Monday, September 20, 2010

We'll Pursue this Story in Full -- Organics Being Sold Out

For the Full Stories, go to this url --

Whole Foods 'Organics' From China!

Whole Foods, which touts its support for locally grown food and organic agriculture, imports a great deal of its frozen food from China.


What Happens When Big Corporations Take Over Green Companies

It is a fairly familiar story in business. Someone has an idea, a passion. He or she builds a spectacular small business around that idea, builds a reputation for creating something really unique, and people love the business. Then, the owner sells the company to a large corporation.


Organic, Inc. - Natural Foods and How They Grew
By Samuel Fromartz

Fromartz, a business reporter who focused on startup companies in publications like Inc. and Fortune Small Business, writes in the introduction to "Organic, Inc.": "I was particularly interested in people who sought to manifest their values in their businesses. ... The intersection of idealism and business was not an easy place to stand, since one usually trumped the other." The following statistics -- "Sales of organic food had shot up about 20% per year since 1990, reaching $11 billion by 2003" -- indicate that the organics industry, which has its roots in utopian ideologies, is in for an interesting ride.

- San Francisco Chronicle

Who's Really Behind Organic Food Brands Like Amy's and Odwalla?

Over the past decade many small organic food brands have been snapped up by giant corporations. Clearly, this can be bad for standards and quality.


The battle for the soul of the organic movement

"It's now no different from conventional farming - producers are being squeezed, products are over-packaged, let alone the numbers of air miles that are used to fly organic goods around the world."


The Organic Myth

As food companies scramble to find enough organically grown ingredients, they are inevitably forsaking the pastoral ethos that has defined the organic lifestyle.


Mega-producers tip scales as organic goes mainstream

"I think organic is not quite what people think at this point," said Michael Pollan, a UC Berkeley journalism professor whose new book, The Omnivore's Dilemma; takes a hard - and ultimately critical - look at what he calls "industrial organic." From Green Giants in the San Francisco Chronicle

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ever Green State is the State for the Rich, and the Middle Class Carry them on their Backs

School started last week, earlier and this week and Monday, depending where you are. School, that is -- community colleges and universities. That's a whole other series of blogs: gutting education at the various state levels; attacks on science; BP writing science curriculum.; attacks on tenure; more dumb downed standardized teaching; no critical thinking skills allowed, etc. Washington now says cut 7 to 10 percent wherever. Washington State, that is. Just came out Sept. 14, 2010 -- while the governor was on a "trade" junket to Asia. Whew, contradictions there.

Students, young and not so young, have to stand up and resist this.

They need leaders in the business community. Just talked to one tonight, and she said, "Boy I am glad I am almost 62 and don't have to think about all the sh-- hitting the fan these young people are going to face." Yeah, great leadership, great articulation. She is a so-called leader in the sustainability and LEED building movements locally.

Students also need to learn the tools of the trade to disobey illegal orders and unethical laws, mostly tied to the lobbyists, to corporations. Even that lady's attitude has to be called to task, and forcefully. So, the tuition hikes are already in place in California, fewer low income people will go to college, and college then will be a place for elite kids. Classes are being cut and students are coming out with $60,000 debts with a degree our leading industries and captains of greed think are worthless. They want no humanities, no history, sociology, literature, art, anything to do with thinking and writing and debating their retrograde money-loving mindsets.

And the answer isn't the snake oil of private colleges like U of Phoenix or Cappella.

The answer is full on free education for Americans, of all stripes. The only way they, the students, get to that point, is through disobedience and training. Climate change is screwing them and their offspring, so what better way to learn than to join a group working on climate change and disobeying the benefactors of corporate corruption.

Ahh, sounds so easy. After this quick piece and call to action from Climate Action Camps 2010, through,, look at the numbers for Washington State --tax formulae for gouging the middle class and letting the rich skate on their own personal ice rinks.


Come learn how peaceful civil disobedience can help defend our climate at the Greenpeace Climate Action Camps in Toronto, Montreal and the Edmonton Area. If we don’t act, millions will suffer.

Each camp will be an intensive three-day training session to help prepare participants to gain grassroots organizing skills, and training in Non-Violent Direct Action (NVDA) to stop the growing climate crisis.

Participants will be trained on the following topics:
• Climate change & climate justice
• History of civil disobedience
• Environmental justice and anti-oppression
• Non-Violent Direct Action (NVDA) theory and practice
• Action planning and decision-making,
• Affinity groups
• Campaign planning and powermapping
• Working with the media
• Know your rights, legal briefing

At the camp you will meet other participants ready to take action. The training will be provided by experienced grassroots organizers, and NVDA trainers, and will be open to those who have previously done activism, NVDA and/or Civil Disobedience, or have little or no experience but want to learn more!

We’ll be learning how to plan and implement activities that will RAISE THE ALARM ABOUT THE GROWING CLIMATE CRISIS. Whether you’re joining as an individual or part of a group, this camp affords an opportunity to meet and join others wanting to get active on climate change and create just and healthy communities for the future.

So what are you waiting for?!

Contact: Eryn

for more info about how to register in your area…


•TORONTO – June 4-6 DONE! and it rocked
•EDMONTON AREA – September 24-26 APPLICATION HERE! Due Sept. 20 at Midnight MST
•MONTREAL (Bilingual) – October 15-17 Application coming soon

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Age of Stupid -- Must See Movie (at home, or community viewing!)

It Takes Just the Right Amount of Stupidity to Sink the Titanic (in this case, Earth)–

The Film, The Age of Stupid, Should Be on Everyone’s Netflix List

By Paul K. Haeder

One has to laugh at the film reviews of the clear, far-ranging and focused climate change “documentary,” The Age of Stupid, because, A, most put it down or take issue with it on some very bizarre levels, and, B, some even compare it negatively to “An Inconvenient Truth” (not a movie, just a Power Point, and, really, nonsense, a lecture, and with Gore, to boot) as if that film is the litmus test for all climate change films.

These armchair critics are, well, just showing their own colors -- that we are in an age of stupidity. Their critiques are based largely on the movie creating too much doom and gloom, which is a good jumping off point to illustrate certain parallel axioms to the actual term “age of stupid,” coined by one of the film’s subject, an oil scientist, lauding Shell for great environmental work but lamenting our consumer drenched society.

These coined axioms are apropos for both movie shills and our general population:

age of fear
age of messaging
age of posturing
age of blogging
age of self-importance
age of rationalization
age of cynicism
age of infantilism
age of self-aggrandizement
age of I-can-think-of-better-things than you can write, do, film, make, exhibit, create

This film, premiering in February 2009, is really elegant in its scrappy feel and doomsayer elegance. We get under the skin of six main real characters’ narratives. One big issue movie reviewers have this polemic is it wields too much stick and not enough carrot. Wow. Terrible.

Franny Armstrong created a sci-fi multilevel documentary, with strong (FIVE) narratives that allow for the common climate change delayer or denier to be waylaid by the reality of climate change and rising oceans. The fact is less than one percent of scientists polled do not believe the earth is currently in a climate (warming up) change model whereas 60 percent of the American public denies climate is even happening. From that point of view, this movie is a must-see.

You don’t need “An Inconvenient Truth” or “The Eleventh Hour” to grasp the urgency of Franny’s film.

Add to that, prescient actions have been precipitated from this movie. One example is the President of the Maldives, Mohammed Nasheed, announced by a special video feed that his country would be the first to go carbon neutral – by 2019. That announcement took place at the UK premiere of the movie March 15, 2009

If you do a search of Nasheed or “Maldives carbon neutral,” you’ll find plenty on his courageous acts to save his island nation from global warming-precipitated ocean rising, also called inundation or island extinction. Nasheed, a former jailed journalist and activist against previous dictatorial governments in his country, has written about his nation’s ocean rising plight in the Huffington Post, and even the New York Times has written a six-page feature on his political force and environmental urgency.

Check it out:

The film is set in 2055, with one last guy standing, an archivist in a sci-fi modeled multi-story vault in the middle of a world of oceans 60 feet higher than they are at today. The archive is the repository of “all” the “great” art and archaeological and library works of the world, both physical evidence of culture and in digital form.

