"Skepticism, Cynicism, Stoicism, Optimism"
THREE WEEKS, VOLUME 1 ISSUE 15 - AUGUST 17, 2002
"Little boats should keep near shore."
On the Future, by Henry William Brownejohns
News from the Backyard
Encounter with a Reader, by Alexander Swartwout
The Matter of the Olympic Games, by Ephrain Underhill
Pallor Versus Tawn, by Eliza Anne Bonney
Update from Upstate, by Alexander Swartwout
On Infants in Public, by H.W. Brownejohns
The Weather, by J. Ephrain Underhill
Return to Three Weeks Issues
ON THE FUTURE
THE EDITORS’ THOUGHTS ON TOMORROW AND THE NEXT DAY
Reflections on the Next Fifty Years - History’s Most Significant Era - & How Poorly Prepared We Are For It
by Henry William Brownejohns
It is out of the range of most periodicals to attempt any topic so enormous as the entirety of history as it begins tomorrow but it is the reader’s good fortune that he is not holding any typical periodical. As necessary as it was for us to contemplate bees in the last number, it is for us to consider the future of human civilization in this one; and, to our nimble minds, it is as easy.
For we have been dedicated since the first to illuminating those subjects which are left in shadow by the others, but which cannot, for the well-being of the species, remain so. The future is just such an item. We are witness to a generation that is as unconcerned with the destination of their lives as any that has ever walked. Every day, we are thrust into company with wits who haven’t given a moment’s thought to the process of aging, or the world into which they will do so. It is maddening to any mind with even a glimmer of foresight to converse with types who think the world, and society, are static; who believe, by default, that they will not suffer the fate of their grandparents and be left perplexed by the rapid transformation of culture; who are certain, or seem so simply because they aren’t keen enough to verbalize the matter, that when they are ninety, it will be as it was forever, the world a strange but generally tranquil place.
This is a terrible misconception, but it is nearly a universal one. Yet it is likely that we shall hardly recognize our fifties, let alone our nineties; and it is as likely that we might even be among the first substantial generation of centenarians, for which humanity has little to compare. The world is in a state of political uncertainty today that guarantees significant upheaval over the next decade, to say nothing about the next five. If any dolt feels he can describe a map of 2050, he ought to be snickered at by far more than just the cartographers.
What’s more, the question of the very existence of human civilization past the coming decade is more than just a scary paranoiac’s pickup line. New and catastrophic wars are percolating, and the capacity for annihilation is possessed every day by a smaller, more temperamental fish. Meanwhile, millions of ignorami are coming of age in this country, and thus coming to power, and the failure to give due consideration to every such question will only make the next civilization’s excavators that much more melancholy, as they dredge up the ruins of this one.
We offer this from the Marquis de Condorcet, writing at the end of the eighteenth century on the subject of the citizens of the future: “…if they have a duty towards those who are not yet born, that duty is not to give them existence but to give them happiness.” This strikes the modern’s ear awkwardly, but it shouldn’t. That we have received such a damaged and perilous world is no reason to inflict the same on the subsequent generation, and at the very least, we ought to be savvy enough to recognize that we are capable of bequeathing a far more ruined world than any negligent age before us.
Yet it remains marvelously prevalent, the selfish idea that life is merely a perseverance through youth to an inevitable condition of comfort, like the one enjoyed by one’s parents; or else that it is simply a half-serious struggle against one’s self-worth, until at last, everyone is inevitably rewarded for meager accomplishments with fame and approbation. Though millions of mental adolescents are simply waiting for their celebrity to blossom, or their ship to come in, as they’ve been falsely assured, I shall argue that an individual’s life is far less certain, far less common, and far more critical to posterity than it is popular to believe; and I shall also persist that there is no age in which this is more true than our own. The individual must recognize that life is a formless connection between the past and those yet to live, and it only takes shape as we act, or fail to. Nothing is presumed about a human’s existence, even as the modern upbringing has presented it as a simple series of tasks, approved and officiated, and resulting in ease.
THE POPULATION OF THE WORLD.
The fecundity of our species is really quite revolting. But as humanists, we must try to view humanity less as a writhing mass of rutting vermin, numbers growing exponentially, and more as six billion individuals, who, indeed, should enjoy all the rights of any other. Such a statement may seem like a vision of cherries in a world that is mostly pits and stems, but it remains true, if ideal, and thus it qualifies for these pages.
The population is growing at a rate of approximately 2.2 children for every woman, which has declined a full two brats per mother since 1960, but is still a high figure. At the present rate, there will be 10 billion humans on Earth by 2050, from today’s 6 billion; and a significant jump from the paltry 500 million present when the Marquis penned the quote above. These are figures that cultists and mathematicians are able to have carnivals with, but there are a couple of practical applications that make such statistics speak. How many people can actually fit on the planet? The answer is up for lively debate, but at least the range is certain depending on the standard of living satisfactory for all, between 5 and 15 billion. At the upper reach of that range, we presume that every human being has become a vegetarian, and that no other species are to be supported by the Earth’s plant life. At the lower range, which we have already lustily surpassed, we might hope to make the whole world somewhat as pleasant as Boston.
For some, this is a nervous subject, because it treats humans as statistics, like animals. From here, I can only marvel that there is anybody left who can’t see what animals we indeed are the televised news and the African nature documentary only differ in the number of legs the combatants are using. Whatever the threshold of the most squeamish, such a question needs to be broached, because it is inevitable that an exponential growth rate is due to conflict with a static amount of resources and land. Until the Earth beings inflating in proportion to humanity’s ceaseless propagation, we must ask unseemly questions about our fate.
The most sane of the statisticians have calculated that if the entirety of the plant energy photosynthesized on the Earth were utilized by the human race, the planet should be able to fairly support just those 10 billion hominids. This means that in 2050, we shall be at capacity, and we shall have hopefully devised a humane population restriction strategy, or else begun colonizing other planets. It is only forty-eight years hence, and the president of this country and half its citizens - is still convinced that what we need are more Arctic oil-wells, while he has illegalized funding of international family-planning programs. This postulator senses profound trouble, and longer lines at the market.
