FLOUNDER

The train of thought / chain of events went like this…

I was mulling about significant works of relatively contemporary literature that might struggle to be published today, and I chanced to see a younger man crossing the street here in Seattle, where I’m currently Writer in Residence—who looked exactly like a Berliner German literature graduate turned journalist I’d met coming back from the Rabaul Yacht Club on Mango Avenue in New Britain, PNG back in the late 1980s. Over lime rum and mosquito repellent, he told me of his disappointment in interviewing Gunter Grass, which disappointed me because I’d only recently read The Tin Drum, and thought it one of the best things I’ve ever experienced (I still think this).

I went on to read The Flounder by Grass, which attracted all sorts of criticism from feminists. If you don’t know, the novel is based on the Grimm’s folktalke (#19) “The Fisherman and His Wife.” A lowly fisherman catches a magic golden flounder and lets it go—then the wife keeps insisting he ask it to grant ever more dramatic (and outrageous) wishes. Remembering all this coaxed me to reread the folktale and the literature / criticism surrounding it (Virginia Woolf also references it in To the Lighthouse).

You probably know the folktale, but it’s worth rereading. One could (and I believe should) consider it a parable about overarching ambition and greed—never being satisfied. But here’s the thing, and my point…

Why is there an issue when a female character represents these everyman traits? We are now used to the seemingly never-ending call for more female characters. We accept “bitches” and “superbitches”…witches and femme fatales. There’s of course great delight in badass women. We will even still grant vulnerable, mixed up women (providing they aren’t overly victimized and come out all right in the end). But a nag? A female who embodies some of the most basic but least admirable traits? This still seems to be off limits—and yet the story of The Fisherman and His Wife still commands attention. Perhaps because it expresses a truth we don’t want to acknowledge.

 

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THE MINISTER     Before he lost his faith in the church and became a kind of crackpot psychologist, my father was quite an inspiring preacher—although he had a humorous knack of confusing words at dramatic moments in such a way as “to bring the house down” as my choir director mother put it.

He could, for instance, raise his arms in that gentle entreating way of his and request that the congregation all stand…“Please rise now and turn to face the person next to you…and give them the Piss of Keace.” (His “splash” of gin prior to each service may have had some influence on this tendency. I certainly always relished it when he would say things like, or try to say things like, “the Apocrypha and the Pseudopigrapha,” after his third splash. I didn’t know what he was talking about then, but it made me giggle.)

More than once he bewildered his attentive listeners with such variations on accepted wisdom as, “It’s easier for a rich man to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a camel to enter the kingdom of God.” (Once the needle ended up in the camel’s eye and another time there were rich men searching for needles in heaven.) Despite some celebrated gaffes that caused an uproar of laughter, many slid by the majority of church goers only to end up in circulation around the Sunday afternoon dinner table, which invariably caused my father to spill gravy on his tie—such was his mixture of chagrin, disbelief and chuckling enjoyment at his own misstatements. You could never fault him for not being able to laugh at himself. As much as he loathed and shrunk and wilted at the slightest hint of a barbed criticism, if anything was ever funny, he’d laugh.

To his further credit, it must be said that he did excellent heartfelt weddings and his Easter services were always exceptionally meaningful. There were clearly some key aspects of Christian theology that were at odds with his personal beliefs and anything along the lines of harping on doing good grated on him—but he could blow the hell out of a theme like the Resurrection and the Life. One could easily imagine the stained glass windows coming to life on Easter Sunday.

My mother adopted a kind of player-coach role in the choir, often taking the solos for soprano (and sometimes for alto too). Although she could be abrasive, she always raised the standard. People kept in time and in tune, and if by some odd chance my father took to rambling, she had sufficient control of her team and music generally to be able to spontaneously introduce a piece that wasn’t listed on the hymn board. The songs never rocked as in a black Baptist church, but they occasionally soared and they never once sank or stank. (It would be impossible to count the number of thoroughly average people over the years my mother taught how to dee-liver the message.”)

