My notebook made me a marked man. "Are you a journalist?"
asked a young woman, peeking over my shoulder.
By then, the
first half of the huge anti-war parade slowly proceeding down Broadway
had disbanded into Washington Square Park, where hundreds of young
marchers were holding a spontaneous protest carnival. There
were people kneeling with chalk sticks to draw small peace symbols
on every single one of the thousands of plaza tile stones. A woman
was dancing with an Indian feather stick in a drumming circle, while
a trumpeter in pink glasses played "God Bless America."
There was a break dance team, a police helicopter hovering overhead,
a flock of pigeons chased up into the bare trees. I was watching
a circle of students dancing a jittery sort of pogo bounce. They
chanted with a rapid musical cadence that almost sounded gentle:
two, three, four, we don't want your fucking war.
Five, six, seven, eight, stop the violence, stop the hate.
my age were creating their own protest culture. I jotted it down
in my notebook, one of dozens of observations about the rally.
a journalist?" she asked for the second time. "I've been
pretty disappointed in journalists, so far,"
sounded polite, even deferential. I got off easy. Minutes later,
a young man cornered me by a police van parked at the corner of
Washington Square that played a message over its loudspeakers telling
the incoming marchers to disperse to make room for the people still
behind them. To me, the message made sense. The square couldn't
hold 200,000 people. But this young man was incensed. "They're
playing it every 75 seconds. They can't tell us the march is over,"
he said, pleading with me. He seemed to think the reporter's notebook
in my hand gave me the power to tell the van to shut up. He seemed
to believe in some mystical power of the press.
the media was a palpable part of the anti-war march on March 22nd
in New York. "CNN Lies!" was the chant. "Weapons
of Mass Distraction" read the handmade poster with a television
drawn in the corner. "Why Protest Corporate Media?" was
the headline of a flier that offered at least a dozen reasons. One
marcher even wore the empty plastic box of a TV set over his shoulders
so that his head appeared "on the air" nodding and smirking
at us like a brain dead anchorman.
To be honest,
I was surprised by this anger. Perhaps I'm too cynical or naive,
or both, but I wanted to ask: What do you expect? The problem isn't
just corporate media. It's the medium of television.
Over the years,
some astute critics of television have argued that the the technology
itself severely limits what the boob tube can tell us about the
world: It favors individuals over groups, simple opinions over complex
ideas, fast action over the true pace of life. And, unfortunately
for progressives, many of the things we cherish play poorly on TV.
For example, how well would they cover this march?
The first television
news team I spotted was standing on a side street in the Thirties.
The reporter was a striking young blonde in a camel-hair coat and
khaki slacks holding a Channel 7 microphone down at her side, a
tool for a job she wasn't eager to begin. I was reminded of an NPR
book reviewer who once told me that radio is performing, television
is modeling. And had I seen this woman on the news, I might have
resented her beauty. But in person I experienced the opposite. I
felt genuine empathy for her. I wondered if she resented having
to work on Saturday when everyone else was having fun protesting.
I wondered if she felt overdressed for this crowd. (Even the young
man carrying a "Corporate Lawyers Against the War" placard
had taken off his suit coat and tie, if not his white shirt and
dark slacks.) I wondered if she felt like someone forcing herself
to crash a party that really wasn't her style. Fortunately, her
cameraman seemed at ease with New York street crowds, so he led
her out to find an interview.
To me, the
splendor of this march was the amazing diversity of people, placards,
costumes, everything down to the drums, which ranged from paint
buckets to stove pots to office water cooler jugs. Everywhere I
looked I saw colorful characters. A man in a black T-shirt with
skeleton ribs. A woman with tousled hair holding up a sign: "The
Only Bush I Trust Is My Own." Three petite Japanese women in
white helmets who smiled shyly to one another while carrying a banner:
"Smash the Evils of Imperialist America."
Yet, from all
this diversity, the reporter chose an avuncular white man with graying
hair, heavy eyebrows, and reading glasses that hung over the open
collar of his casual dress shirt. No doubt, he represented a "normal"
American amid this crowd of exuberant radicals, bohemians, and fashionable
Manhattanites. But he also seemed a safe bet for her interview.
He was friendly and respectful. At the end, he wished her well with
a big smile and touched her sleeve, almost as if he'd been talking
with his own niece about her exciting new job as a television reporter.
He'd been having a conversation with a person, not with a television
camera. And, yet, I wondered what the television audience would
see: 10 seconds of his animated, conflicted face as he answered
her questions about patriotism, which would be sandwiched between
her own calm appearance on camera, introducing him and summing up.