For the immediacy and import of these circumstances, it is remarkable how little attention they get. Too many moralists get the jitters when talk of human population comes up, and even the progressives get sweaty, worried that they will come off as eugenicists. I point up the problem simply as a man fascinated by real problems, and concerned that they be debated and solved, before they simply swallow us. A population rate decline to simply 2.1 children per woman would reduce the 2050 population to 8.5 billion, and level it off there. With 8.5 billion human beings in the world, the average standard of living would probably remain below that envisioned by the utopians, though it would at least allow for the existence of other species, and might bide enough time for humanity to more thoughtfully plot out its next move. At 10 billion or more, expect more panic than contemplation, more conflict and less debate, and figure that the only remedy for such crowding and injustice would probably come in the form it has throughout history: war and annihilation, and a resettlement and restructurization of civilization. I expect the typical reader of this paper will be a cheerful seventy-something by that time, and until he picked up this almanac figured to be retired on a sailboat off the Florida keys by then. I offer that instead he will be merely struggling to find a place to subsist, scrimping for the resources to support himself and his family, perplexed and demoralized by the appearance of chaos around the world; or else, if he is a half-decent fellow, he will be exerting whatever elder influence he has to avert the catastrophe impending. Do not expect a quiet retirement, however, unless perhaps it is a lunar one.
THE TECHNOLOGICAL CAPACITY OF HOMO SAPIENS.
Superimpose upon the previous scenario the particular advances due to humankind’s technological prowess, and a realistic vision of the future becomes even more startling. As for retiring, it is entirely possible that by 2050 a septuagenarian would be only reaching middle age. The prospect of extended life-spans brought on by improved medical technology necessitates a reformulation in the population-growth equation, although less of one if we presume the same unequal access to such technologies by the majority of the world’s population as we witness today. The tendency is for life-spans to be longer in those industrialized nations that also have the lowest population growth rates, and so unless there is a significant overall improvement in the global living standard, the scales will not be too dramatically tipped. Still, considerations of lengthened life-spans are only reasonable in light of our already significant advances; and more impressive ones are imminent.
I have been reminded by reading the good Mr. Edward O. Wilson that the current age is something of an intermediate stage in human evolution. For millions of years prior, our species has been shaped solely by the forces of Nature, through the mechanism of natural selection. Our forms and our minds have been entirely devised by this relatively painstaking process; however, in only the past century or so, we have of our own account entered a second phase of evolution, in which those natural forces which we don’t find conducive to our comfort and well-being are, with the help of technology, overruled. In generations past, the sick would often die, for lack of any effective medicine, and their passing would essentially be a function of the natural selection process. A child born with a debilitating or fatal disease would not survive to have his own children, and for humans, just as for wildebeests and dodo birds, this was the function by which the unfit were restricted from passing on their compromised genes, as unpleasant as it might seem to the touchy.
But since the advent of modern medicine it has become common to subvert the weeding-out process of natural selection, and save such doomed children, enabling them to grow up and have their own. In terms of the human gene pool, this has resulted in a sharp decline of robustness. In essence, the entire modern population possesses a less hardy genome than any generation previous, simply because natural selection cannot as easily eliminate less vigorous individuals before they reproduce. Due to the success of our technology, we are thriving in spite of having lousy genes. Indeed, genetic disease and general ill health is more frequent today, as a proportion of the total population, but fewer individuals succumb to it, and more survive to raise their own young, than at any previous time in human history. It is something of an evolutionary holding pattern, which, if it continued would result in a pathetic collection of genetic rejects, supporting their survival with immense efforts of technology and medicine. A sort of footrace has broken out between our advancing technology and Nature’s ability to kill us off; if it continued indefinitely, we should not expect to keep ahead of Mother for long.
However, this stage of evolution is not likely to last. The recent completion of the cataloguing of the human genome marks the entry into the last stage of human development. Over the next five decades or so those results will begin to yield a definitive picture of the effects of every gene, and a field-guide to human DNA. Most speculators on this subject either overstate the case with religious panic, or understate it with a sort of sinister secret glee, but here I should like to put it plainly, for the most simple to grasp. Once the human genome is decoded, the accumulated flaws in the genes can be corrected, and from there, any desired fine-tuning will be a relatively simple matter. After a run of roughly four billion years, natural selection will be replaced as the primary mechanism of human evolution. Forty years is not much time to prepare for the retirement party of such a significant heavyweight as natural selection, but so long as we keep craving the next best thing, it shall happen on just that schedule.
Obviously, even such a smug prognosticator as myself cannot really predict the specific effects of this shift, but it promises to be profound. Genetic disease seems likely to be eliminated, and no doubt a well-lubricated genome will make for a more long-lived individual, even though there is no gene to protect us from walking out in front of a truck, or a hover-car. Widespread genetic manipulation would surely throw a new variable into the population equation; though I cannot help but expect that the industrialized nations due to develop this technology first will probably be, for a while, unjustly selfish in its application. Expect vain abuses of genetic engineering in this country, Europe, and Japan, before any of its humane, practical applications are seen in Asia and Africa.
Still, the profundity of this development is another of those unwittingly undercontemplated topics of the day. When this author first came across it in Mr. Wilson’s Consilience, I spilled my tonic, startled at having been so long unaware of such an obvious and momentous event, so near to taking place. Since then, it has assumed a prominent spot in my catalogue of worry, as it should others who wish to ever boast their intelligence to great-grandchildren.
However we initially enter the first era of human control over our own evolution, it promises to be a sweeping alteration. Probably a whole gaggle of the readership is aghast at the prospect, but I frankly don’t care for such useless queasiness. The species has never restricted itself from accomplishing something that we can certainly accomplish, simply because we didn’t feel ready for it. Whether it is morally right or wrong is an idiotic, totally moot question. It is, from this historical perspective, an inevitable outcome of our progress.
The matter for us is not to bicker about assassinating scientists or protesting outside of genetics laboratories, but to begin the intellectual preparation for the decisions that need to be made. How would we like to use the technology that is only a geological sneeze away from becoming actuality? Shall we go at it as we would today, with vanity and myopia as our guiding motivations, or is it worth developing a renewed sense of human pride, and recognizing in ourselves the ability to be responsible and humane with our considerable abilities? As the editorial conscience of this paper, I am eagerly anticipating the success of the genome endeavor, and my only reluctance comes not from the perceived amorality of the scientific community, but from the infantilism of the general public, especially that segment of it that will be charged with officiating as elders in this upcoming era. It is only too bad that natural selection will not shape us long enough to install a better mechanism of common sense, before we are responsible for our own fates. Until artificial evolution hopefully provides a generally more rational plebian, cognoscenti such as your editors will be obliged to serve for the lot.
