Monday, July 31, 2023

The Taylor Swift Phenomenon: How Her Music and Image Have Impacted Pop Culture

No matter how much you dismiss pop culture, at some point one has to ask why this icon or that icon is so popular. While going through the checkout lines recently I couldn't help but notice the fan-mags dedicated to Taylor Swift as well as the mainstream mags striving to capitalize on her popularity. I understand the Beatles and Dylan being milked for more profits for their six decades-long fame, but Taylor Swift? I couldn't name a single song she's recorded even if I were put on the rack by the Spanish Inquisition.

Nevertheless, I found it valuable to investigate a little deeper and was impressed by this phenom who can pack stadiums and hold fans captive for three hour concerts and longer.

Click to enlarge.
Let's first review her achievements starting with her Guinness World Records. Taylor Swift is in the record books for selling the most albums by a female artist in the 21st century as well as the most number-one singles by a female artist in the US. 

That's a pretty eye-opening achievement right there. But here's more.

Swift has won 12 Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year for Fearless (2008), 1989 (2015), and Folklore (2020). She's the most awarded woman in Grammy history and the second most awarded artist overall. 

Like, wow. Like where have I been?

On top of this Swift has won 40 American Music Awards, the most of any artist in history. She has won in categories such as Artist of the Year, Favorite Female Artist – Pop/Rock, and Favorite Album – Pop/Rock.

OK, and what else?

Swift has also won 29 Billboard Music Awards, the most of any female artist. She has won in categories such as Top Artist, Top Female Artist, and Top Billboard 200 Album.

In addition to her awards and selling 200 million records worldwide, she has also been praised for her songwriting skills. She has been credited with revolutionizing the country music genre and bringing it to a wider audience. Her honesty and vulnerability in her lyrics have also contributed to her success.

To be frank, I've been somewhat out of touch with regards to Taylor Swift's career and her contributions to music and pop culture. What I do respect her for is her apparent stamina and character as demonstrated by more than two decades of being in the spotlight. There are countless others who have wilted under the heat of that focused beam.

So, why is Taylor Swift so popular? 

2023 Eras Tour (Creative Commons)
Her songwriting skills
: Swift is a gifted songwriter with a knack for writing relatable and catchy lyrics. Her songs often deal with themes of love, loss, and self-discovery, which resonate with her fans.

Her ability to connect with her fans: Swift is known for her close relationship with her fans. She often interacts with them on social media and at her concerts, and she makes them feel like they are part of her inner circle.

Her image: Swift has a carefully crafted image that is both relatable and aspirational. She is seen as a down-to-earth girl who is also successful and glamorous. This image has helped her to appeal to a wide range of fans.

Her longevity: Swift has been in the music industry for over 20 years, and she has consistently released successful albums and singles. It may not be the half century we find in Sixties' legacy artists (McCartney, Dylan) but it's a longevity that has played a role in building a loyal fan base that has only grown over time.

The rise of social media: This is possibly one of the biggest factors in her success. We live in a celebrity culture. With the megaphone of social media, stars and fans connect in new ways that give celebrity artists a reach unheard of before and, in Swift's case, helps her stay relevant in the ever-changing music industry.

Are you a Taylor Swift fan? How did it happen? Do you have a favorite album or song? Feel free to leave a comment.

Photo: Mostly Creative Commons

Sunday, July 30, 2023

The Decline of America's Culture Industries: The Struggle Between Bureaucracy and Creativity

While I was in Italy  this spring I was surprised to see the pervasiveness of Bob Dylan books, art and music. There was a Dylan Retrospectum (art) in Rome, and books about or by Dylan featured in every bookstore. I struck up a conversation with a craft beer brewer in Parma regarding this observation, and he noted that it's not just Bob Dylan that America has exported, but Pop Culture in general.

This notion of American pop culture as a product being exported led to my noticing an increasing amount of commentary about the widespread dissatisfaction with the products Hollywood has been feeding us over the past decade or more. Here are some thoughts generated by feeding a sentence into ChatGPT, regurgitated in essay form.

In recent years, America's culture industries have faced a formidable challenge, grappling with the effects of decay, monopolization, and increasing bureaucracy. As the pursuit of profit has intensified, creativity has become stifled, leading to a worrying decline in the quality and diversity of cultural productions. 

Let's examine the claim that America's culture industries have been transformed into anti-competitive, risk-averse monopolists, suffocating real creativity under the weight of mind-numbing and politically driven bureaucracy.

