Saturday, January 26, 2008

Meditations on a Streetcar

I took one of those bittersweet Portland Streetcar rides yesterday. The ride was comfortable and on-time, but all along the way, a pre-recorded woman’s voice informed us that the next stop was sponsored by a brewery, a spa, a bank, a real estate broker or a condominium developer.

I’ve complained about this commercial intrusion before, and not just on The Red Electric. I’ve actually testified before the Portland Streetcar Citizens’ advisory board. They nodded politely when I put it to them that public spaces shouldn’t be sold off in exchange for vocal or visual commercial appeals. They made some noises about needing the sponsorship money. I suggested that it might help their cash flow if they simply collected fares etc.

My complaint went nowhere. I think they considered me, at best, a benevolent crank, or, at worst, and misguided fool.

Yesterday, as I trolleyed through the Pearl District bound for NW 23rd, it occurred to me that in this world of global warming, we should be urged to use mass transit. Anything that discourages its use, like THE VOICE, is death to the planet.

Saving the planet shouldn’t come at the price of our being, in effect, turned into a captive audience, fish in a barrel — a “targeted audience” — for marketing/advertising types.

While the disembodied voice went about its paid pronouncements, I rode along trying to stay focused on reading Marcus Aurelius. I’ve kept “Meditations” near at hand recently. It has become my “pocket book” of choice. The Roman emperor’s no-nonsense, stoic perspective is bracing.

As the trolley glided west on NW Northrup and the voice chirped out the next sponsored stop. I just happened to be reading the following:

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.

If the cause of the trouble lies in your own character, set about reforming your principles; who is there to hinder you? If it is the failure to take some apparently sound course of action that is vexing you, then why not take it, instead of fretting?

‘Because there is an insuperable obstacle in the way.’ In that case, do not worry; the responsibility for inaction is not yours.

‘But life is not worth living with the thing undone.” Why then, bid life a good-humored farewell; accepting the frustration gracefully, and dying like any other man whose actions have not been inhibited.”

The words obviously spoke to my condition. I had already follow much of the advice, stopping short of “bidding life farewell.”

Not to worry. I’m not planning on throwing myself under the wheels of a streetcar in protest.

No, I have a life-affirming Plan B for ending the “distress” caused by this “external” annoyance: namely, avoiding the trolley and walking, riding a bike or taking a bus.

I wish everyone else would too. Just make sure to tell the advisory committee why.

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Friday, January 25, 2008

A literary coincidence

Cathy Zimmerman, a good friend, a prodigious reader and a skilled writer, recently passed on some books to my wife, Diane, who in turn dealt out a couple to me. Last night I picked up one from the unstable, looming pile next to my bed.

It immediately seized me. “So Long, See You Tomorrow” is by William Maxwell. Many of you may know the book and the author. I didn’t, although the name “William Maxwell” was vaguely familiar. Then again perhaps I had merely met a William Maxwell once; it is a common enough name.

According to Diane, Cathy had said the book was a murder mystery. Well, it is, sort of. It’s mostly a reminiscence artfully constructed around a murder. The murder hovers over deftly etched descriptions of life and relationships in a rural Illinois community at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Today I planned to read more of the book after returning from a leisurely errand downtown. In the Pearl, I chomped through a Westphalia ham sandwich, sipped coffee from a paper cup and nibbled on oatmeal-raisin cookie at Whole Foods. Then I wandered around Powell’s but managed to escape without buying anything (I was looking for “Thomas Paine and the Promise of America," but, oddly, they were out of it). I rode the trolley back to a leisurely walking distance to my car, which I had parked on a northwest Portland side street.

Driving home I flicked on NPR and got Terry Gross, always chancy. I thanked the gods that she wasn’t fawning over the lead bass player of a heavy metal band. Instead, she was in mid-interview with some elderly, somewhat feeble-sounding gentleman who got my attention with a reference to E.B. White and his times with other New Yorker writers. The old man allowed as how he still wrote with a typewriter, adding that he and modernity had reached an accommodation. He was enjoying being in his 80s, he said, and had even surprised himself recently by running to catch a prized, available cab. His running hadn’t been all that fast, he admitted, but it was fast enough. He got the taxi before someone else did.

The interview wound down, and Gross closed out with “Thank you, William Maxwell, for allowing us to visit with you.”

William Maxwell.

The same William Maxwell whose book awaited me at home.

The interview had been conducted in 1995, five years before Maxwell’s death in 2000. It was being replayed to honor the centenary of his birth. An anthology of his work is being published for the occasion. Indeed, there is a growing sense among literary historians that Maxwell, who wrote six novels and was fiction editor at the New Yorker for 40 years until 1976, was among the great writers of the 20th Century.

Once home, I searched the web and learned that this passed-along “murder mystery” won the National Book Award for fiction in 1980.

