October 24, 2017

It’s Okay to Stop and Stare

Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth

The chunk of metal that came flying off the flatbed in front of me failed to knock me off the road. The next morning I noticed the missile made a ragged crack on the windshield. When I turned on the defroster to clear off some Boon (winter to the Light Skinned like me), the crack spread across the windshield like the Great Mystery was drawing on it. The glass experts advise that cracks more than twelve inches might cause the car roof to collapse from structural weakness should the car happen to flip. This crack was about three feet. I wasn’t worried about flipping until the stop sign on the country road forced me to hit the brakes and spin six times. The road was two lanes, with little traffic, except the train in front of me, explaining the stop sign and the necessity of stopping at train tracks. There were deep ditches on both sides of the road but I was spinning slow enough to remember to keep the noggin down if the car flipped into the ditch. Then hold my breath while submerged in the water, cold water that causes hypothermia and death. Finally all set, wait upside down for the Great Mystery (the Creator) or sheriff deputies, depending who’s the first responder, to rescue me from my imagination.

The Saginaw Chippewa tribe were believers in the power of storytelling that’s passed on through blood memory, connecting all of us to Creation. The prophets told the Chippewa tribe to following the Setting Sun, their Great Walk taking them from Niagara Falls to the Detroit River and through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Canada. The Chippewas used winter time, which they called Boon, to share their stories.

I have a new resolution to stare and the Chippewa museum in Mount Pleasant was one of my stop and stares.The storytelling was romantic at the start. There was a distinct loss of romance and brusque harshness by the end of the brief tour. The museum is next door to the casino and the local college football team is nicknamed the Chippewas. The Great Walk had become the Great Fall, leaving a trail of blood and tears and slot machines. Near the end, there’s a poem in a glass case. A Chippewa from Michigan who had fought in World War Two is given credit for writing it during the war. His name was William Graveratte and he became a prisoner of war in the Battle of the Bulge. The poem is called “Our Hitch in Hell.” Another resolution of mine is to check sources. “Our Hitch in Hell” seems to have many people claiming authorship. The original was supposedly written by a soldier in World War One and spread in many versions. Now “Hitch in Hell” is hanging on the museum wall in Mount Pleasant, alongside the biography of a Chippewa POW, the poem written on paper in his scrawl. Here it is the chain letter from Hell, written in the blood of man following the Setting Sun, pass it on.

Abolitionist Sojourner Truth’s Great Walk to the Setting Sun was listed as “around 105” years on her grave in Battle Creek. The more official account is 86 years with a question mark. Sojourner Truth said, “Give ’em land and an outset, and hab teachers learn ’em to read. Den they can be somebody.” She asked God, her Great Mystery, what’s wrong with the Constitution, and “He says to me, ‘Sojourner, dere is a little weasel in it.'”

The windshield held in one piece across the state to Battle Creek where I had a stop and stare at her twelve foot monument. We’re always told that we shouldn’t stare, making it more difficult to find the weasel in the truth. There’s a second hand store near the Sojourner Truth monument. A cheap six foot replica of the statue of liberty was in front of the store. A weasel looking nervous guy in a jean jacket and hood and smoking a cigarette was leaning against the door, nodding with his cigarette dangling from his lips to the statue of liberty that it was a good deal. Miss Liberty was in a bull market. The other guy was standing close enough to give Miss Liberty a kiss on the mouth. His head was cocked and he stared into her mouth like he saw a cavity. The Truth was feeling neglected in the snow. Headquarters for the Kellogg Company was nearby and a burst of expensive cars went past the second hand store. It was getting late and corporate executives were going home. These two guys bartered probably fifty, forty, thirty, twenty dollars over the statue of liberty, six feet of dirty gray Dumpster art. I had come to get a look at Sojourner Truth and instead I was staring at these two guys trying to pawn liberty. I was feeling the same vibes here that I got at the museum, a curtain call for Our Hitch in Hell. I stared at the crack in the windshield the whole way home, thinking maybe I should put off a stop and stare in Detroit.

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Going out in the cold

2013 Snow Fest Frankenmuth

John le Carré’s 1963 novel The Spy who Came in from the Cold made famous the phrase “to come in from the cold.” The cold refers to living undercover or as a spy, or in an environment of hostility, surrounded by adversaries with cold feelings. Life in the cold is meant to be a hardness to others, a lack of empathy or compassion. The cold front around here has moved on, timed perfectly for the completion of the Snowfest in Frankenmuth. Going out in the rain in January doesn’t quite give the warm fuzzies.

