My Latest Fiasco
Dropping the Pilot
What Matters Most
Hit Me Here!
Micro and Macro
Bragg Award Speech
Yurts to Shirts
Free Speech (Bend, Oregon)
Claremont Award Speech
The Y1K Crisis
Begetting (a Play)
Saturday, April 28 2007
MY LATEST FIASCO.
A few days ago a large tour-bus full of visitors to Santa Barbara got stuck while attempting to negotiate a sharp upward turn onto a steep road in our Riviera district, and eventually had to be freed with the help of a tow-truck. Nobody was hurt, and no harm done, except that some local drivers were inconvenienced, and the visitors had to miss their planned visit to the Old Mission. But this event happened to occur just four days before a scheduled evacuation drill in that neighborhood, whose topography makes the danger of a rapidly spreading fire even more worrisome than in other parts of our city. And the Santa Barbara News-Press made the story front-page news, with 2 photographs of the scene, a map, and a big headline:
MISHAP HIGHLIGHTS NEED FOR RIVIERA ESCAPE ROUTE
Tour Bus Gets Stuck, Blocks Access to Enclave; Evacuation Drill Set For Saturday
Nowhere in the story, Dorothy and I were glad to see, was my name mentioned. But, (confidentially) I was the one person directly responsible for this entire incident. In fact, I was on the bus, acting as a local guide. It was I who had chosen the destination, and was directing the driver (who himself was a stranger to the area). So I can now take whatever blame is in order, or (preferably) whatever credit is due, for having inadvertently staged a perfect publicity event for a worthy local cause.
That sharp bend was one which I traverse very frequently on my morning walks, and it was my intention to share with this group of mostly elderly visitors the magnificent view from Franceschi Park, whose entrance was only a short distance further up the hill. There was probably enough room for the bus to make the turn. But I’m not used to navigating enormous vehicles, and if I was at fault, it was in not cautioning the driver in advance to take the turn very widely.
I hadn’t exactly volunteered for this whole assignment, but had agreed months ago to do it for Betty, a dear friend who had helped to arrange this particular tour for her “Town and Gown” group from Chapman University, in Orange, a town on the other side of Los Angeles. Some 40 years ago Betty and I (and Dorothy too) had sailed around the world as faculty members on a “floating campus,” under the auspices of what was then Chapman College.
This "Town and Gown" event was discombobulated from the beginning. I was supposed to be the local guide, showing these people, during one afternoon, some of my own special Santa Barbara places. But they had already laid out an itinerary of major tourist attractions which left scarcely any time for me to show them anything else. Also, I was under the impression that they would be reasonably ambulatory, but some of them (including unfortunately Betty herself) could barely hobble out on the Wharf to the restaurant where we had lunch.
I won’t take you through all the other elements of this fiasco, such as the fact that the elevator to the Courthouse Tower turned out to be not working that day, and that the ringer of my cell phone, on which I was depending to link up with Dorothy, had (I swear) turned itself off. But the upshot was that, although in my welcoming speech to these 33 people at the restaurant, I had listed six “secret” places to which I could possibly take them, including the Bridge Over Nothing and the Crocodiles in the Creek, in the end we had less than an hour to see any of them. So I decided that our best bet would be to concentrate on that little-known gem, Franceschi Park, high up on the Riviera, and at least see the Great Stone Head of Franceschi himself, with whose discovery and restoration I have had such an intimate connection (as you know if you’ve read my book “I Want to Reach Your Mind … Where Is It Currently Located?")
My idea was that those less agile could stay with the bus in the parking area and enjoy the view of the city, the sea, and the islands, while I would lead the more adventurous ones along the little-known trail to the boulder atop which sits the enormous Head itself.
Needless to say, when the bus got stuck, it put something of a crimp in this plan. While most of the group lolled on a stone wall near the bus waiting for the tow truck, I led two different expeditions on foot for anyone who would follow me -- the first one up into the Park to the Great Stone Head (8 people made it), the second all the way back down the hill (with just 3 hardy followers who were able to rejoin the rest of the group on their finally freed bus outside the Mission, which however it was by then too late to visit).
So that’s why I wasn’t with the stuck bus when the tow-truck (and apparently the reporter) arrived – and I just have to be glad that nobody ratted on me. Our friend Betty wrote me consolingly afterwards that “there was no way for you to know the bus couldn’t make it. Those who waited for the tow truck to rescue us just thought it was an unexpected adventure.” That’s the kind of friend I’d be happy to go around the world with again!
All the best,
Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you. It's a great honor to be asked to come here today and tell you what I think about What Matters Most. As Jack Benny once said, I really don't deserve this honor - but I have arthritis, and I didn't deserve that either. My plan today is to speak first, and then, as a reward for those of you who sit through the speech, to give you a slide show, during which you can ask questions or (if the spirit moves you) hurl insults - but please remember that this place was once a church.
One reason why this seems such an honor is that normally people don't seem to care what I think. It's been a lifelong problem of mine that those I've been closest to are the ones I've had the least influence on. My parents, my sister, my wife, even my cat -- or maybe I should say especially my cat -- have never really taken me seriously. That may help to explain why I finished up making a career of peddling my thoughts to the world in general. At least the world in general doesn't automatically dismiss anything coming from me, that is, so long as I say it in a neat epigram of 17 words or less.
Over the past 40 years, I've published 10,000 of these expressions. And I now have them all in a computer data base, so it's very easy to pull up scores of my own ready-made answers to a question like "What Matters Most?" For example:
0066 Nothing really matters, except a few things that really
don't matter very much.
4278 Regardless of what you've lost, what matters is what you do with what you have left.
7035 What matters is not whether the remedy is based on science or faith, but whether it works.
9331 People who act as if nothing matters are usually considered insane - although they may actually be right.
I could very happily give you many more. But somehow I feel that that would be copping out. You came here today (I have to assume) because you want to know what specifically matters most to me personally at this point in my life, and how I acquired whatever values I have.
OK, let's start with my earliest recollections. One of the
most important lessons I ever learned was one of the first, and
it was just two words long. I'm not sure who it was who said it
to me, and I was probably too young at the time to be able to
say anything back, but those two words, and the tone in which
they were said, have always been crucial in my approach to the
At the time I really didn't appreciate being admonished in this way. But looking back, I can see that those words pretty well told me all I needed to know about What Matters Most. Don't Touch! Life is full of dangers and temptations. Stay out of harm's way. Leave things alone.
Whole philosophies, whole religions have been built on injunctions like these, which put a high value on distancing oneself from things and people in general. I was a shy, lonely, introverted child. But they also provide a certain objectivity and perspective which people may even mistake for wisdom. In my case, it eventually led to magnificent insights like Pot-Shot #381 "Why should I add to my troubles by facing reality?"
But eventually I did have to face reality, in the form of SCHOOL, where touching was no longer such a big taboo, at least not when we touched our hands to our hearts as we recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Because the lesson now was that What Matters Most is our FLAG and our COUNTRY. But this was always a problem for me, because as a child I went to schools in several different countries. In England, where I started off, I learned to sing "Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves, Britons never never never shall be slaves." At that time I didn't know what "slaves" were, and I thought the song was saying "Britain never never never shall be SAVED." This didn't seem to make much sense, but it gave me the impression that the British must be a very gloomy people.
But then at the age of 5, I acquired a new native land, because, for some reason having to do with a big event which I later learned was called World War II, I had to sail over those ocean waves, and found myself living in Toronto, Canada. And there we sang a different song which, as I remember it, went like this:
"Oh Canada, my home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise, the true North strong and free,
And stand on guard, Oh Canada, we stand on guard for thee!"
So apparently crossing the sea had somehow made me a son of Canada, and I was supposed to be standing on guard, although I wasn't quite sure how, or why, or against whom. But then 2 years later my family moved again, and at the age of 7, I was in another school, in a place called Washington D.C. singing "My Country Tis of Thee, Sweet land of Liberty, Of thee I sing." This was really confusing: "My Country Tis of Thee." For a time I actually thought that "Tis Of Thee" must be the name of the country.
It took me a long time to sort all this out in my mind, but many years later, I sort of synthesized it into one of my Pot-Shots, #995, which says "It's not wrong to love more than one country, but everybody ought to love at least one." And this further blossomed into the gestalt of #38, which simply says "Support your local god."
But school didn't teach me everything I needed to know about What Matters Most. One of my most important lessons came when I went away to summer camp, and it came in the form of another song, one which completely changed my outlook. What this song said was very simple:
Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily , merrily, merrily,
Life is but a Dream.
Here in 18 words I had a whole new textbook about What Matters Most. Obviously the important thing is to row your boat. Never mind how you ever came to be there. What matters is that you're in it now, and your job is just to keep rowing. But you're not chained to your oars. This is clearly supposed to be an enjoyable trip. You're going GENTLY and MERRILY. As for the question of WHERE you're headed, all you need to know is that you're going DOWN THE STREAM. In other words, you're going the same way as everything else. What could make more sense than that? And for the ultimate payoff about WHY all this is happening, here is your answer as clear as can be: Don't worry, LIFE IS BUT A DREAM!
Of course! Of course! Life is but a dream. It doesn't have to make any more sense than any other dream. A dream is something we have no control over. Why not just assume that everything is happening for the best, and simply try to make things as pleasant as possible, for yourself and I suppose for all those other people out there rowing their own little boats down the stream.
If only that were the whole story! But we know, don't we, that it's not. It really isn't so easy just to sing away all the vexing questions about life. After all, how do we know that one of those other little boats out there doesn't contain a suicide bomber?
That, of course, is why we go to college. College is the place where we get clued in to the Big Picture. It's where, if your teachers are any good, they make you face these disturbing problems. I actually went to 5 different colleges and universities, and got degrees at several of them -- but, as far as What Matters Most is concerned, there was only one class, and one book that made any impression on me. I've forgotten what the class was, but the book was a novel called Candide, and it was written about 250 years ago by a Frenchman named Voltaire.
If you've read it, you may recall that Voltaire's hero Candide is a young European who goes all over the world having all kinds of incredible misadventures, even getting involved in the great earthquake in Lisbon -- a real event which occurred in 1755 and killed about 60,000 presumably innocent people.
Voltaire was satirizing a view which was then popular among philosophers that everything always happens for the best. And of course the reader keeps wondering, if all the confusion and suffering in this book is happening for the best, what is it all leading up to? How is the book going to end? Well what actually happens is that Candide and a few of his friends somehow finish up farming a little piece of land in Turkey. And Voltaire just leaves them there. In the very last paragraph, Dr. Pangloss the perpetually optimistic philosopher rehashes his belief that everything they've suffered has somehow been for the best. And Candide in reply ends the book with these famous words: "Excellently observed -- but let us cultivate our garden."
So there we are again - one more basic rule distilled for you at no charge from my own lengthy, expensive, and sometimes painful education: What Matters Most is to stay out of harm's way; honor the local flag or local god (whatever flag or god it happens to be); row your boat gently down the stream; and above all, cultivate your own garden.
If we could sum this all up in one word, what would it be? I was puzzling over this question a few weeks ago in order to have an answer for you today when one dropped down upon me in a most unexpected way. And it came from the very person who had set the question -- Mrs. Marsha Karpeles, the lady who established, this whole series of talks.
Feeling that it might help me prepare for today's event, Mrs. Karpeles had sent me something by email. It was a sort of essay she had written about how this series got started and about some of the earlier speakers. One of them was a woman who had had terrible experiences in Europe during World War II during the years when I was learning to row my boat merrily down the stream. Another was a baker who developed his own brand of philosophical fortune cookies, about the same time I was cooking up my Pot-Shots. And there was some fascinating information about Mr. and Mrs. Karpeles themselves, how they acquired their wealth, and how they decided to share it in ways to benefit other people.
But what particularly interested me was something that had nothing to do with any of this, something totally irrelevant and accidental. It was the computer filename which just by chance Mrs. Karpeles had chosen to give this document. Apparently she had planned to submit the piece for publication. I don't know whether she actually did so or not, but the file-name she gave it was: "What Matters Most Submission."
Think about that for a moment. "What Matters Most?" - SUBMISSION! As soon as I saw that word "Submission," all kinds of fireworks went off in my head. Yes! I thought, That's the answer! Submission! That IS what matters most! That's what rowing your boat and cultivating your garden and the rest of it is all about! Thank you, Marsha!
But submission to what? To whom? - Actually, that part hardly matters. It can be to Fate, to Providence, to the laws of Physics, to the will of Allah. (Did you know that the very word Islam means "submission?") The point is that we must all go with the flow and tend our garden. And we should do it without touching or infringing too much on others, without being too concerned about making any big changes in this overwhelmingly big and complicated Universe. Have the good sense to know what little you can change and accept all the rest that you can't. If you feel the need to change anything at all, your best course is to concentrate on changing and improving yourself.
Many other very respectable authorities have said this same sort of thing in different ways, including Saint Francis of Assisi and the guys at Alcoholics Anonymous. But of course, not everybody agrees about whether it's really SUBmission that matters most, or whether we shouldn't all be looking for some other mission. Coming right down to it, with so little time to spend in this world, are we really supposed to be passive or active? Should we be LETTING things happen while we row our boat and cultivate our garden -- or MAKING things happen by going out there to change the world? As Dylan Thomas put it, do you "go gentle into that good night" or do you "rage, rage, against the dying of the light"? Or, as Ashleigh Brilliant put it, in Pot-Shot #1200, which was meant to be used as a sign for people to put on their doors, "If I'm not home, accepting what I can't change, I'm probably out, changing what I can't accept."
Actually, there have been only two occasions in living memory when I myself really did set out to change the world, or at least that small part of it in which I live. The first effort was remarkably successful. About 10 years ago I led a 3-month initiative campaign which resulted in our local ban on gas-powered leafblowers. That will tell you how high on my personal list of What Matters Most is the simple value of PEACE and QUIET.
My second bold campaign was only a few months ago. Don't laugh, but I decided that I wanted to be the next Poet Laureate of Santa Barbara. When I heard that the position was open - a 2-year appointment with a $1000 honorarium, I genuinely felt that I was well-qualified and could do a good job playing that role. And I was actually nominated by eleven highly cultured citizens. It's true I had to twist their arms to get them to write the nomination letters - and in the end, I didn't get chosen - but this was something that I decided really did Matter a lot to me, so I gave it my best shot.
Why did it matter so much? You can blame it on another of those silly mantras which had stuck with me from my schooldays. One of the school books which made the biggest impression on me during my teenage years in England was called An Anthology of Modern Verse, and in the introduction, it said that wanting to be a poet was "the noblest of ambitions." At a time when I was looking for a goal in life, those words engraved themselves on my heart. "The noblest of ambitions." But how would I know when I had reached that goal and become a Poet? After all, anybody can call himself or herself a poet. The important thing is to be recognized as a Poet by other people. I've always claimed that my Pot-Shots were poetry reduced to its essence, and in fact before calling them Pot-Shots I called them "Unpoemed Titles." But I never found a crowd of literary critics waiting at my door to offer me laurel crowns. So when this opportunity came along to be officially declared a Poet by the City of Santa Barbara , I couldn't let it go by.
The truth is that I really have been writing all kinds of poetry all my life, even though in recent years it's been mostly the very brief kind which you see on my postcards and in the newspaper. So please let me take advantage of this occasion - and of your patience - to give you just one example of my more formal verse. It's a sonnet which I wrote about 20 years ago, and you can find it in my book of collected essays and verse called Be A Good Neighbor and Leave Me Alone. The title I gave it was "Going On," but actually it might just as well have been called "What Matters Most?"
I hear no call - no purpose seeks me out,
No light shines down on my appointed task,
No instinct overcomes all sense of doubt,
No answers quench the questions I must ask.
To do or not to do seems all the same -
Whatever's writ, by Time must be erased -
To build a home, an empire, or a name
Must equally in the long run be a waste.
And yet, and yet, some power drives me on,
Some dream from which I've not yet come awake
Persuades me that, before this dream is gone,
There is some part of it I have to make.
I'll never know for sure which way is right,
But there are many pathways through the night.
I hope you liked that poem, because to me one of the things that Matter Most is being appreciated. The Beatles sang that "All You Need Is Love," but according to the psychologists, all most of us really need is appreciation. However, speaking of the Beatles -- and especially since I'm being co-sponsored here today by the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum -- I've got to tell you about a newly discovered manuscript which seems to prove that at least one of the Beatles really did appreciate at least one piece of my work. This story goes back to 1970, but I didn't find out about it until just recently, when a book was published which some of you may have seen, called Postcards From the Boys. It's a collection of postcards sent to Ringo Starr by the other Beatles from various parts of the world, and it shows both sides of each card.
On December 8 1970, (according to the postmark) John Lennon sent Ringo Starr a postcard from New York city. I don't know where he got the card, but it happened to be one of my Pot-Shot postcards which I'd already been publishing for several years. It was Pot-Shot # 34, which has a picture of a man and a woman sitting at opposite ends of a bed, with the woman at her end looking off into the distance, and with the message: "LET'S LOVE ONE ANOTHER - AND GET IT OVER WITH." On the message side you can see where John wrote these words: "Dear Ringo…. This is the truth as we see it" -- and he must have been referring to my Pot-Shot message because he actually drew a squiggly arrow pointing over to the Pot-Shot on the other side of the card.
I hope you will pardon my pride when I point out that not many poets have written anything which John Lennon ever certified in his own hand as constituting "The Truth As We See It." That card is now, as far as I know, still in the possession of Ringo Starr - but I have high hopes that Mr. and Mrs. Karpeles may find some way of acquiring it for our local Manuscript Library.
