Issue #31, April/May 1999

A Year for Considering What Was

I guess I've never realized how fractionally auspicious was the moment of my birth. It occurred very close to one-fourth into the day that was exactly 2/7ths into the year that was 3/11ths into the century -- more informatively, just before 6 a.m. on April 14, 1927.

With '7-come-11' in the denominators, and '1-2-3-go' in the numerators, how could I have failed in this world? What could have gone wrong? Maybe I've found the answer in the tailgate brevity of a newspaper horoscope column that I only discovered 72 years after its publication...

Thursday, April 14, 1927. Children born on this day may have an embarassment of talents. Early marriage in which there is a practical life partner will go far toward assuring success.
There, you see -- I never got married until I was 29. And then it was to a most impractical partner. Had I only known . . .

I'm only kidding, of course. This rush of star-gazing reflection, along with the fragment of ancient newspaper -- and much more of same, to follow -- is prompted by a feeling that I need to do something special for this year, in recognition of the century's finale; but more as a marker for my own feelings of personal closure, before the nineteen-hundreds are nothing but an old familiar shoreline receding swiftly toward the sunset horizon.

It seems to call for some 'coming to terms' that, for all my frequent indulgence in recollection, I've never really done. I've just kept stretching the window of remembrance, up to now, so that it hasn't seemed that long ago . . . to 1985 when I came to Seattle . . . to the 1970s when I was doing Black Bart . . . even earlier, though my carte blanche for prior years wouldn't stand much scrutiny by a careful gatekeeper. But I'll have to begin thinking of it, soon, as 'back in the 1900s.' The pull of the idea of 2000 -- the deafening roar of it, all around us -- will simply be too powerful to resist.

We seldom realize how much we can be affected by idea forms -- which, of course, allows us to be regularly manipulated by them -- in the hands of the advertising industry, or the PR spin experts. Just consider the steady encroachment of subtle price increases while everyone looks the other way: a buck (and more) extra for coffee, once just a part of the meal, not a separate item; or the way we sit still for 'shipping & handling,' now, while they boldly promote the sale as a "Free Gift." But I've switched the subject on you, from time to money, so let me switch back, and give you an illustration of how idea forms of time can restructure your sense of things.

For all the years of my life, the 1800s have existed only in fragmentation -- events and biographies merely isolated islands in a vast sea of remote time, related only to other things in their immediate proximity, and often not even that. I simply could not place Thoreau's two years at Walden Pond, in the 1840s, in any conceivable context with Wyatt Earp's 1881 shootout at the OK corral -- not that there reasonably should be such a context, except that everything bears a chronological relationship to everything else . . . but only perceptively so if it registers with us as experience, and I was not around for any of it, back then.

So here is the idea form, used in a positive way: Now that we've lived through the better part of a century, and have personal memories right up to 1999, we have a 'grid of experience' that can be overlaid on the 19th century. All we have to do is drop the first two digits (á la y2k). Thus . . .

Two notable Americans were born in the '30s -- Mark Twain ('35) and John Muir ('38) -- in the decade 'after' my own birth. Each contributed to the evolution of a changing American consciousness during the latter half of the century (as I did, in my own small way). In '94, The Mountains of California, probably Muir's most noteworthy book, saw publication -- the 'same year' that I came out with Innocence Abroad. Twain's Innocents Abroad, on the other hand, was published in '69, gaining him early international fame as a humorist -- while I, in my plodding way, and eight years older than Twain, was just experiencing, in '69, the turnaround in consciousness that would send me toward my life's real work, and the insights that let me ignore fame. Twain lived on for ten years into the new century, dying at age 75; Muir went fourteen years beyond the great divide, to age 76. And I, of course, am now 72. An adequate preface to where I'm going with this issue.

[Here, in the printed version of Ripening Seasons, I began laying in clippings from an April 14, 1927 issue of The Seattle Daily Times -- clippings that seemed to bear some remarkable relationship to the life that developed for me. And in the course of this issue, I proceeded to comment on them. Perhaps at some later date I shall be able to introduce these clips into the site; but the commentary fairly well indicates what they were all about.]

Well, now you see what I'm up to. I want to devote the rest of this year's issues to a reflective review of what can be spoken of as My Times. Not the standard stuff that will fill the retrospectives headed for print, as the year comes to closure, but the hits and misses of my own life; things that deserve a tribute and will not likely get it elsewhere. For sure, some of it will be cliché material, but I'll try to give it all a personal twist.

It will be cued by press clips from the day of my birth, giving some 'realness' to the span of realities we've come through, and refreshing the sense of transitional change, whose drumbeat, unceasing, has long since jaded us all. We no longer tap feet to the rhythm . . . have forgotten how to dance to it, and too often wish we could just turn it off. But it's only because we're emotionally rooted in those years that have vanished.