One of this author’s pastimes is to project myself into the crania of lesser contemporaries, with the aim of enjoying other individual’s views of the world, largely so that when I resume my own, it is that much more satisfactory for its relative veracity. On the subject of the future, it has been impossible not to contemplate how it is perceived by our own dubious President, for example who, regardless of his political bent or his mental depth, is assuredly a man of shallow vision.
I think even his foamiest supporters would have to concede that Mr. Bush has not got much of an idea about how the world might look in fifty or a hundred years. He is a superficial pragmatist, and his supporters like him for just that. Indeed, I might even speculate that his supporters prefer a short-sighted view of history, simply because one too deep is too troublesome to manage. Mr. Bush has little idea of deeper history, and little care for it. As to the sufficiency of this stance in a chief executive, it is debatable, though it sure feels lousy; what is of more interest and greater concern is the future itself, not the distorted dream of it in the President’s noodle. Somebody is going to have to think it through, though, and as I see it, soon and for good reason.
Though there is no one more enamored of the accomplishment that is America, my first loyalty is to the concept itself, humanism, of which this country is the first born. Eventually, the ideals must be applied globally, and that will require America, the oldest sibling, to reduce its influence, and accept the priority of the rest of the world. Obviously, this will happen as it does in any family, either hideously and venomously and violently, or gracefully by the benevolence of the dominant sibling, who has merely come to his senses, and sees his sacrifice is for the betterment of the whole.
I don’t expect this country to yield its bully status too soon, but I am hopeful that decent-enough leaders will come to the fore that will allow it to happen in the most elegant and happy manner, and not by a series of painful paroxysms like the one last September. This presents an interesting political question, though. Any political candidate of the next century, if he has any vision and is even half-lucid, must have this realization, that the power and prosperity enjoyed by the United States must give way to the success of the rest of the world and that as a matter of geopolitics, it won’t even make much sense in the more distant future to divide the human race into ‘nations’ at all. Yet how does an individual win the vainglorious and moronic popularity contest of an American election with the message that the country, for the benefit of the world, is due to obsolescence?
The future cannot be for nations, nor can it only comfort the privileged few this will be ensured by the momentum of history, if it is not brought about more peacefully by the wise moral action of the fortunate. But how can this self-sacrificial vision ever become popular enough in this country to nurture leaders who are committed to this process, and to persuade comfortable upper-middle class voters to set it in motion? If Mr. Bush is the harbinger of a pattern, then he suggests that Americans will continue to prefer visionless, cowing leaders, who are only interested in providing immediate comfort at the expense of future prosperity and international relations, and thus the future security of America itself. The humane, and indeed the patriotic, should only hope that the populace relearns its own humanity, and is sophisticated enough to recognize the nuance of the problem. As cloying as it may sound to the cynic, the future will require our humanness to supercede our nationality. This is, after all, the inevitable conclusion of the theory set down by America’s very founders. This country will have to be generous, and even give itself away, to be certain that its founding ideals are preserved into the future.
I am skeptical, but not hopeless. It is true, that for even as our citizens are supposedly rediscovering their love of country, this is an age of unsurpassed narcissism and xenophobia. But I am not persuaded that it is irreversible. As the heavy questions of the future presented here seep into the consciences of the rabble, I expect a greater sense of urgency will develop. And the questions, I think, are too tough to be answered by the delinquents; a sort of intellectual natural selection will have to occur, and leadership will necessarily be provided by leaders, and not callow mimes, as now.
The most comforting thing about the future, in fact, is that if we fail to rise to its challenges, the worst possible outcome is that we will utterly destroy ourselves. While this is surely a tragedy for humanity, it is not much of one for the universe. We shall only earn our survival, and our success, by our own good work. In the next fifty years, we shall assume control from Nature itself of our own physical evolution; we shall reach our planet’s capacity for harboring us; and we shall encounter the most convoluted and lethal political morass in human history, ten billion individuals clamoring for space and survival and right. It would be a great tribute to our abilities, and a monumental favor to consequent generations, if we pick ourselves up now and face the era with the wit and good sense we pride ourselves on possessing at our finest moments. It will be only a quieter corner of the galaxy if we don’t. 3W
AN INSUFFICIENT CEREMONY
The eleventh of September upcoming surely promises to be less harrowing than the last, and now it seems likely to be far less memorable and orders of magnitude less profound, for the flabby plans announced regarding the commemoration of last autumn’s cataclysms. In general, such memorialization is a tiresome and pointless procedure, better replaced by the greater potency of individual reflection, or over-the-top fireworks displays. But the service as planned by the political leadership now looks as if it will be even more treacly and less meaningful than the funeral of some unknown eccentric uncle. Most dismal is the Republican plan to give a reading of the Gettysburg Address from the site of the World Trade Center. (The Democrats shall do the same on television.)
This is our lame age in a nutshell. Even after such a tremendous and resonant trauma as September’s, there is not as many as one individual willing to attempt his own eloquence for the occasion; but instead a swarm of meager politicians will co-opt the grace of another age and try and make it applicable where it is definitively not. The Battle of Gettysburg is largely remembered thanks to Lincoln’s effort, but the disaster in lower Manhattan now stands to be obscured by our era’s lack of adequate rhetorical tribute. Is it entirely extinct to be able to express oneself appropriately and skillfully in one’s own language? Is public life come totally unattached from a requisite nimbleness with public speech? It seems so. Mr. Pataki and Mr. Bush possess marasmic and wooden tongues, and their political attendants lack every fiber of imagination to compensate for them; thus the eleventh will unfold pathetically, and the century-old musketballs of Maryland will seem more immediate and mortifying than the apocalyptic events just twelve months passed. The day shall be sad, surely, but nothing shall be sadder to posterity than our society’s inability to utter it well.
