Sunday, November 30, 2008

Ethics and Advertising, Revisited

Earlier in the week I asked why people hate advertising so much if there is nothing wrong with it, per se. The blog entry was an attempt to defend advertising as a legitimate enterprise, and that it does serve functions that many of us value.

The ethical issues of advertising were not really explored in much depth in that blog, however, so here is a brief overview of several problems that do put the ad industry in a grey light.

Evidently, the issue of ethics in advertising is of such social significance that there was a Pontifical Council on the subject. The Church document begins, like I tried to do, by noting that advertising (even political advertising!) can have economic, cultural and moral benefits. It can also do harm by misrepresentation, obstructing the democratic process, and corrupting a culture’s values by fostering excessive consumerism.

Briefly, I would touch on two issues with regard to advertising and ethics: truth and integrity. There has been great harm to advertising by betrayal of these two principles. We live in an era of distrust as it is, so any time people have an encounter with dishonesty in advertising, it damages confidence in everything else.

Online marketing is totally dependent on trust. When I give my credit card information to people I don't know, in places I have never heard of, I have to trust that this information is going to be properly protected. In addition, I have to trust that the goods I just purchased will arrive, and arrive in the condition that I anticipated based on how they were advertised.

For example, when I buy a used book on amazon.com through a third party seller, and it is advertised "like new", I am not happy if one-third of the pages are missing and the rest heavily underlined.

The saying "buyer beware" is something we've all heard, and ultimately it is aimed at letting buyers know that they have a responsibility in the purchase transaction. However, this does not absolve the advertiser from also being responsible to tell the truth.

Used car salespeople have a notoriously bad reputation. Used tire salespeople may have the same after I tell this story. When I came back from Mexico where my wife and I had worked at an orphanage, I did some job hunting and applied for a position as a salesman at a used tire place. The guy liked me, said I seemed smart and personable. He only had one concern. Based on my background as a Bible school grad and short term missionary, he felt squeamish about hiring me. The reason? "You can't be honest in this business and make money." Hmmm. Hopefully, that is not universal among used tire businesses. I only buy new since then, nevertheless.

Ten years ago I did a radio campaign which aired nationally on ABC. It was a sixty second spot, and due to FTC regulations, ABC requested documentation for every statement or claim in the commercial. There were as many as twelve to fifteen statements they wanted backed up. This effort to insure truth in advertising impressed me. I have not been grilled this heavily by any print media in the 20-plus years I have been in advertising. Hence, there are times when I do have a degree of skepticism about what I read in certain print ads.

Integrity, therefore, is an essential attribute of people who would make a living in advertising. This is very challenging for some who work in large ad agencies that represent companies whose products are damaging to the health and welfare of its consumers. I think here especially of big tobacco.

There are probably pharmaceutical companies that fall into this camp, but I'm grateful for the meds that help people. Just tell us the truth.

Admen do little to help their cause by writing cynical books about it all, as if there are no honest ad people anywhere. A few years ago I read a book by a New York ad man who mocked the whole enterprise, saying they were all liars and deceivers and truth stretchers, but it was great money. Gag me with a spoon.

If you are in advertising, and don't believe in what your client is selling, find another client. There are plenty of products that are meeting needs in peoples' lives. Help those companies be successful.

And then there's the issue of our state taxes being used to promote buying lottery tickets. Ad agencies get paid good money to come up with creative ways to produce gaming addicts. I've seen more than one home disrupted by bankruptcy, deceit and irresponsibility caused by gambling.

This is the kind of thing the Vatican was taking issue when it addressed Advertising and Social Responsibility. Sadly, it isn't a company that is promoting a bad product. It's our state legislature. But that's a whole other discussion.

Ednote: Whereas my disclaimer to the right on this blog states that views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer, rest assured that in this realm my company is committed to the highest levels of truth and integrity. Otherwise, I would have long ago taken the advice I offer above: find a company whose products and mission you believe in.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Black Friday Mayhem Symptom of Larger Problem

By now, nearly all of us have heard about it. People were talking about it over drinks on Spirit Mountain at the AMSOIL Duluth Nationals Snocross event here last night. People are going to be talking about it over breakfast tables this morning.

A Fox News version of the story begins like this: “Black Friday took a grim turn when a New York Wal-Mart employee died after bargain hunters broke down the doors to the store, pushing him to the ground.” One man was killed and four others sent to the hospital in the madness. Evidently the mob turned even uglier when the store had the audacity to announce they would close briefly to tend to the dead and wounded.

In an unrelated West Coast event, two people were shot to death at a Toys R Us. Probably not gang related.

So the question is, how badly do you need that 52 inch flat panel television set or GPS device that was on sale?

No, that is not what we should be asking. The real question we should ask is how did it come to this that people are so self-centered and rude that they would be this out of control.

A fellow I was talking with at the snocross event actually went shopping yesterday morning. He said it was unplanned, but since he and his wife were lying awake, why not get up and go to the store to see the madness and take advantage of some bargains. At one store, there was congestion due to the crowd just inside the door. He said a group of women huddled together in the parking lot, then, ran toward the doors, forming a wedge of blockers like in a football kickoff return, and crashed into the store through the bulk of shoppers blocking their way. He’d never seen anything like it.

Oprah, in her magazine O, addressed the issue of rudeness earlier this year. She asked Jerry Seinfeld his biggest pet peeve and he said “a lack of civility.” The article, Are you rude? Maybe you should think again highlighted the following points:
Eighty percent of Americans think rudeness is a serious national problem
Ninety-nine percent of same people say that they themselves are not rude
Going through life rude and angry can make you sick, author says
To see rudeness in action, look in the restaurants of America


I was struck by the second point here, that the majority think they are not rude. Reason being, I am rude sometimes and know that I am. And I know it's wrong. And, I really am trying to change. How can you change if you don't think you are doing anything wrong? How can 99% of Americans see that rudeness is a problem, but only one percent see themselves as being rude?

The answer is that a lot people believe they have a right to be rude sometimes but don’t call it rudeness. Impatience is one way we demonstrate uncivil behavior and justify it. And yes, the Oprah article is correct, restaurants do give you a fairly accurate reflection of how rude we are. Restaurant waitresses have to routinely deal with rude people who are impatient when their food is not served immediately after it is ordered. It is our right to be so served, is it not? We tend to demand fast service, AND service with a smile, no matter how badly we treat those who are serving us.

In an article titled The Social Epidemic of Rudeness V.C. Higuera writes, “It amazes me how rude people are today. I am sure that this type of behavior has always existed. Maybe I was raised different. Growing up I noticed that my parents always showed consideration for those around them. If we were driving in the parking lot of the grocery store, they would always stop the car to allow pedestrians to walk. If they walked into a store, they always briefly held the door for the person behind them. The strangers who receive my parent’s kind gesture were always appreciative and demonstrated this with a hand wave or a thank you. I grew up thinking that this was the proper way to interact with others while in public.”

There it is. People were once trained to be polite as part of their upbringing. At least some were so trained.

But then, isn’t it our nature to want everything our own way? Today’s rudeness may be directly related to the “Me Generation” coming of age. It is my right to be treated with respect, like a god. We drive down the highway this way: Everyone out of my way. I am coming down the road. Get out of my way. And we consider it an insult when someone cuts us off, even if unintentionally.

I used to think a “high-powered executive” was one who gets results. Maybe it is someone who excels in rudeness, in pushing people to get them to do what he needs to get done so he achieves those results. I never saw it that way until I read this article about hospitals trying to reign in rude doctors.