In the context of this raucous parade, he had had looked pretty
thoughtful to me, but on the television news he might just seem
Broadway, I came to television command central in Herald Square.
The police had barricaded off a full lane for the broadcast trucks
with their telescope poles raised skywards and their satellite dishes
aimed downtown. Behind the metal barrier the crowd was squeezed
like a wallpaper mob. On the television side, the reporter had plenty
of room. He was a handsome black man in a dark blue shirt who focused
on the camera tripod about 12 feet away. A second tripod cast extra
light on his face, even on this sunny afternoon.
And I was impressed by his calm, his focus, his confidence. He didn't
look like the rest of us with our anger, uncertainty, and hope.
Then he turned
to interview a mother pinned against the barrier with her son, who
was perhaps 6 years old and apparently unaware he was on television.
She, too, looked "normal" in her casual weekend clothes,
although she wore an American flag scarf, and she, too, grew passionate
when asked about patriotism. After she finished, the reporter turned
back to the camera and wrapped up the story with the same stoic
face. Not until he was off the air did he seem to reveal his true
mood by responding to one of the guys on the set with a jockish
television tell someone about this rally? Almost nothing I considered
worth remembering. Not the infectious spirit of defiance, the ribald
humor of the placards, or the sense of kinship with thousands of
strangers. Not the warmth of the sun after such a harsh winter or
the yellowness of the daffodils in several marchers hands. Not the
feeling of hope, at least for an afternoon, that we could reclaim
our country from the Bush administration.
not what I found moments later performing 30 feet from the television
trucks in the triangle park of Herald Square. A street theater troop
of women were dressed up like campy clowns with silver, blue and
orange wigs, with Victoria Secret-style bras and panties pulled
over their blue tights. For the finishing touch, they each wore
a two-foot-long silver rocket strapped on like a dildo. They performed
a choreographed routine with the perkiness of cheerleaders:
Shop in the name of war
You need a whole lot more
Don't think it over
Don't think it over
Then they continued
on their way downtown with their phallic missiles wagging in the
sunshine. The day we see that on television is the day we will see
honest coverage of the war.
to Inspirations Page
At 210,000 miles, my beloved Nissan Sentra was given a death sentence
by a mechanic who found the underbody too rusted to pass the next
vehicle inspection. I wasn't surprised. For the past year, the car
had grown rusty boils and stains, while pieces had chipped off in
my hands like tree bark. Plus, the locks now froze in the snow, the
speedometer light bulb had been burned out for months, and the headlights
looked dim as yellow parchment against the Catskills forest at night.
I'd miss this rugged little car. Bought used, it had served me well
for five years of living in a log cabin and enjoying the sort of driving
experiences on wilderness roads that many Americans only know from
SUV commercials. But nothing lasts forever. I was ready for a new
car. I wanted a hybrid.
an electric motor with a gasoline engine, hybrid technology enables
cars to get much better fuel mileage. While every environmentalist
likes the idea of higher mileage, hybrids are still something of
a novelty. To be honest, I'd never even seen one on the road. But,
for me, mileage was a personal issue.
summer, my girlfriend and I had visited the Arctic National Wildlife
Refuge for 18 days of backpacking and river rafting. Not only had
we flown hundreds of miles in a bush plane to be dropped on a tundra
runway, we had essentially traveled back in time to the Pleistocene
when mountains were bare rock and snow, valleys were covered by
tiny Arctic flowers and birch trees barely up to our waists, and
wild animals roamed the open landscape largely ignorant of humans.
We saw wolves and grizzlies, musk oxen, and caribou migrating by
the dozens, hundreds, and then thousands through the same passes
and valleys of the Brooks Range that we were following north to
the coastal plain. If they happened to walk close enough, we could
hear their tendons clicking, but being skittish animals, they were
quick to stampede, a thrilling sight that made the ground shiver
while our hearts raced. It made me realize how tame cowboy movie
stampedes are compared to the real thing.
At the end
of our trip, we camped on a gravel reef beside the Arctic Ocean,
where the pack ice was melting apart in early July. In rubber boots,
we walked out onto a surreal landscape of open pools, frozen fairways,
and upturned ice boulders and spires. Without waves, this ocean
was quiet as a bathtub, yet our guides warned us to be vigilant
for polar bears that might be hunting the seals we regularly saw,
and could just as well try hunting us. Fortunately, we didn't encounter
a polar bear, but my girlfriend did find a polar bear skull that
she gave me as a souvenir from this remarkable trip. To us, the
Arctic Refuge felt like the last edge of the North American continent
that our modern civilization hasn't conquered.
