Jim has had several careers, all connected with writing. He has been a technical writer in the rocket industry, a college English prof, and most recently a freelance editor with the Northwest Editors Guild. [email protected]
Every morning since last spring I've met my friend Axel for coffee around 8:00. Today when she did not shown up after an hour, I was surprised because we were going to plan a rehearsal for this weekend. Axel was the Saturday night headliner at The Rumor Mill, and I had offered her the use of my office because the sailboat where she lives was not a good place to rehearse.
Axel and I were not birds of a feather. She was a physics major from Berlin with a bent for math and science. I was an English major with no talent whatsoever for anything practical. I had once owned a 30’ sailboat, and when she took me out on her 38-footer, I could see that she had a command of sailing that I had never achieved.
Axel made her living in the U.S. as a high-level, computer programmer. At one point in her career, her Sony team was racing Apple to see who could build the best animation software. Steve Jobs and Pixar won the competiion, and after that Axel became a freelancer. I glanced at her screen one morning and saw it full of the bewildering letters and symbols that make up the arcane language employed by these confident geeks.
She surprised me several months ago when she asked me, "Are you coming to hear me on open mic night at the Rumor Mill?" I said, "I didn't know you were a musician," and she replied, "Oh, I play blues guitar."
She went on to tell me that more than 45 years ago in Germany, a boy in her required Music Theory class asked her over to hear some new American records he'd purchased. All the recordings were classic blues guitar, and Axel decided right then that not only would she get an American guitar but that she would teach herself to play blues. After a year working for a dollar an hour, she sent away for an American Fender Stratocaster. And she did teach herself, masterfully, to play the blues.
She later taught herself the acoustic guitar and saved enough to buy a highly regarded Ramirez instrument. With bookings from an agent, she toured Europe, playing classical guitar.
At open-mic night here in Friday Harbor, Axel built up a small following of listeners who were as spellbound as I was to hear her play. She had a funny self-deprecating way of talking about her playing, but once she hit the first note she was like someone magically possessed.
Many people were put off by Axel's brusque manner and blunt opinions. But somehow - across the gender gap, and the cultural gap, and the generational gap - she and I became friends. We both loved word play, and one morning over coffee she retold me a story she had just read in an online German newspaper. It is strongly suspected, said the newspaper, that a 40-year-old German sail-boater, from Hamburg, who was anchored off Nuku Hiva in Polynesia, was lured into the jungles and was eaten by the locals.
I responded, "Well, he started off as a Hamburger and ended up as a hamburger." This sent Axel into a long paroxysm of laughter. Of such macabre quirkiness are friendships made.
A few weeks ago Axel received a call on her cell. After hanging up she said, "That was my sister from Germany."
I asked, "Does your sister have children?"
Axel said, "She never wanted children. And I never wanted to get married."
After a long pause, she continued, "When I was young, my father would return home drunk. Then he would beat my mother. Then he would batter me. Then he would hit and hit my little sister. When I was sixteen, I got so strong he left me alone. That year I walked out the front door and never looked back."
This morning I went to Axel's sailboat and I pounded on the hull and then on the cabin roof, calling "Axel! Axel! It's Jim!
After getting no answer, I pushed back the hatch and could see her jacket on a bunk, so I knew she was there. Then I saw a foot sticking out from behind the galley partition. I went down the companionway ladder and reached out to touch her foot. It was like cold marble.
The sheriff, who came quickly, went on the boat down to the galley. Soon he came up to look at me and shake his head sadly. He said there was no way to know why she died. He said that when people die alone and have no family in the community, it's likely there will be an autopsy.
Whatever the coroner might conclude, I believe that though Axel walked out her front door in Germany 44 years ago, she never walked out from under the shadow of her father's swinging fist.
History warrants humanity's distrust of scientists and of the technologies that science generates. Over the centuries this fear of what unforeseen disasters scientists cause has been has been the stuff of myths, poems, plays, novels, and today, movies and TV.
More than two thousand years ago, some anonymous Greek imagined the myth of Prometheus. The chief god Zeus had hidden fire from man because he believed man would misuse that mighty power. When Prometheus tricked Zeus and gave fire to mankind, Zeus punished him: chained to a mountaintop rock, each day Prometheus suffered as an eagle feasted on his liver. After the liver was restored each night, the eagle returned at dawn to feast again. Mankind has benefited much from the power of fire, but we have also used fire to develop an ever-more-powerful series of weapons, culminating in the atomic bomb.
