dead and unending. A universe without end makes it impossible for us to have a sense of position, meaning. Meaning is a position. Up has meaning because it is not down. Without a down there is no up. If I am in a total infinite and eternal cosmos then to hold up my hand and announce, “I am here,” is meaningless because without another point of reference, without ends, “here” is the same everywhere. Let me try it another way. You can start counting and count only five minutes or for 5 million years and in each case you are equally near the end of a number line that is infinite. You’ve made zero progress because there is no end. And without a beginning, you can’t say you have moved away from anything. Try as we might, without a story, we are utterly lost.
So, mythology puts beginning and endings on things. Creation (4000 years ago, 8 billion years ago, your choice), end times, before Christ, after Christ… The people living BC didn’t know they were “BC.” By creating that hinge of history, people AD could be AD, they could have that identity, and we could then assign the BC identity to those before (even if they didn’t know it). Once the hinge between BC and AD is established we can begin to talk, to converse and argue, to fret and debate about things such as how BC people could or could not be Christian, could or could not be saved. Let the storytelling commence building huge edifices of theological fantasy, arguments, schools, sects.
It feels good to take a position and to resolve… to coalesce a meaning for one’s self and others. But it is not just religions that do this and are this. Religio itself is one type of storytelling. There are many others. Culture, with its core being cult, is an effort to invent reality, including a language to speak it into being. School is mostly the process of teaching these stories, nomenclatures, and ways of knowing and telling -- methodologies. Aristotle argued that if you cannot name a thing you do not know it. And if you have discovered it, you get to name it. Thus, cases must be assigned proper categories. Once we know things, we can study them and argue about them (all storytelling). Carl Linnaeus launched a whole world as linguistic system and authoritative naming with his effort to assign scientific names to things and to order them in a vast binomial nomenclature. And there are many other kinds or types of nomenclatures too. But to keep it all simple, you know what a nomenclature is, sort of. You know… to guess in the game what a thing is, you narrow it down by asking is it a plant, animal, thing, person, place.
Science does exactly the same thing and if it cannot find a category for a case, like the platypus, then we have to say we don’t know what it is. It “defies reason.” That’s arrogant. It is, what it is. It feeds its young milk but lays eggs. It is venomous with fur. So we make a new category. We invent knowledge. How? By naming and parsing (phenomenology). We parse and parse. Fragmentation is the essence of precision. Hours, cut into minutes, cut into seconds… Be precise. Exacting. Do you know exactly how long he was underwater, how much it weighed, how hot it was? Measuring is an effort to parse. We invent units and “apply” scales.
So to identify, to prove you know what something is, we begin going down the layers of generalizability, refining from category to type to case; Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Family, Genus, Species… To know, is to know the steps leading from category down to case so that you can properly identify this bird or this butterfly. Taxonomies constitute our curriculum. Kinds of stars. Kinds of chemicals. Kinds of psychoses. Kinds of histories. Kinds of art. Kinds of philosophy. We hire professors based on what kind they are. We want someone to teach logic, so we need an analytic professor, or one to teach ethics or one to teach aesthetics, or one to teach continental critical philosophy… Do you know who you are? And we divide departments by field (regional ontologies) based on essential, categorical qualities that determine what phenomena each department is assigned to study.
We all dream. Dreams are real. But you can’t study those in physics or history except as physical/biological functions or as historical claims. To talk about the content of dreams you have to go over to the building where psychology exists. Even the philosophy department is likely to reject such as study as “appropriate” to their “domain.” If you propose to write your Ph.D. dissertation on the content of your dreams to a committee in chemistry, they will tell you, you are in the wrong building. So knowing – reality – is cut up into different kinds of stories based on taxonomic categories. We “specialize.” This tells us where we belong. What kind of person we are, a chemist, physicist, or a psychologist. What kind of physicist? Experimentalist or theorist? They argue all the time. And beyond that are you a classical physicist, into acoustics, astronomy, electromagnetism, fluid dynamics, mechanics…? Or are you a modern physicist into astrophysics, atomic physics, laser physics, crystallography, quantum field theory… Sometimes they overlap but that is considered a confusion of essential properties. Know thyself!
What is language? What does it do other than enable us to tell our stories? Language cuts up the seamless world and we fault the student for using a word inappropriately or we struggle with ambiguous language. We have colors, textures, places, people, gods, smells, tastes… all named. Mathematics was invented to help disambiguate the world. How can a single word “wind” mean blowing air and to meander and twist? Poor student of English, or any language! It is said that Aristotle was very troubled by metaphor. How can one word have proliferating meanings as contexts shift? Poor Aristotle. The modern scientific world begins with the anxieties of an anal retentive. So, he invented a new way to tell stories. Taxonomically. Tolerances tighten. I call it sphincterism. And we call people who are super persnickety about proper grammar, spelling and such, “assholes.” We can handle some picayunity but not too much (yes, I know that word does not exist… but it does… I just made it). Socrates was an asshole. Yes, he is an intellectual hero but trust me, if you saw him coming you’d avoid him. Very argumentative guy. So your teacher tells you, you had the class, family, and genus correct, but you got the species wrong so you get an F. You didn’t know… That’s school.
Language and culture spin and weave tapestries of stories that tell us who, what, and when we are. They vary around the globe. Why do we live in such mansions of fantasy? Because the alternative, to the alternative, is nihilism. And that is very difficult for our minds to accept. The consequence is that our stories become absolutely vital to our sense of self and happiness. So we defend them at all costs. But at the same time, we can understand why. The alternative is to be stuck in a world without meaning. A vast nothingness without, a point at the end of my finger. All points are identical in infinity and eternity. So they are pointless. And the tightening? Because we feel most secure when all hatches are battened down, tolerances are eliminated.
Authority determines the right way to understand. We insist that words have only one meaning. That there is only one correct religion. This intolerance leads to increasing conflict. Now as I said the experimental physicists may not like the theoretician for various reasons but their conflict tends to simmer, not flame-up into a conflagration because, “it’s not that big a deal.” But when eternal salvation of one’s immortal soul is at stake, then defense of the faith has no limits.
This is my problem with religion. It’s not merely that religion is storytelling. Rather, the problem, as I see it, is that if you disagree with the story, its form or content, then you are facing the most extreme violence. I wish we could tone it down. I get that we don’t like a pointless universe, and that, for some reason, that troubles us humans profoundly. We find solace in our cultures and languages – our stories which are virtual elaborations of imagination. Given our anxiety, forming cults – cultures, religions, shared mythological systems, and yes, philosophies and sciences, all serve to give us community. We huddle together in our little realities, holding close our stories as comforters against the cold indifferent universe, our tales of Genesis or the Big Bang, visions of heavenly vaults or innumerable distant galaxies. The stories don’t matter except that they often contradict each other and lead to violent clashes. Otherwise, they are all equally the product of human imagination and so the telling and re-telling of our stories, comfort us. In this sense, I appreciate the need for alternative, virtual realities. I inhabit several. This autobio is one. I sometimes envy those who have deep faith and devotion in them because they are swaddled in the collective sense of a reality that gives them, indeed everything, meaning. It’s the hypertrophic intolerance that is a problem for me.
Note to Conservatives: Religion is the ultimate cancel culture. Religion is the origin of people living in silos and echo chambers. What we are seeing today in terms of intolerance and disinformation is not new. The more “fundamental,” the more intolerant. We all end up being demons, to somebody. That’s why I like standup comedy. Wiggle room.
In the 50s and 60s, a growing stress on maximizing profit and an arrogant belief that US consumers were all locked up made US management disdainfully over-confident. Quality plummeted. They were engineering horrible cars. The workers putting them together didn't want them. No one in the US would listen to W. Edwards Demming so he went to Japan where they still valued craftsmanship and put serious money into vocational education (the same in Europe... vocational education is taken very seriously in those countries). From the rush to modernize during the Meiji Restoration onward, the Japanese had proven to be great students -- not arrogant. Furthermore, the war had humbled them and, ironically, filled them with a powerful resolve. They were hungry. Reconstruction with US aid poured in. With brand new factories, soon Honda, Toyota, Datsun were making inroads into the US mega-market for cars. Many do not understand the supply chain in Japan at this time, as countless small "mom and pop" operations fed the giant factories. It was brutal for the small suppliers and their employees. They had almost no leverage to negotiate with the giant manufacturers they supported. As in Germany, a few old families, Keiretsu controlled everything. The specter of communism kept most Asian nations under the strict control of reactionary dictators. We had Sukarno in Indonesia, Marcos the Philippines, Chiang Kai-Shek in Taiwan, Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan in South Korea, Mahathir bin Mohamad in Malaysia, Ngo Dinh Diem and Duong Van Minh in South Vietnam. Same thing in Central and South America. Communist dictator versus capitalist dictator. In the name of communist utopia on one side, and in the name of pro-religion capitalism on the other, people and democracy suffered. From the times of Columbus, money and the cross marched together. Many elite and ardent Catholics or Muslims rallied against communist for land reform, civil rights, and social justice -- basically the old Enlightenment agenda versus Divine right of kings gone global in the wake of colonial expansion. Violence and reactionary violence… the not so Cold War. “Proxy wars” is so disgusting and demeaning. The “Great Powers” using others as pawns. A pox on them all. Revival and anticommunist fervor put labor in a tough position. In most of Asia, no unions allowed. In the US, Reagan carried the anti-labor banner which Goldwater had woven and General Electric management taught him. So quality is down. How do you maintain market share? You don’t. In 2008 the Obama administration had to bail-out the auto industry. It has been losing market share for decades. This is the second time. Decades ago, businessman-as-hero, Lee Iacocca promised, with the help of US tax dollars of course, to save Chrysler. He brought us disasters like the template K-Car. Junk kept coming off the assembly lines and consumers voted with their dollars for Toyota and Datsun. Iacocca left Chrysler a mess. He left and the board found what they thought would be a salvage deal. The would-be lifeguard was, instead, nearly pulled under by the drowning company. In 1998 Daimler Mercedes-Benz merged with Chrysler. Almost immediately corporate cultural differences were obvious, one being that the Benz folks were shocked at the gap between executive pay and worker salaries at Chrysler. Other issues emerged and so Daimler bailed on the partnership paying a huge sum ($650 million) to Cerberus, a private equity firm to take over Chrysler. Daimler also settled all of Chrysler’s liabilities for $7.4 BILLION to get free of the mess. Chrysler then filed for bankruptcy again in 2009. Since then, Korean brands, all three, Hyundai, Genesis, and Kia (there’s also Daewoo/GM and Samsung/Renault) from the same company, but most Americans don’t know that, have muscled in. Not again? Yes, again. But how? Design and quality.
But also with foreign government support, foreign manufacturers were able to sell products (like Sony TV) at or even under cost in the US market, driving US domestic brands outta business. I knew a student form Japan. Her parents came to visit. They went to a mall and found their Sony TV in a Sears store for LESS than what they paid in Japan. What? Once the US manufacturers are gone, then foreign brands can charge what they want. And in the US there was an army of American sales and accounts folks ready, able, and very willing to help subvert US industry. We became a country of salesmen. None of the big shots defended the country. Instead, they were eyeing cheap, cheap labor abroad and making their own plans. Ford has shrunk back to being basically a truck manufacturer. The genius MBA’s have proven to not be so smart. It’s not all about the “art of the deal.” It’s about making things -- performance. We keep promoting to the top from sales and so here we are, getting our pink slip handed to us. The entire Great Lakes corridor that was once the “arsenal of democracy,” the great industrial powerhouse of America, is now populated with empty towns, derelict churches, schools, factories and… delipidated neglected people. Why do they feel like victims? Why is there “grievance politics?” This is why. This is why my dad was so grumpy all the time. He was watching the country he fought for die. Compare these pictures of “Motor cities” (yes plural as the whole region was part of that industry), with the Cincy Train Station, which, itself narrowly escaped demolition. These pictures are of Gary and Detroit. I have none of factory ruins in Marion because when I went back in 2016, even miles of hollow buildings that once made up Marion Power Shovel, Dresser, Pollock Steel, et cetera, had been torn down. Just empty fields today. I felt like an anthropologist standing where Carthage once existed. Nothing to look at. I was stunned. The town is depopulated. The mall empty. The talking cure of sales soothsaying was pure bunk, a con. Since craftsmanship had been replaced by the art of the pitch, Madison Avenue perfected the use of euphemisms including the anti-labor "right to work" catchphrase. Loathe to get calluses, the new army of MBAs focused on commercial rhetoric/PR, creative accounting, and legal gymnastics -- and lookin good. Strategic communication skills, memo writing, power networking, power pointing, power suites, power ties, nice hair and golf swing are the requisite cosmetics of business success. All façade with nothing substantial behind it. The big lie.
The modern world is dualistic. Matter/ mind. Subject/object. Cost/benefit. Debit/credit. “Balance?” Homo economicus, aka humans have two sides according to capitalism. One is labor, the other is consumer. You can’t have mass production without mass consumption. Labor costs are the biggest cost. So that’s gotta be reduced. And you gotta have mass production because the more hands you can hire to work for you, the more value you absorb from them – the faster you accumulate wealth. Why “gotta?” Because, according to the science of business, it is nature. Economics has laws just like physics. But wait. Other cultures have existed and thrived without behaving this way? I guess they are unnatural. Miracles even. Export jobs to cheaper labor and automate what’s left. And the consumer side of the human coin? That is the ruminant, docile side of the animal. The sheep. Marx understood capitalism better than the capitalist. The Central Party economists in China say, “Let them borrow to keep consuming, that way we get them coming and going.” We buy so much from China that it runs huge surpluses for them. What to do with all that money? Lend it back to the US. US consumers can keep buying, and now also pay interest on the loaned money. The technocrats in China note that folks in the US don’t like to study anyway. “They like to watch football on the TVs we sell them. So we will find some other purpose for them. Money-mills.” Smart, so long as you don’t kill the host your living off of. So the calculus is to keep a balance. Take blood but not too much lest the host die. You can’t kill the goose who lays the golden eggs, right? We, the US, and China need each other. We are co-dependent addicts. That was the last ace the US thought it had. But now… Now China has a gigantic consumer class of its own. Maybe the host is not necessary anymore? Plus Africa is poised to come online. Trump says, we’ll get even. We’ll put tariffs on those nasty Chinese. Who pays for tariffs? The US consumers.
What does Godot do? "Nothing." But we all wait for him. "I'm one." We have to. Why? What are we waiting for? A witty turn of phrase? A savior with the hair, tie and "that even tanned look on his face" as the Who were telling us? Maybe nothing. Maybe just a new boss. This is pseudo-politics. Bad standup comedy -- perhaps even bordering on a "clear and present danger," to a rational and just society, to recall Oliver H. No debate, just a monologue of name-calling, self-praising exaggeration, lies, and the leading of chants (not cheerleading but hateleading). Mindless chanting. Culture as advertising and as advertised. We provide the problems (underarm odors, dingy whites, soggy cereal) and the solutions. Ready-made culture. Utopia, not as freedom and responsibility, but escape therefrom (more about Fromm later). There is no substance. Reason has no grist for its mill. You can't argue with pseudo-political noise for two reasons. First, there is no substance, and second, there is only one microphone. A possible third reason, the self-selected audience (online or in person) is already committed/closed. This is not J. S. Mills' free marketplace of ideas. This is an echo chamber, a feedback loop, a place of fermentation leading to intoxication with power -- the cultivation of confirmation bias. Me, on steroids. Me reverberating off of adoring minds at the cusp of worshipfulness. This is demagoguery at the water's edge. A black hole of self-absorption. A Möbius self. We may pity those with unquenchable thirst. Just don't put them in charge.
Politics is democracy. There is no "politics" in dictatorships. Expression, even if you disagree, or you find it offensive, should not be muted for either moral or pragmatic reasons -- in principle or empirically -- unless you hate democracy... But I digress. While the paper chase that culminated in the Great Depression had become the culture, the Japanese were not waiting. And the Chinese are not waiting. While we have a pile of moon rocks and nukes, we dare not use, others are building our world. What was taught on the hit TV show The Apprentice? How to make nothing but bullshit. Golden nugget museum pieces. Know this: The casinos always win, and, if one fails, the owner should be fired.
As the Titanic began to list, the US increasingly poisoned itself with the mass distributed visage of fringe celebrities making comebacks in "reality TV." Propelled by craven commercial media to exalted popularity and status (the same thing in this culture), the freaks became normalized -- huge cultural influencers -- even reaching leadership positions with predictable consequences. When you literally call pure fiction "reality" TV, you're in trouble. There was hardly even a veneer of integrity to the content. Craftsmanship, dedication, rigor, science are all out in favor of fabricated culture and fast money. This was very shallow. We allowed ourselves to be lead from the bottom, the lowest common denominator as proven by TV ratings and "clicks" on the keyboard. We love watching train wrecks and we have become one. Dark mirror. To borrow loosely from the cultural anthropologist Edmund Carpenter, we became what we beheld. We internalized the view. But it is a view created by a few for the rest of us. We can change it. We must. But first, back to the boy's story, and the tension between optimism and pessimism -- how one defines the other through endless peaks and troughs. It's all waves.