At this point I must admit (if it hasn't already been obvious) that FAME and FORTUNE have always been among my goals. Those 2 "F" words go so nicely together that in my mind I've tended to follow them with several others: Fame, Fortune, Freedom, Friends --and one more which I will reveal before the end of this talk. Not having been a particularly happy child, and having no children of my own, I've had mixed feelings about putting "Family" in the "F" list too, even though it was such a strong value in the Jewish culture in which I was raised. But another that I can definitely add is "Feeling Useful." Maybe that shouldn't count, though, because it's two words. The best single word to express the idea of usefulness is "Utility" - but that's not an "F" word. Of course, we could make it an "F" word, but then it becomes FUTILITY-another feeling which, come to think of it, often dominates my thoughts, as you can see in Pot-Shots like these:
1347 Life may have no meaning, or, even worse, it may have
a meaning of which I disapprove.
2166 The task I've been given seems absurd: to wait here on earth until I no longer exist.
2259 Once I wanted total happiness - now I will settle for a little less pain.
2588 Lord, help me to meet this self-imposed and totally unnecessary challenge.
4632 We owe it to our past futile sacrifices to continue making further futile sacrifices.
But this is not a day to talk about FUTILITY let's go back to FAME and FORTUNE. Fame is a wonderful game, if you don't take it too seriously. If you go on the Internet and look up Santa Barbara in the Wikipedia, you can find a list of what it calls "Celebrities" who at one time or another have lived here. And I was at first very pleased recently to discover my own name on this list. But then I saw that it also included a number of people whose celebrity was based entirely on their violent criminal activities, such as the Charles Manson gang.
But what's even more bizarre is that apparently anybody can edit this list any way they want to. I had heard about this aspect of the Wikipedia, but until I tried it, I never realized it was so easy to do. If my name hadn't been there, I could have added it myself. What does this say about Fame?
Actually just to try it out, I did add somebody's name. I noticed that ERNEST THAYER wasn't on the list, so I put him on, though I know he would have protested vigorously. Ernest Thayer was the man who wrote "Casey At The Bat," that mock-epic about a mythical baseball game which ends tragically when the local hero strikes out - a piece always high on any list of America's best-loved poems. Thayer did live in Santa Barbara for many years, and he died here - but what fascinates me about him is that he hated his fame. That one poem is the only thing he was ever famous for. But, rather than being proud of it, and perhaps milking it for all it was worth, he refused to even talk about it with anybody who wanted to interview him. So in terms of hitting the fame ball that life pitched at him, it wasn't mighty Casey, but the man who created him, who struck out.
OK, so much for Fame. But what about FORTUNE? Probably very few of us believe that Money is the one thing that matters most. But it certainly matters to me, if only as a very handy way of keeping score. And it matters enough for me to have written some 150 Pot-Shots about it. Here are a few examples:
0398 All I ask is a chance to prove that money can't make me
1333 I've got the pot of gold, but what I wanted was the rainbow.
2420 To the tax office: all is over between us. Please don't attempt to communicate with me again.
4664 I'd gladly participate in any experiment to test the effects on me of sudden great wealth.
5391 Nothing is more sincere than cash in advance.
9803 It costs money to make money -- but it's not supposed to cost more money than you make.
Well, I may have written a lot about it, but so far the FORTUNE part of FAME and FORTUNE has proven very elusive. This problem however may be on its way to being solved. In what seems to me like a piece of fantasy fulfillment a young man named Seth Streeter has come along who has a company here in Santa Barbara called Mission Wealth Management, and is organizing a new website featuring my work. When I first met Seth Streeter, I told him that, apart from my 10,000 Pot-Shots, I didn't have any wealth for him to manage. Apparently he took this as a challenge, so now he is going to try to do what I myself have never succeeded in doing with my work: producing some Fortune to go with my Fame. Seth has recruited a whole team of talented people for this project, and I hope you will visit their new website, which is at www.Brilliant-Thoughts.com.
And what about the next F -- How much does FREEDOM matter? Here are a few thoughts on that subject:
0542 The price of freedom keeps going up, but the quality keeps
3311 Beware! Freedom of speech also includes the freedom to be misunderstood.
4878 No country is truly free, where the children are compelled to go to school.
5514 You have a right to express your opinion, but often it's wiser to keep it to yourself.
6761 An artist must be free to reject society - and society must be free to reject his art.
6825 Don't call it freedom, unless it includes the freedom to be absolutely disgusting.
The next "F," FRIENDSHIP, certainly matters a lot to me, and probably to most other people. E.M.Forster said, "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friends, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." I myself, while trying to avoid betraying anybody, have published at least 305 Pot-Shots on this subject, such as:
0450 If I didn't have most of my friends, I wouldn't have most
of my problems.
0809 You can always be unfriendly to me - that's what friends are for.
1051 Please don't put a strain on our friendship by asking me to do something for you.
1464 You can't just suddenly be my friend: you have to go through a training period.
2124 If only there were some quick way I could acquire a new group of old friends.
Alright, that's four F's - Fame, Fortune, Freedom, and Friends - but before I come to the final F which I think really does matter most, I want to pay tribute to another poet who once tackled this same assignment that I'm wrestling with here today, and I think he did a splendid job. His name was Rudyard Kipling, and he wrote a poem called IF, which is a sort of short catalog of What Matters Most, in terms of living a good life and being a decent person. I'm tempted to quote the whole poem - but let me just tell you the lines which I personally think of most often, because they seem so relevant to my own life.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you. . .
For some reason, I seem to be constantly getting into situations where the people about me are losing their heads and blaming it on me. If you want details, you can ask my wife. She may tell you that she doesn't like Kipling. But (if you'll pardon a family joke) there is some doubt as to whether she has ever actually kippled.
Then there are those other lines in the same poem which I find equally inspiring:
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster,
And treat those two impostors just the same;
I love that idea of Triumph and Disaster both being imposters, and that the really smart person doesn't take either of them too seriously. I told you about that Poet Laureate fiasco, which was really a disaster for me, because I tried so hard and pinned such high hopes on it. Now currently I have a triumph which I'm also trying not to take too seriously. I have just licensed a European fashion company called ZARA, which is actually part of one of the world's largest retail empires, to put my Pot-Shots on ladies' T-Shirts and sell them all over the world. It's not quite the Nobel Prize for Literature, which of course is my ultimate Fame and Fortune goal- but I beg you to let me consider it a step in that direction. And in any case, I have to admit that I find something very appealing about being quoted on people's bosoms.
Before I get to the final, and in my opinion most important, F word, I must acknowledge that there is an S word which many people feel really matters most, and a certain part of me agrees with them. That word is SCIENCE, in which I suppose we can include knowledge, learning, and exploration of the Universe. It's science which has given us computers and the Internet, which may very well be the closest thing I personally have to a religion. Not long ago I was visiting some friends who live in 29 Palms out in the California desert, and on a Sunday morning they took me to their church. There was a visitors' book in the lobby, and there was a space in which you were supposed to put your "Home Church." I had never been asked about my Home Church before, and had to think for a moment. Finally I wrote "GOOGLE." I felt that was the most honest answer I could give.
And what about the "A" word -- the ARTS? Shouldn't they be just as important in anybody's life as Science? Didn't somebody once define Culture as "Everything that makes life worth living"? Never mind that someone else - I think it was Herman Goering -- said "When I hear the word Culture I reach for my revolver." I myself am not what you might call a vulture for culture. But I do read a lot of books, and Dorothy and I often read to each other. (And let me here state for the record that to me my wife's smile is unquestionably one of the things that matter most.) This reading aloud is a tradition going back to her childhood, so I am usually the one who does most of the reading, and the challenge is for me to time it so that I stop just before she falls asleep. (Smiles are one thing. Snores are definitely something else).
Yes, Science and Culture are important, but there's something else which is even more important to me, and that is CLIMATE. I don't know if you remember, but a long time ago, there was an advertising slogan for some kind of hair-dye which said, "If I only have one life to live, let me live it as a blonde." Well, my feeling has always been, "If I only have one life to live, let me live it in a good climate." For me, one of the biggest pleasures of living in Santa Barbara is watching news reports of blizzards, heat waves, and hurricanes in other places.
Tied up with this love of a comfortable climate is a strong dislike of insect pests, which makes me really appreciate a place like this, where we have so few of them. There are parts of Australia which would be very attractive to me if it weren't for the FLIES which you never seem to be able to get away from out of doors. Next time you see any kind of outdoor interview filmed in Australia, watch carefully, and I can almost guarantee that, before long, someone will start to make swatting movements with their arms. It's so common there, they call it the Australian salute. That's the reason why my favorite insect is the Dung-Beetle (also known as the Scarab, and sacred to the ancient Egyptians) whose mission on Earth seems to be to help keep down the flies by eating the dung in which they breed.
But wait a minute - In this business of What Matters Most, aren't I forgetting some of the basics? Isn't it really SURVIVAL that matters most - just staying alive and in good health for as long as possible? Anyone familiar with my work will know that longevity and immortality have been the subject of scores of Pot-Shots, such as these:
0805 If I can survive death, I can probably survive anything.
1523 I want eternal life, or something just as good.
4288 I'm glad not everybody wants to be immortal; it leaves more room for the rest of us.
6665 Don't ask me what happens after death. I'm not even sure what happens after dinner
7807 My plan is not to die -- if that doesn't work, I'll have to try something else.
8909 It's possible that, in some way, we're all immortal -- but I wouldn't bet my life on it.
Some smart-aleck might also say that what matters most is MATTER itself, which certainly ties in with my idea of submitting to the laws of Physics. But you may be interested to know that that word "Matter" is related to the Latin word MATER meaning "Mother." I mention this because Mothers Day is just a week from today, and there's no question that Mothers do matter, although I've always felt that they shouldn't matter any more next week than they do today. As I said on Pot-Shot #455 "Any Day is a Good Day to Have a Mother."
There are any number of other things which to my mind would make good candidates for a whole lecture on "What Matters Most." What about FAITH? What about LOVE? What about PEACE, WORK, COURAGE, KINDNESS, JUSTICE? And what about PERSISTENCE? Yes, remember what Calvin Coolidge said about persistence: (It was one of the best things he, or for that matter, anybody, ever said):
"Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."
OK Mr. Coolidge, but wasn't your campaign slogan "Keep Cool With Coolidge"? What about just RELAXING, just LETTING GO? I have a friend who believes so much in relaxation that he has had the word "RELAX" painted in big letters on the back of his car. But he tells me that sometimes just seeing that word there makes other drivers angry. So be careful, people - we have enough road rage out there already without provoking the uptight idiots behind us by telling them to keep cool.
All these things matter. And I could bombard you with scores of Pot-Shots on all of them. But the time has come for me to wind up these ramblings and tell you WHAT REALLY MATTERS MOST. It is the last of my five F's: You remember the first four: Fame, Fortune, Freedom, and Friends. Well the final F is: FUN. Yes - Fun, Pleasure, whatever makes you feel good - preferably without later making you feel bad. And you mustn't ask me WHY fun is most important. This is one of those self-evident truths which Thomas Jefferson wrote into the Declaration of Independence. He called it "The Pursuit of Happiness," but he might just as well have said "Life, Liberty and Fun." And of course Fun is the one that matters most, because otherwise what's the point of having Life and Liberty?
Fun of course can mean many different things. One of my two sponsors here today is the City College Omega Program, and they chose that name, no doubt in a spirit of fun, because Omega is the last letter of the Greek alphabet, and their programs are supposed to be the last word in education for people who are in the last years of their lives.
So in the same spirit of educational fun for the ancient, I thought I might mention that there is now a fun new use for at least one of the things you can get at your local party supply store. I mean those canisters of helium which people rent to blow up balloons. Helium is not only pleasantly light, abundant, and cheap, but if you breathe it in, is also supposed to be very pleasantly and effectively lethal. I hope you never need this information, but I do think one thing that can matter most in life is how it ends or how you end it.
OK, that's today's contribution to your education. You now want to know, I'm sure, just what I personally do for fun. It's a fair question, and I'm going to give you an honest answer. I'm 73 years old, and at this point in my life, my two most dependable sources of fun are: CHOCOLATE and CAT-RUBBING. The chocolates I prefer to eat are called "UFO's Chocolate Mint Wafers," and you can get them at Trader Joe's. The cat I prefer to rub is called Chummy, and you can't get him anywhere - you'll have to find one for yourself.
The most sustained period of fun I ever had in my life was about 40 years ago, when I was a teacher on board a floating university sailing around the world. That was closely followed by my brief career as a sort of mock hippie guru in San Francisco. This year will be the 40th anniversary of that famous Summer of Love, when I published my celebrated Haight Ashbury Songbook and first performed those songs in Golden Gate Park. So I'd like to conclude today with one of them, which I feel best expresses my own feelings then, and even now, about What Matters Most.
As you know, that was a time when masses of young people were coming to San Francisco from all over the country, dropping out of society to sit quietly in Golden Gate Park, take drugs, and be part of the Hippie scene. But at the same time there were other young people who were going in the opposite direction. They felt socially committed, and many of them were leaving the hippie scene to protest against the Vietnam war, or going to the South to get involved in the Civil Rights movement. My song was about these diverging senses of mission and of submission. I made it the last song in the book, and I called it "The Haight-Ashbury Farewell." I'm sure you'll know the tune - "Red River Valley" -- so feel free to join in the chorus:
From this City they say you are going
I am sorry you feel you must flee
But remember your friends who were hippies
And stayed in the Haight-Ashbury.
Chorus: So come sit in the park one more hour
It was here you first opened your mind
And in friendship I'll give you a flower
To remind you of love left behind.
Oh I hear you've been talking of Justice
Of improving the world and all men,
But I tell you, that road is a circle
Leading back to yourself once again.
If you love this old world and wish truly
To improve it before you are dead
You don't have to press others unduly -
Better start with the world in your head. ##
The first unfolded in 1959, when I was 25 years old. Four years previously, I had emigrated from England to California, and I wasn't yet even a U.S. citizen. But it was the height (or the depths) of the Cold War, and I had idealistically decided that I wanted to do what I could to help ease international tensions by going on my own private peace mission from America to Russia. In preparation for this, I was taking classes at San Jose State College in Russian Language, Russian History, and Geography of the Soviet Union. It was in the Russian History class that I met Barbara, a local girl 3 years my junior who had never been outside the U.S. Before long we were living together, and trying to figure out how we could get through the Iron Curtain and into Russia. In those days, and with practically no money, this was quite a challenge.
Our chance came when we heard about the Seventh World Youth Festival, which was to be held that summer in Vienna, Austria. We knew this was a Communist-promoted event, which the U.S. government made strenuous efforts to dissuade Americans from attending. But we also knew that, upon the conclusion of such gatherings, participants were usually offered cheap tours to the Soviet Union. So we signed up to be part of the American Delegation, and on July 1, 1959, began hitch-hiking East.
Our longest ride was from Winnemucca, Nevada, to Chicago (with someone I next heard from, surprisingly, 30 years later, when he wrote to say he had come across one of my books, and remembered my name.) Eventually we reached New York, where we finally joined up with about 50 of our fellow Festival Delegates, and traveled with them on a chartered plane to Vienna - a flight made miserable by being delayed for 15 hours.
It turned out that there were two American groups at the Festival. One (to which we belonged) was ideologically non-committed; the other was unabashedly left-wing. When the Festival was over, it was only people in the second group who were officially offered tours to the Soviet Union. But other cheap tours were being organized, and we managed to get on one of these. It included a two-night train ride through Czechoslovakia and Poland into Russia, then nine days in Moscow and a day in Leningrad.
In Moscow I fulfilled my ambition of making a speech about Freedom in Red Square. Just outside the Kremlin, I stood up on a platform improvised from a hotel waste-basket. Barbara acted as my first listener, and then took photos. I spoke in English, and as I'd hoped, a crowd soon gathered, with various people in my audience translating for the others. I didn't stop until a policeman, whose attempts to attract my attention I had been determinedly ignoring, gently but firmly pushed me off my stand. He didn't arrest me, and we were allowed to walk peacefully off the Square.
Also while in Moscow we personally distributed slips of paper containing the names and addresses of people we had met while crossing the U.S. To help finance our trip, we had charged Americans 50 cents each for this "service" and we now, as promised, asked each Russian recipient to write to the person whose name was on the paper he or she received. I never heard of anything resulting from this effort, but in any case, it obviously it wasn't enough, since the Cold War went on for another 30 years.
When our tour was over, we were supposed to leave the country promptly. But Barbara and I, after an exciting escape from our hotel, where the comings and goings of foreign guests were always very carefully watched, attempted to hitch-hike out of Leningrad towards Finland. This was strictly forbidden, but we made it most of the way, before being picked up by police and, at no charge, put on a train for Helsinki.
That was really the end of my self-appointed mission, and I was ready to head for home. But it was still only mid-August. Barbara wanted to see as much of Europe as she could. So, mainly for her sake, over the next three months we made a long hitch-hiking journey from Scandinavia down through West Germany and Switzerland, and into Italy, living for extended periods off the kindness of hospitable strangers and organizations. We got as far south as Rome, before finally, at my insistence, turning north again, and going across France to England. In Paris, we met up with an artist friend from California who had been on the Russian tour with us, and was now living on the Left Bank. In England we stayed with my parents at their home in Edgware (uneasy as they were about our irregular relationship). And one grey wintry day we hitch-hiked out to Salisbury Plain and visited Stonehenge when nobody else was there.
Then in mid-December we made a blustery 12-day crossing of the North Atlantic on an Italian passenger ship, the "Italia." From New York, we hitch-hiked back across the U.S., learning how cold places like Georgia, and even Alabama, can get in the wintertime. Along the way we stayed with several families connected with SERVAS, an organization we had joined in Europe, which is still today putting together travelers and hosts in the cause of world harmony. We finally returned to a rainy California in early January, 1960, just in time for us both to enroll for the next semester as graduate students at Berkeley.
Travel can put great strains on any relationship, but ours lasted three more years, through Barbara's M.A. and most of my Ph.D.
Barbara probably never thought she would ever see Russia again, but life is strange, and not long afterwards she found herself actually living in Moscow for a lengthy stay as the wife of a young Canadian scholar she had met in Berkeley.