IN DEFENSE OF FLORIDA
We are desperate to find something to love about all fifty of the states, but as was pointed out in the last number, the four editors have come up empty with regard to Florida. Instead, we have accumulated an irrational, though not unmerited, prejudice against the Southeastern dangler, in light of its perversions and eccentricities, and the tendency for Florida’s mistakes to cause pain to the other forty-nine. It has gotten so that the talk around here is not of the possible addition of Puerto Rico as the fifty-first, but of the feasibility of a trade the state for the commonwealth, and everyone is pleased.
A paltry trickle of defenses have come in for the Sunshine State, none of which are too persuasive. So far the best thing even Florida’s supporters can offer is a roadside Polynesian tiki restaurant, a favorite of one N.A. Breslow. While we are as enamored of a good grilled mahi-mahi as anyone, we contend that the Mai-Kai Restaurant and Molokai Bar is really something to love about Hawaii its location outside of Fort Lauderdale notwithstanding.
What has finally saved Florida for us is the arrival, this past week, of sixteen Washingtonia palm trees at the Winter Garden in Manhattan. The Garden was heavily damaged last September, and its previous tropical inhabitants were put out by the exposure to the elements. So as the reconstruction nears completion, it was a welcome sight to see the new trees, natives of Florida, take up their position beneath the glass dome downtown. Just sixteen straight and tall palm trees may still leave Florida in a bit of a debt, but it is a significant enough contribution to placate us; for we shall often be found beneath those fronds, contemplating what, in fact, Alabama has ever really done for the union. 3W
NEWS FROM THE BACK YARD
In the yard, which is a deceptively wild place, one of this season’s hatchlings fell from the nest, into the mulch around the zucchini. No sooner than he landed, but one of the neighbor’s cats was up on the fence, carefully surveying the situation. He jumped down, and crouched not far away from the helpless bird, and stayed there for an exceptionally long time.
Observing the cat being as cautious as he was, I wondered whether the hunter was in any way doubtful of his next move. The hatchling was a simple prey, and in all likelihood a familiar one. The cat had to know that there was no danger of retaliation, and that the bird, lacking feathers still, was hardly about to make a chase of it. Still, the feline lay in wait for forty minutes easily, while the tiny bird sat, idiotic and hopeless, beneath a broad leaf.
Possibly the cat was ashamed of the simplicity of his hunt, and wished the bird would try any sort of defense, so that the cat could use his cunning. Possibly, the cat, being too citified, was legitimately at a loss as to the proper conduct of the hunter. In any case, the shadows were considerably long when the cat finally pounced, seized up the bird in his mouth, and went back over the fence. The whole thing is notable mainly because I saw the entire incident transpire, and yet I understood almost nothing of what actual happened.
ENCOUNTER WITH A READER
The most difficult sort of story to relate is not one full of outrageous lies and fantastic elaborations, but one that contains the true fantasia of the everyday, and statements of such profound obviousness, that the reader is inclined to disbelieve them for being so trite and actual. So it would be more easy for me to relate in this space that I was visited by extraterrestrials in conspiracy with the United States Department of Justice, than it will be for me to actually tell the truth but I am bound to attempt the latter by my conscience, my devotion to a good challenge, and by the easier route from the truth to the new neighborhoods of my wisdom.
At an early hour of the morning, this author was approached by a young man who observed that we were both wearing orange shirts. Though it had escaped my concern, the fact was significant enough to the alcohol in his brain that a conversation between perfect strangers could be based upon it. (The hour was early enough, indeed, to bring together the industrious on their morning rounds, and the slovenly, just returning from their nocturnal ones.)
But it was not the chromatic similarity of our shirts that this young man wished to dwell upon. Though he was evidently soaked, he was lucid enough to have been reading something which aroused him. (He was a literary drunk, I surmised, combining the refined standards of the bibliophile with the gregarious capacity for complaint of the souse, and because I was dressed in the same color, I became his foil.) He waved a small newspaper, the name of which I will for now leave unsullied, and entered his gripe. That he had chosen me, of all the sober souls in the city, for this particular complaint is too unlikely to be true, but I persist.
He complained about the illiteracy of the paper’s editor in fact the probable absence of one altogether. Nothing irked him more, it seemed, then to pick up some small rag in a subversive coffee-shop expecting the loud, clear voice of the opposition, and finding instead a bevy of failed undergrads incapable of discriminating between ‘there,’ ‘their,’ and ‘they’re.’ He pointed at the fanzine he clutched in his hand, and fumed about an angry young man’s rant over the President, which pointed out the Chief Executive’s well-documented intellectual mediocrity, but did so with such abominable grammar and form that even a drunk was dismayed by its futility.
From the sheaf he was grasping and waving about, the young man extended his complaint. “Why would anybody want to publish themselves if they can’t read or write? How do they expect me to take them seriously? The chips are stacked against you already if you’re putting something like this out, so then why do it so badly?” He leaned upon my arm to keep his balance. “I’m sorry to bother you with this, but it’s just finally gotten me so mad. It’s a pet peeve. Doesn’t anyone publish who can write?”
Of course, I was in complete agreement with the fellow, though I was certain that I was being put upon. As the editor of the most articulate independent periodical in America, and one founded almost for the sole purpose of showing the public that the unaffiliated demagogue is still perfectly capable of eloquence and able prose, it struck me as strange that I should be the target of this lone souse’s remarkably apt lament. But he was legitimate, and he pleaded to me - not knowing of course to whom he was speaking, exactly - whether there was anywhere a capable voice and a keen eye, who was publishing without the sway of a corporate patron, or the influence of political affiliation.
Surely, it was proper to be coy, but the poor chap seemed so dismayed about the errors and indulgences of the rag he had been reading, that I discreetly suggested he seek out this paper, which I pretended to have only heard vaguely about and made no mention of co-founding. It is my hope that that earnest inebriate in orange is now reading these very lines, having found what he sought, and having his faith in prose and liberty restored by our sharp pens.
Yet his complaints about our competition are worth revisiting. It is the truth that the editors of this paper for a long time scoured the tracts and pamphlets of the outcast, craving even two consecutive sentences without a glaring error of grammar or syntax. We spent many hours choking off the disappointment at one after another so-called independent publication which seemed to either lack editors entirely, or possessed the world’s worst. And we long ago grew exhausted of Small Magazines containing only the naïve efforts of the founder’s best friends, with total disregard for substance or quality. All of this, naturally, paled in comparison with our weariness for the seemingly universal, nonsensical world-view held by the vast bulk of almanacs out there. It got so that we would stop in a bohemian enclave, and, rather than pick up the most interesting-looking scrap next to the creamer and sugar, we would rather just stare at our hands until the rain outside was through, and we could go.
