Wednesday, September 29, 2004

The Library Builders

"There was such a passion in people's memories of that building," recalls Debbie Goodwin, who as Executive Director of the Humboldt Arts Council from 1997 to 2002, supervised the transformation of Eureka's Carnegie library on F Street into the Morris Graves Museum of Art. That passion was important to the success of the "buy a brick" campaign of small donations that convinced large grantmakers that the community supported the effort. Now Interim Director of University Advancement at HSU, Goodwin remembers," Everyone just loved that building. That emotional tie was the common denominator."

Such memories (including those concerning Ralph, the library ghost) are sure to be shared in the coming weeks, as the Humboldt Arts Council kicks off a Centennial Celebration for the Carnegie building, erected in 1904. Music by Gil Cline's trumpet quartet (including a trumpet fanfare composed for the event) and the Midnight Jazztet, plus birthday cake from Ramone's Bakery will highlight the Arts Alive! party at the Morris Graves on Saturday, October 2. Other events include docent-led tours of the Carnegie building, and an exhibit of Peter Palmquist's historical photographs.

The Eureka library was one of 1,681 across America (with nearly 900 more in the British Isles and around the world) built with $56 million donated by industrialist Andrew Carnegie, mostly between the years 1889 to 1923.

Carnegie generally paid only for construction, insisting that local communities pledge financial support to staff and maintain its library, and fill it with books. The libraries had to be open to the public free of charge. These two conditions helped spur the spread of free public libraries, which were relatively rare in the late nineteenth century.

The idea that government should support such institutions was so new that many states had no laws enabling their towns and cities to fund their libraries. Pennsylvania, where Carnegie made his fortune, hastily passed such a law only when Pittsburgh found it couldn't meet Carnegie's conditions for the libraries he promised the city. Eureka was the first city in California to finance a library under this state's enabling legislation, passed in 1878. Carnegie provided $20,000.

After the first few years, Carnegie delegated decision-making powers over the many applications to his secretary, James Bertram. A Scotsman like Carnegie, Bertram became known for his scrupulous attention to detail, and his sometimes scathing letters to petitioners. When the Eureka library asked for funds to expand, Bertram refused, citing the wasted space of a large rotunda, and the extravagance of the glass dome. (Now of course, the rotunda is highly valued as a performance space.) Shortly after Eureka's was built, Carnegie and Bertram began insisting on more uniform design for subsequent libraries, which stressed functional spaces within a sober shell, a style that became known as Carnegie Classical.

Several other communities in the region received Carnegie libraries, and their current disposition reflects the various fates of these buildings across the country, as the library needs of many towns outgrew these facilities, or they became otherwise unsuitable. Built the same year as Eureka's, the Redding library was demolished in 1962. Ferndale's building, opened in 1910, remained a public library. The Carnegie in Ukiah (1914) became a private office. In Willitis (1915) it houses a cable TV office, and the Yreka building (1915) hosts the police department.

Horatio Carnegie

So who was Andrew Carnegie, and why did he become the Johnny Appleseed of American public libraries? From modest though not dire circumstances in Scotland, Carnegie's family emigrated to America in 1848, when Andrew was 13 years old. His life became a living Horatio Alger story: in fact it could have been the template for those tales of a clever boy who with luck and pluck seizes a sudden opportunity to catch the favorable attention of a powerful elder. His virtues recognized and his talents nurtured, he begins his rapid rise to success, eventually leaving his mentor in the dust. Rich and famous, he marries the girl he admires, and rewards his mother's devotion with wealth and the adulation of her former neighbors, when they return in triumph to the place where they were poor. Andrew Carnegie did all that, and more.

Proponents of such models usually fail to mention that such fortune necessarily falls on few. Carnegie's case is even more singular: as perspicacious and capable as he was, Carnegie was in exactly the right place at the right time to ride and guide the tide of American industrial expansion, eventually becoming by some measures the richest man in the world. He was even from the momentarily right ethnic group, favored by fellow Scotsmen in higher places. His first mentor, who took him to Washington to run the railroads for President Lincoln in the Civil War, was even named Scott.

Young Andrew's first break was delivering telegrams to the important businessmen of Pittsburgh, then a frontier town rapidly becoming the financial gateway to the West. (Carnegie, who even as a young adult weighed less than 100 pounds, fancied himself a westerner. According to his autobiography, in his twenties he favored "great heavy boots, loose collar, and general roughness of attire [which]were then peculiar to the West, and in our circle considered manly.") From the telegraph office in nearby Greensburg, he watched the railroad being built, and he found his immediate future in its expansion. The railroad made rapid industrial growth practical, and almost everything Carnegie needed to build his empire, first in iron and then in steel---especially the coal, coke, and immigrant workforce-was available within fifty miles of his first home in America.

He was a multimillionaire before the age of 30 and climaxed his business career at 66 by selling the assets that became the United States Steel Corporation. An industrial pioneer who succeeded by insisting on quality, investing in technology, tightly controlling all aspects of his business and keeping labor costs down, Carnegie then became the proponent of "scientific philanthropy." While believing that progress depends on the unfettered freedom of innovators to pursue riches, he also insisted that they had the responsibility to judiciously devote their wealth to the public good. The same principles and wisdom that guided the accumulation of their wealth should be applied to giving it away.

But in practice, Carnegie's choices of beneficiaries can also be traced to revelatory experiences in his early life. In exchange for free telegraph service, delivery boys got free admission to the fledgling Pittsburgh Theatre, where young Andrew thrilled to performances of Shakespeare and became attracted to classical music and art. Hence, New York's Carnegie Hall, and the premiere arts institution in Pittsburgh, now known simply as The Carnegie (which in Pittsburgh as in Scotland is pronounced "CarNEGie,"), its main complex not far from Carnegie Mellon University.

It should be explained that in those days as perhaps not in ours, aspiration to success meant not only attaining wealth but access to knowledge and the cultivation of taste and discernment. Carnegie's passion for libraries can be traced to two events he notes in his autobiography: the importance to his self-education of books from the collection of a Pittsburgh gentleman who allowed local boys to borrow a book a week, and his first view of another prominent man's private library in Greensburg, which caused him to pledge: "Someday, I'll have a library."

