Tuesday, November 06, 2007

James Burke Connections techno meltdown

Off to the 3rd St. laundromat for quarters. One car parked outside, some Chevy economy, vanity plates “LILDVA.” Inside the Laundromat a human bowling ball, legs like ham hocks, billowing rolls. I hope she can sing.

Vanity plates. Something I’ll never do. One of many things, like bumper stickers, decals, spoilers, rims, or other urban flair adornments I’ll never come across. Though I wonder sometimes what bumper stickers I would put on my vehicle. Some trail logos. “I brake for hikers.” Something about rivers, Calvin pissing on a kayak. Two slightly contradictory stickers, like Jesus Saves and People Suck. I could also get window decals of Rock Valley College and NIU. My vehicle must be a total expression of me, my ego, my interests. Whatever.

Over 10 years ago I drove a school bus. Every day on my route I saw a car with vanity plates, “BRYMNLW.” It got so I looked for it everyday and gauged our separate schedules by where we crossed paths. Once, we stopped at an intersection, me facing west, she east, and I got a good look at her in the rising sun -- a fat, bespectacled, unadorned, short haired sexless woman. I figured she had many cats. And she reminded me of some of my own female relatives who never married. I also laughed inside when I thought about her being a fan of Barry Manilow. How schlock can you get? What next? The Franklin Mint.

Fast forward to July 2000 on the Appalachian Trail. I got a fever that lasted five days and knocked me off the trail for about three days. A Pennsylvania Dutch family, the Franz’s, took us in for a couple of days, and on the second day Mrs. Franz drove us to a grocery store. I was finally feeling better, fever broke the night before in a pool of sweat, and I had my appetite back. I was itching to hit the trail again.

At the grocery store a Barry Manilow song, “I Made it Through the Rain,” came on the radio. I listened to it and remembered the lady with the vanity plates from my bus route. I hadn’t thought about her in years. And then, I kid you not, true testimony to what a sentimental sap I am, I cried when I heard these lyrics:

I made it through the rain
I kept my world protected
I made it throught the rain
I kept my point of view
I made it through the rain
And found myself respected
By the others who
Got rained on too
And made it through

Why? Because it was a wet as hell summer for us on the trail, and it is harder to face the trail and elements when you’re wet all the time. And I had just beaten a horrible fever and was feeling refreshed, alive, right there, in the moment. I know now, over 7 years removed from that experience, how significant that moment was. I’ve heard the song a few times since, and it hardly moves me. I’m kind of embarrassed how affected I was when I heard it in that grocery store.

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago. I’m walking around DeKalb and I come across a car, same vanity plates. Fandom unwaning. Vegas calls.

I have included a video clip with this post of the first episode of James Burke’s “Connections” TV show for the BBC. It’s an odd mix of history, philosophy, literature, travelogue, and prophecy, all spiced with Burke’s witty earnestness and attention to detail.

I’ve included this clip because it highlights an essential modern dilemma -- our enslavement to technology. Burke uses an apt symbol, an elevator, to highlight the perils of technological dependence. Cut out the electricity and most people trapped in an elevator would not know what to do. I don’t know if that is necessarily true, what with so many TV and movie depictions of people trapped in elevators. Isn’t there always a trap door in the ceiling. But how often do you check for that trap door when you get in an elevator?

Burke talks about a world without electricity as he walks across a gray, asphalt road littered with abandoned cars. He uses this simple scenario to illustrate how ill-equipped modern man is to face the world without modern contrivances. As Burke flees the metropolis, he manuevers from elevators to his intended target, the plow, one of the first technologies that dramatically altered how humans lived and interacted with one another.

The integration of gasoline and electric powered tools into society is so complete that modern society could not function in their absence. Never before in the history of mankind has civilization depended so much on forces not within a grassroots control of the populace. As humankind changes the forces of nature, a hubris sets in. So few realize how razor thin is the veneer of social stability or how much our lives are shaped by the tools we use.


Gawdammit, I sound all preachy there. Me self righteous recycling eco-warrior, all guilty because I drive a vehicle with a V-6 engine. Me thinking, bring it on, Armageddon, because I would survive, when in truth I’m as dependent upon the technologies as anybody else. Though, unlike most, I am a neo-Luddite and would not mind seeing the machines stop and slow down the system for a while.


Just past Marshfield there was a wind storm.

He couldn’t fathom that only the grocery stores sold liquor, and at limited hours, but the bars could be open any time and sell whatever kind of alcohol. He walked to work in the mornings and saw the gentlemen drinking at the bar across from the bowling alley at 7 a.m. On his last day in town he stopped there on the way to work, drank a shot, and breezed on into the office. He did not linger long at the bar because his shirt and tie stood out against the grimy,grease-stained factory shirts of those around him. He’d always admired the bar from the outside, these couple years walking past it, hearing the laughter, seeing the neon lights in the windows, an air of cheeriness, the smell of stale cigarette smoke. These were fine witnessed from the outside, and from the outside it would be easy to give the scene a certain romanticism -- as if bloody mary’s and griddle-fried eggs and hash browns carry with them a certain dignity and poignance because they are witnessed wistfully from the outside.

When he finally experienced the bar from the inside, when what could be became what is, of course, it was a set up, no doubt, the romanticized notion of this place far outstripped the rather mundane reality of it all. There was laughter and conviviality here, to be sure, but only shared by those who lived and worked side by side in a place he, the outsider, did not know.

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