Saturday, June 28, 2008

Stepping out with Neil Postman

I’ve been “reading” Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” I put “reading” in quotes because I’m really being read to — by an audio book “edition.”

I fear, given Postman’s passion for the printed word, that he would have looked down on my being read to. In audio form, his words march inexorably on, offering no opportunity to stop, ponder, re-read, check sources, etc.

So be it. I’ve chosen an Audio Book “edition” of Postman’s indictment of television because it can accompany me on my 10,000-Step hikes. That way I can exercise body and mind at the same time.

Postman is a great workout. Lucid, provocative, glib and insightful.

The introduction to “Amusing Ourselves to Death” offers an example. Here is Postman contrasting the worlds of Orwell’s “1984” and Huxley’s “Brave New World,” and declaring Huxley’s futuristic vision frighteningly close to what we have in the Television (and, I might add, Computer) Age.

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban books for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we could become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy… In short Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us … This book (“Amusing Ourselves to Death”) is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”

As I hike around the neighborhood, iPod buds stuffed in my ears, I’m certain that I am closer to Huxley’s zoned out, somnambulant world. But when I think about the perversions and atrocities of the Bush Administration, its torture chambers, its manipulations of the language, its Big Brother eavesdropping intrusions into our private lives, I’m not so sure.

We may have one foot in 1984 and the other in Brave New World. And we are sinking fast.

Postman, who died in 2003, would no doubt have been pleased that I am here writing, pondering and trying to bring my own understanding to his premise.

If an Audio Book of “Amusing Ourselves to Death” delivered me this point, it’s all to the good.

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Friday, June 27, 2008

Endangered traffic refuge

The best and safest place to stare down on-coming traffic in Hillsdale is on the pedestrian island in the middle of the intersection of SW Capitol Highway and Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway. Rows of collision cushions protect you from westbound traffic. A signal pole stands between you and eastbound commuters.

But all that will change in the next three or four months as the Portland Department of Transportation, at the urging of neighborhood leaders, is about to remove the island.

The new crosswalk, sans island, will give you 20 seconds to get across five lanes. It comes with one of those countdown timers. 20...19...18...etc.

I suggest starting from a sprinter's position.

And what is the problem for which this is a solution?

Currently the signalized pedestrian crossing gets you across four lanes of traffic to the island from the south side of Capitol. For the rest of your caper, across a "slip lane" (read on-ramp) onto Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway, you are on your own. Some proclaim this last segment (on the left in the top photo) treacherous. I simply find it exhilarating.

The solution will cost $107,000. Frankly, I can think of better things to do with the money.

See all those overhead wires?

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Actually, it was the caterpillar

One of the things I love about teaching is how much I learn — and the surprising ways I learn it.

Near the end of a four-hour class (don't ask) the other night, I had occasion to refer to "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" — wrongly as it turned out.

We had just watched a short episode from John Berger's "Ways of Seeing" documentary, based on his classic book. At one point, Berger stares into the camera and exclaims a tenet of consumerism:

"You are what you have!"

Our discussion about the statement led us to consider Gandhi, who "had" virtually nothing. Who was he?

I speculated that, paradoxically, we was everything he didn't possess. I suggested that what we are left with when we strip ourselves of possessions is the answer to...and here is where I went astray...the Cheshire Cat's sweeping question, "Who are you?"

Whereupon, Amy, attentively taking all this in, gently interjected, "Actually, it was the caterpillar."

Exactly. What a delight to be corrected with such a bizarre assortment of words suddenly and unassumedly dropped into a lofty discussion.

"Actually, it was the caterpillar." I can hear her saying the words as I write them.

They brought me right down to earth, where I belonged — especially after four hours.

Lewis Carroll would have loved it.

As I grow older, I am certain to have many more "actually-it-was-the-caterpillar" moments.

Amy's phrase will help me, actually, grapple with "who" I will have become.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

An Orwellian Writer's Almanac tribute

I have buried in my stack of well-worn t-shirts, one I rarely wear. I displays a large caricature of a gaunt George Orwell. A cigarette droops from his lips, and a giant depiction of Big Brother looms behind him.

For some reason my hand went to it today, and I put it on even though it made me look slightly cartoonish. I’m wearing it now and will for the rest of the day, for reasons that follow....

Greeting the day with Orwell's image on my chest, I did my pre-Cheerios-and-coffee e-mail check largely to read the daily “Writer’s Almanac” from Garrison Keillor. Yes, you can have the written script of the NPR “Writer’s Almanac” e-mailed to you. I recommend it, though, as you will see, it needs to be read skeptically.

After offering the customary poem, the almanac launched into it’s main item:

“It's the birthday of the man who wrote Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949), George Orwell, born Eric Blair ….”

How serendipitous.

I’m noting in my PDA that June 25th is Orwell/Blair’s birthday. The note will include a reminder to wear the Orwell t-shirt to mark the occasion.