Seldom mentioned in chronicles of Carnegie's giving are the men and women who labored twelve-hour shifts in his mills and mines, the sources of his fortune. They included my paternal great-grandfather, who worked in a Carnegie mine, and grandfather, who contracted black lung disease in those same mines. Their names adorn no bricks in a Carnegie library, but their descendants have often made use of the libraries their labor paid for, sources of their cherished childhood memories.


Thursday, April 01, 2004


by William Severini Kowinski

"A riddle in the form of a paradox," says the American Heritage dictionary, "used in Zen Buddhism as an aid to meditation and a means of gaining intuitive knowledge."

Except for the Zen Buddhism part, this definition of the koan could also be a description of many bumper sticker slogans. The best are funny and pointed, and play with language or some established idea in a paradoxical way. And if you look at them as aids to meditation of a sort, as what might be called "traffic koans," they can also free up the associations and insights of intuitive knowledge.

Many state some sort of a position, and identify the owner of the vehicle as an advocate of ecology, peace, war or making love in Virginia. But the best of them, like the best cartoons, contain those peculiar gaps where laughter and innumerable layers of possible meaning reside.

In some ways, these traffic koans are the new proverbs, adages and folk sayings for an oral culture that doesn't have time to do much talking. Instead of trading wisdom and witticisms on the front porch or in town on market day, we post our remarks on the backs of our cars.

What the best traffic koans tell us is very simple: life is complex. Though our binary, for-or-against, dualistic culture distorts reality by trying to always simplify it into either/or propositions, that's more for the convenience of computerized opinion polling or to create conflict for talk radio and televised shouting matches to hype. We know in our hearty laughter it's not true. Even if we can't always see our way to compromise, we suddenly must make room for complexity.

Apart from oversimplified nostrums that pass for positions, our public discourse is clotted with the compulsively convoluted. Full of abstraction and passive voice, the jargoning drone numbs our brains long before we can extract any meaning. Brevity is the soul of the traffic koan, the poetry of the parked car as well as the bumper- to- bumper road.

As examples I offer the following traffic koans and my meditations on them. I heard or read some before I saw them turned into stickers, but some I actually saw for the first time pasted on a back bumper. I find that they are not only admirably succinct and generate many complex thoughts and feelings, but they state their case about as well as it can be stated

Wherever you go, there you are.

I saw this as a bumper sticker some time between the first time I heard it---spoken by the immortal Buckaroo Banzai (played by Peter Weller) in the cult film, "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai..."---and when it turned up as the title of a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn, on mindfulness meditation.

One way to interpret it is, "you can travel far and wide, but when you get to where you're going, the person who is there will still be you." This speaks to travel as the search for novelty, and the fact that any diversion is tempered by your perceptions, habits, likes and dislikes. It suggests one reason that vacations are often more fun to anticipate than experience. You always take your own set of unconscious responses, especially the emotional effects of weighty experiences. We even call it "baggage."

But the baggage isn't only expressed in the suitcases full of clothes you don't need and won't wear, and not even in your hard luck stories or obvious defenses. It's in how you treat the hotel desk clerk, or your anger when the restaurant isn't where your guidebook says it is, and your disappointment when the sunsets aren't perfect. You may think all of that is the fault of the exterior world, but this traffic koan suggests otherwise.

This interpretation applies to any kind of attempted escape. You can "escape to the islands" but you can't escape yourself. You are your inevitable baggage. It doesn't mean you shouldn't go anywhere else, or that you can't enjoy a trip or a vacation. And obviously a change of scene can relax and stimulate us in ways that our ordinary environment usually doesn't. But it's folly to expect we can escape from ourselves. If we did, who would be where we go?

It is in a sense about empathy and the interchangeability of fate. That's the context in the movie when Buckaroo stops the song he and his band are playing to caution a crowd making fun of a tearful woman: "Hey, don't be mean," he says. "We don't have to be mean. Remember, no matter where you go, there you are."

In a slightly different way, "wherever you go, there you are" is also about the paradox of presence. "Wherever you go" can mean traveling far, or near--- or nowhere. That somewhere is where you are---it is the ground of your existence.

There's a play on words in "there you are." As an expression it means, you got it, you understand it, that's the answer. Someone uses it usually when we say something true without realizing it's the truth we're looking for. That's what this koan says about wherever we are. That's the truth of our life, even if we don't realize it.

It's got a definite Zen flavor of "be in the moment-Be Here Now." But it also says to me, this is the place. Why not make this place better? Because that's where you are.

The earth does not belong to us. We belong to the earth.

This is a very familiar traffic koan, adorning the bumper stickers of the ecologically minded from sea to shining sea. Sometimes attributed to Chief Seattle, it is more likely the work of a Hollywood screenwriter in the 1970s, who wrote a speech to be spoken by an actor playing Chief Seattle. But that mixed provenance turns out to be part of its power.

The paradox of this koan is in different notions of what "belong to" means. The first sentence denies the common idea of our western civilization, that the earth is made up of objects (one of which is land, another is water) that someone can own. "Belong to" means ownership, which means we can do whatever we want with it.

Why doesn't the earth belong to us? Who else could it belong to?
By answering this question, the second statement alters the meaning of "belongs." It isn't saying that we as human beings are possessions, owned and operated by the planet---at least, not literally. We belong to the earth in several profound senses that are all activated in this statement, and how it reverses the terms of the previous one.

We belong to the earth in the sense that we are part of the earth's family or community; the earth is where we belong. We are of the earth, we are dependent on the earth and its life. We belong to the earth, then, in the sense that we are beholden to it, and all it provides us.

We belong to the earth also as its children. Our very substance, as well as the blueprint of our being, emanates from this biosphere in accordance with its local laws.

Taken simply as a statement, this is an eloquent summary of our responsibility to the planet, and the change---the reversal--- in attitude our civilization must make if we and the planet are to survive the cumulative effects of our exploitations.