That’s Pete Postlethwaite as our narrator-archivist, his famed wrinkle-strewn face looking at a high-tech computer, the screen being us, the audience, as he goes through various stories from 2005-through 2008, which are the years starting the true age of stupid.

Real stories are brought up on the screen as the archivist laments our age, now, and how we just failed to act, to move, to see the importance of stopping fossil fuel burning and rampant consumption. The solutions are at our fingertips, in 2005, fifty years before his transmission bolts into space taking with it all the evidence of our self-destructing societies’ practices.

There’s an oil worker – a scientist -- in New Orleans defending “big oil” but lamenting the catastrophe of this super-charged hurricane Katrina, which destroyed one of his homes. All the while, he defends Shell and contends how green and great the company.

Then we see a family whose father-husband is a wind turbine developer in the UK facing homeowners fighting the turbines’ negative effects on their sense of view shed aesthetics.

A young woman in Nigeria is shown wanting to be a doctor, wanting to do good for her community, and wanting the American dream of a good life and fame. She washes fish caught in rivers with laundry soap to “clean” them of the oil muck Shell spreads in the waterways as a byproduct of their drilling operation.

Then there’s an octogenarian in the French Alps who takes the Brit wind farm developer and his family on a hike, demonstrating the dramatic glacier melt he’s seen as a mountaineer for over 65 years. He’s fighting endless streams of truck traffic coming into his community and a proposal to double the tunnel capacity.

Then, a brother and sister, climate refugees, so to speak (envirogees) are shown living in Jordan but wanting to return to their native Iraq; the 12-year-old boy vows to kill Americans for killing his father over a war for oil.

We see one of India’s finest capitalists, a thirty-something multi-millionaire who is starting up an Mumbai-based airline he hopes will fly every Indian anywhere they want to go.

This film ties in many aspects of our consumer-driven society, and shows how fragile our culture is with leaders and community groups whose thinking is far from systems oriented, or holistic, necessary traits to get through the climate change mess.

The precautionary principle and carrying capacity as a concept are many times thrown out the window. The age of stupid is now.

There’s humor, to be sure, in this film, but the stick is way bigger than the carrot, so blogs like Treehugger get pissed off when confronted with this generally urgent (negative) and scientifically real (apocalyptic) message.

Look, Jeh Wadia, the Mumbai capitalist depicted in the film, believes he is doing good by helping the Indian economy with a low cost airline. He hates the train system. to his credit, he realizes the carbon footprint of one private jet trip (he makes dozens a year), and knows the cost of that single trip would pay for a nice school house or water treatment plant in a small Indian village.

The age of contradictions.

That’s the age of stupid. He believes the jet setting somehow will lift 1 billion people out of poverty. He’s steeled to make a go of his start up airline. The film then juxtaposes Piers Guy’s uphill struggle as a self-aware wind farm developer, as he and his wife calculated their carbon footprint.

In one fell swoop, they calculate that one airline trip with their four kids will blow their entire carbon footprint reserve for the entire year.

Piers Guy in the film faces an irate community activist group in Bedfordshire opposed to 8 (downsized from 19) wind turbines on an abandoned World War Two airfield, near a high octane drag racing strip.

Potential lower property values is their rationale for opposing clean energy.
Franny’s climate advisor, Mark Lynas, is also depicted in the film. He’s the author of “Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet,” and in the film he warns of a real tipping point around 2015 if the world doesn’t act now to reduce carbon emissions. Once global temperatures warm more than two degrees, he and thousands of other scientists say, all will be lost.
Albedo effect. Lag time. Feedback loops. Failing crops. Drying up watersheds. The list goes on and on.

Is this film too negative? Come one, it isn’t and it should be a wake up call. An Inconvenient Truth was and still is a slick lite polemic. The Age of Stupid is scrappy, and the message is clear: We as a species weren’t important enough to save.

The value of the film is that these narratives and the funny cartoons about London being under water, Las Vegas inundated in sand and Sydney burning are pointing to the fact our age is so grafted to a love of and worship in capitalism.

The Age of Stupid shows not only under-developed countries are failing to provide great education and social service safety nets for their citizens, but we living in the most powerful military-dominated country are turning into a “third world” country education wise.

We have those technologies to get off carbon burning. We have planners and designers and community activists and a legion of armies ready to reshape the world into one of social grace and justice.

Maybe the Age of Stupid needs a sequel, or prequel, one depicting the “age of cow-towing” and “the story of too much stuff.” More and more, everyday people are speaking out against the current state of the American mind.

The questions are real: Why aren’t people on the streets protesting the give-away to Wall Street? How can a judge in Louisiana counter a federal ban on deepwater drilling? How can politicians spend $40 million on two-bit congressional races and not blink without the citizens taking over the streets? How can we let non-scientists say 400 million gallons of crude and Corectix are somehow miraculously disappeared, gone, in the Gulf of Mexico?

Films are funny things. They are mostly flash in the pans in an age of hyper-film making and endless film distribution. One film I have most recently been associated with, Gulf Coast Blues – Oil in Our Veins, is powerful. It’s had two premieres as part of Sustainable September, but there wasn’t a rush of greenies high-fiving or hugging Marc Gauthier, the filmmaker, for his vision and his risks.

Where does Gauthier go now? He wants to go on the road, do some face-to-face time with college faculty, students and decision makers to try and get his film “out there.”

If I didn’t have all these projects, writing engagements and community college classes to teach, hell, I’d have thrown in as a publicist and dramaturge and get this film looked at, reviewed, and used a rallying cry to fight BP.

You know the British Petroleum I speak of:

The BP of marketing fame which is spending $120 million to lie about the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The BP which was allowed to call the shots on the largest environmental crime in this country. The same BP which is writing California’s K-12 science curriculum. You know the BP – the company that helped the CIA in 1953 overthrow Iran’s popular prime minister.

What is the true half-life of these movies like the academy award winning, The Cove? Or what really is the impact of Bill McKibben and college students approaching Barak Obama last Friday with one of the original Jimmy Carter White House solar panels? What is the impact of McKibben being turned down after asking Obama to reinstall it?

Those solar panels, ripped out by Ronald Reagan, have been generating clean energy at Unity College in Maine.

The Age of Stupid is hinting at this current Age of Messaging, this Age of Political Expediency, this odd Age of False Dichotomies, the Age of False Balancing. Who sees this action (lack thereof) of not taking a 40-year-old functioning photovoltaic panel as stupid? The president is a supposedly well educated Ivy League debater?

How many Obama handlers and pencil-necked Beltway Bozos had a hand in thwarting this symbolic and teachable moment?

Unfortunately, the movie, “The Age of Stupid,” is old news, having had its premieres and splashy (mostly critical) headlines more than a year ago. However, every single day, the stupidity, timidity and confusion of our age are bankrupting this planet’s carrying capacity.

This is the Age of Stupid, to be sure.

Will Gulf Coast Blues get into the veins of people as Marc Gauthier takes this shoe-string budget movie on the road (Franny Armstrong’s “The Age of Stupid” has been dubbed low budget as well – she brought in Shakespearean heavyweight Postelthwaite to dress it up)?

What will the long-term effects be on viewers of Gauthier’s film about his own personal odyssey as a wildlife biologist and now citizen journalist?

When will we go back to the future -- the Age of Reason?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Universe Designed by Nothingness -- Musings, New Stephen Hawking Book, Age of Stupid Coming Up

This is a short homage to Stephen Hawking and his co-author, Leonard Mlodinow, of Caltech. New book, refined ideas, a killer commentary on the minds of men and women seeking answers from way beyond existence, way past 13.7 billion years ago.

It’s not so controversial, scientifically -- God didn’t create the universe. Stephen Hawking and Mlodinow aim to get smart people back to thinking about science – and forever banishing a divine creator from physics.

It’s all gravitational, as Hawking and Mlodinow say in this book "The Grand Design." The existence of gravity proves much, including that “. . . the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist...”

So, of course, in London and elsewhere, these are fighting words: “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper [fuse] and set the universe going," he writes.