My own Second Great Journey was ten years later, at the other end of the celebrated Sixties. In that time, I had climaxed a brief college teaching career with two round-the-world voyages on a "floating university;" performed as a sort of mock hippie guru in San Francisco; got married to Dorothy (who had been a fellow-teacher on the college ship); and gone into business, with surprising success, creating and marketing little illustrated epigrams called "Pot-Shots."
Now I had money to travel, and time too, since our faithful friend Doug Kaplan was willing to run our business while Dorothy and I were away. This time, our sights were set on visiting SOUTH AFRICA, a country in which I was interested for many reasons, including its British connections, benign Cape climate, and strange social system of "Apartheid." There were many possible routes from California, but I wanted to go as directly as possible, but with as little flying as necessary. Looking at a globe, I could see that if you stretched a string from San Francisco to Cape Town, it would go right across the widest part of South America; and bending that line just a little would take you along practically the entire length of the Amazon River. Although this whole area was one where neither of us had ever been before, I felt sure that, once we reached the Atlantic coast, we would easily be able to get a ship to South Africa.
The first problem was getting down to the Amazon. We started by taking a German freighter, the "Bartenstein," leaving San Francisco on December 28 1968, and sailing south for 17 days to Panama. From there, I would have dearly liked to go south into Colombia overland. But even today no connecting road crosses the thick jungle between those two adjoining countries. And, although this was a period of relative calm in that region, we decided instead to take advantage of a special deal being offered by the Colombian airline, Avianca. For $70, you could fly anywhere in Colombia for a month. In this way, we visited Cartagena, Santa Marta, Barranquilla, Bogota, Medellin, and the island of San Andres. And we were able to finish up in Amazonia, at what was then the small Colombian settlement of Leticia, about 1200 miles upriver from Belem.
We arrived in Leticia on February 15, 1969, with only a vague idea of getting some kind of water transportation down the river. It turned out that there was a river-boat called the Augusto Montenegro, operated by the Brazilian government, but nobody seemed to know when it would be arriving. We waited six days, but when that big boat did finally arrive, it was not going down the river, but further UP it, to Iquitos in Peru. By that time, however we felt we had exhausted the pleasures of Leticia, so we took passage, went up the river and saw Iquitos, then sailed on the same boat all the way back down the Amazon, visiting the famous inland river port of Manaus before finally reaching the Atlantic coast at Belem on March 8.
Disappointingly, however, we could find no ship at Belem to take us to Africa. It appeared that our best chance, would be at Rio, so we traveled there across the vastness of Brazil by a combination of bus, train, and hitch-hiking. On the way we visited the capital, Brasilia, but found the main government buildings closed up, since recent political turmoil had apparently left the country with no effective government. We also stopped in the old mining town of Ouro Preto, and from there went out one day on foot towards the enticing peak called Itacolomi. We'd been advised to have a guide, but I foolishly figured that as soon as things began to look difficult, we could turn back. The result was that, after several hours, among a myriad of confusing trails, we got seriously lost. It was one of the scariest moments of my life -- followed by one of the most relieved, when I climbed a slight eminence and was able to figure out the way to get us back to town.
We reached Rio on March 28, and then spent a very frustrating month trying to get a sea passage to South Africa. Regular passenger service across the South Atlantic was non-existent, and freighter traffic, as we learned, very irregular. We thought we had a freighter lined up which was to sail from the southern Brazilian port of Rio Grande do Sul in early May, but as that time approached, the details became increasingly uncertain. We had spent the intervening weeks traveling inland to the spectacular Iguassu Falls, then into Paraguay to its capital Asuncion, and then on another river-boat, down the Parana River to Buenos Aires. There we made the rounds of more shipping offices, and by good fortune found another German freighter, the Passat, which was just about to sail from Buenos Aires for Cape Town.
It was a ten-day voyage. We were the only passengers, so we dined with the crew, but had a lot of time to walk the decks and watch the albatrosses which seemed to delight in following the ship.
After all those days at sea, arriving at the breathtakingly beautiful city of Cape Town on May 8 was a thrilling experience. We stayed first with a kind Jewish family, the Friedmans, one of whose sons we had met in San Francisco. Then we rented an apartment with a partial view of Table Mountain. When the full moon came up over its edge, there was a moment when from our balcony it looked as if the Moon were rolling down the Mountain. (This was the same Moon which, just a month later, humans were walking on for the first time.)
The sensitivities of the racial situation, and the absurdities of Apartheid, were brought home to us in many ways. One striking instance occurred when we tried to locate the burial place of a seafaring ancestor of Dorothy's whom we knew had died in Cape Town. The Cape Cemeteries Board, where we went to make inquiries, had a very small office, with a tiny counter, but that counter was still divided down the middle, with the two sides labeled "White" and "Non-White."
Nevertheless, we were enjoying life in Cape Town, especially after I succeeded in getting one of the major newspapers, the Argus, to begin running my Pot-Shots as a cartoon feature. But we were also making more travel plans, with ideas of going north overland, perhaps all the way to Cairo......
Then, with awful suddenness, it was all over.
What happened was that I received a letter which virtually forced us to return to San Francisco immediately. You can blame this debacle on that previous journey to Russia ten years earlier. I had applied for U.S. citizenship in 1960, as soon as I was eligible. But the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, a notoriously hard-headed entity, had taken a very dim view of my whole World Youth Festival escapade - to say nothing of the "immorality" of my relationship with Barbara (whom I had naively produced as a witness to my good character.) They had stalled my application for years, and twice rejected it. Now my third application (slightly sweetened by the fact that I was now married) was being considered. But on June 23 1969, a letter arrived in Cape Town which had been delayed in reaching me, saying in effect that unless I appeared in person in San Francisco at 9 a.m. on June 25, I would once again be turned down, and have to go through the whole tedious process all over again.
At first glance, it seemed impossible to comply. But our friend Mrs. Friedman happened to be a travel agent. And, with her aid, within 3 hours of receiving that letter, Dorothy and I were somehow able to pack up and move out of our Cape Town apartment, and actually get on board a plane bound for San Francisco.
After a 36-hour flight, we were home again. I made it to the hearing in time, and a few months later, I at last became officially American. But it had been a painful wrench to leave South Africa after only those few weeks in one small part -- and after all we had gone through to get there.
And it is my lingering regret that we have never yet gone back to continue that adventure. ##
adore - abhor
appall - enthrall
begun - done
bland - grand
brawny - scrawny
cash - trash
cheer - jeer
chic - geek
class - crass
clear - smear
clean - obscene
conceal - reveal
dreary - cheery
elated - deflated
enrage - assuage
equip - strip
ever - never
fail - prevail
fame - shame
fat - flat
fear - cheer
fight - flight
first - worst
fix - nix
fling - bring
foe - bro
fee - free
fright - delight
glad - sad
gloss - dross
go - whoa
grief - relief
grip - slip
hale - frail
happy - crappy
hick - slick
hired - fired
home - roam
ignore - explore
joy - annoy
kiss - dis
knit - split
leap - creep
lewd - prude
light - night
luck - pluck
make - break
maid - laid
mend - rend
merge - diverge
mope - hope
morose - jocose
natty - tatty
nice - vice
play - pray
please - tease
prop - drop
proud - cowed
pure - manure
quest - rest
quiescent - effervescent
quiet - riot
resist - assist
right - blight
sow - mow
small - tall
sought - caught
stay - stray
stow - throw
stroke - poke
struggle - snuggle
taste - waste
taxing - relaxing
tired - wired
trader - raider
work - shirk
yea - nay ###
January 27, 2006
DROPPING THE PILOT
I was eight years old when planes piloted (according to the movies I saw) by very sinister-looking and sinister-sounding people from Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. But I can remember even before then being taught by my parents that anything marked "Made in Japan" was to be avoided. During the war, of course, all the media portrayed the Japanese as our diabolical enemies, from whom no good of any kind could be expected. And, thanks to many comic books, and movies such as "God Is My Co-Pilot," the image of evil Japanese pilots was strongly planted in my mind.
It was not until 1958, when I was in my 20's, that I had any close contact with an actual Japanese person -- and ironically, he was a PILOT. Worse than that - he was my first flying instructor! I was living in San Jose, California, and had decided that I wanted to learn to fly - and this man had somehow been assigned to teach me. Unfortunately, his English was very poor. I really couldn't understand him, and as I sat beside him in that cockpit, several thousand feet in the air, with my life literally in his hands, I couldn't help thinking uneasily about all those nasty wartime images. He might just as well have been at the controls of a Zero, about to make some fiendish attack. It was not the best type of learning situation, and soon after regaining solid ground, I felt compelled to find another instructor.
We now flash forward a few years to the early 1960's. I am a graduate student at Berkeley, and have purchased a used tape recorder very cheaply at a yard sale. It seems to be in running order, but I can't properly use it because its user's manual (if there ever was one) is missing. And there is another drawback: the machine is marked "Made in Japan." Not only that - it also bears the very suspicious brand name of "Columbia," making me think that it's probably a knock-off, and that I'd be wasting my time trying to contact the manufacturers. But, since an address is given, I decide to risk an airmail stamp, and actually write a letter to the Japanese "Columbia" Company requesting a copy of the manual.
To my amazement, I soon receive back from Japan a polite reply, together with the requested manual, both in decent English. And the machine itself turns out to be quite satisfactory.
I was very impressed, and, from that time, my attitude towards Japanese products began to undergo a somewhat painful revision. I wasn't alone with my mixed feelings. You may remember the scene in that wonderful 1964 movie, "Dr. Strangelove," in which Peter Sellers (in the role of a British Air Force officer) tells about the time when he was a prisoner of war of the Japanese, who, he says, seemed to enjoy torturing him: "I don't think they wanted me to talk really… It was just their way of having a bit of fun, the swines." But then he cannot help adding, "Strange thing is, they make such bloody good cameras."
In all the following decades, I myself never had any occasion to complain about a Japanese product - until just recently, when I developed a very strong attachment to a particular type of ballpoint pen. I liked those pens so much that I bought several boxes of them. But then a serious quality problem emerged. The pens were great while they worked. But time and again, I was annoyed to have one completely stop working, even while its transparent innards showed clearly that it still contained plenty of ink.
Perhaps I should have been warned by the name of the Japanese manufacturer - would you believe it! -- the PILOT Corporation!
However, thinking back to "Columbia," I figured that all I need do was write to the Pilot Company in Japan, and the problem would be resolved.
But although their Corporation website informed me that the Pilot Pen Company was established in Tokyo as long ago as 1918, it failed to provide any information about how to complain about the quality of a Pilot pen . I did, however, find there the name of the Chief Executive Officer. The buck, I figured, must stop with him. So finally I put one of his defective pens in an envelope, and sent it to him with the following letter: [The fact that I happened to be writing on the eve of Pearl Harbor Day was, I assure you, pure coincidence.]
December 6, 2005
Mr. Kiyoshi Takahashi,
President and CEO,
2-6-21 Kyobashi, Chuo-ku,
Tokyo 104-8304, Japan
Dear Mr. Takahashi,
I have great respect for the Pilot Corporation, and great liking for your Pilot Better Retractable Fine-point pens. But there is one problem: They keep drying up and refusing to write, even when there is still plenty of ink in the pen! The enclosed example is only the latest of many I have had (at least five) which I have had to throw away because of this problem. Is there something I am doing wrong? Is there any way to start the ink flowing again? I would very much appreciate your help.
We will now pause while you try to guess what happened next. Did I get a speedy response? Did I ever hear from Mr. Takahashi, or from anyone in Japan? Did I ever get any answer to my question about whether it's possible to start the ink flowing again in one of these clogged pens?
Alas, I hadn't realized how much the world has changed! For six suspenseful weeks, nothing happened at all. Then, when something finally did come, it wasn't from Japan -- but from the U.SA.! Writing from something called the "Pilot Corporation of America," in Trumbull, Connecticut, a very American-sounding "Consumer Advisor" told me that my letter to the "parent company" had been referred to her. (Imagine that! American companies now have parent companies in Japan! So this is what all that talk of "multinationals" and "globalization" is about!)
Enclosed were two new pens and some refills -- which I was certainly glad to have - but there was nothing more pertinent to the substance of my complaint than a statement of "regret" at my "inconvenience" in finding that the pens I had purchased had "not performed as expected."
At some profound emotional level, this was very disappointing. But let's face it -- what was I really hoping for? Did I think there would be a frank acknowledgement to me of what may be some terribly embarrassing production fault? Did I want a humiliating public apology and admission of grievous error? Was I expecting Mr. Takahashi, with my returned pen in front of him, to commit hara kiri?
Shouldn't I be glad, after all, that, if defective pens must be produced and sold, at least part of the job is being given to workers in my own country?
Lest you may feel that I am not showing here all the respect professed in my letter to Mr. T., let me remind you that mine is the generation of "God Is My Co-Pilot," not "Pilot Co. is My God." ###
July 20, 2003
MICRO AND MACRO
Recently, my home computer started behaving very strangely, almost as if it had lost its mind. Over a period of days, it was taking longer and longer to boot up -- and then finally it wouldn’t boot at all, and wouldn’t even allow itself to be shut down. The problem turned out to be massive brain failure, requiring major surgery -- in fact, requiring brain replacement.
Thank God, none of my data was lost. Within a few anguished days, I had my machine back again, apparently as good as new. But, although I hadn’t asked for it, I was also presented with one other thing by the young men who had performed the operation. They gave me the old brain.
They called it the “Mother Board,” and it is sitting on the table in front of me as I write. Although I’ve been using (or trying to use) computers for many years, this was actually the first opportunity I’ve ever had to carefully examine such an object.
I want you to know that what I am looking at fills me with awe. All the parts no doubt have names and functions. But it is an artifact of such thrilling complexity that if you were to tell me it was the work of a fabulously gifted sculptor, or a scale model of a city on another planet, I would not find either concept hard to believe. It has all kinds of strange structures of different colors and shapes,– blocks, cylinders, towers, discs, platforms – and they all seem to be connected by an incredibly complex system of pathways, both above ground, and – even more staggeringly – beneath the surface (as revealed on the under side of the board).
If only one object like this existed, -- and if nobody knew what it was -- I could see it being revered – probably worshipped -- as one of Earth’s greatest treasures – a thing of fantastic beauty, of dazzling intricacy, and of mysterious order – in fact, a whole little universe.
But there are millions of these things! They are ridiculously common. How can something so marvelous be at the same time so mundane?
The same young man who put this old worthless motherboard into my hands also inspected the laser jet printer which had been giving me trouble for years. The paper would never feed properly. He said it wasn’t worth trying to fix, and advised me to get a new one.
But I happened to have another printer of exactly the same model (the Hewlett Packard 5L) with exactly the same problem. And it occurred to me that there must be many other people in the world with the same machine, having the same trouble. So I did what any intelligent person does nowadays in such a situation -- I went to the Internet. And within a few seconds, I had discovered a website called fixyourownprinter.com. It belonged to someone named Moe, and sure enough, Moe knew exactly what my problem was, and had a repair kit which he claimed would enable me to fix it with nothing more than a couple of screwdrivers.
My immediate reaction was of course total skepticism. But Moe provided a long page of testimonials, many of which related specifically to fixing the feeding problem of the H/P 5L. So I ordered the kit. It turned out to be just four small parts, and a very amateurishly produced video. There were no printed instructions.
The job didn’t look easy at all. And in fact, it turned out to be an exhausting ordeal. This was not entirely Moe’s fault. I am not a total dummy, but I would normally never tackle anything as complicated as this. I could see immediately how many opportunities there were to slip up, and I was very nervous.
But I also felt strongly motivated, by the sheer challenge – not to mention the 40 bucks I had invested.
So I got down to it, watching and replaying every few seconds of the video as I worked. Nothing went smoothly. Connections that seemed to come magically apart at a touch of Moe’s hands (which is all you ever see of him) repeatedly resisted my frantic efforts to budge them. Then came total disaster: At a point where the video was particularly unclear, two parts I had removed turned out to be the wrong ones! And I couldn’t get them back in again! There just wasn’t enough room for my fingers.
This would have been the point to give up. But instead, it became my finest hour. I grimly decided that my only recourse was to increase the finger-room by taking the machine even further apart than was shown on the video.
What courage that took! -- But it worked! With a little more space (and a lot more sweat) I was somehow able to cajole the healthy parts back into place. Then at last I could resume going after the sick ones -- and I felt so exalted at getting over this lengthy crisis that my confidence soared.
When I finally put in the last screw, the whole job had taken me seven hours. But it all seemed worth it when I anxiously reconnected the printer -- and for the first time in years, it worked perfectly!
Of course I soon ordered more parts to fix my second machine – and this time it took me only two hours! As I told Moe when I wrote to thank him, I was now only sorry I had no more printers to fix.
But to me the true beauty of this experience lay in discovering so quickly that I was not alone with my problem, and that someone out there had the exact answer.
So here I am – here we all are – somewhere between the Microcosm of the Motherboard and the Macrocosm of the Internet. And sometimes it really does seem a wonderful place to be.
All the best,
May 27 2002
For me, buying clothing is always a stressful chore, and shirts have been particularly difficult lately because I could never find sport shirts with short sleeves and 2 pockets --the kind that's become my standard garb. (I need the second pocket for the sample selection of my cards which I always carry). My chief source of shirts had always been J.C.Penney's -- but they closed their Santa Barbara branch several years ago (without in any way consulting me).
Recently however, I was in a Penney's store in a nearby town (Ventura, if you must know), and was delighted to find they still had my same shirts, still bearing the familiar "Van Heusen" brand name. But there was one big difference -- something very new on the label -- three words which took me totally aback:
"MADE IN MONGOLIA."
I could hardly have been more amazed if they'd said "MADE ON MARS."
I have of course, like all of us, become accustomed in recent decades to finding many common domestic items made in a number of places once considered exotic and remote, if not actual ends of the earth. But this was the first time I had ever even SEEN, let alone purchased, anything made in Mongolia -- a place which, I must confess, has until now, to me, mainly meant Genghis Khan, yurts, and the Gobi Desert.
