Archive | June, 2013

Watching the human condition from an airport waiting room: the toll of fate and time.

29 Jun

iraqi-refugeesHumanity struggles.

A good place to observe this is the international gate at Newark Liberty Airport. It is not a struggle for life and death, just life, and the simple routine of getting to where one must be.

Almost no one here resembles the highborn. Save for a few Japanese, all are dressed casually. They seem vulnerable, dependent on unseen forces disinclined to treat them well; at the mercy of an uncaring system.

Pale complexions are few. Most of those must be off somewhere else; perhaps in a special room that requires a card to enter. Out here, little English is heard, although most speak it. As bilinguals, this actually puts them above the cloistered monolinguals.

While there is struggle, there is no real suffering. Indeed, some smile. But the smiles cannot mask anxiety, impatience, fear of the unknown, crying babies that need to be fed, heavy belongs that need to be carried awkwardly from one place to another like a ball and chain.

Many are traveling for pleasure, but this doesn’t resemble pleasure.

But let me clarify.

The transit experience at Newark Liberty Airport is really not all that bad. While I have reported accurately and expressed true feelings, I was greatly influenced by what I was reading.

Such as: a story about 3 million Afghan refugees; a story about 1 million Syria refugees; the review of a book by R.M. Douglas called, “Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War.”

Book cover -- Orderly and HumaneWith respect to the latter, as you might suspect, the forced relocation of 13 million German civilians from Central and Southern Europe was neither orderly nor humane. According to Douglas and history, it was much like the relocation of the Jews during the Holocaust – only this time the atrocities were committed by Americans. The Germans were transported in locked rail cars, kept in concentration camps and rarely fed.  Most were women and children. About 500,000 died.

So as I read I also watched. I saw people moving about uncomfortably, sullen, waiting, waiting and waiting. I thought of all those who risk everything – mostly life — trying desperately to get somewhere that is not worth going to. All in all, the United Nations estimated that in 2012 the world contained about 10.5 million refugees.

Then, in my boredom, I recalled an elderly Chinese woman I once knew. After World War II, she moved to America with her husband-scientist. Late in life, they bought a suburban house that was as large as some small hotels. It had a finished basement so grand that the couple used it as a ballroom.

At a dinner party, this woman casually told me how she left Shanghai on foot – with masses of others – after the Japanese invaded in the 1930s. She was headed many hundreds of miles away, toward Central China, where there were no Japanese. Along the way, it was not uncommon for the migrants to be bombed.

This woman, on the most treacherous journey of her life, may have retained some hope. But amidst war, hunger and death, she most certainly was not thinking how nice it would be to one day live in a $2.5 million house and invite people over to dance.

How powerful the effects of fate and time!

The people at Newark Liberty Airport, at least for now, aren’t going to die, or starve or be forced to live in tented refugee camps (although a few may already have done that). Even so, some, maybe even me, could experience it in the future. It takes only an atrocious natural disaster, an attack on critical infrastructure or a few super microbes that destroy either food or people.

We will all go a running.

How powerful the effects of fate and time.

I somehow see this, or fear this, as I observe a relatively small mass wend its way through a limited but wholly sufficient transportation network. Suppose that network was not sufficient?

Chinese city-ShenjenIn the very near future, over more than a decade, the world will witness a planned event that will be either a migratory miracle or a disaster of incredible proportions. It probably will be both. The Chinese, perhaps recalling other great shifts, plan to relocate 250 million people from the countryside into cities, many newly built for this purpose. This number exceeds the combined populations of all large cities in America. It is the equivalent of moving almost 80 percent of every person in the U.S.

The Chinese are accustomed to solving big problems with big solutions. The purpose of this one is to spur economic growth. Living in rural poverty, as so many Chinese do, adds little to the economic engine. In cities, these same people are expected to be better producers and consumers.

It’s a very bold plan.

Will it break hearts, souls and spirits?

Will it strip people of their heritage, culture, routines and roots?

Might it possibly create contentment, an unthought-of elevation in living standards?

Perhaps even an increase in ballroom dancing?

What it will do for sure it put people where they never expected to be.

How powerful the effects of fate and time.

Should I be in China during this epochal migration, I will try to keep off the main roads and certainly stay out of airports. They are simply too depressing.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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A hideous Google pleads, “Don’t look at me!”

15 Jun

Google car

The world is filled with great ironies. Here is one of them.

Google, a company unrivaled at invading privacy, does not want to be watched while it works.

Here is the background.