My father had no musical training whatsoever and not a clue about the volume and strength of his own voice (which could easily overwhelm the entire front row on even a packed morning)—and he often seemed to take a competitive stance toward the choir. Fortunately, he was gifted with a naturally pleasing voice, resonant and committed, with none of the “slushing and slurring” that so infuriated my mother in most others. At their best, they were a true President and First Lady partnership, and they were at their best when they were in partnership. Church was the family business and they were unquestionably good at it.

Which isn’t to say they didn’t have some considerable failures—of a relatively spectacular nature given the context. I was involved in perhaps the biggest one, although I’m exceedingly relieved to say I wasn’t the weak leak in the chain. That role fell to little Grace Kenneally.

If you know anything about the Protestant racket, you’ll appreciate the savor of winning back some Catholics, and the Kenneallys were a big Catholic family (just like the Gages who lived next door to us). Mr. Kenneally, whatever his first name was, was in retail and on the rise commercially. I don’t know what it was he sold, but it had something to do with house wares and he had a vast warehouse down on San Pablo and was always passing out business cards and making fine tactical use of the after-service coffee time to shake hands and pass out ever more cards (I always wondered where he kept them all). His wife looked continuously exhausted, as perhaps a mother of six well might—but she was extremely proud of her brood and her tight clenched face would overly relax into a soft doughy mass when any compliments on their dress or demeanor came her way. (I got brushed and mussed and primped each Sunday myself, but I think those kids got a full military inspection.)

Gracie was the bright light in the bunch. Horace was her twin (who in their right mind would name a child Horace?). They were my age. Sadly, Horace had a speech impediment, so when it came time to assign roles for the young children’s contribution to the annual Christmas pageant, my mother made the decision to feature Grace, as a gesture of compensation to the image-conscious Kenneallys. It took a great deal of restraint on her part not to force the starring role on me, but she knew the game and what was at stake. Mr. Kenneally placed real folding money in the collection trays that went around each service—and did so with great ceremony. Horace was hopeless at speaking a word in public, Grace got the nod. An understandable move.

It was my father who insisted that the pageant not be an isolated event in the Sunday School, but that instead, it be brought right into the main service for all to see. Let the little children come unto me. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all. Luke 18:17.

So, in my mother’s practiced wisdom, we practiced. We rehearsed our little asses off—for three full weeks. I had a line about the Wise Men following the Star. Gracie had five lines…including the big finale. It was a call and response deal that Mom wrote herself. Dad would say… “And who is Christ?”…and Grace would answer… “He’s Lord of Lords and King of Kings.” Easy.

I don’t know how many times we went over that. It seemed endless. And poor Grace was forced by her earnest socialite mother to be forever repeating that grand end line even when we weren’t in rehearsal. One would’ve thought the child was going spare the way she was always mouthing it to herself and to those of us sentenced to the same Sunday School—where there was always much talk of the Lamb of God and the Lamb lying down with the Lion—and then lamb served at the dinner table only a couple of hours later.

Well, not surprisingly, the sanctuary was full to fire regulation limits on the day in question. My parents didn’t mess around when it came to drumming up a crowd—or rather a congregation. My father even went so far as to initiate a FREE pancake breakfast on the same day, as a lure to the street people, who were beginning to show distinct signs of an increase in numbers. There was going to be no question that the Christmas pageant would be well attended, slackers or not. Every inch of every pew was crammed with flesh, however willing, whatever way their spirits were inclined. I’ve never smelled so much perfume and cologne in my life—which was a good thing as some of the park sleepers who took up the back rows more than balanced the equation, with body odor, felt, weary old denim, scabies skin and maple syrup.

It started out rough, when my father asked the assembled children, “Whose birthday are we celebrating today?” Billy Piper was quick to raise his hand and announce, “Mine!”

That got everyone snickering and threw off the timing of the recitals, but my mother icily reined us all back in. Slowly we made our way through the script, as the congregation shuffled patiently in the pews, eyes wide and hopeful that we’d pull off our respective parts.

And we did. We dee-livered the message as my mother would say. I got my star over the manger. Young Horace, somewhat thick of tongue and thicker of mind managed to raise his branch of holly at the correct moment. Gracie shone. In fact, we got some black rouse out of a mainly white house…until…until the grand finale.