In a few years, tens of thousands of workers in Marion became unemployed. Many vets. They could not live on five bucks a day and live in company dormitories, ten to a room. My parents believed the US had earned a higher standard of living. It existed. It had been built. They believed other countries should "come up" to our standard. Instead, we watched friends, family, neighbors go under. Families fell apart. In my neighborhood alone, there were several suicides of fathers of friends whom I knew, the way a kid knows an adult, from below, but sorta close up through sporadic sightings in the kitchen or driveway -- the silent silverback filling the living room space, his space, during TV time -- probably harmless but to be avoided. The thing about some very proud creatures is, they don't survive humiliation well. Many saw themselves as the guys who beat Hitler's "invincible super race" and Tojo's Samurai. They were. They did. But, they didn't have a clue how to fight lockstep "market logic."
So jobs were being exported but not unions. If they had been, that would have negated the point of moving the factories. What was exceptional in the US and Europe was democratic workplaces. Hard fought but better than most of the world. But capitalists don’t like democracy. They don’t like employees demanding the right to assemble, organize, speak, negotiate. They don't like what makes, or used to make, the US radically exceptional. Business people don’t like “politics.” They like to be in total charge. Years later I watched this dynamic playout in Taiwan. I was “consulting”( mostly teaching English to the execs and sometimes being the token white guy, the company could bring out during negotiations), a company called Johnson Metal. They made weightlifting equipment (branded as Marcy and others), and wood lathes for Sears. The owner wanted to pay his workers more. The Vice Pres for Operations and the VP of sales made a trip to Sears HQ in Chicago. They told me the first thing they did when they got off the plane was go to a Sears store and look up their wood lathes in the catalogue.They were stunned. The price in the catalogue indicated a 1000 percent profit. Not a 100 percent mark-up (double the cost) but ten times the cost. So, they braced to go into the meeting at Sears and firmly tell them they’d have to raise the price on their lathes because they needed to keep up with a rising standard of living in Taiwan. The answer? No negotiation at all. The VP for sales told me that the Sears guy leaned forward and asked the Johnson Metal reps “who is America’s best friend?” The VP told me they were confused. “Who?” The answer, “Communist China.” The new alluring place was Red China. Okay, so in 1980 (or thereabouts), Sears was telling folks from Taiwan that the rush to the bottom was beginning to pass them by. They’d had their time at the bottom, the jobs, but now China was opening to the West and the gravy train based on exploiting all those Chinese workers who can’t organize, let alone vote, was manna to the American importer. They didn’t raise the price. They did realize that they’d have to make something the Chinese could not. “Electronics” was the buzzword. Computers. Now China can make everything except maybe a successful moon mission… maybe.
The US is radical, or it used to be. The world has had a love/hate relationship with the US for this reason. Many, more conservative societies don’t like the “cultural imperialism” of the US involving women’s rights, labor rights… But then, it also used to have slavery, yet again, the ruling class was willing to fight a horrible internecine war to liberate a lower class, a very rare, perhaps unique thing in world history. Civil rights were the epitome of individualism. They were protections for the individual from central, exclusive, and inerrant power (divine right of kings), but they were never meant to destroy the collective spirit of community. Those who inspired the US revolution, Voltaire, Jefferson, Condillac, Rousseau, Diderot, J. S. Mill, Kant, Locke, Montesquieu, Abigail Adams, Marie Rodet Geoffrin, Mary Wollstonecraft… if the modern “capitalist” (in quotes because Smith would not recognize them as such) knows them at all, they hate them. They were good for breaking the back of the central power of kings, and making the public sphere secular and therefore dissociated from moral pressures from the church, but capitalists see themselves as the Barons who fomented the Magna Carta, not the framers of the US Constitution. They love the freedom to exploit whoever, whenever, however. But they don’t want to extend other freedoms to all; witness endless efforts to suppress the vote in the “great democracy.” Again, if they ever read Adam Smith, they would see him as “the enemy” because the capitalism he envisioned was much more collectivistic with a strong sense of community spirit and well-being. Capitalism was not for amassing endless profits for a few but for raising the level of civilization for all. It was not to be rampaging selfishness and the manipulation of law to guarantee unfair outcomes. Otherwise, as David Ricardo and Joseph Stiglitz notes, Smith’s moral sentiment manifested as the “invisible hand” that should guide markets away from pure predation, is just not there in modern capitalism. Nor should it be invisible. Policy should be part of public debate. Crony “capitalism,” a corruption, uses law and lobbying to distort democracy and economics. It really took off in the 1980s and we have seen a steady, now accelerating, shift of all wealth to fewer and fewer people. Eventually, this will cause terrible convulsions politically (shades of Weirmar)… unless we can moderate. Can we? Will we? I don’t know.
We, the nobodies, the "help," needed help. When I was a kid, US workers were becoming victims of the worldwide race to the bottom. It was not so much fascism versus communism, Nazi versus Yank, ideology versus ideology, but investors versus workers. The investors got organized as the workers became disorganized. So millions of workers who won the war, began to lose everything.
My dad worked at Ohio Edison and was not laid off. But, every day, he saw more and more people who could not pay their "light bill," sitting in the dark with spoiled food. It literally made him sick. I think this is the time churches changed. When I was a kid you were Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, or a couple of other denominations... the Baptists were "down south," but rumor was, they were moving north. All had nice old established churches, beautiful. Booming industry means booming economy which means rich churches. None too vastly different from the others. The Catholics had the fanciest rituals (still in Latin when I was a kid), and, as we all joked, including my Catholic buddies, requiring knee pads. They wore uniforms to school, but were as wild as any of us Protestants, and could out-cuss you on the football field. Their weddings were long...
Religion didn't seem so important. No matter what church they attended, everyone was getting laid off. Everyone was going to Vietnam. Marion didn't have a lot of college kids. Most thought the plants would run forever. But things were changing and not the way Bobby Dylan said. Justice? If you could get into college, you didn't have to go to Vietnam. The demands of the times seemed to demonstrate that the old decorous ways weren't "helping," and some people turned up the volume, becoming more frenetic in their pleas and prayers, rocking and rolling, assuming new identities that I'd never heard of before; Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Fundamentalists, seekers for charismatic healing -- revival. I've been back to Marion, renewal never came. When every other house is for sale, you can't give your house away. My dad felt betrayed. To say, "It's just business, nothing personal," did not wash with him. It was all personal -- all very real. He was bitter and he used to say the enemy is not other people. The enemy is war itself. But he also did not like what investment logic was doing to the country. It was heartless. The country was being hollowed-out by investors because they were taking the factories and money they'd made in the US and investing overseas. Not just the money, but the means to make it was leaving. On top of all this, he hated Vietnam. He would yell at the TV news, "they (the guys in Washington) are killing my Marines." A local gridiron hero, Dave Harris was killed in Vietnam. He was friends with my sister. In HS they weren't friends but later they ran into each other at a bowling alley and they both worked at Tecumseh products. Harris had been recruited and gone to the football powerhouse University of Nebraska. He played in 1967, but then left. He became eligible for the draft. I remember standing next to the kitchen table, everyone sitting there, my sister crying, my mom looking so sad. Before he left, my sister promised to write to him. My dad usually would yell at us to not cry. This time he said nothing. He stood up, walked into the bedroom, and shut the door. Over 50 years later my sister is still alive. Dave was 21 when he died in 1969. He had been in Vietnam only 22 days. They say he was killed in the act of saving several of his fellow soldiers. He was awarded the Silver Star, posthumously.
As I said, I played lots of sports in school but my parents kept me focused beyond my own activities. My sister, Candace, is ten years my senior, so when I was eight, she was 18. We were never close while I was a kid. There was another child between us, Carol Ray, but she died. Candy was a UAW representative in a Tecumseh factory that had been in Marion for close to a century. I spent lots of time outdoors messing around a pond near my house, fishing in summer and playing hockey in winter. We'd shovel the snow off the ice. Whoever was goalie would wear baseball catcher's gear. Just one goal. I would walk with my skates and stick (properly taped up of course, or so we thought), across a couple of fields. I could see field mice darting under the snow, dodging my boots. I'd play a couple of hours, maybe get a scrape or two (blood is absolutely brilliant red on fresh snow), walk back and feel fine. Youth! Boy was mom's hot soup perfect. When I got older, up in Canada on the Pickerel River, which is part of the French River flow (the Whippoorwill lodge pictured) and on Jack Lake north of Peterborough, I practically lived outdoors. Back then the glow of a little sunburn was considered a sign of vitality. I had alot of "vitality." Now I watch for signs of skin cancer. Ugh.
I got pretty good at loon calls. After cleaning fish until midnight, sometimes under a flashlight, everyone would be in bed. I'd walk down onto the dock and you could hear the loons for miles, calling across the bays. The water at night was usually still with the lake reaching up into the mist. It was so quiet, dew gathering on the boats. Maybe you'd hear a fish jump. The gulls would be gathered out in open water, sleeping. Small fish would come up as far as they could along the bank, into inches of water because the big ones come out of the deep to feed at night. Magical. The lodge pictured is on the Pickerel River. It had no electricity and no phone. Well, we had a generator but Ted MacDonald, the owner (from 1946-1991), shut that off at 11PM or so. There were no other cabins for miles. It got very dark, unless you had a moon. You could see the glorious Milky Way. Ted finally got a radio phone that worked most of the time. Gwen, his wife whom he met in England, when he flew for the Royal Canadian Airforce in WII, pestered him until he broke down and bought one. The US didn't have an air force until much later (Army Air Corp it was).
I start this bio with one of my favorite people of all time, and end with another one of my favorite people. They are, Ted and Fred. Two of my unforgettable people, as the venerable Reader's Digest used to (still does I think) put it. We'd fly into small lakes in his little plane to take people in to fish or to maintain the boats and motors anchored out in the middle of the lakes. After storms we'd check on them. Sometimes he'd drop into the little lakes at acute, to me alarming angles. He'd turn the plane sideways so we would drop after clearing the trees, then level-out and land on the water. Sometimes after a snort or two. Ted got bored. I'd hang on. Life was good. I never doubted him. The nearest private cabin was miles away back then. Now? Maybe it is a suburb of Toronto. I pray not. The nearest hospital was in Sudbury 50 miles north or Parry Sound about the same south, and the boat ride to the landing was about seven miles. So... even as a dock boy (or especially) one learned to be responsible living up there. Ted would come up in the winter from his home in Mississauga and cut ice for the ice-house. No electricity, no freezer. So I'd clean fish and wrap them and put them in the sawdust that covered the ice. At the end of the season in the fall when we cleaned the ice house we always found some "missing fish." The smell... Stripping and varnishing cedar strip boats was hard work. Beautiful but heavy and lots of maintenance. Now everything small is aluminum. I would get gas and bait for folks and once in awhile go out and help a family having a slow time catch some fish. WARNING: Remember when pulling into the dock, FINGERS IN THE BOAT (people tend to grip the side), otherwise you may not be counting to ten in the future. Having the freedom to roam that place was heaven for a boy. I was beyond privileged. Not alot of money but open space and open time -- well, after chores. If you can't handle sunburns, mosquitoes, and chilly, dewy mornings out on the water before the fog is burned off, it will not be for you. But to me it's a dream. Ted used to come down to the dock to wash his face in the morning. Just dip and drink. Beautiful clean water. Warm to swim in unless you go three or four feet deep then you hit the cold. Ted wanted his son to take over, but he wanted to move to Vancouver. Running a lodge is really hard work, especially when you have to drive fifty miles for any and all provisions and haul them in by hand. His daughter and her husband ran it for a few years then sold it.
In the seventh or eighth grade, I had a “social studies/history” teacher, Mr. W. Covert, who lent a copy of Homer’s works to me. It must have been a version for kids. Thank you, thank you so much Mr. Covert. Reading the Illiad was the first time that I got so into a book that I just kept reading and reading. It was the first time the words did not get in the way of the story. Zeus, Agamemnon, Achilles, Ajax, Hector, Patroclus, Paris, and of course Helen (my mom’s name!)… I would go to our little school library and look up "philosophy" in an Encyclopedia and read the article over and over and look at Jacques-Louis David's famous painting The Death of Socrates (1787 smack-dab in the middle of the Enlightenment). For some reason, I was a little obsessed with that whole idea of philosophy. I was about eleven years old. I have no idea why.
In 1964, I was seven years old. This is about that time. Our single-income working class family did something no other family I know of did. We went to the New York World's Fair. We took Greyhound buses for about 30 hours to get there. Exhausted, we arrived at the shabby Times Square Hotel, and they could not find our reservations. My mother was very upset. But we got a room. We spent a week there. If you watch the movie Tomorrowland (with George Clooney and Hugh Laurie, 2015), or read Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World (1995), you'll understand how I feel about this trip. Sagan reflects on going to this World's Fair and how it inspired him. Me too. First, being only seven, I was very amazed at everything. Also, Vietnam, race riots, and other explosions of rage (righteous) had not yet erupted fully onto the American scene. One Kennedy had been assassinated, so that was a huge negative vector. In 1964 we didn't see the second one coming. In 1964, overall, industry was still booming, the middle class was prospering, and everything was positive. Looking back, that was naive. But I was a little kid. Now I wonder where all our positive energy went. Well, of course it's not gone, but maybe we just grew up as a nation. Still, this was a very positive time. Countless kids were the "first in their families" to go to college. I was one. Suburbia and the automobile culture was in full stride. Many new schools were being built out in counties to handle the suburban kids. However, the afterglow of WWII was wearing off and the country was becoming restless. Everyone was going somewhere, which meant that where they were, was apparently unsatisfying. I have wondered why I was not more satisfied at certain points in my life. Why did I keep striving? Where was I going?
While China was still two years out from the nation-wide convulsion of the Culture Revolution, Khrushchev was being quietly purged in the Soviet Union, missile envy, missile crises, arms races, and duck-and-cover drills were occurring, I was mesmerized by unabashed optimism. The 1964 World's Fair was the future that promised a "big beautiful tomorrow." Walt Disney took inspiration from the Fair to apply to his Epcot dream that would open eighteen years later in Florida. To a little boy it was all "for real." Just look -- there was a life-size mockup of the lunar lander, a guy with a jetpack flying around, Ford introduced the Mustang and we rode in one on a track that went clear around the Ford pavilion to show us tomorrow. My dad bought a Mustang for my sister and sent her back to the Fair in 1965, on a tour of kids from the YMCA, hoping, I think, to spark something in her. This was pretty extraordinary for a kid even of richer parents. No doubt Spielberg's Jurassic Park was inspired by the life-size dinosaurs at the Sinclair Oil pavilion. At the Fair we went "inside a computer" in the IBM pavilion, the Edison Electric pavilion, the "tower of light," was spectacular. It shot a super beam of light straight up into the night sky. That would prove to be too prophetic as the New York Port Authority proudly exhibited an architectural model of their big future project called the World Trade Center. All the pavilions, all the support services and infrastructure were built for the fair and then, much of it was torn down at the end in 1965. I guess it was deemed “over.” There is something arrogant and silly about that. I’m conflicted. How can the same people who built this, tear it all down? What’s the message? We see this sort of thing happen with the Olympics. Countries go deep into debt just to strut on the world stage for a moment and then… it “over.” Not the debt, of course. But everything else. The national pride? Countries do this to show they have “arrived.” They are “developed”… into something… world-class waste-makers? Okay. Narcissism on a grand scale. It’s like an athlete taking performance enhancing drugs, bashing his or her body, peaking and then, it’s “over.” Collapse. If they get into the record books, they’ve achieved immortality. I get it. But I think we need to moderate. We have to grow up. This all or nothing attitude is not sustainable. We see it all over. People search my name and Erik Kramer pops up with blurbs about his NFL career, his wife abuse, his attempted suicide… Brain trauma. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). I think we might be seeing something like this on a global level. Plastic in the seas, in our blood, global warming… We’re giving Gaia a headache. Time to stop ragging (what we now call parties?), and thinking more. When did Estragon and Vladimir stop insulting each other? When they arrived at the word “critic.” No other curse word could match it. It’s over. But for a Socratic, that’s just the beginning, if it is from a place of care. We can do better.
One problem with progress and positivism is that it presumes not being satisfied with the way things are. And it can build unrealistic expectations. Collectively we were stuck in a gigantic contradiction: endless progress. But you can't have progress without an end goal. What was it, and when would we finally arrive and relax? Never. How would we know when we had arrived? We couldn't. Progress itself was the goal. But being unrealistic was the core of the post-war optimism. My parents firmly believed that each generation should "do better" than the previous one. That was the whole point of everything. On one hand, we were all going to have flying cars. But on the other, the need to change was not all happy. Many things needed to change, but it seemed like we were confident in our ability to not merely go to the moon, but also confront injustices and solve problems. However, reactionary forces and fear put the kabash on a fantastic opportunity. The post-war US had most of the chips. Assassinations and probably a couple of stolen elections have had profound, historic consequences. Instead of everyone pulling on the same end of the rope for progress, truth, justice and "the American way," as Superman put it, a whole, well-funded industry to obscure truth, sow doubt and confusion emerged. To be "progressive" is a bad thing to millions of Americans. The "merchants of doubt," started with the tobacco industry. Then big oil and other powers pitched in to systematically attack science and progress. Today, at this writing, we have a President who denies global warming, sabotages our public health experts' efforts to combat a pandemic, and who takes a magic marker to NOAA weather maps that track the path of hurricanes for Americans. Then there was, and remains, the issue of race. Folks like Lester Maddox, George Wallace, Ross Barnett, Orval Faubus, and others, were pushing backwards hard. Now we don't even have World's Fairs or grand Expositions anymore.