“High-powered physicians, some with bad tempers, are not new. But increasingly, hospitals… are attempting to curb the reputations of rude or arrogant surgeons and doctors by instituting policies that hold all employees accountable for their behavior.” ~ E.B. Solomont, Hospitals Try To Rein in Doctors' Rudeness, N.Y. Sun

Hmmm. The same can probably be said for high-powered executives.

And the mobs yesterday at Wal-Mart stores across America? It was only a matter of time before something like this would happen. I don’t think we need more laws to fix this problem. We just need to practice day to day what we all know is a good and true maxim for life: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Making the world a better place begins with me.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Mumbai Heartbreak Hotel

"The way in which the world is imagined determines at any moment what people will do." ~ Walter Lippman



The story broke on Twitter. Evidently someone in the middle of the Mumbai massacre, was a tweeter. Long before CNN could get a correspondent on the scene, the chatter was spreading 'cross the Internet. http://tinyurl.com/5g2a3n Terrorists went on a spree with assault rifles in Mumbai's financial district killing more than a hundred, leaving hundreds more wounded and bleeding.

One blog entry I came across stated this was a night life hot spot, with the upscale Oberoi and Taj Mahal Hotels being where the action was. American and British citizens were being sought as potential hostages. Other stories described the chaos and fear. There were photos accompanying some stories that showed blood stained sidewalks and streets.

It must have been a horrible thing to go through. But one of the stories I came across had a statement that especially surprised me:

"THE US State Department has consistently listed India as the country with the second-highest number of terrorism casualties after Iraq. However Western media has given scant regard to the problem and this is sometimes resented in India." ~ Sydney Morning Herald

Second highest number of terrorism casualties after Iraq. Wow. Something shifted in my thinking about India the fall. My image of India was painted by Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat when he describes a golf fairway there with large corporate logos on the left and right of a long scenic fairway. 400 million Indians are moving into the Middle Class. These are people with money, brains, talent. This is a country on the move. The picture in my head was modern times.

This image ruled my mental pictures till recently when I read of the harsh and brutal assaults on Christians by Hindus in Orissa. The Orissa horror has gone relatively unreported. And despite the State Department warnings cited in the Sydney Herald, Americans are not reading about all these things in the news. More than a thousand churches have been burned. Missionaries and pastors hide in the jungles to avoid being slaughtered by very dangerous people.

Then we have this week's highly visible event, which did make world headlines... But how much can we understand what it all means if we have no context? It would be bad public relations for India tourism and commerce if Americans saw India as "dangerous." But if our State Department is calling it dangerous, how come no one knows this? How can we make decisions where we'll be vacationing if we are not told of the dangers in those places we're enticed to see? How can we feel safe on business trips if we're not told that Americans are being kidnapped there?

When the story broke, many people probably wondered where in the world is Mumbai. Well, it's old Bombay, with a new name. Externally, the city glitters, but it is evident they're harboring the same old conflicts and griefs.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Mad

... as in Magazine.

Don't know what made me think of Mad magazine this morning, but once it was there and I began ruminating, it seemed worthy of a few comments.

Two months ago I wrote about the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. If you recall, I had to save my quarter allowance instead of spending it in order to buy the fifty cent monster mag. Mad magazine was only 25 cents then, and when the next issue came out, I was on it. My quarter was gone.

We lived a couple miles from the downtown strip in Maple Heights, a suburb on Cleveland's southeast side. There was a downtown strip called Mapletown with a movie theater and stores and once a year they held a giant rummage sale where the sidewalks were filled for blocks with junk sellers. This was the early 1960s, and it was here that I discovered one of my greatest early treasures: a box of Mad magazines selling for a penny each, nearly an entire collection of the 1950's mags, undoubtedly worth a fortune today if I'd kept 'em.

A couple years ago as my father lay dying in an intensive care unit in a Tampa-area hospital, I bought a Mad magazine to read. I reminded him of that time in Mapletown and we talked about those old Mad magazines... and I noticed, sadly, how unfunny the current version of the rag was, even though some of the topics were echoes of its former self, such as the movie satires.

I remember when the back cover fold-in was first introduced in 1964. It was an election year. Do you remember the rather pointed message of that Barry Goldwater spoof? When you folded it in, the illustration became a mushroom cloud, revealing a major attitude of the Right at the time: Better dead than red.

We were in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviets, so the wordless Spy vs. Spy series was a big hit. Both the black character and the white one were lookalikes, forever at war. As they ever destroyed one another, was the magazine making a statement about the foolishness of mutually assured destruction?

Dave Berg's "The Lighter Side of..." was a great piece of comic strip comedy. There were many issues Berg poked fun of in the sixties, from suburban life to the generation gap, office life, dating, psychiatry, fashions. According Wikipedia, Berg's pages were the most popular feature, and most anyone who read the mag knows why. I remember one cartoon where the parents are upstairs and the children in the basement are making noise so the dad screams down with an angry, exaggerated expression, "Will you keep it quiet down there!!!??" The next panel is teens in the basement, all necking, lounged over chairs, etc. The same dad (it is a couple years later) is screaming down the same stairs, "Will you make some noise down there!!??"

Don Martin's cartoons were original and hilarious, too. He made big lumpy characters with large chins or goofy faces, swollen noses in a very trademarked in style. He used to write out the sounds of things in big letters, like FWEEET, or PLA-FLOOOEY, imitating the sound a rush of air would make or a drill sound, etc. A memorable one comes to mind of a scene in a dentist's office.

Other regular features of the mag included "Scenes We'd Like to See", "A Day in the Life of..." and "You Know You're Really _____ When..." which might be, "You Know You're Really in Trouble When..." or "Skinny When..." ... And the recurring song parodies in which they change the words and say, "to the tune of..." Which I do to this day. Susie and I, for example, have a song about our first dog Sterling, to the tune of Simon & Garfunkel's Most Peculiar Man. "She was a most.... peculiar dog."

Mad was famous for inserts, too. Once they had fake book covers made so you could pretend you were reading famous "adult" books like Norman Mailer or Henry Miller. I put The Tropic of Cancer on one of my paperbacks and shocked my mother when I was about ten. I can imagine a lot of parents got similar shocks, to the amusement of their young children. Another time they had a vinyl record called "It's a Gas!" which was funky jazz interspersed with burping sounds. We laughed at the burping, not realizing that the double pun was that a burp is gas.

Of course the centerpiece of the mag was it's mascot, Alfred E. Neuman. Every cover featured our "What, me worry?" hero. And being a freckle faced kid myself, and a Newman, you might suspect that more than a few times over the years I have been teased by this dubious connection.

If you like, share your own favorite Mad memory in the comments... or send me a note I can post. Or if you prefer, one I cannot.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Ethics and Advertising

So, here’s the question. Is there something inherently unethical about advertising? If not, then why do people hate it so much?

Maybe it’s because of the manner in which advertising has evolved. Capitalism is, to a large extent, interconnected to advertising. When we want to buy a pair of shoes, it helps to know where they can be purchased. And when we want to sell a pair of shoes, we certainly want people to know where they can buy ‘em. However, when I am not interested in buying shoes, and I am very interested in watching a show, sporting event or whatever on television, I strongly dislike being interrupted from what I want to do in order to hear some guy shouting at me regarding how cool his shoes are.

