Issue #13, April 1996

Part 1.

The Springtime that thinks it's a Summer

I don't know about your times, but this is one of the most incredible year-openings that I have lived through, in terms of the rush of demand and activity in my world. I grabbed onto a few fuzzy tails without realizing the tigers they'd grow into, and have been whipped around by them ever since. Refusing to let go, of course.

Fortunately, one of them has exhausted itself and another is nearly done with. But others continue to roar, and I am so belabored in their combined onslaught that I'm having to seriously take stock of my commitments before the year goes into high gear. For this to have happened so early in the course of it does not bode happy for the prospects of summer.

I am thankful that I know a year's course so well that I can make such an assessment &emdash; and that's one thing I want to get into a bit, in this issue. But first, a few of the details on these tigers that I talk about.

The one that finally rolled over is the university course I got into early this year &emdash; but not before it had turned into a major study project: I took upon myself a 40-question survey administered to 32 people on the Internet, aged 60-76. I found myself flooded with 167 pages of printout data that had to be digested and summarized in just two weeks' time. I made the deadline with a 40-page report that surely would have garnered me an 'A' for the course &emdash; had I been taking it for credit.

No sooner had that one blown over (nearly a month ago) than I found myself locked in combat with the Seattle Housing Authority (my landlord) over proposed policy changes, with no concern on their part for principles of fairness, that had some very personal impact on me. I embarked on a letter campaign and had to carry my protest to the Board of Commissioners and beyond. Media reportage has been stirred up, and . . . Jeez, I haven't gotten so activist-involved in years! But the timing will run out on this tiger in another week or so &emdash; though the outcome may continue to hassle me.

Most else in my world has had to take a back seat while these cats have had their rough-and-tumble. Correspondence &emdash; email and snailmail &emdash; piles up precipitously (I wonder how much snail mail it would take to make a slug of mail?), library books likewise, and my poor Web site virtually ignored after such a grand and promising start. Which is not so earth-shaking, perhaps, but the cyberworld is filled with fickle 'ficionados who don't linger around for what isn't there.

Then there are library sales I wouldn't miss, tempting lectures that keep cropping up, a couple small-group activities I try to keep up with . . . but forget it! I realize, in the thick of things, that I've got to pull in my horns on these. And classes, as well. I must continue to register for something each quarter, in order to maintain my student privilege at the U, but there's no rule that says I have to attend class. Time, right now, is more precious to me than the various social and informational enticements of staying involved at those levels.

But my concern for the things I can't keep up with is not nearly so worrisome to me as the things I never seem able to get around to. As in any crowded life, I deal first with the urgencies, and next with the 'accumulating stacks.'] Be they unanswered mail or unread periodicals, they have the common feature of piling up until something is done with them &emdash; always, thus, pressing for the first slice of available time. Meanwhile, there are really important things, wholegoing projects of major purpose, that remain back there in the wings . . . thought about from time to time, but always held off until the deck gets cleared &emdash; which, of course, never happens.

Familiar trap? It's a topsy-turvy system, serving the habit patterns of one's being and cheating the creative portion of its right to exciting, exploratory development. It's a system that should be exposed and trashed, for all the familiarity and comfort it provides. But it tends to stupefy us into a benign and tolerant acceptance. And life moves inexorably toward its final year &emdash; which, for me, cannot be too far off.

Well, my friends, it is time for me to wake up to this recognition: the fact that I am on the threshold of my eighth decade (seven of them behind me when I reach 70 in one more year), which puts me already in the December of my life. Seems impossible, from the vigor I still feel, but I understand these exceptions fairly well, now. By a curious twist in the meshing of cyclic gears, it's possible to feel vigorous for portions of time, perhaps all the way to the end. But what good is such knowledge, if one does not put it to wise use?

Which sort of brings me back around to the point of my opening: knowing what a year is like and how to deal with it. I've been facilitating another survey online, you know &emdash; a less demanding one that now has only ten participants responding to maybe a dozen questions each month, about how they are experiencing the times. And one woman in the group keeps telling me that this or that month "doesn't feel like anything . . . it just IS."

For her, as for most people, the year is just a familiar progression of calendar months, with certain established verities for each of them &emdash; but verities based on a world of routine: holidays, vacation time, personal anniversaries, kids in or out of school, etc. Nature enters into it in terms of weather and length of daylight, and maybe the foliage or animal life to be encountered, but that's about the extent.

