World Enough, and Time

Tracy says it’s like a treasure hunt. We go off into the world, sometimes with a sketchy plan, sometimes not, and we see what the world has waiting for us. And the world never disappoints.

This time, we decided to go to Fort Mason to see “Motet,” which was in its final weekend.  Tracy had gotten us tickets (reservations, really — the event was free) to go earlier, but I had been too busy staring at my feet so she didn’t go, and then everyone in my friendship circle were all “oh my God this is best thing ever,” so we went.

We didn’t have reservations this time, but there were same-day walk up tickets, so we decided to try that. We brought books in case there was a wait. It was a mirror-clear winter day, tucked into that eerie 12-hour period between rainstorms when the world seems newly invented. Shiny streets, boats on the water, Alcatraz looking like Alcatraz, the whole deal.  We can’t help but be beautiful; don’t hate us, other cities.

(I’m delighted to see that the kerfuffle over New York values has ripped the spotlight away from former whipping boy San Francisco values. As we know, “San Francisco values” is code for “gay,” whereas “New York values” is code for “Jewish”).

We got there right when it opened, noon, and were told that there was a three-hour wait. Also, that there was no waiting room. So how long could be stroll around Fort Mason, we wondered. We decided: Not long enough. So we declined the three hour wait and decided to go for the Wave Organ.

Which, when you think about it: Why is the Wave Organ a civic pariah?  There are no signs announcing its presence or providing a handy trail marker, and no useful plaques to tell you what it is. I admire the resourceful tourists who find the damn thing; they must be approaching San Francisco in the “let’s poke around and see what’s there” method, much preferred over the “let’s go where the map says” strategy.  I’m not sure even locals remember to take their visiting relatives out to that jetty.

We clambered down to the pipes and sat on the carved granite and marble, taken from the leavings of an old graveyard that had been used to shore up the breakwater.  It was a calm day, so we had to open our ears and minds and listen to the soft sound of the waves lapping and whooshing. Across the harbor were the white hills of the city.

We held hands. We don’t really like to, but we know it grosses the young people out.

So then we went home, but I forgot to tell you about the part in the middle. We strolled around Fort Mason before we went to the Wave Organ. We sat on the bench near the Cowell Theater and stared at the bay and the gulls. It was heart-breakingly familiar, all of it, and we silently rejoiced that we were there and not some other place.

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Note: Many books

After 20 minutes of that, I required caffeine. We went to the Interval, which is a surprising steampunky but mellow old-time coffee house, with fabulous machines scattered about and Brian Eno on the speakers. I began looking at the stuff on the walls. There was something intensely familiar about the whole thing, and the general vibe was beginning to seem familiar, so I stepped back to get a larger picture.

Why, it’s the Long Now foundation.

I know something about them, because I know Stewart Brand. I even went on a rollicking three-day adventure with him in Ely (pronounced E-lee), Nevada. At that time the clock of the Long Now (“It ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium”) was to be located inside a mountain above the scrub land 30 miles east of town. We spent the better part of the day looking for the property.

Long Now is a glorious pie-in-the-sky outfit started by dreamers. Skilled real world dreamers, dreamers who know how to make a living and behave acceptably around other human beings, but still…people with horizons a lot further than mine. Their theories contain a lot of unproved assumptions, but they’re trying to predict the future, which is often a fool’s game.  I cut them slack because I admire their ambition.

Along one two-story wall was a revolving library, the kind of take-one, leave-one arrangement one finds occasionally in B&Bs, except in the B&B the books are all by Clive Kussler or Danielle Steel. Next to the bookshelves was a rack for larger publications, and on the rack was the Millennium Whole Earth Catalog. Cover torn off, pages a little bent and creased, but the real deal.

Oh, boy, I thought. I used to love the Whole Earth Catalog. Read it cover to cover, even the parts about hydroponic gardening and rewiring your toaster so it warms your goats. I picked it up and started reading.  Always curious about who wrote what, I turned the contributors page. Oh yes, it’s him, it’s her, it’s…me.

I have no memory of writing for the Catalog. I once guest-edited the Whole Earth Review, which I tend to forget about because I didn’t do good work there.  But this other thing…I’ve written just a shitload of stuff, so it’s not uncommon to come across strange material with my name on it.

So I went to read it, preparing to cringe — most of my writing makes me cringe, which may be why I keep trying to get it right — and checking around to see if anyone’s noticed my journey into my own brain. Nope. I read. A hush fell over the coffee house. Paragraph, paragraph, paragraph…

I like it. I think I got some good sentences in there. A little imitating of the Whole Earth house style, but not bad. In places actively good. Kid can knock off a paragraph. I bet he had a good time putting that together.

(And, I discover later, it’s on-line! Judge for yourself! Bask in the wonder of me! Or, of course, the other thing.)

Other writers may be different. Other writers may come across unexpected chunks of their own work and not read them. But I doubt it.  Have you ever found a photo album and gone through looking for pictures of yourself? And why not? If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

I’d have liked to stay there forever, drinking lattes and re-reading particularly fine sentences, but the sun was bright and the breeze was mild and the day was saying, “come to me, come to me.” So, reluctantly, I said goodbye to my little shot of self-regard and trundled out into the big mechanical universe.