Perhaps this is one reason why early Internet philosophers were so intent upon keeping commercial activities off cyberspace. They failed, of course. Like the wild west in days of yore, there were explorers (now called “early adopters”) and misfits who just wanted to get away from excessive regulations and laws and the commercialism of life “back east” and be free to be. Eventually the land had to be properly titled, surveyed and deeded and turned into “property” so it could be taxed in order to pay for lawmen and judges and systems to keep people "safe" from the bad guys in order for provisions to arrive safely. And then goods were regulated so they, too, could be taxed. And so on... for the sake of safety and security.

The Internet could not remain “free” forever. That seems a given. Like real geography, cyberspace has virtual real estate, cybersquatters, and increasing regulation. And it is populated by people who recognize new opportunities. Like 49er gold seekers and pickaxe manufacturers who scrambled to San Fran during the gold rush, prospectors have been busy exploring these new online territories and sifting data to find the real opportunities here.

It didn’t take long for eCommerce to gain a foothold. The efficiencies inherent in owning “stores” not made of bricks and mortar made it possible to sell goods and services at reduced rates. Manufacturers could by-pass middlemen in the distribution chain and hold on to a portion of their margins. Consumers would appreciate the savings that were passed on as well.

And so advertising made fast inroads in the new frontier. Web businesses couldn’t just rely on luck to draw customers. Systems had to be developed. But we’re off topic here and I need to veer back toward the initial theme.

There are a number of issues surrounding advertising today, two I will mention here. The first is the preponderance of interruptive advertising. The second is the whole debate surrounding branding.

I completely understand the annoyance produced by interruptive styles of advertising. I’m enjoying a quiet evening at home, then the phone rings and some jerk is trying to sell me something I neither want nor need. In the end, over the objections of the Direct Marketing Association, the government created a “Do Not Call” list which forbids this kind of intrusiveness.

Television advertising is similar. I don’t want it, but unlike the phone, you understand that the shows exist as a vehicle to promote products. You "accept" this unwritten compact by turning on the TV. It's an agreement to accept a certain amount of interference. At some point, you may stop watching when the advertising takes forty minutes of the hour long show.

Brand images are less intrusive, and I am not entirely sure why they have become so controversial. You watch a sports event and see logos galore. Why? Because if the racers did not have sponsors, where would they be? Certainly not out there doing high tech adrenaline stomping metal shredding in cars, snowmobiles, motorcycles or trucks. Sponsors support racers, and the racing organizations that host, manage, promote events.

Online banner ads are similar. To create good content, many websites need to pay their staff, since the people making content have housing and food costs in the real world. So web forums and other sites turn a portion of their web content into real estate they can rent out to the highest bidder. The rent rises where there are lots of eyeballs, which means the web developers need to make sure the content is vital, relevant and "alive" enough to keep folks coming back.
Now would someone explain why brand names on clothes are so awful in high schools? There are schools banning brands. I do not recall being corrupted by seeing the word Levis on a pair of jeans when I was in school. Baseball hats had insignias. What’s up with this trend?

And then there’s the whole issue of highway billboards. I sort of like it when I am travelling and I see that there is a Crackle Barrel at the next exit. (disclaimer: unpaid endorsement) The food’s good, the atmosphere wholesome. Same goes for motels. I like knowing that somewhere down the road is a place we can call home for the night. Billboards serve a useful purpose, as far as I’m concerned. Why do people hate them so much?

I’m not arguing for signs unlimited. But the reality is, the signs are self-limiting because there’s a finite amount of businesses that will benefit from paying monthly rent for that billboard space. There are also jobs created by customers using services they were not aware of till they saw the signs.

If I sound like an ad man… well, that’s because I am. Isn’t it nice to know how far it is till the next rest stop or truck stop or restaurant?

Another ethical facet of advertising pertains to the matter of truth. That, however, is a discussion we’ll have to save for another day.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Royal Buckingham Guard

It's Short Story Monday and time for something a little different. I won't pretend this is a great story, but I had fun with the idea. I hope that's how my readers will take it. And if you ever go to England, be sure to see the changing of the guards.

A Royal Buckingham Guard

One of the more fascinating aspects of travelling abroad is meeting the people who live there, whether it be enjoying a few moments in a quaint chat or sharing an evening's intrigue. Sometimes, if Fate permits, we may even be entitled -- by means of a glimpse -- to gain an insight into one or another of life's great mysteries. One such insight was afforded me on my last visit to England.

It was typical English weather for late September. I had found myself a free evening without company. (My business takes me to England on the average of once a year.) As I walked the streets near my hotel, I became attached to the idea that if I were lucky I could find a pub. The idea of being stuck with no one to talk to for four hours had little appeal this night and, sure enough, I'd no sooner turned the bend when I came upon The Bull Dog, a tavern at the corner of Devonshire and Greene.

Upon entering, I was greeted by a poker-faced elderly gentleman who walked with the most precise and erect carriage. "G'devening, sire."

"Uh, yes, if you wish."

"Might I offer the fine gentleman a seat. Join me. Please. Are you a writer?"

"A writer? Beg your pardon. Why, yes, but how did you know?"

"I've been waiting for a writer. Expecting you. I hope you are THE writer."

"Well, it could be a mistake, I suppose."

He made no reply and I sat awkwardly wondering what to say. At last he ordered each of us a stein of Guinness and paid for it, but offered no explanation of why he was seeking a writer. In fact, he offered no small talk at all, or little more than an occasional grunting assent.

"Miserable weather," I said.

"Un-hmm."

"Quite a chill wind there."

"Uh-hmm."

"Good thing I found somewhere to get out of the cold."

"Un-hm."

His eyes conveyed the desire to find someone else to label as his writer but it was quite useless. It had evidently been foreordained, neither his wishes nor mine withstanding. At last he extended his hand to me and grudgingly presented his name. "Jack Moore."

"Pleased to meet you. Ed Nichols," I said, taking the hand and giving it a firm shake.

We sipped from our steins and proceeded to study one another. Halfway through my second beer the outside world had completely fallen away.

A fly suddenly made its appearance and -- though at the time I gave it no significance -- began tickling the knuckles of my right hand, first landing then departing, repeating this ritual until I had at last taken full notice and made a swift grab for him with my left. My companion had not blinked an eye, observing as he was my strange effort at capture. The fly landed now on the table and with extreme patience I had cupped my hands closer and closer about him.

"Don't kill that fly!" Moore cried out.

"What?"

"He's trying to tell you something."

"Please?"

"Did you see how he landed on your right hand? You are right handed, correct?"

"So?"

"He's telling you to write. Take up your pen. It's time."

"Maybe he's telling me to shoot you."

"You jest. You have a gun?"

"Not with me."

"Then stop playing this game of yours and let's get down to business then."

"How many of these have you had before I got here?" I said, pointing at the Guinness.

"None," he replied. "I had just arrived for my seven o'clock meeting with a writer who will tell my story."

"And what story is that?"

He lowered his voice. "I used to be a Royal Buckingham Guard. It is the Secret of the Guards I wish to tell. I'm telling you so you will write it." At this he leaned very far forward over the table and spoke barely above a whisper. "You must understand that it will sound quite bizarre for you at first. Especially if you've never heard things like this. But there are some people who know what's really happening, and it is for these few that I write, for the time has come to speak. You have been brought here by Providence to write and this story must be told."

I've long since learned that sincerity should not be confused with truth. A belligerent, convinced the earth is flat, is not likely to speak falteringly of his conviction. It must have been at this point that I pondered making a request for his credentials. I let the matter slide, choosing simply to hear the man out.