I would've much rather had San Francisco archives to go through, but Seattle will have to do. The culture was quite the same, perhaps a bit more provincial, here, but it will serve our purposes nicely.

Note, first of all, that price of two cents for a 38-page paper -- we'll be making price comparisons all along the way. This was a bit of a surprise to me, as I can recall selling papers on a street corner, around 1937, for 3 cents, and have always thought the Depression was responsible for those prices . . . but it appears not. Our Roaring '20s economy had not taken prices through the ceiling, like the years since 1980 have.

Observe, also, the big number 5 in the masthead corner. That either means the 5 o'clock or 5th edition for the day! Difficult to believe, now, but a day's press actually came out in several editions, to assure readers of the very latest news, and compete with other papers. Radio hadn't yet hit its stride as a news medium. So . . . all this, for 2 cents on the tab -- considering that we're the sucker-bait for what really pays their revenue, that reflects the most inflated price base that we'll see on this excursion.

The day's big national event, other than a mine flooding in Oklahoma, was a flight endurance record of 51 hours in the air, by Bert Acosta and Clarence Chamberlin, who actually blew it by droning together over New Jersey in safe circles. Either one of them, heading alone for Paris, could have had the fame of Lindbergh, who did it in 33 hours, five weeks later.

The item below it actually comes from the financial page, but it's such an excellent demography of the times, that I'm using it as a front-runner. A land of 113.5 million . . . no wonder things feel so crowded today! And 35 million adults who didn't work, but were not considered unemployed! (Read the detailing). This was before Social Security, yet "upon the earning power of the 38 percent of the population in gainful employment is dependent...the welfare of the other 62 percent." No safety net, but those folks lived with the need to take care of one another! And I'm not so sure, now, that it wasn't, for all that, a society healthier for its citizens. Social Security has fostered our sense of independence -- in a certain way -- but along with it, our alienation and loss of extended family and community.

Most people earned less than $2000 per year. But with 2¢ newspapers and (as we'll see) automobiles costing less than $1000, that wasn't necessarily a poverty figure. In fact, a case could be made that the advertising industry, itself, just beginning to hit its century stride in those days, has always been the prime culprit in the ever-climbing wage/price spiral that has pushed the poverty level, in my lifetime, up to about $8000 per year.


I don't mean to imply that creative display advertising had just gotten underway, for there were fine (if often wordy) examples of that going back to the 1880s. But the study of motivational research, which put the mid-century ad game on a solid footing, got its start around 1920. Analytical surveys of exactly what worked and what didn't. You'll never read much about it today, because it's just 'the way it's done,' now -- but it consists of techniques and subtle tricks that had to be hacked out of a wilderness of paths that went every which way.

Our 1927 paper, in fact, has some 'before' and 'after' examples. On top, we have what may have been all the rage among the senior set -- for whom it was pretty safe to offer a 15 year guarantee. And it would be hard to beat their claim of the "lowest prices yet offered." But it's a throwback ad to the early days of advertising, talking about "Ohio's Greatest Specialists In This Important Field," yet using the term, False Teeth, when the usage of "dentures" goes back well into the last century. One wonders, in fact, exactly what was meant by "False Teeth for those who know."

And then, below, a fine example of advertising's progress, in terms of design, execution, and going for the unwary reader with a hook that can't miss -- although, frankly . . . I've never yet seen or heard of a man who has much concern for his ankles, as features of attraction. "...sets them off admirably!" indeed. This really demonstrates the idiotic lengths to which theory can be carried. But then, fashion is a flighty, unpredictable muse, and I never thought I'd see a rage for body-piercing, either. (Nor could I have imagined, 50 years ago, me with long, flowing locks, as an old man!)

I can say one reservedly positive thing for advertising. It nourished the graphic arts, sharing with the publishing industry an assumption of patronage -- not out of nobility, to be sure, but give credit where it's due -- in one of the few instances when commercialism actually worked for the enhancement of the arts and the betterment of the human spirit. But...a patronage, sadly, that was on the wane well before mid-century. Graphic arts rendered by hand gave way to the photograph, first in publishing, then in advertising. Such commercial sketch work as remains in use is a highly formulaic thing that scarcely qualifies as art. And what flourished in the early part of the century -- not just the craftsmen, but the very craft! -- is now as extinct as the dodo.

Our century's "march of progress" ran over it like a deer in the road. There is little real awareness of the loss of an art, for we see it simply as change. Art has changed, music has changed, literary style has changed, in the course of our up-tempo century, and we are too busy keeping up with it all, to even grieve the loss.

Graphic arts are still with us, now an aspect of technology -- indeed, some remarkable work is being done with Photoshop and such software. I'm sure it qualifies as art (or will, before long) . . . but when work is done so fast or easily that time cannot be taken to linger over it, to redraft and rewrite, even a dozen times, even half a lifetime if it feels necessary -- this is what real art calls for, by my definition of it. Something polished and refined comes of it, that will outlast its immediate utility.