I looked over at my father, thankful I hadn’t messed up my line, knowing that he was ever mindful of my mother, watching over all of us like the proverbial hawk. One step away from total success. One simple question in what he could make sound like a big booming voice. One simple answer from Gracie—and we’d be done. We’d have blistered it. Applause in church, which is unusual for white people. We’d be heroes—or at least have passed muster in my mother’s eyes—one step away from the patio and the remains of the pancake breakfast anyway.

So, my father stepped theatrically forward, right on cue, steady as he goes (it was definitely but a one splash morning). “And who is Christ?”

Cue to Gracie…

The whole congregation, even the street people, who were a little rowdy and unused to the stained glass and organ ritual, went stone still.

Grace, who’d done so well up to this point, suddenly paused. Her face froze over with an expression of pure terror. She’d forgotten the line. Gone.

There was a moment of awkward silence verging on pain…and then people started shifting and murmuring. Jesus, that sound can only be so loud in church.

My father, ever the optimist, didn’t grasp the nature of the crisis. He didn’t realize Gracie’s mind had gone completely blank. He thought it was just an opportunity to enhance the theater of the performance. He tried again…

“And WHO is Christ?”

“He’s Lord of Lords…and…”

And? And? And…?

Gracie just didn’t have the line—the final line. The closer! The cue for the organist and the choir. Everything was stopped. Stalled. Dead in the water. The street people were getting restless.

I watched my father peer over quickly at my mother, looming before her robed choir. It was beginning to dawn on him how serious the situation was. The Kenneallys (the entire clan other than Grace and Horace) were in the front row—and they were squirming with anxiety of the purest kind. Mr. Kenneally’s face had clouded over so darkly it looked like he’d never pass out another business card again. Mrs. Kenneally looked so clenched it seemed like she’d never pass water again. And one of the more degenerate street people my father in his enthusiasm for the event had invited into witness the celebration of Christ’s birth, was mumbling something about “Lord of the Bored” back near the doors.

My mother gave him one of her most piercing glances, as if to say, “This is all your fault—you never should’ve let those people in here.”

Of course it was too late to worry about that, and my father was never one to worry about a bad decision anyway—things would work out. He’d just try the line again.

And so he did. Same response. No response. Worse response! One of the ushers actually laughed. I heard my mother clear her throat (never a good sign). The fuse had been lit. She was fuming! She was about to cue the organist. She was about to unleash the choir to cover the debacle. The pageant was in disarray. There’d be hell to pay for this. Disaster. Apocalypse!

And then…and then

Then I saw a glimmer of illumination in Gracie’s eyes. The penny had dropped. She’d recovered. The horror was past. Her stage fright had evaporated. She’d remembered the words. She was going to pull the line and all of us out of the fire. She was back in time and in tune, and she was going to proudly let it rip with all her heart. My mother always said, “If you can say it—and you will say it—then sing it out! Make people sit up and take notice. This is not about being an eeny weeny quiet little mouse—this is about making the people in the back row know you’re alive!”

Gracie gave a slight but confident nod to my father. Cue me again. Have faith in me. She nodded to my father, who had faith in scabbed people scratching themselves audibly. She put it right back onto him, the one person in that whole high ceilinged room who would never have gotten into a fight but who would never ever have knocked back any dare if it came to a matter of faith and a possible good outcome. My father knew he’d been challenged where he lived—and he stepped right in close and dee-livered that cue line as if he’d never said it before…

“Tell me Grace, who is Christ?”

“He’s Lord of Lords!” Gracie belted out.

“Yes?” my father interjected for theatrical effect. “Yes…?”

Gracie screwed up her pretty little face and literally bellowed…“And…HE’S KING OF THE JUNGLE!”

Faster than you can blink, my mother flagged her arm and commanded the organist and her choir to hit it—the Hallelujah Chorus at full bore. But not even that onslaught of music could drown out the laughter or the awful mechanical and pastry settling sound of the retraction of the Kenneallys’ egos. It couldn’t even outdo my father’s own hilarity. He buckled over double in his shiny ministerial robe and just plain guffawed in weeping gratitude for this new insight on the nature of Christ Our Lord. He chortled. He whinnied. He held nothing back. I tell you, if it was funny, my father laughed and you did too. And if it was very funny, then he gave birth to some new emotion, right in front of you.