This great innovator of search, which knows so much about what we do on the Internet, knows every word we write in our Gmails, provides the world with pictures of our homes and streets and shares everything it knows about us with the government and any marketer willing to pay, soon will visit the campus setting where I work.

In its desire to record everything there is to record, Google crews will photograph the thoroughfares within the campus and also enter buildings to map interior hallways.

The first they do with backpack-mounted multi-directional cameras; the second with GPS enabled smart phones.

Prior to the visit, an email was sent by my employer to all employees alerting them to the presence of Google crews and asking us to honor a request not to disturb them. That’s reasonable, but it went on to ask us not to photograph them, which is less reasonable, nor even to watch them, which is absurd.

Don’t watch, we were instructed.

Google may have a host of non-ironic reasons for this request, but they were not shared and I can’t think of even one.

It brought to mind those horror movies where monsters plead, “Look away! I’m hideous!”

With each passing day I realize that the Internet, with all its wonder and potential, with its ability to better lives, improve society and educate the masses, has degenerated into the world’s greatest con game. It provides us with the things we desire in exchange for our souls and the inner workings of our brains. Google does this so that it and many, many others can make money.

After receiving the email, I was at first tempted to protest the directive and watch.

But now I’ve decided to take the opposite approach. When this hideous thing enters campus, I’m going to – as requested — look away.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

Is the mother of invention dead?

11 Jun

pots2

It has been said that in very ancient times a person with bad teeth would die. Disease didn’t kill them. Starvation did. Apparently, there was no soft food. All this changed with the invention of pottery, allowing for the cooking of soups and stews.

While I tend to think tooth-less early man would tenderize his meat with a rock before starving, or just eat berries, I nevertheless brought up the pot as a life-saving invention while speaking to a millennial.

Millennials are members of a generation that greatly mourns the passing of the American age and the lost opportunities that went with it.

“I wish it were as easy now as it was back when they had the first pot,” he said. “Nothing was invented so almost anyone with a good idea could change the face of history.  You didn’t need a Ph.D. in nuclear science. You didn’t have to know a lot. All you needed was a good idea and you’d be famous.  How hard could it have been to invent something like the pot?”

I argued that coming up with the idea for a pot when there were no such things as pots required more than an idea, that strong vision and imagination was needed.

“Well, I’m not saying I could have invented the pot, but you do see my point, don’t you? I mean, what did it take to invent the wheel? Anyone could have done it. Or even fire. These people didn’t go to school. The field was wide open. Nowadays, it requires too much. Too much has already been invited; too much is known.”

I felt bad because he and perhaps many others were victimized by the times; their creativity stifled by a bad economy and the aggressive, eager multitudes in developing countries. Still, he made me wonder just how hard or easy it might have been to invent the pot.

The usual case is that most people are blind to innovation. They just can’t see possibilities outside of normal routine. There are, however, a few who do. After first being treated like loons and maniacs, they eventually win over the tribe and move society forward.

But I guessing it is likely that pottery and even the wheel may have been discovered by accident, in multiple places, at multiple times. These were things waiting to happen. In that respect, I can sympathize with the millennial.

I tried thinking of something relatively simple that has changed people’s lives in that past 100 years or so. Sliced bread? Air in tires? The ballpoint pen? There must be something. Nothing really hit me, although I’m certain it is there. If someone reading can think of it, please comment and let me know.

In the meantime, I think my millennial friend is just going to have to become a nuclear scientist, or something of that sort – and if he’s to change the world he still will need an incredibly creative, open, unfettered mind.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

Old Books Come Back to Life: Remember “Naked Lunch”?

1 Jun
Writer William Burroughs

Writer William Burroughs

 

The New York Review of Books sat on the table face up, showing the lead item about James Baldwin. This was odd, since Baldwin died a quarter century ago. No new books from him.

“As a writer of polemical essays on the Negro question, James Baldwin has no equals,” the review said.

The Negro question?

Oh. This was not new. This was old. It was a copy of the first edition of the New York Review of Books, reproduced on the 50th anniversary of the publication.  The Review was launched in 1963 as salve to a citywide newspaper strike. The most prominent authors of the day contributed. They did so on short notice and for no pay.

What a time that was!

Ideas and making a statement were more important than making money.

As a collective voice from the past now being read in the present, the Review of Books gives more than a few hints of intellectual unrest. The best minds of the day seemed to be laying the groundwork for a coming cultural break with convention and the status quo.

It’s right there, interwoven amidst the literature.

Those doing the writing were the avant-garde, and people listened to them. Looking over their names, it is difficult to recall writers today with reputations as large. Among the contributors were Norman Mailer, William Styron, Robert Penn Warren, Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal, Paul Goodman, Robert Lowell and Jules Feiffer.

