An Informal History
Of the American
Passion for Birds
Kastner used to work for Life magazine, but it doesn't seem to have hurt him a bit. We have here a volume that treats birds, and bird watchers, with whimsical affection. For instance, there's a chapter here on oology --- the collecting of eggs --- where the author spawns a magnificent rainbow of knowledge:
An oologist, in a way, goes at birding in reverse. While most birders identify nest and eggs by looking first at the bird, the oologist can look at nest and eggs to identify the bird. Does the nest hang from the end of a branch? It is an oriole. If it is in field amid briars, has an open instead of an arched shape, and has weed stems woven into it: a field sparrow. Does it have corky bits of wood in it: a black-throated blue warbler.
Kastner --- like all of us --- is dismayed by the depredations of the turn-of-the century collectors, but he never lets pique way of a great narration.
Over all, he wanders charmingly, as a good bird-man must. His tale of the life and times of Roger Tory Peterson is fetching, and has a suitable detour for another great in the field, Joe Hickey, who defined bird watching as
a mild paralysis of the central nervous system which can be cured only by rising at dawn and sitting in a bog.
Hickey's description of the English sparrow --- it was introduced to American in 1853 --- will delight anyone who has fought these noisy and pesky intruders:
It seems too unassuming a bird to be a casus belli. It is small, drab, a poor singer, not at all choosy about where it lives. Tolerant to humankind, it has had an easy time making itself at home everywhere in the world except in the nomenclature of ornithology.
It's a token of the sparrow's seedy ways (it once fed off seeds in horse droppings) that the bird spawned a near-riot among the scholars of the Boston Society of Natural History in 1867. The question: Should it be treated as a common pest? At one point, the Department of Agriculture recommended their use as food because of "their nutritious value and as a means of reducing their numbers." The state of Ohio offered a bounty of ten cents a dozen, but gave it up after someone concluded it would cost over $11,000,000 and, "even if most of Ohio's sparrows were exterminated, new generations would keep flying in over the border."
If insults could kill, the bird would long since have been exterminated. Few birds have achieved such a bad name among birders...One bird watcher, after counting a pair copulating fourteen times in succession with five-second pauses between sexual acts, accused them of being immorally oversexed, obsessed by "furor amatorius, the male sufferingfrom satyriasis and the female from nymphomania."
"In the hullabaloo," concludes Kastner, "there were a few who kept birding's faith: that if man ever has trouble with a bird it is man's fault, not the bird's."
Money is the great liquid force in American life. It is transferable into any other commodity, such as a Vanity Press book. It is also the great savior of The American Way. The ubiquitous message in the newspapers, on television, in the throwaways, every day, in all forms, is anyone (even you) can make a jillion dollars. Those who don't get on the gravy train just aren't persistent nor believing enough. It is a potent subliminal message, powerful counterpoint to the other media messages ---- and it well explains the ghastly fix we're in now.
One of the most persistent messages of the Make-a-Million Scenario is suffering. All these books, whether by Donald Trump, or Lee Iacocca, or Conrad Hilton, are a veritable Dear Abby in the pain department:
If you climb Mount Everest, no matter how carefully you plan, anything can happen. Your ice axe slips, your oxygen gives out. A concealed crevasse swallows you up. Well, that's about the way it was building my first Hilton Hotel.
Before Conrad ascended to the last and greatest suite, Be My Guest was to be found in every Hilton Hotel room, next to the Gideon Bible. It means that when you woke up alone in your drab room, you'll get to choose between climbing up Golgotha or climbing through Corporate America. The author was not just a gaudy hotelier --- he is also a political commentator with the same general comprehension, wit and vision as Vanna White:
The old concept of "War" and "Peace" belongs to a world which the Communists have destroyed...The essence of Communism is the death of the individual and the burial of his remains in a collective mass. And the insidious thing, the frightening thing is this: It can win even when it is losing.
"It can win even when it is losing" Good Lord. How in the hell can you fight an enemy that tricky? Only God and the Hilton Hotel savants could survive in such a dog-eat-dog world.