Now, to that short list, I must somehow add "Van Heusen shirts."
What is going on here? How did the world change this much since I last looked? As I go around in my new Mongolian sport shirt (wondering if this is only the harbinger of some Haberdashery Horde descending upon us out of Inner Asia), I keep remembering Brilliant Thought #729: "There has been an alarming increase in the number of things I know nothing about."
All the best,
©Ashleigh Brilliant, 117 W.
Valerio St. Santa Barbara CA 93101, U.S.A.
Phone: (805) 682-0531. email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ladies and Gentlemen:
My topic tonight is Free Speech. But we all know that speech is not free, at least not everywhere, and not all the time. A good example is my speech here tonight - it's certainly not free. It's being paid for - rather handsomely - by the Nancy Chandler Visiting Scholar Program of the Central Oregon Community College Foundation. And of course I want to thank all the people who have helped to make this happen.
Most of you probably know by now that I was once a teacher
here at COCC, way back in the 1960's, and that I left Bend under
rather bizarre and not entirely voluntary circumstances. Some
of you may actually remember me from those days, and may even
have been part of those events. So when I say it's a pleasure
and an honor for me to be speaking to you here tonight, you know
I've got to mean it!
But because of all that, there's another way in which I'm not completely free to speak here on this very unusual occasion. The thing is, I don't know who you all are, or what connections you may have to the people I'm going to be talking about. Some of those people, actually the principal players, are unfortunately no longer alive to give their version of events. So I want to assure you in advance that, regardless of anything I may say here tonight, I always respected them as human beings, and I respect their memory now. It was in fact an obituary of one of them, the man I knew as President Don Pence which made me realize how much his reputation and mine had become permanently intertwined.
I've been living in Santa Barbara, California, since 1973, and in all that time, I've had very little contact with Bend, or even with Oregon. When Don Pence died in 1994, I hadn't even known he was still alive. But somebody who thought I'd be interested sent me a copy of his obituary as it appeared in the Oregonian. There was one paragraph which naturally captured my attention, and I'd like to read it to you:
"Mr. Pence, who was born December 24 1909, in Sterling, Kansas, headed Central Oregon Community College in its formative years in the 1950's. He resigned as president of the College, however, after dissident faculty members censured him for allegedly making decisions that were, in the words of Clay Shepard, then-president of the Faculty Forum, 'arbitrary, tardy and political.' Among those decisions were Mr. Pence's firing of Ashleigh Brilliant for playing a tape recording of 'HOWL,' a poem by Allen Ginsberg, which contained four-letter words Mr. Pence considered offensive. The College, Shepard said at the time, had 'outgrown the president's ability to manage it.' "
There were three things that impressed me about this: - first that I was mentioned at all in the obituary of a man I hadn't seen or had any contact with in nearly 30 years; second, that I was connected so directly with his resignation, even though that event happened two years after I'd left Bend; third, that the writer of the piece didn't identify Ashleigh Brilliant in any other way - as if everyone in Oregon must already have heard of me. From that time on, I have to admit that I began fantasizing about a triumphal return to Bend.
I suppose many of us have had fantasies like that, about returning after a long absence to some place where, for some ridiculous reason, we were once - shall I say - not fully appreciated - and being welcomed with honor and acclaim. In my case, that dream has not been limited to Bend. I've now published 11 books, and in one of them (the one called WE'VE BEEN THROUGH SO MUCH TOGETHER, AND MOST OF IT WAS YOUR FAULT) I actually listed all 17 of the schools and colleges that I had ever studied or taught at, starting with Dollis Hill Nursery School in London, England, which I left at the age of 5, in 1939, and of course including COCC. And I complained that so far not one of them had honored me in any way whatsoever.
That book came out in 1990. But it wasn't until just two years ago, in May of 2000, that the first one of those 17 institutions rose to the challenge. Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, California, actually decided to invite me back and honor me as their Alumnus of the year. This was quite remarkable to me, because I had only attended that school for one year, in the 1950's, shortly after I'd arrived in California as an immigrant from England. They'd given me a one-year scholarship, during which I'd earned both a teaching credential and an M.A. in Education. But when I applied to have the scholarship extended for another year, they had turned me down.
Since then, I'd never been back. But when it comes to fantasy fulfillment, I believe in taking whatever I can get, so I happily went there to accept the award. And I didn't question it too closely, even though some of you cynics in the audience may think that that all this had very little to do with recognition, and that Claremont was really only angling for a big donation.
But that's what makes tonight's occasion here in Bend so special! COCC now has the distinction of being, after Claremont, only the second institution on that list of 17 to grant me any kind of honor. And your motives in having me here must be pure -- because no matter how much money I might be willing to plonk down, I can't believe that you are ever going to name a building after me to stand beside those fine buildings already bearing the names of Pence and Pinckney, the two gentlemen who once kicked me out of here for dealing in dirty words. That is too much of a fantasy for even my imagination!
But even this glorious event tonight might never have taken place were it not for pure luck. A good friend of mine in Santa Barbara just happened to be a good friend of your current COCC Librarian, David Bilyeu. When Mr. Bilyeu recently learned that I had kept a detailed documentary record of the series of extraordinary events of 1964 and 65 surrounding my dismissal, his librarian's instincts were aroused. He came to visit me, bringing a copy of Frank Fiedler's book, Blazing A Trail: The 50-Year History of Central Oregon Community College, in which I was very impressed to find myself featured in a whole double-page spread headed "The 'Brilliant Affair'." We arranged that I would make a special archive copy for your library of all the material that I had saved. Since I myself was trained as a historian - and in fact History was what brought me here in 1964 - not originally to make it, but to teach it - I was naturally very pleased to cooperate in this project.
So today's event should really be seen primarily as a celebration of the acquisition by your library of that material. And, although I do take it as an honor -- and as a fantasy fulfillment - to be speaking to you here tonight, what really should matter to you is that from now on, anyone who wants to know how The Brilliant Affair all unfolded back in the 1960's need only go to the Special Collections section of the College Library and look through the stupendous array of letters, clippings, memos and other documents which I collected at the time, hoping that someday they would be of interest to somebody, if only to that badly overworked scholar, the "Future Historian."
But here we are now, and it already is the future. At least it's 37 years later. And, ironical as it seems, I am your Visiting Scholar. And you, of course, don't want to bother going through all those papers. You want me to boil it all down for you, and tell you in an hour or so what really happened. That, I have to assume, is really what I'm here for.
O.K. You want to know the truth - so I have to warn you that, since the whole fracas was about naughty words, I can't give you a meaningful account without mentioning some of them.
First, though, you have to know a few things about me. I'm now 68 years old. Back then I was in my early 30's. My hair was black and short, and I didn't have a beard. I had come over as an immigrant from England about 10 years before, and I was not yet even a U.S. citizen. (One reason for that was that the stuffy U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service didn't like the fact that I was at that time living with a woman I wasn't married to. They might never even have known about it, but ironically I had made the naïve mistake of producing her as a witness to my good character.) Anyway, I was not then, and am not now, at least in my own mind, a particularly contentious person. I believe in peace and harmony. But every now and then, especially in my younger years, I found myself in some kind of trouble connected with Free Speech.
For example, I had very strong ideas about education, and once, in my teens I was nearly expelled from school in England because I'd committed the terrible offense of criticizing the teaching methods of one of my teachers. I was so naïve then that I actually expressed my feelings on an examination paper. Instead of answering one particular question about a Shakespeare play that we had supposedly covered in class, I explained that I couldn't answer the question because the teacher hadn't taught the play properly. Nobody ever saw what I wrote except the teacher, and the headmaster to whom she indignantly reported it. But that was enough. I didn't actually get expelled over this, but I did get caned. In those days, caning was still legal in British schools. Sometimes the teacher caned you on the hand in front of the class. But my offense was considered serious enough to deserve a private caning by the Headmaster, in his office, where you had to bend over his desk and he caned you on your buttocks.
(Incidentally I'm pleased to tell you that after I left that school, I somehow became one of the favorite ex-pupils of that Headmaster - his name was E.W. Maynard Potts - and about 25 years later, after he himself had retired and I had become somewhat successful as a writer, that same Mr. Potts quite seriously applied to become my British business agent.)
Another incident occurred In 1953, when I was 19. I had spent a summer in Israel, and felt so concerned about what I'd seen there that when I came back to London I went down to the famous Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park and started talking about the Middle East situation, and my own ideas for making peace. A small crowd soon gathered, which happened to contain both Jews and Arabs. Before long they weren't listening to me any more - they were arguing very loudly and angrily with each other. This was a case where I had to censor myself. I actually had to stop speaking for fear that violence might break out.
I could also tell you about how I nearly got sent to prison in Britain as a Conscientious Objector to the draft, or about how, a few years later, at the height of the Cold War, I organized a Russian Club at San Jose State College in California, and then actually went to Russia,and attempted to give a speech about Free Speech in the middle of Red Square in Moscow, before being forced off my platform by the police. (It was pretty easy to push me off, because my platform consisted of just an inverted trash can, borrowed from my hotel room).
But that happened in 1959. None of that sort of thing was in my resumé, and for the last 5 years before I came up to Bend for a job interview in the summer of 1964, I'd been keeping a pretty low profile, diligently getting my Ph.D. in History at the University of California in Berkeley. I'd been much too busy there to engage in any controversial activities - although, when the University established an official Free Speech Area in 1962, I did make a special point of being there, and being the first person to use it - just to wish it well. As things turned out, however, my good wishes had no effect at all, because that designated area was in an out-of-the-way spot, and, if anything, it gave the impression that the University was trying to keep free speech confined. Three years later, all hell broke loose at Berkeley, when the now historic Free Speech Movement took over the entire campus.
But by that time, I was already ensconced at what was then called Central Oregon College as an Associate Professor of History - a sort of ticking Free Speech time bomb, you might say - not intentionally planning to do mischief, but certainly likely to be set off by any perceived injustice.
Three people interviewed me when I first came up to Bend - Don Pence, the College President, Orde Pinckney, the Dean, and Ted Gibbons, head of the History Department. And quite frankly, I think the one thing that was really of most interest to any of them was the fact that I had a Ph.D. This was a young college on a brand-new campus, striving to achieve academic respectability. Out of a faculty of 29, there were only 4 teachers, besides myself, who had doctorates. Orde Pinckney was one of them, and, though some years my senior, he was himself, like me, a Berkeley Ph.D. in American History. I vividly remember how he assured me, in that golden voice of his, that this was a place in which the ideals of academic freedom would always be held high.
So they offered me the job. But why did I accept it? The truth is that my choices were very limited. Coming straight out of graduate school in a job market that was already beginning to get tight, I had sent out scores of letters to various institutions, but I only got 3 definite offers. One was from Sacramento Junior College in California, and, looking back, I've often thought that was the one I probably should have taken. The only other offer was from what was then called United College in Winnipeg , Manitoba (it's now the University of Winnipeg). They must have been pretty desperate, because they made the offer without even interviewing me.
But climate and physical surroundings have always been very important to me. I knew that Sacramento would be too hot for me, having just spent a very uncomfortable 6 weeks teaching at a summer session in nearby Stockton. Winnipeg, on the other hand, (fondly known to its inhabitants as "Winterpeg" ) was far too cold. Bend, with an average winter high of 40 degrees Fahrenheit at least seemed livable. True, I was a big city boy - London, Toronto, Washington D.C., Los Angeles -- and I had my doubts about whether I could adjust to life in a small town. (Bend was then a city of about 12,500 people, in a county of about 25,000). Also, being single again at that time, and anxious to change that status, I was worried about limiting my chances in such a small population pool. But I liked the people I met in Bend, and although I wasn't a hunter, or even a skier, I liked the environment - the trees, the mountains. And I comforted myself with thoughts about the pleasant possibilities of becoming a big fish in a small pond.
So Bend became my new home, and soon I was renting, for $25 a month, a small one-bedroom house at 1464 Galveston Ave. It wasn't much to look at, and had only a wood-burning stove and one electric heater. I wasn't used to dealing with winter conditions, but I optimistically thought I could manage. In fact, I felt so comfortable in that little house at first that I was thinking of buying it. But that was before winter had really set in.
My job as a History professor gave me a take-home pay of $5880 a year, which, after all those years of student poverty, seemed a fortune. And it gave me plenty of leisure time. I only had to teach one class in American History and three in Western Civilization, so that meant only two preparations. Apart from two evenings a week when I had classes, I was free every day after 10:50 a.m. for the rest of the day. Teachers were not even required to keep office hours.
There was none of the pressure to do research and publish which dominates many 4-year colleges, but I was keenly aware that every teacher's job was supposed to include helping the College to maintain good "public relations." This meant, among other things, taking part in local community activities which I was very happy to do. So I soon found myself speaking to various local groups like the Kiwanis, on a variety of mostly historical topics, such as the social effects of the automobile, which had been the subject of my dissertation, and which many years later was published as my one serious work of history, The Great Car Craze.
The College had been in existence for 12 years, but I had begun my career here in the very first term when it had a campus of its own. I was captivated by the beautiful elevated setting, although everything was still very incomplete. There was no library building. There was no cafeteria. There weren't even any paths or lawns -- nothing to hold down the dust. "Still," I wrote in a newsletter I sent out to my friends in other places "one of the things that really excites me about being here is the feeling of being in at the beginning of something, watching it grow and improve, and maybe actually being able to play some part in shaping its destiny."
No doubt I soon acquired a reputation for being a bit of an oddball, because I was the only teacher who preferred to walk up the hill to the campus, rather than drive, and would even refuse lifts when they were offered. Yet to my own surprise, without even trying for it, I somehow got elected to be President of the College faculty organization, the Faculty Forum -- a position which in the light of subsequent events became highly anomalous.
About the moral climate of the community, I wrote to my friends that "One of the good things about Bend is that it's not too large, but also not too small. It isn't one of those places where everyone's business is necessarily everybody else's. For example, I have so far had very little contact with my neighbors on this street. On the other hand, it's small enough so that if you want to meet people and find out what's going on, it's very easy to do so. And I must say that I have heard and exchanged more gossip these past few weeks than in my whole life before. I am really surprised at how many people I already know or know about. . .Yet I get the impression that there is a surprising amount of personal freedom. Everyone seems to know who is sleeping with whom, but there seems to be little condemnation of other people's behavior. Maybe it's the frontier atmosphere still persisting."
But I soon learned that freedom in Bend had its limits. And my first lesson came from a very unexpected and disappointing source, which really soured me on my chances of ever being happy in this place. But I'm not going to tell you about that now. I'm going to save it for the end of my talk - for reasons which I hope will be obvious to you when we get there.
By late October of 1964 I was already feeling rather lonely in the evenings, so I had the idea of starting a cultural group which would meet weekly, to share and discuss our own and other people's poetry, music, and art. It would meet on the College campus, but be open to anyone in the community. I took the idea to President Pence, and he approved, making me feel that this would be a real feather in my cap. I called the group Parnassus, after the mountain which the ancient Greeks considered sacred to Apollo and the Muses. Our meetings were given some publicity in the Bulletin, and the idea soon proved quite popular. Teachers, students, and townspeople all showed up, with attendance averaging about 25 per meeting. Among those who attended frequently was Dean Pinckney.
Some of us read our own poetry. At our fifth meeting, I recited some examples of a new kind of poetry which I myself was in the process of inventing and experimenting with. I called them "Unpoemed Titles." These later developed into the illustrated epigrams now known as "Pot-Shots" or "Brilliant Thoughts," on which my whole subsequent career has been based.
But not long afterwards, to my surprise, Dean Pinckney took me aside and told me privately that he, and certain other people whom he wouldn't name, did not approve of what he called the "taste" of certain works which he had heard presented. He said he was offended by some of my own lines, although he didn't specify which ones. He suggested that, as he put it, more control should be exercised.
Since this was what really sparked the entire subsequent controversy, I don't see how I can give you any fair idea of what in particular Dean Pinckney may have objected to other than by reading it to you in toto. So here it is, exactly as I read it in room 5 of what was then called Building C, on this campus, on that fateful evening.
(Please remember that each line is meant to be taken as a separate poem - in fact, they were later published on separate pages. Also, understand that they were then still in a very rudimentary form. I hadn't yet hit on the idea of a 17-word limit, I hadn't begun to illustrate them, and I hadn't yet thought about making them easy to translate, so puns and word-play were still OK. And if any of this, after 37 years, still seems too strong for you to handle, please don't start throwing things -- remember that I'll soon be leaving town again anyway).
SOME UNPOEMED TITLES
By Ashleigh Brilliant
But what comes after the miracle?
She used to be my mother.
Among the forget-me-nots, a few little forget-me's.
Things that don't matter, in a world that doesn't care.
Wanted: a portable electric lover, with a re-chargeable heart.
The mistaken memory of love.
Too beautiful to remember.
I will give you $490.62….if you will love me.
Let's practice hurting each other.
Shall I eat pie or cake or kill myself?
A rough seventy years.
Masturbation satisfies one…………but only one.
Beauty is only sin deep.
Chastity begins at home.
I have better ways to waste my time.
How dare you kill my god!
A sneeze of the penis.
Extra! Extra! Extra Munction!
Don't kill us: we'll kill you.
Lust we forget.
I'm famous for flavor - I come in chocolate, vanilla, and gangrene.
Pilgrimage to a stranger manger.
Shitty of New York.
World's Fair, for an unfair world.
I can't - I've lost my swash-buckle.
Look at me everybody, I'm crying!
A single smithereen.
I'm a strangler here myself.
The nights of did and the nights of didn't.
If only I could talk! What a tale I could tell!
Suddenly, you're pregnant.
The walking wounded and the walking dead.
Orgasms of good quality.
Nothing wrong with him a good bullet won't cure.