In the greatest spy novel, coming in from the cold seems an impossibility. It requires an excellent pension and then corrosion of the man or woman who has been “put on the shelf.” The best games are played in the cold. You just have to keep moving to stay warm. The great coach of the Minnesota Vikings, Bud Grant, once said players who are not in the game shouldn’t have heaters to keep them warm. He didn’t want his players to feel comfortable watching from the sidelines.

The spy returns to the cold, now in battle with Control (his bosses in London) and the Communists on the other side of the Berlin Wall. The watchtower’s searchlight sweeps across the Berlin Wall and sirens wail and shots are fired. His companion, the girl, is struck with bullets and falls so close to the Wall. He is safe but he has lost her. The girl, where’s the girl? He climbs back down the Wall into the cold to die with the girl.

We’re now in the Age of Empathy according to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker who is a perennial on those Top 100 Thinker lists. He credits self-control and empathy, coming in from the cold so to speak, for the decline of violence and the rise of our better angels. But he also writes in The Better Angels of Our Nature that life can’t be warm and fuzzy feelings all the time. A cold spell every now and then is healthy. A healthy presence of police also helps. While homicide rates continue to decline in New York and Washington, the murder rates are going up in Chicago and Detroit. I thought the constant threat of terrorism helped Washington and New York. Those cities seem to have cameras everywhere. There’s not enough left in Detroit to prevent the homicides.

Control is in charge of John le Carré’s novel. The manipulation is deft, more subtle in his pages, with Big Brother always observing. Secrecy News is a good website for staying informed of what the government is doing these days. The site is a Federation of American Scientists publication. Their latest post might explain the drop in crime:  “The number of inmates under the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) jurisdiction has increased from approximately 25,000 in FY1980 to nearly 219,000 in FY2012.” Secrecy News also reports that the Pentagon has doubled the number of lie detector tests in the last ten years.

In an experiment explained in The Better Angels, users of a garage rock band website followed the herd when able to see the number of times a song had been downloaded. The popularity of a song created a positive feedback loop, distorting the difference between hits and duds. When users were blocked from knowing the number of downloads, the popularity gap was much smaller. Pinker explains that these emotions are contagious. The Department of Defense and Homeland Security have provided funds for research on “social diffusion events” and the ability of individuals to influence their social networks. In other words, lead an uprising that might spoil the Age of Empathy.

I still have David Foster Wallace’s massive Infinite Jest that’s collecting dust on a bookshelf. I couldn’t find the willpower to ever finish it. The heavy weight could be useful in the trunk of a car when crossing the Mackinac Bridge in high wind. At the time of his death, he was said to regret his difficult literary style. He listed several genre novels among his favorite books. It was a great year for those kind of movies. David Foster Wallace was one of Aaron Swartz’s heroes. Maria Popova writes on her Brain Pickings site of going to a memorial for the young genius and activist who, like Wallace, committed suicide. They read a passage from David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address:

“The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.”

The fog and rain were brutal on the late night drive home from the land of the Amish and farmers in northern Michigan. Cars were on the side of the highway with flashers. The night so dark and fog so thick, you couldn’t see the road. I was determined to follow the lights of the vehicle in front of me. If he went into a ditch, I was coming in right behind him. I wanted winter to be cold again. Staying warm in the cold is easier than living in a fog.

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Fiction and Mood Affiliation

I want to find time this fall to see the documentary Detropia and the movie Argo. Of course, if I must see Detropia and Argo, I’d declare that I will have time. But I can only make such a declaration about Argo. Detropia is too close to home. It would be like a war veteran watching the military movies about Vietnam. The ruin porn photographs on G+ are in a sense just voyeurism to the suburban followers of those threads. I also dislike the street photography threads for much the same reason. The pain of the street is buried in the ooh’s and aah’s of the pixels.

I’m embarrassed to call this blog a blog, which to most people means things such as “branding,” readership, and page views. Imagine that! I always thought of this site as my shag bag full of nouns and verbs that I hit around the Web  at night when I had “time.” I used to sneak on the golf course as a kid and hit balls at night under the street light. Crickets and bats were in the gallery most nights. Occasionally police sirens were heard and once the police chased a guy who had stolen a car down the hill and into the river while I was in my back swing. I don’t think the cops let him take a mulligan. Another time a balloon rider made a crash landing. Bad weather meant I had more “time” to practice. I had the whole course to myself. Everyone else with a brain stayed inside. The golf course, as with fiction, was my escapism. In the winter, I always imagined I was some character in a Russian story. On the paper route with the eccentric characters, my imagination took me down the fictional path of the Canterbury Tales. At that time, the inner city schools had some very good teachers that really taught the classics to students like me who could recite Milton and Willie Horton’s stats without a hitch in the swing.