According to Alan Boyle (who really doesn’t get the entire point of the book) at MSNBC:

What he's actually saying in the book is that when we study the universe's origins, we have to work our way back from the present, rather than assuming there's an arbitrary point 13.7 billion years ago when Someone pressed the button on a cosmic stopwatch. And when you look at it that way, the universe looks more and more like a quantum phenomenon, in which a multitude of histories diverge. This is what Hawking calls top-down cosmology.

I bring this up now because of many things, including City Council members who think the world is 6,800 years old, or that there’s no logic in how scientists can tell what trees and flowers existed before the age of photography.

The great news blog for which I write, Down to Earth, has a story on the question of whether God is Green? Or, what would Jesus Do With Climate Change? Would Jesus Compost? Would Jesus Drive a Prius? Silly stuff, and even sillier to see our councilmember Amber Waldref espousing all these mythical ideas of her Catholic Church, faith and the environment, and her religious conviction defining her environmental views. Come on.

There are more extreme god, country, apple pie and Fox News politicians out there. Can we have another flat-earther fighting one of the few good things that has been around for 30 years in politics -- Sen. Russ Feingold (D). His Republican opponent, Ron Johnson, doesn’t believe in global warming, and he sees intelligent design as the science of our future education curriculum. Feingold has launched an ad that tells voters, "I said no to drilling in our Great Lakes . . . but one opponent, Ron Johnson, disagrees. He's willing to hand over the Great Lakes to the oil companies --threatening Wisconsin's economy, and a way of life for generations of Wisconsin families. We won't let that happen."

At first blush, this seems implausible. Ron Johnson has repeatedly sided with oil companies since launching his Senate campaign, but would he really consider drilling in the Great Lakes?

Actually, yes, and the closer one looks at this, the uglier the story gets.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Ron Johnson found himself under the political microscope late last week after it was revealed that he owns up to $315,000 in BP stock while he has defended the oil giant against its critics and called for continued offshore drilling. [...]

Johnson, whom national Democrats like to refer to as the "forgotten Tea Party candidate," has expressed disappointment with the administration's "assault" on BP.

At the same time, he's been a vocal advocate for continued and even accelerated oil and gas exploration, going so far as to express an openness to drilling in the Great Lakes.

How does this all tie into Hawking and quantum mechanics? Easy – a grand designer would have never allowed for the evolution of the mind of a man like Hawking alongside the devolved mind of a guy like Ron Johnson. Sorry, that’s just a silly comment, coming from someone not seeing a single entity or god-head as the creator.

I’m looking at the movie, the Age of Stupid, in an upcoming following blog. Reviewing it and applying some larger philosophical unerpinnings to it tied to sustainability, politics and democracy of fear. It premiered March 2009, and very few people have seen it, or heard of it. Sorry, but it makes more sense than An Inconvenient Truth, just a turbo-charged lecture and Power Point presentation.

For now, though, read a great review of this new Hawking book, and then, an interesting essay by a disabled writer who wants to interview Hawking. Funny, poignant, fun.

Review of 'The Grand Design,' by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow.

By James Trefil

Sunday, September 5, 2010; B07

By Stephen Hawking and
Leonard Mlodinow
Bantam. 198 pp. $28

In "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," Douglas Adams famously had his characters ask a computer to provide the ultimate answer to "Life, the Universe, and Everything." As Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow point out in their book "The Grand Design," the computer's response -- 42 -- was less than helpful. Hawking, who needs no introduction, and Mlodinow, a Caltech physicist with a string of excellent books to his credit, have taken on that ultimate question in a somewhat more rigorous form by asking three related ones:

Why is there something instead of nothing?

Why do we exist?

Why does this particular set of laws govern our universe and not some other set?

Deep stuff, indeed. In the first chapter, Hawking and Mlodinow launch into an accessible and elegant history of the progression of scientific knowledge from the Greeks to modern cosmology. As is customary in such treatments, the authors point out the significance of certain milestones. The first of these, the realization by the Ionian Greeks that nature could be explained by laws rather than by the whims of the gods, is really the start of modern science. The second, the discovery by Copernicus that the Earth is not at the center of the universe, opened the door for a realistic exploration of our solar system and, later, our galaxy and universe.

So far, so good, but the 20th century was not kind to scientific orthodoxy. Two new fields -- quantum mechanics, which deals with the behavior of things at the atomic and sub-atomic level, and relativity, which is our best explanation of gravity -- came on the scene, changing our perspective on the laws of classical physics. (I have to add, as do the authors, that those laws are still valid in our everyday lives.)

The authors describe quantum mechanics in clear, non-technical language using a formulation devised by the late Richard Feynman and called the "sum over histories" approach. (Typical of the breezy style of the book, when the authors first mention Feynman, they ignore his Nobel Prize and point out that he liked to play the bongo drums at a strip club near Caltech.)

By Feynman's method of quantum mechanics, the probability of an event -- an electron moving from where you are to the door of your room, for example -- is calculated by adding up the probabilities of all the ways it could happen. It could move in a straight line, circle the room a couple of times or even (with very small probability) visit Mars on its way to the door.

With that background, Hawking and Mlodinow get to the real meat of their book: the way theories about quantum mechanics and relativity came together to shape our understanding of how our universe (and possibly others) formed out of nothing. Our current best description of the physics of this event, they explain, is the so-called "M-theories," which predict that there is not a single universe (the one we live in) but a huge number of universes. In other words, not only is the Earth just one of several planets in our solar system and the Milky Way one of billions of galaxies, but our known universe itself is just one among uncounted billions of universes. It's a startling replay of the Copernican Revolution.

The conclusions that follow are groundbreaking. Of all the possible universes, some must have laws that allow the appearance of life. The fact that we are here already tells us that we are in that corner of the multiverse. In this way, all origin questions are answered by pointing to the huge number of possible universes and saying that some of them have the properties that allow the existence of life, just by chance.

I've waited a long time for this book. It gets into the deepest questions of modern cosmology without a single equation. The reader will be able to get through it without bogging down in a lot of technical detail and will, I hope, have his or her appetite whetted for books with a deeper technical content. And who knows? Maybe in the end the whole multiverse idea will actually turn out to be right!

James Trefil is a professor of physics at George Mason University. His next book will be an illustrated tour of the multiverse.


The Unification of Stephen Hawking

By Mark O'Brien

The opportunities available to the disabled reporter to practice his craft are scant and uninteresting. When The Fessenden Review asked this disabled journalist to leave his Berkeley apartment and trek to southern California to interview Elizabeth Bouvia, a disabled woman who demanded medical assistance to help her starve herself to death, I had to say no. I very much wanted to talk with her, but I would have had to rent a van with a wheelchair lift, find accommodations for myself, an attendant or two, and a 900 pound iron lung. I spend most of my time in a 900 pound iron lung because polio has shriveled my lungs. Such a dependence upon the iron lung greatly reduces my mobility, so I told the editor of The Fessenden Review that I had to refuse the assignment. Throwing out my Clark Kent fedora, I resumed my career as a small-time poet, freelance book reviewer, and author of an unfinished novel.

Four years ago, I reviewed a book called Stephen Hawking's Universe, a biography of an Englishman who was disabled by Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) in the 1960's while studying physics and mathematics at Cambridge University. I praised the deft manner in which the author, John Boslough, described Hawking's startling work in theoretical physics, but I expressed disappointment that he failed to say much about Hawking as a person. All Boslough could say on this point was that Hawking was the toughest man he had ever met.

I was fascinated with the idea that one of the world's leading physicists was disabled because the popular image of disabled people has us do nothing besides mope over being disabled. It seemed likely that Stephen Hawking would become, whether he wanted to or not, the most famous disabled person since the death of Franklin Roosevelt. Like Roosevelt, Hawking had become well-known more through his work than his disability. Unlike Roosevelt, Hawking never sought to hide the fact of his disability. Where I had the sense that Roosevelt was what a disabled friend of mine had called "a closet crip," I felt no such reticence or shame emanating from Hawking.