So now you know - or at least you know as completely as I did - what had troubled the good Dr. Pinckney. You've now heard what President Pence himself once later suggested was so outrageous that he didn't dare to send it through the Post Office. The only other clue I had was that Orde Pinckney did specifically tell me that he also took offense at one line in another poem I had read, not by me but by one of the so-called "Beat" poets, Gregory Corso. It's a poem called "Marriage," and in it Corso fantasizes about his own possible wedding, and describes the priest "looking at me as if I masturbated." So I was pretty clear about at least one word, if not one activity, that was taboo in these parts.
To put it mildly, Dr. Pinckney's friendly warning left me amazed and dismayed. This was the Dean of the College, the Berkeley Ph.D. who just a few months ago had assured me about the sacredness of academic freedom in Bend. I don't know how you would have reacted, but what I decided to do was announce that the next meeting of the Parnassus Society would be devoted to a panel discussion of Good Taste and Obscenity.
Both Dean Pinckney and President Pence were present at that meeting, which was held on December 14, 1964. Word certainly had got around, because there was an unusually large turnout, and, to give us something specific to talk about, I made sure that everybody received a copy of my Unpoemed Titles. The panel consisted of a popular local Episcopalian minister, the Rev. John Bright, Dean Pinckney, myself, and 3 members of the College English Department, Harold Ogden, Keith Browning, and Eli "Buck" Jenkins. I made it plain that, so long as I remained responsible for the Parnassus Society, its programming would not be censored. I talked about another of the Beat poets, Allen Ginsberg, and his already famous poem HOWL, which, unlike mine, had some really naughty words in it, including the word "cocksucker." But I pointed out that "HOWL" had been cleared of all charges of obscenity in a famous trial in 1957, in which a number of scholars had testified to its literary value. I said that I was thinking of featuring it in a future Parnassus meeting. A few members of the audience gave me some mild support, but I got none from any of my fellow panel-members.
President Pence sat in the back of the room. He waited until the very end, and then got up and made a long statement to the effect that while "as an academic community, we have an obligation above all to defend and uphold the right to speak," on the other hand "It does behoove us to behave in such a manner that we do not offend the majority of the body politic." The complete text of those remarks, which I tape-recorded at the time and transcribed, is one of the gems of the collection which now reposes in your library.
So now the lines were pretty clearly drawn. I had already uttered a very naughty word in public. I had been cautioned by the President, the Dean, the Church, and even the English Department. To go any further would be tantamount to committing academic suicide.
But meanwhile other things were happening to make me feel that my days in Bend were numbered. Winter brought weather far colder than I had ever experienced before, Maybe the highs did average 40 degrees, but sometimes the lows went down to 18 or 20 degrees below zero. My little house, with its one wood-burning stove, which I hadn't yet learned to keep going all night, became a literal ice-box. One morning I got up to find the dishes, which I had left in the sink, encased in solid ice, with a column of ice connecting them to the dribbling faucet. The toilet was frozen up. My car wouldn't start. The warmest place inside the house - the only place where I could put anything to prevent it from freezing -- was inside the refrigerator.
When the Christmas holiday came, I hitch-hiked to Southern California, and stayed in my parents' apartment, feeling like a refugee. Then when I returned home to Bend late one night in early January, I was greeted by a horrible scene. A pipe had burst in my house, and the entire place was flooded! (Nobody had ever warned me of this danger, or told me how to prevent it.) Fortunately not many of my possessions were damaged - but I obviously had to move at once, and I took the first place I saw, a centrally-heated downtown bachelor apartment on Wall Street. Thus vanished my dream of eventually buying that little house. It seemed that both Man and Nature were sending me a strong message.
But I still had a contract that ran until June. In Berkeley the Free Speech Movement had already been raging for months, with hundreds arrested, making headlines all over the world. I felt that I had little to lose, and might as well do something to make my remaining time in Bend interesting and meaningful. So just after the Christmas vacation, I went ahead and announced that the next meeting of Parnassus would be devoted to "Beat" poetry, with a reading of Allen Ginsberg's poem "HOWL."
Among the papers you will now find in your library is a copy of the minutes of what appears to have been a special emergency meeting of the College Executive Council held on January 11 1965 at 2 p.m., just a few hours before the momentous reading of HOWL was to take place. Among those present, apparently by special invitation, were 3 faculty members -- those same 3 teachers from the English Department who, in the presence of Pinckney and Pence had already been severely critical of me at the Panel Discussion. But one person who was significantly not invited to this meeting was the President of the Faculty Forum.
According to these minutes, the sole subject of this meeting was what to do about the Parnassus Society. The whole town was obviously now abuzz over this issue after I had made it so public. What should be done if I now threw down the gauntlet? The minutes state: "It had been learned that Dr. Ashleigh Brilliant planned to read the poem HOWL by Allen Ginsberg. He had previously been advised against reading this poem with certain words left in. It was felt that this poem was not in good taste and actually was not even a poem."
Just who made these solemn literary pronouncements is not clear, but the upshot was that they decided not to do anything until HOWL had been howled, and then to "suspend Parnassus Society as presently organized from college sponsorship."
That evening, Parnassus met on campus for what was to be the last time. 24 people signed in, including Bonnita Thomas, the editor of the student newspaper, the Broadside, Ila Hopper, a reporter from the Bend Bulletin, and Orde Pinckney, who however, just sat solemnly and said nothing the entire time. I myself did not actually read the poem, although I had originally intended to. Somebody told me that they had a recording of the poet Allen Ginsberg reading it himself, so I played that instead .
Now, don't worry - I'm not going to inflict a reading of HOWL on you tonight. If you haven't ever read it, I'm sure - or at least I hope - you can find it in the College library. The poem is 12 pages long. It doesn't really have that many vulgar words in it. But it does have a few, including that 10-letter word which I know Don Pence found particularly offensive.
Don Pence was so concerned about that word that at one meeting , which was entirely devoted to this controversy, a joint meeting of the College Executive Council and the entire faculty held 9 days after the HOWL reading, he asked if everybody knew what the word was. Several people said they didn't. President Pence then said that the ladies present might hide their eyes - I don't think any did - and he then wrote the word on the blackboard, and quickly erased it. Yes, this really happened - this time, I was there. I've often wondered how President Pence would have felt if he had lived long enough to hear everything we've all now heard about another President - a President of the United States, engaging in the activity described by that word, in the Oval Office.
But by the time of that meeting, the axe had already fallen on me. And President Pence went somewhat farther than suspending Parnassus from College sponsorship. He "dissolved" it! On January 15, 4 days after the HOWL reading, he sent me the following letter:
Dr. Ashleigh Brilliant
Central Oregon College, Bend, Oregon
Dear Dr. Brilliant:
In view of the fact that the Parnassus Society was approved by executive action and it now becomes apparent that certain activities and programs of this society are not only not in the best interests of the College, but are deleterious, I hereby dissolve the society.
Don P. Pence, President
He also called me to his office, made it pretty clear that I was never going to be re-hired, and asked me to resign. (According to his own account, in his own delightful phraseology, what he said was that if I were to continue on my present course of action, a situation could develop where community feeling could force the administration and Board to a position where my chances for re-employment would certainly be jeopardized.) But I didn't see how he could "dissolve" a group which included many people not even connected with the College. So I boldly announced that Parnassus would continue to meet in my own apartment, and we did actually did hold one meeting there.
If President Pence had stopped at that point, he might have stayed on fairly firm ground. After all, Parnassus had been a group meeting with his permission on College property, and he could certainly withdraw that permission, although his justification in this case was highly questionable. But the next thing he did was quite astonishing, and in the end it may have been this that ultimately led to his own downfall. What he did was send me a certified letter, to my home address at 406 Wall St., Apt. 10. Here is the complete text:
"January 19, 1965.
Dear Dr. Brilliant:
I hereby direct you to discontinue your activities in connection with the recently dissolved Parnassus Society, or any other activities of this general nature."
Can you imagine a College President writing like this to a faculty member! Can you imagine your boss telling you what you can or can't do in your own apartment? And what on earth did he mean by "or any other activities of this general nature"?
President Pence later claimed that this ridiculous letter had
been drafted for him by the School Board's attorney, Mr. Boyd
Overhulse. But it now seemed to me that these actions had placed
the College administration so clearly in the wrong that I had
good grounds on which to base a protest campaign. And from that
point on, with the semi-secret help and support of a few friends
in the community, I began to protest as loudly and as widely as
I could, making sure that everyone knew what was happening at
COCC, and turning the whole issue into a matter of public debate,
not only in Bend, but all over
The results were fascinating. Here in Bend, my faculty colleagues felt they had to do something - so at first they set up a five-member Fact-Finding Committee to investigate the case. Then, just a few days later, before their investigation had even begun, 22 faculty members - in fact, practically every other teacher except those on the Fact-Finding Committee, apparently decided that they already had enough facts. They all signed a letter which was published in the Bend Bulletin, stating that they had no sympathy with me whatsoever. Dr. Brilliant had "violated areas which we hold to be inviolate," and they would not choose to have the pillar of academic freedom "stand upon a foundation of four-letter words." In the face of this, all the members of the Fact-Finding Committee eventually resigned from it without ever bringing out a report. That ended all hope of any internal remedy for the crisis.
But meanwhile, over in Eugene, at the main campus of the University of Oregon, a very different response was building. The student newspaper there published an editorial headed 'Small Colleges and Small Minds,' and a cartoon showing a little old lady in tennis shoes holding a sign saying 'Academic Freedom Begins Somewhere Else,' and burning a copy of HOWL. A petition protesting President Pence's actions was initiated. Then, on February 4 1965 occurred the most dramatic single incident in this whole uproar, although unfortunately I wasn't there to see it. 12 members of the University of Oregon faculty staged a public outdoor reading of HOWL on the Eugene campus. This event was given wide publicity in the media. The Chicago Tribune said 1000 people were in the crowd -- the Oregonian put it at 2000. This in turn had its own repercussions. One was a satirical counter-demonstration staged at Portland State College 6 days later at which a group of their faculty members read a selection of what they said was pure and virtuous poetry, including "Purpose" by Edgar Guest, "Trees" by Joyce Kilmer, and "The Orphan's Friend" by Mrs. Julia Moore, the "Sweet Singer of Michigan."
Newspapers and radio stations began calling to interview me. Academic and civic groups in different parts of the State wanted me to come and speak to them. I did actually go over and speak in Eugene at a crowded meeting sponsored by the University YMCA, where I was made to feel like something of a hero. I also spoke to a packed Unitarian Church here in Bend. Orde Pinckney was there too, and he castigated me for associating myself with what he called "words of the barnyard." The Saturday Review , which was then still an important national literary weekly, commented that "As of now, anybody who wants to can read HOWL out loud in Oregon." Another more personal result of all the hullabaloo was an anxious telephone call I received from my own parents in Los Angeles, who had heard about the Eugene demonstration on the radio, and wanted to know what on earth I was up to now.
By this time, the Oregon branches of the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Association of University Professors had become interested in the case, and were trying to arrange a meeting with the COCC administration. But as pressure built up on the outside, things became less comfortable on the inside. I was still teaching at the College, but some of my colleagues would now no longer speak to me, and some of them were so angry they seemed to be verging on violence. I began to receive anonymous telephone calls, with threats of being beaten up or lynched. Fantastic rumors began to circulate, such as that the Parnassus Society took its name from a society of Greek homosexuals. The Bend Bulletin, which editorially sometimes seemed to favor my position, sometimes that of the College administration, published dozens of letters on all sides. But COCC wasn't Berkeley, and throughout the whole affair, most of the 600 students on this campus seemed to remain amazingly apathetic.
The question now was whether I was really going to be fired over this issue. Until March 10, when the College Board was scheduled to announce its contract decisions, the administration maintained the official position that no decision had yet been made in my case. At the last minute, on March 9, representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Association of University Professors, and the Oregon Education Association finally were able to meet in Bend with the COCC administration and the Board. The visitors proposed an agreement to save everybody's face whereby I would be publicly offered a renewal of my contract on condition that I agreed privately in advance not to accept it.
But the College authorities would have none of that. And next day they made their announcement. Everyone else on the faculty was offered a contract renewal, but not Dr. Brilliant. No reason was given until a month later, when, in response to my insistent demands, a list of 8 reasons was made public. The list was headed by "Poor taste and judgment in programming activities," ended with "caused disappointment, strife, and frustration within the faculty," and also included "failed to demonstrate talent as a historian," "too little concern for his immediate students," and "ineffective teaching." Naturally I requested a hearing to investigate these charges, and naturally I never got one.
The ACLU rejected all those charges as "trumped up to fit the case of the college administration." They had already brought out their own report on the case, which totally supported my position. Here is some of what the ACLU said: "In view of the atmosphere prevailing at C.O.C. and the circumstances preceding the decision of the Board not to renew Dr. Brilliant's contract, we feel that academic freedom has been seriously jeopardized. The effect of the Board's action will only be to increase faculty caution in the expression of unorthodox and unpopular views. The existence of administrative censorship at C.O.C. will not only accelerate the already high rate of faculty turnover, but will also make more difficult the recruitment of new members to the faculty. President Pence and the Board, in their eagerness to preserve a good local image, have overlooked the importance of maintaining an environment that will command the respect of the academic community."
This report also questioned whether COCC even deserved the accreditation it was then seeking, and whether its transfer credits ought to be accepted by other colleges. Possibly as a result, student enrollment for the following term showed a substantial decline. But a more positive result was that the faculty were beginning seriously to agitate for a tenure system, the absence of which I'm sure had prevented many of them from sympathizing with me in any way for fear of losing their own jobs. And at other colleges in Oregon too, according to many reports I received, the teachers and students had taken the events at Bend as a stimulus to healthy concern about the status of academic freedom on their own campuses.
That report by the ACLU was really the high-water-mark of my cause, and the closest I ever came to any kind of vindication - at least, until tonight. From there on, for me in Bend, it was all downhill.
The backlash was apparent early in May, when elections were held in which three incumbent members of the College Board stood for re-election. They were William Miller, G.W. Oxborrow, and Owen Panner. All three were opposed by somewhat more liberal candidates. The incumbents, to my surprise, based their campaigns almost entirely upon their handling of 'the Brilliant case,' publishing full-page advertisements in the Bulletin to that effect. Their opponents played down the issue. The incumbents were all re-elected, two of them by majorities of about 3 to 1.
I served out my contract until the end of the school year in June, and even though towards the end, I began to receive private apologies from a number of my COCC colleagues, that final period in Bend wasn't very easy to live through. Yes, winter had turned into summer. And I had fought a good fight. But I had well and truly lost. I had made a few good friends, but now I would have to leave them all behind. My career in Bend had been spectacular, but I couldn't help feeling that it had been a spectacular failure. My few feeble efforts to find another teaching job had led to nothing - but I felt pretty disgusted with teaching anyway. At least, with all the money I'd saved, there was no immediate financial problem. But where would I go now, and what would I do? On June 12 1965, I drove, alone, southwards out of Bend into a very uncertain future.
(I hope Andy Whipple is taking careful note of this, because when he interviewed me by phone for the Bulletin a few weeks ago, the first thing he asked me was "What was your state of mind when you left Bend?)
I never had any further contact with Don Pence after he fired me, but I suppose you know that, after he himself was forced to resign two years later, he, like me, went on to create a whole new, apparently very successful life for himself, as President of a Community College in central Arizona. Then he finally came back to spend a pleasant honorable retirement here in Bend. According to Mr. Fiedler's book, he once wrote that, for him, having to resign and move away turned out to be a sort of blessing in disguise. And I suppose I could say pretty much the same about myself. By an amazing piece of luck, within a few months of leaving here, I landed what was for me absolutely the ideal job - teaching History and Geography on board a Floating University, sailing twice around the world in what is now known as the Semester at Sea program.
(Admittedly, it wasn't so easy to persuade those people to hire me with my Bend record staring them in the face, especially since the program at that time was being administered by a small Christian college. But, after considering all the evidence, they not only hired me, but they even let me be the Faculty advisor to a Poetry Group on board the ship!)
In a way however, I was unfortunate to get such an ideal teaching job when I was still so young. - because it wasn't the kind of job you could do forever, but it spoiled me for any other kind of teaching. So I had to get another career, and re-invent myself.
It just happened that the end of my second round-the-world voyage on what was then called the World Campus Afloat coincided with the height of the Hippie Era, leading up to the famous 1967 "Summer of Love" in San Francisco. Like thousands of others, I was drawn to that area, and I became a sort of mock Hippie Guru in the Haight Ashbury district, conducting outdoor meetings in Golden Gate Park. It was there that I started reciting my "Unpoemed Titles," which led to my pubishing them first on postcards (of which there are now 9026 different ones in print), then in the years that followed, as a syndicated newspaper feature, then in a whole series of books, and on all kinds of licensed products. If you want more information about all this, please visit my website at www.ashleighbrilliant.com. But as you can now see, it really all started here in Bend, and even despite the cold weather, if the intellectual climate had only been a little less frigid here, who knows, I might never have left.
So what was The Brilliant Affair really all about? Well, let me give you a multiple choice. Here are some of the things that it may or may not have been about, depending on your point of view:
It was about a college president who was much better suited for fund-raising than for running an academic institution of higher learning. It was about a novice professor straight out of a major university facing a lonely winter in a small relatively isolated community, with lots of time on his hands. It was about great issues of Free Speech, Academic Freedom, and Civil Liberties. It was about poetry and culture in the swinging Sixties. It was about dirty words and guilty feelings about sex in our society. It was about a small new community college with no traditions, no roots, no standards, and a faculty mostly concerned with holding on to their jobs. It was about local pride and local shame. It was about narrow minds, cranks, busybodies, eccentrics, trouble-makers and rabble-rousers. Take your pick.
Today of course Freedom of Speech is just as much of an issue as it ever was, but different words have become taboo. Currently the most forbidden word in our language is probably the word "brave," if you try to apply it to a terrorist, as one celebrity appearing on national TV discovered to his cost.