My dad did not give up easily. He went to the last two in the U.S. in 1982 at Knoxville and 1983 in New Orleans. He said they were terrible. Poorly funded, poorly attended. A dark negativity seemed to descend. Today, it's almost as if being optimistic and trusting, makes you a rube, a fool, hopelessly hopeful -- minimally, naive; that we should give up to the fates. I don't like this attitude. It belies a failure to understand that to be critical is to be optimistic, to make things better. You can love a country or person even as you push them to be better, in fact this should be normal. Instead apocalypticism has infected everything from the social sciences as the science to identify, address, and solve social problems, to popular music, film, TV, our flesh with scarification and tattoos, fashion ("Heroin Chic" with models who look like dying drug addicts!). Even religion has embraced "end times." Some may see it as sexy, but it is useless. What happened to us? I follow the critical route that presumes we can do better. I know I, we, can. I'm not pollyannish. You don't have to believe in the contradiction of eternal progress. There's plenty of room for improvement before we get to utopia. I have written scathing critiques of forces damaging people and the environment. Cases in point: Modern/Postmodern: Off the Beaten Path of Antimodernism (1997), Coarseness in Public Communication (with Philip Dalton, 2012), Environmental Communication and the Extinction Vortex (with Gabriel Adkins, Sang-Ho Kim, Greg Miller, 2014), Rethinking Culture in Health Communication (with Elaine Hsieh, 2021)... Why? Why keep writing, analyzing, critiquing? Precisely because it's all worth fighting for. I guess that is why I have continued to vote in a state where I have no impact on the electoral college. As my colleague Amy Janan Johnson once commiserated, we've rarely voted for a winner. Imagine. I'm a minority. I'm proud to stand up, and stand out. I'm still here.
I had two years of catechism in my Lutheran church. So, as you read along you'll understand that my parents did not abandon me to just pulp fiction and car magazines. They tried to civilize the boy. But, memorizing Bible verses bored me terribly. I remember during one of our lessons the Reverend H. himself showed up (usually it was old ladies teaching us). It was a rare, special thing. In fact, in two years he came to teach us only once. I only knew him as the giant figure blasting away from on high, up in his refectory. Women made special dishes, custom shirts, and gorgeous ties for him. Car dealers gave him cars to use. He was an imposing figure who even my father listened to (most of the time). He was almost god himself to us. He proceeded to attack the scientific model of the universe saying, imagine how stupid it is to believe that everything just randomly fell into place like taking all the pieces of the universe and putting them into a box and shaking it until they all fit together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. No one said a word... except me. I guess I was naive. I don't know if the rest of the kids were even listening or just bedazzled. I know the old ladies were impressed. It was an imperious moment. For some reason, I felt it was okay to answer his question, namely, isn't what I'd been taught in school and watched on PBS, stupid? Jacques Cousteau was one of my heroes as was my seventh grade science teacher Mr. Sperry.
I raised my hand. "But if we have eternity to shake the box couldn't it happen? And not all the pieces were here from the beginning, right?" He was unfazed. He "corrected" me; firmly as in, to affirm the solidity of established, transcendent Truth. I was "grounded," epistemologically and for going astray. He couldn't restrict me to house detention, but he could restrict my wayward thoughts, or try to at least. He was a dedicated shepherd. Clearly, only a really dumb lamb would defend such a stupid idea. My oral epistle was demolished by this force of nature (or was it supernature?). I could feel the staff (rod and ladies) around my neck. You've probably had that feeling of being hung out to dry (or is it "hanged?"). Well, they didn't really abandon me, but I was the perfect example of wrong thinking. Why it was "stupid" was apparently self-evident (in need of no explanation). The ladies reaffirmed and confirmed his sanction with "serious looks." After all, I was supposedly progressing toward my own "Confirmation." I got it. The young philosopher never said a word again in catechism except to recite the assigned verses. Once on my own I rarely went to church. Not that it is bad. It's boring. Jesus seems pretty cool, but church...
I grew up near a Methodist church and it just so happens that over my years from junior high through high school three different ministers came through and had sons my age. All became friends of mine and I hung out at their house (the rectory, parsonage, vicarage, whatever). I got to see church from the backstage. The problems with budgets, internal squabbles, ugly affairs, even theological conflicts of sorts. When a new fellow moved in who asserted the "gifts" of speaking in tongues, faith healing, "laying on of hands" (which is not exactly semikhah, from which it is derived, and which involves the commission of ordination in direct succession from Moses), and such, many of the old-timers who had built the church left. I guess they weren't gifted. It was quite a turnover, and the minister basically said (backstage) good riddance.
Christianity, as I had known it, was changing. Increasingly, athletic coaches were preaching the gospel along with cliches such as "make them feel it tomorrow" and "run it down their throats." Thanking god for touchdowns and triumphing over rivals was becoming apropos (never miss an opportunity to be thankful). To be fair, this could be construed as a return to the original motives of Emperor Constantine's homiletics. What about Isaiah 2: 3-4? What about Colossians 2:15? I'm no theologian, that's for sure. I know this battlefield theology is common these days, and now teams tend to join together for prayer after games, which I think is a step in the right direction. But sports being overtly religious was not the norm when I was in HS. We were encouraged to "leave it all on the field," and tend to our spiritual matters at home and in the church. Now they are fused.
Coaches love to talk about life being filled with adversity. Your neighbors, the world, is an angry, mean place that gives no quarter. We must be strategic in our thinking. And we must prepare for it, overcome it, and to not expect the other team to let up but rather to capitalize on our misfortune. Survivalism. Social Darwinism. And good players are "studs." Eugenics. That's the worldview. It's me or you. And we structure events to make it so, and to amplify this ethos as much as possible. We dramatize it and coaches whip kids into emotional frenzies. Otherwise, they might be mild and rational. Winner takes all.
Fandom has gone over the top. Coaching salaries more than dwarf the salaries of professors, deans, and even presidents of universities -- even governors. This is crazy. But winning feels good. Passive viewing is easy. It fits a culture conditioned to worship. I have no power and all I have to do is accept and be saved. Here's a uniform, here's a number, just follow orders. Recruiting wars have become obscene with grown men, coaches, jockeying with one another to get access to high school kids. Dancing and singing in locker rooms, claiming to be making men. What kind of man? Their giant bonuses for winning bowl games depend on ridiculous pandering. Fan bases care more about football than almost anything else, and so this is why, try as we might, we escape reality, like climate change, soaring medical costs, massive gaps in wealth, education, opportunity, at our own peril. Players get busted up... hope they can afford the medical costs. Oh, but this is an opportunity for poor kids. Not even a handful. I see minority parents standing on street corners soliciting donations for youth football. I wanna stop and give them some algebra books. I wanna grow their brains, not injure them. That makes me a bad person. The kids don't stand a chance.
It's the dream. It's all around us. This is the magic of distraction. A few kids get a chance at a college degree if they can read and calculate. The rest of us, who think we are "a part of it," pay for it in taxes. Most university football programs, the vast majority in fact, subsidize football. Only a handful bring in enough revenue to cover the cost of the spectacle. And we pay for higher product costs. Massive advertising campaigns cost money. It all seems fair, even natural. It's human instinct. This is pure myth. Amateur sports? The West used to hammer the Soviets for cheating in the Olympics. Then we sent the "Dream Team." The truest religion of the USA is Ayn Randian social Darwinism. It has even impacted Christianity (prosperity theology). Try as we might to find sanctuary in denial, reality bites. Try running through a brick wall. Reality pushes back. Aging athletes who can't remember where they live... Maybe it takes a while for reality to push back, or for us to notice, but the inertia is absolute. Ignoring reality, self-imposed ignorance, is not rational, especially when you can do something about it. It is passive submission, which is a major teaching of our dominant ideologies. We talk about freedom all the time, but that means responsibility. That's not fun.
Then we have the most popular TV shows in the US ("Smack Down," "Raw," "Monday Night Wars," "New World Order" and such, with the "invasion" storyline), brought to us by big donor "conservatives" (the McMahon clan) who present to us greased-up, near naked, steroid enhanced men and women strutting around (celebrating "ego hypertrophy"), promoting xenophobia, denigrating and humiliating the Other, and cheating. This is not about "sportsmanship." This is not about the gentle man of chivalry. Quite the contrary. These are the most popular TV shows in the US and on military bases around the world and many police are vets. This is our culture. We have deepened the divide between civilians and those who presume to manage them. Civis, the public sphere, is something to be managed and reduced in value and influence -- preferably privatized and thusly segregated. You can't enjoy my private beach, and increasingly I can stand that ground with deadly use of force. Trump makes Linda McMahon Secretary of Education!!! How can we wonder why we are so polarizing in our thinking and culture? "Spiritual aggression?"
It's a fact. Many Christians find common cause with the "conservatives" that produce this worldview. The Bible belt consumes the most online porn and buys the most guns. Why? Parents go nuts at little league games. Remember the old joke, that you go to a street fight, and a hockey game breaks out. Now it's like a football game turns into church. They have become the same thing. Such behavior also assumes, apparently, that all the players are Christians, perhaps even of the same denomination? And given the influence coaches have, you can't deny the proselytizing potential -- the pressure. What kid is going to dare to step out and question the call to a team prayer? And why should they be put in that situation just to play a sport in a public school? I can't imagine a Muslim Imam leading a US high school football team in prayer. Maybe it has happened but not regularly. Now some might say, of course not, the US is a Christian nation... Smack Down. Point given. Point taken.
Now many cultures have produced masks. Usually they are deemed to have magical powers so that when a person dons a mask, they take on the powers and qualities of the mask itself. This is often accompanied by trance states. But in the modern west, with our intense individualism, we often wear masks to hide our identities. We are ashamed of what we are doing. Anonymity has gone virulent with the Internet and online communications. Case in point QAnon. The anonymous “Q,” who spreads malicious lies all over wants to hide. So do Ku Klux Klan members and others who know better but are cowards to take responsibility for their freely chosen nefarious activities. If you are rich enough you can bully others into signing nondisclosure agreements to hide your actions. Okay so wearing a mask so law enforcement can’t identify you or to cover up your identity because what you are doing it silly if not also shameful is common among western heroes such as the Lone Ranger, Batman, the Green Hornet, and “Big Time” wrestlers, such as these luchadores from Mexico, where they still have some shame and wear masks. But now the caped he-men are taking their masks off. What does that signal? They still understood that the character in the ring was not them. But that line is disappearing. Hulk Hogan is Hulk Hogan all the time. The old-time wrestlers wanted to hide their identities so that they could walk around as normal people but today, they want to be seen and have celebrity for who they are in and out of the ring as one and the same. Make-believe is taking over. The mask that formed the barrier between fiction and reality is gone. Reality TV has embraced the unmasked freak and normalized it, them… Maybe, the culture is no longer ashamed of grown men jumping around in a ring with tights on pretending to be fighting for make-believe championships. Heck yeah. They are now “out,” and have become leaders in the Republican party. This is being conservative???? Comic book characters are becoming real role models, not for children but for adults! Halloween has taken off in popularity among… adults. We see this with vigilantes pretending to be special operations or SWAT professionals. This is maturity? This is why facts are no longer important (publicly stated by the George W. Bush administration), and scientists are “idiots,” and science is a hoax (publicly stated by Donald Trump). Humans coexisted with dinosaurs that Noah wouldn’t let on the boat, I guess. Even at fourteen I knew Conan was not real. I didn’t think it would be cool to dress up, or undress like Conan and walk around with a sword. Reality is confused.
The boom in professional wrestling took off during the Reagan era and the rise of Murdoch's empire, when Trump, Hulk Hogan and other paragons of manhood became cultural icons projected through the greatest communication system ever constructed (to that date). When I say boom, I mean “professional wrestling” shows became the most popular shows on television. What had been fringe became not just mainstream but dominant in the ratings. Millions drank it in. It's a culture -- "reality" TV. Cable was unregulated. Megachurch showbiz began to rise as attendance to traditional church services were on the decline. A new form of worship evolved. Vegas-style shows were fused with sermonizing. Megachurches included malls. Some occupied sports arenas. They were located not in neighborhoods but at the intersections of major highways. Their ministers do not visit you at home or in the hospital. I don't think they perform weddings and funerals. They manage multi-media conglomerates, market clothing lines, book series, films, even sell insurance. They jet set. They're stars. They simulcast around the globe. Money pours in. They are not the priest (Father Carmine) who blesses Rocky Balboa from his bedroom window. The new megachurches are not part of the community, not part of the neighborhood. You don't call them when you have a crisis. They run "hot lines," and mostly to solicit money.
For the new religion, theological training is not necessary but media savvy is. When the orchestrated emotional climax is reached, when the audience totally loses control, is what they call "pop" in Pro wrestling. Same thing in political chanting and to staged performance of miracles in megachurch shows. We are, ironically, awash in fifth-rate morality plays with characters in gaudy red velvet sets, giant blue hair, wrestlers in Speedos, all screaming at the engorged mob. This is the goal? This is the goal. Rallies. Watch American TV advertising. I guarantee you, you will see many literally dancing idiots exhibiting glee at the consummation of consumption. This I call the Third Sophistic. The first was beaten back by the rise of classical logic and philosophical analytics. The second was beaten back by the rebirth of classical reason and logical analytics, what Vasari named the "Renaissance." How far we must decline before a third revolution in reason beats back this culture of pure emotional nonsense, this third sophistic, this nation of salesmen? I don't know.
There's a problem this time, a difference. We have a class of technocrats who can run the system without much help (automation). Safeguards have been built in by autocrats. Ideology, such as the myth of Horatio Alger, is a big part of that. There is a huge gap between the top and the bottom of society (in wealth, education, power). The US is big enough to produce enough technocrats to keep it limping along with a huge underclass. So, this sophistic could endure for a long time. As Neil Postman said, we are being entertained to death. Just flip on the video screen and zombie-out. But many think this irrationality is unsustainable. Why? Because there is a reality that has nothing to do with sales rhetoric be it used to proselytize, in scholastic apologetics, or to sell automatically renewing subscriptions to media applications. The current mass extinction event that we are living through, includes us. Nothing is more absurd than suicide. But being absurd is the perfection of irrationality.
In the really real world I watched things unfold at the little church in my neighborhood. One member, Ann, my mother's coffee klatch best friend for many years, felt so estranged to be called upon publicly, "in the middle of service," to do miracles, that she left. She apparently felt that she was not in a direct line of rabbinical succession from Moses (Deuteronomy 34:9). With WJR's Edgar Guest and the Sunny Side of the Street playing in the background, my mother comforted her. It was actually very traumatizing for Ann. I felt bad. She was a good person. Also, she had basically built the kitchens at the church and volunteered there for decades (from the beginning) making banquets and cookouts, literally feeding the church. It was her church. She belonged to it and it belonged to her. It was integral to her identity... but no. One thing was clear, there was a new spiritual sheriff in town, and this loyal deputy was out. Regime change. Her husband, Frank did not speak of it. Betrayal makes people lose faith. What does a person do when their church betrays them, especially toward the end of their life? I have no idea. As Nietzsche would say, human, all too human. The point is that I realized that church, at least for me, was about hierarchy and death (or ever-lasting life on the flip side), a sort of terror of death. But it also harbors a fundamental, inherent propensity to bully. Of course. It is all about the most personal kind of judgment. Church lost its special status for me. Sorry, I do not mean to offend but to be honest.
This Quasimodo found sanctuary elsewhere -- the university. But conservative forces have been after that institution forever. As the country turned more conservative the university has come under more and more pressure. How long it can hold out is unknown. It collapsed around 450 A.D., not to return for nearly a thousand years, actually much longer if you wait for the emergence of public education. Europe forgot the recipe for cement and so the aqueducts, roads, and buildings fell apart. Classical art and learning, and the classical mind was lost. In these current times of ours, organized and well-funded efforts to control thinking such as the Federalist Society have been launched by folks including Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia precisely to reign in law schools and beyond. Maybe they got the jigsaw quarry wrong in those classes too. U of Oklahoma has a wonderful natural history museum. When Preston, my son volunteered to be a docent or guide, he was instructed on how to handle people who would get upset with the first major exhibit one encounters. It's about evolution. They designed the museum so that you walk through time and pass fossils and dioramas, indeed some rare skeletons. It's a marvelous jewel in the university's crown. But it might be all wrong. So what is all this evolution stuff? It's just a theory. Maybe right, probably not. The fact that farmers have long since selected for traits to give us all our food, we can see dog breeds, and viruses mutate before our eyes, "natural" selection is just a bridge too far I guess. It's all about god and humans staying in control.
I came to see science, not religion, as the civilizing force. The products of natural philosophy (later called scientia) work, spectacularly. I watched Armstrong step onto the moon. Yes, the products of science-based engineering can be used for war, crusades of ideology, conquest, or religion. Leonardo did more than dissect bodies, paint masterpieces, and ponder flying machines. He made a good bit of his living designing defensive battlements and siege engines. Let's be clear-eyed about that. But the process of dialectical engagement (thesis, anti-thesis, syn-thesis), as opposed to inerrant dogma, seems much more honest to me, and... fun, interesting. I had a telescope and a microscope as a kid and I loved using them. If the data does not fit, the theory/doctrine has to yield. And, importantly, any mere mortal can be taught to "do science." No royal blood or supernatural powers are necessary to participate. The inspiration is simple curiosity. It does take time, and science is constantly becoming obsolete as research continues -- it is a secular, temporal, pursuit. It is a human thing. But such admissions of limitations, of fallibility, to me, are not weaknesses. Rather such admissions make it honest and humble. Even great theories topple in the face of facts. It is a community project manifesting the efforts of people from all over, not just one monolithic and exclusive voice. I like the democratic ethos of philosophy and science. And for the most part, I like the world it has produced. Discussion and examination, without threat of damnation, seems civilized to me. The alternative seems to promote bullying and extreme violence -- like eternal torment, not just a weekend in hell. You are forced to choose (with me, er agin me). That's a very narrow, razor's edge, as Percival discovered during his quest. How can the war between heaven and hell be healed? The question itself, in fact to question itself, is the definition of is heresy. The idea of suspending judgment, of remaining neutral is out-of-the-question. No quarter shall be given. Except... That's the story of the grail -- com-passion. So I stop here. The best I can do is intend; to try to lean toward the light and overcome myself, to slay the dragon within that is trapped in a cave guarding treasure it has no use for.