While not wishing to hide his disability, neither did Hawking seem to regard it as the only important thing in his life. If he was obsessed with anything, it was with the universe--its origin, workings, and destiny. In his own book, A Brief History of Time, Hawking says he is seeking nothing less than "the unification of physics," the reconciliation of quantum mechanics with relativity and an integration of the four forces (electromagnetism, gravity, and the weak and strong nuclear forces) which would provide an explanation for all phenomena. Given the scope of his ambition and the brilliance of his intellect, it seems likely to me that he will achieve this goal and in the process avoid becoming fixated upon being disabled, a condition a friend of mine calls "being a full-time crip." But Hawking still has to deal with his disability, even if he is just a part-time crip. I wondered how Hawking dealt with becoming severely disabled. How did he get to be so tough? What was it like for him to have a wife and children? What has he done with the feelings of depression which disability usually brings? So when I learned that Hawking would give a series of lectures on the Berkeley campus of the University of California, I saw my chance.

I live a few blocks south of campus, so travel would not present a problem. I phoned the university's public information office and was told that Dr. Hawking (everyone with the university called him Dr. Hawking) would give a press conference the following Tuesday.

I didn't attend Hawking's first lecture (or any of the others) because I felt too tired to get out of the iron lung on those days and because I felt I would have little chance of asking him for an interview in the post-lecture crush.

When the morning of the press conference came, I worried that I would not get the interview. Armed only with a cassette tape recorder and a manila envelope stuffed with a formal letter requesting an interview, my disability poems, my science poems, my autobiographical essay, my reviews of Stephen Hawking's Universe, and Hawking's new book, I hoped to persuade him to grant me an interview.

I had asked Miguel, my lunch attendant, to come at 10:30 to get me into my wheelchair and push me to the press conference. I worried that he might be late, as he often is, but this time he wasn't. When he lifted me, I screamed much less than usual (getting lifted always scares the sweet be Jesus out of me, even if the lifter looks like an Olympic basketball player), because my chief concern was to get to the press conference on time.

Miguel took me out into the warm March day while I fretted about my lack of press credentials.

Gentle reader, all of those reporters you see on TV talking about their press credentials are working for some corporation, usually a huge one such as Time, ABC, or Rolling Stone. I, being a freelancer, which is to say an unemployed poet and novelist who occasionally deigns to work at journalism when prompted by a desire for thrills or money, had no press credentials at all. When I was a student in the UC Berkeley journalism school, I had been issued a little white card that shrilly insisted I was a bona fide, honest-to-Pete reporter for something called the California News Service, a dummy organization invented by the journalism school for the sole purpose of issuing press credentials to its students. But it had been years since I dropped out of J-school and tossed out my CNS cards. I had asked the editor of The Fessenden Review to send me press credentials, but they were delayed in the mail.

Now I approached the greatest story of my journalistic career with no more press credentials than a hyena. More reason for me to be anxious. What if they demanded proof that I was a reporter? I would sputter "Oh, yeah?" like Tommy Smothers. No, a better idea struck me. I would tell them to phone the editor of The Fessenden Review. But what if he weren't in? What if he was in his office, but the person checking my credentials had never heard of The Fessenden Review?

Such trepidations tumbled in my mind like dice as Miguel pushed me into the student union building, where the press conference was to be held in Heller Lounge. Acting as the navigator ,for I knew the campus better than Miguel did, I confidently told him that it was on the top floor.

"I remember because it's where I rented my cap and gown for my graduation."

But there was nothing called Heller lounge up there. When Miguel told a man emerging from a room that we were looking for Dr. Hawking's press conference, the man said he was also going to it and led the way. Downstairs, we entered a long, vaguely defined area which I had always thought of as the student lounge. Miguel pushed me by students lounging, reading, or sprawling across the bright blue sofas in complete exhaustion. Near the end of the lounge, folding chairs had been set up in an open, glass-walled area, presumably as a special accommodation to the able-bodied journalists. On a long table in front of us all were press handouts and a vase of flowers in Cal colors, yellow and blue. No one asked me to produce anything to prove that I was a reporter. I concluded that if you look sufficiently disabled, people will judge you to be harmless.

We were early, so I asked Miguel to grab some handouts and get my cassette recorder out of the red backpack that hangs loosely from the back of my wheelchair like a turkey wattle. Then we waited. The inquisitive reporters looked at each other, at the handouts, at the flowers, and at the view through the tinted glass walls of Lower Sproul Plaza, a barren, concrete space that is afflicted most noons by bands of the heavy metal or acid-punk (or whatever they're called these days) persuasion screeching as though they are being vivisected. But now the bands and their tormentors had the good sense to be absent. In the stark silence, I heard the low buzzing of an electric wheelchair.

"Is that him?" I asked Miguel, who can look around easier than I can.

"No, it's someone else."

Finally, a tall bearded man started talking into the microphone.

"...Will you please welcome to the university Doctor Stephen W. Hawking."

Applause spattered the room like a sudden rainstorm. Then I saw him to my left, a slight figure moving slowly across the room in a brown, padded wheelchair. Wearing a crumpled hounds-tooth suit, he looked very English and very academic, happily fulfilling our preconceptions. His face, middle-aged and knobby, reminded me of a pensive Alfred E. Neuman.

Suddenly, his face blessed us with a smile as dazzling and casual as Jack Kennedy's. A Beatle cut, graying, remained from his student days.

After he parked his wheelchair by the table, the microphone was lowered and placed next to his voice synthesizer, a plastic and metal device that sits on the wheelchair's lap tray like a large, propped-up book.

"Doctor Hawking," began the first questioner, who proceeded to ask about a recently-discovered super-nova.

I wanted to ask my question early to get through my anxiety. I had decided to ask him what he would say to disabled people who were stuck in nursing homes or in a room in their parents' house. I wanted to ask him this because I had spent too many years of my life stuck in such frustrating, life-stopping places. That I have come to live in such a jazzy, juicy place as Berkeley astonishes me so much that I inspect the mailing labels on magazines to make sure that my name is two lines above BERKELEY, CA.

It took Dr. Hawking a couple of minutes to type his first answer, which came abruptly from the speech synthesizer in a deep American-sounding voice, impressively human though somewhat robotic around the edges.

I wanted to get my question in, but Dr. Hawking possesses no body language to indicate "next?" The other reporters beat me to it several times. During the long pauses occasioned by Dr.Hawking's voice synthesizer, photographers scuttled about like hyperactive lobsters, standing, kneeling, leaning, trying to get every angle on Dr. Hawking, whose movements were limited to his cool blue eyes and that smile.

Although his answers were slow in coming, everyone present had their attention devoted to him. I wondered what the passers-by on the walkway outside the glass wall would make of the scene--thirty or forty able-bodied people expectantly looking at a small, thin man in a wheelchair who never moved his lips to speak.

A photographer knelt on the floor, blocking my view of Hawking. I asked her in a whisper to move, but my whisper was too soft and I feared that if I asked her in my normal tone of voice, I would break the eerie silence between questions and answers.

I seemed unable to croak out a medium-sized request, so I asked Miguel to ask her to move, which she did. Now that I could see Hawking again, I decided I should ask my question before someone else came along to block my view. Shimmering with anxiety, I pondered the puniness of my question. Would Hawking be annoyed that my question would pull him away from the pristine glory of physics and into the sad, ancient swamp of disability? Looking steadily into his halcyon eyes, I pretended to have the courage to ask him my question.

"Doctor Hawking, what can you say to all the disabled people who are stuck in nursing homes or living with their parents or in some other untenable situation and who feel that their life is over, that they have no future?"

As I heard this long question unravel like an ill-mannered ball of yarn, Hawking continued to look at me and typed his answer into the voice synthesizer. I couldn't see his right hand, the one he used to type. I waited. All of us waited. Then the silence was cracked by the voice synthesizer's crisp, booming voice.

It can be very difficult. I know that I was very fortunate. All I can say is that one must do the best one can in the situation in which one finds oneself.

He continued to look at me as his answer was spoken, as though he missed the simultaneity of speech and eye contact. I thanked him, then the other reporters asked questions which veered away from physics, a subject very few of us understood, and toward God, a subject on which we all consider ourselves experts. Hawking told the attentive reporters that he did believe in God, but not in a personal God.

At least, that's what I thought he said. I would be corrected later. The final question asked whether Dr. Hawking really wanted the riddle of the universe to be solved.

Wouldn't discovering The Answer have the distressing effect of ending a grand quest?

I hope that we will find it, but not quite yet.

We laughed, even though we half-expected such a sly answer.