It is some comfort that at least one other soul shares our aggravation; though it pains us to see that while ours was transferred ably into the fifteen issues of THREE WEEKS that have so far illuminated the metropolis, the literary frustrations of another simply sent him to the bar, and he hasn’t even been soothed for all that.
THE MATTER OF THE OLYMPIC GAMES
AN OPINION ON WHETHER THEY SHOULD BE HELD IN THIS CITY
Or At All
by Ephrain Underhill
In eleven years, if certain parties are able to have their way, New York City will be afflicted with the duty of hosting the Olympic Games. Before I even stoop to venture an opinion on the topic itself, though, I must question the practicality of making plans like this so far in advance. Our world is approaching the brink of catastrophe by leaps and bounds every day, and it seems the pinnacle of naiveté to talk about what we will be up to more than a decade hence, as if it were an upcoming weekend. If our city is not by then already submerged beneath the sea, well then who among us expects to have lived so dull and safe a life as to be certain of surviving so long? Only, I suppose, those silk-suited anonyms seated around the table in the International Olympic Hall of Justice.
It was with their blessing that the sinister pep-squad called NYC 2012 was formed, and mailed to this office, and millions of other prominent New Yorkers, a slick and hideous pamphlet promoting the plan to bring the summer games to Gotham. A map of the boroughs is slashed with an ‘x,’ delineating where and how the Olympic rally will interfere and intrude upon our lives and homes, and marketeering exclamations on the verso side insist that it is all for the best. Badminton will hold court in Long Island City, which is slated for demolition, to make way for the athlete’s condos; artistic gymnastics will be held somewhere near Union Square, it seems; the majesty of indoor volleyball will require a trip to Coney Island; and a stadium will squash the West Side of Manhattan to accommodate the runners and jumpers. Yankee Stadium seems poised to be usurped in the middle of the baseball season, to show off the spectacle of international semipro baseball. Only the apparent prospect of synchronized swimming in Hell’s Gate holds any interest to any of us, and frankly I attribute that to a poorly made map. “Shooting,” incidentally, is slated to happen in the Bronx, which might suggest just how befogged are the brains that have concocted this scheme. All of this is suggested with great subtlety, ignoring the obstacles of current geography. The necessary construction projects and the immense intermediate nuisance is deftly kept quiet even though this city already cannot exist through a single season without a calamity that requires the streets to be gored, and the slumbering to be awoken by jackhammers. For such practical, if ordinary and curmudgeonly, reasons, this is the wrong town for the Games.
Yet, at this point, New York, wittingly or no, and for almost entirely sentimental and unwelcome reasons, is one of three finalists for the American entry into the Olympic city-lottery. Before these sugared-up boosters at the New York City Olympic Commission speak for us one more moment, it needs to be said that we resist the idea outright, despise it.
Cities generally invite the Olympics when they feel that there is something incurably wrong with themselves. The Olympics are a big, bright, banal dose of civic self-esteem therapy for depressed burgs. But the Olympics are also as flawed as any prescription of Zoloft, which, for all the forced smiles it may muster, eventually runs out, and returns its host to the condition it was found in. The 1984 games took place in Sarajevo and Los Angeles, and ten years later, both those ‘rejuvenated’ towns were in flames. Seoul still quavers beneath the promise of nuclear annihilation, and Atlanta has become such a sprawling municipal disaster that its thermal and particulate pollution generate independent weather fronts in the formerly serene and muggy Georgia sky. Contrary to the huffing of the Commission, the Olympics have never been profitable or an improvement to any of the host cities. Infrastructure costs, the toll on the resident’s standard of living, and the Ghost Town Effect seen most recently in Salt Lake City, all mean that the Olympics is not the boon the IOC believe them to be, but is rather an urban blight, afflicting one town after another.
But let’s forgive those cities their low self-esteem. Such things happen to even the best of the middling. However, New York ought to have no such psychosis. More than any other city in the world, New York is self-sustaining, and irreverent of the world’s approval. And in the abstract, what are the Olympic Games if not an international conference of approval, a gigantic pat on the head, a New Age-flavored affirmation of a city’s self worth? For they are certainly not a showcase of the virtues of sport.
The interests of corporate sponsors and network television coverage have unrepentantly superceded honorable athletic competition as a priority. Once, the participants in the games were amateurs (meaning, literally, ‘for love’), who competed in sport as a complement to their ‘regular’ lives. Now we are all too aware, reminded as we are by ceaseless commercial hucksterism, that the athletes in the modern games are the Best in the World, professional and unprofessional alike, trained without respite in multimillion-dollar state-of-the-art facilities, until their bodies are tuned to standards formerly reserved for machines and characters in science fiction books. Not only is the spirit of competition compromised because the competitors are so carefully constructed, and unpredictable elements are totally negated, but once the Olympics are over, these quasi-artificial people have got nothing left to offer society. They can’t cook, they can’t read or write, they can’t debate social issues, they can’t enter careers in diplomacy. Once, a person might have the surprise pleasure of running into a former Olympic athlete, their youthful adventure behind them, cheerfully running a roadside restaurant, or fixing bicycles in a small town by the shore. No more. Now, the corporate dynamo creates new ‘leagues’ and made-up competitive circuits so that the athletes they have made, and who know nothing else in life, can live in a perpetual Olympic bubble. Nobody asks the public if they want to keep watching this half-hearted, undying procession of sport; the public is told that they will watch.
Despite the immense homogenizing forces acting around the globe, New York City, goodness help it, has been as immune to their influence as a town can reasonably be. Of course, there are countless franchises and chain stores, peddling wares identical to ones hawked in Ft. Lauderdale, Seattle, and Tokyo, and a hundred enormous conglomerates are headquartered here, but come lunchtime in New York, even the blandest executive gets his sandwich and coffee from an immigrant with a secret recipe and his own priorities, and the exec is suspiciously watched along his whole way. We know these forces are here, and we embrace the contradictions. In New York, we keep our enemies close, in a way.