My Intimate Story
Ken Keyes, Jr
The late, too late Ken Keyes came to us along the Posi-Think track, with a tad of psychology, a dibble of sensitivity training, a smattering of Zen: in other words, the whole gaggle of New Age Workshop impedimenta. The story is that Keyes grew up rich, once had this fabulous yacht and $32,000,000 and gave it all up one day to establish something he called the "Science of Happiness.'"
It isn't all that hard to give him plaudits for his immense persistence at Overcoming All Odds: he was severely disabled by polio; he operated for the last forty-five years of his life from a wheelchair. But there was something screwy. For one thing, he was one of those dreadful bores who keep telling you how happy he is: He wants to be damn sure you know how many books he's sold, how many lady friends he's had, how many wonderful lessons he's learned (even and especially when his lady friends are doing a number on him). In fact, he goes on so that after a hundred pages you just wanted to ring him up there in Coos Bay and tell him to just cool it.
A count of the photographs in Discovering the Secrets of Happiness shows eight pictures of Keyes, sixteen of his passionpots (one photograph shows a pneumatic cupcake named Shirley complete with a 1960's breast-push-out bathing suit.) He says he's just trying to give us a message on learning to be Zen about life, but a contrary message keeps peeking out of the pages of Discovering the Secrets. The real hero of this novel turns out to be a seventy-one foot yacht named "Caprice" which appears every dozen pages or so. It's always "my seventy-one foot yacht Caprice," and Keyes wanted to be damn sure you know how much it cost, how many trips he took in it, where they went together, and how many orgies took place in the poop or bilge or wherever the hell it is they have orgies in seventy-one foot yachts. (One of the funniest scenes --- inadvertently funny, we suspect --- was where the Keyes' love-of-the-year brought a New Age trouper named Charles onto the boat and balls him noisily all night long right next door; when Charlie finally achieved temporal Nirvana, he yells out, "White light!")
We judge a book by its cover: Keyes' bearded smiling face appears just under them glitzy gold raised up letters, and we are given addresses for ordering further Ecstasy Paraphernalia in no less than six different places. It's all what Esquire used to call Wretched Excess.
It took us a while to get to this and it is just as well --- City of Joy is about as nourishing as an enema (and just as filling). Brother Stephen Kovalski, a Catholic priest from Poland moves into the most tawdry slum in Calcutta with all the rickshaw pullers and lepers. When he's not sitting around being good, he's meditating and chanting am for pity's sakes as every good Polish padre should. (The rest of us say "om.")
You just can't believe how happy the children how loyal and hard working the fathers how funny and heart-breaking even the lepers when they have their weddings and among all the fingers and lips dropping off, doing acrobatics if you'll believe it. Even the smarmy landlords who prey on the poorest of the poor turn up for the parties and festivities and celebrations which go on (and on) despite all the rats and lice and turds and stink.
They say the people of Calcutta were scandalized by Lapierre's unremitting tale of sewage, but better that he be drummed out of the lodge by PEN for setting up a dozen characters who are so wonderfully good you just want to strangle their asses. Joy and woe march across the pages with the benign predictability of the waves on Surfer's Lake Park in Tucson, and forever and a day we're being exposed to the Indian Wisdom of the likes of "When the dogs howl, the tiger sheaths its claws." City of Joy ain't exactly lunchtime stuff, for, if nothing else, Lapierre has one talent; that is, of dredging up stomach-churning detail:
In a few days the slum was submerged beneath a lake of excrement. Blocked by mountains of dung from the cattle sheds, the open drains overflowed, spilling out the blackish, stinking stream. Into the torrid, static air, there soon rose an intolerable stench, borne upward on the smoke of the chulas. To top it all, the month of May ended with a terrible premoonsoon storm, during which the level of the drains and the latrines rose by almost two feet in one night. The corpses of dogs, rats, scorpions, and thousands of cockroaches began to float around in the foul sludge. People even saw several goats and a buffalo drifting through the alleyways with bellies inflated like a balloon.Intercity Bus Lines
Of the Southwest
(Texas A & M)
Rhodes is director of forensics at Miami University, and when he's not getting into arguments, he's in Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, interviewing old bus heads. As he points out, there isn't the romanticism associated with buses as with railroads, but the eighty or so photographs of these original people movers bring back memories galore to those of us who grew up on and around Wills, Red Line, White Model #27, Kenworths and Clippers. The first Texas bus line that ran between Snyder and Colorado City was established by one W. B. Chenoweth who had been assured not long before that his idea of such transportation was
laboring under the hallucination or delusion that ice could be frozen on a red hot stove by thinking of driving a self-propelled vehicle over a public road 25 miles per hour.
