Mossback updates: Poet Roethke, surveillance, and more obesity

Exploring bipolar brilliance, Big Brother's guinea pigs, and the deep-fried Twinkies diet.
Crosscut archive image.

John Aylward plays Northwest poet Theodore Roethke. (Chris Bennion)

Exploring bipolar brilliance, Big Brother's guinea pigs, and the deep-fried Twinkies diet.
Bipolar brilliance

I saw the David Wagoner play, First Class, at ACT Theatre last week. I wrote about the play earlier this summer after hearing Wagoner talk about it. Seattle veteran actor John Aylward plays Northwest poet Theodore Roethke in a one-man performance that puts you in one of Roethke's famous poetry classes at the University of Washington. The reviews have been deservedly good. I was riveted from start to finish. It's absolutely the best writing workshop I've ever attended. It captures the poet's manic brilliance wonderfully, not through his own poetic work but through his reading of other works and his expounding on what makes a good poem, and acting out the agony of writing.

Any ambitious writer can identify with Roethke's passion and despair. It isn't so much that Roethke was clinically bipolar. It strikes me that the act of writing brings out the bipolar in every writer. And not just poets. I've always liked Gene Fowler's description: "Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead." What writer or artist hasn't had that kind of madness-inducing experience?

The performance can't have been easy for Aylward, who is utterly convincing in the Roethke role. According to the UW Daily, he had this to say about the poet:

"I would say he's probably one of the most brilliant, troubled individuals in the planet," Aylward said of his character. "He lived in the moment and he treasured every great moment and he hated the lows. He was not a happy camper. When he was on his game, he was in a euphoric state. All I know was that he was a very brilliant, mercurial, fascinating individual – it must have been hard to have been him."

It can't have been easy to play him, either, nor write him, as Wagoner has done in what appears to be an incredibly self-sacrificing act of self abnegation. The brilliance is the play seems to be all Roethke and Aylward, that you forget that it's Wagoner who has artfully written a powerful work.

One thing I came away wondering: What did Roethke actually sound like? You can hear him reading a poem here.

The play closes Aug. 26.

Big Brother's guinea pigs

If there's a bad idea, China will take it to 11.

Take the possible abuses of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, which are worrying civil liberties advocates in this country. The U.S. is trying to initiate a national identity card program (RealID) that would include microchipped diver's licenses, but they are stymied by a rebellion by states over budget, security, and privacy.

But the Chinese have no such qualms. An article in The New York Times earlier this month reports that in China, Big Brother is big business – for American business:

At least 20,000 police surveillance cameras are being installed along streets here in southern China and will soon be guided by sophisticated computer software from an American-financed company to recognize automatically the faces of police suspects and detect unusual activity. Starting this month in a port neighborhood and then spreading across Shenzhen, a city of 12.4 million people, residency cards fitted with powerful computer chips programmed by the same company will be issued to most citizens. Data on the chip will include not just the citizen's name and address but also work history, educational background, religion, ethnicity, police record, medical insurance status and landlord's phone number. Even personal reproductive history will be included, for enforcement of China's controversial "one child" policy. Plans are being studied to add credit histories, subway travel payments and small purchases charged to the card.

No real surprise in a totalitarian state, but the willingness of the Chinese to push the limits makes it a big market – and test lab – for U.S. tech companies:

Every police officer in Shenzhen now carries global positioning satellite equipment on his or her belt. This allows senior police officers to direct their movements on large, high-resolution maps of the city that China Public Security has produced using software that runs on the Microsoft Windows operating system. "We have a very good relationship with U.S. companies like I.B.M., Cisco, H.P., Dell," said Robin Huang, the chief operating officer of China Public Security. "All of these U.S. companies work with us to build our system together." The role of American companies in helping Chinese security forces has periodically been controversial in the United States. Executives from Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and Cisco Systems testified in February 2006 at a Congressional hearing called to review whether they had deliberately designed their systems to help the Chinese state muzzle dissidents on the Internet; they denied having done so.

So while Americans might be guilt-tripped about buying sweat-shop products from China, we can perhaps satisfiy a sense of karmic justice by knowing that what goes around comes around. What we learn to do in China today in the name of security will surely come back to haunt us tomorrow.

The deep-fried Twinkie diet

I got a lot of response to my piece about Seattle and the war against obesity earlier this month. My goodness, there are a lot of angry fat people out there, and I appreciated your e-mails.

One e-mailer thinks the anti-obesity hysteria and the hyping of the idea that obesity is a communicable disease is a conspiracy by what she calls Big Diet/Pharma – or BARFMA:

BARFMA has reason to worry of late. Used to be people's number one worry was their weight! Since BARFMA has spent millions terrorizing us it should be proud! But the times, they are a changing! Weight obsession is a product of an affluent society. Our economy is sinking faster than Bush's approval ratings. Our dollar is down against other currencies, and so are our home prices. Gas is UP, and so is food and everything else. Just wait till peak oil. We are drowning in debt, both personally and nationally. We face unprecedented environmental disaster, possibly even famine. Even the honey bees are deserting us. Silly Americans are realizing they might have other things to spend their shrinking cash on besides shrinking their waistlines. So the efforts of the dietary-pharmaceutical complex must get even more heavy handed. It is not enough just to scare people about their own health. They must live with the guilt their very presence on earth is a danger to their loved ones.

The absurdity of the war continues to be reflected in articles and research. Every "big boned" person knows that losing weight is very difficult, but no one truly understands why. Research suggests that 95 percent of people who diet gain the weight back.

Nevertheless, helpful people continue to suggest solutions that will help tubbies work it off. On Crosscut, comments on a story by David Brewster about a "walkability" Web site deteriorated into a discussion of how walkable neighborhoods are the frontlines of the obesity war and that dense urban design keeps you thin (good) while suburban sprawl makes you fat (bad). The argument about the health benefits of dense urban design were also reflected in an Aug. 18 Seattle Times guest editorial which claimed that historic preservation of old neighborhoods could play a role in fighting the battle of the bulge. How about just putting people to work in the fields, like Pol Pot? Great for the waistline!

I walk a lot and love historic preservation: Why am I not thin? Well, research indicates that the obesity ecosystem is a lot more complicated than the South Beach Diet. New work suggests, for example, that diet soda actually causes you to gain weight by tricking your metabolism (or rather, not fooling it). Another new report indicates that lack of a certain hunger hormone that controls appetite might play a role in gaining weight.

No one argues that the Puyallup Fair will help you lose weight. They're doing their part this year, however, by banning trans fats – a move one citizen likened to the health food "Gestapo." This year's attendees will nevertheless be able to enjoy more healthful deep-fried Twinkies. You see, everyone's got to do their part to fight fat in America.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.