Jack Moore leaned hard against the back of his booth bench, face jutting forward so that the line of his neck formed nearly a right angle to his torso, eyes blazing with an urgency and vehemence that is uncommon among what I call "normal" people. What he told me, what I am about to tell, you will likely dismiss as outright silliness. But you have no idea what kind of impact it had on me, and the state of mind it left me in. Yes, a state of mind! It about drove me crazy to think of it. I mean... You will understand when I have set forth his proposition.

As I have already mentioned, his name was Jack Moore. Good English name. And a Buckingham Guard. The truth which he wished to convince me of was that England was ruled by the Devil.

I did not think that such a statement was even debateable. I mean, the Holy Book teaches us about as much when it compares the empires of this world to Babylon, and all the other statements about the State in opposition to the People of God.

Yet even so, we do not really live with this conviction. We are pleased to see Billy Graham at President's Clinton's inauguration. We imagine that there are both good monarchs and bad in England as well as all other civilized Christian states. We spend little time dwelling on this, and modestly accept it. People are basically good, even kings sometimes.

Jack Moore did not agree. "Let me tell you how a Guard learns discipline," said he. "It's the flies. We are trained by the flies!"

"Get a grip, man," I wanted to say.

People at the next table turned and stared at us, one bloke in mid-chew. Moore was focused only on getting his story heard, explainging how each new guard undergoes rigorous training, so as not to flinch a muscle, narry even a blink if it be possible, while on duty. Duty! This duty not to the monarch, but to the one who is above even the monarch, the Lord of the Flies.

To Be Continued
Picture with doiley look at left created by Down Home Creations

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Roadmap to Lifelong Recovery: Interview with John Prin

Yesterday I met with long time friend and author John Prin to talk about books, writing, life and his newly released The Roadmap to Lifelong Recovery: Tested Strategies to Overcome Addiction and Avoid Relapse.

John and his wife Susie are residents of Edina, Minnesota, where John went to high school. I met John in a writer’s group in 1982 or '83. When I first became serious about my own writing career, John helped me learn the ropes, served as somewhat of a mentor and a friend. John is founder of True You Recovery, a business devoted to helping people overcome addictions. He and his twin brother Dave also teach courses on happiness.

Their father was a popular 1950’s Twin Cities musician who hosted or performed on several Minneapolis TV shows on WCCO including the very popular Uncle Toby’s Talent Hour, a 90 minute Saturday morning variety show. The show featured 4th graders to high school students in a format that was a cross between Ed Sullivan and Art Linkletter’s kids program.

Our interview took place at Hinckley’s Grand Casino, a midpoint between the Twin Cities where John resides, and my place here outside Duluth. The time flew fast, as it always does when friends reunite. Here below I’ve transcribed the formal part of our discussion.

enny: How old were you when people first noticed you had an aptitude for writing?
JP: I would say a senior in high school. I had the most amazing lit teacher… Everett Anderson… he drew it out of me like water. Robin Williams type of teacher (Dead Poets Society) Every day a circus… everybody had to stand up and recite…. Chaucer, Shakespeare, a sonnet…. A fantastic teacher. I think it was many years later when people recognized I had a talent…. Mid-forties … Started to publish essays and short articles, personal articles of which I have published ten or twenty.

enny: Who or what was the biggest influence in pushing you into a writing career?
JP: Ev Anderson, unquestionably. Some of the really good movies of the day… I would think, “Who writes this stuff?” I wish I could say it was one great novelist but it wasn’t.

enny: How did you become interested in addiction counselling?
JP: Of course I was addicted myself. I drank for thirty years, and for the last fifteen years I drank I was addicted and I had to hide it. I came to a spiritual crisis in my life where I would have to die with it or live without it. It was not blocking God’s love toward me, but was blocking my openness to God. Without AA I couldn’t stop on my own. The first word in AA is WE. Went from I-solated drinker to the community of people who have found sobriety. In finding sobriety through AA, which happened immediately, my openness to God and all that came with it occurred. Gratitude, fulfillment, growth, satisfaction… so I know I am finally on the path I am supposed to be on in my life.

As a professional I had been sober for two years and a friend asked about going into counseling, … and got the message that this is for me, and within a month I was enrolled in professional training to become an addiction counselling.

enny: Your first two books were Stolen Hours and Secret Keeping: Overcoming Hidden Habits and Addictions. Which was the hardest to write and why?
JP: I would say my second book, Secret Keeping. Does writing one book help you write the next? Only slightly. Each book is different. The hard work was taking Secret Keeping, book two, and doing all the research concerned. I read over 1000 articles on secret keeping, power differentials, etc. scientific literature… synthesis of many points of view from philosophy to science to psychology to spirituality…. It was a much more complex tapestry.

enny: Any advice you would give to others who decide to leave their job to pursue their passion?
JP: Write the book first and get to the final page before you quit your job. Getting the book written and re-written and edited is only half the work. Getting people to read it is the other half of the work. Getting people to sit down and read it, or make them aware it is there… You have to be involved in both parts. So for most of us it's two jobs… one 9-5 job to make money to pay the bills and then the second job as a writer.

Also, you have to find the format that really works for you. I worked too many years in the screen play format that was not conducive to my kind of writing. For me what works best is an inner narrative style.

enny: To whom or what do you attribute your intense, above average ambition?
JP: First, I agree with you that I am above average when it comes to ambition. The first influence was my father, indirectly. Seeing his influence on peoples’ lives as an entertainer blew my mind. We couldn’t go anywhere in Minneapolis without people coming up to him and saying “Oh I loved when you played that song” or things like that. I saw early on the impact he made on the masses.

Then, I had four near death, out of body experiences by the time I was 24. When you have these out of body experiences, three in water - lakes or the ocean - one was a car accident... None of these were planned; all completely unanticipated. You realize you’re alive for a reason. These were spiritual experiences. The first thing you know is that you are not your body. You are way more than your body. When it happens four times in the space of fifteen years, there’s a reason you’re back. It’s a big reason.

So the question is, "What is the reason?" I floundered. It’s trial and error. You have to discover it. I went through a process, very challenging… up through my forties, perhaps into my fifties. First, I thought a great novel. Then a great movie script. And then it came to me, to write the story of my life, and understand the issues there inside me. Self pity, depression, despair… How I came to experience a personal Christianity, sobriety and integrity. I don’t have to lie any more or where the mask any more.

(My life goal today is) to make the largest contribution possible to the most people to help their lives become the most they can be.

enny: You went to Hollywood for ten years when you were young and tried to make it as a screen writer. Do you still have a desire to make films? What would be your first?
JP: Yes and no. The no part is, I do not want to be the director. I would want only to be indirectly involved. One reason is the Hollywood mindset which is contaminated and corrupt.
There are some film projects (I've developed) which would be of help to a mass audience. I still believe Cora’s Rhapsody would be such a project. It's an epic struggle and triumph of the human spirit….

The one question I ask people: If you were to wake up tomorrow morning and when you opened your eyes you had ten billion dollars, what would you do for the rest of your life? If I had that, I would do Cora’s Rhapsody and some other projects. A collaborative effort with talented people… and write my novel.

enny: Isn’t some secret keeping healthy when kids are developing? How would you differentiate between healthy secrets and toxic secrets?
JP: First of all, keeping a secret is essential to becoming a human being. I have to be able to keep information to myself to protect others, or I am not a human being.

What makes a secret toxic is when you have to do it in the darkness, sneak away, to relieve something that is unresolvable.

