How Little Things Can
Make a Big Difference
(Little, Brown)Those of us who are fascinated with history have to be fascinated with the tiny events that change the world. In 1861, Robert Toombs, member of Jefferson Davis's cabinet, argued against the bombardment of Fort Sumter. If he had prevailed, the Civil War may never have happened. At Gallipoli in 1915, the British 29th Division were on the outskirts of Achi Baba, a hill that commanded a superior view of the entire area. With no orders, the invaders stopped to brew tea, giving the Turks time to occupy the hill in force. If the English had won there, they would have won the Dardanelles --- and Russia would not have been cut off from her allies. Her later defeats may have been victories. With victory, the Bolshevik Revolution may never have occurred, and, thus, no Stalin.
Malcolm Gladwell claims that there are certain moments when a tiny push can make big things happen, but his view is slightly smaller than revolutions and World Wars. He talks of Hush Puppies, for example, those funky shoes from long ago that suddenly came back into fashion. He speaks of yawning, drug addiction and AIDS in Baltimore, juvenile suicide in Indonesia and kids smoking cigarettes in the US. The number 150 (as the optimal number of a business or association), the "broken window" theory --- tied to the rise and fall of crime in New York City --- the coming of "Sesame Street" and, later, "Blues Clues." There are the rules of epidemics, and there is the law of the few. These are all grist for his mill.
The author is an excellent writer, piques our interest --- but the truly gripping parts of The Tipping Point are the myriad of details that flesh out his theory. For example, there's Peter Jenning's ill-disguised prejudice. Soundless videos, when viewed by a study group, proved that Jenning's face was "glowing" when he was reporting on the details of Reagan's presidential candidacy. It is thought that this may have influenced the election. Or, even better, there's the matter of Paul Revere.
The author compares Revere to William Dawes. Both left about the same time on the same evening to spread the news about the British. The response to Dawes: practically nil. Why was Revere so instrumental in rousing the natives? Because he was what Gladwell calls a "connector." He was a person that people liked, trusted and respected. His thirteen mile ride was not only knocking on doors and spreading the word, but because he was "a doer, a man blessed...with 'an uncanny genius for being at the center of events,'" his appearance galvanized people to action. Even before his famous ride, he regularly traveled between Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. He was a Mason, he was health officer of Boston, and coroner of Suffolk County:
He was so naturally and irrepressibly social...When he came upon a town, he would have known exactly whose door to knock on, who the local militia leader was, who the key players in town were. He had met most of them before. And they knew and respected him as well.
He was, in other words, a person not unlike ones you and I know --- one who is fun to be with, smart, always filled with ideas, telling us which restaurants to go to, where bargains are, who is doing something interesting. He is the "connector."
Outside of Gladwell's theory of "connectors, mavens, and salesmen," The Tipping Point is chock-a-block filled with details of studies that have been done on unbelievable subjects in unbelievable places. Baltimore has a needle exchange program. It was found early on that when the needle truck arrived in the seedy parts of town, there were always four or five people who turned up with hundreds of dirty needles. These they traded for the clean ones, which they turn around and sold to the junkies for a dollar a piece. They were connectors, and rather than trying to thwart them, the organizers of the program found them extremely helpful:
They are all very well connected people [said epidemiologist Tom Junge]. They know Baltimore inside and out. They know where to go to get any kind of drug and any kind of needle. They have street savvy. I would say that they are unusually socially connected. They have a lot of contacts....I would have to say the underlying motive is financial or economic. But there is definitely an interest in helping people out.
Then there is the controversial "broken windows" theory: if you don't fix the little things in a city (broken windows, garbage, panhandlers, scofflaws) then crime becomes more prevalent. The reason?
The criminal --- far from being somene who acts for fundamental intrinsic reasons and who lives in his own world --- is actually someone acutely sensitive to his environment, who is alert to all kinds of cues, and who is prompted to commit crimes based on his perception of the world around him.
If the environment is dirty and messy, it leads those on the edge to believe that they can get away with murder. Gladwell calls it "The Power of Context."
§ § §
The author cites, at length, and explains, wonderfully clearly, one of my favorite studies. That is --- what happens when people talk. A couple of decades ago, William Condon studied a 4-1/2 second film, in which a woman says to a man and child, You all should come around every night. We never have had a dinnertime like this in months. Condon worked on this short segment for a year and a half, frame-
by- frame, frame- by- frame (a year and a half!) until,
finally, in his peripheral vision, he saw what he had always sensed was there: "the wife turning her head exactly as the husband's hands came up." From there he picked up other micromovements, other patterns that occurred over and over again, until he realized that in addition to talking and listening, the three people around the table were also engaging in what he termed "interactional synchrony." Their conversation had a rhythmic physical dimention. Each person would, within the space of one or two or three 1/4th-of-a-second frames, move a shoulder or cheek or an eyebrow or a hand, sustain that movement, stop it, change direction, and start again....the speaker was, in effect, dancing to his or her own speech. At the same time the other people around the table were dancing along as well, moving their faces and shoulders and hands and bodies to the same rhythm. It's not that everyone was moving the same way, any more than people dancing to a song all dance the same way. It's that the timing of stops and starts of each person's micromovements --- the jumps and shifts of body and face --- were perfectly in harmony.