Marion had one of the ubiquitous Carnegie Libraries. Once I could drive, I spent a good bit of time there. Never saw another person from my school there. In fact, I saw very few teenagers there. Other than Homer and a couple of books I ordered from the Scholastic Book Club (which I believe still exists!) via homeroom teachers, I read a couple of things from the school library. Before I had the car keys, what opened my mind to the world of reading and writing was a few science fiction titles available at the local drugstore. What was there? Asimov, Heinlein, Clark, Bradbury, Herbert, Niven, Pohl, Norton… (I didn’t discover K. Dick and Lovecraft until I got to college). And then on the magazine rack I could pick up Amazing Stories, Fantasy and Science Fiction, IF, Galaxy, Weird Tales, then came Omni and Analog. I used to read old scifi mags left lying around in a couple of fishing lodges in Canada. I think the first nice hardcover book I ever bought was H. G. Wells The Time Machine (1895).
A bookstore finally opened in Marion, at its mall when I was 14 or 15. It was an event! Conan the Barbarian books arrived with Frazetta’s cover art. Of course, the graphics sold the books.
What more could a young wrestler from Marion Ohio want?
When I got older, I was curious. "Pulp fiction." Cheap entertainment. Who was this Robert E. Howard dude who captured my imagination as an adolescent? I was very surprised. He grew up wandering around Texas with his parents from oil boomtown to oil boomtown. He died at age 30 in 1936, in the dustbowl. He wrote most of his fantasy stories on this typewriter (below) in this very, I mean very modest house in Cross Plains (population about 1200 at its peak when he lived there, now less than a thousand), in the middle of nowhere – over one hundred miles southwest of Fort Worth, brown, no trees, and flat as a pancake. Maybe the sensory deprivation invited his imagination to roam. Or maybe the power not of deprivation but of the sensation of vast space "out there" in west Texas is what fired him up. Who knows? I do know from personal experience that the space out there is different, "Giant" (a good name for the tale inhabited by James Dean, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor). Conan was a giant nomad but one who knew who he was by Crom.
So picture this: A 20 something year old Howard, sitting at a simple wooden table with a few books about ancient cities and empires, with an Underwood typewriter in a frame house of about 900 square feet, with no air conditioning in the middle of Texas, launching a pulp fiction empire. The nearest town was Abilene with about 20,000 people forty miles away. He would write his stories, take them to the nearest post office and send them off to Weird Tales and other such fantasy magazines hoping they would like them. They did; we do. He shared the little house with his mother. His imagination gave birth to a very seductive character in the form of an invincible prehistoric superhero. Howard himself was a “momma’s boy.” He took medication for a weak heart, was prone to depression, and killed himself the day his mother died of tuberculosis. He had a girlfriend, a local schoolteacher named Novalyne Price. They never married. The most he ever made was about $2000 in 1935 (about $37,000 adjusted for inflation).
I include this story because it tells us all what we can do with just our imaginations following a passion, even when others might think it is silly. Including all the translations and reprints, this guy probably published as many or more pages than our entire Arts and Sciences college combined. Yes, it is not science or great literature or history. I concede immediately. And Howard was not carousing with Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Hemingway, Pound, Miro, or Joyce in Paris. But hey, before moving back to Kansas, yes Kansas (where he wrote part of A Farewell to Arms), Hemingway injured himself in Paris by pulling a skylight down onto himself in the bathroom thinking he was pulling on the toilet chain. That's where the scar on his forehead came from, not fighting Franco's thugs. Everyone has clay feet. As for Howard, you gotta admire the guy’s prolific creativity. He had a huge influence on many writers, indeed on an entire genre of fiction. He had an extensive correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft too. Remember, no e-mail. You needed a stamp and envelope for every message. And Patience.
Okay, so you think I’m a lightweight. Remember I was just a kid. I've since edited book series and journals, hosted conferences attracting scholars such as Karl Pribram and Algis Mickunas from Europe to Japan on Phenomenology, Comparative Civilizations, Gebser and Proust. Big deal? Not bad. Helped me "get" tenure. But still I am impressed with the dustbowl word slinger from near Abilene; his pursuit of a dream. He died young but left a legacy that spans the globe. I doubt anyone reading this will ever have their books made into major Hollywood movies, LET ALONE, a major Hollywood movie made about YOU, with the likes of Renee Zellweger playing the role of your girlfriend, your muse (if you have one)…
Bottom line. You can have a billion-dollar computer or pens made by Tiffany or Cartier, and still not create as brilliantly as a wounded and spent soul standing at a fish-cleaning table, sweating, scribbling with pencil and paper. How dare we give a Nobel Prize for literature to a guy who preferred Castro to murderous pimping gangsters and who wrote about old men and not lost, but achingly unattainable dreams. A guy whose manuscript smelled of fish guts. The twisted mind of J. Edgar assigned an agent to monitor Earnest in Havana. Who was the real threat to civilization, to the U.S.A? The owners of the debauched and licentious casino quarters or a novelist who was obsessed with trying to write one true thing?
I think the sharks devouring the purest embodiment of magnificent life and luminescent beauty were meant to represent literary critics as they had shredded his Across the River and into the Trees, his sad effort to cope with unrequited love late in life written under the spell of his last muse Adriana Ivancich. She was out of his time, the dimension no one can control. He was disjointed, lost. His desire could not span the gap, unfair and unmerciful as it is. Needful love was broken by contingency. The critics declared his flame extinguished; his genius leaked away with his Scotch and Vermouth. But then, the stinging roused the old alcoholic and he roared back one last time. A spasmodic flash of crystalline clarity as pointed and yet as nimble as the leaping diamond-sparkles on the sea silhouetted against the Antilles. He had captured the essence of disappointment, a disappointment rooted in time (because we are). Cases are little momentary holograms of eternal categories (Plato's formalism and Aristotle's empiricism) somehow fused in our piteous yet relentless efforts to understand what's happening to us on this "mortal coil." The judges in Stockholm, like everyone, were struck by the simple profundity. His name was moved above Carl Sandberg, Isak Dinesen, and others. He was humble and appreciative. Not the braggart people believed he was. He was worn. He appreciated appreciation. Late in life he had ceded to the fates and yielded to the universe. Concerned about money, taxes, and the U.S. government stalking him, he could finally take yes as an answer and choose his own time. He did not have the sanctuary of delusion. Spending time on the water eases one toward undulating reflection. It's all waves.
From Cross Plains, Texas, to the pitching cork ironically named Pilar, everyone is somewhere, but that is adrift. And so, there (wherever) is where their creativity happens. As the old saying goes, we build our ships while at sea. Wherever you are, create. Don’t let “circumstances” keep you from the essential ever-present source. No matter your velocity, as you move, the North Star follows. Look out the window of your car or plane or boat. There it is sailing untouched above the passing landscape, still, yet flying. Permanent, lucent above the blurring flux. You might think you lost sight, but that is only your temporary vision. It's still... there. You can't lose it.
After a stretch reading Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, and others of their circle I got into Herbert’s Dune, Tolkien, Steinbeck (lots of Steinbeck – loved Cannery Row), Orwell, Hesse, Poe, Asimoz's Foundation Trilogy. But oddly, perhaps, my favorite writing was by the regular columnists for car magazines. They were so unabashedly, so sincerely passionate about cars that it made the pages smell of rubber after doing doughnuts. Well, maybe I exaggerate. Maybe they intoxicated me. Their styles varied but all worked to express their madness. Striving, they put to great use metaphors and allusions to art, music… things I did not know but had to then find out just to appreciate the madness -- to join the asylum as a member in full. What does it mean to say a Corvette’s exhaust sounds like the full-throated blast of a Tchaikovsky symphony or that the sensation of being strapped into a Lotus charging through Ss is like being tied to the wheel of the Pequod during a gale in the maniacal chase for mortal perfection? One more lap. Around, around. Keep trying. The delight of the pursuit and to share it, express it (express meaning to push out, opine... and to haul ass at great speed). There’s always a next time, right? The query answers itself. Reality, for all its heft, is ephemeral. And therein lies its devastating beauty. The majesty of a firefly’s wink. Did it even happen? A trace in the axons. We mark the tracts of time as carvings in the flesh, custodians of what we cherish. Some memories are keepers. All recording is taxidermy – the arranging of matters.
Those guys at the “car magazines” were inspired and obsessed – and “cultured.” I remember the thrill of an issue (as in a copy) arriving in the mail. They had issues. They demanded that cars get better every year and during the years Detroit disappointed, they let them have it. Vega, Pinto, Pacer, Gremlin, re-badged Chevy’s sold as Cadillacs (aka the Cimarron), KCars that fell apart… They cared. So what about the advertisers? Journalism. Shades of Jonathan Schell’s reports from Vietnam for The New Yorker magazine. I was inspired… to read – that simple yet Color Purple power to give oneself access to new worlds. My mailbox began to be a treasure chest. Arriving once a month, Road & Track (now I know what an ampersand is but who cares), Car and Driver… I read them cover to glossy cover. Spiritual amphetamine for the 15-18-year-old mind living in the backyard of the Motor City and next door to Mid-Ohio race track. Motor Trend? Bah. That was barely one step up from Consumer Reports. It was for those looking for competent (merely accurate recitations of trunk space-) prose about “good value” in a domestic people mover. Not pure, irrational, adrenaline. And then there was the pure uncut stuff: Autoweek newspaper twice a month. This was not for civilians. Before it sold out, literally, to Crain Communications in the 70s, it was published in Detroit, by car guys, for car guys. Car gals? I didn't think that way back in 1973, at age 16. The backstage stories of racing and design. I'd read it between helping to disassemble street bikes; wet sanding for new paint, taking all the lights and fenders off, changing the sprockets and wheels, putting on expansion chambers... to convert them for motocross. Back then you couldn't buy a dirt bike "ready-made." Penton, Bultaco, Hodaka, Yamaha, Huskies, Hondas (before we ever saw one of their cars) (see addendum blog about that). If it rolled we raced it.
Most of my buddies were always up for a foot race or even a race on our skates on a pond near my house. What the hell, let's race. I wonder why we stop playing as we grow older. Can you imagine racing down the hall in Burton? I can. But... Well maybe that's what kids are for. I still like to grab ahold of Alex and Preston for a tussle once in a while. I think they can handle their old man being "mental." I even raced bicycles! Won a couple of big races (like thousands of riders, from many states, several with bikes way fancier than mine). But it was all for fun. I loved seeing all the fancy stuff even if I didn't have it. I got some used fencing gear and messed around with fencing in high school and took it in college. Just for fun. Here I am with a buddy in high school Keim McIlvaine.
As we age, things become too organized, and the fun sorta gets squeezed into smaller and smaller cracks until sheer joy becomes rare instead of common. So, escape commences. Getting high becomes a goal. I think it is because we somehow became afraid, on one hand, and greedy on the other. Organization promised to solve both issues. Corporations grew in scale (global in fact) and wealth shifted upwards as organizations became gigantic. All those employees working for fewer and fewer people, their hands and minds supervised, coordinated, toiling 24/7, each producing profit channeled to the owners. Chains, supply chains extended to encompass more, endlessly more, and tightened. And this had to be protected from change. Someone taught us that uncertainty leads only to anxiety when, in fact, certainty leads to boredom, even nihilism. We chose stability and security over freedom. Maybe it was the backlash against the 1960's anti-war protests, feminism, and race riots? But some conservative impulse descended upon us.
Fun. Joy. Life requires not knowing the future. As a kid, I played, raced, wrestled someone, somehow at least a couple times a week. We all "did" organized sports at school, but we also played things like "jungle ball." That's basketball that includes wrestling, semi-tackle football, usually in the cold with sweatshirts, knit caps, maybe knee pads, and gloves and often in the snow. If your hat had a pom pom, you were targeted for extra attention. Huffing and puffing, scrambling and scuffing, scrapping and trash-talking. No one kept score. Then we'd crash inside and have something like peanut butter toast. We were all winners. Victory over boredom and under slate gray "lake effects" skies. Normally, when we add the prefix "extra" to an adjective like delicious or strong or heavy, it amplifies the trait. But with ordinary, we had extraordinary days.
My friends and I were not supervised, so we improvised and exercised our enterprise to optimize and mobilize -- antagonize and jeopardize the normalized that underlies the time merely occupied instead of glorified and sanctified. Flow. Splendorous spontaneity of an "open-ended" world. It's always possible to play Calvinball (one word, gotta get the spell...casting right (or not (maybe))). If you counted the closed parens, run and jump in a lake with your clothes on. "Parenthesis: παρένθεσις (parénthesis), from παρεντίθημι (parentíthēmi, 'I put in beside, mix up')." Mix up. But then, to be parenthetical is to digress. I was in Cub Scouts and Webelos barely. But digress is what the scouts could not allow me to do. So I exited stage left. Still my hat's off to the Holsinger family for tolerating my boredom. What patience they had with this monkey. They were great people. I'm sure they were relieved when I quit. My dad used to wonder, out loud, what kind of pyramid scheme the Boy Scouts was since the ranking never ended and it seemed he was always spending money on badges and knickknacks to embellish his son's ego. I remember him grumping, "If I want, I can pat you on the head for free." I guess the money was well managed? But now it's going to pay off sexual abuse victims! "Where'd you go Joe DiMaggio?" Did Camelot ever exist? I'm reminded of The Misfits (Monroe, Gable, Clift, Wallach, Huston). At this writing the Boy Scouts of America has gone bankrupt paying out multiple legal settlements to kids who were sexually abused in their "care." Sigh. My only complaint was being bored to death but this is sad, really. But I digress. In fact life is one big digression from the empty universe.
So I was free from that set of appointments with the tedium of learning fifty ways to tie a knot. Heck even building tree forts with neighborhood buddies was alot more creative. Lots of problem solving there, actually, and no manual to follow. I also had much more fun and learned more working on minibikes and motorcycles and working up on the Canadian Shield. Doing such things you interact with adults, not as teachers but as people, helping them out and listening to their normal conversations. Working, I got to meet so many people from nice families, groups of factory workers and Sears guys coming up to fish patres familias sans the familias, to over-stressed grumpy judges and big shots like the CEO of Alcoha and his family who insisted we take no radio phone calls for him no matter what! I remember the first time I met a bunch of guys who came up from Pittsburgh to "fish." I loaded their boat with Labatts, a bottle of Canadian Mist, worms, and gas. They motored off from the dock about 50 yards and dropped anchor in a big weed bed. Ted told me to keep an eye on them. I noticed it looked like they had a pretty good time and then they fell asleep. When they woke up I could hear them talking. "Where's the bobber?" "It floated under the boat." What happened was they had caught a perch without knowing it and a big, really big Northern ate the perch so when they went to reel in they discovered their trophy. Miracle it didn't cut the line. I watched from the dock as they fought the monster, still drunk, and then, they did the wrong thing. Two wrong things actually. First, they had left their tackle boxes open. Second, they hauled it into the 18 foot boat, net and all. They were yelling and I could see a giant tail flailing. It knocked the tackle boxes around, hooks, lures, leaders, cigars, all over the place, tangled in the net, and beer cans were flying... they got over to the dock and I helped them in. I learned alot about men that day. That night in the lodge I learned more as the story grew with the fish. They gave me a big tip when they left. I wonder if the leviathan is still hanging on someone's wall who inherited it from dad or grandpa... I hope it is and they know the story, the true story of how they accidentally caught it. My merit badges were not prefabricated. Wading through shallows towing a boat behind you to load rocks into it in order to build a breakwater and taking folks into remote lakes to guide them was alot of work and responsibility at the ripe old age of 15. And you never knew what would happen. I have lots of great stories.
My pinups were as unrealistic as a date with Raquel Welch, but that’s what pinups are supposed to be. Romantic sunset lighting on the dreamy curves of the Lamborghini Miura, the broad shoulders of the Maserati Bora – headlights on, a Ferrari 512 M caught airborne at Nürburgring and storming through the rain with the 917’s at Brans Hatch … No pictures of Faye Dunaway being crushed in Steve McQueen’s embrace. No way. But a poster of his Porsche 917… He’d get it – he got it. I found the content that made me love to read.
And for Elaine, when I say I like Lolas, this is Lola. You have to admit, she's a beauty.