“I knew it!” one of the homeless men shouted with Old Testament conviction and then proceeded to give a spirited “roar” for the Christ child. My mother did her best to lift the decibel level of the choir, but she couldn’t match the lion’s roar—or the further explosion of mirth it triggered in my father. I doubt seriously if any church has ever shaken with so much joyful noise. People were physically clutching their stomachs trying to contain themselves.

What followed was decidedly different. The Kenneallys made it through the after-service Christmas party with a grim, stoic calm (without Mr. Kenneally passing out a single business card). They were never seen in church again, which is a sad ending to the story, for little Gracie had done exactly as my mother had instructed. Plus King of the Jungle has a nice ring to it—and very possibly a lot more Christmas spirit than King of Kings, which to my ears sounded a bit too much like one of Mr. Kenneally’s ad slogans.

To make matters even more pointed, my father mistakenly tried to sum up the proceedings and smooth things over once we were back at home and seated at dinner, by remarking as philosophically as he could sound, “Well, you know what they say about show business. Never work with kids or children.”

To which my mother replied with a frosted glare, “The line is, never work with kids or animals, dear.”

Of course that only got my sister and me started once more. I think it’s safe to say the gravy fairly flew that day.

For years after, the very softest suggestion of anything even vaguely like “King of the Jungle” would bring up my father’s belly laugh, tears streaming down his face. From that day forth, we were never without a means to cheer ourselves up at short notice. And as it turns out, we’d damn well need it.

 

©Copyright – Kris Saknussemm

howcanyouseeAt this time of year, I always like to say thank you to a special group of people in my life. After the psychotic disaster of my first grade teacher, who I write about in my book SEA MONKEYS, I was gifted with a simply brilliant series of clever and dedicated teachers that I remember vividly today.

Like many people, I had only one male instructor in elementary school, Mr. Felton, but he was a real innovator, and encouraged the ability to act things out, which I have to this day. All of my female teachers were in some way hot, vulnerable, and completely committed to what they were doing.

Mrs. Kremser and Mrs. Reynolds were two older women, both in their 50s, but very stylish and strong. Mrs. Kremser did more than any other adult to help me deal with the vicious rape I endured in 4th grade. She introduced me formally to the library, and lobbied for more after school assistance there, so I had supervision, and didn’t have to walk home and risk another attack. A reader and a writer never forgets the first person who really hips them to the power of a library.

Mrs. Reynolds had a very successful husband, one of the biggest time surgeons in all of California at the time. She could’ve been playing golf every day if she’d wanted to. Instead, she made a radical commitment to hands-on learning (and I suspect often used her own money). We got chunks of cow lungs to inflate with Sweetheart straws to learn about respiration. Those fetal pigs in alcohol we got to dissect? I don’t think any school board approved that expenditure. She made that happen off her own bat. We visited puppy mills and dog shelters. We went to the largest paper factory in the state. We toured slaughterhouses and market gardens. We went behind the scenes of the Lawrence Hall of Science. How many 10 year-olds get to meet personally with a Nobel Prize Winner? I’m quite happy to talk about the important privileges I’ve had in my life in regards to people like her. Much less so how I was later treated by the police, or various tax authorities. Mrs. Reynolds talked to us openly her hysterectomy, when we had not one clue what she meant. She removed shame about all things physical and inspired direct curiosity. We touched atom smashers and looked at boob operations.

Mrs. Folger was a young boy’s dream—and also the harshest grader in a math class you can imagine. She ripped us all to shreds, every one of us torn apart. But she had been the #1 cheerleader and a gymnastics champion at Michigan State, so even in her early 30s, she could do a standing back flip if you did manage to get something right at the chalkboard. That’s very inspirational, when a really tough ass female teacher glides out from the behind the desk and does a standing back flip because you’ve managed to solve a simple equation. When she got pregnant, she softened a bit, and would spend the last 10 minutes of class reading aloud Flowers for Algernon.

Mrs. Falaseri had a wicked bob haircut and kind of a piggy nose—but a figure to make you sweat. And sweat we did. We had 42 students in her French class. 42 students in a classroom built for 25 max. How she kept order, I have no idea. She’d worked at the UN. She was in the Bay Area because her husband had gotten a gig. She could’ve been an embittered pain. She brought in French food and copies of Le Monde. She showed us French films and cartoons that were way over our head—and I’ll never forget this, she said, “Another language is always over your head—until it’s not.”

