Steamer Trunks and Ink Stained Bloomers


, , , , , ,

blyHer life story fails miserably as a work of fiction. No self-respecting publisher would buy it. A would-be Shakespeare, spinning her tale in a local theater, would get laughed off the stage. Her story had to be true, because it was too pat, too dramatic, too epic to be made up.

One of 15 children, uneducated and thrust into poverty at an early age during a period in American history when even educated, advantaged women lived in the shadows of their husbands, Bly overcame all that to revolutionize American journalism and leave an indelible mark on American business and technology. She was once so obscure that historians lost her trail for five years; a decade later, she was perhaps the most famous woman in the world.

It’s preposterous. All of it.


Elizabeth Jane Cochran was born May 5, 1864 in Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania, north of Pittsburgh. She was the thirteenth of Judge Michael Cochran’s fifteen children. Cochran’s Mills, formerly Pitts’ Mills, was renamed for Judge Cochran in 1855, five years after he was elected associate justice of Armstrong County, Pennsylvania. In addition to his duties as a justice, Judge Cochran was a store owner, mill operator, and real estate speculator. Young Elizabeth’s family called her “Pink” for her brightly colored dresses.

Pink’s father provided his enormous family a comfortable living, but he died when Pink was six; he neglected to leave behind a will. The family’s assets were auctioned off and split among the judge’s many heirs; Pink’s mother was left with a small annuity and a negligible allowance for her minor children.

Forced to move and desperately short of money, Pink’s mother married John Jackson Ford in 1873. Ford was abusive, and they divorced in 1879. Testifying on her mother’s behalf, 15-year-old Pink recounted her stepfather’s brutality in open court.

Pink learned to read and write in the Methodist Episcopal Church in Apollo, Pennsylvania. At fifteen she dropped her childhood nickname, changed her surname from Cochran to Cochrane – possibly for legal reasons, but more likely because she didn’t know how to spell her own name – and enrolled at the State Normal School in Indiana, Pennsylvania.

Her college experience was short-lived. Her mother lost a lawsuit regarding her father’s will, and Elizabeth ran out of money before she was able to complete her first semester. Her formal education at an end, Elizabeth joined her mother and her older half-brothers, Albert and Charles, in Allegheny City, a suburb of Pittsburgh, in 1880. Little is known about the next few years of her life.

Elizabeth popped back into the public record in 1885. Under the pseudonym “Little Orphan Girl,” she wrote a scathing response to what she perceived to be a sexist editorial by Erasmus Wilson in the Pittsburgh Dispatch. The Dispatch managing editor, George Madden, impressed by her lively writing style, placed an ad in the January 17, 1885 edition, asking “Little Orphan Girl” to reveal herself. Elizabeth appeared in Madden’s office the next day, and Madden made her his newspaper’s first-ever female reporter.

Her first article, “The Girl Puzzle,” appeared in the paper on January 25, 1885 under the byline, “Orphan Girl.” Madden felt Elizabeth needed a more permanent pen name; someone walked by his door, whistling an old Stephen Foster song – accounts disagree on the identity of the whistler – and Madden’s little orphan girl became Nellie Bly.

Bly wasn’t a polished writer, but she quickly built a reputation for the vivid, compelling characters that lept from the pages of her fiery prose. First drawing on her own life, she called for women’s rights advocates to put their money where their mouths were, and suggested that men of poor character should not be allowed to marry. Once she had her feet set, she embarked on a serious of eight articles about conditions in the Pittsburgh slums, focusing on the plight of working-class women.

The series was controversial; Bly generated sympathy when she described the poor working conditions, but her ribald tales of drunken promiscuity garnered less charitable reactions from the paper’s Victorian audience. Madden, bowing to pressure from conservative readers, sent Bly to the woman’s desk and told her to focus on feminine issues. Chafing against her gender-protected yoke, Bly started a weekly column in which, among other things, she agitated for a women’s version of the YMCA.

