Living in two cultures, I find myself sometimes a bit schizophrenic, as they are very different from each other: one more peaceful and rural, quiet and slow paced; the other more frantic and urban, busy and hurried. The differences always stand out more on returning to San Diego than returning to Ireland.
So when I came back to Ireland in August after several months in the hustle-bustle of southern California, what I left behind included:
- Freeways of southern California with all the “road rage” of rude, angry, fast-driving people always in a hurry to get somewhere.
- General ambient of TV programming from Jerry Springer to CSI and Law & Order to comedies with inane stereotyped roles that always seem pointless.
- News of shooters, killings, terrorists, a war over “weapons of mass destruction,” and a political arena that seems to promise expanding an existing war to a new country.
All these things left me apprehensive and fearful, poised on a precipice to nowhere. The quiet and pace of rural Ireland was a welcome relief.
The good part of being in San Diego is always to see folks I know and cherish: people I used to work with; my Peoples Temple family in July and November especially; and this seeing people I knew when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bolivia 40 years ago. These things always renew my spirit and belief in people.
But the rest of being in the States seems so vexing and troubled. So many fears permeate so much of everyday life; it’s hard to stay focused on what is real and truly important. The feeling of goodness I always experience seeing folks seems more fleeting than permanent. And it occurs to me: the good feeling should be the more permanent; the feelings of fear should be the more fleeting. We all have a right to be safe, as safe as I remember we once were.
I recently watched here – or rather, tried to watch – an episode in an American network series called Bones, about criminal investigators who study bones, literally, that they’ve dug up, a forensic look at fictional cold case crimes. Usually clever writing, snappy dialogue, ongoing banter between characters, etc. Seemed somehow better than the average CSI show.
This episode, however, was particularly gruesome and gory. Some bad guy had escaped prison and was sadistically punishing the characters in the show who had helped convict him. Head decapitation, a still-warm bloody heart sent to the coroner, exploding nerve gas when doing an autopsy, a kidnapped child. Gruesome beyond need. So empty and vacuous, designed only to appeal to “prurient fear” – if you can even use those words together! Seems like all programming is escalating in this direction. I was so turned off, I turned to a another channel and went away wondering, “Who needs it?”
Later, I wandered by to find an episode of Northern Exposure in progress. It caught me by surprise – like finding an old and good friend. The program really grabbed me. I sat down, and as I watched, began to smile and feel really good. It was like being with close acquaintances. Being glad to see friends again and catch up on old times. But it was only a TV program – why was it so moving? It wasn’t a particularly profound episode. It was just nice.
Then I realized, what a contrast it was to general programming on TV or movies! How empty most of popular media is. Gruesome story lines with characters of no depth beyond forensic prattle about situations of no character-building consequence. Capture the bad guys – they are everywhere. Super heroes, crime busters, vampire killers, or children saving befuddled parents. Life in fantasy. See enough of it and fantasy blends into reality.
Finding a program that actually portrays human interest and draws us into the life of its characters is the exception. Watching Northern Exposure (and there must be others as well), I realized I wanted to know and visit and share with the characters being drawn and presented. They were real. They had meaning. They were human.
How much of this media is manipulated – here speaks paranoia – to make us distrust not only the bad guys, but neighbors, friends everyone. Paranoia aside, it all plays into building a climate of mistrust, which erodes at the ties that bind us together as civilized folk. I hate to think where that can lead.
It just seems like these Northern Exposure moments should be the usual – not the unusual – ones. Finding people and activities that one wants to be part of and preserve, a supportive community: the July and November gatherings are such moments for me. How important it is to acknowledge such friends and family.
So I say, thank you to my Peoples Temple friends and family – I will always honor and cherish you and all those we have lost as well!
(Don Beck was a member of Peoples Temple for ten years. He directed the Peoples Temple children’s choir during its Redwood Valley years and made several trips to Guyana during its pioneer days. Beginning about 20 years after the tragedy, shortly after this site went online, he became one of its most dedicated researchers, transcribing Edith Roller journals, reviewing and analyzing Jonestown records released through the Freedom of Information Act, and compiling them for the first section of documents on the Jonestown Research page. He also contributed numerous articles and remembrances. Most of those writings may be found here.)
(Don died on July 9, 2021, following a lengthy illness. He was 78.)