Mrs. Albertson was black, barely 5 feet tall and weighed a good 200 lbs. She stalked the class with a baton, like the kind a symphony conductor uses. She never hit anyone, but she used it like a light saber. She had a very rich South Philly accent, and her breakdown of the difference between diction and syntax remains one of the first things you will hear out of my mouth in a basic freshman university writing course even now. What really is grammar, and why is it important? Well, she was the go-to-gal for that answer.

And what do we say about Miss Berryman, who had a kind of tragic Sally Fields loveliness about her? She was from a tiny rural hamlet in Kansas, and made all her own clothes. Teal blue sweaters, light, gentle dresses, stark, bold pantsuits. She was a straight up kind of genius. I don’t think the idea of buying clothes ever crossed her mind, outside of shoes and the peripherals of underwear (which us boys thought a lot about). I have in front of me right now, a fifth grade story I wrote about personified white blood cells fighting an infection. I’ve been teaching long enough now to know that her comments about character development would’ve taken 30 minutes to craft. My handwriting was so bad, it’s a wonder she read it at all. Can you seriously imagine someone taking the time to help an 11 year-old with “character development”?

God bless teachers. I’m very grateful for the teachers I had at the start, who kicked ass just because they thought that was what the job entailed.

prime3monstrI used to really love this theme. I like monsters. Of all kinds. But now, I feel a weariness set in. A sequel to Independence Day is due in theaters come June, and Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End is at last making its way to television (the SyFy Channel, so don’t expect much).

Part of the problem may be simply that the best stories are already well behind us. What does ID do that War of the Worlds didn’t? I thought District 9 was interesting, and I’ve enjoyed all the John Wyndham books, which are essentially the same idea repeated. The Midwich Cuckoos has some fabulous scenes in in it—some of which were effectively translated to the two film versions of The Village of the Damned. Predator had a momentary cleverness. I’ll keep watching the movies and reading the stories.DAMNED

But I can’t help but feel that all the executions I’m aware of somehow miss. The aliens always come to destroy us, or to save us from ourselves. I keep waiting for a new approach—some angle we haven’t thought of before.

Some years back, I attempted kind of a comedic approach, in an abandoned work called God Ate My Homework. The premise was that Earth and everything on it is really a kind of Science Fair Project developed by a bumbling adolescent alien slacker called Drewl. Discovering how out of control the “project” has become, this Creator visits Earth to try to “tune things up.”

Drewl is astonishingly naïve and self-centered (and more pathetic looking than actually hideous). So inept at looking out for Itself within its creation, it falls into the well-meaning clutches of a latter-day hippie style commune outside Asheville, North Carolina and discovers pot and the Grateful Dead. It’s later captured by a sinister promoter for Ripley’s Believe it Or Not Museum, and in hibernation, is put on display at Myrtle Beach—and the commune members have to rescue It. Drewl then bids a hasty farewell to Earth, resigned to doing poorly in the intergalactic “Science Fair.” Whatever.

As with the genre of the Fantastic Journey (all of the Voyage to the Moon tales, etc.) we never really get beyond allegorical versions of human history. It’s merely a question of how dark a view we take. When it comes down to it, we’re not able to truly imagine the Alien. The forms are always decidedly familiar.

What we need is some kind of planetary-culture ceremony of Renewal, which will refire our mythological imagination and give us a fresh spin on this enduring theme.9

 

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A tribute to A.D. Kester      April 25, 1921 – December 8, 2015

Alfred Dwight Kester was many things in life, including a Captain in the United States Army, who fought bravely at the Battle of the Bulge. But well before that, and until the end—and above everything else, he was something else.

An Iowan!

This was remarkable to me when I first met him. As a native Californian, the Midwest seemed like another planet—as different to what I knew as Oz was to Kansas. Of course Iowa is much like Kansas, so that when we went to visit his parents the summer of my 13th birthday, I felt we were going on a kind of magical adventure, only in an odd direction.