If any group reflected the spirit of the times – or perhaps the coming spirit — this one did.

As did the books they reviewed.

Included was “Naked Lunch” by William Burroughs, the grandfather junkie to the Beat writers. “Naked Lunch” is perhaps one of the most unclassifiable novels in the English language. The story – often bizarre and fantastic — takes place inside the head of a man taking a drug cure from a quack. At one point in his career Burroughs would write his prose on paper, cut it up then randomly reassemble the pieces

“Naked Lunch” was reviewed by Mary McCarthy, whose books include “The Group” and “Birds of America.”

At the close of the review, she deals with the “pained question that keeps coming up like a refrain” – Why is this book being taken seriously?

Her answer is that for the first time in recent years, a really talented writer meant what he said.

This was the coming era.

Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer

Some of the celebrity reviewers, those with the larger personalities, were overly tough on their colleagues. Normal Mailer, always pugnacious, said “That Summer in Paris” by Morley Callaghan was “dim” and mostly without merit. One passage, however, saved the book, Mailer said, because it exposed the true character of novelist Ernest Hemingway, who two years earlier committed suicide.

The tale has Callaghan, who boxed in college, getting into the ring with the much larger Hemingway. F. Scott Fitzgerald was the timekeeper. In a round that went long, Callaghan flattened Hemingway. Fitzgerald blamed his poor time keeping.

“Oh, my God,” he said. “I let the round go four minutes.”

Hemingway, perhaps from the canvas, answered, “All right, Scott. If you want to see me getting the shit knocked out of me, just say so. Only don’t say you made a mistake.”

To me, this shows meanness and poor sportsmanship.

Was Hemingway a coward?

Was Hemingway a coward?

To Mailer, who also boxed, it led him to concluded, “There are two kinds of brave men. Those who are brave by the grace of nature, and those who are brave by an act of will. It is the merit of Callaghan’s long anecdote that the second condition is suggested to be Hemingway’s own.”

In essence, Mailer was calling Papa a closet coward, and he cited his suicide as evidence of this cowardice.

Then there was Gore Vidal. He described John Hersey’s book, “Here to Stay,” as  “dull, dull, dull.” Hersey was trying to invent something called “New Journalism,” which later would boost the careers of people like Tom Wolf and Hunter S. Thompson, but Vidal criticized him for cramming too many facts into his sentences.

John Updike is one of America’s best writers but Sir Jonathan Miller, a Cambridge graduate who did books, plays, movies and TV, said Updike’s “The Centaur” was “a poor novel irritatingly marred by good features.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, poor at keeping time

F. Scott Fitzgerald, poor at keeping time

These reviews pretty much stuck to literature, but an unusual number referenced the Cold War and voiced the fear of imminent doom. It was hard to miss the Soviets. One reviewer discussed four books on the economy of our then-mortal enemy. Another reviewed Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s short gulag novel, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”

Robert Jay Lifton, in a review of a compilation called “Children of the A-Bomb,” said, “The thing we dread really happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the world resists full comprehension of this event, symbolizing massive death and annihilation.”

He and others suggested that faith in the future was fading, and that without change mankind’s time was limited.

Reviewer Lewis Coser said education and information no longer were the answer.

He called the well-informed person “a cheerful robot.”

“The increase of information may indeed have led, contrary to the belief of the Enlightenment, to a decrease in rationality,” he said.

A remarkably forward-looking book carried the harmless title, “The Exploration of Outer Space.” It written by A.C.B. Lovell and reviewed by James R. Newman. Both lauded the development of radio astronomy as a way to finally understand the composition of the universe.  They believed recent findings made it almost certain that other solar systems contained life and that future contact was possible.

Nuclear war: On everyone's mind in 1963

Nuclear war: On everyone’s mind in 1963

But there was darkness overlaying this optimism. The review expressed a grave fear that humans, if they don’t destroy themselves first, one day would destroy life on other plants, either deliberately or through contamination.

The review ends this way:

“”I myself do not find the prevailing space-race chauvinism and the threat to other planets as horrifying as the threat of global extermination. Nor do I derive consolation from the thought that if our managers turn the earth info a lifeless stone other forms of life will continue elsewhere in the universe. But I am impressed with Lovell’s deep sense of responsibility about life everywhere, and I wish there were many more scientists like him.”

And that’s the way it was in 1963.

Coming would be Dylan, hippies, communes, the counter-culture; Burn Baby Burn, Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30; a refusal to be bought and sold; hope I die before I get old.

 By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

 

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