There is at least one person here in this casino, for example, who is here hoping not to run into anyone they know, who hopes no one will see them… There is a behavioral aspect to a toxic secret that you conceal… There’s an element of criminal thinking in toxic secrets. And as soon as you act on toxic secrets you are acting against who you were meant to be, against life itself.

enny: Your third and latest book is called Roadmap to Lifelong Recovery. What was the impetus behind this book and how does it differ from the others?
JP: People can get sober from gambling, alcoholism, drugs, but staying sober is the true challenge. Almost anyone can go on a diet for sixty or ninety days and lose a lot of pounds, but can they maintain a lifestyle where they are disciplined?

enny: I notice that the diagram on the cover is a map of the U.S. and the road map goes from the West Coast to the East Coast. Was this deliberate? Or just something that happened?
JP: It’s only because we read from left to right. The concept is not because we go from the west to the east… Life is a journey with deadends, detours or ditches. The more we avoid deadends, detours and ditches, the less likely we will relapse.

Why do people with diabetes relapse? They don’t follow directions. They know what they have to do. It’s a journey that takes time… you have to determine where you want to go. The southern route, middle route, northern route… You have to plan, map out your roadmap.

John Prin and his brother Dave have been teaching courses on happiness.

JP: I’ve been sober 12 and a half years. The one thing I have learned most is to accept the present moment for being what it is. When I do not, I end up in a negative state that I have put myself in. That puts me at odds with the moment and others. That’s where stress comes from. That’s where anger comes from.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

And In Local News...

Stepping away from the international scene for a bit, here are headlines from our local newspaper, the Duluth News Tribune, for Saturday, November 22.

Headline is "My House For Yours; Let's Make A Deal"... about a young family looking for a larger home in an unconventional manner. Evidently the fellow has an instinct for PR because he got a major amount of space on the front page of today's paper. The other story above the crease, one column wide on the right side, is a continuation of the robbery coverage that has been taking place. On seven occasions now, college kids who have been out drinking have been held up at gun point or knife point on their way home. This story is titled "Robbery victims tell of shocking walk home." Kids, this town is not as safe as it used to be.

Sunrise was scheduled for 7:22 a.m.. It's a little cloudy so we did not see it happen. Sunset is scheduled for the early afternoon hour of 4:27. High of 28 is good for snocross fans waiting for the AMSOIL Duluth Nationals next weekend at Spirit Mountain. They've been making snow for ten days in the event that the real stuff fails to arrive. Low tonight will be 22.

In other local news, writer Ed Newman has a busy day scheduled. In a few minutes he will be driving to Hinckley to interview John Prin, an Edina addiction counsellor whose third book, The Roadmap to Lifelong Recovery, has just been published. It is a workbook format subtitled, "Tested Strategies to Overcome Addiction and Avoid Relapse." One premise in all Newsman Newman intends to blog the interview and share some of the insights from Prin's book here at Ennyman's Territory.

Tonight Newman will be performing - harmonica, percussions, vocals - with the Elliiot Brothers at Amazing Grace Bakery in the basement of the DeWitt Seitz Building in Canal Park. Silberman, artist and musician, is most noted for his annual Memorial Day production called Battle of the Jug Bands. It's "roots" music in its most basic form.

More on artist, entertainer Elliot Silberman (above right) another day. On washtub bass: Ted Gay (below right). Check 'em out at Amazing Grace, tonight, live... No cover charge. Best entertainment money can't buy.

But first, I better go put air in my tire, or I ain't goin' nowhere. Y'all have a good day, ya hear?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Last Night I Saw Pleiades

Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro' the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fireflies tangled in a silver braid.
- Alfred, Lord Tennyson


I have my grandparents to thank for the appreciation I have for the night sky, a living wonder that so many now take for granted. Back in the 50's they belonged to a chapter of the Sky and Telescope Society that made telescopes and studied the heavens above.

If we had to list our favorite wonders there, I have no doubt our lists would vary. Here are my favorite three things I can see with the naked eye. With a telescope I think the planets and their moons are the ultimate, especially the rings of Saturn. But I don't use the telescope much, and since I live on a country road with no light posts, I see a wonderful array of visuals when it's crisp and clear here up north.

Nevertheless, wherever I am, the three things I most quickly identify with are the constellations Orion, Cassiopeia and the Pleiades. The Pleadies are especially fun, if you please. You probably know Orion. It's the Hunter who appears in the fall and glides along the southern perimeter of the winter night sky. And Cassiopeia is the semi-large "W' that you see pretty much year 'round, usually to the northeast.

What I like about the Pleiades is their subtlety. They are not that easy to see, yet are always there, twinkling, glittering as it were, like a sparkling light show.

I used to think the Pleiades (plea-uh-deez) was a group of seven stars, but have since learned they are many.

They are evidently 440 light years from Earth. Though they appear to be a cluster of stars all dancing with one another, they are actually about seven light years apart from one another. And even though they are not very bright to us here, they are from forty to a thousand times brighter than our Sun, which means from there we are pretty much non-existent.

You may recognize the names of these original seven sisters: Alcyone, Atlas, Electra, Maia, Merope, Taygeta and Pleione. All are visible to the keen naked eye. But there's much more there than meets the eye.

I dreamed I saw the Pleiades alive as you or me...
alive with incandescent light
searching for infinity,
flick'ring soft in the dark winter night
in glorious tranquility.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Crisis: Zimbabwe Cholera Epidemic

"We stand, as it were, on the shore, and see multitudes of our fellow beings struggling in the water, stretching forth their arms, sinking, drowning, and we are powerless to assist them." ~ Felix Adler

One of the recurring themes on this blog has been the hunger, disease and destitution which has become the lot of so many in today’s crowded, complex world. The reasons I cite these situations are many, but chiefly (a) a strong desire for fellow Americans to keep things in perspective. We are fortunate in unimaginable ways that we often take for granted. Let’s not. And (b) when we have the means that we contribute toward solutions rather than remain ignorant or indifferent.

The Zimbabwe cholera epidemic is a frightening reality which ought not be part of our modern times. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil involves characters that become immersed in a cholera outbreak nearly a century ago. The film adaptation, starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton, is a movie based on a fictional novel. We somehow do not want this to be real life, and in point of fact divorce ourselves somewhat from the realities by seeing them re-enacted on the silver screen.

Unfortunately, the tragic realities in Zimbabwe are not a fiction, are quite devastating and appear to be out of control. While it is true that eighty percent of all disease in the world is caused by unsafe drinking water, no one anticipated the current state of affairs in Zimbabwe as doctors have abandoned hope due to a breakdown in the country’s infrastructure.

A simple Google search uncovers news accounts on this epidemic from all parts of the globe. Meanwhile, our local papers speak only of the hunger, lack of drinking water, and illegal poaching. Starvation is rampant, as is disease. But in our papers here in Minnesota there is no mention of the spreading cholera crisis.

Many years ago I learned a little about this awful disease which causes extreme diarrhea and dehydration to such an extent that death is almost certain within days. The “rice water stools” gave me the creeps when I learned about this symptom of the disease. I also recall reading that Tschaikovsky was so depressed after the poor reception of his Sixth Symphony (one of my favorites) that he deliberately drank cholera-contaminated water to end his life, which did indeed occur three days later.

No one in Zimbabwe is choosing cholera. It’s a horrible way to die.

A China news report reads: More people die in cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe

And another story declares, Cholera threatens 1.4 million people in Zimbabwe: MSF

A Canadian news report by Kelly MacParland puts a more cynical spin on it...