Detroit Tigers slugging star Willie Horton didn’t make an appearance in Detropia. Detroit has been celebrating Willie Horton Day for nine years now. The 70 year old hero of Detroit’s ballfields never moved from the city. As long as Willie Horton remains in Detroit, that city will always be in the big leagues. One time on my job, I received a request to find a particular kind of bratwurst. Every product on a store shelf has a UPC and goes into the national database for market research. This obscure bratwurst was subject of a nation wide manhunt to confirm its UPC. The last known sale of it was in my area of Michigan. Could I help? As they say in Twitterland…Boom!

The bratwurst belonged to notorious Tiger star, 30 game winner, and ex-con Denny McLain’s bankrupt company. I was watching a host on a television show recently. She had moved out of Michigan many years ago. She was reminiscing about her father taking her to Tiger games during the Willie Horton and Denny McLain era. She began to cry. Detroit will remain a sports town long after it’s out of the car and bratwurst business.

I’m not surprised so many great writers first achieved success with a sports novel. The authentic self can’t hide behind imitation on the ballfield. Willie Horton can be the hero of kids on the inner city playground but when the bat comes off the shoulder, it does so in the true identity of the batter.  Hemingway wrote about the importance of using your own voice , eyes, and ears to discover “what really happened in action” and what you actually felt and not what you were expecting or trained to feel and observe. Hemingway’s most important lesson of his lifetime was in writing the truth of what he witnessed. Hemingway used fiction to express the meaning of reality. Historian Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals is tough on the intellectuals who pandered to their own moods at the expense of humanity. Hemingway and George Orwell were the exceptions.

Economist and Marginal Revolution blogger Tyler Cowen calls it the “fallacy of mood affiliation.” People choose their mood or attitude first and find views that conform to their mood. Driving through the ruin porn of once great cities like Detroit can ruin the mood. After so much, I go to the Christmas capital of Frankenmuth or a Great Lake to change my mood.

I love the story of Argo because it used fiction to escape a hostage situation. Affiliate your attitude to a good ending and let’s get the hell out of here.

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Flannery O’Connor Reads the Riot Act

“Sentimentality always leads to the gas chamber.” — Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor was born in 1925 and died in 1964. She described her life as wandering between the house and chicken yard. John Updike wasn’t fooled by her Georgia hideaway, praising her while still in her early 30s to Hemingway and Faulkner. In a 2009 article for the Atlantic, Joseph O’Neil writes, “She was touched by evil and no doubt knew it. That is what makes her so wickedly good.” The characters in her stories were authentically low life because she lived in the same world. She was taught by the masters of the literary world and received enough acclaim to be compared with the grand master Hemingway. Unlike Hemingway, she was touched by evil close to home, where there was “no one worth knowing within a radius of three hundred miles,” as one of her characters complained in Everything That Rises Must Converge.

She doesn’t have the face, or biography, to be described as touched by evil. Hemingway experienced the evil of World Wars and had the face to prove it. But Flannery O’Connor? Look at that face. She’s smiling as if she knows your secrets. The voices in your head will become the dialogue in her penetrating stories.

“You needn’t act as if the world has come to an end,” he said, “because it hasn’t. From now on you’ve got to live in a new world and face a few realities for a change. Buck up,” he said,”it won’t kill you.”

I wonder what the reaction would have been if someone in the State Department had the same gleam in the eye as Flannery O’Connor and quoted her in response to the Muslim rage. I doubt the world would have come to an end. There was a story this weekend about a woman in Iran who was ordered to cover her face. She responded with a punch to the official’s face. There could be a market for Flannery O’Connor in Tehran.

Flannery O’Connor’s characters live in a mental bubble, a fantasy world, where they have set the rules about trespassing. She punctures it with a sharp wit and dialogue of a writer who has absorbed the evil into her imagination. The diplomats in Washington express support for their Muslim friends as the Flannery O’Connor character says she always had respect for her colored friends.

“They should rise, yes, but on their own side of the fence.”

“The ones I feel sorry for,” she said, “are the ones that are half white. They’re tragic.”

A great story was just published in time for the movie released in October. Argo is about the 1979 embassy takeover in Iran. Six Americans were able to flee the embassy and hide in the Canadian embassy. A CIA officer, Tony Mendez, created a Hollywood fantasy, entering Iran as a Hollywood producer and leaving under the noses of the ayatollahs with the six Americans as his film crew. Mendez, one of the CIA’s top 50 officers in 50 years, was an expert forger, artist, and creator of fictional identities.