The rise of corporate giants within the culture industries (esp. Hollywood, literature, music) has undoubtedly fostered a monopolistic environment. Large media conglomerates have acquired numerous entertainment companies, consolidating their control over various creative outlets, from music and film to television and publishing. This monopolization has led to a lack of competition, as smaller players struggle to compete in an industry dominated by a select few. As a result, fresh and daring ideas are often sidelined in favor of formulaic, mass-appealing content that guarantees a return on investment.

Furthermore, the fear of taking risks has permeated the culture industries. Executives, driven by the pressure to maximize profits, tend to prefer established franchises and sequels, diminishing the opportunities for originality and innovative storytelling. This risk-averse approach stifles the potential for groundbreaking works of art and entertainment that push the boundaries of creativity.

To compound the problem, culture industries have become entangled in layers of bureaucracy. The quest for efficiency and streamlining often results in cumbersome approval processes and decision-making hierarchies that slow down productions and impede the free flow of ideas. 

The weight of bureaucracy also affects the individual creatives, subjecting them to creative restrictions and inhibiting their ability to express themselves fully. The prioritization of market research and focus groups over genuine artistic vision further exacerbates the problem, leading to a homogenization of content and an erosion of creativity.

Moreover, the rising politicization of the culture industries has added another layer of complexity. In an attempt to appeal to specific demographics or avoid controversy, creative decisions are sometimes shaped by political considerations rather than artistic merit. This approach may lead to watered-down narratives, sanitization of historical events, or the avoidance of sensitive issues, ultimately undermining the power of storytelling to address important societal challenges. 

In conclusion, the decay of America's culture industries can be attributed to a combination of anti-competitive monopolistic practices, risk aversion, and the burdensome bureaucracy they have imposed on their productions. Creativity, once the driving force behind cultural innovation, is now suffocating under the weight of profit-driven decision-making and politically motivated constraints. To revitalize the culture industries and foster an environment of genuine creativity, it is crucial to address these issues, encourage healthy competition, and prioritize artistic vision over short-term gains. Only then can American culture industries regain their vibrancy and contribute meaningfully to the enrichment of global artistic expression.

* * * 

Here's the prompt I used to produce the above brief essay:  "As America’s culture industries have decayed into anti-competitive, risk-averse monopolists, they have imposed layers upon layers of mind-numbing and increasingly politicised bureaucracy on their productions that make real creativity all but impossible." I pulled it from a much longer essay titled America's pop-culture armageddon by David Samuel at Unherd.

In short, the more that is at stake, the less people are willing to take risks. And because the giants control the channels of distribution, the most creative, outside-the-box original ideas never see the light of day.  

* * * 

Where things go from here is anyone's guess. What do you think?

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Oppenheimer: Random Thoughts Stimulated by This Explosive Film

Here are some thoughts I had this past week pertaining to the release of Oppenheimer, the film.

I once heard the following advice for public speakers: It's better to be ten minutes too short than two minutes too long. If you go too long, even by a little, that will be all that the listeners will remember.

I suspect that this is why many people brace themselves when they hear that a film they want to see is three hours in length. (I kept thinking of Gilligan's Island beforehand--"a three hour tour.") Fortunately, the film's frequently intense pacing and storytelling never gave me a boring moment.

The media was awash with pre-release hype surrounding the release of Barbie and Oppenheimer on the same weekend. I'm sure much of that hype was masterfully generated by Hollywood itself, since neither of these blockbusters was cheap to produce. Some of the excitement surrounding these films may have in part been due to the fact that we were being treated to original work and not sequels to previous "hits." 

I went with three older friends to see the film last Tuesday. All three made a negative comment about the volume/noise level interfering with some of the the dialogue. Two of them also noted they wanted to see it a second time when it comes out on DVD so they can read the captions. In short, like myself, they liked the film, found it powerful and despite the complexity of jumping back and forth in time, gave director Christopher Nolan high marks for this achievement.