Robert Mugabe's latest gift to Zimbabwe: An outbreak of cholera
Robert Mugabe’s latest gift to the long-suffering people of Zimbabwe is an outbreak of cholera that has killed dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of victims.

Reports from Zimbabwe indicate the outbreak began weeks ago and has spread quickly through rural areas and shantytowns to reach Harare, the capital. After initially trying to smother news of the situation, Mr. Mugabe’s government has been forced to acknowledge the situation, while continuing to try to minimize the casualties.

Don't know how far this goes, or how it will end. I only know we have much to be grateful for and let's not take it for granted.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Next

“We all live every day in virtual environments, defined by our ideas.” ~ Michael Crichton

In case you've not heard, Michael Crichton passed away this month after a private battle with cancer. Born in 1942 he was only 66. As a writer, he accomplished a lot in his relatively short (these days) career. His fame and fortune enabled him to write about whatever he became interested in.

I remember in high school being impressed by his first novel Andromeda Strain. My grandmother, a sci fi buff, loaned it to me and I gobbled it up. I had no idea he was such a young man (27), or that this was his first book. The Hollywood flick based on the film struck a nerve with viewers, and was dramatic enough to probably pave Crichton's path to producers unto perpetuity.

West World, The Great Train Robbery, Jurassic Park and Twister all became household names and showed that he knew how to touch the masses with an idea. He also showed that he liked the research part of the game as much as the writing. The books became an excuse to delve into whatever subject he was curious about.

When the Internet came along, he predicted in a speech at the National Press Club that network television was a dinosaur that the new information highway would bring to its knees within ten years. The time line was off, but for sure all the mainstream media sources have seen an erosion of power and one wonders what the future really holds when Time magazine has to lay off 600 and city newspapers are being forced to slice payrolls.

His last book, which I am reading now, is called Next. It deals with bioengineering and genetic research. I have never seen a Crichton book with so many bad reviews on Amazon. One reviewer called it the worst book ever. "Wait for it at the dollar store." I've been getting into it, though. Like most of his books, he brings up issues that make for interesting mental fodder. Maybe it doesn't matter to me that much if it's not a great book. They will still probably make a movie based on it.

I especially liked the opening disclaimer. "Everything in this book is fiction, except the parts that are not."

One idea in the book that was discussed briefly was the notion that science has changed. It used to be that scientists defended their work based on good science, repeatable tests, etc. Today, many ideas are defended not by science but by consensus within the scientific community. “Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you're being had,” he writes.

I think here especially of the global warming debate, the theme in his 2004 bestseller State of Fear. I was recently reading predictions about the weather in the year 2100, which strikes me as strange because fifty percent of the time the weather forecast for the coming weekend is wrong. But that's a whole 'nuther topic...

Mr. Crichton, congratulations for having been able to live your dream as a writer. We've appreciated and enjoyed the fruit of your labors. Thank you for giving us so much to think about.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Of Conflict and Poverty

Could we still fight for peace if our army did not exist?

I woke with that thought today. It was from the dream I was having, which evaporated without a trace while the thought lingered.

Will we ever have peace in this lifetime? Like poverty, the underlying forces (or is it over girding structures?) creating conflict are neglected.

The irony is that instead of working for peace, many just accept conflict as a given so why fight it? This is essentially a fatalistic acceptance of Necessity as a final value. That is, what is is, and we must resign ourselves to it.

But when we turn to hunger and poverty, do we just accept it as a given? Is Necessity right? Jesus said "the poor you will always have with you" so do we just let it be?

According to Simon Scharma, that is exactly what the British did on two significant occasions. During the Irish potato famine, there were some in the government who argued that the government should not intervene, that when God had accomplished His will He would bring an end to the famine. A few decaders later the identical argument was used to remain at arm's length during mass starvation in colonial India.

What madness.

One of the influential writers in my personal life from the century now past was Jacques Ellul, a French lawyer, pastor and author of more than forty books. Ellul had studied Marx before his conversion to Christianity. He had seen his father imprisoned and die at the hands of the Nazis. He experienced first hand injustice and saw much that we in America only read about in World War II France. His own strongest personal influences were Luther, Kierkegaard and Karl Barth, whose dialectical approach led him to abandon Calvinism.

Here are a two passages from an essay called A Synopsis and Analysis of the Thought and Writing of Jacques Ellul by James Fowler. The first paragraph is a direct quote from Ellul regarding being in the world but not of it. Ellul's influence in my personal views has been immeasurable.

"The Bible tells us that the Christian is in the world, and that there he must remain. The Christian has not been created in order to separate himself from, or live aloof from the world. ...if the Christian is necessarily in the world, he is not of it. This means that his thought, his life, and his heart are not controlled by the world, and do not depend upon the world, for they belong to another Master. Thus, since he belongs to another Master, the Christian has been sent into this world by this Master, and his communion with his Master remains unbroken, in spite of the 'world' in which he has to live."...the Christian finds that he is not confronted by the material forces of the world but by its spiritual reality. Because he is in communion with Jesus Christ he has to fight not against flesh and blood but against 'the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness.' At the same time this communion assures him that he does not belong to the world, that he is free from the fatality of the world which is moving towards death, and, as a result of this liberation by grace, he can fight against the spiritual realities of the world."

A little further along Fowler writes:

Ellul's thesis is that the natural man is incapable of seeing the spiritual reality in which he is struggling (cf. I Cor. 2;14). He only sees the surface issues of social, political and economic problems, and he attempts to work and find solutions with the methods of technique, and in accord with moral standards. The world of modern society is not capable of preserving itself or of finding remedies for its spiritual situation. The more so-called "progress" man makes, the more he is aware of the inadequacy of human solutions, which all fail, one after another, and only increase the difficulties in which he lives.

For the complete essay, a great introduction to this perceptive man, check it out here. Today, what are you doing to make a difference?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Short Story Monday: The Nose

"The fear that I may start screaming... the fear that I might betray myself and tell everything I dread, and the fear that I might not be able to say anything, because everything is unsayable..." ~~R. M. Rilke

The Nose

The sizzling energy in the crammed little bar began to unsettle him. He wondered why he ever said he would meet his friends here.

Still worse, they were late and Ted's brain started running on the hyperactive groove that, once out of control, left him terrified and unsettled.

But Ted Krueger had a mind game he played to help him gain control of himself in these situations. He’d focus on an object, enabling his thoughts -- which at this point were so numerous and random that he felt overwhelmed by them -- to narrow their scope. In this way he was able to harness them and feel he had some measure of control over himself.

He held the view that though feelings were nebulous and impossible to direct, with a great effort of will thoughts could be managed and coerced, and that one's feelings would eventually come into alignment with the thoughts that preceded, and stirred, one's emotions. His feelings of terror were often so immense that only a more immense distraction could deliver him from being tyranized by his fears. Hence the game.

This mind game would lead him into a place removed from himself, a mental space where epiphanies occurred. That is, the game produced profound illuminations at critical moments in his life, which he believed to be metaphysical insights, powerful and humbling. It filled him with a sense of awe and gratitude.

He knew that he’d created the game out of necessity as a means of holding on to reality, to keep from flipping. He took no credit for it. In fact, he knew that everyone played games of some kind or another to stave off boredom or reduce the intensity of disquieting anxieties, and that this was nothing more than his own way of keeping control. In this regard he was quite self-aware and not really so odd, or so he told himself.