Bly’s column, and her subsequent employment at the Dispatch, was short lived. There are a number of differing versions of her exit from the Dispatch. According to Laurie Delaney, when Bly bumped egos with established Dispatch columnist Bessie Bramble, arguing that Bramble’s favored Women’s Christian Association “did not do enough for working women,” Bramble got the uppity young columnist booted back to the woman’s beat. Bly resigned her position with the paper shortly afterwards. According to Lea Ann Brown, who did not go into specifics – or mention Bramble – Bly simply tired of the woman’s beat and talked Madden into sending her to Mexico for sun, fun, and a story she could sink her teeth into. According to Bly, in her book Six Months in Mexico, she was in Mexico as a correspondent for the Dispatch.

old nellyBly originally traveled to Mexico City with her mother, but her mother fell ill and Nellie sent her home, “defying conventions of the period that frowned on unescorted women.”

Bly traveled the countryside freely, sometimes alone and sometimes in the company of American poet Joaquin Miller. She learned to speak a good bit of Spanish, and she found ways to communicate with villagers who spoke in regional dialects – Spanish mixed with tribal tongues.

Bly wrote extensively about Mexican customs, food, and weather, along with a number of other subjects that any travel writer would cover, but she also wrote unflinching exposés when she uncovered corruption, up to and including the top levels of the Mexican government. When word of her Dispatch articles trickled back into Mexico, Bly was forced to leave the country.

When Bly returned to Pittsburgh, she decided that she was ready for a larger challenge. So, in the summer of 1887, armed with her press clippings and little else – she had less than $100 to her name – she moved to New York. Bly believed that her reporting style fit perfectly with the stated mission of Joseph Pulitzer’s World. She spent most of the next few months at the World offices, trying to get in to see Pulitzer and his managing editor, John Cockerill, but she was continually rebuffed.

After being mugged in Central Park – and robbed of her savings – Bly was forced into a make-or-break, final assault on the World offices. She held the offices under siege for three hours before an opening presented itself. While the guards were arguing over what to do with her, Bly simply walked past them into Pulitzer’s office, where Pulitzer and Cockerill were taking a meeting. The men were impressed with her pluck as well as her portfolio. She wasn’t hired at once, but she was given a retainer to tide her over until they figured out what to do with her.

In September, Cockerill gave Bly the assignment that would make her famous and establish her reputation as an investigative reporter. She was to fake insanity and get herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island. After a night spent practicing her insane look in a mirror, she took a room in a working girl’s home and put on a show. Nellie Bly became Nellie Brown – plus, for a short time, Nellie Moreno when a judge mistook her for Cuban when she responded to him in broken Spanish – and convinced everyone around her that she was amnesiac and unhinged. Transferred to the asylum, she immediately dropped her insane persona and returned to her normal manner so as to avoid the appearance of “baiting” the guards into action. She lived in the asylum for ten days before the World came and got her out. The series of articles she wrote for the World ultimately became her book, Ten Days in a Madhouse.

nellie olderIn her article series, Bly described the conditions in the asylum, and the treatment inmates received from the staff. She described baths of ice-cold water, filthy clothing, threadbare blankets, and spoiled food. The rooms had no heat, and the inmates were forced to get through the nights with a single blanket. The staff used violence to control the population, administering beatings to inmates who acted out. She recounted how inmates were forced to sit still for hours on end; they were not allowed to talk, read, or interact in any way with other people. She expressed the opinion that a sane person, forced to live in such conditions, would go insane within a few months. She believed that many of the inmates, especially the ones who could not speak English well, may have been sane when they were admitted. Bly had dropped her insane act as soon as she entered the asylum, but nobody had noticed. After her release, which the Asylum fought, Bly called the Blackwood Island asylum “The human rat-trap, easy to get into, impossible to get out of.” An official inquiry and Grand Jury investigation directed the State of New York to earmark an additional $1 million per year towards the asylum, to upgrade the conditions and inmate care.