Well, he did it, but went broke, but others didn't, and Rhodes documents them all, exhaustingly and exhaustively.
The Artistry of
The English Watch
(Charles E. Tuttle)
The Italians invented the watch at the time of the first voyage of Columbus, and not a few writers have drawn parallels between the resulting discoveries. Marshall McLuhan said that the invention of the timepiece was a method for "dividing space into equal segments" but Krishnamurti says it merely refers to physical change and movement.
The early watch designers were mainly German and French: the first German watches employed a twenty-four hour dial, a hole drilled in the bottom so the alarm could be heard, and raised touchpins so one could tell time in the dark. (It was very nigrescent in those days. That's why they called them "The Dark Ages." Las Vegas hadn't yet been invented.)
The early French watches were spherical with a "more refined decoration." Queen Elizabeth's inventory listed twenty-four watches, including "one clocke of golde wrought like deyses and paunses." The two key mechanical developments necessary for the timepieces were the fusee (a spirally grooved cone to iron out the unevenness of the coiled spring) and the foliot (a dumbbell balance --- the first true escapement mechanism.)
Watches were elegantly embellished: they were seen then as now as another form of jewelry. The Artistry of the English Watch does not merely give us timepieces, it illustrates some breathtaking engraved cases, works, keys, faces, and "garnitures" (elaborate chain devices for holding keys, decorative emblems, and even smaller watches.) The color plates given show us, for example, astonishing floral dials from the mid-seventeenth century. One timepiece by London watch maker William Anthony shows an elegant marriage of form and object (the hands expand and contract to match the length of the oval face). We wonder that people would ever surrender these lovelies for the drab and tickless electronic watch.
To some of us, reading anything by William James (or brother Henry) could be compared to a weeklong conference in Indianapolis with Rotary International. On Vital Reserves belies this. It consists of two essays: one dealing with what they used to call "mental hygiene;" the other on access to stored up reserves of energy.
- Where does such energy come from?
- How can we access it?
- Is that a piece of spinach on your front tooth?
Fear --- of spinach, and other things --- is one way to create such energy, James explains. Brandy another. Opium, extreme duress, and, deeply-felt religion (or passion) give the same effect. He cites a friend who had spent thirteen months studying Hatha Yoga:
nothing is more remarkable to me than the changed moral tone with which he reports the situation. A profound modification has unquestionably occurred in the running of his mental machinery. The gearing has changed, and his will is available otherwise than it was.
Long before Orestes Caldwell and The Power of Positive Thinking, this philosopher was observing "the mind-cure movement," the cure for "fearthought" (which he defines as the "self-suggestion of inferiority). With, perhaps, unconscious irony, James quotes a Dr. Thomas Hyslop as stating that "the best sleep-producing agent which his practice had revealed to him was prayer." He discusses the future, filled as it is with that turn-of-the-century optimism, where "Wars will cease, machines will do all our heavy work, man will become more and more a mere director of nature's energy." He then borrows his brother's style to describe the man of the future:
With our future food...itself prepared in liquid form from the chemical elements of the atmosphere, pepsinated or half-digested in advance, and sucked up through a glass tube from a tin can, what need shall we have of teeth, or stomachs even? They may go, along with our muscles and our physical courage, while, challenging ever more and more our proper admiration, will grow the gigantic domes of our crania, arching over our spectacled eyes, and animating our flexible little lips to those floods of learned and ingenious talk which will constitute our most congenial occupation.
The essays are brief, but strong proof of the visionary ability of William, not to say the musical ability of his son Harry.--- Ignacio Schwartz