It's a story with two threads. First is the manner in which the development of the atomic bomb came together. The second, woven throughout, is the deeper dive into Oppenheimer's private life and the post-war hearings that were conducted in an effort to destroy the credibility and legacy of a scientist who had become Time magazine's Man of the Year. In short, the film jumped back and forth between the investigation of 1953 and the years preceding and leading up to Los Alamos, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

Flashbacks are not an uncommon device in movies or novels. For those who do not have a strong background in literature or film, I can imagine that it may have been easy to get lost. Then again, none of the men I was with had that problem. The 8.7 rating on would indicate that most people who saw it this week were not fazed by it. Here'e a review excerpt that underscores the same point:

You'll have to have your wits about you and your brain fully switched on watching Oppenheimer as it could easily get away from a non-attentive viewer. This is intelligent filmmaking which shows its audience great respect. It fires dialogue packed with information at a relentless pace and jumps to very different times in Oppenheimer's life continuously through its 3 hour runtime.

The Communism Theme
(Spoiler Alert) The orchestrated character assassination of Oppenheimer the man took place during the McCarthy era. This context was clearly shown in the film. What has also been clearly shown in many other films is how extensively the Communist party had infiltrated the corridors of power in New York, Washington DC and Hollywood in the 30's.

What I almost never see in films is HOW this ideology became so popular or influential.  

For example, here in the Northland and Canada 10,000 Finns left America and migrated to the Soviet Union to be part of the mythological utopia that was being created there. Why? Because for ten years preceding WWII America's economy was a disaster. During the "Great Depression" unemployment was  as high as 25%. This was perceived as a failure of Capitalism. Marxist communism seemed to be the shining beacon of hope for a time. Communism's shortcomings would only be revealed later, but I think it useful to consider these things in the light of that broader decade of hardship.  (See my review of Mr. Jones.)

* * * 

There were a lot of great lines in the film.  Many of them were explosive statements made in passing. This one by Oppenheimer shows that he'd thought more deeply about the implications of the bomb than others. "They won't fear it until they understand it. And they won't understand it until they've used it. Theory will take you only so far."

Another message expressed in the film that stood out was this: Politics is an ugly business. Exercising great restraint, Nolan crafts a film in keeping with the storyteller's dictum "show, don't tell." 

If the frenetic pace of the film feels overwhelming at times, think of the pressure these scientists were under while racing against the clock to get it done.  

As for the acting: solid to exceptional across the board. There will be Oscar nominations and probably some winners as well. 

In short, it's a film worth seeing, and worth talking about afterwards with friends.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

Excitement Reigns! The Mummy's Curse™️ Board Game

This was originally published in August 2021. I am re-publishing it here because the game Frank Holmes and Jill Mackie created and fine-tuned is deserving of a wider audience. Board games are back. Hence, we are seeking a publisher.

While visiting fine artists Frank Holmes and Jill Mackie, I was introduced to a unique board game called The Mummy's Curse™️. It has all the elements you want in a game, including that undefinable "cool" factor. I mean, who hasn't been fascinated by the Sphinx,  Great Pyramid and mummies at one time in their lives?

Like all the best games, The Mummy's Curse is a family board game that has been designed to be easy enough for kids yet interesting enough for adults. As you can see in the photos here there's a Sphinx, a Pyramid, a Golden Mummy, and a Curse. 

The goal, if you want to play, is to break the Curse by stealing the Mummy from its Burial Chamber in the Pyramid, then getting back safely to the Start/Finish with it. To achieve this players must equip themselves with Supplies and Answer a Question from the Sphinx.

Whereas the game is an entirely new entity, it has some traditional elements, such as moving pieces around the outside rim as in Sorry or Monopoly. As in Monopoly, which has Community Chest and Chance cards, this game also has a number of cards as follows.

The Sphinx's Questions are on cards (all different) that each player receives. The answer to a Question is on two other cards that rhyme with each other and with the Question. (The Sphinx is very clever.) The cards are drawn as players roll a die and move around the outer path. Answering the Question is your primary objective.

It is equally important to gather Supplies, which you can do by landing on a Supply square and rolling a certain number. When a player has Answered the Question and gathered the necessary Supplies, the player gets to present him or herself to the Sphinx, receive Amulets and proceed to the Pyramid.

While all this is going on, Eye cards are being drawn as well. Eye cards are valuable and allow players to do many things. For example, the Freeze card allows you to stop another player for two turns. The "Go Where You Want" card lets you do just that. The "Wild Card" lets you move one to six spaces without rolling the die. And then there's the "Help Yourself" card, a nasty little maneuver that allows you to take an Answer card or Answer Rhyme from another player. Finally there's a "Supply Grant!" card, which will assist you in getting the Supplies you need the most. 