The World hired Bly as a fulltime reporter, and Bly’s eyes, ears, pen, and magnifying glass went to work, rooting out corruption wherever she could find it. She went after employment bureaus, arguing for the regulation on both sides of the employment equation. Hers was one of the first voices calling for fair labor practices, at the front end of what became a major labor movement. She spread gallons of ink in defense of working women, going after factories, sweatshops and schools, who promised big things for working girls but failed to deliver. She uncovered a baby-selling ring, conducted interviews with such subjects as Women’s Suffrage Party presidential candidate Belva Lockwood, Buffalo Bill, John L. Sullivan, and the wives of presidents U.S. Grant, James Garfield, and James Polk. She went undercover as a lobbyist and successfully bribed “The Fox,” Edward R. Phelps, who was known as “the King of the lobbyists.” She even trained elephants, though their corruption wasn’t considered a crime to anyone wearing waterproof shoes. She put her life in danger time and time again, exposing herself to malaria, yellow fever, cholera, and tuberculosis, and a number of dangerous animals – most of them on two legs.

megg merrilies

A “Meg Merilee”

Bly’s success as a stunt reporter led to a long, roaring river of imitators, many of whom were put to work by the World. Ada Patterson, from the St. Louis Dispatch, was called “the Nellie Bly of the West.” One Nellie Bly imitator put on a bullet-proof vest and had herself shot for her story, titled “Meg Merilee feels what it’s like to be shot!” “Meg Merilee” became a catch-all term for Bly’s imitators. The “Meg Merilees” had little trouble mimicking Bly’s surface attributes; the standard template was for a pretty, young, innocent-looking girl to place herself where a pretty, young, innocent-looking girl wouldn’t normally be found. However, they rarely aspired to what elevated Bly’s work above the level of publicity stunt to the level of investigative reporting. Being shot was sensational, but it was pointless. It revealed nothing, and it led to nothing. Many of Bly’s stunts effected genuine change, and substantive reforms. Bly’s stunts shined light into shadowy corners, scattering the vermin who hid in the darkness. The Meg Merilees just clamored for attention.

Bly is best known for two stunts: Ten days spent in a madhouse, and seventy-two days spent circling the globe. The inspiration for her second stunt was the Jules Verne novel, Around the World in Eighty Days. Bly proposed the stunt to her editors in 1888, over a year before she left, but the paper hesitated. The World’s business manager did not believe that Bly could travel without dragging so much luggage along that transfers would be difficult and time-consuming, or that she could travel without an escort. He suggested that the paper should send a man. Bly’s response was blunt: “Start the man,” she told him, “and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.” The World did not agree to the stunt right away, but they promised Bly that they would send her if they ever decided to try it. It was over a year later when she received a note to see the editor in his office. Cockerill asked her, “Can you start around the world the day after tomorrow?” Bly packed one tightly-stuffed bag and she was ready to go.

The trip was recounted in a series of articles, posted to the paper from all over the world and later published as Around the World in Seventy-two Days. A contest was conducted, with a trip to Europe awarded to whomever could guess the correct time of passage; nearly a million entries were received. Cosmopolitan magazine, then a struggling young monthly paper, sent reporter Elizabeth Bisland out on the same day, in a different direction – giving the young Meg Merilee six hours’ notice to get ready – in an attempt to beat Bly around the world. A bad connection in Southampton, England, variously attributed to shenanigans by both groups, doomed Bisland to second place and obscurity. Bly was able to overcome delays of a day in Amiens, France, taken out of the schedule to meet with Jules Verne; five days in Colombo, Ceylon; five days in Hong Kong; and four days in Yokohama, Japan to beat the fictional Phileas Fogg’s “record” of eighty days by over a week. Cannon fire, fifteen thousand screaming fans, and most of the Jersey City government greeted Bly when she reached the New Jersey Depot of the Pennsylvania Railroad at 3:51 PM, January 25, 1890. The crowd cheered wildly as Bly was “clasped once more in her anxious mother’s arms.”

nellieBly’s trip made her a worldwide celebrity. She went on lecture tours, traveled the party circuit, and rubbed elbows with the rich and famous. She pioneered a Sunday column in 1893 that paid her a reported $20,000 per year. She covered the violent Pullman strike – the only national reporter to report the story from the side of the strikers – and she continued to conduct interviews, adding activist Emma Goldman and Socialist leader Eugene Debs to her guest book.

