A Brief Encounter with Some Good News for Once
We click on dispiriting news stories, but do we save any attention for signs of encouragement and progress?
Recently I learned that during the filming of the 1945 film Brief Encounter, the cast and crew took a day off for the celebration of VE (Victory in Europe) day. The director, David Lean, later famous for Lawrence of Arabia,wanted the people on his set to be festive, but rather because the motion picture cameras were needed to film the celebrations in the streets.
Has the United States or England breathed such a sigh of relief since the end of World War II? We thought the “end” of the Vietnam War, then the longest and most unpopular of all our wars, had come after five years of negotiations with the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, but the peace did not hold. In the United States, we knew neither the jubilation of victory nor the satisfaction that comes with the cessation of hostilities.
The people harmed by Saddam Hussain or Osama Bin Laden (and I suppose that includes all of us) might have been gratified by their executions, but no death brings the relief that comes with the end of a war.
And some bad news stories seem intractable. The death of former Sacramentan Tyre Nichols reminds us again of another instance of disproportionately brutal treatment of African-American men by police officers. His friends tell us that Tyre loved skateboarding and sunsets. One Black skateboarder tweeted this: “I’ve never been more proud of my Memphis Skate Community. They way Black skaters have been supported & the entire skate scene in Memphis has been front & center with the Nichols family. We’ve lost one of our own. We’re all grieving.” The tweet includes footage of Nichols doing amazing skating tricks that he learned while a Sacramento youth.
Domestic terrorists and insurrectionists have received vocal support from members of Congress. The incremental warming of our planet leads to droughts, loss of habitats, shrinking glaciers, and increasing threats of megafloods here in California. In a world marked by interdependence, the war in Ukraine is worsening the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
Closer to home (and a problem throughout the world), the ongoing pandemic continues to afflict so many in our communities with new infections, with the health complications associated with long Covid, and with lingering anxieties concerning both gathering with strangers (Is it safe? Probably not), and staying apart. The isolation, alienation, and apprehension we feel colors how we see our lives and the world.
The sudden progress reported in the news is typically technological rather than spiritual or cultural or, dare I say, meaningful. I’m reading a book now titled The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America in which Margaret O’Mara tells us the story of the personal computer being followed by the iPhone and then wafer-think table computers and ebook readers. In the last three month, ChatGPT has made us all aware of the early possibilities of conversational AI. Last week Microsoft announced a $10 billion investment in ChatGPT’s creator, OpenAI, its new partner.
The problems with these sorts of advancements, and the social media applications and services that drive the conversation about these instances of tech progress, is that they often serve to overstimulate us, and thus to drain us intellectually and emotionally in ways that we may not even notice. We are assisted in communicating, sharing, and accomplishing tasks faster, but we still sense that something is missing. Speaking in the context of “duhkha,” the Tibetan term for "unsatisfactoriness" (is that a word?) or "unease," the tenth-century Buddhist monk Tilopa said, “It is not the outer objects that entangle us. It is the inner clinging that entangles us." In our lifetimes, the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Stillness is the foundation of understanding and insight.” Whether or not you believe that popular technologies and services are “invasive,” as a reporter suggested in a recent piece in The California Aggie for which I was a source, we can be sure that most of these tools do not bring stillness.
So, I thought I would share with you some good news, news that might provide you a pause of stillness and a bit of encouragement during what many would see as a dark time.
· As I suggested regarding movie night that my son Truman organized in our house on this past Saturday, most of the world’s notable films are available for streaming or downloading right now. This is true also for the world’s books. My film critic dad accumulated one of Washington DC’s largest private film libraries because he wanted some control over the films he watched for pleasure. Today all of us can exert some of that control.
· The Giant Panda and the Manatee are no longer on the endangered species list. Perhaps Jack Black and John Lithgow are in part to thank? I hope the numbers of these beautiful creatures continue to grow.
· The nonprofit organization Ocean Cleanup is working to extract the hundreds of miles worth of floating plastic from the world’s oceans.
· The rains of January have enlivened all our Davis nature walks, despite what my wife Kate calls “the tree carnage.” One can smell the negative ions in the air, with the cold afternoons feeling so fresh and clean.
· During the Obama administration, veteran homelessness declined by 50%. Some of those veterans are still fighting the war in Vietnam decades after they came home.
