Shaping the Earthby Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, William Munoz (Photographer), William Munoz (Photographer)
Ever since Earth was formed more than 4.5 billion years ago, the planet has been continuously shaped by dynamic forces. The most significant impact was made by the introduction of life. From the smallest single-cell organism to the most populous cities, living thingsespecially human beingshave had a profound effect on the planet. As a new millennium
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Ever since Earth was formed more than 4.5 billion years ago, the planet has been continuously shaped by dynamic forces. The most significant impact was made by the introduction of life. From the smallest single-cell organism to the most populous cities, living thingsespecially human beingshave had a profound effect on the planet. As a new millennium begins, conservation efforts are more important than ever for Earth's survival. Authoritative text and dramatic photographs show how our role in shaping the Earth can be just as significant as the massive eruptions of volcanoes or the shifting of huge tectonic plates. GLOSSARY, INDEX.
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I was four days into Africa when the jet lag caught up with me, when
everything caught up with me. Standing naked in my boots at 2 a.m.,
sweating and wired and doing raggedy tai chi to make the night pass.
Reading Jesus from Gideon's little Bible and thinking about the girl
from Bujumbura and machetes and machine guns and time and the
Please fasten your seat belt firm and low, a little voice advised at
thirty-nine. Instead, I was quietly slipping free. I was ready for a
change, for rebirth, for a new skin and tang. I wasn't sure how it
would come or what it would be, but I had to have it. Deep in a
career, in a life, I was unbuckling, eyeing the exits, ready to walk
on the wing.
That night in Bukavu, dreaming wide awake and turning, I saw
everything. I saw Jesus and the girl and old John Peng all moving
with me, soft, intense, in unison. "Combing the mane of the wild
horse," like John Peng taught. Turning like slow motion kung fu
kings. Breathing steady, eyes deep and cool, leaning in and out like
tai chi masters.
"The white crane stretches its wing," John Peng would say, and we
would stretch side-by-side in smooth duet, far from cares and close
"I will help you," the girl from Bujumbura whispered at the airport
in Rwanda. I was the American reporter, arriving late at night and
lost. She was tall and very fine, a Tutsi, and close in the taxi that
drove down dark roads where the dead had lain. Oh, Danielle, I am too
far from home.
Then Jesus off the little page, like a friend, like a taunt: "Is not
the life more than meat, and the body more than raiment?" Iwas
reading, he was saying, we were moving. In a crumbling hotel room, in
a fever in the dark, he moves with grace so focused I become a silent
On this long day I have seen bones and darkness wrapped in beauty. I
have driven out of Rwanda to Bukavu, where Belgian masters left
chteau after chteau on the equator and hatred in each stone and vine.
I have seen the villages with every third house destroyed, and sullen
bloodshot boys with dull exhausted knives and guns, and wide
boneyards still soft to touch. I have seen truckloads of dull-eyed
peasants wandering in dread through sweet green hills and the
grimacing joy of old friends finding one another quite unexpectedly
"The Internet will change everything except human nature," I hear
Rolly murmuring. Somewhere in the hotel's dark rafters an ancient air
conditioner kicks to life, sending one sharp, cold stream down
through the swamp of heat. And I am sweating and shivering and
Maybe I'm too old for this. Maybe this is too old for me, for anyone,
a creaking, pointless trick of history too bloody, too endless. Who
said I had to see firsthand? Who said there was no other way?
So I will think of everything, and think of change. I will take stock
and move. I can't sleep anyway. It's too damned hot and cold.
- from Africa notes, January 1995
That word was in the water lately. It was in the air. It was
Everything to win. Everything to lose. Have everything. Risk
everything. Walk away from everything.
And, of course, everything changing. The way we thought and felt and
dreamed. Our expectations. The economy. The century. My marriage. The
news business. Me. Everything.
It had been almost fifteen years since I first walked into the Boston
Globe on a bright winter morning with shoes full of snow and a couple
of scribbled names in my pocket. The Globe was a temple to me then,
with its big presses and its brassy editorial voice. It had colorful
characters and idealism and prestige and power. It hired me, and it
held out the possibility of changing the world. I loved it.