Taken as a koan, however, and it is a profound statement of the consciousness that is available to replace this now outmoded sense of the earth as our dominion. That this traffic koan was probably composed by a white man trying to express the wisdom of an American Indian culture, is itself a metaphor for the origins of this consciousness.

Much of the time, such a combination is a disaster of well-meaning exploitation or oversimplification and misunderstanding. But in this case it does sum up a conclusion derived from both thousands of years of Native knowledge based on close observation of the natural world and interaction with it, and also from the latest research of western science, especially the biological sciences.

The "web of life" is another phrase from this speech for Chief Seattle, as well as the title of a book by Fritjof Capra expressing in scientific terms the world view represented in this koan. In many ways, at least some of what is called the New Paradigm, and much of what might be called the Native Paradigm, are remarkably similar. Their similarities lead both New and Native paradigms to the conclusion expressed here: according to the most complex information contemporary science has developed, and on the basis of an ancient worldview based on a way of knowledge and a way of life that is largely foreign to western science, it is crucially true that we must treat the earth and humankind as mutually dependent, and our proper attitude is humility.

The rat race is over. The rats won.

In many ways this is my favorite, partly because I saw it as a bumper sticker on a car parked in my neighborhood when I lived in Pittsburgh, and I haven't seen it anywhere again. But I love it also because of the paradox at the heart of it, and the truth that paradox speaks.

"The rat race" is a common expression for our lives in the modern world, as they resemble the lives of laboratory rats running mazes in order to find the cheese, the means to live. There is no other purpose to this race, and the rats are being manipulated for the benefit of scientists testing hypotheses about behavior. There is a sense that the race is competitive and we are rats racing against each other for the same cheese, but basically the idea is that it is a rigorous, demeaning and meaningless activity, and we are forced to do it if we want to live.

In this metaphor, we are the rats. So we might even be happy to hear "the rat race is over," assuming that it's not because we're dead or all the cheese is gone.

But "the rats won" doesn't mean that we've emerged victorious, or overthrown the oppressors. We know instantly that the referent has changed. We are not the rats who won. The term now refers to another common use of the term, as in "you dirty rat." It means "a despicable, sneaky person," especially one who betrays others.

In this context, the winning rats could be the corporate thieves, the stock market manipulators, the connivers and exploiters and manipulators (who tell their workers the company stock that represents their retirement is sound, while they are busy selling theirs) or just the people who reap the lion's share of the benefits of all that otherwise meaningless work.

As a traffic koan, this one is exceptionally rich, and gets richer all the time. Since traffic koans are contemporary and often topical-though sometimes eternally so-new information can add more grist for our meditative mill. For example, a behavioral scientist at UC Davis now questions the results of many animal behavior experiments, because it turns out that the experiments themselves can drive lab rats crazy.

Then there's the possibility that at least some of us have so come to accept the rat race as our necessary reality that a popular motivational book uses it as an implied metaphor. "Who Moved My Cheese?" by Spencer Johnson is a fable designed to teach a lesson about accepting change. The "cheese" is "what you want in life," and "The Maze" is "where you look for what you want-the organization you work in, or the family or community you live in." The book comes with testimonials and admiring blurbs from corporate CEOs and other motivational authors.

Once the rat race was considered at least ruefully. Implied in the metaphor was the idea that running rats through a maze was torture for the rats, but demeaning and insulting to human beings as well as painful. But now it appears that at least some people simply accept the rat race as a metaphorical description of their lives. They accept that we are all the rats, and the best we can do is to be smarter about our relationship to the maze and the cheese. So the rat race may not be over, but it appears that the rats who manipulate it have won.

But this traffic koan is not hopeless. From the first appearances of this metaphor of the rat race in everyday language, it signaled that those of us running it knew very well we were being manipulated, and that knowing this may change the game. The second sentence of this koan, the punch line, provides a rueful laugh of recognition. The whole koan implies despair, yet again it announces that we know exactly what's going on. That knowledge means that though we might be rats in the maze, we also stand outside the race, and see it for what it is. And standing outside in our recognition, we are the rats no longer.

Nature Bats Last

Baseball is a game that combines violence and patience, the slow repeated rituals of the batter getting set in the box, and the pitcher's wind-up, but then comes the wicked hard whip of the bat at the 95 mile an hour fastball unleashed from 90 feet away.

Not unlike the natural world, with its calm sunshine and gently flowing waters, its placid lakes and gentle snowfalls. And then its sudden storms, avalanches, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis.

Baseball proceeds slowly, at its own pace, like the world around us, especially the natural world. It's partly a grind: you sit, you bat, you run, you sit, you field, you sit, inning after inning. And the game can proceed in many ways. You can even forget to keep score.

But the game can change quickly-a catastrophic earthquake of an inning, in which your opponent scores 11 runs on 22 hits that feel like meteorites pummeling you from the sky. Or you can be hit inning after inning and you get further and further behind, like a drought, a dustbowl, a flood, an epidemic. Or you can give up one run here and there, and hardly notice that you're seriously behind.

The home field advantage in most team sports is most often an amorphous psychological edge, having to do with familiarity, territory, and the energy of hometown fans. But in baseball, there is a home field advantage in every game, built into the rules of the game itself. The visiting team can score all its runs at the last minute, but it isn't really the last minute...Say the visitors wake up in the ninth inning six runs behind. They furiously score seven runs. But though it is their last at-bat, the game is not over. The home team bats last, and if they score only two runs in the bottom of the ninth, the game is over and the home team wins.

We can screw around with the earth, thinking that a last minute technological solution will even the score or bring us out ahead after centuries of abuse, pollution, soil degradation, species extinctions. But the game is not over because humans say it is. Nature bats last.

The application to the climate crisis is particularly apt. The longer we wait, the less likely that anything we do will change the outcome. This is a game in which everything is at stake. We face the possibility that the earth as we know it will no longer exist, and humanity will find itself in the loss column.

This traffic koan is one to contemplate while we're stuck in traffic, burning the carbon that could seal our fate. It doesn't exhaust the possibilities (the earth is not an adversary) but it makes its point. It's time to get into the game.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Are You Serious?