Christopher Marlowe, the Elizabethan playwright, had an audience that believed the cosmos was the setting of a great eternal drama pitting God and the forces of Good against the Devil and the powers of Evil. In this drama each human must choose a side.
Doctor Faustus, central character in the tragedy by that name, chose evil. Early in the play Mephistopheles, an agent of Lucifer, visits the doctor. Mephistopheles knows that Faustus is ripe for temptation because the highly educated Doctor has already renounced his baptism. Mephistopheles offers Faustus this deal: in exchange for twenty-four years of great worldly power, Faustus must give his soul to Lucifer. Of course, Faustus' new life is not quite as rewarding as he was expecting. And right on time, Mephistopheles shows up to collect the tormented soul of the fearful doctor.
Today we have the expression "a Faustian bargain" to express the notion that an overweening lust for scientific knowledge coupled with the sin of pride may have horrible consequences for the one who chooses to pursue knowledge at all costs.
Mary Shelley was the seventeen-year-old wife of the poet Percy Shelley. She and her husband and their friend the poet Byron were revolutionaries of a sort, very critical of the fast-moving changes brought on by science and technology. One winter day they challenged each other to create a story employing the new technique of "galvanism," the passing of electric current through inanimate matter.
Mary's story was the best. It was published anonymously in 1818 as Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. The story centers on Victor Frankenstein, a medical doctor who succeeds in collecting human body parts and animating them to create a manlike monster. Eventually that monster turns on Frankenstein and destroys him.
Today we have scientists who would like to clone newer and better humans. Who will decide what kind of human should be designed? And what unintended consequences might result?
In the 20th century, after Einstein demonstrated the immense power within the atom, it was only a matter of time before this discovery-a new kind of fire-was utilized not only for the peaceful generation of power but also for horrendous weapons.
Doctor Strangelove is the eponymous mad physicist in a 1964 film, one of the best black comedies ever made. The film satirizes Cold War leaders pursuing the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction. Strangelove, a closet Nazi, is chief scientific advisor to the U.S. president. Like most of the other characters, the doctor is a composite and a caricature of real people who played a part in the Cold War when the U.S. and Russian bluffed each other with great arsenals of atomic weapons. The mentally unbalanced generals and scientists set off a war that destroys humanity. The plot and the wacky characters make for creepy comic scenes about the unthinkable-which is just what many citizens were thinking about in the strange and frightening atmosphere of the Cold War.
Right now we are dealing with an uncontrolled leak of radiation from a nuclear power plant with six reactors that were designed with a multitude of safety features and various contingency plans. None of these measures were of much use when an earthquake and tidal wave overwhelmed the plant. Who could have foretold such a disaster?
Perhaps the same Greek who so long ago imagined a character named Zeus.
At the time of the Tucson rampage some bystanders were killed and others wounded. Several commentators said, "Well, they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time." Those words got me to thinking about the deaths-and near deaths-in my life.
When I was ten, one of my best friends, Billy W., was killed when his older brother, climbing over a fence with his new .22 rifle, accidentally pulled the trigger.
When I was fifteen, some friends and I went to visit Nick S. as he was closing up his parents' drive-in. When one of my friends asked, "Nick, you're here all alone--what would you do if someone tried to rob you?" Nick said, "But I'm not alone." And he pulled from beneath the counter a loaded pistol. One of my friends grabbed the pistol saying, "Let's see that!" The next thing I knew, a bullet whistled past my forehead so close I felt the wind it made.
The following year in California I was at the beach with a group of friends for spring break. One of the friends owned a beautiful new convertible. He asked me to join him and three others for a ride home. I declined because I wasn't packed to go. Just ten minutes into their ride, they took by accident an uncompleted off-ramp. The convertible flipped over and landed upside down in three feet of standing water. Two of the passengers were thrown clear, but the driver and the other passenger drowned under the car before help arrived.