The first player to reach the Pyramid lifts it from its place and sets it on its side. Underneath is a chart which is now visible. The Chart shows which supplies are required to traverse a labyrinth-like network of paths to reach the Burial Chamber. (Who doesn't like labyrinths?) Once there, the two sarcophagi must be removed to expose the Golden Mummy. Whoever lifts the inner sarcophagi gets to take the Mummy, as well as the special Blue Amulet it rests on... and to head for the Start/Finish.

This last dash, however, is not so easy. Other players want it and may take it by landing on whoever has it. (Don't despair. You can get it back.) The Mummy can also be lost to the Curse if a certain number, established in the Burial Chamber, is rolled. Amulets, including the special one, offer protection but it's a treacherous time. The Mummy is almost certain to change hands in this final phase of the game. You may be assisted by Eye cards here, if you have held on to them. Oftentimes players who thought they were without hope come back and win. 

Created and perfected in Narrowsburg, New York
To quote Sir Winston Churchill here: "Never, never, never, never give up." 

* * * 

One of my earliest published articles, and the first for which I was paid, was titled Make a Game of It. My theme was that teaching can be fun when we use a little creativity to make a game of it. Over the years I created a number of games myself, and it was fun to see the intriguing project Frank Holmes and Jill Mackie had concocted as you can see here.

"We've played it hundreds of times," Jill said, the primary aim being continuous improvement. 

If you're a board game publisher, contact me at This is a game that's ready for prime time. 


Frank and Jill get the ball rolling. 1988.
Long ago in very ancient Egypt, there ruled a pharaoh who cared more for gold than anything else in the world. He put a terrible curse of greed on his people, from which they suffered greatly, fighting amongst themselves for wealth and power. When he died his mummified body was wrapped in bands of gold and buried deep within a massive pyramid--to be guarded forever by an all-knowing sphinx.

Now, many centuries later, the dreadful curse still emanates from the pharaoh's tomb and greed has enveloped the entire world--you may have noticed it yourself! The only way to end this plague of avarice is to find the golden mummy and to take it from its chamber of evil power, away from the pyramid to, according to legend, the very place the curse began.

So, players, an exciting and ennobling experience awaits you. Prepare well and honor the sphinx's demands, which will allow you to enter the pyramid. Your task is not an easy one and pitfalls await--any or all of you may succumb to the debilitating effects of greed. Whatever happens, remember your one and only goal is to break the curse!

Related Links

Veteran Painter Frank Holmes Discusses His Prix de Rome and Life as an Artist

"Paintings Now & Before: Figures, Flowers, Landscapes" and an Introduction to Jill Mackie

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Almost Wordless Wednesday: More Paintings by a Fave Modern Painter, Frank Baker Holmes

This week, Frank Holmes sent me pictures of some of his early paintings that I'd not previously seen. It seemed like a good day to share them.

Perhaps another day I will share the story behind Frank's piano series.
Here are a pair of links to acquaint you with the man and his work.


Monday, July 24, 2023

Crazy as a Loon

This is not a loon. It is a Canada goose
at the Walker Art Museum.*
I was recently wondering where the expression "crazy as a loon" came from. Here's what I found.

Loons are interesting waterfowl. I can't recall ever seeing one until I moved to Northern Minnesota. They have a distinctive call, and some unusual habits so that their easy to recognize when you're out by the lake. 

The expression "crazy as a loon" is thought to have originated in the 19th century. The word "loon" comes from the Middle English word "loun," which meant "a lout, idler, rogue." By the 18th century, the word "loon" had come to be used to describe someone who was crazy or foolish. 

The connection between loons and madness may have come from the bird's erratic behavior. Loons are known for their loud, haunting calls and their tendency to dive underwater for long periods of time. They can also be aggressive, and have been known to attack people who get too close to their nests.

In addition to their erratic behavior, loons were also associated with the moon. The word "lunatic" comes from the Latin word "luna," which means "moon." In the Middle Ages, people believed that the phases of the moon could affect people's mental health. This belief led to the idea that people who were crazy were "moonstruck," which may have also been the impetus behind werewolf stories.

Some say that the combination of loons' erratic behavior and their association with the moon led to the expression "crazy as a loon." This expression is still used today to describe someone who is crazy or foolish.