Now things were changing, all right. But the paper didn't seem to
have much to do with it, and neither did I. It was the economy,
stupid. It was technology I barely understood. And some kind of new
world, humming through the telephone lines, that we couldn't touch
but was all around us. Changing everything, they said. Everything.
I had always been a heat seeker, but somehow the heat had slipped
away from my corner. I was a top editor at the paper now, but what
were we editing? And when we went out to report and write, who was
honestly panting to read the stuff? We held a management retreat to
look into the future, and a somber professor told us that tumbleweeds
would blow through the pressroom within a decade. Nobody would bother
to pull the last paper from the presses. Nobody would care to read
it. When we all laughed, Ted Leonsis, the burly tough guy who would
soon be president of America Online, flushed and growled into his
microphone from the podium.
We had a simple choice, he said. "Digitize or die."
And I didn't know what he meant.
I would lie awake in bed with Danielle, her leg thrown over mine, and
ramble in the night, when the boys were tucked in and she was diving
for sleep and rest to face another day of work. I never knew how much
she heard. My rant was almost always the same. I don't know where I'm
going, I would say to the dark. I'm working for an outfit that pours
ink onto wood pulp and sells yesterday's news. We're writing stories
I'm not sure anyone cares about. I'm not even sure they're the right
stories. I'm not sure anymore, I would say, about anything.
"Uh-huh," she would murmur.
I'm restless, Danielle, I would say. I'm crawling out of my skin. You
know, at work, people actually sit in the cafeteria and debate
whether newspapers will last long enough for us to retire. Maybe I'm
paranoid. But the whole place is starting to smell of dinosaur. I
didn't get into this business to be a minor priest in a dying
religion, Danielle. I got in because it had gusto and life. Because
it felt big and urgent and true. And now I don't know. I don't know
if I've still got the passion for this. If it's worth it.
Everything's changing. It's not what I came for anymore.
And she would sleep. And I would not. And I wondered what that meant,
Danielle was pregnant again. It was her third time, not counting the
false starts, and this time we knew it was a girl. It had been eight
years since Ben had come, twelve since Dylan. This pregnancy was an
indulgence, but we weren't ready to be finished with kids.
We looked at it this way:
If I got promoted to a fabulous career at the paper, this third baby
would be the icing on the cake, the lucky jewel in the crown. It
could happen. And this would be the lucky child who got the extra
trips to Disney World, the fancy skiing lessons, the long summers on
And if the career just chugged along, well, that would have to be its
own reward, and this child would be our alternate joy. She would be
our fresh stake in the simple life, in soccer games and school
concerts and silly dancing on winter nights in the living room.
"And what if I just go nuts and throw everything over?" I asked
Danielle one Sunday afternoon as we walked around the neighborhood
lake. "You know, try something crazy. Something new."
At the water's edge, a fat brown duck fought with two seagulls for a
crust of bread. I wished our house were on this lake, with a great,
wide lawn and fine veranda and the summer splashing of happy children
and us around to hear it.
"You won't throw everything over," she said, pulling my hand onto her
budding stomach. She was beautiful. She was sensible. She had known
me for a long time.
"Not everything," she said.
Then a promotion passed me by. The next rung on the ladder was
suddenly far away. The pull of the chase for the top had kept me with
the program. Now I had taken a slap. It didn't mean I had to bolt. I
could sit tight. Or I could jump to another paper. But here,
suddenly, was a moment to do some completely fresh mapping. Here was
a time to look honestly at myself and the world, to acknowledge how
much I was chafing, how urgently I needed to make some big decisions.
And there was something else. My old college pal Rolly Rouse had been
calling with a stream of wild ideas lately. I couldn't get used to
hearing his voice again. In my mind's eye Rolly was still a skinny
kid with a long ponytail and an unplugged electric guitar, racing
through Jimi Hendrix riffs in 1973, our freshman year at Yale. We had
shared a suite of rooms and some sweet, goofy growing up. I could
still see young Stone Phillips, already anchorman-handsome, rolling
on our floor in tears of laughter, reciting Kant while we lit farts
with a match. And David Levitt, now a software wizard for Bill
Gates's old partner Paul Allen, wrapping on a boa constrictor and
dancing free and naked under his banana curl Afro. And Danny
Schneider, an attorney in New York now and my dearest pal, grinning
his beautiful idiot Buddha grin at the whole show.