But you'll probably be glad to know that there's one word that even I would be glad to see totally banned --- it's the word "LIKE" when used as a meaningless filler in conversation.
For me however, I have to admit that my own most effective censor over the past 3 decades, has been my wife, Dorothy, whom I met when we were both teaching on that ship.
Well, it's been a long 37 years in some ways - in other ways, I must say it doesn't seem so long at all. But I have long ago forgiven President Pence and Dean Pinckney and all the other people who taught me about the limits of free speech in Bend - with one exception.
You remember I told you I was saving something for the end of my talk - well, here it is:
There's one person in Bend I have never forgiven - and it was over a small piece of censorship which had nothing to do with naughty words, or even with the College, and which took place weeks before the whole Parnassus and HOWL debacle even got started. But it showed me which way the wind was blowing, and I knew it was a wind that would eventually blow me out of Bend. The person I've never forgiven was the Editor of the Bend Bulletin -- the very man who made it possible for me to be speaking to you here tonight by establishing this Visiting Scholar Program: Robert Chandler.
I left this to the end so that those of you who wish to walk out in protest against my bad-mouthing my own benefactor, who died in 1996, wouldn't have to miss the rest of my talk. I agree it may seem ungracious to open this entirely fresh can of worms here and now, but, on an evening devoted to Free Speech, it seems to me, as Lincoln said, altogether fitting and proper.
Anyway, here's what happened: Early in October 1964, shortly after I'd moved to Bend, I wrote a letter to the Bulletin, and Bob Chandler refused to print it. I'd already met him, since he was at that time still on the College Board, who were officially my employers. And he took the trouble to call me to his office to explain. Before I tell you what he said, let me read you the letter:
As a newcomer to Bend, I would like to express my appreciation for the "Hi Neighbor!" service which provides new residents with free gifts, discount coupons, and messages of greeting from local merchants.
I am particularly grateful for the invitation included among my "Hi Neighbor!" coupons from a local funeral home to "Come visit our new chapel," and for the booklet received as one of my free gifts called Knowledge Relating to Funerals, published by the International Order of the Golden Rule. This valuable piece of literature not only provides me with blank forms upon which I may make my will and appoint my funeral director in advance, but also urges me to consider the advantages of a "modern vault" over a "rough wooden box," and of specially designed "burial garments" over those "worn during life." In addition, it reminds me that "the modern embalmer is, in the truest sense of the word, a professional man," and that "a really good funeral director must have something of the true artist's conception of his work." It is comforting to receive evidence of this kind that so important a sector of our national economy as the funeral industry has not been unduly disturbed by such scurrilous attacks as those notorious best-sellers, The American Way of Death and The High Cost of Dying.
Ashleigh E. Brilliant
Are you perplexed? I certainly was. But the reason Mr. Chandler gave me for not printing my letter was that it was "commercially libelous."
Now I'm not a lawyer, and I've never even been an editor, but I personally can't see anything even remotely libelous in that letter, commercially or otherwise. I felt then, and still feel now, that his real reason was that the family who owned the funeral home were a power in the town and an important advertiser in the Bulletin, and he couldn't risk offending them.
He might even have thought he was doing me a favor, preventing me from antagonizing some influential people in town at the very start of my career. But I didn't see it that way. To me, it was unwarranted suppression of a legitimate point of view from the one person in the community to whom freedom of expression should be most important. I didn't protest then - And in fact, until tonight, I have never made this matter public. But it has always rankled with me.
True, when the HOWL crisis erupted, Bob Chandler did resign from the College Board - although he never acknowledged that his resignation had any direct connection with that event. But in this earlier incident, as I hope you can see, he had made it obvious to me that, as far as free speech in Bend was concerned, my goose was already cooked.
But now, thanks to the Program that he himself established, my cooked goose has risen from its ashes! At last I've had my opportunity to set the record straight, or, if you prefer, to even further muddy the waters. So tonight, in closing, I want to say, "I finally forgive you, Bob Chandler, and I thank you for bringing me back to Bend." I thank all of you who were there and fought the good fight with me, and I forgive all of you who, for whatever reason, marched to a different drummer. I thank those of you for coming tonight who are too young to remember any of this, and to whom it must all seem like ancient history. I forgive Bend for first welcoming me so warmly, and then casting me out so coldly. And I only hope that you can all now at last forgive me.
ASHLEIGH BRILLIANT IN THE GALAPAGOS - AN EPIC OF SURVIVAL
My connection with the Galapagos Islands goes back (rather tenuously, I must admit) to sometime in the early 1970's, when I happened to come across a photograph which the Duke of Edinburgh had taken during a visit there to promote the World Wildlife Fund. It showed a couple of lizards on a rock in a strangely intimate position, and I used the idea to illustrate one of my Pot-Shots messages, which said "WHY ARE YOU SO HARD TO IGNORE?" I sent a copy to the Duke, and to my surprise, actually received a reply from Buckingham Palace, informing me that "His Royal Highness was most amused."
Despite this, however, and despite many seductive advertisements I kept seeing for Galapagos tours, I found those Islands very easy to ignore for the next 3 decades. But a few months ago, there was a news report about escalating trouble down there. Conflicts between fishermen and environmentalists had become really nasty. As part of a protest demonstration, one of the famous giant tortoises had actually been kidnapped.
"If we're ever going to the Galapagos," I said to Dorothy, "we'd better go soon. I've got a feeling that things are only going to get worse." So we booked a tour with the Nature Conservancy - and sure enough, things almost immediately got worse. Only two weeks before our scheduled departure from Santa Barbara came the ghastly news of an oil spill from a wrecked tanker. I seriously considered trying to back out. But we were assured that the damage was minimal, and the tour was still on.
To most people, the Galapagos means Darwin, which means Evolution, which means Survival. And to me, survival meant surviving the trip itself. At 67, I don't travel nearly as well as I once did, although Dorothy, who's two years older, seems to get better at it all the time. Among the documents we had to sign was a waiver exonerating the Nature Conservancy from all responsibility for any number of terrible things which could happen to us on an archipelago 600 miles from the mainland, with only the most primitive medical facilities. We bought special insurance which supposedly guaranteed our evacuation by air in any dire medical emergency. But after reading Kurt Vonnegut's ominous novel Galapagos, I had little doubt that, in evolutionary terms, human survival in such a locale would ultimately depend on our developing not wings, but flippers and fins.
Our route was via Miami and Guayaquil, the big steamy Ecuadorian port city, from which we flew to the Galapagos island of Baltra, then boarded a 20-passenger motor-yacht for a 7-night cruise of various other islands. The weather was sometimes rainy, sometimes oppressively hot, sometimes so pleasant it was hard to believe you were not only in the tropics, but actually on the Equator. Our ship, the Flamingo I, was air-conditioned and well-run, and the food was good enough to make one wish that evolution were based on the survival of the fattest.
This whole tour business is obviously very big in the Galapagos. You are rarely out of sight of other tour-boats on the water and other tour groups ashore. The wrecked tanker, the Jessica, had actually been bringing oil to supply this vast fleet of tourist vessels, of which there are already more than 85 of various sizes.
But we were "eco-tourists," a relatively new concept, which means that you are supposed to enjoy without destroying, and part of the money you pay for your tour helps to preserve the place. The Galapagos Islands are a province of Ecuador, and most of the area is officially a National Park, governed, at least in theory, by strict rules. In this Park, there are no hotels or facilities of any kind. You sleep and have all meals on your boat, and you are not supposed to eat or even excrete ashore. You go ashore in launches, called pangas, in groups of about ten, with a guide, you stay on marked trails, and you resist the temptation to put pretty shells in your pocket.
The business of getting in and out of the pangas is not for the faint-hearted. There are "dry" landings where you have to jump ashore onto sometimes slippery rocks. (I was pleased to find that one of these landing-places, on the island of Genovesa, was called Prince Philip's Steps, in honor of my royally amused patron). And there are "wet" landings where there is no alternative but to wade ashore. (Choosing appropriate footwear had been a major worry in packing for this trip. We blessed the man at Boaters World who had suggested the light closed shoes called Deckrunners). But the guides and crewmen are always there to help you. Our Ecuadorian guides were extremely professional and highly competent . They spoke English well, and were very knowledgeable and enthusiastic. If Ecuador were being run by its tour-guides rather than its politicians, the country might be in better shape than it is.
But of course you are there primarily to see animals and birds, particularly the ones you can't see anywhere else - the big birds with sky-blue webbed feet, the ones who blow up their throats like large red balloons, the little equatorial penguins, the cormorants who've forgotten how to fly because here they have no enemies to get away from, the grotesque sea-going lizards, and the gigantic land lizards.
Darwin spent only 5 weeks in the Galapagos in 1835, and visited only a few of the islands. (Darwin, incidentally, was no eco-tourist, and in fact wrote about how he pulled lizards' tails just to see how they would react.) But even by his time, various non-native animals had been introduced, such as goats, pigs, cattle, dogs, cats, and rats (to say nothing of people), which have multiplied prolifically and had a devastating effect on the indigenous species. But the good news is that there are still some islands which have never had any introduced animals, where you can today walk about among bevies of strange critters who are all so tame that they don't even seem to be aware of your existence. You and your group can thus have the rare experience of standing around a couple of Masked Boobies, watching their mating behavior, while your guide explains in what (under the circumstances) seems an embarrassingly loud voice exactly what they are doing. One peak moment for me came when I was standing on a beach, and a small shore-bird walked unconcernedly right between my legs.
Unfortunately, however, even on those islands which are still relatively pristine, you will probably not see the giant tortoises, which are almost extinct (partly because it was found they could conveniently remain alive for months upside down in the holds of sailing ships, with no food or water, thus providing an excellent supply of fresh meat). The only giant tortoises we saw were on Santa Cruz, the most densely populated island, some on a private farm (where one of them, who was in the road, actually had to be lifted out of the way of our bus) the rest at the Darwin Research Station, where they are being bred as part of a long-term rehabilitation effort. It was there that we saw the one who had been kidnapped by the unhappy fishermen (who incidentally appear to have won the concessions they sought) and subsequently restored unharmed. He has always been something of a celebrity because he is the last of his particular subspecies, and no female has been found to mate with him. He's known as "Lonesome George."
One small island we sailed around without, for obvious reasons, attempting any landing, was the almost inaccessible Daphne Major, made famous by Jonathan Weiner's 1994 Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, The Beak of the Finch, which tells of two devoted scientists, Rosemary and Peter Grant, who have spent decades there actually documenting ongoing evolutionary changes among the bird population. The Grants were there now, we were told, but the only sign of any human presence was an incredibly precipitous-looking trail zig-zagging up from almost perpendicular rocks at the water's edge.
It was already dark, on our last night in the Galapagos, when our boat anchored for a few hours off San Cristobal, so we had no chance of seeing the wreck of the Jessica which was somewhere out there. But nowhere on our voyage, which included visits to about 9 widely scattered islands, did we see any evidence of oil pollution.
So it seems the Galapagos have survived yet another of many calamities. But even more important to me at this point, I must confess, is the fact that I have survived the Galapagos.
### ### ###
July 30, 2000
This letter is about a supermarket chain and an accused rapist. The only connection between them is that both have come to my attention quite recently, and I find them both fascinating for just one reason: their names.
The supermarket chain, which I discovered on a visit to British Columbia, and which is apparently quite big in western Canada, is called OVERWAITEA.
My first thought, when I came upon it, was that the name didn't look very Canadian, but must be some polynesian word, perhaps pronounced "over-why-tee-a."
Nothing of the sort, as I soon found out. It is actually pronounced "overweight tea" -- and that, in fact, is exactly what it means, or at least what it meant originally.
Nowadays the word "overweight" tends to connote obesity. But it can also mean "extra measure." The story goes that this chain was founded in Alberta in 1915 by a man named Robert C. Kidd, who built a reputation on always giving more tea than you paid for. Why just tea I'm not sure, but, judging by shelf-space, tea still seems to be even more important in Canadian than in American diets.
Anyway, Mr. Kidd's store came to be known locally as "the overweight-tea store." And when the time came to choose an official company trademark, he kept the pronunciation, but for some reason jazzed up the spelling, making it OVERWAITEA.
So that's the official explanation. But I have to say that, looking around that supermarket, I did seem to see a lot of people who looked distinctly overweighty.
My other name story concerns a man who first hit our local headlines only a few days ago, having been arrested on a charge of assaulting various women after putting a "date-rape drug" in their drinks. According to reports, photos and videos were found in his home showing him having sex with unconscious victims. He hasn't yet been tried, but, after seeing the evidence, the judge set bail at $10 million, and was quoted as saying that "there is no question" that this man is "a clear and present danger to women."
The man's name is: Andrew Stuart LUSTER.
Here is a remarkable case in which a person had a good name, which, in its ordinary meaning, any American could be proud of. (In Britain, that pleasant, shiny version of the word is usually spelled "lustre"). But now, by his own actions, he has turned it into his own ugly indictment. (And luster means "one who lusts" on both sides of the Atlantic).
ASHLEIGH BRILLIANT ACCEPTS "DISTINGUISHED ALUMNUS"
AWARD FROM CLAREMONT GRADUATE UNIVERSITY
May 13, 2000
Ladies and Gentlemen
My job today (as I see it) is to thank you for this incredible honor, and then get out of here before you change your minds.
This award means more to me than you may think - and not just because it includes a free breakfast.
For the past 3 decades, I've been working in an intellectual vacuum, waiting for the academic world to rush in with honor and praise. I've been featured in the Wall Street Journal and People Magazine, beamed around the world on CNN, syndicated and licensed, sold books in the hundreds of thousands, and had fans who named their children after me. But what I've always most longed for was the recognition of my academic peers, and ultimately, the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Well, believe it or not, this event today is the closest I have so far come to that goal. In fact, in my entire life, this is the first time I have ever been formally honored for my work by any educational institution anywhere!
And of course, it is all the sweeter, coming from an Alma Mater.
"Alma Mater," (as I'm sure you all know) means "nourishing mother." My Claremont nourishing began some 45 years ago, when I received a letter signed by Luther Lee granting me a one-year $1000 scholarship. I was a recent immigrant from England, and still desperately poor. I paid $20 a month for a small room on College Ave., in the home of Professor Iredell. My faculty advisor was a young new Ph.D named Arthur King, who probably felt as insecure as I did, but nourished me with encouragement which I sorely needed. Thanks largely to him, in that one year I managed to get both a teaching credential and an M.A. in Education.
It was at Claremont, to celebrate my poverty, that I wrote a "Sonnet on Sardines," part of which described the physical nourishment I was getting in those days:
Ten cents a day is all I can afford
For lunch, and so sardines I then devour,
One little can at noontime, my reward
For living through the morning till that hour.
With desk half-cleared, and papers pushed aside,
With can and implements before me neatly spread,
I set to work, and with a certain pride
Of craftsmanship, exhume the fishy dead . . .
But just how did my Claremont degree lead to my emergence as the world's only full-time professional epigrammatist? Well, my Claremont M.A. enabled me eventually to go on for a Ph.D. (in History) at Berkeley, which enabled me in 1965 to get a job teaching on board a "floating university," sailing twice around the world. That job was so ideal, it ruined me forever for any other kind of teaching. But the hippie era in San Francisco was just then beginning, which I very happily got caught up in.
It was a time ripe for all kinds of experimentation, and I was experimenting with words. Somehow all my studies and training in Education had begun to precipitate into little capsules of thought, which I eventually limited to a maximum of 17 words, saying things like:
I know I need to learn patience - where can I take a crash
It's not fair - the better I teach, the sooner I lose my best pupils.
We can all learn from our failures - what I've learned is how much it hurts to fail.
If chocolate could teach, I would by now be extremely well-educated.
And I began to realize that, with insights like these, especially if they were accompanied by clever illustrations, I had a new way of making a living - entertaining, educating, and helping people to communicate. I began by copyrighting them individually and putting them on postcards, which I called Pot-Shots, or Brilliant Thoughts, of which there are now 8,684 different ones in print. One thing led to another, and I can now claim to be the world's highest-paid writer (per word), and also one of the most widely quoted - although people don't always realize whom they are quoting.
So that's how it all happened, and if you want to know more, please visit my website at www.ashleighbrilliant.com I'm enormously grateful to all those living and dead who made this wonderful occasion today possible. Because, as it says on Brilliant Thought no. 1124 "I WANT ALL MY POSTHUMOUS MEDALS IN ADVANCE."
February 23, 2000
Sorry to have been out of touch lately. Dorothy and I have been in Nepal, a country which most people (if they think of it at all) associate with climbing in the Himalayas. But we spent most of our time in the capital, Kathmandu, and in a very strange lowland place called Lumbini.
About Kathmandu, I have just one word for those of you who have any interest at all in going there: DON’T! It is a hell-hole – the most polluted place I have ever gasped for breath in, with murderous traffic, pestiferous peddlers, and a river to make you long for the sweetness of your local sewer.
Lumbini, on the other hand, might be described as a heaven-hole. It is supposed to be the birthplace of Buddha, and an area of several square kilometers around the actual birth-site (which is marked by a tree, a pool, and some ruins) has been set aside, in which the only buildings allowed are religious structures. So various countries in which Buddhism is big, such as Korea, China, Japan, and Burma, are in the process of erecting temples and monasteries in their various national styles. The whole thing could eventually become a kind of Buddhist Disneyland – but at present, it is still rather primitive and low-key, with plenty of open space (in which I did a lot of walking) and a tranquil atmosphere, very good for meditation.
While my wife attended a women’s conference there (which was the main purpose of our trip) I mostly meditated about the persistent problem of getting fed properly, and about why I was sleeping so poorly (not figuring out until after I got home that the insomnia was probably a side-effect of the anti-malaria medicine I was taking).
We also spent two nights at a "jungle camp" called Tiger Tops, where we had the privilege of stomping about through the bush on the back of an elephant – fording rivers and observing live rhinoceroses, who looked as if they knew they ought to be extinct.