Thus, as we converse, you and I dear, we are dancing to each other's words --- only the dance is so subtle, the movements so tiny, that we can only catch it subconsciously. (What Gladwell left out is Condon's description of speaking: as we speak, whoever we are talking to is also moving lips and mouth so that we are speaking in tandem. Only the movements are so tiny that they can only be seen if one slows down the action, gets a frame-
by- frame view of the face.)
It's all a part of Gladwell's theory of "tipping points" --- all of which he describes so richly and so well --- along with a rich admixture of other studies: how supersalesmen work, stories of how movers-&-doers make things happen, how babies (too) move to the speech patterns of adults, how they experiment with different episodes of "Sesame Street" to see which the kids preferred, how two people who live together begin to create a collective memory (one remembers the days to pay bills; the other remembers when it is time to clean the refrigerator); how the kids prefer to commit suicide in Indonesia (leaning over with a rope around the neck); how some people can smoke cigarettes and not become addicted; who in the agriculture business will try out a new seed (they're called Ealy Adopters); how one company, Gore Associates, immediately splits its workforce when it reaches 150 --- for after that point, the communication between employees begins to break down; and even, my god how he sticks in facts from all over --- how Methodism got started.--- Bill Wesley
Is Struggling with
Josh McDowell and
(Word)Seventeen-year-old Stephanie Cooper finds herself in what we used to call "the family way." She tells her good friend Kate Holmes, who "shrieks in disbelief." They immediately call Jenny Shaw, a youth leader at their church, and Stephanie tells them that she knows that God is punishing her for her sin of having had congress with Brent: "My pregnancy is a result of my disobedience," she says. This is good, because the message is that pregnancy --- no matter what the source --- is not to be thought of as a joy, but, rather, punishment from a just but strict God.
At this point, the authors --- showing a novelistic style that even Joyce might find daring --- take a moment to directly address the reader, à la Hamlet, in what they call Time Out to Consider. In this, we learn that Stephanie is a computer. Her sadness, hopelessness, anger, and fear are not a result of her miserable and punishing pregnancy, nor her society, but come to her because "It is the way God wired you."
After this entr'acte, Jenny, Kate and Stephanie chit-chat about what to do with the baby. Being a single mother is one choice. Giving it up to adoption is another. Abortion is mentioned, but the authors tell us that if she goes that route, she will suffer:
Many pregnant women who submit to abortion suffer mental and emotional torment for years when they realize what they have done to their babies. Abortion is the act of killing the person who will one day call you Mommy.
After "another round of caring embraces," Stephanie, Kate, and Jenny take time out to eat. Jenny says, "Let's nuke this pizza and see how fast we can make it disappear!" This is called symbolic displacement, for as any Joycean would point out, Jenny is pretending to talk about a pizza-pie but is really referring to the unwanted embryo that they would all like to "nuke."
They go to meet with Stephanie's mother, Claire, to tell her what's happened. It's apparent that Mum is a no-nonsense sort, for she tells her daughter, "I am shocked and disappointed and hurt, but I forgive you." A discerning reader may suspect that, with her triple whammy shock/disappointment/hurt statement, Claire is not really forgiving her daughter but is, in effect, saying, "Since you've gotten us into a no-win situation, I'll forgive you. More or less. But don't think I'm going to forget." This is known as traditional Old Testament forgiveness.
§ § §
Readers familiar with American literature will recall that the plot-line here is not unlike that of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. We have to admit, though, that if we had to choose between the two --- we'd pick My Friend is Struggling with... Unplanned Pregnancy.
First, McDowell and Steward have an enviable sense of economy. Outside of several commercials at penultimate part of the book for their other titles ("Connecting Youth in Crises...
Experience the Connection"), they manage to get the whole miserable business of kindly Jenny, non-nonsense Claire, shrieking Kate, guilt-ridden Stephanie and that rat Brent over and done with in fifty pages.