On the 19th
day, we visited the Prudhoe Bay oil complex, a network of drilling
pads, pipelines, gravel roads, and processing plants spread across
an area the size of Rhode Island. To my surprise, I didn't find
it especially ugly. Compared to an abused industrial swamp like
the New Jersey Meadowlands, it looked like a model of sophisticated
engineering and environmental care. But it certainly wasn't wilderness.
It looked more like a military base. And, if extended eastwards
into the Arctic Refuge, the oil complex would destroy the wild beauty
of that landscape as surely as bombs have destroyed cathedrals.
trip, I wanted the best gas mileage I could buy. I'd first heard
of the hybrid concept as a journalist traveling with a solar-electric
car rally from Manhattan to Washington D.C. in 1996. The contestants
ranged from high school metal shop students to MIT-trained entrepreneurs
to iconoclastic professors. (One had not only built his own commuting
vehicle, but his own solar house and his own small airplane.) Some
rally vehicles were ordinary sedans, vans, and pick-ups retrofitted
to be electric, but others were colorful inventions: a highway torpedo-on-wheels,
a stock car covered with solar panels, and a three-wheeled cockpit
that pulled its biodiesel tank like a trailer. Seeing these adventurous
machines, I realized that vehicles have much more potential variety
than the monotonous parade of sedans, SUVs, and mini-vans now on
debate at the rally was whether hybrids would soon replace electrics
as the green vehicle of choice. The purists still defended electrics,
confident that they could somehow overcome the problem that these
cars must be plugged in and recharged every 100 miles or less. But
several veteran professors persuaded me that hybrids would be more
practical. Yes, they'd still have polluting tailpipes, but they'd
get better mileage, while still traveling the same distances between
fill-ups as conventional vehicles. In fact, hybrids would improve
upon the performance of straight gasoline vehicles, because electric
motors provide more power and acceleration in low gear. One professor
even suggested that Detroit would soon begin converting to hybrids
As with many
optimistic predictions about the environment, I'm still waiting.
SUVs, not hybrids, have been Detroit's favorite new machine. The
Hummer, not higher mileage, has been Detroit's answer to Middle
Eastern oil politics. Why anyone would buy a Hummer is beyond me:
perhaps they have fantasies of driving out to watch the next desert
war like a drive-in movie. Obviously, they don't care about getting
12 miles-per-gallon on the highway, or something like 4 mpg in the
the Japanese have shown more faith. When I began shopping, I had
two hybrid choices: the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight. For professional
critics the choice was clear. The Car Talk brothers raved about
the Prius on their web site: "It's a tree-hugger's dream that
any one could be happy with," unlike the Insight which "makes
too many comprises." Consumer Reports found the Prius "a
viable alternative to any small sedan," while the "Insight's
ride is stiff, its handling less than nimble, and its cabin very
noisy." Autoweek.com dismissed the Honda as a "science
experiment"..."good for little more than personal transportation."
e-mail network I found friends who had owned a Prius for a year.
A retired couple, they drove the same mountain roads I did and shared
my environmental sympathies. (Their son had written a book, Car-Free
Cities.) But they weren't starry-eyed. She'd been a newspaper reporter
with a great bullshit detector, while he'd been an engineer. That
they loved their Prius was a strong endorsement. I accepted their
invitation to take the car out for a spin and soon sat in the lap
Sentra was a bare bones sedan with two doors, a stick shift, roll
down windows, and leaden shock absorbers. In the Prius the hybrid
technology seemed like the least of the improvements. It had power
steering, power brakes, and what felt like power plush seats. The
windshield sloped far out towards the road with digital monitors
along the bottom rim as if passing scenery might have captions.
Most impressive of all, the dashboard had a monitor like an ATM
machine that showed diagrams of the car's energy flow with moving
arrows. To be driving and watching the monitor seemed as futuristic
as a World's Fair ride, until my friend in the passenger seats told
me to please keep my eyes on the road.
moment came at a stop sign when the gas engine turned itself off
to save a sip of fuel. The Prius idled as silently as an electric
clock. "We haven't stalled," my friend reassured me. "Just
press the gas pedal." The engine purred again. From there,
he directed me to the bottom of a steep hill to prove that the car
was as powerful as any other sedan. "Go ahead, floor it,"
he said, not something I'd heard before from a man in his 80's.
But he was right. The Prius shot uphill so fast my foot never quite
reached the floor. I was sold.