Mendez writes of his love for the great movies of the 70s for stirring his own artistic vision. He approached his document and “authentication” work at the CIA as a great Hollywood director or writer. The eye for detail and ear for language meant the difference between life and death. His power of observation was on the level of a Flannery O’Connor, and surrounded by bad guys for three hundred miles. The wrong shoes, no signs of rust on a staple for the visa, a slight hiccup in the accent. His work required a novelist’s imagination and a touch of evil.

“What all this means,” he said, “is that the old world is gone. The old manners are obsolete and your graciousness is not worth a damn.”

“You aren’t who you think you are.”

The mother collapses on the pavement with her old world and her son’s world of guilt and sorrow awaits as he runs for help.

Flannery O’Connor died just as the riots of the 1960s spread throughout the country. Detroit was crippled permanently from the 1967 riots. The CIA officer Tony Mendez mentions Detroit once in his book. A hotel in Iran reminds him of a Detroit hotel. Mendez dismisses the James Bond stereotype. The lead characters, the true stars, are the gray men and women who enter and leave without a compelling memory of them ever being there. While Hemingway’s face seemed to be on every magazine cover throughout the American Century, O’Connor disliked having her picture taken.

Flannery O’Connor probably wouldn’t be afraid of the ayatollahs putting a bounty on her head. She said once that sentimentality leads to the gas chamber. She’d tell the State Department and everyone else to buck up.

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From Many Stories- One Flag

You’ll need to go up a 141 foot pole to burn this flag

The bin Laden movie Zero Dark Thirty is being released in December. The Pentagon gave the Hollywood filmmakers the names of CIA personnel and Navy SEALs involved in the raid. I knew something wasn’t right about the controversy around No Easy Day that was published without going through a Defense Department review. The people complaining about No Easy Day were competing against him for control of the story. People who had not put their own lives in danger. I was talking to a military veteran friend the day after the Somalia pirates were killed by the Navy SEALs. The author of No Easy Day was involved in the rescue. The friend has family connections to someone involved with the Navy SEALs. He talked about both Somalia and a raid in Iraq that “Mark Owen” just briefly mentions without going into any detail. I got in the car and drove home. Turning on the radio, I heard Rush Limbaugh talking to an anonymous Navy person in Virginia. This anonymous Navy caller, working in the same job title and location, told the exact story to Rush Limbaugh that the friend told me fifteen minutes earlier. They had to be the same person. What are the odds of that happening? Only in America, which isn’t such a bad thing.

Controlling the story is about as easy as climbing the 141 foot pole in Tawas Bay, Michigan to burn the American flag. I thought of the military man and his son when the Middle East erupted. The son was afraid of sitting with his father when I saw them in a northern Michigan restaurant near the Veterans Memorial flag in Tawas, the second largest flag east of the Mississippi. I didn’t get the impression the military man was a soft power kind of soldier or a special forces soldier receiving tremendous media coverage these days. He seemed like the kind of soldier who knows he is a dog tag and number to strangers. There will be just a mother crying herself to sleep and missing only a day at Walmart because she needs the job and money.

He is the kind of guy who keeps the American flag flying like an American eagle with the olive branch and arrows in its talons, honoring the United States seal: E pluribus unum. From many – one.

Controlling the narrative for non-fiction is more polarizing than fiction. Most non-fiction is about people in positions of significant power and prestige. Most of the great fiction has the average person as the lead character, struggling and overcoming the injustices of the world. I think that’s why the stories on Navy SEALs are so popular with publishers and Hollywood. The average guy becomes a hero.

The cycle of popularity is going to end for them as it does for everyone. The excessive reliance on special forces, drones,  and on the home front social tribes, private schools, etc., is creating it own problems and not just on the best seller list. When all the pain in the ass people are outsourced to someone else’s problem, you lose the ability to observe danger ahead. An ex-con porn director can set your world on fire and get your ambassador killed, and also some Navy SEALs. The bad guys here and abroad have rung the bell so many times, it can make your ears ring. But you learn a lot about human behavior and how to apply that insight to writing a better narrative for this crazy world.

Many of the Flint expatriates returned a couple of weeks ago to run the ten mile Crim. A friend who I haven’t seen in a long time signed up for the race. I looked around for him before and after the race. I couldn’t find him and thought he must not have run it. He works in Washington and is responsible for embassy property around the world. I thought he must wake up every morning wondering what embassy is going to get burned down today. The next day I saw the results and realized he was only a minute behind me the whole way. I doubt he’s had many easy days, either.

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Football Season Begins with a Wrong Way Omen

Wrongway Parker runs the wrong way after recovering a fumble

There was an omen last Thursday night. Maybe a warning to put on your helmet. Some bad stuff is about to happen. The political strategists want everyone to ignore the wars. Romney never mentioned Afghanistan and Obama doesn’t want anyone to notice the flames, either. A writer at the Atlantic has taken notice of the situation in Afghanistan and urges the Obama administration to save the best and the brightest in Afghanistan from the coming slaughter. The millions who do not qualify as members of the professional class are apparently regarded as expendable.