You take a slightly different perspective on something that’s current or new, and spin out something meaningful but not terribly serious, with a nice edge of wit. It’s basically a confection, and it’s been the bread and butter of freelance writers for newspapers and magazines since the days of Grub Street.

So I had this idea last year to point out that the only gender-specific Academy Awards were for acting, and ask why this should be so. Not exactly a national security issue, so I thought a light touch was indicated. I wrote a quick little piece but I had thought of it too late for anybody to get it in before the Oscars. So this year I started earlier, rewrote it a bit and sent it to the Chronicle. They weren’t interested, at least not yet. So I did a slightly shorter version and tried the Los Angeles Times, a more logical place for it to appear anyway. They were interested. I went over the first editing on the phone, and in the midst of other distractions I concentrated on fixing problems. Then somebody edited it again, and all the fixes were gone, as well as more of the piece. It was only then that it dawned on me that they didn’t get it that it was supposed to be at least a little bit funny. I guess they take the Oscars pretty seriously down there.

So here is a hybrid of the two versions I sent out. (You can find the version the Times printed here.) Most of what I took out for the Times version had to do with the difference between the Grammys and Oscars, the movie and music businesses, which is I think fairly accurate, but not that amusing. What seems to interest me as a writer is to combine something of a serious point with some wit in its expression. Probably if I stuck to be either serious or funny these things would be easier to get published. Anyway, I think the version the Times printed is funny, mostly because it sounds so serious. It’s especially funny to me, that they didn’t seem to see that it was supposed to be funny in the first place.

Why is there a Best Actress Award?

by William S. Kowinski

As the Academy members mull over their choices among this year's nominees, I pause to ask one perhaps impertinent question about the Best Performance by an Actress categories. It's not about the fine female actors nominated this year---it concerns the categories themselves. My question is, why do they exist?

For after all, there is no award for the best screenplay by a woman writer. Sophia Coppola wasn't nominated as best female director. There will be no award for a Best Picture by a woman producer. Why are there separate acting awards divided by gender?

There doesn't appear to be anything about acting skill that is gender specific. In fact, many women insist on being called actors, and bristle at the designation of "actress" because it is implicitly demeaning, like the term "authoress." A writer is a writer, and an actor is an actor. Aren't these gender designated categories just relics of a less enlightened age?

All of the other Academy Award categories are based on the type of work or the type of film. These are the only categories that aren't. There are no separate categories based on race, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual preference or any other element of diversity. Why not best performance by a Latino in a leading role (apart from the extreme difficulty of coming up with five nominees)? Or best performance by a gay or Lesbian actor playing a character of the same gender and sexual preference, and another for playing a straight person?

It should be noted that women who might ordinarily lobby for equal treatment haven't exactly been burning their SAG cards to protest gender specific awards categories. The reasons aren't hard to figure out. Thanks in part to the prevalence of action pictures with a worldwide audience, fewer women get fewer starring roles, or even substantial supporting roles, than men (or, these days, than special effects creatures.) More male stars have more box office clout. So if there was only a single acting category, women might be in danger of getting a token nomination or two, but how often would they win? Having their own categories means that more women are more likely to get more attention, which helps all women actors.

In the movie business and particularly in the businesses that own the movie business, there are fewer women decision-makers than men, and only a percentage of them will focus at all on making things better for other women. Women actors need this category just to survive.

So the inevitable conclusion is simply this: the best actress award is an affirmative action program. The award redresses contemporary imbalances and historically derived inequalities that otherwise would continue automatically.

Of course, that's not why these categories were created, or even why they are kept. Glamorous and sexy women attract audiences to movies, apart from their acting performances. Audience interest in watching the awards program is increased as well by beautiful women crossing the stage and tearfully thanking their parents and agents while dressed in daring designer clothes. (On the other hand, if there weren't special categories for women actors, the most popular women might need to be paid in ways other than prestige, like in equal money.)

Other movie and television awards shows follow the gender pattern for acting. The Grammy awards however have categories for the music of specific ethnic groups (Native Americans, for instance) and for types of music that are associated with performers and audiences of one race or another. So instead of getting rid of these categories, should new ones be created to reflect other differences and redress imbalance? Separate categories for black actors and actresses, for instance? Just as women aren't agitating for an end to their best performance categories, minorities are by and large not asking for their separate categories. Black actors have chosen to compete without reference to race. So Denzel Washington was not the best black actor, nor was Halle Berry the best black actress. They were the best, period.

Despite the fact that these two were very rare awards, and that black actors have historically faced long odds to even get on the screen at all,it may be that the greater legitimacy of winning an unrestricted award is worth it. Also, minority actors can support each other and work for better opportunities without feeling they are competing against just each other for a separate and probably unequal prize.

The Grammys reflect cultural roots of music, and how recorded music is marketed. Even though at various times there were movies made specifically for black audiences, movies have a very different history in most respects, and an entirely different marketing structure than the music business. These days however there is a marketing distinction between male-oriented action pictures, and movies about intimate relationships, widely known as "chick flicks." The actress categories may serve to recognize this market in particular.

The Oscars have gender specific acting awards today because they've always had them, the press and public like them, and nobody seems to want it any other way.

Still, a new entry in the endless stream of awards shows might try something different and give a single genderless Best Performance award. Besides recognizing equality, and quality regardless of gender, it would have the additional advantage of an awards show that is just that much shorter.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

A Working Class Hero

For a couple of years at the end of the 1980s I wrote a weekly column called "Tales" for In Pittsburgh, an alternative weekly. It was a pretty popular column around town, and the particular column reproduced below, "Changing Classes," probably got the most response. There were poignant letters to the editor from women and men who identified with it. I even heard of a young man who read it during his lunch hour at work and had to take the rest of the day off, it had stirred up so much emotion in him.

It's a very Pittsburgh, western Pennsylvania story, but with obvious resonances for people in other places who've grown up in similar circumstances. Class and its particular contemporary American effects aren't much discussed or written about. But some observers are realizing that class trumps even race and gender in its determining impact. That's even more true in the early twenty-first century than it was in the last decades of the twentieth.