But intense, hyperkinetic, driven Rolly Rouse on my phone? Now? This
I would not have predicted. For years we had barely kept up. I knew
he had gone on to study architecture and engineering and to do
something with energy and housing. I knew he was married, to Carole,
and that they had a young daughter. And that was about it until we
happened to move into houses a mile apart and ran into each other at
the local liquor store in Newton, our leafy suburb on the western
edge of Boston.
Rolly was as high-strung and cerebral as ever - a "brainiac," my kids
would say. At first the reaquaintance made me jumpy. His rate of idea
production per second seemed almost crazed. At any moment he would
cut loose on lessons of history and economic cycles and patterns in
time, on Peter Drucker and George Gilder and technology waves and the
finer points of inflation adjustment. Everything.
Danielle would roll her eyes and flee. I was charmed. My world of
reporters and editors and deadlines was full of quick takes and deep
irony and carefully veiled inner lives. We had our passions, but they
tended to be well armored and held in reserve. Rolly was different.
Twenty years after college, his personal world was still charged
right out front with clenched-fist conviction and a dukes-up passion
for big ideas. He wore everything on his sleeve - heart, brain,
obsessions. He would talk and talk with complete and sincere
absorption in his subject, whatever it happened to be, and I would
wait for the cynical disavowal or ironic cocked eyebrow that never
came. This was strangely refreshing.
We saw each other occasionally for a beer and conversation, and now
he was on the phone almost every day. Talking about "new media."
Talking about the Internet. Talking about maybe starting a new
company - maybe with me.
How could we do that? He had a mortgage. I had a mortgage. We had no
money worth mentioning. We had car payments and insurance bills and
credit cards with all-American balances. We had lives already and
kids to feed!
But I always returned his calls. They were too interesting to ignore.
And I was too restless not to listen.
For a while, John Peng saved me from the itch. He showed up like a
perfect gift, like oxygen, wisdom, and calm.
I met him early one morning on the big field near our house. I was
out walking our tall yellow lab, Sadie, as I did every morning. The
field was dog central for the neighborhood. When Sadie was a pup, I
had always socialized with the neighbors rounding the field, jogging
along in twos and threes or mobbed up for a stroll while our dogs
tumbled and yelped. I had loved the fresh air and early morning sky
and the easy puppy care chatter of feeding schedules and chewed
But now Sadie was a few years older and less frenetic, and I often
walked alone with her, tossing her sticks and thinking. Work was
weighing on me. Money, too. And time. There wasn't enough of it, and
the little we had was slipping by. I was hopeless at office politics.
The paycheck was good but never enough. The kids were growing up too
fast, and the hours we worked seemed only to get longer. Danielle and
I weren't laughing the way we used to laugh. Passion, even
communication beyond the car pool schedule, had to wait in line with
everything else. Life was a mess of compromises that I was tired of
I stopped noticing the morning sky. I started talking to Sadie more
than usual, and one morning had to admit flat out that I was talking
to myself, muttering vague complaints and bits of combative
conversation like an old man on a bus station bench. I was living the
two-car, six-figure, green suburb American dream - and muttering to
myself like a bag lady in the rain. I was scaring the dog.
Then John Peng appeared. The first time I saw him, it was as if I had
stumbled into a misplaced clip of exotic film. The neighborhood field
was a familiar zone of soccer balls and L. L. Bean jackets and well-
fed hounds with names like Brewster and Benson. Neighbors walked
their dogs and rushed off to jobs as psychiatrists and lawyers and
architects and software programmers. They had different degrees but
one class: striving suburban strapped. Nobody felt secure, but
everyone tried to act it.
On this morning, on a low hill in a corner of the field, I saw a
dignified Chinese man slowly removing a dark blue jacket, folding it,
and placing it carefully on the grass. With an old athlete's ease, he
moved to a sunny spot at the center of the hilltop and began what was
clearly a deeply familiar routine of stretching and deep breathing.