The press conference over, the able-bodied people got out of their folding chairs to cluster into knots of conversation, which is what able-bodied people do when they are not sure of what they should be doing. Miguel picked my tape recorder off the floor and put it in my backpack. I asked him to give my envelope to someone in Hawking's entourage, but Miguel asked whether I wouldn't rather have him give my envelope directly to Hawking. Suspended in indecision, I thought of how little space there was on the lap tray of Dr. Hawking's wheelchair, the possibility that he might be offended by such naked American chutzpah, and how unlikely it was that I would ever get this close to him again. After a long internal debate of a second and a half, I felt the cold, sharp gust of What the hell blast away my irresolution.

Miguel gave the envelope to Hawking, who then approached me.

Hello, said Hawking in his calm electronic voice.

"It's such an honor to meet you," I burbled in my tremulous meeting-a-celebrity voice. I explained the contents of the envelope, including the letter asking him for an interview. Rather than wait for him to read my letter, I asked him for an interview right there and then, while the able-bodied reporters towered around us like a circle of curious trees.

Yes. The week of April fourth.

"Good, good. That'll give me time to... I have my phone number on the letter, so or one of your people can call me to set a time and place."


Your people, my people. I was beginning to sound like a CEO.

He left to talk with others amidst the milling, mumbling crowd.

I got it, I got it! I thought. This'll be the biggest story of my journalistic career. Just think. I and The Fessenden Review will be quoted by the two dozen companies evoked in the American mind by the trendy and mellifluous word "media."

A balding man leaned down to me, his microphone hungering for my words.

"National Public Radio."

"Are you William Drummond?" I asked, giddy at the thought. Drummond taught at the UC Berkeley journalism school, he had worked for President Ford, as NPR's correspondent in Lebanon he had faced constant danger, and he had met Susan Stamberg, NPR's sultry-voiced, witty anchor. Oh my God, he knows Susan Stamberg!

"No, I'm not Bill Drummond," he said, interrupting my delirium. "Rick McCourt."

Now that was a stupid thing for me to say, I thought, chastising myself. Why didn't I just let him introduce himself? But he didn't seem to mind. I told him I had heard his science reports. So what if he hadn't met Susan Stamberg? Maybe he would someday.

Beside him stood a woman who didn't identify herself. She asked me whether seeing Dr. Hawking gave me hope. This struck me as an awfully stupid question. Hope for what? Could Dr. Hawking change my life, make me walk, get me a lover? I tried to think of a polite way to answer her.

"It's not that, so much, as, uh...he gives me a sense of 'hurray-for-our-side.'"
What was I saying? God knows. I just didn't want to get sucked into being cast as a Spokesperson for the Disabled in a dreary story headlined "Disabled Inspired by Dr. Hawking." Their interview of me lasted about two minutes. McCourt told me he'd phone me if NPR used his interview with me. Then they left. My celebrity status ended with thirteen minutes left to go.

"Let's go," I told Miguel, who pushed me through the sunny campus and down Telegraph Avenue back to my apartment.

After a week had passed without any word from Hawking, I grew anxious. He was a busy man in a foreign country and could easily have forgotten about me and my proposed interview. So when I heard that the university's Disabled Students Program was honoring Dr. Hawking with a barbecue, I decided to attend it in the hope of reminding him of the interview.

Miguel took me to the barbecue, which was held in the parking lot behind the old pinkish-red mansion that houses DSP. It was a hot Thursday, the day of Dr. Hawking's third and final lecture on the Berkeley campus. The parking lot was crowded with people in all kinds of wheelchairs, blind people, attendants, deaf people signing at feverish speed, the DSP staff, and reporters from KQED-TV and National Geographic.

Heat bounced off of the three white buildings that surround the parking lot on three sides. The last thing I wanted was to have a hard, mean, crunchy hamburger pushed into my mouth. This being Berkeley, there was pasta salad, but the good vegetarians of Berkeley had devoured the pasta salad, confident that the pasta salad never said moo, never blinked large brown eyes, and never gave birth to mewling, puking baby pasta salads.

Where was Hawking?

God knew, having a better vantage point than mine, which was in my new and unsteady reclining wheelchair, reclined to almost flat, which put my head about three feet above the hot asphalt.

A man in a tall psychedelic wheelchair bumped into my recliner, causing it to tip backwards maybe an eighth of an inch. Convinced that my skull would be cracked open like an egg and that my brains would fry sunny-side-up on the asphalt, I screamed in falsetto panic. As my wheelchair steadied itself, everyone looked at me.

"Are you all right?" they asked me.


Now certain in the knowledge that I was having a thoroughly terrible time, I told Miguel I wanted to leave.

"Can you see Hawking? Over there?"

He pointed and I saw him, surrounded by people. He was eating something and looking as though he were enjoying himself in spite of wearing a tweed suit in the Fourth of July heat.

"I'll try to get you over there to see him," Miguel said.

As Miguel knifed my wheelchair through the densely-packed crowd, I could see the circle around Hawking break. A DSP official tested the microphone, then said what a privilege it was to have Dr. Hawking present. She then presented the famous disabled physicist tokens of admiration, one of them a T-shirt that proclaimed:


Thinking that I deserved such a T-shirt more than Hawking did, even though he wore that tweed suit, I observed the brief ceremony, which concluded with the announcement that Dr. Hawking would autograph copies of his book at the other end of the parking lot.

A DSP staffer began singing into the microphone as Hawking zoomed by me, two feet to my right. I recognized his wife from her photo in Boslough's book. I had enough cash to buy the book, so Miguel and I waited in line, the sun glaring in my face and raising a bumper crop of skin cancer cells on my potato-pale Irish face. While we waited, Miguel brought one of Hawking's attendants, a tall Englishwoman with curly reddish hair, over to talk with me. When I told her that I wanted to interview Dr. Hawking that Saturday, she said she was terribly sorry, but they were leaving Berkeley the next day.

Was all this for nothing?, I asked myself.

"But I can't speak for him," she said. "You should ask him yourself."

With this slight encouragement in mind, I asked Dr. Hawking whether he could still give me an interview. Close up, he looked uncomfortable. Was it the heat or was it that I was bugging him? I was rehearsing my yes-i-understand speech when he said Yes. Half eleven in the lobby of my hotel.

Once again, I was startled by his willingness to talk with me.

The red-haired attendant pressed Hawking's right thumb into an inkpad, then into the inside cover of his book. I had his autograph.

That Saturday morning, I sat with Miguel in the lobby of the Durant Hotel, a stately green structure which flies an enormous American flag on its roof. Although I had never been in a hotel lobby before, I seemed to recognize the decor and ambience--overstuffed furniture, hushed conversation, men in suits vacuuming the carpet and polishing the brass. I sensed the quiet, genteel boredom prized by old money.

Perhaps Miguel and I had entered one of the wormholes Hawking writes about, a rent in time-space that leads to unexpected destinations, in this case, the Algonquin Hotel, circa 1924. Was that Robert Benchley reading The Herald Tribune? No, it was just a Japanese businessman flipping through The San Francisco Chronicle.

Miguel and I looked about, checked my tape recorder, and drummed the fingers of our minds. The two clocks in the lobby went off every fifteen minutes, but had differing ideas of the exact time. Was one right and the other wrong? Were they both wrong?

I was trying to remember whether relativity applied to hotel lobbies when some men entered the lobby, one of them sitting in a tall and unmistakably psychedelic wheelchair. One of the men was red-haired and seemed to act as attendant to the man in the psychedelic wheelchair. The other two men, one British, the other American, were white-haired. The red-haired man sat atop the back of a profoundly upholstered chair, whereupon the group broke up into two groups to provide Miguel and me with polyphonic conversation.

The white-haired American talked with the man in the psychedelic wheelchair about the remarkable distribution of ALS, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's disease on Guam, whose inhabitants come down with either Alzheimer's or Parkinson's on the one hand, or ALS on the other. It seemed that no one on Guam ever got ALS and one of the other diseases, and that disorders of the nervous system were so popular on Guam because of all the toxic wrecks dumped there by the U.S. military. Through the other channel, I heard the red-haired man talk with the Briton about the bizarre nature of the universe as described by Dr. Hawking at one of his lectures. It struck me that anyone's description of the universe must sound bizarre upon a first hearing, but that Hawking's description seemed especially bizarre, what with black holes seeming to radiate gamma rays and the big bang not necessarily signifying any sort of Beginning. When the two conversations fugued together in my mind, I realized that they were both about aspects of Hawking's life.

