I’m reading a book at the moment, What Hath God Wrought, an epic, 850-page history about the transformation of the United States from 1815-1848. It won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2007, and is part of the acclaimed Oxford History of the United States series.
I mention this because the other day, I came across a passage that leaped out. Discussing Samuel Morse’s invention of the telegraph (whose first message was the words out of the Bible that serve as the book’s title), the author Daniel Walker Howe writes:
“Morse’s synthesis of science and religion represented the predominant American attitude of the time; only a few eccentrics believed there was any conflict between scientific and religious truth.
So much for the whole “life progressing forward” thing.
“Revelation and reason alike, Americans were confident, ” Howe continues, “led to knowledge of God and His creation.”
Go figure. In the midst of the greatest period of religious revivalism in U.S. history, Americans believed that education actually increased one’s understanding of the Bible. Not just did religious leaders accept science, but “Evangelists welcomed technological advances along with mass education,” he writes, because science helped them “spread the good news of Christ.”
Compare this to the religious Far Right of today who view the work of scientists as evil. Who want to push science out of the classroom, or at the very least obfuscate it with things like Creationism.
Compare this to Scott Brown trying to pander to the religious Far Right and snarkily demean his Senate opponent Elizabeth Warren by continually referring to her as “Professor.”
Compare it to the pronouncements of people like Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) who actually serves on the Science Committee of the House of Representatives, saying – not that “Religious awakening, expansion of education, interest in science and technological progress all went hand in hand,” as Howe describes national and religious thought in the mid-19th century, but rather – “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell.”
Life changes. Opinions change. Values change. But life is supposed to move forward.
Unfortunately, when some people intentionally pander to the worst instincts of others in order to stir up fear in a base to score political points, the result tends to be falling backwards towards ignorance – which is the very opposite of that whole “mass education” concept. But then, that’s what happens when one looks to politicians for religious and spiritual guidance.
I arrived in Chicago late this afternoon. It's nippier than in Los AngeIes. (About 15 degrees.) I’ve never quite understood the process for airlines when you make your reservation over the phone and want to book a seat. The American Airlines rep told me that there were no aisle seats, so she gave me a middle seat. “Are there any window seats?” I asked. There were. Why in the world she presumed I would prefer to be potentially squeezed between to other people than have a window seat, I have no idea. Nor do I know why she didn’t ask first.
But that wasn’t the odd part. When I got the email a day later that said I could pre-check in, I went through the process and when I got to the “Choose seats,” I almost passed it by, because I already had a seat. But, okay, I thought I might as well take a look. And not only were there aisle seats…there were plenty of them. It possible that people cancelled their reservation in the intervening not, but I doubt it, especially that many. Anyway, I changed my seat – and not only happily sat on the aisle, but with no one else in the row.
I know that over the years a great many people have commented on how insane it is that the in-flight safety instructions include detailed instructions on how to buckle a seat belt, including a close-up now in the video. I’m sure it has to do with some overly-paranoid lawyer not wanting to be fired for getting the airline sued. But if anyone every sued an airline for injury because they hadn’t been instructed on how to buckle a seatbelt, I suspect the case would be over the moment that claim was made in open court.
But related to this, something struck me today for the first time. When the safety video continued, and they got to the part about putting on a life vest, we’re simply told, “Attach the buckle…” and that’s it. No detailed instructions on how to life the latch and hold it while placing the buckle inside. I really wanted to know that, and feel lessened for not knowing. The best I can figure is that they assume we all learned how to connect a buckle at the beginning of the video.
As I mentioned here the other day, My older brother John passed away on Monday, but fortunately much later than expected. When he was diagnosed with his illness, he was given one month with no medication, and just four months with medication. But the disease was of a rare genetic type which responded well to a specific treatment, and he lived another three years, which is remarkable. That's a lot of time to get your life in order, when you'd been given 30 days.