Last Thursday night, as Clint Eastwood was using the empty chair as a prop at the Republican Convention, Kent State linebacker Andre Parker recovered a fumble and ran more than fifty yards the wrong way. Infamous wrong way runs in football also occurred in 1929 and 1964, at the beginning of the Great Depression and Vietnam War.

I’m getting the feeling that Wrongway Parker’s 56 yard run toward his own team’s end zone is an omen that something historically similar is going to happen in the coming months.

The Atlantic writer is Steve Clemons, Washington at large editor for the Atlantic and senior fellow at a centrist D.C. think tank, which means he expresses the prevailing view of the political class. I didn’t watch the Republican Convention and probably won’t watch the Democratic Convention. Blame the lack of interest on the banality of crowd sourcing. Or group think as it used to be called in the era of typewriters and wars that were fought in waves of men, none of whom were authentic enough to qualify for the checkmark of authority from Twitter or a real name as opposed to an incomprehensible number from Google.

Keith Crain, CEO of Crain Communications, is a member of Michigan’s Journalism Hall of Fame and probably the most astute observer of the automotive industry. He warned that General Motors, contrary to the political marketing labeled as journalism these days, is actually in worse shape now than before the bailout. The government appointed executives don’t have the operational experience and have cost the company billions in Europe as a consequence. UAW members who won’t be in North Carolina for the convention also worry that GM is going again into bankruptcy.

As Wrongway Parker was putting his new nickname in the history books, the Pentagon bailed out of a significant military exercise with Israel. A war on the oilfields of the Middle East with the nation 16 trillion in debt and unemployment over 8% would be one for the history books, in the same category as the Great Depression and Vietnam.

Well,that’s the good news. The bad news is that Lincoln is starring in a movie this fall and not in the political arena.

Until Wrongway Parker picked up the fumble and ran the wrong way, I had Eddie Coyle on the brain. I couldn’t get Eddie Coyle out of my head. When I read something about Putin, I thought Eddie Coyle. Syria- Eddie Coyle. China- Eddie Coyle. The greatest crime novel of all time, Friends of Eddie Coyle, is also a primer on foreign affairs. The isms have been replaced by criminal gangs. I was contemplating the phrase foreign dignitary and thought it somewhat like porn star. If everyone in your line of work is referred to as a dignitary or star, you might consider a new line of work that doesn’t require a lot of shots with long needles and office furniture built to withstand bomb blasts. Then Parker ran across the television screen with his teammates chasing him out of bounds before he could spike the ball in their end zone.

A former player for Kent State was on the sidelines in Dallas on Saturday night, coaching his Alabama team to an easy season opening win over Michigan. Nick Saban played for Kent State in the early 70s. Saban was at Kent State when the Ohio National Guard shootings happened in1970. When Saban coached at Michigan State, one of his favorite words was knucklehead. So much so that you would have thought Eddie Coyle was playing linebacker.

A knucklehead in Detroit made Joe Biden’s Secret Service team look foolish when he stole one of their vans. The incident reminded me of a national law enforcement convention a few years ago in Detroit when some Texans with badges asked for directions to their hotel in metro Detroit. A courteous local in the tradition of a Eddie Coyle offered to help and led the sheriffs into a field where he got out with a gun and robbed them.

I suppose that’s why the Atlantic doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for saving any knuckleheads in Afghanistan.

I think we’d be lost without knuckleheads and football. We’d be at the mercy of foreign dignitaries when the bad stuff is about to happen.

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I Didn’t Come Out of a Cereal Box

Scene from the movie “Road to Wellville”

It’s not easy putting words in the mouth of the famous mumbler Bob Dylan, as science writer Jonah Lehrer has learned. One of Bob Dylan’s most famous quotes  is “I didn’t come out of a cereal box.” In his latest book, Lehrer, the “coddled boy genius,” attempted to put Dylan in a cereal box of his own imagination and got caught.

The spectacle of the opening ceremonies at the Olympics in London put my dopamine neurons into sensory overload. Nurses dancing and celebrating national health care made me think of Road to Wellville. Armageddon happens in Aisle 5- the cereal aisle.