Here are some other expressions that have a similar meaning to "crazy as a loon":

  • Mad as a hatter
  • Crazy like a fox
  • Nutty as a fruitcake
  • Wacky as a fruit bat
  • Out of your tree
  • Out of your gourd
  • Not playing with a full deck

Do you have a favorite expression to describe people who are a little off their rocker?

*Photo courtesy Gary Firstenberg. Sculpture in background by Claes Oldenburg

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Marc Percansky & Matt Steichen Share Excerpts from Bob Dylan In Minnesota at Electric Fetus in Minneapolis

(L to R) Jennifer, Marc and Matt
Yesterday afternoon, Electric Fetus in Minneapolis hosted a book signing and reading featuring Marc Percansky and Matt Steichen, two of the four Minnesota writers who contributed to the third book in K.G. Miles' Troubadour Series, Bob Dylan in Minnesota. Both writers shared stories and read passages from the book to a small but appreciative audience. (The other two Minnesota contributors to this book, Paul Metsa and myself, were here in Duluth yesterday. We still haven't figured out a way to be in two places at once.) 

Among those present though were photographer Gary Firstenberg and Nevada Bob Gordon, whose book Fifty Years with the Wrong Woman I helped polish for publication. The two were returning from Nashville after recording Nevada Bob's seventh album there.

Marc Percansky (Photo courtesy
Gary Firstenberg)
As a teen Marc Percansky was a professional magician, periodically returning to this profession over the years. He's done magic shows for Bob, Prince, The Who and many others. (Not a bad gig if you can get it.) These days he is an independent concert, music and event promoter based in the Minneapolis/Saint Paul area.

Matt Steichen has had a background in journalism, public relations and marketing in the Twin Cities since 2006. He’s written and presented on the topic of Bob Dylan’s life and music to a variety of audiences including a packed house at Duluth Dylan Fest this past May. (You can read his talk here. You'll also find links to several YouTube clips.) Steichen has seen Dylan in concert 50 times beginning in the year 2000. He now lives in Lakeville with four sons and his wife, Jennifer, whom he met at a Dylan concert in 2004.

Matt Steichen. (Photo courtesy Jennifer Steichen) 

Magic Marc (Photo courtesy Jennifer Steichen) 
Jennifer Steichen with Marc Percansky

Earlier this month Matt and Marc held a well-attended book signing at Barnes & Noble. Autographed copies of Bob Dylan in Minnesota can be found at both Electric Fetus and B&N, if you can find the correct one. And if you can't find the book at your local bookstore, either ask them to carry it or look for it online. 

Related Links

Backstory on A Salute to the Music of Bob Dylan and a Reminder of Dylan's Fondness for Duluth -- Magic Marc Percansky (Part I)

Matt's Duluth Dylan Fest talk:

Matt Steichen Pulls Back the Curtain on Bob Dylan & His Fans 

Saturday, July 22, 2023

Boredom: A Blessing or a Curse?

"It is the unknown that excites the ardor of scholars, who, in the known alone, would shrivel up from boredom."
--Wallace Stevens

Eleven years ago this weekend I wrote about John Updike's four life forces: love, habit, time and boredom. When I first heard this notion I found the last most surprising, but having periodically contemplated these things over the years I've concluded that he was onto something.

Here are a few thoughtful or thought-provoking observations about boredom worth pondering. 

* * * 

"Boredom is the feeling that everything is a waste of time; serenity, that nothing is." 
--Thoma Szasz

"Isn't history ultimately the result of our fear of boredom?"
--Emile Cioran

"I am convinced that boredom is one of the greatest tortures. If I were to imagine Hell, it would be the place where you were continually bored."
--Erich Fromm

"Boredom is therefore a vital problem for the moralist, since at least half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it."
--Bertrand Russell

The two enemies of human happiness are pain and boredom."
– Arthur Schopenhauer

"Boredom is the deadliest poison."
--William F. Buckley, Jr.

        * * * 

        Is boredom a gift or a curse? If it moves us to action, perhaps it can be called a gift. If we suffer from chronic boredom, it may be a clue that something else is wrong with us. Just as pain is an indicator that something is wrong with our physical selves, so it may be that boredom is an indicator that something is amiss with our souls. 

        Some people suggest that boredom is a key ingredient in the creative process.

        Here's an intriguing quote from Flaubert's Madame Bovary. "But her life was as cold as an attic facing north; and boredom, like a silent spider, was weaving its web in the shadows, in every corner of her heart." 