Dwight came from what’s perhaps the definition of an American small town called Mediapolis, which is in Des Moines County, in the far southeastern corner of the state, not far from the Mississippi River. I mention the county, because as I soon learned, Iowa had on its license plates then (and probably still does) what county you were from. People would honk and wave or flash their lights whenever they got a glimpse of someone from their county, when driving in another part of the state. I suppose that in such a flat region, boundaries between counties are kind of a big deal.

Mediapolis was chosen as the town’s name meaning “middle” and “village,” the middle referring to the distance between Burlington and Wapelo on what would become the Rock Island Railroad line. The town was founded in 1869 and looks it. Looks it still, with just over 1,000 people in residence to this day.

No clues for guessing what the staple industry is in these parts. That’s right CORN! And here I think it’s appropriate that we recall the song that Dwight taught us all…Oh, we don’t give a damn about the whole State of Iowa, the whole state of Iowa, we don’t give a damn about the whole State of Iowa, who in the hell likes corn!

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Dwight’s parents were old by then, of course. His father had a bung eye and a damaged hand, but he could still pluck daddy longlegs off his strawberries. Dwight’s mom was still spry and made us pink lemonade, which we sipped on the verandah of their classic, simple white frame farmhouse, while watching the heat lightning ripple out over the cornfields…so golden green and shimmering in the sun…so mysterious and even spooky at night.

It was the first glimpse for me into another kind of American life, which I felt intuitively, had a kind of reality that was very separate from what I was familiar with. This intuition deepened when one day, Dwight took me out alone on a special pilgrimage, which I remain very grateful for, because it was a window back into not only his past, but an American past we’d do well to recall today.

He took me to not even a ghost town, more a ghost hamlet, which consisted of an unplanted section of field, a few lost sheds, old rusted machinery, and a long one-storey brick building, derelict for years, with more shatter than glass.

He explained to me that there had been more structures here back in the Depression, and that this was where many local families, including his, moved to and joined forces when they lost control of their houses and farms. Farming communities tend to have more solidarity than most, but this must’ve been a great challenge on many levels. Hardscrabble times.

None of us ever really leaves behind the primary place of our growing up. Dwight traveled and relocated many times in his life…but I think he took those acres of bristling corn, and that schoolhouse where tough lessons were learned with him. Even at 13, I realized I that this crumbling building, dwindling in a haze of crops was where his character was forged. I was looking right at the source of his sometimes taciturn and stubborn nature—as well as all the key qualities of generosity that truly defined his being. Perseverance. Optimism. Gratitude. Community service. Loyalty. Discipline. And Honor. It was all there in that humble building, where proud people, family by family, communed to survive. And survive they did.

Just beyond the schoolhouse, very much to Dwight’s surprise, an old abandoned  local church was still standing—if you squinted. It in fact seemed to be sinking into the soil even as we approached it. I wondered what memories it held for him. He clearly hadn’t thought it would be above the ground.

Inside was dead still at first, barred with shadows from the sun boring through holes in the walls, as if a magnifying glass were burning into a leaf. Heavy smell of dried mud, weathered wood, and rotted cobs. The floorboards had long been stripped, maybe to make tables or doors. We had to balance beam our way across the joists to get to where the pulpit had been, feeling the lumber ooze down deeper under our weight. A quarter of the roof was gone, but the rest seemed strangely intact save for one hole, shaped like a jagged California, which felt so far away to me.

Then, exactly as we reached what was left of the pulpit, a curious and disturbing sound began. You could’ve mistaken it for cornstalks sighing in the wind, except there was no wind. Then it changed in tone, becoming more festering and high pitched—and very, very localized. Only a few second later, the black root earth beneath the joists simply erupted in a swarming, boiling mass of eyes, fur, and tails. MICE. More mice than I’d ever seen outside a movie, and we were as far from the entrance as we could get.

Panic. But panic is a funny thing—when you have someone to share it with. It can almost feel like a surprise, of the kind you’ve been waiting and hoping for, without knowing what form it will take.

I looked at Dwight, and he looked at me, and then in unison, without knowing why, we glanced up at the rafters above. We’d been so intent on crossing the joists, we hadn’t paid attention before. But now we did—and there it was, in the exact center of the rafter, reverend of another version of church.