Others into different things like fashion probably found equally inspiring prose in Vogue, Harper’s BAZAAR, or Elle by Julia Reed or Suzy Menkes (I discovered their European and Japanese editions by accident and was amazed by the beauty of the mags before taking any notice of them state-side). But for me “good living” included the perfume of gasoline and hot engines. These mags of mine, they were to the juvenile motorhead what the New Yorker was to the erudite wine-sniffing, Brubeck playing, Upper Eastsiders. My Fifth Avenue was Main Street Marion, Ohio – the famed “Loop.” It was so famous that the divine powers that be at, I believe it was Car and Driver, actually mentioned it! One-way streets corralled the youth of Marion into an endless cruise. In the summer, the circuit would be busy until about midnight with parking lots acting as pit stops for conversation between cars. Remember, no cell phones -- though a few of us had CB radios -- mine, from now defunct Radio Shack, had a telephone-shaped handset. So cool. "Breaker, breaker." My handle? "Night Wings." I painted it on a front spoiler I bolted onto my Capri. This iteration didn't have the spoiler.
Like I said, private parts. Laugh all you like but it is all true. Cruising the Loop was a mobile party. Gas was cheap. The factories were still humming. Prosperity for the working class existed. A few, like my parents, however knew what was coming. I was oblivious. Blessed ignorance. Spoiled. But I went to college and learned how to bear down and grind on the books. I believe the years of discipline in sports, especially making weight in wrestling, taught me how to work hard, but it also taught me something else just as important about inequality generally, and what we in the social sciences call "power-distance," which means the amount of inequality people accept as normal, perhaps even "natural." Coaches have alot of power. In sports you meet many of kids not from your school. You visit other schools and you quickly see... there are big differences. I remember going to a huge school for a cross country invitational. They had a swimming pool and swim team, a gymnastics team, a theater, an orchestra... What? My eyes began to see.
My freshman year at Pleasant HS was the first year we had a wrestling team. The basketball coach tried to block it. I guess he thought it would deplete "his" talent pool. My graduating class had about 100 people. In fact some of the better athletes did join the wresting team. My senior year I think the average height on the basketball team was about 5'8". Their record was lousy. The school had had a string of undefeated football seasons and a state championship basketball team but most of those guys were 2-5 years ahead of me. Football did not suddenly have another sport draining the "pool" but it too was lousy my senior year. So wrestling did not hurt basketball. Fact was we just didn't have the athletes in the school after that 4-5 years of exceptional athletes graduated. It was quite a run while it lasted but there was a significant drop-off the year ahead of me and even more decline my year. What can I say? My class was a bunch of runts. But wrestling has weight classes and so some of us did okay. We didn't have a wrestling mat so we took the wall pad blankets down from under the basketball goals, taped them together and used those. Let me tell you, elbows, foreheads, and knees can easily slip through the gaps to find the basketball floor. Educational assets vary greatly by zip code. And sports also brings kids together from different family backgrounds. You learn one thing pretty quick. Just because a kid's parents are rich does not mean he or she will be the star of the team. Or vice versa. In fact, in my school, several of our best came from the local "children's home" (the one big building on my bus route that housed over 100 children was replaced by cottages on a campus called Waddell Village which is now closed -- kids are placed with foster families). Like Superman, Batman, James Bond, Captain Kirk, Harry Potter... they were orphaned or otherwise adrift without family support. I never met one who was mean. Over the years a couple of really good Marion Pleasant HS athletes lived there.
Bling was invented by the military. This picture reminds me of my high school letter jacket. The first day I wore it to school I thought I would bust. Only a couple of Freshman had one. About power distance and coaches: In hindsight encouraging growing boys to starve themselves and run in plastics to dehydrate is stupid. I hope times have changed. As I became an adult, I realized that some of the people I used to admire were not so great after all. I also realized how powerless kids are, how easily manipulated they can be to even strive to please those who are hurting them. Concussions in sports, dangerous weight-loss including encouraging kids to use diuretics, telling them to take supplements, the contents of which are unknown (hopefully mostly harmless starch)... Sometimes those who just got a bachelor's degree (barely) and start working at the YMCA, literally, before landing a HS teaching job by networking friends, is not the best form of meritocracy. They can end up having a very profound influence over kids, and even their parents, and they may not deserve to have such power. That may be the most important lesson I learned. Be careful who you turn your kids over to.
For example, one day my son Alex, who was in a special early entrance program at U of Washington, came home from his garage band practice with his buddies in the neighborhood and asked me, "what's the prom?" I said, "Do you want to go to high school?" He did. So we worked it out. Alex was a very high-level Tae Kwon Do (TKD) student. He'd already gone to the Junior Olympics and had been instructing. Later, when he was in Seattle he was lucky to have a great teacher who had just moved to the US after retiring as an air marshal for Korean Air Lines. Before that he had been a TKD instructor for years in the ROK army. He was working hard with Alex to get him ready for the West Coast Championships. By then Alex had had several instructors and this guy was probably the best. Alex got his third degree with him. He'd been in TKD since he was six years old. Alex was in great shape. Way better than your typical HS athlete. But he was in HS and even though he had already had a year of college at U of Washington (a long and different story there how he went to UW as an "EEPER" and then returned to HS to be with his neighborhood friends before matriculating) he had to pass gym class.
He aced everything easily and he wanted an A for gym. He wanted a perfect 4.0. The gym teacher was also the football coach and he favored his "boys." To get an A, Alex had to go for his max in weightlifting and increase from the beginning of class to the final by something like 15 percent. I grew up in locker-rooms and was very familiar with weight training. I (along with all of his TKD teachers over the years) told Alex to never go for your max. Weights are for training. Unless your sport literally is weightlifting, it is stupid to hurt your back that way. Well, the coach forced Alex to do it and sure as shit he hurt his back right before the West Coast TKD tournament that he had been training for year-round. TKD has no "season." He came home and I was unhappy to say the least and he told me what happened. Why? Of course, being only 16 he thought he could do it this one time. Egged on by his teacher he tried, and injured himself. Now… when I was fifteen or sixteen, I definitely would have tried to lift the most in the class. No doubt about it. But I expected him to be a lot smarter than me. Also Alex was a much better athlete than I was. I never had profession training. Just the coaches at school. But then… he had an idiot adult pushing him, actually threatening his grade. I went over and had some choice words with the coach as his boys looked on. At first he was defiant but it became clear fast that I was furious at his utter stupidity and he backed off, gave Alex an A for the stupid class. Who was this fool? Did he even have a background in athletics himself? Alex had to write a paper for the class and he wrote an amazing 20+page paper on how muscles work. He read medical journals. The other kids handed in like two pages of nothing; what are the rules of baseball or something. Alex told me all the football players got As on their papers and that they were pathetic. The coach probably didn't even look at them. But he looked at Alex's paper. The teacher threatened to give Alex an F for his paper because he "obviously plagiarized it." We had to convince him that Alex researched and wrote the paper himself. I don't think he ever believed us but he relented. Then came the weightlifting final test. Time for petty revenge. I've seen revenge throughout my life. We all have probably. I don't believe I have ever been vengeful. I don't think so. I hope not. I've been "sore," and felt the sandpaper of injustice as we all have. But I don't think I have ever tried to kick someone when they were down or sucker punch someone. but I've seen it. In one case the person was forced by superiors to do the right thing but signed a form "with prejudice" by his name. Petty shit. The world behind your back.
The coach knew Alex was a superb athlete, better than most of his football players if not all of them, but because Alex was known in the HS for having a special status, the coach had some sort of problem with him. All other teachers loved having Alex. Well, we worked on Alex's back and he went to the tournament. If I recall he got third. He was in pain. His best weapon was the jump spinning back kick. It had won him many trophies. He was not 100 percent that weekend thanks to some idiot idol of young kids. So, Alex went "back" to HS. It was overall good for him. How do you place a kid coming back from college to high school? Working with the administration we figured out a solution for him. They were great helping us. He took all their International Baccalaureate classes, had great teachers, got to go to the prom, graduation parties, and to graduate with his buddies. He enjoyed the HS experience. He would go on to Johns Hopkins. There he formed and led a team to win the national collegiate TKD champions against the likes of Navy and Army. It turns out that lots of Asian kids go to Johns Hopkins and many are really good at TKD. Beware the Blue Jays (and not just for Lacrosse). Moral: Be careful who you turn your kids over to. Alex had parents who care. Lots of kids are on their own in such fights. It's unfair.
Back to the Loop and my boyhood. Law enforcement in Marion had synchronized all the stop lights in downtown so that you could ride around and around all night without stopping. The stoplights were used like Christmas trees at drag races. People raced between lights. While cruising the Loop with my buddy Ned Saums, I never saw a cop pull anyone over. Amazing. Ned if you ever read this, sorry about the argument about the Egyptian pyramids… I really appreciated the trip you made down to Athens on your motorcycle. And I hope you still have that arrowhead you found. Knowing you back then, I’m sure you are still in tip top shape and have had an adventurous life. We could not sit still (except to drink in the Watergate hearings). We rode the Racer roller coaster at Kings Island over and over.1
Ohio is a swing state. Ohio generally, and Marion definitely, has gone through a lot of ups and downs. Marion was the home to a president (1915-1921)! Yea. But he (Harding) was lousy -- I mean terrible. Boo. From the National Guard shooting folks at Kent State to a guy named Armstrong from a village 50 miles west of my house. From factory closings to Calvin and Hobbes living in Chagrin Falls. Take your pick. Ups, and downs. And Chagrin Falls???… Chagrin? I guess there is a waterfall there, Yea. But it must be disappointing, Boo. From Dave Chappelle hanging out in Xenia, to gloomy lake effects snows. The only two-time Heisman Trophy winner, Yea. The most serial killers in the US including Jeffery Dahmer, Boo. Cleveland has the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and a river, Yea. But the river is famous for catching fire many times, Boo. Toledo is on a great lake, Yea. But massive algae blooms have led to oxygen depletion, fish die-offs, and Toledo has to import water to drink in the summer, Boo. The Wright Brothers from Dayton invented the airplane, Yea. And Orville Wright crashed resulting in the first air crash fatality in history (1908), Boo. Ups and downs. Toni Morrison and the Underground Railroad, Yea. Charles Manson, Boo. Ulysses S. Grant Yea, Robert E. Lee… boo (I'm not pro-slavery). Both Ohio boys. People there are restless. It’s a “battleground state.” Unrelenting political advertising, most of it negative, drives people there crazy.
As for Kramer's Dictum (stated at the top of the page), some of my favorites: Jonathan Winters, Robin Williams, George Carlin, Dave Chappelle, Tim Conway, Jim Gaffigan, Red Foxx, Steve Carrell, Sacha Baron Cohen, Flip Wilson, Phil Silvers, John Candy, Stephen Colbert, and ... Louis C.K. before he imploded. Of course many others are really good. What about women? Carol Burnett, Tina Fey, Gilda Radner, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Kate McKinnon, Phyllis Diller, Lisa Kudrow, Rachel Dratch, Marion Lorne, Leslie Jones... Ones I never got into; Andrew Dice Clay, Ellen DeGeneres, Roseanne Barr, Dennis Miller, with Joan Rivers and Sarah Silverman on the fence. I admit I liked Cosby alot even before his big family show, but I was, like everyone else, betrayed. Finally, I'll toss in a big favorite of mine, the Japanese version of Charlie Chaplin's little tramp Tora-san (from 1969-1995, there were 49 movies featuring Tora-San, played by Kiyoshi Atsumi). Tora-san is so famous they made a museum dedicated just to that character and series of movies.
Tora-san wanders around Japan, a silly vagabond who always returns to his half-sister's house to be nurtured after some failed quest, and who never gets the girl. The stories tell us more about the Japanese soul than all the academic intercultural textbooks combined. Tora-san is a modern Sancho Panza searching for his Don Quixote... the moral is that we all are, and sometimes we think we are Quixote in our dreams. Famous quotes from Tora-San: それを言っちゃ、おしまいよ。(Sore o itcha, oshimai yo), meaning "You shouldn't say that," and, 男はつらいよ (Otoko wa tsurai yo) meaning "It's tough being a man." I'll throw in one other famous quote from Lupin III, やつはとんでもないものを盗んでいきました。あなたの心です。(Yatsu wa tondemo nai mono o nusunde ikimashita. Anata no kokoro desu.) which means, "That guy stole an irreplaceable thing. Your heart." The greatest comedians not only make us laugh, but also steal our hearts. Remember Red Skelton's version of the little tramp? Comedy comes from the roots, not the castle on high. Of course, Gracie, George, Lucy, and Charlie are in a category of their own.
My Updike and Capote were Henry Manney and Brock Yates. The sounds of headers and glass packs, soma (Cogito Ergo Zoom). Come on. When the short, big-nosed, lethargic, confused graduate drives an Alfa Spider and wins the girl, Katharine Ross no less, you gotta consider the car. Of course, when you are 16, paying for all this stuff is not a consideration. You take what you can get. And just the fact that it (Le Mans, Matra, Chaparral, Tyrrell, De Tomaso) exists (or used to), somewhere, makes it worthy of pursuit. Form way over substance. Windmills/Chrome-plated Mags of the mind. So it was car journalists for me. No Dorthy Parker holding court at the Algonquin Hotel for this kid, No Sirree! Although, and thanks to an Emmy Award winning TV show, My World… and Welcome To It (1969-1970), I discovered James Thurber’s hilarious work – hey he was from Columbus after all and one of my favorites as a kid watching old movies on TV, Danny Kaye, made a great Walter Mitty (remember, "the pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle. The chalice from the palace has the brew that is true,"... or was it the other way around?). Some remakes should never happen, i.e., you can't beat Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in The Producers (Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick... nah). It's like trying to "update" a Rembrandt. Just leave it.
The first record I ever bought (a 45) had Hello, Goodbye side A and I am the Walrus side B. Played it on some old record player my sister discarded. Taped a nickel to the tonearm. I wore that record out. Following very soon after I acquired Harry Nilsson's Everybody's Talkin. The autobiographical 1941 was/is almost too honest. Nilsson tore his gift to shreds when he let his idol Lennon wreck his voice in a night of screeching madness. Both were lost at sea. Lennon said the song Help was literal. Above is the first album I ever bought… to be honest… by mistake. I remember eagerly putting it on and then realizing, "this ain't the music I want." It was weird. But I liked it. I thought I was getting another band (Led Zeppelin) (Note: the descendants of Count Ferdinand Von Zeppelin who had developed the rigid airship company, unsuccessfully sued the British rock band for some sort of infringement -- maybe Bonzo Bonham was making dirigibles in garage). Must protect the brand even if the product was famous for promoting Nazism and going up in flames. Strange days indeed mama (as John said later). I had been hanging out with some friends and their older brothers were playing music. There was a bunch of albums laying around and I mistook what was playing with a cover I had been looking at. I could only buy one. Lawn-mowing money only goes so far. I almost picked the right cover… and I remember pondering the Yardbirds (Clapton, Beck, Page in one band?!). Well, I bought Zeppelin later, and a lot more. But the first step had been taken. I was about 13 (that weird, weird age).
I will never forget the first time I heard the new Abbey Road album in the big house at Wagar’s Pine Point on Jack’s Lake near tiny Apsley, Ontario. The Kilpatrick kids were playing it. I was transfixed. The Sun King rose. Who cares about the Walrus? Who was the Sun King? Cut my teeth on The Animals, Creedence, The Kinks, Buffalo Springfield, Hendrix, T Rex, Mott the Hoople.
So, Mott is a hoople. What's a hoople? I'm a hoople, you're a hoople, we're all hooples. Holden might call them phonies. But I think hooples are not amateur cons but instead they are the marks. Hooples are people not in the circus. Hooples "make the whole game possible, Christmas Clubs especially, politics, advertising agencies, pay toilets, even popes and mystery novels. Obviously they're squares." Read Willard Manus' 1966 novel -- interesting sort of version of Kerouac, only Mott travels across the country with a Black man and learns all about racial harassment. Not Huck and Tom's sort of adventures.
Anyway, I also listened alot to Jethro Tull (he's not a hoople), The Who, Zappa, Pink Floyd, and later came to appreciate the Stones, ELP, Moody Blues, Simon and Garfunkel, Sinatra and Bennett, Bob Marley, Miles Davis, Dylan, Coltrane, EWF, Streisand, … Thunder Road... Spiders from Mars (Ziggi helped out MTH and the Texas guitar slinger Stevie Ray V. who returned the favor by making Let's Dance special)……….
I thought I was Born to Run. Note: how did I get into Springsteen? Shame. SHAME OF SHAMES, but true again. He came to play at Ohio U my freshman year. I remember folks in my dorm being excited. But, I didn't know his music. Sad but true. Well I heard others playing it but I didn't "know" it. The night of the concert (which I did not attend) I went to a bar after studying (okay pathetic). As I was standing at the bar to get some drinks this guy standing next to me said "How's it goin?" I said "great," and walked away. My buddies at the table went nuts. "Did you talk to him?!" "Who?" "Springsteen!" "What?" "That's Bruce Springsteen you idiot." I looked back and a crowd had gathered around him. He had just been on the cover of Time Magazine (October 27, 1975) a few months earlier. I didn't recognize him. I guess he came to Court Street after the concert for a beer??? What can I say...
An English Prof at Ohio U (Walter Tevis) had written The Man Who Fell to Earth (Ziggi was born to play that role), as well as The Hustler and The Color of Money. His daughter and I were in Mexico together. She met Bowie. Digression: if you've never seen the Christmas duet between Bowie and Bing Crosby singing The Little Drummer Boy, look it up. No drugs needed to trip. I didn’t know Tevis, just his daughter. Wonder where she is now? In college we all debated what the best turntables were and opined with great seriousness the relative merits of various cartridges. Adjusting counterweighting was an art. Two kids from my high school started DJing. I was working at WMRN and thought that meant being on radio. Then I learned what they were doing. Hmmm. Who controlled the music and operated the turntables at parties became a profession?? I guess that settled some arguments.