Excuse me, now, I have a book to finish.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Getting to know GameBoy

On Tuesday evening, the night PBS’s Frontline ran a scary “Growing up OnLine program about adolescent cyber-anarchy at 9 p.m., I was a Media Think presenter guiding a group or parents of elementary school children through a discussion about video games and on-line fantasia.

The metaphors the parents used to describe what had happened to their children were troubling. “Kidnapping” and “addiction” topped the list.

I invited them to share their concerns. Several said they thought they had the situation under control. They limited “screen time” and had placed computers in “family areas” where adult surveillance ruled. Their kids were forbidden to have computers in their rooms where they could be free to roam the wild, salacious web with abandon.

Others — nearly all were parents of boys — felt they had lost control. Power struggles had ensued. Gameboys had become addictions. The Penguin Club turned out to be training wheels for “Facebook” and ”MySpace” where hormonal urges eventually would be manipulated and exploited through video cliquishness, flirtation, flaming and even seduction.

Later in the evening, “Growing up OnLine” laid out the terrain.

I interjected advice as the parents recounted their stories. My main point was to take control, but in ways that required considerable tolerance and understanding. Rather than demean a child’s inevitable involvement with electronic media, a parent should venture into the child’s cyberworld. Sit down with your child and have him or her explain it. Get to know the vocabulary, the video landscape of Pokemon, meet the heroes and the villains and learn the rewards of achieving each new “level.”

Once parents have explored with their children this odd and often violent, amoral world of cyberspace, they can raise “adult” questions about good and evil, violence and non-violence, conflict and conciliation, war and peace. The cyberworld is only as alien to us as we adults make it. If we segregate ourselves from it, we become irrelevant.

Video games are the fairy tales of our times. To ignore them results in, yes, ignorance. To demean them is to distance yourself from your child. I know, because I did a long, long time ago and regret it to this day.

The negative metaphors of addiction and kidnapping need to be replaced with those of opportunity and even community. We need to reframe our attitudes toward the cyberworld. If we do that, we can use it as a gateway to the real world of real levels of achievement, of right and wrong, good and evil, peace and war, love and hate.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Platinum Rule meets The Curse of Knowledge

One of the most difficult things for journalists to do is escape "The Curse of Knowledge.” The concept is discussed in the book “Made to Stick,” which is one of the reasons I’m requiring the book in my media writing course this term.

The knowledge curse is that as a knowledgeable reporter you are often blind to your reader’s lack of knowledge. Excuse me for sounding a little like Donald Rumsfeldt*, but a reporter's awareness of the reader’s ignorance is essential to writing an understandable story.

“Made to Stick” authors Chip and Dan Heath also discuss the need for simplicity in order to make ideas stick. They use proverbs, such as The Golden Rule, as examples of sticky communication.

But, as it turns out, the Golden Rule suffers from its own twisted Curse of Knowledge. We know what we want others ”to do unto us, “ but that may be a useless guide when it comes to "doing unto" others.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” fails to capture the intended meaning. What the proverb really means has come to be called the “Platinum Rule”: “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.”

My wife likes to cite the Platinum Rule when, following the Golden Rule, I give her socket wrench sets or books such as “The Idiot’s Guide to Motor Scooters” or “Basic Typewriter Repair.”

The Curse of Knowledge and the Golden Rule have much in common. The Golden Rule’s assumption that you, the gift recipient, will want what I, the giver, wants bears a close resemblance to the writer's assumption that you, dear reader, know what I, the writer, knows.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Chip and Dan, take note: The Golden Rule may be simple, but it has been hexed by “the Curse of Knowledge.”

*If ever anyone was cursed with and befuddled by knowledge, it was Secretary of Defence Rumsfeldt. Here is his famous dissertation on the subject: "Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know."

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

On being an American

When I was in Costa Rica recently, I realized how “un-American” it was not to know Spanish. Of course, many in the United States consider it “un-American” for immigrants (legal or illegal) not to know English.

The problem cuts both ways.

If we are ever to realize fully what it means to be an “American,” we should all be bi-lingual. (I’ll leave out Portuguese, though I probably shouldn’t. Let’s take one language at a time.)

How different the “immigration problem” would look if we spoke the same languages. To be bi-lingual would expand our identities in the ways that European identity has changed in the last 15 years. Europeans typically know two or three or more languages.

Of course when you learn another language, you also learn another culture and have a fuller understanding of your own humanity, and humanity in general.

The metaphor “language barrier” seems entirely apt. How many times in Costa Rica did I hit that barrier? When we don’t know the language of the person next to us, we each become the “other,” the “alien,” the “unfathomable.” Too often we fill in the blanks with speculation, at best, and prejudice, at worst.

My reaction to not being able to communicate, to not preparing myself to communicate by learning Spanish, goes beyond a sense of ignorance to shame. Who, after all, has had the greater opportunity to learn the other’s language, me or the person on the other side of the language barrier?