        * * * 

        I had a friend who used to say, "Sometimes boring is good." He was talking about investments at the time but it can apply to other things as well. We've heard the expression "drama queen" as a reference to people who have exaggerated or overly emotional reactions to events or situations. Much of that drama is self-created through bad choices, risky ventures or simply a need to be the center of attention.

        What do you think?

          Friday, July 21, 2023

          An Oppenheimer Anecdote That Adds Another Dimension to How We See the World

          Based on the buzz, the film Oppenheimer appears set to be one of a number of much anticipated summer blockbusters. As it turns out, the opening story in my book Unremembered Histories involves the race to build the bomb. It concludes with an anecdote about Robert J. Oppenheimer. 

          After I see the film I will share my impressions in a review. In the meantime, here's my original story.

          Two Acts That Changed the World  

          Of the dozen or so German physicists who had been assigned the task of building a super-bomb for Germany, Wilhelm Kurtweil more than any knew the consequences for humanity should the Nazis become the first to achieve this ultimate quest. Kurtweil had been a leading voice in German physics before the war, was now a respected scientist in the twilight years of a fabulous career.

          For him personally, Nazism was an odious blight on the German peoples, but he had remained silent, hoping against hope that the dark season would pass and German character would rise above its brutal cancer. In 1942 he lost this hope.

          The super-bomb project was in full swing. The Nazis already dominated Europe. England was about to fall.

          His worst fear of all: that the project would succeed and his name be forever associated with its success in bringing the world to its knees at Hitler's feet.

          In November he began praying for divine intervention. He did not believe in God, but not knowing where else to turn and hoping that he was wrong, he prayed that God would give him wisdom. The following week he conceived in a dream, visualized with perfect clarity, the formulation for the Atomic Bomb. It was so perfect, so brilliantly conceived, and remarkably clever. He woke in a sweat. With his mind overstimulated he spent the rest of that night hastily scratching notes on scraps of paper. For three successive nights he worked out the details, occasionally catching fitful moments of sleep to sustain his strength.

          On the fourth night, he saw clearly the two actions he must take. First, he must find a way to undermine -- without drawing suspicion -- the efforts of his fellow scientists. And second, he must find a way to communicate his findings to the American scientists whom he knew to be actively pursuing the same designs.

          The first task was easy enough. He saw clearly that the labyrinthian formula was built on a series of equations which flowed with a counterintuitive divergence from logic at several critical points. How he had seen this so plainly baffled him. In presenting his discoveries to the group, he merely had to re-arrange the equation at two points and the system would forever fail to detonate. Once these two re-arrangements were made, no amount of re-evaluation would point to this particular detail as being faulty. All corrections of the misfire would focus on other areas of the formulation, with over one hundred million permutations. If all went well, it would be ten years before the mistake was discovered.

          Though he intended to delay as long as possible the presentation of his conception, he knew he must be the first to present, lest the correct thesis be presented in regards to the critical path. By early spring of 1944 he saw that two of his young proteges were uncovering significant portions of the path and he was forced to the first task. On April seventh, he presented his findings with cool reserve and astounding humility. The team was ecstatic at the breakthrough.

          The second task proved more daunting. He must find a way to communicate his findings to a team of American scientists that had assembled in pursuit of the same objective. It was well-known by Nazi intelligence who America's leading scientists were. There were well placed Germans among them. He must secretly make contact and pass along his discovery. So great was his fear of creating suspicions that he never once dared to speak to anyone of his intentions.

          In June a secret memo crossed his desk requesting him to cease from all projects not related to the superbomb. An attachment for his eyes only mentioned that it was now going to be a race. The Americans appeared to be making serious progress. Time was not an ally.

          Near the end of the attachment he noted a list of names, the names of prominent scientists with whom the German team was in direct competition. Among the names was a certain Robert Oppenheimer. It seemed as if the letters of his name leapt from the page and were branded into his consciousness.

          "Oppenheimer," he said to himself.

          "Did you say something, Herr Kurtweil?" one of his associates asked.

          Kurtweil did not reply. Inwardly he vowed to make contact with Oppenheimer.

          By late summer he realized that normal communication channels were closed to him. There was no way he would risk divulging his secrets, for there was no one he trusted. Yes, he knew there were malcontents among the ranks, but the magnitude of the stakes made it impossible for him to risk having such knowledge fall into the wrong hands, that is, Nazi hands.