By the time she interviewed Debs she had transferred her byline to the Chicago Tribune,. She worked there just five weeks before marrying 72-year-old millionaire Robert Livingston Seaman, on April 5, 1895. She was 31. She continued to write, returning to the World in 1896. She covered the National Women’s Suffrage Convention in 1896, interviewing Susan B. Anthony. Her final article as a World reporter came in March of 1896; in it, she proposed the formation of an army of women to fight in Cuba. Shortly after, she left for Europe with her husband.

Bly’s marriage to Seaman had gotten off to a rocky start. The newlywed Bly criticized her husband in print, writing about how a proper husband should act. Seaman hired his caretaker, Henry Hansen, to follow his new wife around, to see what she was up to. She had Hanson arrested. Seaman’s relatives did not care for the youthful Bly, who had positioned herself to siphon off their potential inheritance. Bly, in turn, did not care for Seaman’s friends and family, or “the company her husband kept.”

Bly often ate alone, partly due to her husband’s friends, but partly because she had spent her entire life dealing with the world as a single woman. Bly was charming and personable when she needed to be, but she had never cultivated close friendships. Other than her mother, she rarely dealt with her family outside of a bewildering array of lawsuits that began while her father’s body was still warm and continued on past Bly’s own death, decades later. Bly was not a family-oriented person, in all likelihood, because her own family had made her life a living hell.

Forewarned is forearmed. Bly had been fighting with her family in the courts since she was a child; she was not about to put herself in that position again. While the couple was in Europe, she convinced Seaman to change his will, making her the beneficiary. She also convinced him to transfer much of his property into her name, so she would not have to fight with her in-laws in probate. After the couple returned, in 1899, Bly immersed herself in Seaman’s business, the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. Seaman’s death, in 1904, led to a five-year inheritance battle, but by then most of the estate was already in Bly’s name. She paid little attention to the court proceedings, which ultimately were decided in her favor. She concentrated on running the family business.

By 1901, Bly was listed as the sole owner of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. The company manufactured metal products, including milk cans, boilers, tanks, and kitchen ware. Bly introduced several innovations to enhance employee morale, including healthcare, gyms, and libraries. Bly, or Bly’s company, was awarded patents for the stacking garbage can, the forty-two gallon steel oil barrel – the forerunner of today’s fifty-five gallon oil barrels – and a new type of milk can. Bly came up with the idea for the steel oil barrel while visiting Europe, where she saw steel glycerin containers.

Company superintendent Henry Wehrhahn received two patents in 1905 for the new design, which he assigned to the company. The first was for flanged encircling hoops that allowed the barrels to be maneuvered while they were being rolled; the second was for the design of the barrel lid, which was readily detachable but provided an effective seal. The company flourished for several years, employing 1,500 people and producing 1,000 barrels per day, but by 1911 the company was in serious trouble. Fraud committed by some of the company’s older employees led to bankruptcy proceedings, lawsuits, and a charge against Bly for obstruction of justice.

olderAccording to conflicting accounts, Bly traveled to Austria either to flee from the arrest warrant, to search for financial backing, or both. She was still there when World War I began. Penniless, she returned to the newspaper business, reporting from the front lines for the New York Evening Journal. She walked through the trenches to share the experience with her readers, and she appealed for aid to Austria for war relief.

Arrested as a British spy, Bly was freed when the assigned translator recognized her. Arms in the air, he cried, “Every child in America seven years old knows Nellie Bly!” Austria ultimately landed on the wrong side of the war, creating a ticklish situation for Bly when she returned to America in 1919. She was repeatedly debriefed by the War Department, who questioned her patriotism even though she wore an American flag on her sleeve throughout the war. Once cleared by the War Department, Bly returned home. She continued to write for the Evening Journal, writing advice columns.