Bruce Lee arrived in my world, and my friend’s older brother Kim Jerew, would sneak us into the drive-in to be amazed by Billy Jack and other spinning back-kickers (got any Chuck Norris jokes?). I remember sharing the trunk of the 1970 Chevelle SS with some other “little brothers.” We’d move up to the backseat once in. I, like millions, was shocked when Bruce Lee died. Wait, what!? Impossible. I was 16. Anyone could die. In fact, we all do. I was becoming an amateur philosopher. In another 18 months or so I’d be majoring “in it” at college. But the drive-in experience stayed with me. Here’s is a paper I wrote about drive-ins aka “ozoners” around the world.
The world transitions at sundown. I wonder if all life on all revolving planets is divided between nocturnal and diurnal? The greatest migration of life is not geese or whales. It is the trillions of tons of life in the form of plankton that rises and sinks in the lakes and oceans of the world in a never-ending wave moving around the globe as it spins. A couple of times we overloaded my Capri at Ohio U and headed out to the now long defunct Hocking drive-in in Logan. After too much libation and it being the wee hours, the drive back to campus required dedicated concentration. All were out cold in the back seat. Only my navigator Jeff Rachford, stayed with me on the drives back through the black, the rural hills of southeastern Ohio passing out there, somewhere.
Years later, I was so car sick in Taiwan that I gave up and told everyone I’d just walk the last couple of miles to the hotel. It was late at night with no lights anywhere on a narrow mountain road. Elaine walked with me. Her parents slowly followed in the car with the headlights to help. I insisted they go on to the hotel. They insisted they follow with the headlights. They were right. A few times the curves were so sharp that we rounded bends stepping out of the light cone. A few times we felt gravel under our feet, the only clue that we were getting off the road. We kept going because it was getting late. The next day, when we could see the world, we were shocked to realize that we had been walking precariously close to the edge of serious cliffs. In places there were no guardrails. I guess that’s why, at midnight, no one is out driving around in the mountains of central Taiwan, except for sick people holding up the gang. How embarrassing. Everyone was understanding telling me that nearly everyone gets car sick on those mountain roads one time or another. We forget how dark the world is without artificial light. No wonder we fear the dark. Compared to many other animals, including ones that wouldn’t mind eating us, we are blind. And so, we huddle together in the vast dark, close to our little fires, a strange species, smaller than our egos will let us admit to ourselves. Our imaginations project far beyond our reach. Perhaps because we cannot see like other animals, the murk has elicited and encouraged our capacity to dream. As light has motivated the evolution of the eye; and when the light disappears, so too does the eye – demonstrated by creatures trapped in caves – the night silently inspires our imaginations to expand into it.
Reading, unlike TV/cinema, leaves much to the imagination. This open field allows for wonderment -- few guard rails. The openness is imminent. When we read, we must finish the vision ourselves. Some media exercise our potential abilities that might otherwise be left latent, dormant. Others don’t challenge us. Drive-ins accentuate the fact that our light is small. The dark theater, the dark landscape helps us focus. It narrows our minds. But, unlike the theater, the dark world that swallows the drive-in, cannot be forgotten. Its wild presence makes the light more magical. Sitting outside in the night is sublime with the wonder of not knowing everything, a wonder that Thoreau appreciated as he lamented his neighbors’ insistent efforts to kill the marvelous in the world, to kill the enigma of Walden by plumbing its depth to the utter bottom, and assigning, once-and-for-all, a number to replace its secrets. There can be no discovery without the unknown. Spreading light too much, may bleach the soul, leaving the knower without meaning because everything becomes obvious, redundant, comprehended. Strange how "to apprehend" means to capture and hold, to understand and yet apprehension means to be anxious. Perhaps this enigma about understanding and anxiety is because we know there is an edge to the light cone. Beyond the map, there be monsters, and thank God for the edge. Nothing would be worse, more boring, than knowing everything. Nietzsche warns us to not cast out all our demons. Perfection is nothingness. Without uncertainty there would be no reason to get out of bed in the morning. It is the not knowing that motivates us to evolve. Perhaps knowing everything is hell, and so God invented free will with humans, so that he could escape omniscience – to defeat what is most divine in itself. If you know all future states, then life becomes completely redundant. The surprise of revelation is the essence of life – not the solitary confinement of knowledge. Praise the dark for without it, the light has no meaning. As the immortal philosopher Calvin (not John but friend of Hobbes (and not Thomas)), in life we find out where we are going after we have arrived. Need leads to accomplishment and our sense of self-worth. We need, need. The alternative is the inert nothingness some seek because they cannot find in suffering it’s own purpose.
I was lucky. I appreciate very much what was bequeathed to me. I lament that ladders of opportunity I had are evaporating. College is just too expensive. People are taking out lots of debt in the hopes that someone will find them worth exploiting. And then we have the scams like Trump University and other cons set up to take peoples' money including vets' benefit from the GI Bill. Unbelievable. I made it through the gate before it slammed shut. Despite my parents’ modest means, I got access to the great library at Ohio University. I think I heard Pozzo yelling at me to think! I swapped the Carnegie in Marion for Alden Library in Athens and spent too many hours in there from dawn to way after dusk. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. Athens was beautiful. I met my first wife there. We were both grad students in sociology (and mathematics for her… she got two Master’s Degrees). Alex and Preston get their brains from her; their beauty too. OU was founded in 1804, and William McGuffey taught there. He started publishing the McGuffey Readers in 1836 that opened the world of reading to millions of American children. One of the oldest main buildings on campus housed his office and today is McGuffey Hall. When Alden Library would close at midnight, Rachford (the navigator), and I would move our studying to the library in the Chemistry Department because he could get in there any time (but it felt lonely). Alden was a real beehive. Back then, there was no Internet or TV in the dorms and Pac Man was new and usually occupied at the bars (people put quarters on it to form a waiting line). The library was it.
Of course, after allaying guilt by putting in some study time there, the many (like dozens) of bars on Court Street would start rocking around nine. Athens had several bookstores too. I find Campus Corner (just one corner, no plural) in Norman, barren by comparison. I don’t know why it is that way but the commercial area adjacent to the Oklahoma campus is the graveyard of businesses. Maybe it is because so many belong to fraternities and sororities and have their own gated world. When I was at Ohio U, those institutions were disappearing -- going bankrupt, though I believe they are popular there once again. Whatever the cause, Campus Corner in Norman is famous for failed establishments, one after another. But it does have one long lasting establishment, a strip joint. That would have been burned to the ground at the other OU in Athens. Very different vibe. One liberal the other “conservative.” Strange what those words mean.
So, I “got outta Marion,” as people say. Lucky. But also, when I went to college, I feared failure, profoundly. I could not fail. So, part of my current good life is due to my dedication to long hours of work for many years. I will not pretend otherwise. And today my kids, who also have worked very hard, are doing very well. But a lot of folks have gotten stuck. Their parents were not like mine who pushed hard for me to go to college. Curiously even parents who themselves had gone to college seemed very laisse faire about it while my dad, with only an eighth-grade education, but a world of experience from the Marines, and my mother with a HS diploma and her own experience from working at Wright Patterson AFB during the war, were pretty insistent. Maybe… they were smarter than the smart folks and they knew the truth of the changing world economy better than those more comfortable; living near the edge as my family did, gave them a clear view of the down side of poverty. Many of my peers in high school were unlucky to have c’est la vie parents. My parents were not very fatalistic. They had faith that one could still “get somewhere” with hard work. They did it. Also, some of my peers went to college but dropped out. My first roommate who went with me to Ohio U from my high school was one who didn’t come back after Freshman year. He gave up. The math and science classes killed him. Too bad. He was a nice guy; wanted to be a veterinarian. Last I heard, decades ago, he returned to Marion to work in a lumber yard… which has now long ago disappeared like so many other businesses in Marion. I hope he found his way. Nice family. I remember his father hated the sound of a turn-signal clicking and had it removed when he got new cars. Strange little things we remember.
I went to college Fall 1975 and graduated Cum Laude one year early in 1978, with a dual major in sociology and philosophy. Here I am right after arriving my Freshman year. NCC stood for the Ohio North Central Conference in athletics, the one my HS belonged to. There are very few pictures of me as a kid or young adult (up to my thirties). Three of the ten or so are in this text. This is one. Proof that I once had hair. During that time, I wrestled for a year, played rugby, and was co-president of the Ohio U Environmental Club with the chem major, Rachford, of Dayton. Our junior year we hosted the President of Green Peace, Patrick Moore. He came and gave a speech and showed some film of people beating seal pups to death in Canada. It was a packed auditorium. The crowd was shocked. He noted that they would never show you the truth on T.V. He stayed at our apartment in Lake View Apartments (no lake in view but not far from the Hocking River which floods the parking lots from time to time). We talked almost all night. I noticed he was a chain smoker. Very intense, kinda crazy guy. While a grad student, I became Vice President of Ohio University’s Graduate Student Senate. Because of that, I sat on a couple of important university-wide committees as the student representative, which gave me some experience with how universities work. I was studying super hard and was dead tired most of the time. The President (Dr. Ping) who attended many was a philosophy faculty member, and he used to look at me understandingly. To tell the truth, I dozed through some meetings. During my tenure on the Graduate Student Senate, we got stipends raised and improved housing for married students.
I traveled and studied in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Italy. Mexico City was like a gigantic, endless circus. The sights and smells were phantasmagoric. The oil wealth was ostentatious, the poverty, grim. The sons of oil barons used to seek out and somehow find Americans to party with… especially the girls. I spent most of my time traveling around the country, saving money by sleeping on overnight bus rides. When you’re young, you can do anything.
After a stint in Mexico studying archaeology and Spanish, I returned to Athens, Ohio. I got a Master's in Sociology and did all the coursework for a Master’s in Philosophy (lived at a TKD school in Dayton). My Master’s thesis in sociology was based on a 4-month stay in Cumberland, Ohio, studying the social consequences of large-scale strip-mining. I interviewed everyone over age 15 in the town. No IRB back then. I had hundreds of hours of taped interviews. It impressed the University of Chicago enough for them to accept me for their Ph.D. program in sociology. I went there set to live off a grant in the Public Opinion Research Center run by James Coleman, who wrote the famous book Mathematical Sociology. He moved to Johns Hopkins, and I lost my funding, so I left. No way I could afford graduate tuition at Chicago. I wrote a thesis for philosophy on Zen and decided it was silly to defend a thesis on Zen. That attitude is sort of contrary to the spirit of Chan or Zen Buddhism. And since I already had a Masters, and had already been accepted to Chicago, I told my committee I would not defend it. Also, I was studying philosophy for my own interest (mostly epistemology and the philosophy of science for the social sciences) not to become a philosopher. I had no intention of pursuing a Ph.D. in that field. In hindsight, with more than enough coursework and the thesis done, I should have taken the degree. Oh well. I gave the thesis to them but didn’t defend. My advisor, Dr. Troy Organ, was impressed by that move. Organ was a significant scholar in Asian philosophy. He did translations of major works, including the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. He was also part of the huge team out of Harvard (Loeb series) to translate Aristotle’s collected works. A real scholar.
I found that they used his books at the University of Chicago and Harvard. I asked him once why he was at lowly Ohio University. He said he had been at Pitt. He was a Department Chair there and had seen many fights. His office was in the “Cathedral of Learning,” a high-rise tower at Pitt. One day he saw a colleague pass his window, having committed suicide due to some nasty business on campus. He decided then to move to a smaller department with fewer “grand egos.” He had no taste for administration anymore. The department at Ohio had politics, of course, but generally, it was a happy place. Everyone was very productive but tended to leave each other alone. They all hated being Chair, and so they ended up having a rotation system, and when someone’s turn came up, they always complained about it. They were not ambitious that way. And yet, maybe because of this, two became deans and one president of Ohio U while I was there. They did administration as a service. They were good at it, but I never sensed they thought they were better than others. Some cling to such positions with the greed of a starving T-Rex. Ugly. Getting to look at one’s colleagues’ dirty laundry did not seem appealing to them. Somebody had to look at the teaching evals and such, but they didn’t care about that as much as more significant real budget issues. Everyone I knew was staunchly defensive of the university generally and the humanities in particular. They constantly complained that faculty were underpaid. I almost never hear that these days. Status was not their thing. They all published like crazy, several books per faculty, but otherwise, they lived in the beautiful Appalachian hills around Athens and were happy.
No jobs in philosophy, and so every faculty member had a very solid, dare I say prestigious doctoral degree. And they all had hobbies. One guy, Jean Blocker, out of Berkeley, played jazz trumpet around town. Organ held several records for marathon runners over 60. Another had an extensive collection of Icons. They all had amazing libraries. Professor Organ was in his 70s when I knew him. He was a very proper old-school professor. He was also an Episcopal priest—no-nonsense type of scholar. Organ once told me Episcopalians are Anglicans who would not put up with the nonsense of royalty – “a very American thing.” In 1982, due to financial limitations, when I went to and then left the University of Chicago, two of my mentors at Ohio lured me back for my Ph.D. in telecommunications. It was paid for. I finished the coursework, comps, and dissertation proposal in eight months and then took a scholarship to study in Taiwan beginning the summer of 1983. I was there for a year. I studied Chinese and taught English at Feng Chia University in Taichung City and worked for Johnson Metal. I returned to the U.S. and started teaching at Radford University ABD. I finished my Ph.D. while there in 1988. For the curious, I have attached the table of contents (pdf) and full text (pdf) of my dissertation.
The major thrust of the thesis was how time generates relativism and how transcending that (if possible) is essential for moral, scientific, and practical truth. I was contending with the rising tide of Derridean, postmodern nonsense (literally), and the threat it posed to common and enduring sense. In the 1980s, we as a society were not yet confronting (in a robust fashion) what has come to be called the “post-truth” worldview ushered in by corrupt leaders. I had one graduate student who wrote about the lies promoted in Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.” One famous fellow who was on his committee complained that nobody cares about truth and lying. He left OU to become a Dean in a Big Ten school. Well, I guess he was a harbinger of things to come. By the way, he had earlier in his career been removed as department Chair for lying on faculty evaluation forms, altering them after the personnel committee had finalized them. Somebody cared enough to remove him… The Peter Principle is one thing but jumping to a school for a promotion after being removed at another school where people know you is carpetbagging, and it happens a lot in academic administration. Do a lousy job at college X and then parley one’s social network into moving to a bigger, better job at college Y. It’s all about self-branding. Once you get to put your name on official letterhead as an administrator, you are on the elevator. Networking, primarily through position, is key. Also, networking through one’s academic advisor’s family tree is huge in academe. Not rational or meritorious, just who you know. And if you are horrible enough, your colleagues will write letters of recommendation for you, to get you out of their lives. Pass the toxin on to another school. Good riddance. Like the Catholic Church moving pedophiles around from place to place.
In my research into relativism and its limits, I aligned with Gadamer and Habermas against the postmodernists. I brought the work of Lewis Mumford and Jean Gebser into the debate to suggest a relative relativism, as opposed to the absurdity of an absolute relativism that makes common sense and communication impossible (even as the postmodernists communicated about it in mountains of apparently comprehensible texts). When I first arrived at OU, I had a colleague who was ABD, and we talked about our interests. His work had nothing to do with time but instead about something about putting paper bags over people's heads in a meeting to test something... Later he got into online communication, borrowing from Garfinkel and Goffman (as so many do). As an old friend Michael Pfau used to say, the great ideas come from qualitative thinkers, and the testing comes from the quantitative people. A famous social psychologist at OU, Muzafer Sherif used to use his grad students as assistants to test his ideas. Works for me.
With the penetration of the "Internet of everything" (most importantly our minds), we find that the virtual has very actual consequences -- many, not good, such as control of SCADA systems and logic controllers (you can look these up... be interactive!). The old subject/object duality is erased. However, truth and untruth remain. On and off have consequences (now you know why pragmatists such as C. S. Peirce, John Dewey, and William James corresponded with Husserl). Motivation may be invisible, yet it remains vital to understanding human behavior. And it takes something else invisible, logic, to connect dots. Just ask Sherlock Holmes, or any scientist or detective. To deduce, surmise, infer, and extrapolate, is to think. Anything less is to be stuck in the empirical here and now. All animals behave on the basis of sensory data. Humans create and inhabit worlds of art, science, mathematics, the "past" and the "future." We imagine. We plan. We adapt the environment to our needs and wants. To know what a human is, is to understand this. To be a social scientist, you must begin here. It should not be hard, therefore, to predict that people will use technologies in unintended ways. They always have. It's called being innovative. That is why it is nearly impossible to control a technology.