In our Crescendo Century, we've run out of time for any such luxury. These 1927 clips generally take their tempo and time for granted (naturally), so one has to root around for the evidence of it, but I found it in a squib that was part of a catch-all column, a quote from Herbert Hoover, soon to be President, who speaks of the "almost instantaneous" distribution of films. "It is but a question of weeks," he says, "between the appearance of a great picture in Buenos Aires, Santiago, Rio de Janeiro, and their appearance in New York and San Francisco." The film, Flying Down to Rio, was still six years away. What lovely, liesurely innocence!


What's really fascinating about this day-of-my-birth paper is how it evocatively flashes me through a review of my entire life. It's almost as if I were born into a set of themes, in which I necessarily had to participate in order to truly be 'of my time.' It would have been a different range of items, entirely, fifty years earlier, whereas these set the stage of my world with a predictive quality that is almost uncanny.

Like that small conjoint reference to films and South America -- for a reason that I might only guess at, there was a rash of films in the '30s to early '40s with Latin American themes, implanting in me a never-fulfilled dream to go adventuring down there. Some of the earliest books I indulged in were on that motif, and one of my youthful heroes a British explorer, Col. Percy Fawcett, who had vanished in the Amazonian wilds, shortly before I was born. As late as 1946, I was still compiling data for such travels, and it was only the opportunity of a college paper editorial post, that summer, that dissuaded me from joining someone on a bicycle adventure through Mexico -- turning the focus of my world around, and putting the dream forever after out of reasonable reach.

Even allowing for the rationalized overview that our lives reflect common themes of the times, some of the specific references in this birthday paper are so precise as to be spooky. Like the one at the top, here, on preserving "Old Ironsides" -- a name given to a grand old American naval vessel, that no one except us oldsters, and maybe tourists to Boston, would even recognize, today. One of my very earliest memories is of a first-grade class tour of Old Ironsides, in 1933, when it was moored at Oakland and I was a San Jose schoolkid. It made a really deep impression on me, and some images still remain, after 66 years.

Then we have a small item from the financial page, about the Bank of Italy, that brings back a kind of significant memory. That, of course, was the Bank of America, in embryo, and I actually did banking with the Bank of Italy! It was A.P. Giannini's genius to set up accounts for school kids -- we got a little bankbook, and brought weekly deposits of five or ten cents to school on the day that the bank teller came by. That was in 1936, if my recall is accurate, and I had reached some grand sum of savings like $1.67 with interest accrued, when I somehow knocked an aunt's pair of glasses over the table edge to break a screw fitting on it. As I recall, a dollar and a half of my hard-gained savings went to pay for it, and that was the end of the banking mystique, for me. It was supposed to teach thrift, but what it taught me was never to save for tomorrow what you can spend today.

And below that is an ironic little item that is really a minor gem in its own right: Henry Ford suffering an auto accident! It served him right, for having brought the fuel-burning combustion engine to something less than perfection, forever changing the American environment, not to mention the daily street scene we have to cope with. I have my own connection -- not to Henry, but with the devil-machine that he foisted on the land. It was the only new car I have ever owned -- a 1951 Ford.

I had my own accidents with it, too. It's interesting, how we intentionally subject ourselves, with a car, to the risk of bodily harm, which no sane individual chooses to court, from any other source. I mean, we try to avoid shootouts, rioting in the streets, bungie jumps, hitch-hiking (most of us, at any rate) -- but we join in the freeway madness with daily abandon . . . even though the sight of a crumpled mass of metal under tow is not really all that rare. Well, I got mine, more than once -- it's a wonder I'm still alive, as I think about the close calls that Ford put me through.

And finally, a theme that has been a tormenting thread in American life for the entire century, touching my own at various points along the way: the much feared corruption by godless (read: anti-capitalist) communism. Our cultural preference, apparently, is wage-slavery, since it provides the chance of breaking free . . . though precious few of us ever manage it.


What really speaks to me, however, is this Sophie Irene Loeb column, garnered from the Womens Page (yes, they actually had such a section, in those pre-feminist times -- and may, still, in backward parts of the country -- a remnant of the age of chivalry, when women got their perks without having to fight for them in the hard-knocks economic marketplace).

Footnote: I know, I know . . . Women fought for their perks in other venues. At the same time, I think they misjudged the 'freedom' and glory of the economic marketplace, and are coming to realize that it cuts people as badly down as that butt of all battering: patriarchy. We have a common foe, and I think it's now evident.

What Sophie writes for the gentler, more aesthetic sensibilities of the womens page could never have seen print in the mens section -- the financial page, say, to which it more pertinently applies. Only poets could have safely ventured such sentiments, without being accused of cultural heresy -- by the American Legion, at least. But she lays out my guiding philosophy, the one that I blindly groped toward for 44 years, before it fell into place for me. She says it all, here in this column, on the day of my birth.

