• Giving Optimism a Chance

    • Posted on Mar 11, 2018

    Here's today's (Sunday 3-11) Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier column.  It's about clear-eyed, evidence-based optimism based on Steven Pinker's new book ENLIGHTENMENT NOW. The book deserves a good look, and after a good pondering, a mind-change.  Hard-core pessimists will find reasons to dismiss it, but open-minded folks might find it helpful for rethinking the question of whether humankind is getting better at reaching long-held ideals.  



    So, is the glass half empty or half full?  I’m trying a new answer. 

    For most of my adult life, I’ve been a half-empty guy. Having grown up in those dark “duck and cover” 1950s, when the cold war seemed to threaten us all with nuclear annihilation, pessimism came naturally.  As a young boy I followed news of the Korean stalemate, followed by the Vietnam debacle—not exactly wars that rewarded optimists.

    I led a life of low-level fears that made my dark outlook fit reality. I was a catastrophist and pessimist, expecting the worst and usually finding it. I tried to solve problems, but there were too many. Despair struck often.     

    My wife of over two decades was blessed with a half-full outlook, and therefore challenged my bleakness, but never for long.  Humor and music probably saved me from sinking into a life of misery. 

    Comes now Steven Pinker with “Enlightenment Now,” a well-researched and data-driven book that’s impossible to dismiss. It’s a full-throated shout-out for optimism that has given me pause. 

    Not the cock-eyed optimism of dreamers, but a conditional and cautious optimism based on mountains of evidence that shows how everything has improved. 

    I might have to try the unthinkable and change my mind. Horrors. 

    At first, I roundly objected to Pinker’s idea that mankind is better off in every way than it was during my growing years.  Notwithstanding pessimism, I at least appreciated a time before military weapons were available to children, when white faces and voices ruled radio, television, and the movies.  It all felt familiar and safe.  

    This was back when a Presidential candidate like Donald Trump would have been unthinkable for his divorces alone, not to mention his endless and obvious character flaws.   

    Those were the days, my friends, we thought they’d never end.

    Pinker’s point, which he began developing in his 2011 book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” is that those good old days were pretty terrible for almost everyone. Income was meager, women and minorities were ignored or oppressed, two world wars had killed millions, famine, torture, disease, and cruel and inhuman treatment was the norm.  Even IQs were lower, according to Pinker, and he marshals charts, graphs, and data for every point.     

    In 2016, President Obama asserted, “. . .if you had to choose blindly what moment to be born, you’d choose now.”  Probably true, since modern medicine saves millions, as does better nutrition, better education, less violence, and so on.         

    Pinker cautions that none of the worldwide improvements to human life happened automatically. They required science, critical thinking, mass movements, motivation to solve problems, and large-scale financing.  Good will and optimism alone won’t change anything.  No complacency allowed. 

    So carry on, research scientists, engineers, teachers, problem-solving entrepreneurs, optimistic thinkers. You’ve succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, Pinker insists, and I’m inclined now to agree. 

    Pessimists, is the glass half full after all?  Read Pinker and maybe give optimism a chance.  

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  • Robert James Waller Remembered Fondly

    • Posted on Mar 19, 2017

    Published in this morning's Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier.  

                So much of what I know about Robert James Waller comes from memory.  Recent direct experiences have been spotty, mostly via email, and then only occasionally.  We’ve often gone for months at a time with no communication due to distances and general busyness. 

                The first half of our friendship, from late 1961 until the mid-1980s, consisted of finding, arranging, and performing songs we loved. It was all great fun because we gravitated toward intensely poetic lyrics and ballads, and our voices blended well.  We often played Waller’s songs, and they were among our most-requested pieces.         

                As our lives grew more complex with fewer shared interests, we gradually moved on. 

                He became more of a jazz musician and certainly more of a writer, beginning with his Des Moines Register columns and moving into longer essays and fiction, the first novel being his blockbuster “Bridges of Madison County.”  He kept writing, too, and his novels continued selling, though nothing reached the wild popularity of “Bridges.”     

                Our post- “Bridges” friendship was less intense.  When he did visit the area from his Texas ranch, we got together for lunch or dinner, and sometimes even sang a few of the old songs.   

                I still well remember those songs, recorded in the mid-1980s.  We went to Catamount studios, where ace producer Tom Tatman recorded, in one day, eight of Waller’s songs.

                His songs were full-on poetry, with complex stories and melodies that still challenge listeners with their density and soaring mystical visions.

                For a time he even wondered whether he could make it as a songwriter, and traveled to Nashville with melodies in hand.  Producers there told him his songs were not commercial.  “Go home and be a college professor,” they told him. “We’re selling toothpaste.”

                So he did, but I have little doubt that had some enterprising producer taken a chance, we’d all remember Waller’s songs. 

                Little known fact:  “Bridges” was a song before it was a novel. 

                It was a long lyric called “North Dakota Transfer,” about a powerful erotic tryst between a farm wife whose husband was on the road and an itinerant harvest worker who falls for her:

    She was sweet apple blossoms, in her old faded jeans,

    Forty-five years old, and shinin’ like the sun,

    And the touch of her hand on your face was like a breeze

    Blowin’ sweet and clear when the long day is done.

                The smitten couple endure a bittersweet parting.  A few years later, Waller fleshed the story out, set it in Iowa, made the harvest worker a photographer, and the rest is his story. 

                He succeeded as a writer far beyond anything he could have imagined.  Yet he also created a set of memorable songs, just as potentially popular as his fiction.

                As a friend, he left a legacy of warm memories of laughter, long talks into the night, and performing for large and loyal audiences.

                He sought modesty.  As he wrote in his final book “The Summer Nights Never End—Until They Do,” “We come, we do, we go—nothing more, and that’s about as serious as we ought to take ourselves.”     

                Robert James Waller certainly came, did, and went, and now his old friends and fans seriously remember him, fondly. 



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