When I was in college I lived in a very old dorm with fifteen students to each floor. At the end of the month we would run low on grocery money, so we would pool our funds and share meals. One evening as I was cutting tomatoes for a salad, in walked Terry G., a gigantic, All-State, freshman, football player. His idea of fun was to have mock sparring matches with anyone near him, and this night he chose Dick S., a mild-manned, older student.
Terry and Dick sparred with each other for a minute, and then I heard Dick go "Ooof," and drop to the floor gasping for breath. His faced turned a pasty white and then beet red. One of us ran next door to the college infirmary for help. But it was too late. Dick died in a matter of three minutes. A mandatory autopsy revealed that he had a congenitally defective heart valve. The blow just over Dick's heart made the valve stick. Terry, the boy who struck him, dropped our of college, went into a deep depression, and was hospitalized for a year.
After college I got married in the fall, and the following spring I suggested to my wife that we go out to dinner on Memorial Day. She declined and told me her reason:
a few years before on Memorial Day, when she was nineteen and just home from her first year in college, she went joyriding in the Mojave Desert with seven friends in two cars. She was sitting behind her brother, who was driving his parent's new car on a Learner's Permit. They came to a place along the two-lane, asphalt road called the Rolly Coaster, with many dips that threw fast-moving cars up in the air. The car my wife was in hit an oncoming car and then was struck by their friends' car from behind. The car my wife was in then flipped on its side, leaving my wife's face resting on the road. Two of the high schoolers were killed and three injured. It took my wife many years to stop dreaming of that accident.
My middle son's best friend in high school was given a new car by his father for making top grades and graduating high in his class. That night, just a block from his home, he was broadsided by a drunk and killed instantly.
At the college where I taught for some years was a very disagreeable teacher who carried a loaded pistol in his trunk because he was sure some day someone would need to be "taken down." This man's son was very different from his father. The son was amiable and trusting, but his father teased him about being a "softie."
One day the son came home in the middle of the day, took his father's rifle from the closet, lay down on his father's bed, and shot himself. In the following week the father acted as though nothing had happened.
Two friends from my youth and also my brother died at night asleep in bed of massive heart attacks. One friend was in his fifties. The other friend and my brother were in their sixties. Their wives all reported hearing a sigh, and then nothing.
On a trip to Southern California a few years ago I went by the house of my former office mate, a very old friend, now retired. At nine in the morning I knocked on his screen door and he called "Come in!" He was watching television. He tried to get up to shake my hand but he could not stand. I sat down. He offered me a glass of wine from a gallon jug beside his chair. When I said "It's a little early for me," he said, "Nonsense, it's never too early for a drink." We had a desultory conversation and I left. Within a few months he was dead from cirrhosis.
A few years ago I received a note from the wife of my best high school buddy, Lewis B. He was sick and in need of comfort. The two of them had had a good marriage, with two grown up and hardworking, decent children. My high school buddy, a school administrator, had in his twenties shrewdly bought empty lots along the California coast. Many of his lots appreciated by tenfold, and now he was a very wealthy man. I visited them in their beachfront home on the Coronado Strand.
Lewis was dying from cancerous mesothelioma. His wife explained to me before I saw him, "You know he was on the Arctic Patrol in a cutter for two years in the Korean War. Just beside his bunk was a heating duct lined with asbestos. After forty years, the disease showed up. He's one of thousands of men who fought in ships and contracted this disease." I visited Lewis for a couple of hours and then left. I never saw him again.
Some people seem to race toward death as though they could hardly wait to be gone. Others seem to be, like the bystanders in Tucson, struck down haphazardly-in the wrong place at the wrong time. Who-or what-decides the time and the place?
[Note: I cannot reveal exactly how the following letter came into my possession other than to say that Screwtape used a phrase that caught the attention of Homeland Security.]
January 7, 2011
From: Screwtape, Demon-in-Chief of Great Britain
To: Toadbutt, Demon-in-Chief of America
My dear Toadbutt,
I was most pleased to learn of your promotion to the leadership of the American Division. I expect you will soon be moving from Kansas City to that glorious cesspool Washington D.C.
Now that that detestable season of Christmas (How I hate that word!) is over, we demons will have our day, for most of our patients will have made and broken their pathetic New Year's resolutions to mend their petty faults. They always miss the point, don't they, thank badness!