John was a physician – a wonderful one, he loved being a doctor. And he loved camping and fishing. And had a sly sense of humor. But for all the things he loved, which were many, for reasons I never quite knew why he disliked almost anything that was popular. Even as a kid. Not only did I never knew know why, my mother and father never knew why – and even John never knew why. But while some people give lip service to supporting the underdog, John lived it. If something was popular, he just didn’t like it.
This is not hyperbole. When he made his first trip to Los Angeles, I picked him up at the airport, and we talked about what he wanted to see. Noticeably absent from the list was the one thing that pretty much everyone in the known human race (and unknown) wanted to see when coming to Los Angeles. Disneyland. The Happiest Place on Earth.
John did not want to go to Disneyland. Absolutely refused. It was fine with me, it was his vacation, after all, but I was curious and asked him why not. He thought a moment and then said with a laugh, “I’m afraid that I might like it.”
For decades he refused to buy a television. Apparently, televisions were too popular. (Instead, he played Scrabble for entertainment…) It was only years later when they were unable to get babysitters for the kids because there was no TV in the house that a television finally had to be bought.
(The other benefit of finally having a TV is that it allowed him to watch Northwestern football. A team, I must note, that literally had the worst record in the history of the sport.)
John just hated anything popular. Avoided it whenever he could. Which leads to a story.
Actually, it leads to probably my favorite story. Of any story I’ve ever told.
His wife loved reading books by Stephen King. She’d ask John to read them, but no way in the world would he read a novel by Stephen King. Even if he had the time in the middle of his medical practice, Stephen King wasn’t just a popular novelist – he was probably THE most popular current novelist in the world. Stephen King would not be read.
But she didn’t let up. And finally, John – the good husband – gave in. Okay, one Stephen King book. He read Firestarter. And he loved it so much that he finished the book in two days. Probably hating every moment that he liked it so much.
Well, as fate would have it, not long after that, in the days when I was doing publicity on movies, I was hired to work on the film, Pet Sematary, based on the novel by…Stephen King.
The movie was filmed in the state of Maine, very close to where Stephen King lived. So, needless-to-say, he would visit the movie set. We would talk on occasion, about baseball, the movie, writing. And then, one day, I said I had a funny story for him, that I thought he would appreciate.
I told him about my brother. I said he hated anything popular. I explained how my sister-in-law couldn’t get my brother to read his books, specifically because they were popular. I went into great detail about who John was, and why the last thing on earth he wanted to do was read a popular Stephen King novel.
And then I explained that John finally broke down, read Firestarter, and finished it in two days. Because he absolutely loved it.
Now, you must understand, this is the Best Possible Reaction that any writer can ever have. It’s one thing to be praised by fans – but it’s something else entirely to have someone who is so deeply predisposed to hate your books that he’s fought off reading them for years finally read one and love it so much that it’s devoured.
Stephen thought for a moment after being told all this, trying to figure what to say. It was clear he felt wonderful by John’s reaction – which is pretty impressive, considering all the acclaim that Stephen King has had in his renowned career.
And then he leaned over, looked at me and said – “Tell your brother, I apologize. I don’t set out to write popular books. It’s just that people buy them.”
Not long after, I was back home visiting. And I told John this story. His face lit up. One of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen him make. “Stephen King said that about me???!” he asked. Yes – Stephen King said that about you.
He laughed out loud, and said, with much pleasure, and an acknowledgement of his own inexplicable reaction to popularity – “You know, he’s probably right.” And he kept smiling.
So – John didn’t like things that were popular. But he liked plenty else. And when he found something he liked, he inhaled it. He’d record his (and my) beloved Northwestern football games and watch them over and over. I think he watched the 1996 Rose Bowl game with Northwestern probably 20 times, even though they lost. (My theory, by the way, was that he planned to keep watching it until they finally won.)
As you can imagine, he was a low-key guy. And a bit of iconoclast – in a world of HMOs, he refused to work in one, and kept up a family practice. He often rode his bicycle to the hospital – and even sued his own hospital when his bike was stolen. But low-key as he was, he kept people on their toes. His daughters and son learned the lesson that if you get up from the table for any reason, dad was going to eat what you left on your plate before you got back. (“Da-ad,” was I believe the cherished dinner-time cry heard regularly.) Oddly, though, he was thin as a rail.