It is masked in part by the ubiquitous consumer culture, by the American faith in classlessness many of us grew up with, and by the economically and politically powerful whose interests are protected by ignorance of class. For one thing, in just about any year of the 20th century, that sentence alone would be enough to get you branded a communist. These days the code would be that you're engaging in "class warfare," which amounts to exactly the same thing.

As this piece indicates, class can be subtly cultural as well as economic. When I was growing up, industrial workers were comparatively prosperous. Steelworkers could suddenly afford not only their own homes but maybe a second one, as well as a new car every year, and maybe two. Others who were a generation removed from the mills and the mines before unions were strong (like my father) benefited from the penetration of prosperity, so their lives---our lives---were crossing into the middle class. It was definitely the lower middle class in many instances (ours included) but there was new economic freedom not associated with the immigrant working class of previous generations, or the paradigmatic British working class.

I also happened to be of the generation that had a sudden opportunity to go away to college. It didn't last all that long, but it was possible for awhile without plunging oneself or one's family into massive debt. I also knowingly benefited by the informal version of affirmative action of those years, which was called "geographical distribution" but was also an attempt by colleges to create a little spice if not too much diversity in admissions. I'm sure I got admissions and even a scholarship partly because I didn't fit the profile of their typical applicants.

But then those of us who went away to college or otherwise fostered ambitions we derived more from books and movies and TV than anyone or anything around us came up against the ethnic working class culture hidden within the lower middle class economic status. The culture was much slower to change, and still is, which is not all together a bad thing, but did cause much grief and confusion.

It was many years before I began to realize this. I absorbed the British working class "kitchen sink" films, plays and novels. I read D.H. Lawrence with keen interest. When I was in college, the English working class was a very fashionable source of style, thanks to the Beatles. But except subliminally and tangentially, I didn't really relate the working class part of it to my own experience, not even in 1970 when the raw emotion of Lennon's "Working Class Hero" grabbed at my gut. But the tenets of the working class culture were deep and pervasive, as I began to see when I returned from the eastern cities to western PA.

So at about the time I wrote this column, it was becoming clearer to me what was going on inside me, and what the conflicts and drawbacks were. I had seen enough of Boston and Washington and especially New York---the book business, media, the arts, national politics, etc.---to realize how hampered I was by not understanding middle class and upper middle class cultural attitudes, and not having those skills or those resources to draw on for support, savvy and counsel. When I was fighting for my book---will it be published, will it not?--- as it was buffeted by New York publisher politics, while living in western PA, there was no one to turn to for help or advice in practical matters, and my psychological state was a mystery to everyone, including me.

Part of the paradox always remains: aside from knowing the right things to do and say that middle class kids learn even before their ABCs, in order to hold on and keep going you must believe in yourself. But how can you? Nothing in your background, none of your friends, really believes you can succeed, or maybe even that you should. For some it's just bewilderment. They've heard stories of people from our background succeeding, but they don't know them, and don't know how they did it, except by getting lucky, by winning the lottery so to speak. For others who are more worldly wise in the unspoken class system of America, you're a fool for even dreaming. And those voices are never stilled.

I was beginning to see this part of myself, this part of an experience more common to my generation in western Pennsylvania than I even knew, when I wrote this column.

Tales/Changing Classes/A Working Class Hero is Something To Be

It is in many ways the most powerful theme in the lives of the younger Pittsburgh generations right now, and the most characteristic phenomenon of the changes this city is still going through, yet it remains almost spookily unspoken. Let's call it the phenomenon of changing classes.

Changing classes is the movement from the working class culture to the middle class culture. It isn't often intended to be simply that: it's not social climbing, but a product of vocations aspired to, or of economic necessity. But changing classes is what these other changes inevitably involve.

Although changing classes has been a matter of choice for some, it is especially apparent now because it has been forced on others. With the decline of manufacturing jobs, former mill workers face the choice of dropping down economically or, in trying to move up, of adopting the necessary middle class cultural attitudes. Their children are faced with that same choice.

Working class culture, deeply rooted in western Pennsylvania, stayed strong even after the upward economic movement of industrial workers after World War II, and the accompanying diversification. Even with the more abrupt changes since the 1970s, this city and region are still characterized by economically middle class people living in a mostly working class culture.

This is the culture that Pittsburghers like to brag about, when they describe it as family-oriented, down to earth, day's work for a day's pay, no frills and no nonsense. It means being honest and forthright with others, and not putting on airs or lording it over anyone.

However overstated and cliched, some of these positive elements have been tested recently by this movement away from working class jobs, and there's a certain poignancy about it. If workers wanted factory jobs when local mills closed, they often had to choose moving away, which meant abandoning family and local roots. If they wanted to stay in Pittsburgh, they had to look for new kinds of jobs, which not only required retraining but learning such middle class skills as how to slant a resume and how to say only what job interviewers want to hear. In other words, how to be less than honest and forthright. How to play middle class games.

There are all kinds of other choices they must consider that are so loaded with class feelings and violate so many sacred tenets about belonging to tribal Pittsburgh. Like trying to lose the local accent. Or realizing that hundreds of dollars in clothes and hair styling does not register with the powers-that- be as much as a mouthful of chewing gum.

But before this latest round of workers and their sons and daughters forced to try changing classes (mostly without admitting it, especially to themselves), there were pioneers: the sons and daughters of the working class who confounded their parents, their peers and their culture by trying to become more than their class could comprehend: artists, writers, scholars, or any vocation that so foreign that it is mostly practiced in New York or Los Angeles.

They were the ones most acutely aware of the destructive side of the ideal and often sentimental image of the working class culture. Some of these elements simply don't prepare people for life outside the working class. And some of them are just destructive in themselves, turning vital and sensitive people into emotional cripples.

For someone raised in a working class culture, just paging through a book like Lillian Breslow Rubin's Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working Class Family is itself an acutely painful experience. The pain this time is that of recognition.