No, it is not New York who wants the Olympics. It is the Olympics who want New York. As Ms. Claire Shulman, Queens Borough President, has said, with a sweet enough skepticism to make Thomas’ doubtful heart swell, “They need us more than we need them.” The members of NYC 2012 are just the sort of perverts who think that New York needs some kind of special tender loving care, as part of its recovery from trauma. On the contrary, the Olympics are just the sort of recurrence this robust town doesn’t require. And it is not a bad idea because we are frightened for our security, as the boosters have suggested. Security is the least of our concerns; especially for an imaginary event a decade yet to be. We only believe that the Olympics, beyond being a sham occasion and unworthy of this city, shall undermine the very rough-edged foundation that has supported New York throughout its history, and yes, since the trauma of the autumn.
Pictures in the newspaper show ‘before’ and ‘after’ images of the proposed Olympic development sites. The ‘before’ photos are the city as it is, and by some editorial miscue or photographer’s absentmindedness, they are all in black and white. The ‘afters’ are computer generated dream images, in full vibrant color, showing just how shallow those international’s imaginations run. Architectural dullardry that was already obsolete at the 1964 World’s Fair abounds. The rest of the structures look like Reagan-era housing projects painted white. Not only will they be useless shells after the Olympics are gone, but it is unlikely anyone would willingly occupy them during the thing. While New York is rightly renowned as a dumping ground for the outcast and downtrodden, it’s about time we became a little more selective about the architects and developers we let in.
Much rhetoric is spent describing how Olympic development would ‘revitalize’ the areas along the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront. Here is more proof that these proposals must come from a long way away. This very sentence is being penned along that waterfront, and from the window, things look pretty vital to this writer. Children are playing in the street; trucks are delivering goods to a whole panoply of small businesses (the children and the trucks able to coexist, happily, and without incident); gardens are planted and tended in every nook and corner not in use for housing or business or recreation. And having travelled around within this city for some time, I can honestly attest that in even the remotest corner of the most forgotten quarter in the very hardest of times, there is never in any part of New York a lack of vitality. Where the International Olympic developers would put their Global Village there are already a thousand of artist’s studios and entrepreneurs, and they are there because the rest of the city is already too vital for them to get a foothold.
Even where an International Homogene’s eye would discern nothing more precious than a decrepit warehouse with wooden slats in the windows, we in the know realize that if nothing else, then the rats and the roaches are surely building a vibrant community there, unique from everything else in the world. Yes, among our multitudinous pathogens, one of the surest things to be caught by residing in New York is vitality, and uniqueness is the common symptom of the native strain.
Therefore, not only is the false promise and unswerving homogeneity of the Olympics unwelcome here in New York - if you ask the New Yorkers - but those absentee entities who are boostering for it ought to be aware that we prefer our rats and our roaches to them, and are prepared to defend our vermin with surprising vehemence.
PALLOR VERSUS TAWN
WHITE FOLKS’ COCKAMAMIE PERCEPTION OF HEALTH, & COMMON SENSE
Also, On Shirts, and How We Feel People Ought to Wear Them
by Eliza Anne Bonney
Having survived, seemingly against the wishes of a vengeful Sun-god, into the sultry heart of the summer, it seems appropriate to make some mention of the multitude’s confused relationship with that very star as the common sight of Caucasians roasting themselves in every clearing seems to us as socially appalling as hitting a fellow in glasses. Any pedestrian who has left his house since May can attest to the ongoing popularity of sun-bathing, even though any schoolchild who has aced the first grade could also explain the hazard and illogic of laying one’s self out so. It is a sticky intersection of culture and common sense, just the sort of spot into which THREE WEEKS has long intended to insert itself, for the benefit of those who do not know any better.
It is a fact, on the order of heliocentricity, that exposure to the ultraviolet rays in sunlight is a certain technique for achieving cancer. Over one million new cases of such skin disease were reported last year, and there will be more this time around, if trends hold. It is quite simple science just as microwaves are able to get into the nooks and crannies of your leftovers, and heat them tolerably enough to eat, so too can ultraviolet waves, which are a bit bigger, work their way into the cells of the skin, and pervert the DNA they find there. Enough of this kind of treatment will spawn a cancer cell, and those are fecund demons, and difficult to excise. The citizens of the future, who will have surely outgrown this fetish, will then ask: Why ever do you bother doing this terrible thing, then?
There is exactly one reason, and to any thinking person, it will ring absurd: because somewhere in our cultural adolescence, we have developed a faulty intuition, that tan people look healthy. Speculation as to the source of this misconception is an open-ended problem, which I shall only bother to guess at. Possibly, and only possibly, our culture’s archetypes are rugged, outdoorsy, agrarian folk. Since inception, Americans have taken more pride in being oversized muscular oafs, at war with a hostile environment, than soft-palmed thinkers and feelers. We have preferred Paul Bunyan to Rousseau, John Brown to Newton, the pioneer to the philosopher. It is merely mute irony that the founders of the country were themselves powdered intellectuals. In any case, it has come down to us that to be bronze is to be well, and as most modern occupations require almost no exposure to the elements, laying like drying fish in the sun has become a vast bourgeois pastime, with little thought to consequence.
But I have read my share of chivalry, and thus I have peered through a window into an era in which not tawn but pallor was the height of beauty. Any gentleman worth his plumage desired not a ruddy lady, but one who had hardly ever seen the sun. Countless a knight’s fancy was aroused by a milk-white bosom, if one is to believe Malory, and nary a one went for a leather-brown maiden. The shores of New Jersey are a far cry from the dales of Old. And so just like religiosity in American government, an aesthetic preference for sunburned skin is a relatively new, and by no means ingrained, facet of the age.
And perfectly sensible people by the standards of the era engage in this ritual. They have visited as many leathery old relatives as I have, and know entirely too well that we are only a recently bald animal, and that the sun was not built for our pleasure, but is something we are obliged to adapt to. Just as tobacco-smokers and registered independents continue to engage in a practice that is both outdated, pointless, and ultimately fatal, the modern sunbather is a suicide dedicated to the idiotic mores of the species’ stupidest age. And with the dominance of American culture seeping like an oil spill around the world, so does the harebrained aesthetic which favors the suntan.
What is required, though steep, is a total paradigm shift. Just as a generation had to persuade itself that the Earth was not revolved around, and another had to learn and still is that tobacco is good for absolutely nothing but painful, expensive, traumatic death, so must another age come to grips with the ill effects of sunlight, and learn to appreciate the appearance of the pale.