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Martin Luther King, Jr. and the social gospel

If you weren't in the mall today for the "Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Sale," you may have been lured by the media to wallow in notions of King the "dreamer."

Forget them.

As those of us old enough to remember him know, King was no dreamer. He was a truth teller who aimed his words directly at the powerful. Today, his words speak volumes to us, and to those in power and those who seek it.

Pay heed.

Below is an excerpt from a fervent social gospel he delivered on April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City, just a year before he was assassinated. The full text, which focused on the outrage that was the Vietnam War, can be found here.

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway.

True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.

With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: "This is not just."

It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: "This is not just."

The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.
A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: "This way of settling differences is not just."

This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Matata comes to Kenya

Richard Wood and I were teachers together in Kenya’s western Nyanza Province in the late ‘60s at Rapogi Secondary School. Richard was a British teacher on contract, and I was a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Although Richard lives in England, we have have stayed in close touch, exchanged several visits and write from time to time about Kenya and our students. Troubled about the current crisis there, Richard has sent these thoughts for posting on The Red Electric.

“Hakuna Matata,” they used to say in Kenya: "There’s no problem here."

For decades it was true.

There could be genocide in Rwanda, chaos in Congo, civil war in Angola, mass starvation in Ethiopia, every form of corruption in Zimbabwe and so on throughout the continent of Africa. Yet somehow Kenya stayed sane — until now.

The madness has come to Kenya. Not only to Kenya but to Nyanza province. To Eldoret and Kisumu. Tomorrow, no doubt, to Kisii, Homa Bay and Migori. Those are places I have been — to shop, to visit, to make friends. Places in my life.

Suddenly it’s like standing on the deck of a storm-tossed ship. Your belly lurches and won’t leave you alone. Hundreds massacred in a church. Fighting on the streets. Houses torched. Buses ambushed. Thousands on the move.

The TV shows the familiar red murram roads, the corrugated iron roofs and whitewashed mud walls, the banana plantations, the distant misty hills, the overarching vastness of the blue sky. And the people, talking magnificent Luo English, explaining their bewilderment, their grief and their fury that their neighbors have turned upon them, used their pangas to slash throats instead of maize.

They are Luos, my people, the people I worked for and lived among, admittedly for a short time but they were the years that transported me from boy to man.

"Hakuna matata." No problem here. But we deceived ourselves.

There was always the potential for an explosion of violent tribal rivalry in Kenya, especially between the Kiyuyu and the Luo. It was alright when the Kikuyu were in control, but the potential for trouble always was that the Luo, the second biggest Kenyan tribe, had the knack of producing charismatic leaders, men capable of taking on the Kikuyu hierarchy.

In colonial times, Kenya spawned Mau Mau, the fiercest of all the independence movements that eventually turfed the Europeans out of Africa. The Mau Mau heartland was the so-called "White Highlands," the rich agricultural land of central Kenya, where the whites made themselves comfortable beyond the imagination of the folks back home in Britain, and from where they were eventually driven by pangas in the night. The Brits imprisoned the great African leader, Jomo Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, of course. The schisms of the independence movement came together in their demand for the release of "Mzee," the wise old man.

Among the leaders who set aside his personal ambitions in order to harangue the Brits was Oginga Odinga, a colorful, intelligent, principled African who was, everyone knew, presidential material through and through. A Luo. When the Brits admitted that their time was up and allowed the great “terrorist” Kenyatta his freedom to become the first president of independent Kenya, Odinga became his vice president. It was a great arrangement and saw the new state off to a flying start, with quality men of integrity in charge. In the Cabinet was another top quality man, another Luo, Tom Mboya. Tom came to Rapogi one day and I well remember the sense of being in the presence of a powerful figure.

Shortly after I left Kenya he was assassinated. Around that time Kenyatta and Odinga fell out. The potential for massive trouble rumbled in Kenya, but the line held. Odinga’s demanded a two-party democracy. Indeed, he formed a second party, but it was soon banned.

The funny thing was that when Kenyatta moved on he was replaced not by a Kiyuyu but by Daniel arap Moi, a member of a minority tribe. That worked, in part, because the Kikuyu were not threatened by so small a tribe. The third presidency, that of Kibaki, brought control back to the Kikuyu. In December he had to face up to elections. It would have been fine, I’m sure, if his opponent had been another minor tribesman, but he wasn’t. He was no less that Oginga Odinga’s own son, Raili. The only way to have saved Kenya from its current bloodshed would have been for Kibaki to have shown his Luo rival the same respect as had existed in the days of Kenyatta and the elder Odinga.

I’m feel helpless as I watch the news. The scene has switched from the deserts of Sudan and the baffling vastness of the Congo to my own Kenya, and the only thing I know is that from now on there will be plenty — plenty "matata."

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