The working class home, loud voices and smoke, always noisy, always with the television on, rarely with an adequate reading lamp; anyone wanting privacy is considered strange and uppity. Mothers in constant nervous motion, fueled by anxiety, usually about money; beaten down, silent fathers sitting stunned after work. Alcohol abuse in many homes (Rubin found a rate of 40%); loud bickering and wife-beating, treatment of children that at best often qualifies as low-level abuse. Psychiatry is as alien as Buddhism. Through it all, a basic insecurity--one layoff, one big expense away from financial disaster--adding up to a pervasive feeling of helplessness, transmitted from parent to child invisibly and effortlessly.

So what is the result? John Lennon knew: "When they've tortured and scared you for twenty odd years/then they expect you to pick a career/when you can't really function you're so full of fear/ A working class hero is something to be..." There is no better description in all of literature of what it's like than the lyrics of this song.

The effects are most poignant perhaps in the area of education, which traditionally has been the escape route to a bigger if not better life. Although some lip service is paid to it in the early grades, a child who wants an education is threatening. Especially during the heyday of the mills, they were laughed at and discouraged: Why spend all that time and money with books when you have a good lifetime paycheck waiting for you at the plant? And if such notions persisted, particularly if they weren't channeled into something understandable like engineering or dentistry, incomprehension could turn to hostility.

Even now, when it comes time for college, novelist Mary Gordon describes the difference this way: "Those in the middle class get special coaching and have guidance counselors who tell them what to write on their applications. They work with their parents on the application essay. Who are working class kids going to talk to? Are they going to ask their mother who works in K mart how to write a jazzy application that will get them into Amherst?"

If middle class kids show any artistic talent, as Rubin notes, their parents most likely have the knowledge and the inclination to see that they get encouragement and training.

Working class kids are brought up to think of non-representational, non-landscape painting as ridiculous. Literature is beyond comprehension, dance and music are for sissies and snobs. Art isn't gainful employment, and even if it were, they could offer no more guidance or support than they could to Harvard.

For those who persist anyway, and who pursue the arts (including the popular arts, like rock and roll music), there is another rude awakening: the working class culture just doesn't prepare you for dealing with the middle class outside world-- of the entertainment business, for example. You don't know how those people think, and you don't know what their words mean or how to talk to them. You just don't know how things work outside the working class.

It isn't just lack of knowledge; it's an inbred sense of fated failure. When you aren't prepared for middle class machinations, you take your mistakes personally, as further confirmation of what you were always told you were: crazy and worthless. " Working class parents bring up children to think the world is a dangerous place and 'they'll get you,'" Gordon says. "The middle and upper classes assumed that the world is theirs and they should go out and take it." Rubin makes the same point and adds that without the middle class resources to back up plans, thinking of a future different from the present seems so fantastic that it seems insane--or it's just unthinkable altogether. "...the inability to envisage a future...most sharply distinguishes the consciousness of the working class from that of the more privileged classes."

The results are plain to see. As Tillie Olsen points out in her book Silences, it's been barely a century since any children of the working class have become writers. (One of the pioneers, then, was D.H. Lawrence, whose first subject was the working class family conflict brought about by artistic aspirations.) Mary Gordon makes clear an additional local burden: "You don't see a lot of Catholics in American writing, and that's not an accident...That kind of creativity was not valued in the American Catholic Church; it was seen as a threat because it would get you outside the parish, open you to the world and let you think in ways that could be threatening or dangerous."

If you go away, you find yourself in truly alien territory without a compass, shelterless. If you stay, your efforts seem so strange they become invisible, or at best get the characteristic reaction, "Well, it's different"--the curse wrapped up in a compliment.

Yet if you have aspirations, if you've pursued your talent, you are no longer just a member of your own working class culture. Your aspirations have changed you. And everybody in the working class culture knows it, which may account for its mixed attitudes towards the achievement and fame of its own sons and daughters. Actor Michael Caine recently bought the plush London home where his mother once worked as a cleaning lady. What do the working class neighbors of his childhood think of his riches now? "They think it's great." But what did they say when he told them he wanted to be an actor? "They said, 'Who do you think you are?'"

"Who do you think you are?" That is the heart of the matter. When you're changing classes, but you carry the working class culture inside you, it is a question that dogs you like the hounds of hell.

Berkeley 1969

I remembered the following article as I was talking on the phone with Michael McClure, veteran San Francisco poet and playwright, about the influence of Buddhism on Bay Area arts and culture over the decades, for my San Francisco Chronicle article on that subject (which you can find here.) I suddenly recalled having heard him read many years before in Berkeley. He also remembered the reading, even the color of the poster. It was a stellar gathering of Bay Area poets, which at the time I blithely assumed happened all the time, but my guess is that this was the last time that all of these poets read together.

I was a temporary resident of Berkeley at the time: the autumn of 1969.
In some ways, it was a mistimed visit. I missed the political heat of the People's Park affair the previous spring and summer. And while I was there, I picked up a Life Magazine to read about something amazing that had happened back east, called Woodstock.

But in other respects, it was still not too late to catch the late 60s counterculture in something like full flower. My report, even though it was published in an underground newspaper, was a bit circumspect on the extent of the dope culture, and on certain personal matters. (I sent it to "view from the bottom" in New Haven, because I was headed there, to try to reconcile with my significant other of senior year. She was teaching school, and living in a nearby tiny town, just across the Sound from where a law student named Bill Clinton was living at the time. It's possible that she met him.) But smoking dope was so open, and grass so common, that it really seemed it would be an ordinary part of the culture quite soon. And there was still an ethic attached to it, summarized by the fairly characteristic moment when a friend (probably the Michael named in this piece) and I were walking down the street in absorbed conversation, and passed two other guys walking in the opposite direction. One was smoking a joint---wrapped in yellow paper, pretty much the standard look---and he handed it to me as we passed. Neither pair broke stride, and we acknowledged the transfer with a simple wave.