There is nothing simple about adjusting one’s aesthetic preferences. It cannot be quickly learned, and even I am inclined now and then to appreciate the shade of brown a shoulder might show, when a clean white garment is thrown over it. But like so many of our modern affectations, I know in my heart that it is just that. New preferences are learned through study, by growing familiarity. The more I gaze at my own pale legs, the more I am able to appreciate that I am looking at health. My belly is as the inside of a fresh apple, and my neighbor’s looks more like one left out in the air. The appearance of darkly tanned limbs have begun to repulse me, because I have attached the sight of them to thoughts of disease, not to mention the sloth necessary to acquire them. This is the process the entire civilization must eventually go through, to recover any synchronicity between its practice and common sense. As it is, suntan culture makes no more sense than a preference for sulfuric acid burns. A society is only showing its own health when it is able to adapt its own eccentricities to the helpful dictates of good sense.
Along a similar line of reason, the editors have requested that a rider be attached to this complaint, about the propensity of many members of society to simply go about without shirts on. It is a hot time of year, and surely this old town achieves a particularly suffocating sort of heat, but none of this seems a reasonable excuse for a half-respectable member of the human race to walk about in public without a top garment. The reader might mistake this for a complaint about fat men who go without it is not merely so. Fat men, thin men, women (though they are less common offenders), generally anyone who wants to participate in human social activity, would be better off in my mind wearing all the clothes that the rest of us are. We have already come a long, dismal way down the line from when people dressed with any sort of enterprise for self-respect; but I should like to at least halt us from descending back into nakedness. Already sweatpants and sports jerseys must be tolerated, simply because they are preferable to the meaty, awful husks of the corpus vulgus.
As a general announcement, let it be said that at least the editors of this pamphlet shall take no person seriously who finds a shirt too much to bear for the public good. The half-naked - unless they are swimming, changing their clothes, giving the garments off their back to a less fortunate tramp, or raised in a non-industrial culture are to us half-human, and will receive due respect. No muscled Adonis or flabby John will impress us with his uninvited torso. As a matter of sexual equality, as much as one of the civility of society, it frustrates us, because for women to enjoy a similar decadence remains a crime. We think rather than side with the feminists who would have females equally disrobing to the waist, we would like to tighten the law, to maintain a modicum of the rapidly unraveling public standard, and keep the fellows as clothed as the ladies. It would only be gravy if we could also enforce a certain amount of dignity in fashion, but we know how much is too much to ask of the infantile rabble. For now, we shall only insist that people wear shirts, and to hell with what is on them, or under them.
UPDATE FROM UPSTATE
MR. SWARTWOUT IN THE ADIRONDACKS
In spite of all his duties here, Mr. Swartwout managed to escape town for a few days, and made his way to a familial outpost on the shore of a lake in the mountains. The Swartwouts boast a relation to a nineteenth-century glove magnate, and so still possess a little property in the vicinity of that industry. Though it is somewhat dilapidated in large part thanks to the decline of the gloving trade, it is reportedly nonetheless picturesque; and in any case, the Adirondacks, at this time of year, are a foreign enough landscape from our own unearthly urban one to merit a correspondence may it either encourage you to persist until the mercy of autumn, or finish off your patience with your so-called cosmopolitan existence, and persuade you to trade it in for one more rustic.
UPSTATE NEW YORK- There is hardly any purpose in an epistle such as this, across such a short distance and such a vast discrepancy in circumstance, other than to make the reader pine for a situation he can’t experience for himself. It is the fault of almost all such travel writing to presume more intimacy between the reader’s experience and the writer’s than actually exists; the only such genre stuff worth going through is that which admits that the reader is not immediately, and may never, visit the spot described. And certainly at the present moment, when my metropolitan readership is under the thumb of such an unmanageable climate as New York City’s summer exhalation, it is near to cruel and unusual for any pundit to go off relating about his trip to the mountains with any tone other than a totally sympathetic one. I shall thus not bother with descriptions of historical circumstances, or roundabout descriptions of the area. I shall stick to those elements that might benefit the psychology of the overheated reader, as a sort of spur to the sodden imagination.
It is cooler here, certainly less humid. There are trees, such a number of them that they all blend into one general greenness. The mountains are not the craggy, imposing sort, but rounded, leafy ones. There is a lake, so calm and clear that the bottom is visible, and there is nothing sinister down there, just mud and freshwater grass. Lilypads have gathered in a nearby cove, and they hardly move, except when the northern breeze puts a little chop in the water. For sunny weather, there is a little dock to sit upon; when it is partly cloudy, there is a deck a few yards back; and for less certain conditions, there is a screened-in porch, with the same tranquil view. Everything is made of wood, and when one sits in the kitchen, which is perfectly silent, one is surprised to find their ears ringing, overstimulated from the constant racket of water lapping up beneath the dock, and leaves rustling in the breeze.
Generally, it is a wonder that this is the same geo-political body as the Great City downstate. That upon the surface of this placid pond and on the murky waves of the East River, the same law applies; that the same boorish officials preside; that the same home-teams play. It is a tribute to our particular province, that it is as rich and various as most countries, though the jealousy of outsiders should not become too excessive it comes at a price, all this benefit. New York demands as much as it provides.
The reader can take some vicarious satisfaction that for a few days, this author is unconcerned with the degradation of human civilization that on other days he stands with such staunch futility against. I am relieved of the trouble heaped on me by the hordes of the obese and ignorant. My concern is with which works better to fan the charcoal cooking-fire with: a Scrabble board or the local Leader-Gazette. (It is the former.)
In town, the talk is of a local woman who is auctioning off a marijuana-pipe to benefit the volunteer fire department. Nobody is too concerned about it, other than by the introduction of a possibly seditious new vocabulary the newspaper was obliged to include Webster’s account of ‘bong,’ to keep the gossips in comprehension. If your author hadn’t canoed across to the general store and picked up the paper, even that ort of chatter wouldn’t have made it to my ears.
No, it is a voluntary, brief, fine banishment; and I am obliged by Mr. Brownejohns’ grumbling and my own granule of sympathy for the public to give even this small account of it. Settle yourself in the least stifling alley you can find, and know by my word that not too far, there is a cabin by a lake in the woods, a dog paddling off the end of the dock, a fish cooking on a grill, and hardly a sound, or an inkling that a teeming society pulses three hundred miles away, ever on the brink of catastrophe.