In her spare time, Bly worked to find homes for orphans, even adopting a child herself, and she worked to help the destitute find jobs. Her reputation as a writer had lost some of its luster, partly due to negative perceptions about her efforts on the behalf of Austria, partly due to the failure of her business, and partly due to her lukewarm level of enthusiasm for women’s suffrage, but mainly because the world had lost interest in her crusading, immersive reporting style. While she was still universally respected, many of the younger writers saw her as a relic from a bygone age. She covered the 1920 Presidential conventions for the Washington Times; even though she had been covering conventions for decades, she was once again reduced to the position of sideline reporter, tasked with giving the “human perspective.” In other words, Nellie Bly was back on the women’s beat.

The Roaring Twenties grabbed a hold of American society, but without the old reporter. The 57-year-old Bly died in Saint Mark’s hospital on January 22, 1922. Bly had come down with pneumonia two weeks earlier, and had gone downhill quickly. Her obituary ran in newspapers all over the world, and her longtime friend and colleague, New York Evening Review editor Arthur Brisbane, called her “the best reporter in America.”

Bly is mostly forgotten today. Her legacy surrounds us, though, because her innovations have proven to be remarkably durable. She built, filled, and made famous the role of the investigative reporter, developing an investigating template that was used by Woodward and Bernstein to expose the Watergate scandal. She brought barrel design into the twentieth century, and her designs still work in the twenty-first century. She walked the trenches in Austria, a model for today’s embedded war reporter. Her Mexico and around-the-world trips inspired great travel writers, from Hemingway to Kerouack.

Bly led the way everywhere she went. She interviewed radicals before anyone else was radical, and she championed causes before anyone else was a champion. She moved labor reform before it became a movement. She agitated against horrible conditions for working girls 20 years before the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, and she demanded better conditions in asylums 75 years before Ken Kesey wrote “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Bly led the push for large scale adoption agencies, job source organizations, and battered women’s shelters. She championed better working conditions for her own employees, and provided them healthcare benefits long before it became a popular employer incentive. She reported on strikes from the strikers’ point of view. She changed the world, time and time again – always out in front of the pack.

Little Pink Cochran’s epic transformation, from penniless orphan to the world-famous, world-changing Nellie Bly, was a story too fantastic, too perfect, too ridiculous for fiction. She had to be real.

And so she was.

I wonder when they’ll send a girl to travel around the sky.

Read the answer in the stars, they wait for Nellie Bly – Jayne Garrison



Arnold, Rachel, Hale, Jaqui, Nili, Ezekial, and Nosel, Sarah. “Nellie Bly: Galvanizing             Journalism.” 2015. Web. 29 May 2016.

Around the World in 72 Days: the Audacious Adventures of Nellie Bly. Dir. Christine          Lesiak. Nar. David Ogden Stiers. American Experience. 1997. Film.

Bly, Nellie. “The Complete Works of Nellie Bly. Amazon. San Bernadino, Ca. 13 Apr.          2016. Print.

Brown, Lea Ann. “Elizabeth Cochrane (Nellie Bly).” Gale Dictionary of Literary                   Biography Complete Online. 1984. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

Delaney, Laurie. “Nellie Bly.” Gale Dictionary of Literary Biography Complete Online.            1998. Web. 23 May 2016.

Ernsberger Jr., Richard. “Nellie Bly: Fearless Reporter.” American History 50.2 (2015):        77. Military & Government Collection. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

“Extra: Welcome!” Evening Edition, the World. 25 Jan. 1890. U.S. Newspaper                    Directory, 1690-Present. Library of Congress. 2016. Web. 29 May 2016.

Garis, Viola. “The Scoop!” New Moon Girls 16.2 (2008): 18. MAS Ultra – School                Edition. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

Garrison, Jayne. “Nellie Bly, Girl Reporter. Daredevil Journalist.” Journalism                        Collections. Los Angeles Times. 28 Mar. 1994. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

Levy, Maya. “Mayalevyblog.” 2016. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

Lutes, Jean Marie. “Into the Madhouse with Nellie Bly: Girl Stunt Reporting in Late               Nineteenth-Century America”. American Quarterly 54.2 (2002): 217–253. Web.