May 6, 1994. A Friday night. His friends had wanted to hear a band at Mephistos, a small night club that recently opened near The Wharf. Too much was already happening in his head even before he entered the room. Ted carried an enormous amount of responsibility at the office and when he left that evening he carried it with him. There were unresolved personal conflicts as well. Mind overstimulated, he seated himself against the far wall, the only table available.

The band was on a break between sets. To calm himself he sought out an object for contemplation. His eye traced the the outlines of edges, spots of reflection on tables, a glint of glass, the flutter of a bow, radiation from the neon, loose change, a laughing mouth, five fingers, a shred of napkin.

At last his gaze fell upon a nose. It was, as he later recalled it, the plainest, most ordinary nose, with no distinctive features whatsoever. It was a universal nose, not belonging to the young woman who wore it, but representative of the archtype nose, of unknown origin, any nose. And at that precise moment it seemed as perfect an object for contemplation as any he had ever devised; uncarved, unassuming and indistinct (where does a nose end and the face begin?), yet specific and focal.

He took hold of it in his mind, plotting coordinates for this object that he might track its movements through space and time. Sixteen inches from the tabletop, 46 inches from the floor. Six feet from the window. Moving back and forth two or three times in a slow arc, dipping downward and then swinging back up into a fixed jutting motif, the nose began to take on a life, to become an entity. And this pleased him, for he knew the game he played with himself, and it required a certain mental dexterity to create an object of contemplation toward which he could remain indifferent.

So he studied the nose, contemplated it generously, and reflected upon the whole meaning of noses.

He thought about noses in general, how they come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes, though for the most part human noses have a set of common characteristics. Chief of these are the two holes which enable humans to breathe and to smell, the raison de tete for the nose's existence.

He thought, however, that a hole in the center of the face could serve this function just as well, and he wondered if the primary reason for a nose's existence was not its utility but rather its aesthetic quality. One need only glance at a naked skull to see the hideous condition noselessness evokes.

Noses are deceptive, too, he reasoned. They appear substantial. But this, he conceded, is illusory. The solid bridge is a cartiledge that passes itself off as bone, is in fact no bone at all.

He recalled to mind the history of his own nose. How strange to think that at a certain point in time there was nothing there at all, and then, a tiny pinch of tissue which emerged to become the mutton of flesh that was distinctively his the rest of his days. How tiny it had been the day he was born!

He thought of the nosebleeds of his youth, the difficulties he endured as a compulsive nose picker, blistering sunburns, sniffles, sneezes, congested nasal passages, irritating nosehairs.

All the while his vision remained unwaveringly fixed on the nose across the room.

For all intents, he reasoned that if the universe were infinite, that is, if space extended infinitely in all directions from any point in space, this nose could as easily be considered the center of the universe as any other point.

He thought about the immensity of space, and was captured by the immensity of his thought, which seemed to orbit about this very present truth, as did the fly which now seemed to hover momentarily before the woman's face.

She swept her hand through the air, but missed it.

He had forgotten his friends now. He had also forgotten his terror, had successfully calmed his soul. Though the band had reconvened, he no longer heard the music. His vision remained focused, undistracted by the movement, the shadows of bodies rising, sliding, staggering, sauntering, gliding between the tables, moving about the room which had itself become a swirl of shadow.

From a deep part of him there emerged an anticipation. Here, this very night, he would experience a new sensation, something unique. The notion came from deep within while he watched the drama of the fly. For the fly had returned and hovered briefly again before alighting, and at the instant of contact....

It was the last thing he remembered. Awakening in the emergency room at Somerset Memorial Hospital, he heard voices, saw only light and experienced extreme anguish in the region of his face.

"What a mess. How did it happen?"

"Some guy flattened his face."

"Prepare an operating room."

"The cartilege has been shattered and pushed up inside his skull."

"He's coming to."

"He's lucky."

"He has no idea."

"What'd he get hit with? Looks like a flatiron."

"God, he's a lucky bastard."

"He had it coming they said."

"Nobody has this coming."

"He was staring at some guy's wife."

"Poor kid."

"Can you hear me, Ted? Ted? We're going to have to operate. If you can hear me nod, all right? Ted? Can you count backwards from one hundred. I'm going to count and you count, too. One hundred, ninety-nine, ninety eight..."

As he drifted off under the ether he recalled from somewhere fragments of a poem. "For there is a boundary to looking.... Now the work of the eyes is done." Then he began to dream.
________________________________________
copyright 1996 ed newman
PERMISSION TO REPRINT GRANTED if attribution is cited.
Could you send me a note telling where you shared it?

Numbers Games

Every picture tells a story. So do numbers. Here’s another page of numbers that speaks volumes.

In answer to the question, “How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what’s right – just about always, most of the time, or only some of the time?”
In 1958: 76% said “just about always” or “most of the time”
In 1970: 50%
In 1976: 33%

Number of buildings the Pentagon owns or rents around the world, 2008: 316,238
Number of sites where these building are located: 4,668
Number of sites that are in foreign countries: 761
Number of sites located in foreign countries in 1967: 1,014

Percentage of persons classified as poor in U.S. who have air conditioning: 85%
Percentage who had air conditioning in 1971: 36%

Percentage of persons classified as poor in U.S. who have a color TV set: 97%
Percentage in 1971: 40%

Percentage of U.S. poor who own an automatic dishwasher: 40%
In in 71: 20%

Percentage who own a refrigerator: Almost 100%
In 1970: 75%

Total Federal spending, 1968: $774 billion
Total Federal spending today: $2.5 trillion
Current Federal Wall Street/AIG bailout package: $700 billion

Number of persons in prison with drug crimes as most serious offense: 400,000
Number in 1980: 24,000

Number of persons worldwide who have died from starvation in the last hour: 2,738
Number in past hour who died from malaria: 342

Percentage of Haitian babies born with low birth weight: 25
Percentage of Haitians using adequate sanitation facilities: 30
Percentage of world illness caused by unsanitary drinking water: 80

Approximate number of deaths caused by 1998 civil war in Congo: 2.9 million

Number of live nuclear warheads in U.S. arsenal, 1966: 32,040
Estimated number of warheads in Pakistan today: 60-80

Number of synapses in human brain: 100 trillion

Number of web cams today: 100 million
Number of cell phones: 3.3 billion
Number of corporate email messages sent a day: 77 billion

Estimated number of times average person blinks in a day: 17,000
Estimated number of times average person laughs: Not enough

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Shooting An Elephant

“As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos – all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt.” ~ George Orwell

The past few weeks I’ve been reading Simon Schama’s A History of Britain, Volume 3: The Fate of Empire 1776 – 2000. It has been quite fascinating. To some extent our nation’s history is inextricably bound to that of Britain, from conception to destiny, much like a child reflects its parent. While unique, we are still offspring.

It was once said “the sun never sets on the British Empire.” Indeed, at one time the power of Britain ruled the high seas and its territories spanned the globe. How long ago this was.

Schama’s book is a three part epic. I’ve only tackled Volume 3. The breaking away of the New World to form first the Colonies, then these United States, is but the beginning. The moral challenges, the dark justifications of maintaining power over unwilling subjects, the internal erosion of confidence in its own national mandate… so many fragments of this story resonate with aspects of our own national experience.

Descartes did not trust history as a basis for truth because no historical situation is identical. This does not mean, however, that nothing can be gained from studying history.

George Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant” is not only first rate writing, it is a deeply moving account of the problems Britain had to wrestle with while controlling foreign territories with strangely different peoples and cultures. It is Orwell’s first job away from home, a police officer in Burma. The story describes an incident that occurs during that period abroad as a young man. More than just what happens, the young Eric Blair (Orwell was his chosen pen name) reveals the personal angst he experiences.