For me, however, it is the flow of energies during a year's course. When I'm up and when I'm down; when the 'new' arrives, when it moves easily and when it weighs heavy, when it coagulates and when it falters. There are dependable characteristics of energy &emdash; both outer and inner &emdash; at each stage of the year, and it is in knowing these patterns, from long years of observation, that my years become navigable.

Why others do not see the year in like fashion is easy to account for: It is not conventional knowledge, and it does require years of observation to become familiar with. Not just years of reflective memory, but years of careful journ-aling within the context of an increasingly familiar framework &emdash; for the effects can be so subtle, often ephemeral to ourgoal-centered focus, that they are not otherwise visible.

Furthermore, it is a function not entirely "out there" &emdash; which makes for a highly personal relationship that one has with the passing year, and all the more difficult to codify into any objective approach.

You might rightly wonder if these are just fancy words to account for something that's entirely in my own head. But let me assure you, there is good reason for the inner/outer intermixture I am pointing out. The seasonal year is but one manifestation of an archetypal pattern of cyclic time. It happens to be the prototype pattern &emdash; that is, the original basis for the pattern &emdash; but the season formulation familiar to us as the natural year is embedded in consciousness as the basic pattern for how we experience every discrete passage of time.

In other words, there is a 'seasonal' flow in a day's passage, and there is a 'seasonal' flow operative over the full course of a lifetime. We really know these relational parallels, but they are always regarded as metaphor &emdash; to the detriment of what we might actually learn from them. I suspect, in fact, that this very feature of metaphor has stood in the way of any truly scientific look at the interesting circumstance.

We have this primal pattern of a seasonal flow in our very roots. It operates as a kind of filter through which we experience the full reality of a lifetime's passage &emdash; for there surely is no geophysical cause to experience 'seasons' in the course of a lifetime. Yet, what else is the notorious midlife crisis but a clear parallel to the time of year when the energy shifts, from driving and upward to played-out (or in nature's year, from 'full growth ahead' to dying on the vine). Life turns around at that point just as the year does sometime in August.

I could detail other such parallels &emdash; and so could you &emdash; though they may not be quite as profound in their impact. Aging makes us so much more aware of them. How easy it is to see, now, springtime bubbling away, in the energy of youngsters. And when I go to school, I am December consorting with the likes of April . . . we have really very little to say to one another, despite the brief community that a class establishes.

It may be understandable, in this light, how a given moment of the year's passage can be experienced rather differently by two people of different ages. I seriously doubt that summer ever exhausts a youngster, as it does me. And I don't think they could know the kind of comfort I can find in winter.

The basic archetypal pattern is the significant thing, here. With a full awareness of it, I can look at "where I am" along the passage of the several significant timeframes that I live in, and come to some reasonable understanding of what is happening during the stream of my year &emdash; which might easily be different from the stream of your year.

Here's what it comes down to, in my world: The intensity I'm feeling in this year's opening phase, coupled with what I know of these cyclic patterns, tells me that my personal energy will be on the wane for the next few years. I'll feel some regeneration next year, probably in the spring, and then a diminishment for several years, which &emdash; considering my age &emdash; will probably be felt rather heavily. There is little point is speculating its effect to any further particularity &emdash; I'll know when I get there. But I am equally sure that I'll be pulling out of it by the turn of the century, or shortly thereon.

This, then, is the overview standpoint from which I consider what feels important for me to do, yet, in my life. There are things worth put-ting time into . . . and things that must fall by the wayside as I identify the more significant commitments I want to make and keep. And since the most important elements of what I see as my calling have to do with writing, I need also to consider the realistic limits of what venues are available to me, for it will de-termine how I may best use my skills and time.

Nothing has brought that latter point home so well as my recent bout with the publishing trade, over Innocence Abroad. Whatever the reason, it appears not within the range of my reality to have a commercially published book, and it is good to know this so that I do not pour any further futile time into it.

I should tell you, by the way, that the sharp edge of disappointment over that is now behind me. While it's not what I would have wished, it's not all bad, either, for it preserves the integrity of my chosen lifestyle &emdash; which could have been seriously compromised in several respects, had it gone the way I wished. I still consider it an open matter, and will follow up on any good publisher lead I happen to get &emdash; but I'll put no further energy into seeking it on my own.