By the time I had rounded the field again, he was doing tai chi.
I couldn't stop staring. Danielle and I had spent almost ten years in
Asia, a good chunk of that time in Hong Kong, where for several hours
every morning the parks were lined with people moving through the
smooth ballet of tai chi. It looked like underwater martial arts,
with its slow, meditative mix of balance and motion, retreat and
attack. I had always wanted to learn but had never found the right
Within a few weeks John Peng had become both my teacher and my
friend. I didn't make new friends much anymore. Certainly not seventy-
five-year-old friends from Harbin, in the far north of China. He was
visiting his son, a mathematician in Boston. He was my good luck.
John Peng was a man of action, with clear, dark eyes and a striking
strength of bearing. In our third conversation, I asked if he would
teach me tai chi. He agreed, glad for the company, I think. The next
morning he met me on the low hilltop with a handwritten list, in
English and Chinese, of the first twenty-four basic moves I would
need to learn, and we began.
We met every day, on fine mornings and in rain and in snow. I was
awkward. He was patient, moving side-by-side with me, working to
convey the significance of each motion. He was insistent that my
learning be more than physical. Tai chi, he said, was about the mind
"Comb the mane of wild horse," he would call out in his halting
English and dignified Chinese on our first mornings, starting me
through the sequence of movements that added up to simple tai chi.
"No thinking," he would say when we paused. "Only moving. Breathing.
Be focused but free of mind. Be full of energy, but calm. Be full of
power but never rigid."
Could he possibly know, I wondered, how well and truly I wanted to
take his advice? Maybe he did. Morning after morning, month after
month, we worked on that hillside, repeating and refining and
repeating until even Sadie knew the routines by heart and would dance
with a stick in her mouth as we approached the end, eager to move on
and play fetch.
I was never a more willing student. I wanted more than anything to be
full of energy but calm, full of power but fluid. To be focused. To
breathe like a bodhisattva. To be free.
"Grasp the peacock's tail," John Peng would say, and I would follow
his smooth, embracing gesture across the wet morning grass.
"Move with cloud hands," he would say, and we would move slowly
sideways, palms turning softly before our faces, minds floating free.
"Pick up needle from bottom of sea," he would say, and I would bend
close to the ground, exhaling cares and finding depth.
Silently, after the first weeks, we would repeat the slow routine
three times, start to finish. When the concentration was good and the
effort was complete, I left the field exhilarated, aware and alive in
every breath and fingertip. The colors came back to the morning sky,
to the trees and grass, to everything.
One morning after a year of mornings, John Peng told me he was going
back to China, that the time had come for him to see his other
children and grandchildren. He told me he had first started doing tai
chi at the same age I was now, and that he had never stopped, and
that it had never failed him through many difficulties. He advised me
to do the same and invited me to come and do tai chi with him along
the Sunghua River in China. Then we practiced together one last time,
immersed in a common prayer of motion and breathing and awareness.
I knew I had been given a gift. John Peng's tai chi had reawakened
me. It had opened my eyes to the pleasure and power of a focused
Which was good.
But it wasn't enough.
"You won't throw everything over," she said.
She said it with a confidence shadowed by an old fear, and with some
reason. We had led a charmed life, people said, and I guessed they
were right. Things had come easily, but I was the one who believed in
the charm. I was the Illinois farmboy raised in the warm embrace of
small churches and "Kumbayah" campfires, raised to believe that the
world was full of warm hearts and helping hands and endless
possibilities that only required full-throated pursuit. Danielle was
not so sure on any of those points.
We had been sweethearts since we were sixteen. I was a tall, bookish
kid, raised baling hay and herding sheep and dreaming of the big
world. She was a first breeze from that world, the honey-skinned
immigrant daughter of a French father and German mother, exotic in
our prairie town, writing fevered teenage poetry and grappling with
America, grappling with me. Biologically, we were a happy head-on
collision. In other ways, we seriously mistook each other. I saw Euro-
exotica in a gentle, brown-haired girl whose charmingly accented
family had suffered war and dislocation and wanted stability in
America. She saw American bedrock in a blue-jeaned native son who was
locked and loaded with relentless American dreams. We were not what
we each first perceived. It would be interesting.