Because phenomenology brackets metaphysical speculation, the fact that truth and untruth are not empirical things renders the qualities virtual and actual irrelevant to the the critical issue at hand, namely reality itself. Both qualities are real. Anyway, I told my young colleague who was all gung-ho about the glories of the Internet, which was the vogue then, especially if you wanted grant money from the rising tycoons, two things about his work and interest in the new technology that was, to me, just another communication industry. This was 1990, and the Internet was still growing fast. Folks such as Douglas Rushkoff's in his work Cyberia (already 1994 after my colleague had left OU) and the "father of the Internet" Tim Berners-Lee were cheerleading like crazy. Both now lament what it has become. I told my colleague: one, the Internet is going to be a mess because it is motivated by profit, and it will soon degrade into the trash heap it now is because if it makes money, it will proliferate a massive id-fest with no superego to regulate our worst impulses. Anything goes and anonymity fuels bomb-throwing. And two, being asynchronous was just like plain old letters but what would be different was the almost immediate delivery any time so that we would have no respite from correspondence, no time to think or compose decent prose. Privacy would be endangered. Sherry Turkle would later back me on this. Because it was initially delivered by wire, regulation was nil. Anything goes no matter who might be in the audience. Parental controls became a joke. But forget the kids. What adults were getting into went off the rails too (think Parler, QAnon, pedophilia, white supremacist terrorist recruiting websites, confusion about reliable and fake news, et cetera). Authoritative gatekeeping was out the window.
I knew it would end up delivering endless commercial advertising to us just 10 inches from our faces. That motivation has always involved categorizing viewers into the wanted and the unwanted. That is why, with the advent of psychographic research in radio and TV during the 1960s, the most popular TV shows of all time ended up canceled and replaced with garbage because the garbage attracted the right kind of viewer, the one spending money the most. This same motivation that drives the content of commercial radio and TV was obviously going to drive the content of the Internet, but the “technology experts” in the field of communication were not coming from commercial broadcasting. They didn’t understand the use of communication to make money. They studied nonverbal movements, interpersonal lying, the personal rhetoric of talk and “personal information processing,” power relations in dyads, organizational/strategic talk, and conversational relationship maintenance. They were social-psychologist wannabes. Meanwhile, a giant monster was rising, and almost no one in the field was talking about it… some in mass comm and J schools knew what it was because they taught advertising/PR. And when amateur psychologists did catch the wave, it was all about how great distance relationships would be and how to manage face (presentation of self) on social media and how e-mail was just as intimate as face-to-face communication. They did not see the tsunami of advertising and siloing of consumers coming. I did because all you had to do was look at the history of other commercial media (not psych theories). What anyone working in, or a student of, commercial media understands is how media folks make money. They don't sell "advertising time." No. They sell access to an audience they produce to advertisers. The most basic truth of commercial media (no matter the technology) is that it exists for one reason only, to generate, package and deliver audiences (as their product) to advertisers (their customers). So, any content that will do that, goes. That includes hate speech, stupid reality TV, promotion of disrespect and even contempt for others as in WWE wresting... Content that does not, is canceled. So we have had a race to the bottom of our moral and ethical world. Commercial TV was around from 1948 (as a true mass medium) until cable and VHS developed in the mid-1980s. That's just 40 years. Then the Internet took over about 8-10 years later. With each step the effort to commercialize mediation as much as possible has advanced. And with it, an endless push to deregulate media. Hence we have the race to the bottom of content into greater titillation, vulgarity, and stupidity. The freakishness sells and it has been normalized through reality TV to the point at which we are now electing freak celebrities to be our political leaders with disastrous results. News is being displaced by unedited (no fact-checking) bomb-throwing pundits and hate mongers. The only content always safe on commercial media is... the commercials themselves. They are never canceled. Whatever draws the eyes and ears of people to the commercial messages goes. There is nothing conservative about "conservative media." Money talks. Morals and professionalism walks. We all love train wrecks. But our culture is becoming one. How could we not see this coming? Too many comm scholars were totally missing the reality of capitalist-driven pandering because they wanted to do psychology and try to talk about mass media in interpersonal terms. It is not an awful thing to do. But it missed the biggest trend in human communication in history -- at least since the printing press.
So I saw some of the handwriting on the wall. However, what I did not see was the continued sophistication of ratings research leading to algorithmic and automated targeting of audiences by advertisers and "social influencers" to further segregate people by their own interests/prejudices. Big data and interactivity went far beyond the old psychographic survey marketing research Vance Packard first warned us about. The interactive aspect of the Internet has made it the most powerful advertising medium in history, making sure that by tracking our every keystroke, providers of platforms can tailor content to each one of us, clumping us into ever smaller categories down to individual “preferences.” This assumes that all I want or NEED to see is all that I have already seen. Thanks to the motivation for making the platforms – MONEY -- the Internet has made us consumers of redundancy, making cultivation theory look profound for the process of commercialization of the Internet has hardened our beliefs and values through endless reinforcement of messaging. I don’t have to search out others of my ilk. The Internet will bring us together, thank you. So, the one nut-job in my little town who was quaint and harmless now can join a social movement that is global. We can now go to nutjob university online and learn all sorts of nice wacko garbage. Cultivation through reinforcing messages ("confirmation bias") is now on steroids with feedback loops galore from all sorts of quarters.
It is not merely self-selection of content that reinforces my prejudices. In the interest of advertising revenue, algorithms are doing it, without my knowledge or consent. The tech giants have figured out how to robotize cultural and political segregation on a mass scale. Truth is shattering. No privacy. The content providers are using me against me. Prejudices are being amplified through automated feedback. This is hypertrophic egocentrism. It's the height of selfishness. Selfies proliferate. We are all brands now. Tech is intoxicating us with ourselves. Preferences are becoming hardened positions. The mediating aspect of living in a diverse community is disappearing.
We are all "snowflakes" because we can't handle divergent opinions with respect and we can't handle possibly being wrong. The community is online and not diverse at all. We have been channeled, like being marched in lines onto cattle cars. And we are eager to be transported into our little worlds. Erik Fromm's book Escape from Freedom has come true again (like Nazi Germany). We want to escape from politics, debate, divergent positions...from democracy. As snowflakes, we want someone to save us. We are weak-minded, seeking a messiah. Authoritarians will be happy to make the trains run on time. All of this is thanks to the power of advertising as a targeting technology and a culture rooted in being proud to be submissive. It is a virtue in our religions. The carrot and the stick. Accept me and only me, or burn in hell for ever, oh, and by-the- way, I love you, and will save you, but only... This is infinite belligerence. The U.S. doesn’t make anything anymore, but as a land of salesmen in the Third Sophistic (the third great era of bullshitters), the U.S. is second to none. China can’t keep up with the trash commodities we demand and increasingly pay for with borrowed money... from China. Logic is gone. In fact we confuse the great redundancy machine of algorithmic “intelligence” with reason and thinking. It is the opposite. We are on autopilot in a dive toward the basest in ourselves.
In short, I knew that the Internet was going to be commercialized. The transformation of other great communication technologies into advertising tools had taught us what to expect… a vast wasteland. Carrot and the stick. Yes the Internet provides, but it also punishes. I was way ahead of my interpersonal colleagues on this. But what none of us saw was the ultimate power interactivity would yield to advertising interests and propagandists. Algorithmic categorizing of people into tribes took off. The use of the interactive data that became so dense with the Internet has been turned against us all. The result, quite impactful for our civic world is that the common sense of shared truths has been shattered. Audiences are splitting into shards and not listening and viewing together, nor talking to each other -- siloing is rampant. E pluribus unum is in trouble.
And two, my young colleague was so excited about synchronous and asynchronous communication via e-mail. Wow. I told him e-mail but not much different from the asynchronicity of sending plain old paper letters via the postal service. The synchronicity was like using the telephone but with a narrower bandwidth. Even with its synchronized interactive video, Skype, Facetime, Zoom, et al., are just screens. They do not have three-dimensional depth space, let alone olfaction/taste, haptics, ocular motorics, kinesics… And that mode of interaction lacks the massive “bandwidth” of face-to-face interaction with all the small cues we get from embodied interaction.
But forget face-to-face versus mediated communication. Handwritten letters are works of art. In fact an artist in Japan, whom I met back in the 1990s, has published years of correspondence as art. He spent hours and hours crafting letters with all sorts of drawings, designs, folds, colors, and such. Wonderful. E-mail is about business. The huge software suites built by Microsoft were not, and are not, meant for personal use. They are business tools. E-mail is efficient, often crass and ugly. It's a wrench in the toolbox. It's an extension of F. W. Taylor's obsession, and the disease of our era, a chronic sense of urgency. My young colleague missed all the essential qualities of e-mail as he created a pseudo-scientific sounding theory of "social information processing." What is of value in it is totally common sense but there is nothing to make you reflect. But that is the state of the field.
E-mail was what we in telecommunications (he was in interpersonal and knew next to nothing about communication technology) had called Teletext for decades, and many Ham radio operators already had that capability without all the wires that were being draped all over the place. Cellphones are Ham radio for dummies that relies on microwave towers cluttering the landscape. Now Musk (what a name)is cluttering up the sky itself with his swarm of low-altitude comm satellites. Gotta maximize the Internet of everything. Astronomers and stargazers are complaining. Later, my young colleague and his advisor published an article about the asynchronous nature of e-mail and became famous. I thought it was self-evident, just like sending a letter through the mail only without any aesthetic quality (no small depreciation of the act of communication). At that time, before we could all have multiple personal TV channels on Facebook, Youtube, and such, the really interesting things about the Internet were its massive archiving, its effect on the costs of global communications, and its enhancing of synchronous comm. But about the latter, telephone and ham radio had long been there and done that, both with more paralinguistic information, i.e., I can hear you crying on the phone but not on an e-mail. But then, much I read in the journals seems unnecessary to actually write down. But that’s me. Publish, we must, and so we do… And if you are networked, away you go. Use the halo of others that are famous for being famous, and soon you too will be famous for being famous and stride the halls in big shoes.
I have found over the years that much that passes for great insight is common sense, and the more so, the more it is hailed as great insight. Hmmm… There is also a considerable amount of borrowing in the field of Communication from other fields such as social-psych, sociology, political science, and philosophy. If you are interested, for instance, in inoculation theory, I suggest you read Aristotle’s Rhetoric as well as his Psychologies along with his and Plato’s ethics texts. The idea of preempting your opponent's argument by framing it before they can speak is something Corax and Tisias figured out in the Greek colony of Syracuse hundreds of years before Christ. The art and study of Sophistry is quite old. Another example is uncertainty reduction theory. If one cares to look, a great deal had already been published by the end of World War II about uncertainty, anxiety, and information-seeking. Most of it was written by psychologists and economists studying the emotional management of clients by stockbrokers and soldiers by officers in uncertain situations. But even before the need to decrease anxiety over risk with market analyses and insider information, generals had known since ancient times that gathering intelligence (spying on one’s opponent) helped build confidence in one’s strategic and tactical plans. Information gathering helps reduce the anxiety surrounding uncertainty. But hey, if you write such things up in a certain style, you can become a famed scholar. Another example is “face-work” theory borrowed from Garfinkel in sociology and, of course, from centuries of common-sense regarding respect in China, India, the West… everywhere. I don’t know of a culture where people like being embarrassed or disrespected and understand how we all try to save face and give face… But again, if you write it up in the fashionable manner, it can become your idea. Another is that conforming to dominant ways (often mislabeled “adaptation”), makes the dominant person or class like you. They like people who imitate them and who do not argue with them, people who surrender their voice and “deculturize” and “unlearn” who they are. Powerful people (the “mainstream”) like, and tend to reward, people who seek to reinforce their beliefs, values, expectations, and behavior patterns. Duh. Watch any dictator and those seeking favor. But such a world also has no progress because progress requires deviance. What a hyper-conservative political position… not a social science theory. Science describes and explains what is the case. It does not promote what ought to be (value judgments). Einstein sought to explain Mercury’s aberrant orbit, not accuse it of being “maladjusted” and argue that it should be corrected.
Because I thought it wrong to simply rewrite other peoples’ already famous stuff from other fields, or say what my parents already knew, and that my job was to be original, I did not take the typical path that others in communication follow. Having a genuinely original insight is much more difficult. Even synthesizing great works to arrive at a new insight is difficult. Problem is, the more you study the history of social science and philosophy, going back and reading the more you realize we keep reinventing the wheel.2Too often, we think we are smarter than the people who got us here. I mean, if you know Hinduism, then you know that Maslow’s hierarchy is not new with him. I discovered that many seem to believe they invented the wheel because they were ignorant of the substance of other fields or had picked up bits and pieces through summaries (often incorrect hand-me-down literature reviews), and didn’t care to trace where the ideas came from. Or they simply, and knowingly, stole others’ ideas and renamed them. Being a real scholar takes a lot of homework and thinking.
1 Among aficionados, it is claimed that the Racer “revived worldwide interest in roller coasters.” It was the fastest in the world at the time, while another Ohio roller coaster at Cedar Point was the biggest. It continues. Kings Island announced the Orion, the latest giga coaster to open 2020. I’m sure the virus had other ideas. Ohio seems fixated on “giga coasters.”
2Reading Plato, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Khaldun, Vico, Hume, Herbert Spencer, Bentham, Herder, Boas, Arnold, Comte, Freud, Nietzsche, Weber, Simmel, Durkheim, Kant, Locke, Husserl, Hegel, Lazarsfeld, Merton, Homans, Goffman, Garfinkel, Wittgenstein, Mauss, von Humboldt, Cusanus, Wundt, Kohler, Wertheimer, Schutz, Malinowski, Erickson, Fromm, Milgram, Marx, Popper, Cattell, Piaget, Radcliffe-Brown, Sorokin, Parsons, Veblen, Packard, duBois, Raymond Williams, Cassirer, Toennies, Mead, Hobbes, Voltaire, Rousseau… makes you humble.
Here is my sister Candy, and Alex, in about 1988, at Jack Lake, Ontario. Alex would be about five or six. Candy doesn't like fishing much. But it was a nice calm twilight. I told her I'd take her and little Alex out after dinner but that I'd have to come back in to take my dad out for night fishing. I had an idea for a cove with a weed bed I'd not tried before. This is what she caught. She caught it on my pole! On my lure! On my cast! But, she brought it in, and that's what counts. This one didn't get away. She had tangled up her line, so I casted out a surface lure over the weedbed and handed her my pole while I fixed hers. The lure was just drifting. I told her to give a little jerk. Then I heard a big splash and she got excited. Something was pulling on the line, hard. It was getting dark. She went out once for about two hours, just to not waste her three-day fishing license, and she caught her trophy, and was done. Okay. That's efficient... but on my pole?! That's not right. People fish a lifetime and never catch a bass like this. Bass up in cold Canadian lakes don't get much bigger. She'll be happy to show you the monster on her wall in Ohio. It was a great day. We went in. My dad got up from a nap and couldn't believe his eyes. But let's get one thing straight. It's all about the guide.
I have two magnificent sons, both National Merit Scholars and graduates of Johns Hopkins University. Here they are when they were kids. Alex is an avid guitarist, computer expert, scuba diver, and former Tae Kwon Do Champion who has worked at Bloomberg, Goldman Sachs, Pivotal Labs, and was Chief Technology Officer at Traded It, Inc., in New York City.
As of 2020, he is the Vice President of Engineering for Vigilant in NYC. And as of May 13, 2020, he became a dad. Big change. Alex is married to Ventrice Lam, who became a mom on the same date... and I, I became a grandfather! Alex and Ventrice were both working at Goldman Sachs when they met at a poker game. Warning: she’s very good. Until Mars arrived, they lived in a famous building that used to be the Hotel Albert in Greenwich Village where many celebrated people lived for periods and hung out in its famous restaurant including Salvador Dali, Jackson Pollock, Any Warhol, Hart Crane, Horton Foote, Anais Nin, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Thomas Wolfe, and also bands lived there and practiced in the basement including Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Jim Morrison, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Howlin’ Wolf, Lovin Spoonful, The Mamas & the Papas… [See about the Albert]They all live in a place in Brooklyn at this writing. Mars changed the world. Long before the Postmodernists, Heraclitus was right about reality being flux (Plato's formalism was reactionary and so modernity comes after postmodernism), and Galileo was also right, everything moves and things get mixed up. That's life.
Ventrice was born in Hong Kong but grew up in Toronto, Canada. She worked for Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong, Singapore, and then NYC. She also founded Bedelia Business Consulting in NYC. Currently, she is Head of National Expansion for Lemonade Insurance. Also… an outstanding, I mean concert, pianist.
Preston is an award-winning violinist, award-winning playwright (from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences), and scholarship recipient at Johns Hopkins. Here is a picture of Preston with two greyhounds my parents adopted. Here he is in Med School in 2016. Sadly, neither of my parents lived to see the boys graduate from college. He went to Cornell Weill College of Medicine. He interned at New York University’s Langone Hospital an also at Bellevue Hospital. He took a year off between college and med school and went to Taiwan and taught English for medical students at National Tsing Hua University. He had a great time. Then for a summer during med school he went to Ghana and worked at some clinics. While there he got a parasite that burrows into the bottom of your foot. After returning to the US he discovered the problem and found out that it is easily cured with a few pills that in the US costs many hundreds of dollars but only about $20 in Ghana. He had some colleagues send some to him and cured himself. If you think we don’t need major reform of the US medical system, talk to my son or wife (Elaine is an expert in medical law and communication). At this writing in 2020, during the great Coronavirus 19 pandemic, he is working at Swedish Hospitals in Seattle as a hospitalist. This is the largest nonprofit healthcare provider in Seattle. He shuttles back and forth between two of their hospitals.
Below is a picture of Preston with a colleague asking people to avoid unnecessary contact. The official U.S. policy is to do the same thing, but conservative money is backing groups to protest, some with guns, the guidance to close businesses until there are 14 days of decline in new cases, and Pres. Trump is Tweeting support for them and against his own official policy. Madness.
