Friday, November 16, 2012

Another Meditation on "The Vault"

I've already written in a previous post about the long-standing symbolism of seeds as units of potential, and intellectualized about the human condition and whether we possess the ability to realize any kind of potential other than technological. Now that I'm finally putting pen to paper on this script, today's Friday meditation is more personal: How do we feel the expectations of our parents when we are children, and how do we place expectations on our children when we become parents?

As children, parental expectations produce all kinds of complex and contradictory effects. The biggest insult would be to feel that your parent(s) have no expectations of you whatsoever, which means that you're simply untalented and incapable. The biggest stress is to feel that your mother or father has gathered all of life's perceived failures into a giant heap and placed it on your shoulders--the "Tennis Dad" run amok. I recall recently reading an article ... probably in reaction to the "Tiger Mom" controversy ... about adults who as kids were pushed into prodigy. The lasting image was of a former virtuoso child pianist who now lives in a house in which a grand piano is suspended above him in the living room. Needless to say, he no longer plays, and probably has more than a sliver in his budget pie set aside for therapy.

As kids, you feel that expectation, for better or worse. You need to feel it. It needs to be there. And at some point, you decide whether you will embrace it or rebel against it. If you're lucky, your true ambitions match well with your parents' expectations, and you will be comfortable in your own skin. More likely, they won't be a perfect fit, and you will choose either to appease in exchange for approval, or reject (and face disappointment) in exchange for freedom. As a parent, I constantly think about those sacred cows I probably don't even realize I have, and the possibility that my only child might one day reject them (e.g., he'll not only reject the notion of studying abroad while attending a liberal arts college, he'll reject the entire notion of "college" as antiquated, and the concept of "liberal arts" as quaint, trite and no longer relevant).

And how will that make me feel? Disappointed in the rejection of what I value? Or pride in the fact that he is choosing to be his own man?

Friday, October 26, 2012

Taking Inventory

I've now finished the mandatory book-and-movie research phase of "The Vault." In theory. Sort of. Not really. Anyway, I thought it would be fun to list everything I've seen or read in the last few months to immerse myself in the strange realm of science fiction, dystopia, and um ... botany. Here goes, in no particular order, and probably missing a few:

Movies
Metropolis (original)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (original)
Little Shop of Horrors (original)
Wings of Desire
Silent Running
Prometheus
I Am Legend
Contagion
2001: A Space Odyssey
Blade Runner (supposedly the definitive director's cut, no VO)
The Thing (John Carpenter version)
Forbidden Planet
E.T. (okay, that was really for James)
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Children of Men
The Matrix
Soylent Green
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
The Grey
Solaris
Moon

Books
"Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" Philip K. Dick
"Collected Works of Philip K. Dick"
"Childhood's End" Arthur C. Clarke
"The Denial of Death" Ernest Becker
"Stranger in a Strange Land" Robert A. Heinlein
"At the Mountains of Madness" H.P. Lovecraft
"Botany for Dummies" (seriously)
"The Private Lives of Plants" Richard Attenborough

And the article that started it all
"Food Ark" National Geographic

It's been fun, but now it's time to mash it all up and bake a new cake.


Friday, October 12, 2012

Tinged with Expectation


“Facts collected by a poet are set down at last as winged seeds of truth ... tinged with expectation." 
- Thoreau

The symbolism of seeds is almost too obvious to mention. To the "weed scientist" I spoke with at the University of Minnesota nearly a year ago, a seed is simply a collection of genetic material. The more you look at plant terminology, the more "womb-like" seeds seem (they have "embryos," after all). But of course, the "seed" of anything represents beginnings and potential. Each seed is a story waiting to be told. 

THE VAULT attempts to use seeds to get at themes of human potential, or the lack thereof. Which is interesting, because in a way seeds (and plant life in general) put us in our evolutionary place. Plants predate humans by millions of years. And in fact, when you look at life from the perspective of a plant (which David Attenborough did in his book and subsequent documentary series, "The Private Life of Plants"), you start to see humans (and all animals) as subservient to organisms so sophisticated that they make their own food. All animals, even the staunchest carnivores, ultimately depend on plants to live, as no animal, not even an arctic seal, lives on a diet that doesn't start with plant life. And as for fruit ... well, what are fruits excepts billboards to animals saying "eat this" so that a plant's seeds can be dispersed when they come out the other end? We are plants' bitch. Humbling. 

As for the Svalbard Vault, or any gene bank for that matter, how perfectly does that creation sum up everything great and tragic about the human species? We have the forethought and scientific capability to fashion a way of saving a precious resource from a variety of unpredictable forces, including the most frightening of all: ourselves. This shows our complex relationship with our own potential. The writer Chris Hedges argues that we evolve technologically but never morally. Now, as in every political season, we are pounded with messages conveying our potential as individuals and as a nation. Yet as we age, we face the reality of seeing how flawed we become, and so we turn our  hopes toward our children in an endless cycle of "we screwed things up, but you can fix them." 