I don’t know if you have the image of a barn owl readily in mind, but they are remarkable looking, even for owls. They’re relatively small birds, with wing feathers tinged a rich autumnal mix of yellow, brown, cream, and gold. But as graceful as they are in body, it’s their faces that are hard to forget—soft pure white masks shaped almost exactly like an apple cut in half—with deep and disproportionately large carbon black eyes. Hunting eyes. They can fly in nearly total silence. Perhaps that should be said again, out of respect for forces greater than we can understand. When we think of our struggles and calamities of motion and resistance, we should remember that a seemingly ordinary barn owl, native to a field of nowhere, can fly almost without making a sound.

The instant we glimpsed the owl, a hush filled the ruined sanctuary again…a grim collective intuition among the rodents. Too late. The owl minister had stirred from its doze—unfurled the robes of flight—and that was just about all we saw. It neither swooped nor plunged…some other verb is required. It was like witnessing the invention of tactical flight in a confined space. Bam. It took a squealing mouse in its beak and in an eyeblink was back on its perch, lording it over the shadows and the endless harvest once more.

We stood on the joists, listening to the frenzied horde trying to regain order after the raid from above, fleeing back into the fields…the cornsilk sun blazing through the rents in the walls. Neither of us wanted to look up…at the brass and buttermilk colored tufts and full moon face, enjoying its feast of grain eating fear on the cross of the rafter. No. Didn’t seem right. After a moment or so of silence, as close as we could come to the quiet of those wings overhead, Dwight turned to me and said something that may have more meaning than he intended, which I hear still. He said, “I wasn’t expecting this. But aren’t you glad we were here to see it?”

OWL

 

poison-dart-frog-pumilio-defenses-s2048x1372-p-600x401A special edition of Richard Dawkins’ seminal book The Selfish Gene has been issued to commemorate its 30th anniversary. I think the work is so important in the history of Popular Science publishing (a distinct genre it did a great deal to help create) that some extended comments are in order.

The book has sold over a million copies. It has sparked many debates (both within formal biological circles and the broader reading public), and it launched Dawkins’ career shift from pure academic scientist to significant cultural theorist / world author.

For anyone unfamiliar with the work, Dawkins’ central argument is that genes are the essential units, and therefore physical genetic replication is the core mechanism, which makes possible all biological organization and development (and mechanism is the key word!). This view can be contrasted with a focus on organisms, or larger units of influence and structure such as groups, colonies or hives, etc. (Famous scientists such E.O. Wilson and Stephen Jay Gould, who have also achieved very successful careers as popular science writers offer alternative / opposing perspectives.)

The Selfish Gene is “hardline” bottom-up science. Determinist. Reductionist. It represents the opposite of Holism as a point of view regarding the world, and radically denies sentience, animation, and even simply organization of other kinds at other levels.

To crudely, but I think fairly, summarize Dawkins’ thesis—we are ourselves, and exist within, a matrix of algorithms, which self-organize hierarchically in space and time to no other purpose than to perpetuate their underlying patterns.

The Archbishop of Cantebury Rowan Williams (R) and atheist scholar Richard Dawkins pose for a photograph outside Clarendon House at Oxford University, before their debate in the Sheldonian theatre in Oxford, central England, February 23, 2012. The name of the debate is ?The Nature of Human Beings and the Question of their Ultimate Origin?. REUTERS/Andrew Winning (BRITAIN - Tags: RELIGION SOCIETY EDUCATION) - RTR2YBDF

The Archbishop of Cantebury Rowan Williams (R) and atheist scholar Richard Dawkins pose for a photograph outside Clarendon House at Oxford University, before their debate in the Sheldonian theatre in Oxford, central England, February 23, 2012. The name of the debate is ?The Nature of Human Beings and the Question of their Ultimate Origin?. REUTERS/Andrew Winning (BRITAIN – Tags: RELIGION SOCIETY EDUCATION) – RTR2YBDF

Ironically, for such a devout materialist, Dawkins also introduces in TSG the now notorious concept of the “Meme.” The Meme has proved to be a highly successful and adaptive example of itself—but this is really just the Fallacy of Expressive Form. It explains nothing about how it works.