Lehrer writes in his earlier book How We Decide that the “history of Western thought is so full of paeans to the virtues of rationality that people have neglected to fully consider its limitations.” I have to think most historians, military planners, urban planners, and police departments would dispute that statement. A couple of World Wars, Great Depression, crime, urban blight, etc., have done a pretty convincing job of eviscerating the benefits of obediently following the prefrontal cortex to the clearance rack. “The fragility of the prefrontal cortex means that we all have to be extremely vigilant about not paying attention to unnecessary information,” Lehrer writes. He’s not referring to the nutritional content on the side of a cereal box, Ahmadinejad’s speeches, Pearl Harbor, 9/11. He uses the 1973  Yom Kippur War as an example of poor analysis, not lack of data. The Israelis had the data they needed. The belief that Egypt would be foolish to attack prevented the Israelis from understanding an attack was imminent.

He cites a stock investment study performed by a psychologist on a group of MIT business students for putting limits on information. The students exposed to the Wall Street Journal, CNBC, and investment experts did much worse than those students only able to see the price of the stock. He blames a “cortical flaw” that’s been “exacerbated by modernity.” If there’s a danger of too much information, Warren Buffett must be a pretty fearless guy. His reading habits are legendary.

Lehrer is struggling to put the “hard problems” of humanity in a cereal box created through the science of decision making. “We finally have the tools that can pierce the mystery of the mind revealing the intricate machinery that shapes our behavior,” he concludes in How We Decide. He thought of the book’s subject while standing in the cereal aisle, unable to make a decision.

T. Coraghessan Boyle’s The Road to Wellville is a 1993 novel on the eccentric health habits of Dr. John Kellogg, creator of the corn flake and owner of a health farm. A bitter argument about adding sugar to the cereal resulted in his brother creating the Kellogg Company in Battle Creek, Michigan. Kellogg wrote a pamphlet “Plain Facts for Old and Young” with the following advice:

“Knowledge is dangerous.

Very true, knowledge is dangerous, but ignorance is more dangerous still; or, rather, partial knowledge is more dangerous than a more complete understanding of facts. Children, young people, will not grow up in innocent ignorance. If, in obedience to custom, they are not encouraged to inquire of their parents about the mysteries of life, they will seek to satisfy their curiosity by appealing to older or better informed companions. They will eagerly read any book which promises any hint on the mysterious subject, and will embrace every opportunity, proper or improper—and most likely to be the latter—of obtaining the coveted information. Knowledge obtained in this uncertain and irregular way must of necessity be very unreliable.”

If knowledge is dangerous,  Bob Dylan came from a cereal box.

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Summer People and Safe Havens

A safe haven plea for stormy times

A small, old fashioned outdoor movie theater in northern Michigan was showing “Batman.” On the same road a few miles out of town was a sign offering a sale on guns and ammo. This town isn’t Chicago or Detroit, or as of this weekend, Aurora. The police scanner is quiet for many minutes. Bursts of static remind the town folks not to forget the scanner on the counter. It ripples with reports of stuff such as an assault outside a pickle factory.

The dispatcher lets “pickle factory” hang in the air like a floating double down the left field line. If the Tigers are playing, the radio is certain to be turned to the game. The police scanner is on the shelf near the store’s left field line, next to the ice cream and lottery. The radio is muffled by the big bags of tobacco on the right field line. A church lady comes in and asks for tobacco. They talk church. I was shocked that the abandoned church of my favorite whiskey priest had been demolished.

Holy crap, it’s gone, I thought, driving past the patch of dirt about the size of a pitching mound. A scratchy piece of dirt was all that remained of my whiskey priest’s life work. The church market has taken a bigger hit than the pickle factory and the Detroit Tigers bullpen. Church ladies chew tobacco and drink beer and gamble here. They can take what life throws at them better than the men. They’re probably the reason my whiskey priest split in search of cute soccer moms in metro Detroit. So I hope. But I have a suspicion he’s on a bar stool nearby.  There are some tough towns in northern Michigan. A store sign targeted to truckers advertises showers, beer, and tools, in that order.

Summer is making the turn into August and the pennant stretch. Sparky Anderson, the great manager of the Reds and Tigers, said no one ever won the pennant in July. The police dispatcher knows it. She is throwing strikes now, working the plate. Head injuries on a ballfield interrupted the static this weekend. A hard hit up the middle. Paramedics requested a helicopter to a bigger hospital several miles away. The dispatcher asked for the helicopter’s LZ and was told in the middle of the ballfield. She works the paramedics and police like a veteran on the mound, shaking off the catcher’s signals until she gets something she likes.