We are all, as Thoreau said, "tinged with expectation." The question is, given our mortality ... and more important, our relentless consciousness of it ... what can we truly expect of ourselves, can we ever actually live up to the various potentials that we can imagine, and even if we can't, is there an overall "forward" momentum, or are we merely standing in place, like a plant? 



Friday, October 5, 2012

Time to Open the Vault

A frost-covered door inside the Svalbard Global Seed Vault
So the time has come to get serious about finishing my new script, THE VAULT, by the end of the year. That's why I'm writing a blog post instead ...

Actually, blogging about THE VAULT is part of my intricate strategery for getting the script done. I'll never solve the mystery of what this movie is really about. But rather than conduct the investigation entirely inside my own head, I'm making it slightly more public. After all, I've been inside my head for over 40 years. It's crowded in there. And frankly, I'm a bit sick of it.

For those of you who don't know the basic premise of THE VAULT, here's a little background. A "seed vault," or "gene bank," is a site for storing the seeds of agriculture. Nearly every country on Earth has at least one seed vault. Our own National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation is based in Fort Collins, Colorado. The purpose is to have a secure central storage place for the seeds that your country uses to grow things. These seeds represent a huge chunk of a nation's economy.  Because after all, from seeds come the raw materials of not only food, but also clothing and shelter.

About five years ago, an American named Cary Fowler decided to do something on a grander scale: lead the construction of the world's first "global seed vault," containing backup copies of all the seeds stored in the national vaults. Why? Because genetic diversity in food-bearing plants is shrinking just as it's growing critically important. The math is highly unfavorable. Global population is skyrocketing, which will continue to put tremendous strains on our food supply. And yet the tools for growing that food supply are quickly dwindling.

Why is this important? Because plant genes form the "palette" from which you can develop fruit, vegetable, grain, legume, nut and rice strains that can survive extreme weather conditions and stave off nasty insects or fungi. To form a clumsy double-metaphor, it just so happens that when it comes to plant-based food, putting all your eggs on one basket can burn you. The Irish learned this in 1845, when the Phytophthora infestans fungus killed the tuber potato crop on which they had become totally dependent (also known as the Potato Famine). If you don't have the genetic palette to plant or create new resistant varieties of a plant ... and you're dealing with massive global climate change that affect soils, water supplies and the presence and migrations of fungi and bugs ... then you're basically on a road to disaster.

How much has our genetic palette diminished over the last hundred years? Consider this: A century ago, U.S. seed banks contained 307 varieties of sweet corn. Today, there are 12. I took that from this graphic, which should scare you.

So Cary Fowler's ("Fowler is an anagram for "flower," BTW ... go figure) Global Seed Vault was born in 2008 in the Norwegian town of Spitsbergen, which sits on the chain of arctic islands known at Svalbard, just 600 miles from the North Pole. Drilled 500 feet into a mountain, the vault is approaching 1 million seed varieties from around the world. It has already helped replenish seed banks in places like Iraq and Afghanistan (our wars led to looting) and the Philippines (flood and fire has destroyed existing depositories). Svalbard is built in a low-seismic, volcano-free zone, where the climate is amenable to preserving seeds and surviving nuclear war, the complete melting of the polar ice caps, and even an asteroid strike.

So back to my script. It started with a simple idea: What if the construction crew that was building the Svalbard seed vault stumbled on an existing vault in the exact same place, filled with seeds that no one has ever seen before? And that, my friends, is where the story begins.


Monday, June 11, 2012

Review: Moonrise Kingdom

When analyzing a Wes Anderson movie, it almost seems obligatory to state upfront whether you're "in" or "out." Are you a fan or detractor, a believer or a skeptic? It seems more appropriate to consider whether you're "fluent," because Wes Anderson seems to be a language unto himself, each of his movies a different republic in the linguistic empire.

I am indeed a fan. I've seen every Anderson creation short of "Fantastic Mr. Fox," and I consider "Rushmore" one of my 10 favorite movies of all time. Yet I can't exactly say why. Nor can I coherently defend a movie like "Rushmore" to someone who hates it or feels indifferent toward it. "Oh, you just don't get it," I'd like to say. But then again, I'm not sure that I can explain what "it" is.

All I can say is that, as with any Wilco album or episode of Mad Men, I believe that any Wes Anderson movie is almost automatically better than 95 percent of the genre-similar material around it. There's something in his preference for visual symmetry, human obsession, rapid sideways dolly moves, purposely formalized dialogue, interiors that resemble a dollhouse cut into cross-section, obscure Kinks songs played over slow motion, Bill Murray, people chewing, and general mixture of adult fatalism with childish idealism that I never seem to tire of. Like a Hopper painting that shows the faintest beat of life trapped within a landscape of loneliness, Anderson hits me on an emotional level just by the construction of his first shot.