McCollum, Sean. “Nellie Bly: Daredevil Reporter.” Mar 2016. Web. 29            May 2016

“Nellie Bly, American Journalist.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2016. Web. 22 May 2016.

“Nellie Bly Biography.” A&E Television Networks. 2016. Web. 29 May           2016.

“Nellie in the Lead.” St. Paul Daily Globe. 23 Jan. 1890. U.S. Newspaper Directory,               1690-Present. Library of Congress. 2016. Web. 29 May 2016.

“Reporting the Conventions for the Washington Times.” The Washington Times. 4               Jun. 1920. U.S. Newspaper Archive, 1690-present. Library of Congress. 2016.           Web. 29 May 2016.

Simkin, John. “Nellie Bly.” American History, Women’s Suffrage. Spartacus Educational.         Apr. 2013. Web. 29 May 2016.

Stevenson, Keira. “Nellie Bly.” Nellie Bly (2005): 1. Primary Search. Web. 30 Apr.                 2016.

Wells, Bruce A. “Nellie Bly Oil Drum.” American Oil and Gas Historical Society. 2014.             Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

On the Current State of Evolution

I think our current state of evolution might best be described as early adolescence.

In my way of thinking the beginning of domestication, with the resulting push towards civilization, symbolizes the time when a child would begin school. The Industrial Revolution symbolizes the beginning of puberty, and our current state of high technology and power over the Earth symbolizes the rapid physical, emotional, and intellectual growth of early adolescence.

Much like adolescents have to navigate through treacherous mazes of temptation and emotional turmoil, the human race has to learn how to balance the benefits that come with great power and control against the potential catastrophes that can result from shortsighted, unsustainable growth.

Adolescents, for the most part, survive the dangers of puberty and reach adulthood; statistics to that effect are freely available. There are no such statistics to reassure an emotionally immature yet all too powerful human race.

To paraphrase our instructor, we won’t know if we made it to adulthood until we get there.

On the Meaning of Life

I think life itself is the meaning of life.

Moments of pleasure, like spending time with family and friends, eating a good meal, seeing a good movie, even something as banal as the satisfaction we feel when we cut off a toenail are small prizes for living.

I also think life’s meaning is everywhere, but maybe we miss it because we look for meaning in large, concentrated doses instead of taking it as it comes to us. Something as simple as seeing somebody drop something and you pick it up and return it to them, that has meaning. The look of gratitude they give you fills you with a rush of good feeling. The meaning of life. You made a difference. You paid the rent for your personal miracle. Your life, by virtue of a positive interaction, had meaning. It can go the other way too, of course. Good can’t exist without evil out there, lurking in the shadows.

Even the tiniest gesture can change the world – the butterfly effect – so virtually all interaction has meaning on some level. It might just be that we are greedy about how much meaning we want out of our lives, so we don’t notice these tiny little doses, but they are all over the place.

Or we are just food. Either way I’m good with it.

On the Need for Government

How many people does it take to need a government? I see attention as the key. In pairs, each member can give virtually full attention to the other. Nobody is ever more careful to act in the larger interest than someone who feels as if he or she is being watched. The need for governing is virtually nil in a pair. In small groups there is a bit more freedom from watching and being watched. We don’t watch everyone, and we don’t feel like we are being watched all the time. There is generally a need for a familial sort of governing at this level; parents, den mothers, teachers and coaches can handle the governing at this level.

As groups get larger, the sense of watchfulness dissipates, at a similar ratio to the sense of being watched. There is a critical mass point in there somewhere where individuals lose personal interest in the group as a whole, and concentrate on only the parts of the group that they deal with directly. There is another critical mass point where individuals begin to feel as if nobody is watching them, and they lose the shame that keeps them from acting against the group’s interest. At this point there is a need for governance, to replace individual watchfulness and apply shame to the unwatched.