Suddenly, I saw Hawking emerge from the elevator with the same attendant who had talked with me at the barbecue. She walked over to tell me she was terribly sorry, but Dr. Hawking would be meeting some people before he could see me. Did I mind? No.

It was still only 11 or 11:15, depending on which clock you believed. Hawking disappeared down a hallway with his attendant and a group of people who had been sitting in the lobby.

I waited nervously, trying to imagine what I would do if the interview failed to yield me the information I would need to solve the riddle of Stephen Hawking. I knew that I would have only half an hour with him and that it would take him a minute or two to answer each of my questions. When the red-haired woman came to tell me that Dr. Hawking could see me, Miguel pushed me to the meeting as I felt a feeling of this is it, I'm going to hit the beach at Normandy.

Stephen Hawking, sitting beside a long wooden table in a posh conference room, was dressed in a striped T-shirt and brown pants. The walls of the room were paneled in wood and decorated with water colors of the campus sold by the Berkeley alumni association. As I inhaled the importance of the room and the situation, I noticed that the roseate calm of these paintings clashed with the confusion and clamor I had come to associate with the same scenes in real life. After Miguel set up my tape recorder, I asked him to leave.

I was alone with Hawking and his attendant, who helped him drink a glass of tea and occasionally asked me questions as I waited for Hawking's answer to emerge from the voice synthesizer. He seemed preoccupied and would occasionally gag on the tea, which made him seem vulnerable. Telling him that I wanted to ask him personal questions in regard to his disability, I began.

TFR: It looks like you're becoming a celebrity. Your lectures have drawn overflow audiences. How do you feel about this?

HAWKING: It may help to sell my book, but I really want to get back to my scientific work.

TFR: From what I've read in Boslough's biography of you and other places, meeting Jane Wilde seems to have been an important point in your life. Can you tell me how you were feeling, physically and emotionally, when you met her?

HAWKING: A bit mixed up.

TFR: How did knowing her affect you?

HAWKING: I wouldn't have been able to do what I have done without her help.

TFR: Did you think women wouldn't be attracted to you after you were diagnosed as having ALS?

HAWKING: I didn't know.

TFR: Do you ever feel frustration, rage at being disabled?


TFR: Does your work help you to deal with these feelings?

HAWKING: Yes. I have been lucky. I don't have anything to be angry about.

When I asked him how he relates to his children and whether he disciplined them, his attendant asked me whether I knew his children's ages.

"Twenty, seventeen, and seven," I said, relieved that I could recall this information.

"The youngest is nine," she said. "Actually, I don't think he disciplines them enough," she added, smiling at Hawking, who was busy typing his answer. "But that's just my opinion."

HAWKING: I get along well with them. I'm lucky to have such nice children.

TFR: I've read that you've been to Moscow ten times, to the U.S. twenty-five times to meet with other physicists. Do you find travel to be tiring?

HAWKING: Yes. I travel a lot. I'm going to Israel and to Russia.

TFR: Do you find different attitudes toward disability in different countries?

HAWKING: People help wherever I go.

TFR: Do you find this book publicizing tour boring?

HAWKING: I have been meeting colleagues.

TFR: Do you read outside of the reading you have to do in physics?

HAWKING: I don't get much time to read.

TFR: Did you derive your idea of an impersonal god from Buddhism, Vedanta, or some other tradition or have you developed your own religious ideas?

His attendant then told me that I had misunderstood what Dr. Hawking had said at his press conference, which was that he didn't believe in a personal god, not that he believed in an impersonal god.

HAWKING: It is better not to use the word "god" to describe what I believe because most people use the word to mean a being with whom one can have a personal relationship.

TFR: Do you sense a connection between how the universe operates and why it exists?

HAWKING: I don't. If I did, I would have solved the universe.

Had I succeeded in my quest to solve Stephen W. Hawking? I felt that I had not. His answers were brief and unrevealing. Being disabled myself, I found it difficult to believe that he felt he did not have "anything to be angry about." Had I asked him the wrong questions, questions he considered to be too intrusive? Was it that the slowness of the voice synthesizer tends to make him want to speak laconically?

Or, what seems most likely, is he just a shy man wrapped up in his work and his family? Perhaps we demand too much of people when we ask them to turn their lives inside-out to satisfy our raging curiosity about celebrities. The one thing I learned was that Hawking's work succeeds in distracting him from a becoming obsessed with his disability, just as Roosevelt's work as Governor of New York and President of the United States rescued him from dark years of brooding and frustration. And was I so different with my writing? Didn't my constant work on book reviews, poems, journalism, and my novel take me out of and beyond my wretched body? If the unification of Stephen Hawking is ever to be achieved, it will teach us the necessity of love and work, not only for those of us who are trapped in unworkable bodies, but for everyone who is trapped in the stark, unyielding prison of time-space.


1) Stephen Hawking's Universe, by John Boslough (William Morrow and Company, 1985).

2) A Brief History of Time, by Stephen W. Hawking (Bantam Books, 1988).

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Talking Heads' Head Talks Cycling, Cities, Civics

Photo by Annie Lebowitz

Below are the musings of fellow Down to Earth writer, Paul Dillon, his broaching of David Byrne's (of the Talking Heads) view of the world from the lens of a bicyclist. David is all about bicycling. Dillon does a fine job contextualizing sustainability, green and planning issues in the Down to Earth blog he pens. He has a short preface and then gives us Byrne. David's talking about civic life, civic engagement, the public commons, public places, and the cancer of privatizing our space, our roads, our lives. His message should be in the hearts of every politician in this society, in this world. Next post is on Cynthia McKinney's Bike for Peace/Bike for Clean Energy.

I love David Byrne. The renaissance man is an avid cyclist and his last book, a hilarious and insightful travelogue called the “Bicycle Diaries,” pedaled his odd musings about life on the road while on tour with his fold-up bike. This month, the audiobook will be released with a twist: Echoing ye old radio dramas like The Shadow, it’s more like a cross between a podcast and a radio show instead of the usual author or actor reading in silence. Instead you get background music, street sounds and other ambiences that help put the listener in the picture.

Always experimenting, Byrne explains it best in an email. So, I did one chapter (“New York”) as a test, with me reading, and though it took a lot longer to assemble than I expected, I felt it did indeed do what I imagined it could; when you heard the tinkle of glasses and silverware during a restaurant “scene,” boom!-you immediately felt you were there. Your mind fills in the details and these little sound cues help paint a fuller picture. If only I could have added smell! When the text went off on one of many tangents, and I began ruminating about a subject off the beaten path, a little bit of music I happened to have available helped tell you, the listener, that, yes, we’ve left the “story” temporarily, but will return soon.

He said this book can be consumed in any order, and it doesn’t matter which chapter you start with so one could download and listen to the chapters as individual podcasts, in any sequence. You can get a first taste of the introduction HERE. After the jump is an excerpt from the book, accompanied by picture of Byrne’s bike racks in NYC, with a dollar sign on Wall St. and a high heel on 5th Avenue. (Can Spokane go above and beyond the basic rack model offered and stake out their own designs? No more blue spiders behind a building, thank you very much.) Enjoy.

from the book:

I ride my bike almost every day here in New York. It’s getting safer to do so, but I do have to be fairly alert when riding on the streets as opposed to riding on the Hudson River bike path or similar protected lanes. The city has added a lot of bike lanes in recent years, and they claim they now have more than any other city in the United States. But sadly most of them are not safe enough that one can truly relax, as is possible on the almost completed path along the Hudson or on many European bike lanes. That’s changing, bit by bit. As new lanes are added some of them are more secure, placed between the sidewalk and parked cars or protected by a concrete barrier.

