In this issue: A ground–level look at India's monsoon, a pop culture essay collection from Chris Epting, and Hamlet's Blackberry—a prescription for our digital addiction.
Thirty Percent Chance of Enlightenment
By Tim Brookes
Journalist has great idea, talks magazine editor into funding it, then finds every research step he had planned disrupted or vaporized. That's the familiar story behind this book, which is Brookes' attempt to document the great Indian monsoon and look at its predictions, its path, and the rituals associated with it for a long National Geographic story.
This being India, though, nothing goes right and the infamous bureaucracy shuts him out with maddening red tape and circular approval processes that go nowhere. So in the end the story turns out differently, but it's still about water, it's about the monsoon, and it's about weather forecasting in general. Overall though, it's a story about southern India in all its color and quirkiness.
Through the meandering pages we get the history of the umbrella, which was long a parasol (mostly for women, except in the case of the vain Italians), but somewhere along the line people figured out how to stretch skins to make them repel rain. It wasn't until the late 1700s though that men finally felt comfortable using them in rainy London.
Then there's the history of weather forecasting, a pseudo–science that was used and funded for military intelligence long before civilians started using it for planning picnics. We read about the elite—until recently secret—squad of U.S. "Gray Berets" who parachute into hostile territory to set up weather forecasting equipment.
Mostly though, this is a tale about trying to get the story, with Brookes winging it across Kerala and Tamil Nadu with his Ambassador's driver. He follows monsoon and weather leads, but these more often turn into cultural lessons that have little to do with the original aims. Anyone who has spent time in India will find plenty to laugh at in Brookes' prose, like his frustration with the typical "no fact is too obscure" temple guides that attach to you like a bloated leech all over the country.
Mr. Prince muttered several volleys of facts from close range, ordered us back into the Ambassador and directed Rajesh on to a palace, where the slow assassination by insistent muttering went on."
After a while, nothing strikes the author as all that strange anymore, even when they come upon a woman marrying a banana tree. Apparently an astrologer advised the woman that her first marriage would be a disaster. So the woman was marrying a banana tree sapling and it would then be tossed into the river. After that she could marry properly.
Water is life, and with more than a billion people stuffed into its borders, you could say India is a manifestation of life as well. Thirty Percent Chance of Enlightenment masterfully combines the two and shows how they are intrinsically attached.
Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie
By Chris Epting
First, a disclosure: obviously I know and like this author since he has written several stories for Perceptive Travel, including one in this very issue. But still, do I care enough about any acquaintance's history to read a whole 336–page autobiography about him?
That's what I was wondering before diving in, but it didn't take long to realize this is more about the people who have crossed the author's path than it is about the person who wrote Led Zeppelin Crashed Here and James Dean Died Here. Have you ever met someone who seems to know anybody and everybody—or manages to connect with them just by making a phone call or two?
Epting has been one of those people his whole life, apparently. He called up Fred Gwynne (who played Herman Munster) for an interview when he was still in junior high school and got it. Things kept rolling from there, through high school, college and several ad jobs, so this book reads like one giant "ah shucks" celebrity scrapbook. Ready for some name dropping of the people he has hung out with? To avoid going on for pages, with categories, here's just a taste: David Johansen, John Waters, Todd Rundgren, Manute Bol, Dan Aykroyd, Ron Wood, Lou Graham, Michael Jordan, Jay Leno, Jack Klugman, and Pee Wee Herman. He visited sites of old baseball stadiums with Fred Willard! He's got photos in his house with Sally Struthers of All in the Family and Eve Plumb of The Brady Bunch! Half these people, and many more, wrote little sidebars that are included after each essay.
None of the stories that go with these names are presented with a hint of braggadocio or cynicism though and you get the feeling that Epting endears himself to these celebrities because he honestly loves their work and is interested in them as human beings. Thematically, the whole book is a celebration of the decades that defined this baby boomer and the experiences that really made them come alive. It's a collection of short and very readable nuggets on music—from the Ramones at CBGBs to new metal and prog–rock his kid has turned him onto—to television to baseball to pop culture in general.
For Baby Boomers who grew up in the USA or those who just have a soft spot for the past few decades, this is a fun and surprising romp through pop culture history.
Hamlet's Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age
By William Powers
"The essential idea is simple: to lead happy, productive lives in a connected world, we need to master the art of disconnecting.
No Hamlet didn't have a Blackberry, but in the play he used another device that was new for the ages: an erasable notebook. Hamlet's Blackberry takes us through several inflection points in history, from the time of Plato until now, looking at how new communication devices have disrupted our world and how philosophers of the time viewed them. From the advent of writing itself to mass–produced books to Marshall McLuhan, we've always fretted about what technology is doing to our creativity, our thinking ability, and our personal relationships. What's different this time is, many people never turn the new devices off. They spend every waking hour connected to some kind of screen, addicted to the rush of updates from elsewhere.
Little by little, our workdays grow more crowded. When you carry a mobile device, all things digital (and all people) are along for the ride. Much of what used to be called free time has been colonized by our myriad connective obligations, and so is no longer free.
The implications for travel are huge. Time that used to be spent exploring, connecting with local people, and getting information from fellow travelers has, for many, been replaced by a constant umbilical connection to those back home. Many flashpackers spend more time on Facebook than they do talking with people right in front of them in the flesh. Instead of concentrating on travel in the physical sense, they are pinging around on screens. "We're like so many pinballs bouncing around a world of blinking lights and buzzers. There's lots of movement and noise, but it doesn't add up to much."
Hamlet's Blackberry lays out the problem, with references to research showing multi–tasking and increased screen time both lead to all kinds of woes: fewer accomplishments, more superficial relationships, and less creative thinking for a start. "If we've learned anything in the past decade about technology and human interaction, it's that as screen time rises, direct human–to–human interaction falls off proportionally. We encounter this truth every day in the small moments when our relatedness to others is interrupted and fractured by technology."
Then the book offers, for those who can admit that this "digital equivalent of alcoholism" is not a healthy 24/7 state, solutions to controlling screen time instead of letting the screens control you.
If you never lose the crowd, the magic never happens. We need distance and gaps, and we need them on a regular basis.
By its very nature, travel has a greater potential than any activity to create true distance and gaps. Read this inspiring book and you may find it easier to break from the conformity of your peers, to dig deeper by disconnecting.