And (at a place called Manakamana) we took a brand-new very spectacular cable-car ride up to a Hindu temple where you can have the dubious thrill of watching little live goats being very unwillingly sacrificed by having their throats slit and their heads cut off.
Everything seemed very cheap in Nepal, but getting there and back was costly and ghastly, to say nothing of the jet-lag, from which (five days after returning) I am still groggy. If you really are a friend, please keep reminding me not to do anything like this again.
All the best,
A new Federal building recently opened in our town. It is large and (by my standards, at least) palatial. Another California city I visited not long ago had a similarly new and magnificent structure, built for the same specific purpose. For all I know, these grand edifices are going up all over the country. What are they? -- Bankruptcy Courts!
Pardon me for being surprised, but I always thought bankruptcy was a rather shameful thing that happened only to people who got into debts which they couldn’t pay. Since our whole economy is based on credit, i.e. trusting or believing people when they make solemn promises to pay what they owe, I would have expected social pressure to make bankruptcies relatively rare, and all their proceedings to be hidden away in the darkest and most dismal corners of our judiciary. Instead, we find the whole thing being flaunted, popularized, and made virtually respectable.
What is happening here? There was a time (not so long ago historically) when people were put in jail for owing money. Now we not only don’t punish them, but we make it easier and easier for them to slide out of their old debts, and start getting into new ones.
Am I displaying some kind of bias or ignorance? No doubt you want to tell me that the big waste in government construction projects is not in bankruptcy courts but in our massive new gulag of prisons. You would of course be right. But the courts tend to be much more centrally located -- and, unlike the prisons, they are freely open to the public. That, in fact, as far as our local specimen is concerned, is to me its only redeeming feature. Santa Barbara, you see, is lamentably lacking in public rest-room facilities, and our new Federal Bankruptcy Court building has some splendid ones.
There’s only one hitch: Every time you enter the building, even if it’s just to use the rest-room, you, and everything on you, have to pass through a physical inspection so rigorous that you might as well be boarding a jet for Jerusalem. The purpose, I’m sure, is not simply to discourage all but the most pressing lavatory visitations – but it does tend to have that effect, at least on me. Once past all the guards and metal detectors however, you can enjoy what must surely be not only one of the most elegant taxpayer-funded rest-rooms in town, but also one of the safest. This of course presupposes that you don’t mind the questionable company of bankrupts and lawyers – perhaps even (horrible thought!) of bankrupt lawyers. ##
Jan. 11, 1999
THE Y1K CRISIS
By Ashleigh Brilliant (www.ashleighbrilliant.com)
Canterbury, England. A.D. 999.
An atmosphere close to panic prevails today throughout Europe as the millennial year 1000 approaches, bringing with it the so-called "Y1K Bug," – a menace which, until recently, hardly anyone had ever heard of. Prophets of doom are warning that the entire fabric of Western Civilization, based as it now is upon monastic computations, could collapse, and that there is simply not enough time left to fix the problem.
Just how did this disaster-in-the-making ever arise? Why did no one anticipate that a change from a three-digit to a four-digit year would throw into total disarray all liturgical chants and all metrical verse in which any date is mentioned? Every formulaic hymn, prayer, ceremony and incantation dealing with dated events will have to be re-written to accommodate three extra syllables. All tabular chronologies with three-space year columns, maintained for generations by scribes using carefully hand-ruled lines on vellum sheets, will now have to be converted to four-space columns, at enormous cost. In the meantime, the validity of every official event, from baptisms to burials, from confirmations to coronations, may be called into question.
"We should have seen it coming," says Brother Cedric of St. Michael’s Abbey, here in Canterbury. "What worries me most is that ‘THOUSAND’ contains the word ‘THOU,’ which occurs in nearly all our prayers, and of course always refers to God. Using it now in the name of the year will seem almost blasphemous, and is bound to cause terrible confusion. Of course, we could always use Latin, but that might be even worse -- The Latin word for ‘Thousand’ is ‘Mille’ – which is the same as the Latin for ‘mile.’ We won’t know whether we’re talking about time or distance!"
Stonemasons are already reported threatening to demand a proportional pay increase for having to carve an extra numeral in all dates on tombstones, cornerstones and monuments. Together with its inevitable ripple effects, this alone could plunge the hitherto-stable medieval economy into chaos.
A conference of clerics has been called at Winchester to discuss the entire issue, but doomsayers are convinced that the matter is now one of personal survival. Many families, in expectation of the worst, are stocking up on holy water and indulgences.
December 29, 1998
WHAT I FOUND IN "PARADISE LOST"
By Ashleigh Brilliant (www.ashleighbrilliant.com)
Warning: I am (in all likelihood) about to change your life. Not in any big significant way, but in the same slight but probably permanent way that mine was changed when, just recently, I made the discovery which I am going to share with you here.
First, a little background: Somehow I had managed to live to the advanced age of 65 without ever reading "Paradise Lost." Of course I knew that John Milton is supposed to be the greatest English poet, and that "Paradise Lost" is supposed to be his greatest work.. But exposure many years ago at school to some of his other work had been more than enough for me. Nevertheless, I recently decided to give it a try.
It turns out to be a phenomenally LONG epic (275 pages in my edition), giving Milton’s version of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. There is no rhyme, far too little punctuation, and the entire format is so dense that, if you lose your place, you’re in real trouble.
But one thing has encouraged me to keep on wading through this mass of verbiage -- the thought that, since it is such a famous work, there must be, buried in it, many expressions which, as with Shakespeare, are so often quoted that they have become part of our language. So far, however, (and I am already up to page 246) despite diligent search, I have found only one such passage. But that singular find impressed me so much that I felt I had to tell you about it.
The one (and possibly only) original piece of "Paradise
Lost" which you and I would immediately recognize as familiar
in everyday speech is to be found on line 918 of Book IV. It consists
of just four one-syllable words:
ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE
How do I know that this originated in "Paradise Lost" and wasn’t said by somebody else even earlier? Well, don’t take my word for it. After making this stupendous discovery, I rushed to my reference books, and soon found the Milton origin confirmed by my Penguin Dictionary of English Idioms.
But what seems most remarkable to me is the fact that Milton used those words in a very special way. They are part of one of many lengthy dialogues in the book, this one between Satan and the Angel Gabriel, after Satan has escaped from the nether regions to which he was supposed to have been confined, and has been caught attempting to sneak into the Garden of Eden. Gabriel wants to know why Satan escaped by himself rather than at the head of all his infernal followers. He therefore asks:
"But wherefore thou alone? Wherefore with thee came not all Hell broke loose?"
So you see that a funny thing happened to those four words on their way into colloquial speech. Milton was using them in a quite literal sense, and would no doubt be aghast at the way we bandy them about today.
I will bet whatever you like that hardly anyone who today says "that’s when all hell broke loose" realizes that they are quoting Milton. But from now on, YOU will know – and it’s such an odd piece of information that you may never forget it. So, to that extent (and I hope for better rather than for worse) I will here and now take credit for having changed your life. ##
Ladies and Gentlemen:
My appearance before you today is quite possibly an event far more remarkable to me than it is to you - so much so that is has set me searching for superlatives. When our astronauts first landed on the Moon in 1969, President Nixon, in welcoming them back to Earth, declared that it had been the greatest week in the history of the World since the Creation. If he were here with us tonight (and unfortunately, I don't think he is), and if he knew as much about me as he obviously did know about the Creation, he would have to say that this is the greatest event in my life, if not since my first arrival on this planet, then at least since the last time I was in Kansas City.
That previous momentous occasion was just five years ago. It was then that the Hallmark Card Company (which I believe some of you may have heard of) signed an agreement with me which in effect made me the highest-paid writer per word in recorded history. If you can contain your curiosity for a few minutes, I am shortly going to tell you exactly what the 32 words were for which the Hallmark Card Company paid me $15,000.
But first, there are some other questions we need to answer: Just why is tonight's event even more important to me than that? And why, if that is the case, when I first received your wonderful letter offering me this Award - why was my first reaction to burst out laughing?
The fact is that I am acutely conscious of being the first member of my profession ever to be thus distinguished. This becomes even more significant when you realize that, distinguished or not, I am actually the ONLY member of my profession - period. It is a profession I invented just 20 years ago, after reaching, before Hallmark, the previous high-water mark of my life. "High Water" is in this case a very appropriate term, as you will see. In my previous career, I had been a college teacher, and that might have kept me busy and out of mischief for a long time - except that I had the misfortune, while still in my early thirties, to secure what was for me the ideal teaching job. It was a job sailing around the world, teaching History and Geography on board an ocean liner which had been converted into a floating university. When I say "ideal" I really mean it. Ever since my childhood, in which I had attended a number of different schools in several different countries, I had had very strong ideas and feelings about Education, and I had actually fantasized that one day there would be schools on ships which could take you to the actual places you were studying about. But it was a misfortune because, ideal or not, once you had been around the World several times, where else was there to go? It simply wasn't the kind of job I could go on doing indefinitely - but on the other hand, I was spoiled for anything else - certainly for anything else in the teaching line.
It thus became necessary for me to invent a new profession for myself. And I started, quite literally, in the gutter. Yes, just 20 years ago, I was sitting on the sidewalk on Haight Street in San Francisco, among the runaways and the castaways, with a sign on me which I had made, saying "LET ME WRITE YOU A POEM." Actually, I had a nice apartment just around the corner - but I had always wanted to see if I could make a living as a creative writer, and this was the most simple and direct test I could think of. And it was certainly the right time and place - the now-legendary Haight-Ashbury in the year of the great "Human Be-Ins" and the famous Summer of Love.
What I found was that, just sitting there on the street, I could come up with little pieces of writing that people would actually pay me money for. Not MUCH money, but enough to encourage me in further experiments, including attempts to sell my drawings and paintings, on which I usually wrote a few words as a title. In the course of this research, I made one of the great discoveries of the Twentieth Century - that people would often buy a piece of my art not because they liked the picture, but because they liked the TITLE! This taught me how much power there can be in a very few carefully crafted words - and was the tail of the tornado that has now twice lifted me and my wife DOROTHY, and blown us down the yellow-brick road from the Emerald City of Santa Barbara to the OZ of Kansas City.
Having made that phenomenal discovery, I began to concentrate on this minuscule form of writing, publishing the results on postcards, and calling them at first "UNPOEMED TITLES," and, later on, "POT-SHOTS" or "BRILLIANT THOUGHTS." It wasn't until my first book was published in 1979 that my profession acquired an official name. The Library of Congress classified my work as "EPIGRAMS," - so that made me a professional EPIGRAMMATIST, a word I was pleased to find already existing in the dictionary.
But finding a new way of making a living was hardly enough of a challenge in and of itself to make such a career truly worth persisting in. There had to be more in it than that. The real challenge, I decided, since work like this had virtually no standing whatsoever among critics, scholars, and those who award prizes for accomplishments in the arts, would be to get myself taken seriously at the highest and most respectable possible levels of recognition, with the Nobel Prize for Literature as an ultimate goal.
You now perhaps begin to get an inkling of why tonight's occasion is so very gratifying and encouraging to me. In twenty years of playing this self-created game, during which I have also created some 4,300 marvelous illustrated epigrams (some of them of course more marvelous than others), published 5 books, brought out some 16 licensed products, been quoted in everything from Readers Digest to textbooks on psychology, communications, management, and aging, been syndicated in newspapers in at least 4 different countries, and made a fool of myself in public on innumerable occasions, -- my highest achievement until tonight was to rent out a few epigrams to a major card company for a large amount of money. But tonight, TONIGHT, I become the first recipient of an award which has never existed before: the Raymond B. Bragg Award for Humanism in Entertainment and the Arts. And, although this may surprise you, in my entire 20-year career as the world's pre-eminent professional epigrammatist, this is the first formal award of any kind which I have ever received!
NOW you can understand why, when your incredible letter arrived, I couldn't help LAUGHING when I read the following sentence: "We realize that you are very busy, and that we must offer you something more than just another award." JUST ANOTHER AWARD! For twenty years, I have been waiting eagerly and expectantly beside my mailbox and telephone for the awards to start coming in. And only now do I realize why it took so long. Anybody who is going to invent a new profession and produce a totally new kind of art and literary form is inevitably going to have to wait until somebody else invents a totally new award to honor them with.
This somehow seems to put me in the position of the man who wants to hire a horse to ride, and explains that he's never ridden one before. They tell him not to worry because the horse they're giving him has never been ridden before either, so they'll be starting out equal.
But that's not the whole story! Part of my joy in receiving this prize was that not only had I, with such long, pathetic hopefulness, been WAITING for it, but that I had also managed, at one of the rare prophetic moments of my life, with surprising accuracy, to actually PREDICT IT!
Seven years ago, back in 1980, I was somehow able to finagle myself into several weeks of free accommodation in a solitary cabin in a sort of writers' retreat in the Southern California hills called the Dorland Mountain Colony. My real reason for going there was jus wanting to get away from home for a while, but in order to be admitted into the place, I had to have some ostensible literary project. Of course, I might not have got very far if I had just said I was working on an epigram, so I told them I wanted to write a play. I knew this might be the only play I would ever write, so I decided to have fun with it, and make it a sort of thinly-disguised mixture of autobiography and fantasy-fulfillment. The hero was somebody like me, living in a place something like Santa Barbara, and I made him the founder of a very free-wheeling kind of "School of Thinking." Since I was indulging my fantasies here, I naturally wanted him to receive an award for his achievements. Of course, I could have given him a Pulitzer or a Nobel Prize; but I didn't want to stretch credibility too far. I gave him what I called the "Nolworth Prize." That name was just slightly suggestive of the Nobel Prize, but since I can never help laughing at myself and my own vain pretensions, I wanted it also to have a connotation of nil-worth or no-worth.
So, one day, out of the blue, my hero receives word that he is going to be awarded this year's Nolworth Prize for his achievements in the field of Educational Innovation. The news comes from a large city in the Mid-west, -- not Kansas City, but I was pretty close: I made it Minneapolis. The award is made by a committee at a small but respectable institution (I called it Conway College), but one which, as also in reality turned out to be the case, most people, including unfortunately even my hero's closest friends, have never heard of. Nevertheless, the prize has a certain financial value (I didn't specify how much), and it involves the hero and his wife traveling to the institution to receive the award in a formal ceremony. And even the people who have never heard of it acknowledge when they DO hear about it that it is a matter of real prestige and distinction.
Of course, a lot more than that happens in the play, including one part which I hope is not at all prophetic (although if you knew enough about my life so far, you'd say it certainly could happen) where the hero's neighbors begin passing a petition to get the Prize revoked because they are shocked by what they think is going on at his school. But, from what I've told you, you won't be surprised to hear that, when your historic letter arrived at my house, six years after I wrote the play and one year after it was finally given its first performance, I jumped up, waving the letter and shouting "IT'S COME! THIS IS IT! THE NOLWORTH PRIZE!" And, believe it or not, just as happens in the play, my wife came out of the kitchen in her apron, holding a dish-towel, and immediately began to worry about what we were going to wear for the event!
Since I'm a historian by training, once it became apparent that this wonderful thing wasn't just a fantasy or a joke this time, and was really going to happen, I began to think and study about prizes and awards, and what they mean and have meant in our society. The first thing I learned is that very little work seems to have been done by scholars in this area, and I couldn't find a single good book on the subject as a whole. But one thing that's pretty obvious is that certain specific prizes have sometimes had a great deal to do with motivating human progress in particular endeavors. One notable example is an event that happened just 60 years ago next month. It was in May 1927 that Charles Lindbergh, carrying the name of another mid-western city to glory, became the first person to fly alone from New York to Paris. Why did he do it? Largely because a man named Raymond B. Orteig (yes, RAYMOND B.!) had put up a $25,000 prize.
I wish I could say that the Raymond B. Bragg Award had motivated me to do something at least equally historic and spectacular - and it might very well have done so if you had told me in advance just what you wanted me to do. I myself have been thinking that if I had the funds, I would like to establish some prize to encourage human progress. The problem is, exactly what activity do I want to encourage? As far as the Earth is concerned, things like transportation and communication, even odd-ball feats involving balloons and man-powered flight, seem now to be pretty well taken care of; and if you start offering prizes for such worthwhile achievements as, say, being the first person to establish proven contact with extra-terrestrials, it could become very difficult, because, in order to be really fair and impartial in assessing the proof, you might have to have some extra-terrestrials on your committee.
The best more-or-less realistic idea I've so far been able come up with is to offer a prize for the one activity that nearly everybody agrees is worth encouraging: THE ACHIEVEMENT OF STAYING ALIVE. Surprisingly, this is one area in which prizes are so far quite lacking. Although we are all supposed to stay alive as long as possible, the way things are now, instead of INCENTIVES for longevity, we get PENALTIES. Beyond a certain age, life for many of us becomes more and more of a burden, and, by the time you're getting near 100, if you make it that far, all you have to look forward to is a little birthday party in the nursing home, and maybe your picture in the local paper, and a mechanically-signed letter of congratulation from the President. Hardly worth the trouble, is it?
But let's say we all knew that, if you could just hang on till you reached 120, you could collect, say, ten million tax-free dollars. Don't you think that would be a real inducement, not only to stay alive until then, but to stay healthy enough so that you could still enjoy spending it? Anyway, I think the idea is certainly worth trying, especially since it's the kind of experiment you just can't perform on rats and mice. (In this connection, at the end of this address tonight, I have a VERY IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT to make.)