· UC Davis professor Delmar Larsen founded a 501 nonprofit online educational resource project called LibreTexts that provides free and open access to hundreds of online textbooks that have been accessed by about a quarter-billion students from around the world. Those students have spent over a millennium of “confirmed reading.” One of the book projects that I mentioned in last week’s newsletter will be added to this list of OER textbooks.
· In May of 2021, during a fire at the Philippine General Hospital in Manila, two nurses rescued 35 babies from the fourth floor neonatal intensive care unit, including those on ventilators. Congratulations to national heroes Kathrina Bianca Macababbad and Jomar Mallari.
· Costco offers cases of Orgain organic nutrition nutritional shakes in creamy chocolate fudge flavor. I don’t drink coffee, but I reward myself with one of these on most evenings if I got some writing done that day. 16 grams of protein!
· Norway’s last arctic coal mine has been transformed into the 1,000-square-mile Van Mijenfjorden National Park. Imagine the gratitude of the 20 million birds that nest on the islands there, not to mention the 3,000 polar bears that see the park as their hunting grounds.
· In Berlin, Germany, a new place of worship called House of One houses a church, a mosque, and a synagogue in one building, with a communal area that connects them, a place for interfaith dialogue and social activities. The House of One is a place of peace that stands firm against religious and sectarian prejudice and hatred.
· Somehow the three colonies of bees living on its sacristy roof of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris were unbothered by the flames there, as well as by the smoke or the water that followed the fire. The beekeeper Sibyle Moulin, which is a fun French name to speak out loud, says this of the 30-45,000 insects in the three hives: “The behaviour of the colonies is perfectly normal.”
· Bessie Coleman, first Black person to earn an international pilot’s license (in France, in the 1920s), is being honored with her own Barbie doll. Coleman was a widely-popular stunt pilot who nevertheless refused to perform before segregated audiences.
· Up from just 2,000 in 2020, researchers counted nearly 250,000 monarch butterflies in California in 2021. Welcome back, monarchs!
· I love my wife Kate’s sassy new haircut. Not all of these are world news stories.
· Great people model good choices and phenomenal creativity. For example, the poet Dr. Maya Angelou inspired generations of readers, listeners, and viewers with her writings and her performances. I got to see her perform in Boston in 1988, and upstairs at Freeborn Hall (the same building where I host my weekly radio show), about five years later. Angelou once said this: “I'm convinced of this: Good done anywhere is good done everywhere. For a change, start by speaking to people rather than walking by them like they're stones that don't matter. As long as you're breathing, it's never too late to do some good.”
I hope this good news is doing you some good. Feel free to respond with your own encouraging words. Thanks for reading to the end, and enjoy the coming week!
If you would like to support this newsletter and/or the Pub Quiz that comes with it, please consider supporting this effort on Patreon. My patrons make all of this possible. Thanks especially to the Outside Agitators, The Original Vincibles, Quizimodo, and the other teams that support my Quizmaster work month after month!
For them, and for you, here are three pub quiz questions from last week’s Pub Quiz:
Pop Culture – Music. Lous Reed was part of what rock band that formed in the 1960s, and that was known for their experimental sound and their influence on the development of punk rock, alternative rock, and indie rock?
Sports. What is the national sport of Japan?
Science. William Harvey was the first known physician to describe completely, and in detail, the systemic circulation and properties of blood being pumped to the brain and the rest of the body by the heart. In what century did this physician to James I make his discoveries?
P.S. Poetry Night on Thursday at the Natsoulas Gallery features two first-time features: Rooja Mohassessy and Teresa Pham-Carsillo. Find the details at https://poetryindavis.com/archive/2023/01/rooja-mohassessy-and-teresa-pham-carsillo-read-in-davis-at-7-pm-on-thursday-february-3rd-2023/
P. P.S. Also, check out these upcoming poets, all starting at 7 PM with an open mic at 8 PM:
February 16: Robert Thomas and Beverly Burch
March 2: Dr. Andy Jones with Siri Ackerman
March 16: Former California Poet Laureate Dana Gioia
April 6th: Maya Khosla and friends
April 20th: Julia Levine and Susan Cohen
May 4th: Pam Houston with Talia Lakshmi Kolluri
May 18th: Lois Jones with William O'Daly
June 1st: New York Times best-selling author Mary Mackey