She doesn't frame it as radically as I might, to be sure -- it's couched in the extra daylight hour of April (before DST made it two), and the magic of spring -- but anyone who can relate to what she says knows full well how the heart yearns to escape those tepid boundaries. Even I, for that matter, had to find my path by the route of necessary limitation. It does not seem possible, when we've been bound to the grindstone of a daily job for half a lifetime, that it could ever really be otherwise.

I had to reach the earning power of a technician (ordinarily scored with some dedicated trade schooling or else a lengthy apprenticeship, without a college degree -- none of which I had), before I could see over the income-level barrier that had been my rut for two working decades. And then, I had to envision the potential of short-term contract employment, in this newly in-demand field of programming, to conceptualize the idea of taking large chunks of time to myself. It began that way, with the thought of earning enough in a half-year's time to coast for the other half. After what I learned from the Bank of Italy experience, I could never have managed it by the nest-egg route, which is the vogue today.

So those of us who respond, with Sophie's passion, to longer days and springtime, but cannot sit still for just that, reweave our lives continuously, looking for the right avenue out of the bind. And as we get closer to it, find that we're willing to make sacrifices we'd never intended -- maybe never imagined we could -- in order to get over the last hurdles. Seeing what my addiction to the automobile had actually been costing me was a big recognition. Being willing to slice my security ever thinner -- a stage-by-stage process -- took me even further.

Somewhere along the way, it ceased to be privation and insecurity, and became a kind of game. I think that happened when I began to sense that there was something other than pure chance, or my own wiles, at play in all of this. I don't think one can really be free of anxiety pressures until this crossover takes place. And once it does -- well, the rest of your life is your own, never again to be pushed by anything you really don't want to be doing, or any concern that you might oneday fall back into that rut. It deserves emphasis, though, that the necessary insight cannot be gained so long as your life is entirely at the mercy of economic goals or visions.

But primary to all, I had to first know Sophie's truth, as expressed in this column, and know how deeply it mattered to me, before I could even begin to find my way out of the pit that life had seemed to consign me to.

* I know, I know . . . Women fought for their perks in other venues. At the same time, I think they misjudged the 'freedom' and glory of the economic marketplace, and are coming to realize that it cuts people as badly down as that butt of all battering: patriarchy. We have a common foe, and I think it's now evident.

For sheer positive impact, and promise hardly yet realized, nothing in the century supersedes the changes wrought by the women's movement -- first for gender equality, and at a far deeper level for a feminized perspective on life. I pointedly bypass the term 'feminist' because I think what we're moving toward will be less political and more wholistically about how to live: what is worth living for, how most naturally to achieve it, and how to work ourselves gradually free of the social quagmires engendered by a millennium of patriarchy.

In other words, I see this movement as barely begun, and what is thus far seen of it, only the hard, blunt fighting thrust of some pretty gutsy women who had to force the issues at political levels. As a society, we needed to be shaken out of some stodgy ideas about what we supposed were "natural distinctions" between women and men. That battle still continues . . . the deeper and more enlightening one is hardly underway.

My birthday paper annotates a victory along the way -- not here, but in Britain. Womans suffrage, achieved seven years after it came in this country, the culmination of nearly a century of persistent, sometimes violent activism. What's interesting about the article is the way it tells of the hard-bitten resistance to this reform. No different than it was, here. In fact, it is amazing to read (from other resources) some of the hangups that delayed suffrage for so long, in this country. Objections that women would be coarsened by the voting privilege (is that how men got that way?), their femininity eroded. At one point, it failed of a Senate passage because if black women were included, it would upset the delicate power balance in the south. A more honest acknowledgment, that, however, than the south's antebellum claim that slavery was really good for the Negro.

But back to our topic . . . The paper, in more subtle ways, conveys the attitudes and patricentric values that were commonly taken for granted at that time in our evolvement. You may have caught it in Sophie's second paragraph, earlier, where she quite unthinkingly observes that women do not "pore over [household] accounts," but "sew or bake a cake." Here is another unquestioning instance of it, in Patricia Lee's response to an overwrought man, writing for advice about how to deal with his headstrong wife. The advice columnist completely affirms the 'man of the house,' observing that he "cannot permit her present attitude and maintain any respect from her."

That's the way it went, in 1927 . . . That's the world I came into. I like to think that I've pretty much overcome that handicap, even that I am a feminist from way, way back -- though I know a few women who would erupt in laughter, at the suggestion -- if not in tears. I do, however, know that I've always felt an unusually high envy of women, almost a degree of awe over woman's 'way of being,' her unique kind of perception. It's made me especially appreciative of the change underway.


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