On the other hand, Dreiser insists on making us look at all sides of a very human tragedy, rubbing our nose in it --- the doubts, the back-and-forth, the sheer hell of it. He drags us through seven-hundred pages of unmitigated woe. The result? We come to realize that a woman's agony comes not so much from the situation as from the values of a punitive society --- one that sees the pregnancy of an unmarried woman as a major evil. It's a pleasant relief that the shorter novel avoids such a lengthy plot line, all the while quickly eliminating one escape from Stephanie's misery with the unflinching statement: "Abortion is the act of killing the person who will one day call you Mommy."
And ultimately, although the two books favor a dry, somewhat stiff writing style, McDowell and Stewart offer us a definite change
-of- pace when they pause to describe the details of abortion. They speak of a vacuum tube that "removes the baby in broken and torn pieces." They describe a D&C that "slices and scrapes the baby from the womb" Finally, they tell of the "saline injection:"
This solution gradually and violently poisons the baby, then the mother goes into labor and delivers a tiny dead baby.
These dramatic entrepots bring this slight but potent novel to life, demonstrate that the authors are willing to offer to a would-be mother a full range of impossible choices to resolve the dilemma of an unwanted pregnancy.--- Elizabeth Wickes
(Rebel, 14 High St.,
Scotland)It's been years since we've sampled Bukowski, and we wanted to see if he had aged, as we have --- for better or for worse. After three pages of Ham on Rye, we were hooked --- and after three days, we knew why he, along Henry Miller, R. Crumb, Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, and J. D. Salinger were the word mauvens of our salad days.
We have to point out though that Bukowski is special. We might call it the Midsummer's Night's effect. Years before it was fashionable, he was able to turn all that Americans thought was great and good and right and honorable on its head. Fathers were not loyal and strong --- rather, they beat their children mercilessly and lied. Mothers were not wise and loving --- they whined.
Boys fought like hoodlums, talked of little more than what was in their pants or in girls' panties. Female teachers were there at the front of the class so the boys could look up their dresses. Pimples and boils could and did create an agony inside to match the agony outside. Wars and politics and "true-love" were stupid. Getting blind drunk was the highest virtue --- especially if it devolved into a bloody knock-
down- drag- out between you and your best drinking buddy. § § §
Now if Bukowski were just a boil-ridden, crude, frustrated anarchist --- all this would be mildly interesting. But he is also a stylist of the highest order. His two finest works --- Ham on Rye and Post Office --- are so tight and spare that they might well be compared to a Matisse drawing, but instead of lines of gentle yellow and red and green against a white background, the images (as well as the background) are black and a harsh brown and a dark, dark blue. And his dialogue is so direct and sly that to read him is like listening in on the spare lines of a Bogart film.
It's a bitter, daunting humor --- one that gives no quarter, and one that scarcely fails. It's the kind of writing that can offer an evaluation of another writer as a throwaway line --- and get away with it: "God damn Thomas Wolfe! He sounds like an old woman on the telephone?"
When a bit of embroidery appears (and it appears every now and again) it comes so much of a piece that it can cause chills. This is Bukowski --- the knock-about outsider, as distant from his fellow man as any Camus Stranger --- watching his senior high school prom through the windows of the gym:
I stood outside in the dark and I looked in there, through the wire-covered window, and I was astonished. All the girls looked very grown-up, stately, lovely, there were in long dresses, and the all looked beautiful. I almost didn't recognize them. And the boys in their tuxes, they looked great, they danced so straight, each of them holding a girl in his arms, their faces pressed against the girl's hair. They all danced beautifully, and the music was loud and clear and good, powerful....
Then I caught a glimpse of my reflection staring in at them --- boils and scars on my face, my ragged shirt. I was like some jungle animal drawn to the light and looking in....
The dance ended. There was a pause. Couples spoke easily to each other. It was natural and civilized. Where had they learned to converse and to dance?
Being Bukowski, he is not allowed to muse for very long. A night watchman catches him, and "He was an old man with a flashlight. He had a head like a frog's head." He chases Bukowski away:
I walked off. I kept walking. His flashlight leaped on the path, the light following me. I walked off campus. It was a nice warm night, almost hot. I thought I saw some fireflies but I wasn't sure.
As surely as Matisse will create a effect with a couple of throw-away swirls of color, so Bukowski enriches the bitter experience of isolation, the agony of growing-up, with his minimalist art: seeing the prom through "the wire-covered window," which, eventually, allows him to catch his own reflection, the "boils and scars on my face..." The watchman with a head "like a frog's head..." being yet another reflection. He leaves, and he thinks he sees some fireflies, but he isn't sure.
Each of these images adds a stroke to his spare style, and gives us powerful, cumulative images of light-
and- dark, civilization within/ Beowulfian beasts without, and then, as the final coup --- the fireflies, lights in the dark --- but (then again), maybe there, maybe not.--- Ignacio Schwartz