Sorting and Collating “I Heart Huckabees”

I took an introductory course in chemistry at the same time as I took Philosophy, so the concepts of attraction and repulsion were hanging out together in my cerebral cortex at the time I watched the movie and wrote this report. 

I originally thought Albert, Brad, and Tommy were all one person metaphorically fragmented, but if that were true why would Brad and Tommy have existence outside of Albert’s perception? I came to see each character as separate, circling around Albert’s own fragmented, unbalanced process of self-discovery. Brad is pure ambition, driven to conquer everything in his path through charm and calculated likability. Tommy is raw, random idealism housed in a shell of heroic hostility. Dawn represents narcissistic struggle, alternately begging to be stared at and demanding that we stop staring at her. The investigators work together – one aggressive, persistent, and intrusive, the other calm, instructive, and nurturing – to help Albert take down the walls and find out how he is connected to the world. Caterine represents a cynical view of the same world, where all is alone – unconnected – and nothing matters. The investigators teach Albert to open his mind and examine his thoughts, while the nihilistic Caterine teaches him to stop thinking altogether.

The two sides of the investigation remind me of something I learned just last week, in my Chemistry course. Nothing is solid; we are all structures made out of bits of matter surrounded by comparatively large amounts of space, held together by magnetic forces. Examining the opposing views of the investigators and their former prize pupil, this can be taken to mean that everything is connected – through the constantly mingling electrons – or that all matter is ultimately alone, untouched by other matter. We are attracted and repulsed, seemingly moving towards and away from each other, but in fact we are constantly circling, orbiting, but desperately clawing to get closer and further away at the same time. The symmetry of attraction and repulsion whipsaws us back and forth, between giddy, joyous attraction and hideous, depressing repulsion, until we accept this bizarre contradiction and, to borrow an old, tired cliche, learn to ‘go with the flow’.

Albert learns, through Caterine, that there can be pleasure in human drama. This opens his mind to the idea that both sides of the investigation are on the correct track, but themselves fragmented and unbalanced. Albert sees that connectedness and disconnectedness each have a role in human drama, circling each other; the metaphorical electrons try to pull everything together while the inertia of the center mass hides beneath its electron shield. He uses the analogy of nice things growing out of manure, which is easier to sniff out (sorry) but I think the better analogy would be that attraction and repulsion create a circling, swirling balance. The only way to stay on our feet is to, figuratively but also a little bit literally, keep our balance.

On Isolation and Origin Stories

To my mind, Plato’s parable about the birds helps explain how different cultures developed their own origin stories, and their own gods. The separate cultures completely isolated from each other in the early days of civilization, and they developed their origin stories independently. Naturally there would be disagreements – apples and oranges sorts of disagreements – between cultures when they ran into each other. I wouldn’t think that people would go to war over an argument about the differences between apple birds and orange birds, but arguments over the difference between apple gods and orange gods have been a serious problem since the early days of civilization.

I’m optimistic that this issue has the potential to actually dissipate over the next few generations. It will become more and more difficult to hold stubbornly onto provincial origin stories as our connectedness leads to an explosion in shared learning. We are becoming a global village; through social media our children will have friends all over the world – even if they never leave Spokane. Succeeding generations might find it difficult to hold onto provincial opinions when they can flip a switch on their phone and talk to someone on the other side of the world, with their own set of provincial opinions. As neighbors eventually learn to find common ground, I’m sure we as a global culture can learn to do the same.

On Creativity and Original Thought

After reading the work of David Hume, I decided – or was compelled – to test my ability to exercise independent, deliberate, original thought through my own free will. I sat still, attempted as best I could to relax my brain and mentally place myself in a starting gate, ready to spring forward with a spontaneous thought. What happened next, and happened every time I tried this exercise, was that my brain began to spin through options, like I was running my fingers through a mental rolodex.