Between 2007 and 2008 bike traffic in New York increased 35 percent. Hard to tell if the cart is leading the horse here— whether more lanes have inspired more bicycle usage or the other way around. I happily suspect that for the moment at least, both the Department of Transportation and New York City cyclists are on the same page. As more young creative types find themselves living in Brooklyn they bike over the bridges in increasing numbers. Manhattan Bridge bike traffic just about quadrupled last year (2008) and the bike traffic on the Williamsburg Bridge tripled. And those numbers will keep increasing as the city continues to make improvements to bike lanes and adds bike racks and other amenities. In this area the city is, to some extent, anticipating what will happen in the near future—a lot more people will use bikes for getting to work or for fun.

On a bike, being just slightly above pedestrian and car eye level, one gets a perfect view of the goings-on in one’s own town. Unlike many other U.S. cities, here in New York almost everyone has to step onto the sidewalk and encounter other people at least once a day—everyone makes at least one brief public appearance. I once had to swerve to avoid Paris Hilton, holding her little doggie, crossing the street against the light and looking around as if to say, “I’m Paris Hilton, don’t you recognize me?” From a cyclist’s point of view you pretty much see it all.

Just outside a midtown theater a man rides by on a bike— one of those lowriders. He’s a grown man, who seems pretty normal in appearance, except he’s got a monstrously huge boom box strapped to the front of the bike.

I ride off on my own bike and a few minutes later another boom-box biker passes by. This time it’s a Jane-Austen-reading, sensible-shoe-wearing woman. She’s on a regular bike, but again, with a (smaller) boom box strapped to the rear … I can’t hear what the music is.

City Archetypes

There is a magazine in a rack at the entrance to my local Pakistani lunch counter called InvAsian: A Journal for the Culturally Ambivalent.

What is it about certain cities and places that fosters specific attitudes? Am I imagining that this is the case? To what extent does the infrastructure of cities shape the lives, work, and sensibilities of their inhabitants? Quite significantly, I suspect. All this talk about bike lanes, ugly buildings, and density of population isn’t just about those things, it’s about what kinds of people those places turn us into. I don’t think I’m imagining that people who move to L.A. from elsewhere inevitably lose a lot of that elsewhere and eventually end up creating L.A.-type work and being L.A.-type people. Do creative, social, and civic attitudes change depending on where we live? Yes, I think so.

How does this happen? Do they seep in surreptitiously through peer pressure and casual conversations? Is it the water, the light, the weather? Is there a Detroit sensibility? Memphis? New Orleans? (No doubt.) Austin? (Certainly.) Nashville? London?

Berlin? (I would say there’s a Berlin sense of humor for sure.) Düsseldorf? Vienna? (Yes.) Paris? Osaka? Melbourne? Salvador? Bahia? (Absolutely.)

I was recently in Hong Kong and a friend there commented that China doesn’t have a history of civic engagement. Traditionally in China one had to accommodate two aspects of humanity—the emperor and his bureaucracy, and one’s own family. And even though that family might be fairly extended it doesn’t include neighbors or coworkers, so a lot of the world is left out. To hell with them. As long as the emperor or his ministers aren’t after me and my family is okay then all’s right with the world. I had been marveling at the rate of destruction of anything having to do with social pleasures and civic interaction in Hong Kong—funky markets, parks, waterfront promenades, bike lanes (of course)—I was amazed how anything designed for the common good is quickly bulldozed, privatized, or replaced by a condo or office tower. According to my friend civic life is just not part of the culture. So in this case at least, the city is an accurate and physical reflection of how that culture views itself. The city is a 3-D manifestation of the social, and personal—and I’m suggesting that, in turn, a city, its physical being, reinforces those ethics and re-creates them in successive generations and in those who have immigrated to the city. Cities self-perpetuate the mind-set that made them.

Maybe every city has a unique sensibility but we don’t have names for what they are or haven’t identified them all. We can’t pinpoint exactly what makes each city’s people unique yet. How long does one have to be a resident before one starts to behave and think like a local? And where does this psychological city start? Is there a spot on the map where attitudes change? And is the inverse true? Is there a place where New Yorkers suddenly become Long Islanders? Will there be freeway signs with a picture of Billy Joel that alert motorists “attention, entering New York state of mind”?

Does living in New York City foster a hard-as-nails, no nonsense attitude? Is that how one would describe the New York state of mind? I’ve heard recently that Cariocas (residents of Rio) have a similar “okay, okay, get to the point” sensibility. Is that a legacy of the layers of historical happenstance that make up a particular city? Is that where it comes from? Is it a constantly morphing and slowly evolving worldview? Do the repercussions of local politics and the local laws foster how we view each other? Does it come from the socioeconomic-ethnic mix; are the proportions in the urban stew critical, like in a recipe? Does the evanescence of fame and glamour lie upon all of L.A. like whipped cream? Do the Latin and Asian populations that are fenced off from the celebrity playgrounds get mixed into this stew, resulting in a unique kind of social psychological fusion? Does that, and the way the hazy light looks on skin, make certain kinds of work and leisure activities more appropriate there?

Maybe this is all a bit of a myth, a willful desire to give each place its own unique aura. But doesn’t any collective belief eventually become a kind of truth? If enough people act as if something is true, isn’t it indeed “true,” not objectively, but in the sense that it will determine how they will behave? The myth of unique urban character and unique sensibilities in different cities exists because we want it to exist.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

“Gulf Coast Blues” shows mettle of Spokane filmmaker’s vision

“I ask for water, and she gave me gasoline
I ask for water, give me gasoline
I ask for water and she gave me gasoline
Lord, Lordy Lord.”

” Cool Drink of Water Blues ” (1928, Memphis) by Tommy Johnson

Some in that darkened theater laughed like hell when the Cajun did a little white rap riff on the Beverly Hillbillies a la BP.

They liked the Spanish moss scenes with the pretty ibises and egrets almost floating like clouds.

When children came into scenes of Marc Gauthier’s film, “Gulf Coast Blues: Oil in their Veins,” some of the grandma types at the Magic Lantern giggled at their profundity in the face of blasphemy.

Music kicks up the film’s pace when the Coast Guard, BP reps and politicians ooze their incompetence on the screen.

The filmmaker even scores a jerky shot of himself choking up when he realizes two dolphins shooting muddy blow-hole vapor are going to be toast in a few days with oil encrusting their skin.

Not coated in Jed Clampett’s black gold … not really oil … crude that is, mixed with Corectix.

There has been much anticipation leading to Marc’s film. (see trailer here.) I’ve been with this project, as chronicler of his travels from Spokane down to Grand Isle, La., since May.

Now his dream, his child, is fully gestated, and what the viewer gets is beyond visceral footage of incompetence in the form of fouled beaches and sludge-drenched wildlife. What this baby offers is a chance to suck it up and witness the transformation of one guy, Gauthier, into us, 2,500 miles away from what many Americans see as the South’s mess.

After watching Marc’s film, I hope most viewers will come away with a pride and a sense of dishonor.

Pride because this out-of-work guy from Michigan, who’s been in Spokane trying the mete out a living, took his rage – at BP’s explosion that killed 11 men, at 2 million gallons of oil leaking daily into one of the world’s prime fisheries, at how the media and government gave BP a green light to lie – and funneled that ire into a project.

Marc headed South, with no contacts or experience there. He gathered a few donations, strapped his old sea kayak to the rental car, and departed with a general plan of filming how one American might actually help fellow Americans.

His film is that “ground-truthing,” and the misery of being turned down time and again as a volunteer is part of the narrative thread. But the film courses through unfolding scenes of media blackouts, absolute corporate incompetence and what the South has to put up with from this point onward.

Those confused, broken-down, sarcastic people in this film are us.

Don’t kid yourself though – “Gulf Coast Blues” is not all gloom and doom, shots of gasping pelicans, huge panoramas of shining oil-sheen-covered sea, or Southern politicians “tea party dunking” Obama.

It’s about a man, an idea, a vision, a way of thinking and a type of gumption that’s pretty much endangered.

The dishonor I mentioned isn’t just an easy uppercut to the media, corporate America, and an obese government, or how the Coast Guard, EPA, MMA, National Guard, the governor of Louisiana, or the Rupert Murdochs of the world foiled truth and action.

It’s about American spirit, like some seagull, drenched in an oil-dispersant cocktail, flagging at every opportunity. It’s about us, not having the will or guts to take back this government, and forcing the hand of every corrupt politician and greedy CEO to join us in participatory democracy.