To be a savvy
consumer, however, I decided to try an Insight for comparison. At
the local Honda dealership, I found one in the lot, still half-wrapped
from the factory with brown paper covering the hood. Unlike the
Prius, which resembled conventional sedans except for a shortened
hood, the Insight looked futuristic: part sports coup, part hatchback,
and very aerodynamic. Even the radio antenna on the roof leaned
back at an angle. Obviously, this vehicle had been designed more
in the spirit of an airplane than a tank, unlike SUVs, which would
be better labeled as Suburban Assault Vehicles. Later, I learned
that the Insight's front wheels actually stand four inches wider
apart than the rear wheels to help the air flow around the tapered
body. The most striking difference from other cars, though, was
that the rear wheels were largely hidden behind metal covers that
blended in with the body. That prevented wind from catching in the
wheel wells. But it also gave the Insight a diminutive appearance
compared to many vehicles that show off their big tires as a sign
of ruggedness. The Insight wasn't the kind of car that got you laid
in High School.
It also looked
small, even smaller than my Sentra. If this car was basically an
aerodynamic cockpit, I couldn't afford it. I needed the storage
space and the sturdiness of a conventional car. The hatchback didn't
look promising for space, and the metal skirt below the bumpers
and doors made the car sit so low that I wondered if it could get
stuck on a speed bump. On dirt roads in the country it would scrape
salesman invited me to crouch down and compare my Sentra's clearance.
The Insight wasn't any lower, he explained, it just looked that
way because of the aerodynamic body skirt. I had to admit he was
right. "It's just like a regular car," he said. "The
only thing you'll notice is how much less often you go to the gas
the driver's seat, I didn't find the Insight so small, after all.
I did sit lower than in my Sentra, but I had longer leg room and
deeper peddles. What was different was how the bucket seat with
a high headrest discouraged me from glancing back over my shoulder.
And when I did, there was no back seat. It was more like a carpeted
crawl space. This car was truly a two-seater.
From the lot,
I pulled out into traffic on the commercial strip that passed Home
Depot, Wal-Mart, and the mall. Waiting at stop lights on the way
to the highway I glanced at other drivers, wondering if they noticed
this unusual vehicle. They didn't seem to. And I didn't feel that
different from driving my Sentra.
Prius, the dashboard didn't have a monitor screen, but it was Digital
Age compared to my car. The speed glowed in liquid crystal golden
orange, a number hard to ignore. Two matching gauges showed the
gas tank and battery charge levels. Another pair of gauges indicated
when the battery was discharging to boost the gas engine, or recharging
through regenerative braking. (The Prius and Insight never need
to be plugged in like totally electric vehicles. They always recharge
Then I spotted
the miles-per-gallon number in liquid crystal green. In the past,
I'd met mileage nerds who kept a notebook in the glove compartment
to record fill-ups and odometer readings in order to calculate mpg
for themselves, but I'd never seen a car do the math for you. So
far, the Insight had gotten 48.1 mpg from the dealer's lot to the
highway entrance ramp. Noticing my fascination, the salesman had
me push a button that switched the reading from a digital number
to a bar graph that pulsed back and forth, giving the mpg at that
very moment. Shifting from second to third gear on the entrance
ramp, I saw my mpg slip to 30, but after entering traffic and reaching
cruising speed, I eased off the gas and saw it shoot to the end
at 150. And stay there. And stay there. I couldn't believe it. I
hadn't been so amazed by a machine since the first time I logged
onto the Internet.
what it was all about? Our alternative to destroying the Arctic
Refuge? Our best hope for slowing global warming? Our declaration
of independence from Middle Eastern oil politics? My top priority
in choosing a car? The green pulse slipped back to 75 as I lightly
touched the gas again but I was enthralled. This was the magic of
hybrids. This was better than speed.
Back at the
Honda lot, I asked the salesman to open the hatchback for me. I
needed to be reminded of why I shouldn't buy this car. It didn't
have a trunk. It didn't have a rear seat. (I'd always thought of
two-seaters as weekend sports cars for aging playboys with expensive
blondes.) It wouldn't be practical for my life in a log cabin in
the mountains where the local guys drove pickup trucks.
But the carpeted
storage space was roomier than I expected. And the salesman lifted
a lid in the floor that revealed a sunken storage box as large as
a beach cooler. It could easily hold several grocery bags. What
did I load in my Nissan Sentra anyway? A sand bag in the trunk for
winter emergencies. Cassette tapes, overdue library books, a road
atlas, Kleenex--all in the back seat within easily reach. A bird's
nest from a day hike that I kept forgetting to bring into the cabin.