The mental image I came up with was that the rolodex was spinning far too fast for me to see anything in detail, but as the slips flashed by I was able to sense glimpses in hindsight, like a memory of seeing what was on the slips. Some jumped out more than others, and as I remembered which ones stood out the most I looked around the room where I sat. I could either see what I remembered, or things that could easily have triggered the memory. For an example of the triggering reflex, my garage was in clear view out my back window. I associate my garage almost exclusively with mowing the lawn, since I recently moved in and my mower is just about all that I have in my garage. One of the clearest memories was of my lawn mower. Original thought seems to be the product of a trip through my mental rolodex of memories. Even inside the rolodex the memories that are on top are the most apparent, as if my brain were a chest freezer.

On Security, Freedom, and Familiarity

I think freedom and security are mutually antagonistic. I prefer freedom over security, given the choice, but I recognize that I am better suited than most to live with a lower level of security. I think I understand some of the reasons why many personality types prefer security over freedom; mothers want to protect their children, type B personalities don’t like to make a lot of decisions, and in time many people tire of the endless, competitive rat race and the constant stress that comes from exercising free will. Looking from another angle, we might just be drawn to security because we are drawn to the familiar, and security feels familiar while freedom does not.

Not everyone likes to exercise free will; many people I’ve known over the years bristle at the mere suggestion that there are options, and not just options regarding serious, long held views. As a bartender I’ve seen angry reactions to being forced to drink the wrong brand of cola, and some customers will not stay unless they can sit in a certain chair, drink from a certain glass, and even have the exact same napkin pattern in front of them. I can pour a drink for almost every one of my regulars without asking them what they want, and I am given the news in no uncertain terms if I don’t have the correct program on the television, even when the volume is off and the bar is full of scantily clad young women.

I think there is an ingrained reflex inside of us that creates this attraction toward the familiar. It might be as simple as nature selecting for infants who recognize their mother’s nipple, or part of our ongoing need to simplify our lives in an increasingly complicated world.

Thinking about my own habits and tendencies, I am as extreme as my bar customers. I have been obsessed my entire driving life with not taking left turns, and parking where I don’t have to back out. I will go out of my way to avoid both, and if I am not able to I feel anger and anxiety rise up inside me. I’ve even skipped an errand, or driven to a different store, to avoid backing out or taking a left turn.

On Existence according to Berkely

Some theories make me feel like a square headed skeptic, and the more I read the less sure I am about my square headed convictions, but I don’t have that doubt about Berkeley’s philosophical theorems. If you ask me Berkeley was not a philosopher, he was a salesman. He wished to prove the existence of his product (God), which could not be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched – so he was compelled to refute the existence of anything that those five senses were able to detect. I don’t see why the problem of tangible existence has taken so long to refute, aside from the general obsession humans seem to have with supernatural perceptions. It seems to me that the problem is fairly simple.

If an object exists, then by logical extension there is something that cannot exist where the object exists: empty space. When Johnson kicked the rock, he proved the absence of empty space where he ‘perceived’ the rock. He wasn’t alone – there was a witness – so the possibility that he imagined the whole thing is far-fetched. Our senses might not be perfect, but once an object has been proven to exist it is a simple, logical process to identity it’s characteristics as best we can with our percepting skills and agree on a name. I also think it’s a simple problem to prove an object’s existence outside of my perception. If I leave a rake in my garage, anyone can enter my garage and perceive the rake. In fact, anyone entering the garage and looking all around the room would be compelled to perceive the rake if I left the remainder of the garage empty, assuming the most basic human senses were available to them.

On Science and the Limits of Human Perception

The way I see it Science is a long-term work in progress, and it seems like the more science learns the more it establishes just how little it knows. I’m taking Chemistry right now, and there are a raft of current rules about subatomic particles – very specific, clearly defined rules – that are clearly transient. I’ve written about the Planck Length, and there is also a Planck time measure (the shortest measurable length of time). The physical rules of subatomic particles are fixed based not on their own properties, but on our ability to measure their properties. I understand why we have these limited measures. Our senses, even with the technology we are developing, severely limit our ability to analyze the tiny particles that make us and the massive distances that make the universe. We are a long ways from making Star Wars a reality. I consider it a triumph of human perception that we can even imagine Star Wars at our current level of evolution.