I don’t think you can describe a person from any one story. But there is one story that I think it’s important to relate, one last story about growing up as kids, because ultimately it a portrait of who John always was.
When John was about 14, he discovered some deeply out-of-date camera equipment of my dad’s. A really old-timey thing. And among it all was an old-style metal hood that you put big flash bulbs in. And you could manually set them off – PLINK. They’d flash.
What he loved about these was realizing he could open the door to my room at night, after I’d gone to bed, the room pitch black, and peek his head in. “Bob?” he’d ask his younger brother, and I’d look over. And in this total darkness. PLINK! The massive flash would explode off. Followed by my scream of, “Aggggghhhhhh,” every time it happened. Night after random night, he did this. PLINK! PLINK! PLINK! Agggggghhhhhh. (What can I say? I was 11. For all I knew, he had something important to say that night. Sometimes I held off looking over – but then I’d always eventually look to see what was going on. And, of course, with the hall light behind him, he could always see the moment I turned. PLINK! Agggghhhh.) I never knew when it was coming. He’d go weeks without doing it – and then, “Bob?” What? PLINK! Agggghhh… And he’d make sure I would always stay wary by just leaving a paper around for me to find that simply had nothing but a flash bulb drawn on it and the word, “PLINK.”
I couldn’t get back at him, because he hid the equipment. And was older and smarter. But finally, I had a brainstorm. The only retribution I could handle. He was taking a shower one night. And I crept towards the closed bathroom with a bucket, full of the absolute coldest ice water. I opened the door, stepped in…and dumped the bucket over the top. I believe the scream of “Aggghhh” he let out is still reverberating back in Glencoe, Illinois.
But being John, that still didn’t stop him from PLINKING me at night. It only ended when he finally used up the last flash bulb. But to me, he will always be opening the door and impishly saying, to everyone –
Thursday will be travel day, as I head back to Chicago for "family stuff" (that's the kindly term). I leave fairly early in the morning, but if I can post anything before leaving (which is the plan) you'll see it here first. Otherwise, nothing until the evening (hopefully). Otherwise, Friday, for sure.
Aharrr! No, it's not Talk Like a Pirate Day. That's the title of this really, really funny and wonderfully done British film that runs 13 minutes. It's about an actor called into a recording studio to do the voiceover narration for a radio advertisement on behalf of a boat supply shop. The sponsor/director keeps making things worse and worse. And worse. Stick with it through the credits at the very end.
I've sent this to friends who've done voice-over work, and they love it and think it's a total hoot, but they also say it's almost painful to watch because as exaggerated as it is, it's so close to the truth.
The actor who stars in it, Jonathan Kydd, also wrote the script. I suspect it comes from deep and teeth-gnashing experience.
A recent poll from Public Policy Polling shows that 67% of Texas Republicans believe that President Barack Obama should be impeached.
Of course, as of last November 21, 100,000 Texans had also already singed a White House petition to secede from the union, so I don't put a whole lot of stock in what comes out of Texas. Besides, if Texas secedes, I think it's terribly inappropriate for foreigners to tell the United States how to run its government.
But I'm on recording supporting Texas secession. Since they have no treasury to print money, and no standing Army, the U.S. could watch the state collapse, then declare war against them for being an obviously aggressive anti-American nation on our border, and send the military in and take them back after the war is over, 45 minutes later. Then, as the provisional government, we could get rid of all the junk in the state, raise their education standards and redistrict the state so that it's not gerrymandered for Republicans, but rather more realistically for the growing Hispanic community. And then take them back into the United States -- as a territory first, like Puerto Rico, and then with full state status, once they come up to the country's standards.
Meanwhile, President Obama's popularity has increased to a 3-year high of 60%. Perhaps Republicans could really do him the same favor they did Bill Clinton when they impeach him, and his popularity shot up to 68%.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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