At the house I was living in, there were a few acid trips to the accompaniment of the recently released "Abbey Road," and several of the others made a blundering attempt to deal, losing money in the process. Other than that, the memorable events were several trips to the mountains and the beaches (including nude runs into the ocean, though one wave was usually more than enough, the water was so cold. That experience shows up in a metaphor in this article, I notice.) One of these trips resulted in a bad case of poison oak, which I suffered through by drinking inexpensive California white wine from the corner store, eating oreos and reading Hemingway. Otherwise, I spent a lot of my time on Telegraph Ave, in the bookstores and cafes, and on the Berkeley campus. Money was a problem, so I supplemented the house diet of oatmeal for breakfast, and brown rice with whatever vegetables could be scrounged for other meals, by sneaking into the student union line for a tuna fish sandwich, which was more like tuna paste, on white bread, with a slice of carrot. And coffee. Always and everywhere, coffee.

By the time the article was published, I had made my way back east, through Chicago and my home town in Pennsylvania, to Stony Creek, Connecticut. "view from the bottom" was a typical underground paper of the time, with sex, drugs and rock and roll and antiwar politics and countercultural arts. It was supposed to be a cultural as well as political revolution coming. The slogan we'd been hearing that fall was: All power to the imagination. Power to the people.

I remembered the article because I remembered the poetry reading. As it turns out, an account of the reading is a small part of it. (It's funny to see Gary Snyder referred to as old-looking in 1969, but then I was 22.) I wish there was more, since it's possible that this was the last time Lew Welsh read in public, at least with his friends and fellow poets. Not long afterwards he disappeared into the woods with a gun, and was never seen again.

Elsewhere in this issue there was an account of a speech by Abbie Hoffman, an obituary for Fred Hampton, the activist gunned down in his apartment by Chicago police, news stories on a New Haven park being turned over to a rowing club organization and on police actions against local Black Panthers, a surreal short story, a piece on a Paul Butterfield concert, and cartoons about Rufus, the Rosy Red Radical Reptile. As it was the Christmas issue, there was a lead article on the holiday as the Festival of Plastic, and a centerfold of Santa doing the dirty with a comely angel.

My piece, with its weirdly New Yorker type title, was on page 4, illustrated with a nice woodcut. I notice that it ends abruptly, so I'm guessing that they didn't want to bother with continuing it onto another page. I remember what happened next in the encounter I was describing. I told Angela that I was leaving California in a few days, and she began to cry. She couldn’t understand why anyone would willingly leave California. I remember running into this a lot: the idea that life outside California was unimaginable—that beyond its borders there be nothing but monsters in the void.

Letter From Berkeley

published in "view from the bottom," New Haven underground newspaper, on December 25, 1969.

Traveling around, moving from world to world, catching a glimpse here, a fragment there, of places and people's lives in them, but with no place or field of life of my own except the thin connecting shafts of similar experience, leaves of my mind floating in a kind of permanent state of multiple schizophrenia...the dream state.

And when one is also a traveler of the imagination, muddling around in that inner sea of continuous combining and disintegrating organisms, life becomes like the cereal box picture within a picture within, or the play within a play continuing in geometric succession, dreams within dreams at the speed of light.

Berkeley is a friendly place. One encounters people and places that are instinctively sensitive to the vulnerability of travelers, but Berkeley is a congregation of travelers trying to become a community, so it is as hospitable to its established own as it is to its transients and fledglings.

Hitching is a regular part of community life. People hitch because they want to get from place to place, or because they are lonely. Last Friday night I was picked up by a very spaced out twenty-six year old electrical engineer who had started just driving around in San Francisco, picking up hitch-hikers and taking them where they wanted to go. It was then three hours after he began and he was in Berkeley. He wanted to know the freeway entrance back to the city where there would be the most people waiting for a ride.

Hitch-hiking is a way to meet people, make dope deals-the only form of true free enterprise now functioning in the western world---and learn things. In the course of a conversation with the driver I have changed my destination because where he was going sounded groovier than where I was going. The reverse has also happened. You can do it because you know that you can go just about anywhere, and get a ride back.

Dear Jeremy,
A good rule to follow in life is: always put the cream in the cup before the coffee.
I am writing this during my daily hour or so of lucidity. Sometimes more, but rarely. And often less. The rest of the time I am a citizen of the dream state.
I don't mind living in a dream world, as long as I get to approve the final script.
Right now I am sitting in the sunshine on the patio of a coffee shop on Haste Street. Smoking my pipe, occasionally punching ashes into the picturesque ash trays---old pickle jar caps---drinking coffee to keep the lucid state going, and writing to you.
Behind me, as I sit facing the late afternoon sun, is a fenced in area once called People's Park, and despite the Regents of the University of California, destined to be known forever as People's Park. Today it is divided into three sections, one grassy, one asphalt, one a desert of dry dirt cut by a rivulet bed running from a central, solitary clump of weeds.

I went to a photo exhibition on College Avenue, about six blocks from here. It is the People's Park exhibit. It shows people planting things, and soldiers pulling those things out of the ground. It shows people shouting, and people being beaten and gassed. It shows men with beards showing little children how to hoe the earth, bare chested women touching bare chested men, men with masks like mollusks lined up in the streets, police cars burning, and little old ladies with signs: "People's Park is a beautiful, creative thing. Go see it."

The photo exhibition is a very large success. It will soon tour the country, and a book is being made of its photographs.

The Regents of the University of California say that People's Park is to be an intramural playing field until it becomes a parking lot. But it is not an intramural playing field now, because no one will play on it. The inter-fraternity council voted to boycott it. They refer to a student referendum held last spring that overwhelmingly supported its use as a People's Park. They do not feel that the Regents paid much attention to what the students thought.

And as a parking lot, so far it doesn't look very good. The first group that was offered the right to run the parking lot refused it. Not very politely either.

Pretty girls walking by. Berkeley has beautiful women in disorienting quantity. I feel lucidity evaporating into timeless spaceless everything at once. Only the past is real. Lucidity is seeing reality, and coming to it from the dream is like being washed over by a cold ocean wave, your mind shocked to your body's awareness of itself: "so this is what it is (was)."