As I've let go of the ego-energy around it, I've had a better view of why I can't relate to the book-trade agenda. It's well illustrated by a recent skirmish of activity around the book: One of my ever-thoughtful writing-group friends had called me with word that an agent she knew had expressed some interest in the book and felt she could market an excerpt to one of the maturity magazines for an opener, and a good price to boot. So I hustled off a couple selections, including one of my favorite segments about the rascally adventure I had at the First International Earthstewards Gathering, in Holland.

The agent whipped it back to me with equal (and rare) dispatch, together with a long, kindly note, saying that if I'd "concentrate on the good instead of the bad" (which she indicated as "the travel difficulties") that it would better appeal to the readership of the magazine she had in mind. Which is very much why I feel so little rapport with the rest of my generation &emdash; for whom I really didn't write that book! She was sure she could get more for me, with such an article, than I would get for a book.

She may very well be right, as to that, but such an article would have little to do with the book that I wrote, and I haven't any interest in pursuing it &emdash; either for the money, or the glory of periodical publication, which I achieved long ago on my own. The book I wrote is reasonably close to the one I wanted to write, and I've no need to re-work it, or any portion of it. Maybe at 50, the idea of doing so could have been a high rush. But at 69, it is not. And this, you see, is why it is so important to know the time-frames of your life.

The imperative that I now understand, given crystal clarity by the rash rush of this year's opening, is to put the brakes on, as far as the many things I am into and other temptations that constantly cross my path. I need to detach from what is not of major importance to me and slowly swing my energy around toward those things that are.

One of them is to write a comprehensive treatment of this very matter of personal timing and the season archetype. I've put it off, now, for a long time and for many reasons. Some were excuses for procrastination, some were concerns about whether I had enough material on it to get it 'right' for a publisher (and one of the hopes for Innocence Abroad was that it would get me 'through the door' with a publisher), but mainly the fact that I needed some 'clear space' ahead of me in which I could totally commit myself to the project. All the while, of course, doing everything possible to deny myself that sense of open space.

Well, one toys with time no longer, on the threshold of 70. Unless one has little better to do, in these narrowing years &emdash; which is not my case. The Universe has set me up with a wonderfully quiet place to live and work (if they don't throw me out for my current activism), a computer and space on the Web, a charming lady to make my day (and my night), and all the money I have need for. Nothing &emdash; but nothing &emdash; stands in my way. All that lacks is the plan for it, and getting started . . . once I get these few remaining tigers out of the way.

I cannot change the rush and crush of this spring. If it's going to act like a summer, I've got to respond to it like a summer, which means I roll with it. This phase of the cycle is far more problematical if one resists or denies it. But I don't have to take every opportunity that comes my way. Having already experienced a few fuzzy tails that turn into tigers, I am fairly warned of what this year could turn into if I don't step through it with care. I need to follow through on its demands, but stay clear of extra commitments that don't really have to be made.

As I put it earlier, I want to slowly swing my energies around to a more purposeful direction than the scattershot, take-what-comes fluidity I've been living by for the past decade and more . . . but it has to be done without raising a rigid resistance to life as it comes. That would be a first-prize foolish blunder.

Book-writing (as such) is out. Web-publishing is in, and so is Ripening Seasons. Which brings the glimmering of a workable plan.

Do you know what a 'stalking horse' is? Brewer's (Dictionary of Phrase and Fable) defines it as "a mask to conceal some design" &emdash; derived from the onetime practice of game hunters to move in on their quarry by stalking it, step by step, in the concealing shelter of a saddle-horse.

So here's the plan: I shall make a stalking-horse of Ripening Seasons, giving it full rein to fulfill its name (which I seem to have chosen with better foresight than I knew). I shall 'write a book' by giving it chapter and text in the ongoing series of this newsletter!

To keep it from being a deadly serious burden of commitment &emdash; and a deadly boring ego trip &emdash; we'll agree that this won't be an every-issue thing. Perhaps every other issue, or every third, you can look forward to receiving segments in the gradual development of a 'book' on the seasonal archetype that structures the timeframes in which we live.

Eventually, it will all be out there on the Web, which is the future of the industry now called publishing &emdash; whether or not there is ever a paper version besides the developing segments you'll receive in Ripening Seasons. The nagging urgency within is served by my thus getting into it, without hassling what's to become of it. The devil owns the future, perhaps, but the present is mine. Life will proceed for me very much as it has up to now, but no longer agonized by the shortage of sufficient time to do what I really want to get done.