The International Hemingway Society came to northern Michigan in late June for the annual meeting. Michigan’s Gold Coast gets most of the Summer People. The landing zone for the Summer People is Traverse City, Charlevoix, Petoskey. “Big cars out from Charlevoix, rich slobs riding behind their chauffeurs, came up and passed, hogging the road and not dimming their lights,” Hemingway wrote in the short story Summer People. The Hemingway Society bus tour to the Upper Peninsula was sold out. I’ll do it myself before summer is done. And try to watch a minor league baseball game. The Traverse City Beach Bums must be the coolest minor league team in the game. Another destination on the to see list is Misery Bay in the U.P. to check out the scene used by Steve Hamilton for his mystery Misery Bay. This town on the shore of Lake Superior isn’t a tourist destination for Summer People. Access by car is difficult. No one dreams of mermaids in Misery Bay like Nick did in Hemingway’s Summer People that was set in Hortons BaySwimming is character to Hemingway. Talking too much is more dangerous than swimming too much. You can talk yourself out of many good things like Nick did.

A killer from metro Detroit made a run for the Upper Peninsula and got caught a few years ago. They found him shivering in the woods. The safe havens are on this side of the state, where my fictional whiskey priest is hiding. The 20th Century was the most violent and Hemingway and Graham Greene covered it as much as any novelist of their time. The bad guys were shooting up the world, not movie theaters.

The Personal Growth Center is on the same road as the sign for guns and ammo and the movie theater showing “Batman.” This safe haven was closed when I took a picture of the sign. Play dead on the weekend. Come back on Monday during regular business hours. The store offering showers, beer, and tools is open 24 hours a day.

A cop in the Aurora movie theater told one of the young patrons to “play dead.” Greene’s whiskey priest couldn’t have said it any better. I’m thinking Hemingway would have said, “Play cop and shoot the bastard.”

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On the Border Patrol with Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison at the border crossing with Canada

If you’re going to cross a border, Canada’s are more pleasant than most. Thomas Edison is the watchman on duty 24/7 here in Port Huron. There’s one sign near the park warning about protecting the borders. A border patrol number is posted on the sign to call if suspicious activity is observed. Bootleggers were notorious around here during Prohibition and Canadians might be called into action again to save the soft drink. Port Huron is Edison’s boyhood home, his “formative years,” as the literature from Chamber of Commerce types puts it, qualifying Port Huron to erect a modest statue and museum in Edison’s honor.It works for me. While the Statue of Liberty can make the claim for more footage, Edison has more wattage. Someone has to shine the light on border patrol, and none better qualified to do so than Thomas Edison.

The Canadians don’t seem particularly concerned with Supreme Court rulings in Washington. They see my camera and wave. Graham Greene’s whiskey priest and battlefields such as the Alamo are much farther south of Columbus, Ohio, a place regarded as foreign land for those from Ann Arbor, including Richard Ford whose latest novel Canada is a clear front runner for the literary prizes this season. Even the War of 1812 had a nicer time north than south. Detroit surrendered without a shot, although some in Columbus, the same types who hung a sign in Detroit a few years ago congratulating Michigan on the eight or ten year or whatever longtime anniversary of their last win over Ohio State, these Buckeyes would say Detroit has more than made up for its peaceful surrender in 1812. The War of 1812 began at Fort Mackinac and today Mackinac Island is the epicenter of the scenic, touristy Pure Michigan campaign.

Canada is about border crossings, explains Ford, and authenticity, and washing away the fake soot that the culture pumps out of its media pipes. Ford crosses all the familiar borders, from my experience. He drives up to Port Huron and follows M-25 around and then on to Oscoda, the air base up north where the tormented father character is based. Oscoda is also the “official” home of Paul Bunyan. Take that, Davy Crockett. Driving from the home of Thomas Edison to the home of Paul Bunyan is a pretty damn good home run. Lewis Cass, the first governor of Michigan, was Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of War. The Cass River carries his name well. Cass Corridor in Detroit is no-man’s land that can rival anything in the Middle East. Richard Ford writes of Detroit as the city that used to be here. Detroit’s borders remain unmoved in the dirt but the occupants have moved onto other borders where the light of Thomas Edison shines brighter. Detroit is planning on shutting off the lights in nearly a quarter of the city to save cash. No sense lighting vacant land.

To get to Port Huron from Detroit, Ford must drive past the home of Elmore Leonard. The Atlantic had an interview with Leonard recently in which Leonard echoes the same message as Ford- to peel off the falsehoods to reveal the true. Leonard hates the fake. His central character is always the real deal, while the characters around the main character are plagued with the superficial traits. Leonard has been around a long time, reaching the point in life where he isn’t afraid to tell the truth. A publisher sent him a manuscript by a promising writer. Leonard reads the first sentence, about the wind, and clips the pretentiousness. Perhaps more honest book blurbs could help everyone. Wars are never canceled due to bad starts. Why stories? The British tricked American soldiers into surrender at Fort Mackinac when they seized the fort and flew the American flag as a ruse. Communication wasn’t the greatest and no one heard the start gun to the war. Napoleon won the first half of his battle in Europe, seizing a vacant Moscow more dramatically than the Brits took Detroit. The second half wasn’t so good. Napoleon entered Russia with more than 800,000 and returned with around 100,000, chased away by Mother Nature. Elmore Leonard says never to write about the weather. Tolstoy and Napoleon might disagree. Richard Ford also gives more respect to the landscape. Mother Nature is a force in the second half. But the man made borders, both emotional and physical, have created enough conflict to keep everyone entertained.