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Photography by Tracy Johnston
Answers to panicky questions by Michelle Mizera
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Film at 11

The media ruin lives.  We know this to be true; it’s been well-documented on film and television, even if inadvertently.

You know the scene: A thing happens, either a sensational thing (child kidnapped, lovely  young woman found beaten and stabbed) or a Significant thing (white woman passes for black, movie star interviews drug lord).

The sensational thing often features grieving relatives, stolid police officers and pictures of volunteers combing the forest searching for clues. Microphones are shoved into unwilling faces, houses are surrounded by camera trucks, family members quickly become media shorthand — the sad father, the noble mother, the suspiciously chatty cousin.

They’re actual people leading actual lives, but we don’t care about that. We know about them what we are trained to know. We have three facts and we extrapolate into a whole human being. Our brains are victims of the media too.

And of course lives are ruined.

The Significant thing often features tame experts opining, usually while not in possession of all the facts. Dueling ideologues debate — on the one hand this, on the other hand that. (There is never a third hand). Often, the experts make assumptions about the humans involved, assumptions that are accepted as fact by many people.

So we’re dealing in symbolism. We’re dealing with people who are the unwitting avatars of some social dilemma. They’re the face of racism or the face of people standing up to government intimidation. They’re the face of rape or the face of refugees or the face of anguish in a coal mining disaster.

But of course they are also real human beings, who lead real lives and have real parents and real children and real bosses, and if they have cameras following them everywhere and cable news stations running the same one-quote loop over and over again, and some op-ed writer implying dreadful things about them — well, their lives are ruined. They have to change their phone numbers, delete their social media accounts, move to Brazil.

The media sort of know this. After all,  they bring us the images of disorganized press conferences, chaotic perp walks,  phalanxes of photographers standing in disorderly rows. We can hear the screaming reporters and the terse “no comments” repeated hundreds of times.

This from reporters who think that “how did you feel when” is a probing question.

The media will argue that The People want this kind of coverage — when they’re not distracted by the latest celebrity divorce or sex tape. (Although the sex tape thing seems to have run its course, perhaps because everyone has one now.)  They want the missing blonde tourist, the cheating politician, the video of a car chase.

The audience, sadly, is not particularly interested in defense contractors taking bribes,  Chinese children making iPhones, or even scientists discovering the visible light emitted by black holes. (That just happened. Did not make the evening news.)

Newspapers are mostly owned by large profit-seeking entities.  They want to maximize returns while minimizing expenses. “Expenses” often include people, who are costly and often whiny. So yes, of course, this is America, and that’s the way we do things. And if people want big-J journalism, there are always a few places willing to maximize that profit center too.

OK, fine. I get it; we all get it. The question remains: Why do the media get all unctuous about “the public’s right to know” when they are ruining people’s lives?

You’d think, by now, that some media organization would have at least formed a blue ribbon panel to look into this. You’d think the Poynter Institute or the Columbia Journalism Review might push for a conference of all relevant organizations, from the National Enquirer and TMZ to Scientific American and the New York Review of Books. The goal: How to stop ruining people’s lives.

One suggestion comes immediately to mind: pool reporters. Media companies hate pool reporting because it prevents them from adding their secret sauce, their anchorhuman standing in a front of a memorial for the fallen or a destroyed church. Disaster happens, and famous faces congregate. The idea that their cameras, their repetitive questions, even the anchorhumans themselves, might be ruining lives, does not occur to them.

Or how about a Hippocratic oath for media people? Just a little “first, do no harm” pledge. People who first, did harm, might get fired from their jobs. Or even  jail time; that would be good.  When Rolling Stone falsely accused “Drew,” as it called him, of raping an undergraduate at the University of Virginia,  was the magazine required to make him whole? It was not. His name is known by many people and can be discovered with a little google spying.  And you try to get a job with a rape on your resume.

Or Anthony Weiner’s penis. I mean, it’s a mistake, but did he need his life ruined for it?

I’ve been in the media for 50 years. I have seen ethics rules get tighter and more diligently enforced. I have never seen this issue addressed, even tangentially. We follow the law, and the law is guided by the First Amendment, which allows for free, vigorous debate on the issues of the day. Which is good. It also allows the media to ruin lives. Which is bad.

Self-policing is the only answer. The media has to be as candid about itself as it is about the people and institutions it covers. Media companies have to do something about the whole mess, a mess that continues and continues and…

“This is David Davies on scene at the courthouse/villa/blasted landscape, reporting to you live exclusively from the site of today’s tragedy, a tragedy that will change the way we think about forests/toddlers/cheese. I am standing here next to a guy in a blazer and a woman in a perky suit, and they are all talking about what I’m talking about, which means it’s important because everyone is talking about it.  Here is some footage of a shoe, a poignant reminder that disaster can strike at any time. Meanwhile, we await a tear-stained relative who can be convinced to make herself look sufficiently pathetic. Then some footage of bodies being carried somewhere by somebody. If we haven’t ruined a life by 5 p.m., I’d be very surprised.

“We seem to blocking someone’s driveway. It’s all right, ma’m, we’re the media.  Oh, she’s running away.”

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Photography by Tracy Johnston
Marketing and explaining things by Michelle Mizera