I have many happy memories of Kansas where I spent the early years of my first mission under the guidance of that master tempter Vermion. It was he who convinced me that the gradualâ€”not dramatic--erosion of the patients' conscience was the right strategy. When he was given the special assignment of what Americans call "The Bible Belt," we came up with the novel solution to attack the food culture of our patients.
Yes, it was Vermion who first pushed that perceptive motto "A foul mind in a foul body." And to foul up our patients' bodies we went subtly after their culture. The humans of that very large area of Middle America were already in love with greasy, deep-fried food like catfish and fries and ever-tempting sweets and pastries like donuts. (My favorites are the jellied ones with the little sprinkles).
What we achieved was to instill the notion that it was more convenient and more fun (wonderful word) for mothers to take their little ones to what came to to be called "fast food" restaurants. At the end of our ten-year push, we could boast that the Bible Belt had the highest concentration of fast food outlets in the entire world.
And what results we got in that part of America!
Yes, my years in the American Midwest and South were wonderfully demonic and still bring me great joy.
Finally I wish to compliment you for your work in rekindling what some of our American patients call American exceptionalism the notion that their country and their culture is qualitative superior to all other countries and all other cultures. Oh, how our Master Below loves it when humans adopt concepts like that. Hasn't he always stressed that it is Pride ”lovely Pride”that under girds all the worst (or should I say best) human failings of the spirit?
And those American exceptionalists are thinking in the same old ruts that have ever been part of the human psyche ”our real frontier: First, use criteria to judge your culture that your culture already has decided are the "true" criteria.
Secondly, ignore the criteria of other cultures. What do they know?
And finally, ignore or downplay anything in your history that puts you in a bad light. This last tactic invariably makes so-called "Christians" the biggest of history's hypocrites. In the area our patients call Texas, they've even invented a special form of history, which I believe ought to be called the Texas Style of Historic Omission. I have a warm place in my heart for places like Texas, which has so many Christians, and so much behavior that delights Our Master Below.
A last point ”humans everywhere worrying about what they call "terrorism." Goody! You and I know where successful terrorists go. They descend to that very special pit where they will be face to face with the Supreme Terrorist himself!
Your British cousin in the spirit,
The old proverb that titles this column translates as "Who will watch the watchers?" The proverb asks: What happens when those at the very heart of government, entrusted with the secret springs of power, are themselves corrupt and power hungry? Then we get a Watergate. Or if we are speaking about fiction rather than history, we might get a 1984, that world imagined by George Orwell and ruled by Big Brother.
In fiction, there are two kinds of stories about democracies being taken over by a cabal of insiders. In one kind of story the plotters are at work, while savvy "heroes" struggling to thwart the plotters and return to democratic rule. Such a story is the movie Enemy of the State, starring Will Smith, an innocent accidentally caught up in the plot, and Gene Hackman as a disaffected former CIA computer whiz who knows there is some kind of cabal at work and works successfully with Smith to expose them.
In the other kind of story, the cabal has succeeded and the baddies are running the world. The good folk are portrayed as dissidents working underground, who must find a way to overthrow the evil regime and get back to a democratic world. Examples of such stories are 1984, or the movie Brazil, or the novel The Handmaid's Tale.
The latter story presumes a right-wing takeover of a country much like America where a powerful group of fundamentalists have set up a totalitarian, racist, misogynistic society based on Old Testament scripture. Author Margaret Atwood connects the fevered thirst for domination by the fundamentalists with pathology of sexual dysfunction.
Sweden, though a parliamentary democracy, is a country that has for a long time had extreme right-wing elements that have sought power, openly and secretly. In the recent, highly popular, highly acclaimed trilogy by Stieg Larsson that begins with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, there is an elaborate plot that combines three elements: a murder mystery, a fifteen-year-long quest for revenge by a tiny female computer hacker, and a far-reaching takeover by right-wingers of key parts of the Swedish government. At the heart of these three novels, as at the center of all novels of this type, is the fundamental democratic principle of Freedom of the Press. For it is a brave, indefatigable reporter, Mikael Blomqvist, who with heroine Lisbeth Salander, destroys the cabal and returns Sweden to a democratic, wary stability.
There are many countries in the world where novels like these are verboten and where contraband copies are passed from hand to hand.
May the world always have writers who are "watching the watchers."