The truth was, as a bachelor, I'd probably driven 115,000 miles
by myself, and another 5,000 with my girlfriend. How many times
had I carried a third or fourth passenger? A dozen? Most of the
time my storage space had been dead weight.
was, the EPA rated the Insight at 61 mpg for city driving and 68
mpg for highway
driving, while it rated the Prius at 52 mpg urban, 45 mpg highway.
(Later, I learned that these EPA figures are inflated by some old-fashioned
assumptions about our driving habits, such as the idea that we average
48 miles-per-hour on the highway, which may have been true in the
Seventies. Today, the average is closer to 60 mph.)
But the critics
loved the Prius. My friends loved the Prius. And practical cars
always had four seats. Even if I couldn't think of a good reason
why I needed them at the moment, I shouldn't make a rash decision.
I needed to talk with someone who drove an Insight in the real world.
network of environmental contacts, I finally found one, a solar
entrepreneur who lived a mile up a dirt road in Maine. Over the
phone, he didn't sound impressed by my concerns. "I've never
put on my chains," he said, apparently insulted that I would
question the Insight's handling in snow. As for storage, he and
his wife had easily stowed their gear in the hatchback for a ten
day vacation that summer. And if I lacked the conviction to chose
the Insight, he certainly hoped I wouldn't buy a Prius.
not?" I asked. Who could dislike the Prius? Besides the oil
"It's full of compromises," he said. "It only gets
48 miles-per-gallon." He explained how this sedan had sacrificed
mileage performance for luxury. Actually, he continued, I'd get
better mileage with a diesel car, such as a Volkswagen Jetta or
Golf. Of course, diesels have terrible tailpipe emissions, but I
could easily clean up that problem by converting the car to run
on biodiesel, and thereby cutting my unburned hydrocarbon emissions
by 93 percent. He was passionate on the subject.
would I find biodiesel?" I asked. From what little I knew,
this alternative fuel was refined from the oil used by McDonald's
in French fry vats. A colorful concept, but I hadn't eaten at McDonald's
web site," he answered. Through the wonders of on-line shopping,
I could order 55 gallon drums of biodiesel, which the UPS would
deliver by truck to my driveway.
I can't say
his proposal didn't have some appeal. The promise of greater self-sufficiency
often does. Already I lived in a log cabin with my own well for
drinking water, my own wood stove for heat, and my own sewage system,
which included the freedom of pissing outside whenever I liked.
Why not tell Exxon and the oil sheiks to stuff it?
But the idea
of becoming my own filling station had problems. First, I shared
the driveway with my neighbor, who'd been so nasty the time he found
a cord of fire wood dumped for me that I could imagine his fury
at a permanent row of barrels. For sure, he'd make my life miserable.
Second, I was the sort of negligent shopper who routinely let my
refrigerator sit empty for a week. With biodiesel, I couldn't very
well recover from my absent-mindedness by using a local filling
station until my UPS shipment arrived. I'd be stuck, desperately
searching for McDonald's.
So I bought
an Insight. And I got lucky, finding a used one, only 10 months
old with 14,700 miles, yet $5,000 less than the new model I tested.
As an owner, I've learned a few more things about this car. For
example, the electric motor isn't really the secret to its high
mileage. Rather, the Japanese have made it much more aerodynamic
and much lighter than conventional cars by using aluminum body parts,
while still protecting passengers within a steel frame for safety.
The gasoline engine happens to be the smallest you can find in a
car--it only has three cylinders--yet it's so efficient that it
produces 20 percent more power for its size than the engines in
most new cars. And the engine can afford to be this small because
the electric motor boosts it through the weak spots. On the road,
my beloved Insight may not be a Jaguar, but it's much zippier than
my old Sentra or the lumbering SUVs I love to pass on long uphills.
If I ever slowed down to the speed limit, I might even approach
the EPA ratings.
I admit it:
I've become a mileage nerd with my own notebook in the glove compartment.
After 20,000 miles in this past year, I can report that the Insight's
best fill-up came in Tennessee after several long hot days on the
Interstate when a tankful finished at 68.3 mpg and its worst arrived
in November at 54.5 mpg after two weeks of toddling around town
in cold weather. Usually, I get from 58 to 63 mpg depending on the
weather and the amount of highway driving. (One night, for fun ,
I measured five miles on the Thruway before my exit: 118.0. The
only way to do better is to coast down a mountain: 134.6 from the
Mohonk Mountain House to New Paltz.)
The only person
to complain has been my girlfriend. I've overheard her with friends:
"What does he say when he walks in the door? Not, 'Honey, I'm
home!' No, he says, '62.3!'" But I know what she really means:
When are you going to lend me the keys?
to Inspirations Page