Part 2.

Getting back to the Internet

I think I must be sounding like an industry flack, these days, as I continue to ply and promote the wonders of the Internet/Web experience. I've surely lost all credibility as a Luddite, and would seem to have abandoned those who withstand the onslaught of technology with the fierce resistance that I have always shared, up to this past year. And it is just a year, now, since I turned the renegade corner.

However much those perceptions of my current shift may be true &emdash; and I don't really think my basic stand on technology has shifted &emdash; I've been trying, only, to stimulate a realization of the tremendous change that is underway, which is going to alter life significantly, whether we like it or not. I think it's possible to be opposed to technology, in principle, and be concerned at the same time with what can be done to maximize its positive potential and minimize the negative. And, sure, I've been glorifying that positive potential . . . but how else to convey the impact of what is afoot? How else to stir your involvement, rather than your avoidance?

It should no longer be called a computer, poisoning your mind with that dreary impression of it; it has become something more properly indicated by the term 'communicator.' And that helps to explain my overwhelming passion for it, which is no different than my passion for the daily mail. After all, they did stop using the absurd name of horseless carriage, which probably made a world of difference in how people responded to the new-fangled thing.

It is as much a fact, from my outlook, that the galloping online technology will overtake the rest of the media and communications world, and leave it in the dust, as that the automobile did likewise to the world of horse and buggy a hundred years ago. That happened in the course of a single generation, and we all know that the pace of technology has increased manyfold over the century. Whether you like to contemplate it or not, you'll find the Internet as necessary to life as the telephone, radio or TV . . . the newspaper or magazine . . . and very likely the book, itself, within the next ten years (from my viewpoint). If you insist on remaining behind a barrier of NOs, you'd better consider how well you'd do without that first trio at least, for they'll be the first to merge with the new medium. It is already underway.

Good or bad? Nobody can really say, and it depends a great deal &emdash; maybe entirely &emdash; on where you're coming from. But if you think communication, in and of itself, is good, it's hard to see how you'd be disappointed with a medium that is globally interactive at practically no cost. The immediacy and ease with which one can respond to incoming information &emdash; from anywhere at all &emdash; either directly to its source or in the form of advisement to any other party, is literally staggering.

It does, however, require a shakeup of the head in order to grasp this. I had been working on the local Housing Authority issues that we are battling, here, for three weeks &emdash; just about all the lead time we have &emdash; before the possibility of going online with it popped into my head. In one day's time, I had an abbreviated statement of the issues out on my Web Site, and messages posted to a dozen newsgroups (read by hundreds of people around the country), pointing to that Web site and requesting a flood of protesting postcards into the Authority's headquarters.

Whether that flood actually arrives or not is problematical, but the point here is two-fold: 1) the swiftness with which such an effort can be mobilized and given a platform of effectiveness, and 2) how long it took before the two separate channels of my thinking (a: the Web, and b: the problem) managed to cross paths and intersect. So don't think, for a moment, that you fully realize the potency that is potentially within your grasp.

To portray it in ways that I cannot, I want to continue this article with material from another writer, in the Columbia Journalism Review (March/April, '96), a trade journal for journalists. This is by Katherine Fulton, a consultant in such matters, and we pick the article up midway, where she is responding to a question about the problems posed for journalists by the incoming technology . . .


A Touch of our Uncertain Future

Neil Postman argues that journalists haven't adapted to the world they've helped create. In the nineteenth century, he says, the problem journalism solved was the scarcity of information; in the late twentieth century the problem has become information glut. The problem isn't getting more diverse forms of information quicker. "The problem," says Postman, "is how to decide what is significant, relevant information, how to get rid of unwanted information."

Too much of what journalists do adds to the clutter. Much of the new media does the same. The information glut, meanwhile, masks a corresponding scarcity - high-quality reporting and interpretation that helps people make sense of their world. "I think the scoop of the future will be the best interpretation, the best written account, the most descriptive account, but most of all the one that explains to you why you need to know it and what it means," said the veteran broadcaster Daniel Schorr as he watched the on-line world unfold before him at the Annenberg Washington Program last winter.