The newspaper today says that scientists believe that from 50 to 60% of man's physical ills can be traced to the fact that he has stopped walking on all fours and his body hasn't caught up with the change.

* * *

The other night we had a difficult decision to make. Would we go to the second evening of the First Annual Northern California Holy Man Jam (featuring Timothy Leary) at the Family Dog in San Francisco, or would we attend the Ecology Benefit Poetry Reading in Berkeley?

In the end the problem was solved when we found that we didn't have enough money to get our bus across the bridge and still pay the admission (yes, even in the bay area, you still have to pay to get into a holy man jam.) We had attended the first night, and I'd been ordained a minister in the Universal Life Church. Communion was a toke from the longest bong I've ever seen.

So Michael and I went to the campus to the poetry reading. Michael is the only person in the place I'm living in that I knew previous to a month ago. We live with a kind of floating commune situation in a pleasant old slum on Shattuck near Ashby. One of us-the guy who owns the bus---is a northern California Indian. His girlfriend is a New England girl named Priscilla who cooks oatmeal or brown rice in the nude. Bob is a 19 year old from Philadelphia with a Jewish last name. Michael dropped out of Stanford where he was doing graduate work in philosophy. He's from Joliet, Illinois. His girlfriend comes and goes. I think she is from hereabouts originally. She once referred to my presence in the household as "solemn and tacit."

It's strange about crowds in Berkeley. They are not like crowds I have known before. They seem more comfortable in the identity of a crowd.

I had hardly been in Berkeley a week when I accidentally heard Bernadette Devlin speak. I was just walking through an unfamiliar building on the campus when I came upon the signs saying she would be there. The time and place on the signs were the same time it was and place where I was standing.

So I went upstairs where there was an auditorium. A girl at the door smiled and told me I shouldn't have been let in and smiled again and let me in. Inside, Bernadette Devlin had been expected for about a half hour and hadn't appeared yet. A great many people were amusing themselves by throwing paper airplanes at the stage. When one made it, or when there was a particularly spectacular flight, everyone cheered.

Then the inevitable began happening. Someone threw a frisbie. Frisbies had been outlawed on the campus the previous spring. But, even in the midst of the People's Park crisis, Berkeley students responded with a mammoth Fris-Be-In in Sproul Plaza.

Now a guard confiscated the frisbie. Which touched off a ritual, but good humored and slightly melancholy chorus of "Off the Pig!" Any time a policeman appears, even in a movie, even in a Laurel and Hardy movie, he is given this same greeting.

Finally Bernadette Devlin arrived. Someone tried to give a "we are all happy to welcome the woman who..." introduction but he was shouted off. Nobody wanted to hear a bullshit introduction. They wanted to hear Bernadette Devlin.

It was a different group at the poetry reading. They were people whose concerns were ecology and the land and the water and the air and the poetry. We sat in quiet, spacious rows of folding chairs, waiting for the program to begin, just as at any reading. People were looking around, talking a little, staring ahead, and smoking. Finally the master of ceremonies, an ecologist, came to the microphone and said that he knew it might be difficult for most of the people, but if somehow some room could be made at the back of the ballroom, more people could get in.

Immediately everyone moved their chairs towards the front, obliterating the orderly rows and pushing everyone closer together. Then everybody looked around at each other and at what they had done, and giggled.

The M.C. watched it all and said, "What just happened was very much like the action of wind, or water. I think we're ready to begin."

It was a fine reading. Gary Snyder was the crowd's favorite. He came to the microphone, looking like a wise old shaman, or the wind-aged Indian on the Sierra Club poster, and asked that all the doors be opened to let in the air. For some of his poems he received applause after every line.

Michael McClure read, bringing nature and politics together. David Meltzer spoke of the sensations of a city boy moving to a cabin in Marin County. Richard Brautigan, the confederate general of Mendecino, pranced around the stage at the end of each one of his short, delightful non sequiter poems. Lew Welch, a tall, theatrically handsome but obviously gentle man, read poems about a child's view of the world, authentic and pure.

Welch also expressed a view about the mythology of the bay area that one runs into constantly. As an introduction to his poem/prayer in praise of Mount Tamalpais (a mountain in Marin County north of San Francisco widely regarded as magical) he asserted that all of the great revolutionary movements in America---westward expansion, the Beats, psychedelia---began in the bay area. A recurring line of his poem is "This is the last place/There is no where else we need to go."

After the reading I stopped at Giovanni's for coffee. I met a girl in Colorado who had worked there. I mentioned this to the cashier who, it turned out, knew her. The cashier's name was Angela. She was a Leo, but she had a strange attraction to Cancerians. She had known I was a Cancerian when I walked in. Her current lover is a Cancerian.

We talked about my being in California and how I was doing. She asked me how it was to be in California alone. I said that part of it was not good. She nodded and had to rush off to a customer.

In the peculiar matrix of the traveler, people who make you welcome quickly become friends. Yet lacking a context you are really grounded in together, and without any sense of permanence---sometimes, with an active sense of impermanence---you always remain strangers.

Tonight, or this morning, it is raining. It is the dawn of October 15, the Moratorium. Already in Berkeley it has begun. People are standing in the rain somewhere, reading the names of men, boys who died in Vietnam.

Laura is 18, a freshman at Berkeley. I met her yesterday on the campus. We started talking when I asked her for a sheet of paper. We sat in the sunshine drinking coffee. We talked about all the beautiful places to go, like Big Sur, Marin, Mendecino, Sausalito, Yosemite. She told me that if I was ever hungry, to come to her sorority house for a free meal.

Sometime this morning the people standing in the rain are going to read the name of Laura's only lover.

Earlier tonight I went back to Giovanni's and had coffee. That's where I got all this lucidity. Angela was there, but she was unhappy. Her job was getting to her, all the rushing around, her uptight boss who was getting ulcers and complaining, but mostly it was the gloomy, rainy day that was bringing her down. At the foot of the soaring soul of all Californians is sunshine. At the peak, there must be a coolness, a breathlessness, a quiet, still closer to the sun.