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Archive for May, 2011

 “So you’ve seen dwarfs rip open their bellies and show you their insides, you’ve been a television switched off without warning, you’ve experienced the whole world as one Krishna consciousness, free of individual ego, floating through the infinite cosmos of the soul? Big fucking deal. That’s all bullshit next to St. John’s trip when Christ laid the twenty-two chapters of Revelation on him. It must have been a hell of a shock for the apostle (after that thorough spin-job, the New Testament, all those sweet words and sublime sentiments) to discover Old Testament vengeance lurking around the corner after all. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. That must have been some eye-opener. …Revelation is where all crazy people end up. It’s the last stop on the nutso express.”

-Zadie Smith, from “White Teeth,” Chapter 15

 Evidently, if you want to call yourself a Christian, you must accept all of Revelation along with all the Gospels. But what are you if you can willingly or even enthusiastically accept the Gospels, but you unequivocally reject the End Times and the Judgment Day of the Book of Revelation? A non-Christian, a less-than Christian, or a faithful believer in the teachings of Jesus Christ?

“White Teeth,” Zadie Smith’s sweeping and masterly novel, is a sharply comic analysis of modern London society; a Dickens tale for the new millennium. Like two strands of interconnected DNA, Smith weaves the twin grand themes of the immigration of people of color from the Indian subcontinent and Jamaica and the impact of religious fundamentalism on this new, multi-racial society.

What Smith discovered and portrays with surgical precision is that the fundamental nature of fundamentalism is nothing other than monomania. She proves this by not only presenting us with a Jehovah’s Witness grandma from the West Indies and a Muslim extremist youth from Bangladesh, but also with a presumably atheist scientist whose sole passion is the genetic mutation of mice and his rebellious son, an animal right’s activist, who is out to destroy his father’s “future mouse.” All four characters’ brains have been washed by a different form of fundamentalist zeal, but the core affliction they all suffer from is monomania. None of them is able to function normally in the world because their minds and their judgment have been clouded by their various and contradictory forms of fundamentalist monomania:

• Jamaican grandmother Hortense Bowden has spent her entire life predicting and preparing for the last day on Earth, which is repeatedly revealed by the Jehovah’s Witness elders, all male. When the world lives on after the meticulously predicted date of its destruction, Hortense unquestioningly follows the elders in their conclusion that they had simply not interpreted Scripture correctly. A new date is rapidly inserted as a replacement, as we have just seen in the past week, when predictions that the world would come to an end on May 21, 2011 were definitively proven wrong.

• A sexy magnet to all women and girls, Bangladeshi Muslim youth Millat Iqbal throws off his many girlfriends and joins a proto-terrorist gang of Islamists because of his secret passion to act the role of a Mafia godfather. Re-educating himself, Millat strains to learn the precise and intricate physical poses required for proper Muslim prayer; the only positions that will not offend Allah.

• Geneticist Marcus Chalfen ignores everybody and everything in his quest to breed a mouse that will inevitably acquire the symptoms of cancer in an exact, pre-determined sequence. Scientific predictability becomes his monomaniacal vision, a stand-in for the God of religion.

• Chalfen’s son Joshua, horrified by the torture his father inflicts on his strains of mice, joins a radical animal right’s group, and conspires with them to destroy his father, by murder if necessary. Fear of a science-fiction future, coupled with an ostensible concern for the humane treatment of animals, leads him to the form of fundamentalist monomania that says, “God never intended animals to be hybridized or experimented upon.”

• A fifth character, Irie, suffers from a monomaniacal love passion for Millat, but this characteristic is tempered by her basic reason and her interest in her Jamaican “root canals”: there is hope for Irie.

When the four deluded characters race to confront each other in the dramatic denouement of the novel, it is reminiscent of the movie “Crash.” Zadie Smith deftly shows how their four radically different forms of monomania, clashing and battling with one another, escalate into a societal insanity that keeps humanity from living simply, effectively and peaceably. The unintentional heroes of the novel, unintentional because they never set out to be heroes, are the hapless Anglo, Archie, and his multi-racial daughter Irie, who do not have it in their characters to set reason aside in favor of monomaniacal fervor. Hampered as they are by a crushing indecisiveness (Archie) and a lack of moral conviction (Irie) that makes them appear weak, their very lack of direction is revealed to be an underhanded form of strength – an inadvertent open-mindedness that has protected them from falling victim to a misguided form of monomania. They did not set out to be open-minded or consciously intend to be open-minded; they simply were born with open-mindedness in their DNA.

The terrible thing about monomania, as Smith so articulately demonstrates, is that it prevents its victims from living mindfully; from being truly present. They are all slaves to their compulsions, regardless of whether the obsession takes the form of end-of-world fantasy, strict Muslim correctness, scientific triumph,or fear of scientific determinism. The truly debilitating trait of Smith’s characters is that they so immediately and automatically bounce back into their various monomanias, even when the mania’s underpinnings are revealed to be baseless, such as when the world fails to end on a predicted date.