Keillor’s short sketch couldn’t possibly have done justice to Orwell’s sprawling, heroic life, although the item included a unfamiliar (to me at least) anecdote or two.

Sadly, Keillor also did Orwell an Orwellian injustice when he distorted a quote from Orwell’s famous essay, “Why I write.”

Here’s the quote as presented:

"Every line of serious work that I have written [since the Spanish Civil War] has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism."

And that’s where Keillor ended it, with a period. At the very least he should have inserted ellipses because here is the rest of the sentence:

“…against totalitarianism, and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” (the emphasis is Orwell’s)

Yes, Orwell was a democratic socialist, and yes, my fellow patriotic Americans, democracy and socialism can be compatible. The question is, in light of our current predicament: Are democracy and capitalism compatible, if capitalism is indeed what our economy is? Or does capitalism simply buy off democracy?

If you read Orwell’s works and learn more about his life, you’ll understand why he was a democratic socialist.

Keillor would do well to do so.

Meanwhile, Happy Birthday, George.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008


The word “walk” as a noun, as in “I’m taking a walk” or “I’m going out for a walk,” usually connotes leisure or exercise — and nothing more.

Three months ago, when I started the 10,000 Steps program health and leisure were my principal reasons for walking.

Now, partly because the rising price of gasoline, I’ve added a new purpose to my walks — making them my primary form of transportation.

For instance, the other day I was all set to walk to the post office to mail five thank-you notes. But then I looked at the addresses on the envelopes and saw that of the five, three were right here in Hillsdale and a fourth was in Multnomah Village, a couple of miles away. Only the fifth absolutely needed to be posted.

So I decided to hand deliver (hand-and-foot deliver to be precise) the notes. In two of the four cases, I actually found the recipients at home and thanked them personally as well as in writing. They seemed impressed that I would bring the notes in person — and on foot at that. I told them I was happy to do so. Far from being an inconvenience, it was a pleasure.

P.S. Another nice thing about walking is that you don’t expose yourself to parking tickets. See yesterday’s post.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Busted and Perplexed

Note for non-Portlander: Here in the Rose City, we have these high tech, solar-powered parking meters that spew out receipts that come with adhesive tags. The idea is to post your receipt on the inside of your window with the relevant parking information facing out. The meter reader can then tell that you have paid up and for how long.

Enter the motor scooter (and the motorcycle) and a host of questions, especially after being ticketed. Here, more or less, is my attempt to get my parking fine's worth in information.

After you have read the following, perhaps you can tell me what I'm missing? (I can hear it now: "Nice try, Rick, but...."

June 23, 2008

This evening at 5:34 p.m. my motor scooter was ticketed in Old Town — Citation # HA09245115.

As you know, there is no “inside of the window” on a motor scooter, so I assumed (wrongly, obviously) that since scooters take up a fraction of the space of a car and there is no way to prevent a car (or truck) driver from swiping and reusing a parking receipt posted on the outside, that it would be futile, even absurd, to buy time on the meter (I might as well buy air) and that the meter reader would know that.

Surprise! Officer M. Molinsky (that's the name on the ticket) didn't know that.

With all due respect to Officer Molinsky and the designers of your parking machines, I am enclosing my fine of $24 under protest.

Please advise me how I can display my parking receipt securely on my motor scooter, and, while you are at it, why I have to pay the full rate when I take up one tenth of the space of a car.

Eagerly awaiting your answer, I remain yours truly perplexed.

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Eight crucial years — lost

My wife just returned from San Luis Obispo, which is halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles and a 15-minute drive to the cooling waters of the Pacific Ocean.

On Friday, the temperature hit an historic high of 113. Yesterday it cooled off to 108, a record for the date.

You can add those numbers to all the other evidence that the Great Warming is happening, folks.

The irony is that eight years ago this nation actually elected a leader, Al Gore, who was committed to using the power of the presidency to reverse our destructive course.

Instead, the Supreme Court gave us a cheerleader-in-chief for the oil industry, and worse, its Godfather, Dick Cheney of Halliburton.

We just lost eight critical years.

The result has been an oil cabal of deceit and destruction. Of cutting behind-closed-door deals with Big Oil over a secret “energy policy.” If invading Iraq and wasting thousands of lives and billions secure its oil wealth. (American Oil companies are on the verge of striking long-term, no-bid deals with the Iraqi government. And who will protect those oil fields?) Of coddling the oil-rich Saudi Royal regime (democracy anyone?). The House of Saud, an old Bush family oil ally, nurtured the fanatical Islamic fundamentalist movement that, in turn, spawned Al Qaeda and, well, you can see where this is going.

And the Christian Right, fixated on abortion and blinded by its own self-righteousness, twice helped Bush gain office, thereby endangering God’s entire creation.

In today’s New York Times, Thomas Friedman lays out the most recent chapter in this tragedy: the off-shore oil drilling ruse.

Want some good news? Back in San Luis Obispo, it is starting to cool. Today’s high was 94.

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