Another thing about big prizes is that, besides serving as incentives, they can also provide a platform. You get a chance to push your favorite causes, even if they have nothing to do with why you won the award. You may remember how Marlon Brando, when he won an Academy Award for playing "The Godfather," utilized the opportunity to publicize his concern for the plight of American Indians. Poor Marlon Brando! Of all the roles he's played in his career, the most difficult has been that of being a celebrity. The saddest thing I've ever heard about him is that, after retiring to the island paradise he owns in the Pacific to get away from everybody, he's now become a ham radio operator under an assumed name, so that he can talk, like one human being to another, to other radio operators far away, who don't realize whom they're really talking to. What makes this so sad is that I read about it in a book called "BIGGER SECRETS," by a man named William Poundstone, who specializes in telling all of us things which, as it says on the cover, "they prayed you'd never find out." And, just to prove that celebrities have no human rights, and that authors have no decency, Mr. Poundstone then goes ahead and tells us the call-letters, so that we can all try calling Marlon Brando. Surely nothing could be more obscene. But, now that the cat is out of the bag anyway, I might as well satisfy your overpowering interest by telling you, if you have your pencils ready, the the call letters are: F-O-8-G-J in French Poynesia.
But the most notable example of this prize-as-a-platform phenomenon probably occurred in 1950, when an American novelist won the Nobel Prize for Literature. His name was William Faulkner. He was just 53 years old, which happens to be exactly the same age I am now. As you probably know, he, like Brando, was something of a recluse, so it surprised everybody when he decided to go to Stockholm to accept the prize in person.
Why did he go? Probably because he felt he had something really important to say to the world, and that this was the best possible way to say it. What did he say? His speech was not long - only 5 short paragraphs. (Apparently, unlike me, he wasn't asked by the Committee to fill 45 minutes.) But it's probably the world's most famous prize acceptance address - at least until tonight. You'll find it in all the anthologies of great speeches. He said it was tragic that the world was filled with "a general and universal fear," that everybody was haunted by the question, "When will I be blown up?" (You have to remember that this was just 5 years after Hiroshima, and at the height of the Cold War.) There was real doubt as to whether Humanity would even survive as a species. To this, Faulkner replied that he was more optimistic than that. He believed "that Man is IMMORTAL, because he has a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance." And he summed it all up in one famous sentence: "I BELIEVE THAT MAN WILL NOT MERELY ENDURE - HE WILL PREVAIL."
That sounds like a pretty good Humanist sentiment, and it brings me, although somewhat reluctantly, to the subject of Humanism, which, according to tonight's Award, I am supposed to be engaged in promoting. I say "reluctantly" because I have some admissions to make which I am afraid may disappoint you, if not horrify and devastate you.
First, the term "Humanist" is one whose meaning I have never felt totally clear about. I have never applied it to myself, and in the past I have had somewhat mixed feelings about people who do. This probably stems at least in part from a weekend I once spent at a convention of people who were involved in what they called "Humanistic Psychology," and from which I came away with the impression that Humanists are people who spend much of their time hugging and feeling each other. Not that I have anything against these huggie-feelies per se. In fact, I cater to them, with lines like "HAVE ARMS - WILL HUG," which, as a matter of fact, was one of the 3 Brilliant Thoughts for which the Hallmark Company paid me $15,000. And the other 2 were just as much in the huggie-feelie tradition. One says "HOW ARE YOU DOING? AND WITH WHOM ARE YOU DOING IT?" And the other is: "IF I DON'T WANT TO, YOU CAN'T MAKE ME …. BUT YOU CAN ALWAYS MAKE ME WANT TO."
Along these same lines, another organization I've been connected with and spoken to, called MENSA, for people with very high IQ's, is also, you may be interested to know, very similarly inclined, and actually has what they call a Special Interest Group devoted to hugging. I could in fact probably make a good living - maybe a better living than I have been making - just peddling messages encouraging people to get closer to each other. But, for better or worse, I also feel an obligation to help those among us who feel the opposite kind of need. So you will find, among my thousands of Brilliant Thoughts, many which say things like "BE A GOOD NEIGHBOR, AND LEAVE ME ALONE," or "YOU MEET ALL MY REQUIREMENTS FOR TOTAL REJECTION" or "IF THINGS DON'T IMPROVE SOON, I MAY HAVE TO ASK YOU TO STOP HELPING ME."
I must also say that, if being a Humanist means believing that there is anything very special about our particular biological species as against any or all of the others, or for that matter as against rocks and stars and whatever else the Universe consists of, you will have to include me out, because, as far as I can see, it is all a continuum, and there is simply no philosophical point at which you can say "this is human, and this is not" - any more than you can draw a clear line between what's living and what isn't, or even between what really exists and what doesn't.
And I have another possibly even more shocking confession to make. As no doubt you all know, a federal judge in Alabama recently banned as many as 31 public school textbooks in that State, on the grounds that, contrary to the U.S. Constitution, they were promoting a particular religion, which he called "Secular Humanism." Now, so far I have seen only one passage quoted from one book in support of his position. But, if this is an accurate quote, I have to admit that it makes me feel he has a point. The passage is from a Home Economics textbook called "Teen Guide," and this is what it says:
"Nothing was 'meant to be.' YOU are the designer of your life. If you want something, you can plan and work for it. Nothing is easy, but nothing is impossible either. When you recognize that YOU are the one in charge of your life, you will be way ahead of where you would be if you think of your life as something that just happens to you."
Now, this is a pretty strange-sounding kind of Home Economics to me. But, whatever they call it, I've got to admit that, if some of us would object to teaching a child, at taxpayers' expense, that ultimately he is totally in the hands of God, I can easily understand the objection others might feel to teaching him just as dogmatically that ultimately he is totally in his own hands. Of course, I have my own answer to this question, in the form of Pot-Shot #278, which says: "DUE TO CIRCUMSTANCES BEYOND MY CONTROL, I AM MASTER OF MY FATE AND CAPTAIN OF MY SOUL."
Still, notwithstanding all these doubts of mine, the Bragg Awards Committee has apparently decided that I'm a Humanist in spite of myself. Be that as it may, I'm glad to tell you that none of my works have yet been banned in the State of Alabama. And at least one Federal Judge, not in Alabama but in Wisconsin, has actually admitted to being one of my fans, and with my permission he has been quoting some of my epigrams in his decisions. He particularly likes the one that says "I'LL LISTEN TO YOUR UNREASONABLE DEMANDS, IF YOU'LL CONSIDER MY UNACCEPTABLE OFFER." In one case that came before him recently, The Fuller Brush Company was suing a former salesman of theirs who had legally changed his name to Count Fuller, and was now selling door-to-door on his own, wearing wild costumes and doing an outrageous parody of a Fuller Brush man. The Judge decided in favor of Count Fuller, and in his written decision, he quoted my Brilliant Thought no. 893, which says, "IN AN ORDERLY WORLD, THERE'S ALWAYS A PLACE FOR THE DISORDERLY."
Which brings us, as something certainly should, to the theme of this entire Symposium: "CONFORMITY, DISSENT, AND NONE OF THE ABOVE." Many of my published works deal with these topics. On CONFORMITY, we have lines like these:
#247: PLEASE DON'T ASK ME TO KEEP IN STEP - IT'S HARD ENOUGH
JUST TO STAY IN LINE.
#520: IF ONLY I COULD BE RESPECTED, WITHOUT HAVING TO BE RESPECTABLE.
#2055: I BELIEVE, WITH GREAT SINCERITY, IN WHATEVER IT WILL BENEFIT ME TO SAY I BELIEVE IN.
On DISSENT, I have written things like:
#177: I KNOW WHICH WAY THE WIND IS BLOWING, BUT I STILL HAVE TO FOLLOW MY OWN COURSE.
#3095: KEEP DOING OPENLY WHAT'S NOT SOCIALLY APPROVED, AND EVENTUALLY SOCIETY WILL CHANGE - OR YOU'LL BE KILLED.
#3313: I MARCH TO A DIFFERENT DRUMMER, WHOSE LOCATION, IDENTITY, AND MUSICAL TRAINING HAVEN'T YET BEEN ESTABLISHED.
But to me, the most important of these 3 categories is NONE OF THE ABOVE. I personally don't believe that life is a multiple-choice test. I think it's much more like an essay-type examination. People who feel the way I do often seem to find themselves not so much in the position of either accepting or questioning the RULES, but of questioning the whole GAME. It's in that spirit that I have written thoughts like these:
#218: ACCEPT ME FOR WHAT I AM: COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLE.
#344: OUR VOTES ARE VALUABLE - WHY WASTE THEM ON ANY OF THE CANDIDATES?
#958: HOW CAN I PROVE I'M NOT CRAZY, TO PEOPLE WHO ARE?
#1069: IF YOU CAN'T BEAT THEM OR JOIN THEM, TRY TO GET AWAY FROM THEM.
#2404: I'M NOT A GOOD LEADER OR FOLLOWER, BUT IF LEFT ALONE, I CAN BE A GOOD SELF.
If lines like these have any appeal for you at all, it must be because, in different ways, we are all conformists, we are all dissenters, and we are all abstainers. In a sense, that was the problem confronting a certain group of men who assembled in Philadelphia exactly 200 years ago, and whose achievement we are celebrating this year, the Bicentennial year of the United States Constitution. I suppose everybody has his own favorite section of the Constitution (although it's hard to find any jokes in it, or to figure out the plot.) My own personal favorite is Article I, Section 8, Paragraph 8, which says that "Congress shall have the power to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries."
This of course is, among other things, the basis of all our copyright laws, which have been particularly important in my peculiar career. The first step towards establishing the legitimacy of any radically new form of creativity is to secure legal protection against unauthorized copying. Because my work is so unusual, and particularly because each piece is so short, never exceeding 17 words, my rights to claim it as my own have been challenged many times. But, thanks to the United States Constitution - and to some very clever and expensive lawyers - I'm glad to tell you that I have so far won every case. There is a particularly warm spot in my heart for another Federal Judge, Judge William Matthew Byrne, whom some of you may remember from the Pentagon Papers case, but who earned his position in the Brilliant Hall of Fame when he awarded me an $18,000 judgment against a T-Shirt company which had been pirating the line which for some reason has become the most famous of all my works: "I MAY NOT BE TOTALLY PERFECT, BUT PARTS OF ME ARE EXCELLENT."
Since we are celebrating our 200 years as a nation under this Constitution, and since I once spent 4 years getting a Ph.D. in American History, from which I still bear the scars, I recently set myself the task of writing a song for the occasion. As you know, I like setting myself challenges, so I decided to use a very appropriate piece of music, but one which has passages so difficult that, as far as I know, nobody has ever attempted to put words to the whole piece before - John Philip Sousa's great march, "THE STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER." And to make it somewhat useful as well as ornamental, I decided to have it cover the whole of American History, and to include every really important name, date, and fact. You may not be ready for this, but I will now, at absolutely no extra charge, inflict it upon you.
[Here I sang my version of "The Stars and Stripes Forever.]
How do I follow that? What is all this talk about the Constitution and the Stars and Stripes leading up to? Well, you'll recall I promised you that I had an important announcement to make. This is without doubt one of the pinnacle moments of my entire life, and there's no telling when I may ever again have an opportunity to do something truly sensational and dramatic. So I have been racking my brains wondering just what kind of a bombshell I should drop on you tonight as the grand climax of my speech. Not long ago, a Unitarian Minister astonished the entire country by distributing a bunch of condoms to his congregation as part of the church service. The people who got them, however, were not, apparently, so astonished. Actually, the only thing I could think of to distribute that would really shock a Unitarian congregation might be a bunch of Bibles.
But I didn't really come here to SHOCK you. What I really want to do is to INSPIRE you, to give you something worth staying alive for. I haven't got ten million dollars to offer as a prize. But I'm going to give you something else which I hope you'll feel is worth sticking around for. As you all know, next year, 1988, is a Presidential election year. It's something you can't get away from. We have them every 4 years, and so far, nothing has ever stopped one, not even the Civil War, not even World War II, -- not even an absence of anybody worth electing. Despite that, many eager presidential candidates are already throwing their hats into the ring. I therefore feel the time has come when I myself must step forward and offer the country some hope. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I have chosen this moment to announce here before you tonight that I TOO AM A CANDIDATE FOR THE OFFICE OF PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!
Before you become too wildly excited, however, I must acknowledge that the current field is already very crowded. But, unlike the rest of them, I'm not in any hurry, and don't see any need to fix my sights on 1988. I'm only 53 now, and, with our without ten million smackeroos in the offing, I'm planning, just on general principles, to live to be at least 120, which, according to my calculations, will be in the 2054. Naturally, once I'm elected, I will want to serve two full terms, and I also want to allow for a good long period of active retirement afterwards as an elder statesman. So, taking all these things into account, I've decided to declare now that I am a candidate for President in the election of 2028 - 41 years from now. And, judging from current trends, this really is not a moment too soon for me to start telling you that I desperately need your support and your votes!
To be frank, however, I must also admit that there is one other reason why this campaign must be somewhat delayed, and one other way in which I need your help. It brings us back again to the Constitution - and this time I have to tell you about my UNfavorite part of that otherwise splendid document. According to Article II, Section I, Paragraph 4 of the Constitution as it currently stands, in order to be eligible to be President, you must either have been born in the United States, or you must have been a citizen in the year 1787 at the time of the adoption of the Constitution. Now I, of course, am a United States citizen, but, fortunately or unfortunately, and due entirely to circumstances beyond my control, according to my birth certificate (which you will find reproduced in full on page 8 of my latest book, "ALL I WANT IS A WARM BED AND A KIND WORD, AND UNLIMITED POWER,") I was born British. However, I feel this is really a very minor technicality, since practically all those guys who drew up the Constitution were also born British! George Washington was born British! Thomas Jefferson was born British! Alexander Hamilton was not only born British, but was not even born in any part of what is now the United States. (He was actually born on the island of Nevis in the West Indies, and didn't even first come to the mainland until he was 17 years old.) It hardly seems fair for them to have made themselves all eligible to be President and yet exclude such tremendous Presidential potential as Yours Truly, to say nothing of such almost equally worthy, though non-British, types as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski. Obviously, this is one part of our Constitution which still needs to be amended.
I know that changes in the Constitution are notoriously hard to engineer. But if the people really want a change, they can get it done pretty fast. Back in 1933, the year of my birth, the 21st Amendment - the one repealing Prohibition - was proposed by Congress in February - just about the time I was conceived - and actually got ratified by Constitutional Conventions in the required number of 36 states in time to become law on December 5 of that same year - just 4 days before I was born. If those good people could do it that fast just so that I could be born into a world without Prohibition, surely you good people, in the next 40 years, can make this into a world in which I'm eligible to be President.
So I now confidently declare my candidacy for 2028, and take my leave of you to start on the long campaign trail. The first stop will be tomorrow morning, when I give my memorable sermon in your Church, in which I may or may not very well answer some of the questions which must already be crowding into your minds concerning my party affiliation and election platform. (Just remember that the time changes tonight, and set your clocks one hour ahead tonight, so you won't be an hour late tomorrow.)
But, wherever this road leads, I hope that, one way or another, you'll follow me on it, and that you'll always remember that it all began here in Kansas City, on that fabulous fourth of April, way back in 1987, when you gave my Brilliant Thoughts the very first of all their countless hundreds of prizes and awards, and in so doing, you really gave me, for the rest of my life, something to BRAGG about!
Thank you, and Good Night. ##
It shouldn't be necessary to do this, but I feel the time has come when somebody needs to say something against grief and grieving. Lately these topics have been getting a very positive press. The word has gone out far and wide from highly qualified experts that, at least in certain circumstances, it is O.K. to be acutely unhappy for extended periods of time. Assuming you have something legitimate to be grief-stricken about, we are told, it is a good and healthful kind of behavior, a sort of "work" you have to do, an important part of your recovery from losing whomever or whatever it is you have lost.
I say it ain't so. What I observe when I see people going through grief, mourning, or whatever else you want to call it, is people wasting time. I know whereof I speak, because I myself have already been through it a couple of times in my life - once when my father died, and once (more severely, and for a longer time) when a four-year relationship ended. Nobody can tell me that all that weeping and depression, that dwelling upon the loss, those feelings of anger and guilt and regret, which often made it impossible to concentrate upon anything else, were truly necessary or beneficial. If you add up all the person-hours lost by everybody thus afflicted, the cost to society in terms of productivity must be truly staggering.
What I say is that grief is itself a sickness, and that instead of teaching people to expect and accept it, we ought to be developing ways to get rid of it, just as we have conquered other crippling diseases. As things currently stand, I can only speculate as to what that might entail. As far as treatment is concerned, since it all happens in the brain, drugs, hypnosis, anesthesia, and even brain surgery will probably play a part - as no doubt they already do in extreme cases. But I also favor what might be called "manipulation of the environment." The grieving person should if possible immediately be removed from his or her customary surroundings and placed in some completely different situation where there are no unfortunate reminders of the past, but plenty of new challenges and stimuli - for example, some kind of "grief camp" where the emphasis is on constant new physical and mental activity.
Ultimately, however, we must think in terms, not of treatment, but of prevention. Obviously we have a long way to go in a society which still leaves most of us so unprepared for so many of the most common types of losses. What we really need is some kind of "vaccine" against grief. This could take many forms, but the key must lie in detoxifying the concept of "loss" itself. Already technology seems to be pointing us in the right direction. If you could ask people 200 years ago what the death of a loved one would mean, you might get an answer like "I will never hear his voice again," or "I will never see her face again." The modern development of sound and video recording has changed all that. It is now theoretically possible to record every moment of a person's life, and after they die you could spend the rest of your own life playing it all back. Like just about everything else, death, even though it may still be hanging around, is not what it used to be.
That may be one reason why extensive and expensive formal mourning is no longer as fashionable as it once was (which has no doubt been a cause of great mourning in the undertaking industry.) Of course, we are not yet ready altogether to stop being sorry when people, pets, or love affairs die. But we are increasingly unsure just what it is that we are sorry about. In a way, I suppose that can make the situation even more distressing. With all sorts of medical miracles here and on the horizon, death too is perhaps just another of the old certainties which we may have to let go of.
So if you must grieve, go ahead - I can't stop you, and I probably
won't be able to stop myself when the next occasion arises. But
while we're grieving, let's spare a few tears for poor old Grief
itself. I'm sure its days are numbered.