True mindfulness, true presence is the opposite of monomania, and therefore the opposite of fundamentalist fervor. As Thich Nhat Hanh puts it in Chapter 10 of “Living Buddha, Living Christ,”

“For genuine awakening to be possible, we must let go of notions and concepts about nirvana, and about God. We must let go not just of our notions and concepts about the ultimate but also of our notions and concepts about things in the phenomenal realm. ….Our notions and concepts are the result of wrong perceptions. That is why, in order to have direct access to their reality, we have to abandon all of our wrong perceptions.” “

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As a corollary to valuing friendship so strongly, Bill Talley stood for a more personal world. What exactly do I mean by that? I mean that Bill was born into the highly personable, small-town world of Columbus, Georgia, and he saw no reason to relate any differently to the more complex society of a big city. Where some people may move to New York to take refuge in its anonymity, Bill brought a personal ambiance with him, wherever he went. He managed to screen out the gossipy, back-biting resentfulness of small-town life while preserving and spreading its highly personal relationships, its sense of neighbor helping neighbor.

When Bill moved to Seattle in 1960, it was still a small town, albeit a town steeped more in Nordic myths than Southern folklore. Without fighting growth and change, Bill meant to keep it that way. He never fought against anything, including his cancer; instead, he stood for something: health as opposed to illness; and personal connection in lieu of anonymity. Today’s Seattle is not a small town, nor is it a big city, but it is certainly growing away from small-town ways, toward an international culture of electronic interconnection, where the pleasure of casual, face-to-face social interaction is disappearing as rapidly as anywhere else. For example, I have watched the QFC supermarket cashiers being replaced by machines. If Bill experienced this deterioration of the personal element in society, he never mentioned it, because reinforcing the personal principle is what he simply always did, and did so simply! People ache for a return to a more personal world, where Jack is Jack and Jane is Jane, but you know their surnames and their families as well. They are still Jack and Jane from next door, not Jack with ATT in Indiana between 4:00 PM and midnight on alternate Wednesdays or Janimpura in Bangalore on Monday mornings.

So it was that Bill created a little society, a little civilization, around him, wherever he went. After summering on Cape Cod for two or three years in a row, virtually the entire community were his “new friends,” and he invited all of them in for lunch.

I can give a vivid example of this from my own life. Speaking of neighbor helping neighbor, in 1994 Bill and Judy went so far as to find me my first apartment in Seattle, at the Edgewater, while I was still wrapping up my affairs in California. When the apartment manager, a stern Scottish lady, asked Bill who this Brooks Kolb was – a Brooks Kolb who was conspicuous by his absence, and with no identification – Bill quickly replied, “You don’t know the Kolbs of Laurelhurst?” with a faux astonishment so convincing that the flustered lady quickly signed me in. It was as if my family fell just short of nobility.

This is what I call the “Bill Principle,” the conviction, which he never stated overtly, that Seattle (or Planet Earth) was a small town where everybody knew everybody, just like Columbus, Georgia, which gave Bill the charming Southern accent he could turn on and off at will. If you ever went out to lunch with Bill and saw the hordes of people he greeted individually and personally no matter where you were parking, walking or dining, it became abundantly clear that at least Bill’s Seattle was still a small town. Eyes gazing around him, Bill could work a room like nobody else except that other Bill, President Clinton, but you never felt ignored while he was doing it.

It should be clear by now that Bill was a very giving person. He gave freely of himself to everybody he valued, and quite a few he didn’t, and he made it look easy and natural. His “mentees” and protégés were numerous. While he appeared to indulge himself with the epicurean meals and wine that he and Judy prepared and served, it was really all of us guests and friends who were indulged. While on that subject, it must be said that Bill and Judy gave the best parties ever; they were “non-pareil.” The food and wine flowed, but the conversation and conviviality were the best part, reinforced by the fact that Bill’s friends had all been secretly vetted by his unerring judgment of character. We had all been chosen, I’m sure, for our own ability to pitch in at a social engagement, to participate; to have fun.

Bill’s sense of fun and humor was legendary. Serious but humorous by day, he took on the spirit of Dionysus at night. Entertaining guests on his lovely porch in Madison Park (another concession to Southern hospitality, of course,) he loved to elicit momentary shock, followed with a wave of laughter, by tossing empty bottles of wine over the railing and into the front garden that he had so meticulously but artlessly designed. Bill was the embodiment of hospitality, and he loved nothing more than to cook and entertain. Aha! Is there any wonder why he first studied hotel management at Cornell before opting for landscape architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design?

Bill was an extremely well-rounded, dedicated, accomplished and respected landscape architect. The University of Washington campus was his domain and he did his best to make it a lovely and enduring landscape and urban forest. He was also a humble person: he insisted on writing his own obituary, leaving out almost any mention of his significant accomplishments. He carefully prepared his family and friends in advance for his passing, over a period of months, leaving detailed instructions about his memorial service. Amazingly enough, he entertained guests on the very evening before his death. I was fortunate enough to speak to him on the phone that night, and I had no premonition that the end was so near. We spoke of Kauai, from which I had just returned and which Bill had visited the previous year, and we spoke of my family and his. It was a typical, wonderful conversation with Bill.

One thing Bill told me once really stayed with me. He said, “If anyone graces you with so much as fifteen minutes of their time” to discuss a personal or professional problem or quandary, “send them a thank-you note.” He certainly lived up to this principle, for many are the delightful thank you –notes and postcards I received from Bill and Judy over the years. Bill shared with me the belief that we are here on planet Earth only for a short visit. That doesn’t make our time here unimportant: you could call it an important visit.

Bill Talley came into the world with class and he went out with class. Doubtless, he is now in heaven chatting with his “new friend,” Elizabeth Taylor, who had the nerve to die the same week. Yes, it took someone of her stature to upstage him on the obituary page. I can just hear him saying to her, in his intimate and congenial tone, “Now Liz, why exactly did you have so many husbands, bless your heart?”

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