ON INFANTS IN PUBLIC
It has become impossible not to notice the incursion on the public spaces by a new army of infants, not only because they make navigation treacherous with their ubiquitous personnel carriers (strollers, to the indoctrinated), but mainly because they so loudly and shrilly announce their presence with their ear-splitting war cry. There have always been infants, and probably there always will be, but it is only lately that they have seemed to advance on all of our territory, suddenly not content with family restaurants, day-care centers, and of course airplanes. I have seen more and more cherubic infiltrators in coffee shops, bookstores, public transportation, at the ballpark, and even in libraries.
It is hard not to be paranoid on the subject. There is a clear conspiracy among them to convert adults into sympathizers. Their very existence is a diabolical side-effect of the most reckless and inevitable behaviors of their nemeses, the grown-ups. It is as though the more artillery we lob against the innocence of childhood, the more likely it becomes that we will be captured and indoctrinated by the infants.
The stalemate that has stood until now was satisfactory. The front lines were clearly defined, and a man could freely roam his countryside and know where the babies were out of range. Now they are making inroads, aided by a growing and insensate fifth column of grown-ups. The babies are making messes and causing a racket in territory previously untoddled-upon, and their indentured adults are powerless against them.
For the first few days of a baby’s tour, he is confined in a glass box deep inside the hospital, so great is his danger. But he is soon trooping out in the world, heavily armed with a brutal disregard for tact, and a supernatural arsenal of sound not to mention his remarkable ability to improvise weaponry in the field: food, dishware, debris, anything is quickly modified by the wily infant into a missile.
I therefore propose that before they have occupied our territory outright, that we keep them longer in those glass enclosures, where they are less of a threat to our society. In fact, if we could exercise a concerted offensive, and persuade the doctors to hold the infants in their pens until their nineteenth or twentieth year, we could feasibly recover all our losses, and reclaim our civilization entirely. Barring this, I fear we shall only yield further ground to the babies’ shrieking dystopia, and the value of our lives shall be reduced to mere subsistence, and oppression.
-It is weird, though. Everybody you hang out with is really tall.
-I’m not freakishly tall.
-No, but you’re tall and skinny. And everyone you hang out with is the same. They’re all tall and skinny.
-We’re lanky people.
-But you know most people aren’t tall. In fact, most people are short.
-I can’t help it.
-The odds aren’t likely. And I mean all your friends are.
-You’re not tall and skinny.
-That’s the reason I noticed. I’m the only short person you know. And I’m not really short. I’m only short with you. If I’m not with you or your friends, I’m normal. You guys are like a club or something.
-It’s not on purpose. I never picked out all the tall people I met-
-No, I didn’t mean that. But I think, as a lanky person, you’re more inclined to get along with other lanky people. I’m pretty much normal, and so I’ve got no preference. I mean I can get along with any shape person.
The fellow who was struck by lightning during this terrific thunderstorm just past has become the butt of eight million snide murmured disapprovals, as if Nature had concocted the storm for the sole purpose of weeding out the most foolish individual in the Great City. Of course Nature is not so particular she fired approximately six thousand bolts of lightning at New York City that harrowing night and the matter of Nathan Maddox’s death atop a Soho rooftop is nothing but shabby luck and nearly farcical coincidence.
Rather than join the soft chorus of clicking tongues, however, THREE WEEKS wishes to express our solidarity with the deceased. It is a fact that this author, when the electrical show was at its height, had the same idea as Mr. Maddox, to ascend to a rooftop to better view the spectacle. That I was dissuaded by more practical, if less enthusiastic, advisers, is as much a disappointment as a swift dodge of mortality. For I believe there are few deaths as admirable as Mr. Maddox’s. When this reporter goes, let it only be as willingly as at the mercy of a mighty bolt of lightning, shot forth from the pitchest clouds of the hottest summer, amidst the most saturating sheets of rain and of all places, on a silhouetted roof of this fair town.
There is more than a little metaphysics to be gleaned from Mr. Maddox’s tragedy. His reasoning was as sound as anybody’s who was trained by the tale-spinners of the public school system: so long as he was not at the highest point, the lightning shouldn’t bother him, no? Of course the public schools aren’t overstocked with the well-informed, and the now-common knowledge that lightning’s path is random to its last instant, is hardly anything being taught to the vulnerable, trusting, highly conductive youth. Mr. Maddox was just such a fellow. He figured being surrounded by taller buildings, and even taller water-towers and other structures on his own roof, was security enough; but the bolt went to his head, probably before he even knew what was happening. One likes to believe that he was enjoying himself right to the very instant of impact drenched in rain, relieved from unbearable heat, cozy beneath the peaks of the city’s better spires. If death came immediately, and with two million volts why shouldn’t it have, then Mr. Maddox has our envy, though his friends and family surely also have our sympathy. But if we can only convey to them our admiration for the style with which their associate departed this Earth, then they might understand the informality of our eulogy.
Death, to date, remains an inevitability for all of us, and so some consideration should be given to the manner of its achievement. Bolts of lightning, assassin’s bullets, skydiving heart-attacks, fatal descents into a black hole; certain tactics are surely worth more to posterity than others, and it doesn’t seem at all crude to fawn over an impressive death. It is romance, to crave the rooftop in a thunderstorm as magnificent as the one we’ve just survived. Mr. Maddox and your author both felt the impulse, and I am certain millions more did too, though they will never admit it. Some of us had more sensible company, and so we are alive to discuss it. But we have also lost the marvel of that downpour, of those columns of electricity, firing one after another across the blackened skyline. Death for such transcendent pleasure may not be such an uneven exchange as the reader feels. I certainly do not believe Mr. Maddox has any regrets. The rest of us have been plunged back into the infernal August heat, desperate for the release, by cold front and by mortality, that our cherished citizen Mr. Nathan Maddox has been granted by the impossible peregrinations of an immense electrical current, born in the clouds, bound for the earth. This paper’s opinion on oblivion is well-known by now; but oblivion is not so awesome that a truly tactful arrival there is not going to attract our praise. It had nearly been us in that grand circuit, anyhow.