I’ve been a journalist in Arizona when the “first” story on the “drug” tunnel was broken by a colleague. I’ve been along the Chiapas, Mexico, and Guatemala border living with and reporting on the dregs of the Reagan doctrine and his administration’s support of despots and military killing machines there.

I’ve followed environmentalists along the US-Mexico border fighting free trade and even freer pollution in Mexico and along the Texas border. I’ve been to Vietnam and written about what capitalism and “normalization” of trade does to fisheries and coral reefs.

This film is me when I was in my 20s. It’s me now, 30 years later, still fighting the fight, Spokane’s Sisyphus, except my Hades is the U.S. of oil.

Marc points out this addiction as he heads south and sees the endless snake of semis and SUVs coming and going on America’s interstate highways.

This film is poetic, full of rough edges, along the order of true low- budget documentary style. Too many people I’ve talked to were reluctant to go see it because they didn’t want their lives soiled with more images of dying wildlife and buffoonery from their Democratic Administration.

These same people I admonished, harangued into supporting Sustainable September’s local filmmaker, and the same people I’ve tried to convince to see “The Cove.”

“Gulf Coast Blues” for me has little to do with BP’s fiasco, if we dare call it that, since entire ecosystems are in peril along with the people exploiting them.

It’s about facing down lawmakers and captains of industry, and the media. This film is in the same category as Lourdes Portillo’s 2001 documentary, “Senorita Extravida,” about and dedicated to the female victims of the Juarez murders.

Like those Mexico murders (taking place all over Mexico now), we need more films about BP, the death of science, the explosion of sarcasm and acceptance as a result of this 480 million gallons of oil and Corectix lie.

Marc’s film is that hot electric wire whipping inside your belly. You know who you are – you vote progressive, you have a 401-K plan that’s doing Wall Street well, you hike in Colorado once a year, and your Prius is well maintained.

His film is about our own incompetence, not the Southern man’s unwillingness to revolt and take on the Blackhawk helicopters and roving bands of security teams.

One fellow in the audience blasted the people Marc depicts in the film, attacking them as lazy, waiting for the government or BP to render aid.

“Why don’t they stop complaining and just get their shovels and start cleaning up?” he asked rhetorically of Marc.

Others in the crowd said they thought there’d be legions of volunteers from Spokane, Republic, even Idaho coming to Puget Sound’s rescue if an oil disaster of the Deepwater Horizon magnitude befell them.

This is the power of “Gulf Coast Blues”: it allows some viewers that special vantage point, allows for some to lambast their fellow American, allows for a certain suspension of reality.

The reality Marc’s film and others like his precipitate is that we are doomed if we can’t collectively face down power, dislodge the propaganda machines and throw monkey wrenches in the polluters’ gear work.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Sustainable September kicks off Wednesday, Sept. 2

Maybe turbo-charged is a bit hyperbolic to describe Kevin Danaher’s last 21 years stirring up the anti-globalization pot, but for Spokane residents interested in hearing the co-founder of Global Exchange go toe-to-toe with the purveyors of social, economic, and environmental justice, the kick-off luncheon for Sustainable September Spokane Wednesday might be up your alley.

The New York Times referred to Kevin Danaher as the “Paul Reverse of globalization’s woes,” but in reality Danaher advocates proactively pushing the big boys off the block through campaigns, in-your-face actions, and grassroots organizing.

This is not a ‘woe is me’ kind of leader in “the green justice movement” who will hopefully inspire luncheon guests at downtown Spokane’s Masonic Temple.

Danaher, like his wife Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Global Exchange, confronts power, and actively engages in anti-globalization and anti-war actions that in and of themselves are considered not only philosophical confrontations against U.S. hegemony and empire, but also represent physical confrontation, an assault, if you will.

Power has always viewed dissent and protest as economic and emotional battery. Danaher and others in the movement for change are backed up by legions of labor organizers, environmental activists, and social justice advocates that do not look or sound like the captains of industry, slick lobbyists or corporate heads of greed.

This is the sort of talk Danaher engages in, from a recent blog of his on Global Exchange’s web site, that to the average Fortune 500 aficionado would be viewed as treasonous:

“The world is facing two interlinked crises: militarism and global destruction of the environment,” Danaher writes. “They are obviously related, in that the U.S. military is probably the most egregious polluter and waster of resources on the planet, and the Pentagon functions to protect the dominant role of transnational corporations, which are notorious violators of human rights and environmental justice principles. This project will seek to unify the peace movement and the green movement by working together on a visionary campaign that simultaneously addresses the environmental crisis and the need for the United States to make a transition from being an empire to being just one nation in a community of nations.”

Note that Danaher isn’t just looking to dismantle 800 US military bases with bulldozers and TNT. Rather, he is promoting a program, Turning U.S. Military Bases into Eco-Development Centers that would win the battle against zealotry and briefcase bombs filled with radioactive material through a hearts and minds campaign that might inject economic development into those respective countries where the war bases are now located.

“This campaign will call for handing U.S. bases back to their respective national governments, with the U.S. government and civil society institutions undertaking a clean-up campaign during the transition in ownership,” Danaher writes. ”Through grassroots networks and donations from local citizens, the local governments will be encouraged to transform these bases into educational and experimental clean-tech centers promoting green practices that will help us address the environmental crisis, while generating good green jobs and eco-entrepreneurship.”

I spoke with Danaher on my radio show, “Tipping Points: Voices from the Edge” (take a listen at here), before he participated in a Green-Sustainability event at the Spokane’s Community Building. We covered a wide range of issues, including the illegal wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, green technology, climate change.

He talked about shifting paradigms, and, of course, the Bush Administration’s “war on terror” and the huge push toward global dominance by a few countries to put a handful of corporations in the economic driver’s seat. He wasn’t happy with then-Sen. Barack Obama supporting the free trade agreement for South Korea and Latin America.

What Danaher does best is related to his organizing work and book writing on how the world can change through innovation and powerful movements like green and fair trade advocacy, and especially through grassroots action.

He’s the executive co-producer of the Green Festival in The City, and last year’s event in San Francisco brought together more than 400 exhibitors, 125 speakers, dozens of community and nonprofit groups, how-to workshops, green chat space, hemp fashion show and live music.

Sustainable September is sort of shadowing that event along similar lines, with less of the big stuff and more events of the low-key nature spread out past 30 days. For Danaher to be on stage with our staid Spokane stakeholders in the audience and Mayor Mary Verner, as the kick-off speaker, he might inject a bit of verve and motivation into ticket holders.

It’s clear that the topics he covers in his speaking engagements might be too much for many in Spokane to handle — Accelerating the Transition to the Green Economy; Corporate Accountability and the Local Green Economy; Justice, Not War; The Case Against the World Bank and the IMF: How We Can Create A Green, Grassroots Model of Development; Corporations are Gonna Get Your Mama: Globalization and the Downsizing of the American Dream.

But for many of us in the holistic and radical sustainability movement, we are looking to not just stir the pot and create a tossed salad of real sustainability measures and actions mixed in with what the greenwashers and eco-pornographers are doing to co-opt the movement. We are looking to disrupt business as usual and force change.

His wife Medea also puts her words into action, having been involved in protests in Senate chambers, at Republican National Conventions and around the world. Danaher talked much about her, a co-founder of the “left-wing” feminist anti-war group Code Pink: Women for Peace, who has advocated for an end to the Iraq War and is associated with the organization United for Peace and Justice.

Now this would be a great kick-off event – Benjamin with the guts and radical action under her belt and Danaher with his words and lamentations about a world needing love – “Unconditional love. Not the two-person, Hollywood-in-the-sea-of-passion, miserable love. Unconditional love. Love each other.”

Or how about Benjamin and Diane Wilson on stage. Wilson is another co-founder of Code Pink, a Texas shrimper, and rabble rouser we desperately need in this movement.

On June 17, 2010 Wilson hit the nail on the head — “You should be in prison,” she yelled at BP’s Tony Hayward as she covered her hands with oil and spread it on her face at the Congressional hearing.
Wilson, Benjamin and Danaher, that would be a hell of a line up for Spokane.

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