This, of course, is what much great journalism has always done. The difference is that journalists now have powerful new tools for dealing with the bias against understanding so prevalent in modem media.

Hypertext - which allows you to move easily among files and computers by pointing and clicking - really does connect people easily with information, ideas, and other people. Consider reading the latest story on Bosnia and linking to a timeline and a map to remind yourself what it means. Or imagine reading a book review, linking to the first chapter of the book, and ordering it on-line if you like. You can already do those things as part of The Washington Post's Digital Ink service.

Nora Paul of the Poynter Institute envisions a whole new genre, which she calls annotative journalism. Here, if, say, the president gave a speech, you might link to what he said before on the subject and to the counter-arguments of the critics. The innovative on-line magazine Feed, the Net's answer to Harper's, illustrates a version of this: somebody writes an opinion and then several people offer counter-arguments to specific points, via links that the reader can hit or not. Experiments in creating information webs challenge the often well-guarded borders of today's journalistic products. Sometimes, another journalist, or a university, or a nonprofit organization, will provide the best link or a viewpoint that doesn't make it through today's mainstream media filter.

What's happened so far is probably quite tame compared to what's coming. And again, you have to look beyond pure journalistic efforts to see the potential. The Discovery Channel Online, when last I checked, touted its "Originally Produced Interactive Stories with Film, Music, Photography and Illustration." The channel invites viewers to join its expeditions by sending in questions online, and it features viewers' own adventures. Reinventing America, an on-line game sponsored by the Markle Foundation, is a twenty-six-week experiment in voter education, in which players will study issues and set hypothetical federal spending levels. Word, a stylish and somewhat hard-to-define magazine available only on-line, is a striking example of how a new generation of graphic designers will play with the ways users take in information and ideas.

These experiments begin to hint at the really radical thing about new technologies: they enable people to have more control over what they want to know and when they want to know it. Already on the Internet, very different sorts of information providers are scrambling to create services to help you choose a city to live in, buy a house or purchase a car. You can get help deciding whom to vote for, using the service Mother Jones magazine has created, "The Coin-Operated Congress." The much-touted personal newspaper, which allows people to adjust for their own combinations of news, opinion, and features, is already offered by a college student (CRAYON), a major new entrepreneurial effort (Individual, Inc.), and the San Jose Mercury News (Newshound). And if you miss a special NPR report, you can now listen to it on your own schedule.

Content is people, as well as information, and new media change the equation. For all the talk of interactivity, I find very few journalists who really understand its import. Last year, by one count, 95 billion e-mail messages were sent in the United States - a number that exceeded the number of ordinary messages sent through the U.S. mail. Digital technologies really do make it easy to contact friends and strangers alike. That means they make things happen that were not possible before.

For instance, last spring, a moving exchange took place on-line as Tom Mandel died. He had spent eighteen months trying to build community at Time magazine's America Online experiment, and for many years he'd been an active participant in the WELL, the prototypical cyberspace community. As cancer ate his insides up, Mandel shared his feelings - and received an outpouring of support from people he had met and others who had known him only online. Time Inc.'s Pathfinder Internet site has edited and preserved the exchanges that took place between Mandel and his friends. Reading Mandel in memoriam, watching that kind of intimacy and community form online, changed how I thought about the role of journalism.

"A journalist with little online experience tends to think in terms of stories, news value, public service, and things that are good to read," writes Melinda McAdams, in her account of helping start The Washington Post's online service. "But a person with a lot of online experience thinks more about connections, organization, movement within and among sets of information, and communication among different people."

Journalists are often so wrapped up in the quite legitimate worry that responding to e-mail will drain time from reporting that they miss the larger point: the most successful online sites, such as America Online's The Motley Fool, create a dynamic community that makes you want to return again and again. The journalistic stars of the future may well include those who delight in a new kind of media theater, who enjoy facilitating discussions or figuring out how to involve audiences meaningfully in gathering information. Even more daring will be the institutions that actively help readers create their own content, as the Raleigh, NC News & Observer's Nando.Next does for students. Online, nothing stops a local media institution from positioning itself as the place where any coach or parent can share a written account (or someday a video) of any local Little League game.

Where can people listen to each other? Where can they be heard? Where can they meet new people? The answer to these questions could turn out to be as important a factor in the long-term survival of some journalism institutions as the quality of their information.

1. to the Ripening Seasons overview (for more of same)
2. to the
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