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It’s a paradox of modern life: We are mobile, yet sedentary. Blame the auto? Blame the glowing, pixellated screen? Surely it can be no coincidence that the rise of those two great technologies–moving carriages and moving pictures–took place over roughly the same period.

And at their joint birth was our friend, A.L. Westgard. In 1916, he conceived–or at least was associated with–the idea of taking motion pictures of the

It would have been more exciting if the car had fallen off the planks. But that would have to wait for more sophisticated film editors.

entire United States. This according to an article in volume 20 of The Camera: An Illustrated Magazine Devoted to the Advancement of Photography.

Here is a selection from the article (note how two nascent industries stand to gain, and, of course, use of the word “dream,” as in “The American Dream”):

Mr. Westgard, who knows the beauty spots as no other man knows them, believes that he can show Americans things about their own country of which they scarcely dream.

The Pathe Company, which will distribute the films, believes so, too, and so does the Combitone Picture Company, which is financing the expedition. The pictures are to be entirely different from any hitherto seen, because made by the new Combitone process, invented and perfected by F. W. Hochstetter, formerly of the Edison staff, now consulting photo chemist of the American Photo Chemical Company.

Today, with our much richer business vocabulary, we would call this commercial venture an example of synergy.

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Imagine a flood stranding you in some stranger’s house for 16 days in Montana or Wyoming. It’s the early 20th century and your goal–if you are A.L. Westgard–is to drive around America exploring the routes of future highways, but what makes your story interesting is not the dirt tracks you’re following. It’s the people, most of whom seem to be on the verge of death in one way or another.

Deserts are unforgiving places.

There’s the starving guy wandering around in the desert, the Kansas farmer tending crops laid waste by grasshoppers, and the Montana couple whose house is threatened by a rising river carrying trees, wagons and small houses. It’s enough to make you wonder about the people who settled this country.

But there is an even deeper mystery. Why did pathfinders like Westgard and William Warwick never bother to name their wives? Westgard even dedicates his book to his unnamed spouse:

To my wife, who has shared with me the hardships as well as the pleasures of the trail, ever a cheerful comrade and a trusty advisor.

I imagine Lewis had something similar to say about Clark, though I do wonder about those pleasures, especially in the days before hotel showers. It’s  not like Westgard denies his wife’s existence. He goes into some detail describing her reaction to the prairie dog meat served in the house where they were stranded for 16 days (Her facial expression indicated that she did not like it).

Names go down in history as heroic leaders of great movements bringing about social changes, political reforms and major infrastructure projects. Facial expressions, no matter how cheerful, crumble into dust. So I’ll end here on the name of Westgard’s wife: Helen.

 

There’s this notion going around that tough times will reveal the true character of America. It’s a good bit of marketing and satisfies our desire for myth. But it’s baloney.

When you’re backed up against a wall, you learn one thing: people have a keen sense of survival and a knack for self-preservation. It’s those other times that show us what we’re made of, like those times everyone thought they could get rich buying and selling tech stocks  houses  oil futures hope?

I guess Bush will take the blame from a lot of people. But whatever else he did, he didn’t force anyone to take on a mortgage they couldn’t afford.

But didn’t he and his cronies create the climate that made all those criminal excesses possible? I suppose they might bear some responsibility, but people have to take their share of the blame occassionally.

We get the leaders that serve up what we want to believe, and we very badly wanted to believe in everlasting wealth.

It doesn’t mean we still can’t become Treasury Secretary some day, even if it means a come-down in pay.

It’s easy to say we’ll miss W. after he’s gone. It’s harder to say why, however, without resorting to cliches. Here’s a feeble effort:

* We’ll miss having an obvious, high-profile target for our political self-righteousness. The comedians will survive  W’s passing. But what about the everyday blowhard writing letters to the editor?

* We’ll miss the air of superiority we felt in believing ourselves smarter than the man in the oval office. No one feels that way about Obama, at least not yet. Quite the opposite. People are placing great faith in his intellectual ability to get the country out of its current jam.

People at least knew where they stood with Bush, either with him or against him. Maybe it’s for the best that we melt the polarizing style of contemporary politics. And maybe we really are prepared to give Obama time.

But patience is a virtue best left untested. While it may be the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression, our attention spans may be at their shortest since, oh, Moses shattered the ten commandments in anger at an unfaithful people.

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