So I entered "Moonrise Kingdom" with sky-high expectations. And indeed, they were satisfied for about 80 minutes. Taking the Wes Anderson "thing" and applying it to escapist misfit kids in a New England island landscape in the 1970s gave a fresh quality to a well-established cinematic vibe. But then something happened. At the risk of offering a semi-spoiler, I'll tell you that lightning literally struck. And from that point until the end of the movie, I realized how effectively Anderson had set up Moonrise Kingdom's internal logic, because he somehow violated it at that moment, and the center no longer held.

One moment, and everything evaporated. My caring for the kids faded. I no longer saw humor in the quirkiness of the adults. One particular recurring dialogue convention suddenly felt quite forced, even silly. It's as difficult to describe what went wrong as it is to describe everything that feels so right in a Wes Anderson movie.

I left disappointed, yet I would happily see it again. And maybe that's Wes Anderson's feeling on life in general, and what his films are ultimately supposed to leave you with.


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Thank You, Part IV

When I was a kid, I used to sit down one morning every December and read my father's collection of Christmas letters. He started writing them before I was born, so it was a compelling snapshot of a life in progress ... not only mine, but of each member of our family. If you could turn each paragraph written about you into a single image, stack those images like a deck of cards and flip through them, you could see an animated representation of your character, and the pattern and trajectory of your life.

Having entered my fifth year of self-employment, I now have a new "Christmas letter pattern" in the works. I don't mean my own family Christmas letter, which I model closely on my father's. And I don't mean the family photo I take every year in front of our house on James' birthday (that one is to literally create a flip book one day that will show James growing and his parents shrinking). I mean these digital thank you notes that I started writing on January 15, 2009.

Before writing this one, I went back and read the three previous entries. The flip book pattern that I see emerging is a combination of fear, shock and wonder. I will never forget the day (really the middle of the night) when I decided to "go it alone." I will never forget the odd combination of fear and liberation that ensued the moment I handed in my resignation letter a few days later. I will never forget the shock of having people offer me advice, office space, free services, and (most important) paid work in that first year. And I continue to be filled with wonder at where this whole thing is leading me.

As a writer, I should avoid cliches. But I can't avoid the metaphor of walking a tightrope with no net. That's still how this feels, and I think it always will. But rather than using that as an image of panic, I now realize how much that feeling focuses you. With so much at stake, you have to figure out what you can and can't do. Or, to use another cliche, you have to know what you know, and know what you don't know. You have no choice but to leave what you don't know to other people, be as confident as possible about whatever talent you do have, and strike a balance between the two.

Most important, I find new and surprising avenues of gratitude each year. Friends become clients. Clients become friends. And I experience unexpected support for other endeavors (I can't get through this without vaguely referring to "Memorial Day," nee "Souvenirs") that have gone farther than logic or probability would dictate. I sometimes feel that this tightrope has taken me into a strange land filled with the realistically impossible, or the pragmatically fantastic, or some other clumsy oxymoron. And I'd just like to say "thank you" to everyone who has gone there with me, and formed the invisible safety net below.


Monday, January 2, 2012

Damn You, Dawkins

Everybody knows the barroom philosopher (usually a post-collegiate male who is misdirecting his anger over not being able to get a date) who one night decides to spout on over a pitcher of pale ale about how “we’re all selfish” and “everything we do is selfish.” I’ve always despised this pseudo intellect, though I’ve never quite figured out why, and I’ve never directly confronted him. Inevitably, when he makes his argument, a well-meaning devil’s advocate will point to acts of altruism as proof that we are not, in fact, selfish—to which Frat Boy Socrates will respond, “A-ha! But when you do something altruistic, it makes you feel good. Therefore, even that is ultimately selfish.” To which I will respond (only in my head, because I’m severely conflict-averse) that if we were indeed “purely selfish,” then doing something altruistic wouldn’t make us feel good at all. And in fact, in such a state of selfish beginner’s mind, none of us would have the faintest concept of “altruism” in the first place. In fact, we would probably all be dead. 

All of this made me a bit reluctant when a CSC (that’s Coffee Shop Colleague) named Stuart handed me The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins, along with Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, is best-known as one of the New Atheists. But unlike his supposed colleagues, he’s an actual scientist (an evolutionary biologist trained in zoology, to be exact), and he’s written actual science books. Originally published in 1976, The Selfish Gene is still considered Dawkins’ seminal work. Yet I braced myself for the possible discovery that Dawkins is nothing more than the Oxford-educated version of the Pale Ale Pontificator.  