          According to a notation in his journals, on September 12, unable to find sleep, Kurtweil rose from his bed and dressed to go out, perhaps to a cabaret, perhaps for a smoke. When he opened the door he was startled to find a strange stooped man standing on his doorstep.

          "What do you want?" Kurtweil said sharply.

          "I have watched you, Herr Kurtweil. The destiny of the world is in your hands."

          "Who are you? Why are you here?"

          "I have come to help you. May I come in?"

          Kurtweil was frightened. Did someone know? Had something in his manner betrayed him?

          The man put his hand on Kurtweil's arm. "I know the solution to your problem."

          Kurtweil began to stammer. He had not been sleeping. He had not had enough rest. He tried to pull back, but the stranger held him firmly.

          When their eyes met, Kurtweil saw that he was not in danger. "Come in," he said with resignation.

          They walked to the back of the house to Kurtweil’s study. It was badly lit so that the corners remained well cloaked in shadow, as were the recesses of his soul.

          The man removed his overcoat. Kurtweil threw it over the back of a chair and gave him an ashen look when his empty hands fell to his sides.

          "You understand my dilemma," Kurtweil said.

          "Yes," said the man quietly.

          They seated themselves and for a long time neither spoke.

          "So what must I do?" Kurtweil said.

          "You must learn the secret of dreams."

          "What do you mean?”

          "Dreaming is not a passive encounter with our unconscious, as Freud taught. Jung was more astute. Yet even Jung did not go far enough. I tell you truthfully, the power of the dream exceeds all known powers, and when you have mastered it, you can save the world."

          "I don't understand."

          "You are a great mind. Have you no imagination? You wish to communicate a great truth to another great mind. You are trapped by circumstance, by geography, by space and time. How is it possible to escape such bounds?"

          "If I knew that, I would be..." He broke off.

          "You would be... what?"



          "Or the devil."

          "Think again," the man said.

          Kurtweil stood up and walked to the window. He saw his face reflected in the glass, illumined as if a mask, his eyes dark hollows. When he turned again, he was alone. The man had disappeared.

          From his pocket he pulled a hanky and dabbed at his forehead. He was sweating fiercely and felt a need to take in the night air. Had it been a hallucination? He had not been sleeping well. He had not been sleeping at all, it seemed.

          He’d met Carl Jung once. They stood together on a balcony at a party in Geneva fifteen years before. "Consciousness is a portal," Jung had said that night. "When we pass through this portal to the other side, where do we go? When we return, where have we been?" Kurtweil, a practical man, was irritated by Jung at the time. But now, he wondered.

          During a press conference in 1947 when he was appointed head of the Atomic Energy Commission, J. Robert Oppenheimer was asked how he solved the problem of pre-detonation and discovered the secret of the bomb. “If I told you the truth you would laugh, so I will only say that it came to me in a dream.”

          “What kind of dream, sir? Did you see blueprints or something like that?”

          Oppenheimer hesitated a moment, then replied, “Actually, it was someone else’s dream.” This cryptic reply is the only known public reference to Dr. Kurtweil’s second great achievement.

          ~ ~ ~

          Author’s Note: I learned the above story in 1994 while teaching a class for senior citizens at University of MN, Duluth. That spring I’d written a series of articles on ethical issues in terminal health care and as a result had been invited to teach for an afternoon on the pros and cons of assisted suicide. One of the members of the class was a large man whose name now escapes me (I have it written in my notes somewhere, but for the sake of this story I will call him Mr. Jackson) who as a young scientist had been a member of the Manhattan Project. Being a writer I am always interested in a good story. I asked if he had plans for dinner.

          Mr. Jackson told me that during the course of the project Oppenheimer had become a changed man. “It happened almost suddenly. Most of us attributed it to the fact that we had had a breakthrough and the Bomb was going to become a reality.”

          “I had worked closely with Robert,” Jackson continued, “and sensed it to be something more, so we went out one night and I confronted him. He made me swear oaths of silence, then stated coldly that if the truth were made public he would be considered a lunatic and removed from the project. ‘I could be ruined,’ he said. As we all know the Project was a success and for a time Oppenheimer became a national hero. I’ve often wondered who else knew the source of his inspiration, or whether I was the only one.”
          EN, 3-25-06

          You can read more stories like this in my book Unremembered Histories: Six Stories with a Supernatural Twist.  Click on THIS LINK

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