What he was trying to do was suggest a metaphorical analog to the gene, which operates at the level of culture. It caught on and has now turned into the field of study called Memetics (which is about the murkiest mush of COSBYpsychology, anthropology, and linguistics etc. as can be imagined). What’s a meme? What’s not!

The term can be applied to any idea, concept, slogan, melody, fashion style, image, philosophy—you name it. And with that move from the reassuringly materialist biological base of the gene, to the immaterial realm of culture and communicative human behavior, he signals a great internal conflict in his argument and approach.

THE SELFISH GENE’S SECRET

But more importantly to general reading people, TSG has been viewed by many as a pointed and intentional contribution to Scientism. This is a belief system that maintains that the practice of science (and of course what’s meant is “science” emerging from the Western tradition) holds the only legitimate keys to understanding Nature and Existence. Some important practical problems emerge from Scientism, both as a social program and as a philosophical movement.

  1. If science is the master form of wisdom, the adjudicator of all Truth, any accepted notions of Truth must therefore be accessible to scientific discussion and investigation. If they don’t register within the scientific frame, they don’t register period. Preference is not surprisingly given to aspects that demonstrate a “favorability” (or lack of resistance) to the scientific approach (usually in its strictest and most quantitative sense). Science quietly and cumulatively becomes less inclusive in its field of examination (even if the body of scientific work compounds greatly). As a now famous eighth-grader put it, “Some things are just more scientific than others.”
  2. If Science is the standard by which all possible knowledge is assessed, certain sciences will at various moments in history be given higher priority, often for not very scientific reasons. Within these fields, certain reigning theories, principles, and models will take precedence. The practical result is the reinforcement of tradition and orthodoxy, which is directly counter to the self-refreshing skepticism and questioning that has been the defining hallmark of Science.
  3. Under social and economic pressures for government, academic, corporate, and public support, scientists have a tendency to simplify matters for general consumption. Often, vast internecine battles and professional disputes about crucial specifics within different fields are entirely glossed over, and even denied. Everything is under control. The knowledge base is secure.
  4. Whenever it becomes generally obvious that the “knowledge base” is very much in flux (which is actually the whole point of science), tensions and insecurities ripple out. The average person begins to think the whole thing is rigged, and scientists respond by becoming more strident in defending their boundaries, not expanding them. The problem lies in confusing the products and artifacts of science with the dynamic process that is science (cf. publishing versus literature and intellectual debate). Perhaps a sane, healthy culture needs some standards of Truth that aren’t scientifically derived or dependent. Perhaps science as an enterprise (which was arguably entirely culturally constructed) functions best within stable societies, where the currency of stability isn’t scientific.
  5. Finally, Dawkins’ own career is a performance in the world of the true underlying motivation and message of TSG thirty years ago. Branching forth from the biological stream of etiology, he has devoted himself in recent years ever more fully and publicly to not just the prosecution of any single religion, but to Religion at large. And no one could do it with more religious fervor than he! One ring to rule them all. Science as the One True Faith.To be fair, Dawkins has defended himself repeatedly against this charge—and if you’ve ever heard him live, you know he’s very eloquent. To his greater credit, over the years his eloquence has come to better balance his arrogance. But there’s still the fiery self-commissioned certainty. He started out as a Born Again Darwinian evangelist. Thirty years later, he’s still keepin’ it real, taking on the True Believers, as only another kind of True Believer can.     CHRIST
  1. Finally, Dawkins’ own career is a performance in the world of the true underlying motivation and message of TSG thirty years ago. Branching forth from the biological stream of etiology, he has devoted himself in recent years ever more fully and publicly to not just the prosecution of any single religion, but to Religion at large. And no one could do it with more religious fervor than he! One ring to rule them all. Science as the One True Faith.

To be fair, Dawkins has defended himself repeatedly against this charge—and if you’ve ever heard him live, you know he’s very eloquent. To his greater credit, over the years his eloquence has come to better balance his arrogance. But there’s still the fiery self-commissioned certainty. He started out as a Born Again Darwinian evangelist. Thirty years later, he’s still keepin’ it real, taking on the True Believers, as only another kind of True Believer can.