Ford’s young narrator watches his parents be sent off to prison and must come to terms with crossing borders, into new towns, states, countries, and families. And everyone checks ID in their own way. Ford doesn’t mention Edison on the drive from Detroit to Port Huron and Oscoda. His presence is with the lights. Thomas Edison had only a few months of formal education. Taught by his mother, he believed in the importance of self-improvement throughout his life. A good requisite for the border patrol.

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The Right Stuff Hunt and Peck Style

The woman with a slight hint of amusement in her eye was making her theatrical pitch about the life of James Curwood when I came in late and sat in the back of the room. It was a small room, meaning I was sitting dead center and second row from the front. She couldn’t ignore the increase in attendance. My presence added another two bucks to the funds for keeping the Curwoood memory alive. Five people, two bucks apiece, ten bucks total. Who the hell needs New York, or a calculator, when you have Owosso next exit on a pleasant Sunday afternoon. Thomas Mallon climbed the same stairs and spotted the Curwood typewriter in June of 1992 for his American Spectator essay Why, O Why, O Why O, Do They Ever Leave Owosso? I’m guessing the same woman greeting tourists back then was in front of me now, explaining James Curwood’s lucky escape from a grizzly bear that led to his novel The Grizzly King and movie The Bear, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. Time movie critic Richard Schickel says it right there on the first page that The Bear was a wondrous movie. Annaud says in the intro that The Grizzly King is a wonderful book. Overcome with loyalty for the local tribe, I gave the woman ten bucks as donation for the Great Cause and left armed with The Grizzly King for tougher streets than Owosso.

Thirty miles east of the Curwood Castle reminds me of a passage from Jack London’s Call of the Wild. The stolen sign championing the home of Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram has been recovered and placed near the door of the Berston gym where Flint’s newest Olympian, female boxer Claressa Shields, trains for the gold.

From Call of the Wild:

“He was beaten (he knew that); but he was not broken. He saw, once and for all, that he stood no chance against a man with a club. He had learned the lesson, and in all his life he never forgot it. That club was a revelation. It was his introduction to the reign of the primitive law, and he met the introduction halfway. The facts of life took on a fiercer aspect, and while he faced that aspect uncowed, he faced it with all the latent cunning of his nature aroused.”

They watch me here without a glint of humor in the eye. Driving past all the dreary liquor stores, I can see the heads turn, profiling me as a stranger in the neighborhood. There are a few churches that look related to the liquor stores, called party stores around here. No one seems to be in a partying mood. Life does take on that fiercer aspect, as Jack London wrote in Call of the Wild. Another one of my favorites, Graham Greene, must have his whiskey priest hiding out in one of these churches. It’s a lot easier going in and taking pictures of the Curwood Castle than the Berston gym. I had my car stolen one time around here and like Buck in Call of the Wild, the pain from the club tends to get a rise out of your own cunning nature. A friend had his car stolen and chased the guys through the streets in his wife’s company vehicle. He got his car before wrecking the company vehicle. It also helped that he was good at karate and benched pressed 400 pounds.

Even the priests here are tough survivors. Hank Crumpton, the CIA guy with the new book out about life in the Clandestine Service, marveled that the religious groups working in Afghanistan seemed to show more balls than the CIA at times. I can believe it. I know a few myself that go into the most dangerous places in the world, and do it with a glint of humor in their eyes. They learned it here, on the hard streets. There are some others running like the whiskey priest.

Somewhere between here and the Curwood Castle, or maybe Afghanistan, is the sweet spot between man and nature. The hunt and peck method for it can make you feel a little  like the whiskey priest. My mapping skills barely get me into my driveway, never mind the CIA, along with a million other reasons. I’ve always felt confession was extremely overrated, both for whiskey priests and the CIA.

Hunt and peck has its merits. The effort can be good for you. There are some important observations that can be learned off the beaten path. One time two of us were sitting across from an applicant. She had some defeats on her record. The other guy was thinking why she got knocked down. I was thinking why she got up. She was hired.

“The greatest thrill of the hunt is not in killing,” Curwood wrote, “but in letting one live.”

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