Professor Elaine Hsieh is my partner in all things. She is also a Fulbright Scholar, grant recipient from the National Institutes of Health, author of multiple books in English and Chinese, journal editor (Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health), among other things. She has been our Director of Graduate Studies and a scorer for NIH grants nationally. Elaine received her Master's from the Monterey Institute and her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois. She completed her Law Degree at the University of Oklahoma in 2019. So now, she is a Ph.D./J.D. Only one thing left, an M.D. Don’t tempt her. She was selected as one of the top ten teenagers in Taiwan (the year is a secret) and, as such, appeared on television and traveled to many places representing the country. Here she is at the O.U. Law School preparing for graduation in Spring 2019.
Mars, the newest member of the family. Mars, my granddaughter, was born in Toronto, May 13, 2020, at 1:30 AM. Ventrice was all set to have her in New York City, but then the city became overwhelmed by the pandemic. So, Alex and Ventrice had to decide whether to ride it out there or leave. And if they chose to leave, where to go. They had options in Seattle, Oklahoma, and Toronto. They jumped in a rental car and fled for the border and made it across just hours before it was closed to all nonessential personnel. They left their properties in NYC behind, but they can both work online from Toronto. So Ventrice and Alex found refuge with Ventrice's parents and sisters. A perfect solution and a loving place to hold up until the pandemic subsides. Ventrice is a permanent resident of the US, and she was afraid that the Canadian authorities would make her pay extra for the delivery, which was a little premature. But no… she’s still a Canadian citizen, and she got top-flight help from the doctors and nurses in Toronto for a small fraction of what it might have cost in the US. So, Mars Lam Kramer arrived in the middle of a global pandemic, as a refugee of sorts. Her life is already an interesting story. All our love to her and all our sincere appreciation for Ventrice’s family for taking them in and helping them out. It is wonderful that Ventrice got to be with her mother, father, and sisters. Many caring people surround Mars. She’s in good hands, and many of them.
Here's one of my favorite people, my paternal grandfather Fred Kramer up on the Pickerel River, 1972. He is a widower here. He'd come to Marion from his home in Mount Healthy near Cincinnati every summer and take over my room when I was little. I'd sleep outside in a tent or on the sofa. I loved the tent. He was a nice guy. I wish I could have known him as an adult. He died when I was in college. I drove from Athens to Cincinnati for his funeral. It was during a huge blizzard. I had to dig my Capri out of deep snow and ice, and have some friends help push it out of the parking lot. I made it to Cincinnati just before they closed the highways in the state. He loved fishing and the Cincinnati Reds. He made his own wine and beer. Grew the grapes. He had orchards. He built a couple of houses from scratch, by himself; dug the foundations, laid the brick, did the cabinetry and woodworking, did the plumbing, the electrical... everything, while working his regular job full time. He could build anything. He was a welder for many years for the Cincinnati Traction Company back when they still had streetcars. He won many awards for his flowers. It's said that when the German American Bund, the American Nazi Party, came to the house to ask for a donation, he threw them off the porch, literally. He was not big, but strong as an ox even into his 80s. Nearly everyone in America back then was anti-fascist. Now we have a president, who, without any evidence, calls anti-fascist protesters “terrorists,” defends violence against them, and says that “some” torch-carrying neo-Nazis are “good people.” He also proclaims that “German blood is good blood.” What!? If given the chance, I think my grandfather would throw Drumpf, aka "Trump" off the porch (even the name is fake, for Christ’s sake). I didn't really know my other grandparents. They died before I could get to know them. I was born "late." My mother was nearly 40. I never met my maternal grandfather.
At my age do I have regrets? I think it is so disingenuous when people say, “I have no regrets.” They must be utterly terrified of facing themselves, at least in public. There is nothing you could of done better? Nothing? When people say, “Why regret? You can’t go back and change things anyway.” That’s just a rationalization. One of the regrets is precisely that you can’t go back and fix things. This fact is the most common denominator of our humanity.
Regrets are not about control, but how we feel about failings. Don’t be afraid of regretting things. They may remain "silent stories," but that does not mean that you don't care. Rather it can mean you care alot. Anyway, I have regrets. I have failed others and, in the process, myself. There’s no way around it. And admitting it, does not fix it. Period. Some things you can’t fix. So I suggest you don’t mess them up to begin with. We often give each other second chances. If you get one, try harder. I do. But that begins by looking hard in the mirror. Also, I trusted some people I should not have. I invested time and energy in some things and people I should not of, and I should have attended more to others. Opportunities? Like everybody else, I caught some, I missed some. But when you accept your failings you can become happy. Why? Because you let go of the myth and realize you are normal. You come home to yourself. It is part of taking responsibility and owning it. Okay. Now what? I thought I was “going to be” a great scholar. I thought I was a wrestler. I thought I owned a race car, I thought I could do art, I thought… Okay. Such aspirations are normal. Recognizing that I am normal is probably the most mature thought I have had. I’m just like everyone else, thinking I am special, but knowing I’m probably not. It’s okay. Hey, I can live with life. You can’t be happy if you dwell on failing to be perfect. Like a QB who throws an interception, you have to move on… but learn from it. Growing is fraught with mistakes but the alternative is to not grow.
One thing I do not regret was to get a cat for each of my sons. Pickles for Alex and Rocky, the one-eyed, for Preston. Did this teach them “responsibility?” Whatever. The important thing is that they learned to really love something, something weaker than themselves. Are pets Inconvenient? Sometimes, of course. So are kids and old people and neighbors and co-workers, and spouses, and yourself – your own failings, the weather… If you demand that all-American privilege of convenience, you should probably remain childless, for everybody’s sake. Such convenience-lovers live in fear, and so they compensate by trying hard to control, to be tidy. Not much room then for others. I guess I was not afraid of life, its demands and inconveniences, its waywardness, at least not enough to insist that every book on the shelf be in perfect alignment. So, the pets were a net plus. Regrets? Maybe putting Alex in the EEPR program at U of Washington. Why maybe? Because, on the other hand, being in that situation, he leaned to cope and otherwise he would have stayed in Norman schools where he was bored to death. Seattle was not boring. But maybe Norman would have been okay? I don’t know. In some ways his year in the transition program fell apart because the math prof was lousy as a teacher and the physics prof was very old and literally died. The poor guy was just unable. Alex learned less than we had expected. The teachers at Norman North probably would have been better. Seattle was challenging. On the plus side Alex grew up pretty fearless. He went to Johns Hopkins and so forth… As for Preston, he became very close to his mother and he had some great experiences in the schools there. They all also got to know their aunt and uncle who are great folks. And when their maternal grandparents came to town, they were all together, so they didn’t have to split time between cities. And as for me? I stayed in Norman to make the all mighty buck. I could not afford to take an unpaid leave. A house in the Seattle suburbs is not cheap. Also, I was just then coming up for tenure. When I found a job up in Seattle at Highline College, I was there. But you can never get the hours, days, weeks, back. Relationships take time. Time is life.
I like to try to paint and take photos. Herein are modified studies I did of Magritte’s Empire of Light and a whimsical family portrait of some pets from the past. You will also find a link to my Flickr Web Album.
I find shifting from one medium (writing) to another affords me a valuable chance to expand and recharge.
I am currently a Senior Editor for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication, Associate Editor of Journal of International Communication Research (2011-present), book series editor for Communication and Comparative Civilizations (Hampton Press), and so forth. I have been granted the title Second Century Presidential Scholar at the University of Oklahoma. I am a Founding Member and Director, The E.U. Institute for Studies in Comparative Civilizations.
I’ve taught, done research, and lived in each of the following places: Boston, Seattle, Virginia, Xalapa Mexico, Belize, Italy, Guatemala, Taiwan, Kyoto, and Tokyo. I have lived and worked for a year or more in Sofia Bulgaria as a Fulbright scholar, and in Taiwan as a visiting fellow at Feng Chia University. I was the first “western” academic elected to faculty status in the prestigious school of journalism and mass communication at the National University Saint Kliment Ohridsky, Sofia. I have been blessed to work with scores of doctoral students over the years -- each one unique, each one a special bond, each one with a fascinating research agenda. I cannot ask for more. Thank you.
Besides being a full-time tenured graduate faculty at the University of Oklahoma for the past thirty years!!! (scary), I have also regularly taught graduate seminars in international communication/global networking, cross-cultural communication, media at war, and so forth on several NATO and U.S. bases. A few places include: SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe), Belgium; Heidelberg (U.S. Army European Headquarters – now in Wiesbaden), Stuttgart, Geilenkirchen, Ramstein, and Vilseck, in Germany; Aviano, Italy; Lakenheath and Mildenhall in England; Washington, D.C. (at the Pentagon and later in Crystal City – in fact, I was going into the Pentagon when it was hit, and one of my students was injured), San Diego, Tinker AFB, Fort Sill, Hickam/Pearl, Hurlburt (Special Ops Base)… As I get older, the wear and tear of global travel has slowed me down. Jet lag can take it out of you. I want to say thank you to the students. They have been diverse and fascinating. They have included U.S. citizens, foreign nationals, military, civilian, diplomatic corps, and various agencies. Many are academy grads, and more than a few have been inspiring. It has been my privilege to have a flag officer/admiral for the Pacific Fleet Command, the Commander for USAF Space Command, Europe, Special Operations Commanders, and many others over the years in my seminars – even a Whitehouse Chef and a personal aid to a Vice President. I have learned more from them than they from me.
I had the good fortune of having Professor Hal Himmelstein (later of Fordham and chair at City U, New York) as my doctoral committee chair. Hal ignited my interest in Roland Barthes’ small but lucid works and Raymond Williams’ writings. This led into the work of Stuart Hall, Herbert Hoggart, John Fiske, Paul Gilroy, Richard Dyer, Terry Eagleton, John Ellis, Gregor McLennan, and others in the UK that dovetailed nicely with my studies of the Frankfurt School. These integrated perfectly with my studies of Greimas with whom my mentor in philosophy Algis Mickunas was collaborating at the time, and my years of study in sociology, focusing mostly on the Frankfurt School and environmental sociology. I was influenced by the Club of Rome’s works, Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich, John Muir, Edward O. Wilson, and many others. I was very lucky to take the last seminar on the Chinese revolution taught by Dr. Lee just before retiring (1977). He lived through it. Because of my background in quantitative methods in sociology, I worked as a research assistant in the Audience Research Center with Professor James Webster (later Dean at Northwestern), who taught me the value of clarity and simplicity in quantitative research design. Two others I want to mention in this public letter; Dr. Eric Wagner who taught me a great deal about preparation, patience, and organization in teaching, and Dr. Susan Rogers (now at Holy Cross) who helped me immensely to learn how to do proper social science research and without her letter of recommendation I would have never been accepted to the University of Chicago.
I have a Master's in sociology. Drs. Rogers and Wagner were essential in helping me with the thesis on large-scale strip-mining. Professor Mickunas arranged for Jürgen Habermas to be a reader of my sociology thesis. I was invited to attend the Collegium Phaenomenologicum in Perugia, Italy, where I had the distinct pleasure of participating for five hours each day in seminars led by Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, Thomas Seebohm, Pina Moneta, Karl Schuhmann, and others. Along with Eiichi Shimomissé, Hiroshi Kojima and Keiichi Noé, I was elected to select invitees and organize two Japanese—Western Joint Conferences on Phenomenology that featured many prominent scholars such as John Murphy, Don Ihde, David Carr, Richard Lanigan, Tadashi Ogawa, Rudolf Makkreel, Lester Embree, Steven Crowell, and Burt Hopkins. I also spent a year studying neuropsychology with Karl Pribram at his Brain Research Center and a year studying symbology and comparative civilizations with Detlef Ingo Lauf of the Carl Jung Institute, Geneva. I studied Russian formalism with the Lithuanian dissident (a founder of the Helsinki Group) émigré poet Tomas Venclova. I came of academic age at a time when the linguistic turn was confronting the New Criticism and the so-called post-positivistic structuralism. I just wanted to acknowledge my debt to these and other teachers and to express my appreciation for their help. No one does it by him- or herself.
The older I get, the wiser some in my past become and the less wise others. One of my favorite people of all in my experience was Mr. Ken Click. For four years, Mr. Click was my cross-country coach at Pleasant High School. He had more common sense than any ten other coaches combined. He kept everything in proper perspective. I include here six others I remember fondly; Mr. John Kyle (H.S. math and science), Mr. Robert Gucker (H.S. biology), Ms. Sally George (H.S. art -- she used to let me hang out in the art room and work on projects when I was skipping lunch to make weight for wrestling), Mrs. Drollinger (H.S. English – she helped me get on the air at WMRN), Mr. Shorer (H.S. mechanical drafting sent one of my works to the G.M. design scholarship competition), and Mr. Smith (H.S. history). Most are now probably gone, but the dedication they showed was phenomenal, especially given the utter lack of motivation some kids exhibit.
While being a member of the Department of Communication at Oklahoma, I am also an affiliate faculty of the SIAS Institute and Department of International and Areas Studies, and I am also on the faculty of Film and Video Studies. I am the coordinator for the University of Oklahoma’s Advanced Programs graduate studies in International Relations, which offers seminars toward a Master's Degree in International Relations in Europe and Asia, and I am liaison between the Department of Communication and the Health Sciences Center of the University of Oklahoma School of Medicine in Oklahoma City. I am a Fellow of The Communicology Institute, and I am a founding director of the European Union Institute of Comparative Civilizations. I serve on the review and editorial boards of many journals and have reviewed for several journals including: The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, The Journal of Communication, Communication Studies, The Journal of Applied Communication, The Journal of Intercultural Communication, The Howard Journal of Communications, and so forth.
I have directed over 45 doctoral dissertations and my former doctoral students now teach at many places including New York University, Hofstra University, Rice University, University of Incheon, Korea, University of Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth University, International Christian University in Tokyo, Dunbar Middle School Lubbock Texas, Air Command & Staff College, Maxwell AFB, Montgomery Alabama, California State University, Sacramento, The University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, Brigham Young University, Tokyo Denki University, University of Jyväskylä, Finland, Linköping University, Sweden, Department of Pediatrics, University of Oklahoma-Health Sciences Center, Masryk University, Brno, Czech Republic, Okinawa Christian University, Claflin University, Bowling Green University, Fukuoka University of Education, University of Central Florida, John Carroll University, Suffolk University (Boston), Ohio University, Daegu University, Korea, Kyoto University College of Medicine, Northern Iowa U, Aiichi University, Nagoya, Japan, Wenzao Ursuline University, Kaohsiung University Taiwan, and so forth. A couple of former graduate students who studied semiotics with me took jobs on Madison Avenue in major advertising agencies. I told you semiotics is practical! I also have former doctoral students in positions at places like the FBI Counter-Terrorism Unit.
Just for a taste, three of my favorite old friends are The Ever-Present Origin by Jean Gebser, Technics and Civilization by Lewis Mumford and The Responsive Chord by Tony Schwartz. Though not so highly regarded as the others, the last book has insights in it that are quite provocative. Much of my research centers on what is broadly called medium theory and also civilizational studies/intercultural communication. Other than helping students realize their own research agendas, highlights of my teaching include having team-taught a class for a semester with the late Steve Allen, who was very bright, funny, talented, and who knew everyone in American arts and show business it seemed, and having fun helping students write and perform radio dramas on WVRU, in Virginia. I had my first radio show on WMRN in Marion, Ohio when I was 15 (where Rod Serling got his start by the way after college at Antioch in Yellow Springs, Ohio where he met and married one of my Dad’s cousins, Carol Kramer) and another one at Ohio University. I was the media coordinator for the Red Cross during the Murrah Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City. I structured and coordinated all media access to the families of victims at the First Christian Church of Oklahoma City who gathered for counseling and notification for the first two weeks after the attack.
I don't have a favorite painting or sculpture. I will appreciate a few. Jan Van Eyck was just way ahead of his time. The portrait of the Arnolfini couple is amazing, especially given that it was painted before Leonardo was born! Another favorite of mine is the Baroque painter Johannes Vermeer. Here is his pensive geographer (1669). While others were still doing portraits of Biblical scenes, he was painting mood. He, like Rembrandt borrowed heavily from Caravaggio (Rembrandt did not invent chiaroscuro), they were “Caravaggisti.” Frans Hals is great and then, Caravaggio (1571-1610) himself. Here is a work from 1601 Supper at Emmaus. Too many great ones. But the greatness of art has nothing to do with genres or time. When I say he was ahead of his time, there is no denying original work and subsequent influence. But still, a great work is a great work no matter who came “first.” That’s a different issue in some ways. I like Monet's and Klimt's work alot. At the same time that William Blake was capturing the modern obsession with sectorization/fragmentation and measurement, when he painted god as an engineer (we always imagine god in our own image) with a compass -- fixing the points of space, over in Japan, Hokusai was painting the "floating world," the bawdy demimonde of the Yoshiwara entertainment quarters of Edo and of course his famous Great Wave off Kanagawa. Two versions of the world.
I will leave you with a taste of art today around the world in a blog.
What I believe: Freedom is what you do with what has been done to you. The only people who can truly hurt you are people you love. Don’t love anything that can’t love you back. The real question is not, what is the meaning of life, but how to make life meaningful. Satisfaction comes from helping others. And the older I get, the more I realize that rarely are things (or people) as bad as we think they are, or as good as we think they are. No one is perfect.
“Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” --Horace Mann
If you know me, you'd know I have lots to say at this time -- about our democracy, politics, lived environment, and humanity. If you want to engage in conversations with me, please visit my Blog.