The essay begins thus: “In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.”

Essentially, there is an elephant that has broken loose and is causing trouble. The elephant’s owner, due to misinformation, is hours away and the damage has been escalating. Orwell, as a representative of the law, must deal with it.

“The Burmese sub-inspector and some Indian constables were waiting for me in the quarter where the elephant had been seen. It was a very poor quarter, a labyrinth of squalid bamboo huts, thatched with palmleaf, winding all over a steep hillside,” Orwell writes. Anyone who has seen Third World squalor can picture the scene. Orwell is a stranger in a strange land.

It turns out the elephant now has killed a man. It’s a hideous sight for the young officer. Worse, it starts to become inevitable that he will have to do something about it. The following crowd has been growing, and there is an escalating anticipation.

“But I did not want to shoot the elephant. I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have. It seemed to me that it would be murder to shoot him. At that age I was not squeamish about killing animals, but I had never shot an elephant and never wanted to. (Somehow it always seems worse to kill a large animal.)”

As Orwell reveals his deepest motivations, we understand that on the pedestal of world opinion, it is not always "right" and "wisdom" that is the driving force behind nations' behaviors. Too often, they simply don't want to play the fool.

“For at that moment, with the crowd watching me, I was not afraid in the ordinary sense, as I would have been if I had been alone. A white man mustn't be frightened in front of "natives"; and so, in general, he isn't frightened. The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill. And if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh. That would never do.”

These were the kinds of motivations that led to France invading Mexico during our American Civil War. And perhaps the real motivations behind the nations who engaged in that bitter, futile blood bath called World War I. Perhaps, to some extent, it was a driver for the Pentagon's escalation in Viet Nam? And what was that Somalia maneuver all about? And then, even if you win, what do we get? Orwell seems to be saying that you get forced into shooting elephants that you really don't want, or need, to shoot.

Friday, November 14, 2008

By What Measure?

"So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence." ~ Bertrand Russell

It's an interesting comment. On one level it reveals a value system that is common among many intellectuals. Intelligence has high value.

But in the Gospels, there are other values of importance. Being good, for example. Or being compassionate. Or being wise. There are so many educated fools that the very expression has become a byword.

I remember listening to a mean spirited diatribe by Andy Rooney against Mel Gibson and his film Passion of the Christ a few years back on Imus in the Morning. Rooney essentially dissed Gibson and the film because "the smartest man of the last century, Bertrand Russell" was an atheist.

So there you have it. A smart man's ideas are more valid than a holy man's. What do we do, then? Give everyone I.Q. tests to decide who gets to declare what we should all believe? It's nonsense. Newton was a smart man, and a Christian.

Sir Isaac Newton has been near universally ranked as the greatest mathematician of all time. Of Newton, Einstein said, "Nature to him was an open book, whose letters he could read without effort."

So?

This only proves that smarts does not bring us all into agreement. One difference between Newton and Russell, however, might be that Newton was quite humble about his smarts. Before his death he remarked, "I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me." I doubt either claimed to have perfect knowledge. And maybe Russell would have been embarrassed to have Andy Rooney put him on a pedastal like that.

There was a time when I thought being smart was the thing to be. I looked down on people who couldn't spell. Then, in college I met a guy who was valedictorian in his high school and lo, he was an atrocious speller. He wanted to co-write a play with me because I was an excellent speller and he felt I could communicate his message more effectively than he.

This threw a monkey wrench into my notion of smarts. And later when I learned he raped (at the time it was "heavy coercion") a friend of my girl friend, more head spins were occurring for me. Personal character has to be part of the equation.

By what measure, then, should we be measured? I can't recall anyone saying Mother Teresa, St.Francis of Assisi or Gandhi's significance had something to do with I.Q. Where did this strange measure come from?

There are other faulty measures of value, too. But it's getting late, and before too much fog settles in I'm going to pass on that.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A World Of Mental Pictures

“We see what our minds are trained to see.” ~ Journal Note, 1991

Most of what we know comes to us indirectly. We accept what we read in books, what we see on television and in the movies. We read newspapers and make assumptions about the veracity of what is called news. Astute readers may occasionally notice a little spin within the writing but we usually assume the reported facts have actually occurred.

Yesterday’s headlines included a story about a murder. A man stabbed a man outside a bar in Hermantown. We generally believe that in point of fact, the murder not only took place but occurred outside a bar and not across the street at the auto parts store. It was purportedly the first murder in Hermantown history. Most of us accept that as a matter of fact even without knowing the history of Hermantown.

Things are dicier when it comes to news broadcast from overseas. Walter Lippman, in his 1921 book Public Opinion analyzes in depth the problems associated with our pictures of reality. He begins with the story from Plato’s Republic of the men in the cave who can only see each others’ shadows but believe they are perceiving reality.

How do we understand what is really going on in the world if our minds have been filled with pictures that are interpretations, not realities? Lippman points out that our images of the world do not come from direct experience. As a consequence, our behavior is not derived from what we know but rather from what we are led to believe."The way in which the world is imagined determines at any particular moment what men will do," Lippman writes.

The book appeared shortly after World War I, and is peppered with examples of how the American public often had a distorted view of events at that time. Lippman’s book outlines “how opinions are crystallized into what is called Public Opinion, how a National Will, a Group Mind, a Social Purpose, or whatever you choose to call it, is formed.”

During the Viet Nam War, falsified skirmishes from the battlefield were sometimes leaked to the media in order to make it look like the Viet Cong were attacking a U.S. outpost. The news stories helped legislators in Washington D.C. win key votes to help escalate the war effort. Those votes were based on events that were non-existent.

We have an image inside our heads of our world & universe that’s more comprehensive than any generation in history… TV, magazine, Nova, Discovery, talk radio, the internet. Does all this flood of information make us wiser and smarter than any generation? Or are we now so overwhelmed that we’re even more easily manipulated?

Tomorrow night is our Philosophy Club and we just happen to be discussing Descartes. Descartes, as you may recall, was the one who presented us with that famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am.”

The point he was making is not that he exists because he is a thinking person. Rather, he was wrestling with this very same issue that we’re discussing here. What is true? What can I be sure of? What a reliable basis for behavior? I need a tool to help sort through all these sensory perceptions and miscellaneous anecdotal messages regarding what I should be. What do I know innately as opposed to what I have been told from outside myself?

We like to believe we have reliable pictures in our heads. Capitalism is good. Government needs to be handcuffed. Business people are good because they provide jobs. Unions are bad. Muslims are dangerous fanatics. Or maybe we have alternate pictures. The compartmentalization of everything into black and white is likewise a picture many people have. It resolves a lot of things, makes some choices less complicated.

But what is true? What is reliable?

My suggestion -- and it’s sort of the place Descartes ended up -- is to separate what you know to be certain from what is grey and uncertain. When we hear a new idea, we shouldn’t just swallow it whole without examining it. Put it on the shelf for a little bit and see how it stacks up or fits with everything else you’ve tested and accepted… or rejected.

Even the apostle Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament, did not demand that his hearers accept what he himself was saying. He commended those who checked things out first before acting on Paul’s teaching.

I have high regard for those who are able to hold new ideas with a loose grasp until they’ve fully investigated and verified them, if able. Sometimes it may even stay on that shelf till it gets cobwebs. Eventually, as the saying goes, the truth will out.

In the meantime, things aren't always what they seem.