I was wrong.  The Selfish Gene is a far more complicated affair than I was prepared for. First, it’s not a terribly accessible book for the non-scientist. I imagine that it was considered fairly commercial when it was first published, but in the intervening 35 years, the bar for “accessible” has been considerably lowered. (Today, it might be called 25 Reasons Why Genes Control You—and What You Can Do About It.)

Second, its gene-centricity goes far beyond the typical news item about the latest study identifying “the gene responsible for drivers not using their turn signals.” I’ve done a fair amount of marketing work for (and, in fact, named) The Delta Center at the University of Iowa, a group of scientists who rightly challenge a simplistic, gene-centered view of cognition and development. So I was skeptical about the book’s uber-gene-centered view of evolution. 

Dawkins’ basic idea is that the smallest unit of evolution, subject to Darwin’s theories of natural selection, is not the species or even the individual; it’s the gene. In fact, he goes so far as to say that this is the very definition of “gene”: A gene is the smallest unit of natural selection. 

What does this mean? If it’s possible to mangle Dawkins’ theory with my own non-scientific perspective, it’s this: The thing that strives to survive is not “human beings,” “Labrador retrievers” or “philodenrons”; it’s the individual genes that these living organisms house. Or I should say, the living organisms that these genes have built. Because according to Dawkins, every element of life on this planet is, to use his alarming yet usefully visual term, a “survival machine” built by its genes. In other words, genes pool their resources to build dinosaurs, oak trees and crooked politicians. And the fittest of these—the ones that are able to survive and adapt to their environments—reproduce and live on. Until they don’t. Let’s not forget that 99 percent of all species that have ever lived on this planet are extinct. And we’re just one of them. (Thank you for that, Bill Bryson. See: A Short History of Nearly Everything)

The Selfish Gene makes this case in extraordinary detail, and I can find no reason or way to dispute it. Dawkins attacks evolutionary models based on “group” and “individual” selection with gusto, which brings us back to the barroom discussion. After all, it’s one thing to think that we do what’s good for humanity (group selection). It’s another to think that we do whatever’s good for us (individual selection). But the entire discussion is blown apart by Dawkins’ idea that we are nothing more than hosts to begin with, and that what we do is ultimately an amalgamated result of our genes fighting or cooperating based on their own needs to proliferate. 

I interpret Dawkins as generally seeing genes as little pieces of code: “If the sun gets in your eyes, close them.” These are the roots of adaptive behaviors, and (to put it simply), the “programs” that continue are the ones that are successful over time. This logically leads to a discussion of game theory, which I learned about on a macro level by reading The Predictioneer’s Game by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita a few years ago. And this makes understanding the barroom discussion even more interesting. 

Here’s one example that I find instructive. Forgive me as I paraphrase from memory, using my own terminology. 

Let’s say you have a bird with a gene-driven behavioral code of: “If you see another bird that needs grooming, groom it” (and let’s assume that by “grooming,” we mean a process of removing bugs that can kill you; so there’s quite a bit at stake). Call these the Givers. If you had a world filled with only these entities, you’d have, by many definitions, a Utopian society. But you can’t. Because the minute you do, you create a huge opportunity for a differently programmed bird who operates on the principle: “Accept grooming from someone else, but never reciprocate.” Call these the Takers. Throw this entity into the mix, and you can mathematically calculate the results: The Takers will quickly spread. But will they take over completely? No. Because if everybody takes and nobody gives, eventually no one gets groomed and the bugs kill them. So enter a third bird called The Conditional Giver. This bird reciprocates grooming only to those who give it first. Putting these three together does an interesting thing: it creates an ESS, or Evolutionarily Stable Strategy. None of the three groups can completely dominate, but each has a place in that system. And while their numbers can fluctuate slightly, over time they maintain a certain stasis.  

Does this ring true? It does to me. I feel like I see it every day—especially during election season. 

Which brings me to the third book that has stuck with me over the years: Chris Hedges’ I Don’t Believe in Atheists. While the book is meant to be a rebuttal to Dawkins and the New Atheists (and in some ways it is, which I won’t get into here), Hedges’ central belief only reinforces Dawkins’ theories in The Selfish Gene. Hedges states the bleakest idea I’ve ever heard: Human beings progress technologically, but they do notand in fact cannot—progress morally. 

While we all can point to atrocities around the globe at any given moment, I think most Americans  have to admit that this idea still flies in the face of something we believe deep in our subconscious: that when you look at a country that is grossly imperfect, you can still point to some things—the abolition of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, to name just two—that point to an upward tick.

No, Hedges says. And when you take the Dawkins point of view, and imagine that the human species is basically the game theory exercise using those three kinds of birds, you can see why. We are in an evolutionary stable strategy that mixes altruism, selfishness and skepticism. And we are going nowhere.  

Happy New Year!