The year we met, in the summer that Watergate tumbled out, she
watched me catch a ride on a hog truck from Peoria to Philadelphia,
go to work in Washington's political disintegration, and get caught
up in riots in Miami, when National Guardsmen and antiwar protesters
fought in the streets over Richard Nixon's nomination to a doomed
When the Alaskan oil pipeline boom was on, she waved me north, twice,
to work as a roustabout and dynamiter and come back long-haired in
the muscled pride of youth, battered hard hat and caribou antlers off
the tundra thrown over my Kerouac backpack.
When Eastern mysticism was the rage we headed out together, to India
for a year, still just kids, to study Telugu and the Vedas, to wander
through the Himalayas and dance along the Bay of Bengal, knowing
everything and knowing nothing.
As a boy, one of my dreams had been to somehow hock our modest family
farm and buy my hometown newspaper, the Bloomington Pantagraph. In
the early '80s, when prices for farmland were at a historic low and
prices for newspapers at a historic high, the de Young family, who
owned the San Francisco Chronicle, bought the Pantagraph for tens of
millions of dollars.
The de Youngs didn't know me from a bump on a log, from a boy on a
tractor. Neither did the local sellers. But I watched the transaction
with a private sense of humiliation. My naive dream had been utterly
laughable. There was no printing press out there with my name on it
and probably would never be. So I kept moving.
When Mao died and China opened, Danielle and I made our base in Hong
Kong to start careers in journalism and education, me as a green
reporter at the South China Morning Post, she as a teacher for the
United Nations, helping the waves of refugees that were sailing out
When Asia exploded with wealth in the late '80s we were back again,
now for the Boston Globe, starting a family in Tokyo and watching
Japan's economic bubble grow, with fresh-off-the-boat Ferraris
purring through the narrow, golden streets of the city.
We came home as the Berlin Wall came down, me to guide foreign news
coverage from Boston at the end of the Cold War, she to become a
young associate dean at MIT. We thought we were settling down, but it
wasn't that simple.
People in my family had never had corporate jobs before my
generation. They were farmers and forest rangers and schemers, always
on the margins of the celebrated mainstream economy and its
impositions. I could still remember that my father had a copy of The
Organization Man under his nightstand when I was a boy, but I would
bet he never got through it. I had never expected a corporate job
either. Journalism had been my dodge. Now here I was, a newsroom
manager in a large media company with an increasingly corporate feel.
I had proven I could climb a corporate ladder, but was that what I
had started out to do? I didn't think so.
My old friend Jonathan Kaufman, a reporter for the Wall Street
Journal, used to accuse me of being a serial adventurer, of requiring
a life-shifting thrill every few years, the way a vampire needs
blood. Maybe he was right. When life is charmed, why not keep rolling
the dice? Danielle probably could have told me why. She had her own
view of life's odds and dangers. But I didn't want to hear it. I was
on a hot clock, and I was restless. Yes, this time things were
different. We had a lot to lose, with real careers and kids and
commitments. But there had to be a way to keep life fresh and free.
Surely there was a way.
I remembered castrating lambs in the long-ago spring with my
grandfather. We had a nifty tool like a long pliers that reached over
their nappy little sacks and pinched the narrow tubes behind their
nuts until they snapped. The lambs ran off as if nothing had
happened. But of course it had.
"And what if we didn't have this nice tool?" our beloved old Swede
asked me, standing in the barn as we sent the last lamb out the door,
out into the pasture where Danielle and I would be married ten years
When I looked blank, he pushed his worn hat back and told me how when
he was a boy the old shepherds would take a lamb's fuzzy scrotum
right in their teeth, find the tubes, and bite down firm till they
could feel them pop. That way you knew for sure the job was done, he
said. And you didn't need fancy tools.
I made a face.
"Aw, that's nothing," he laughed, eyes twinkling. "Listen, Tom. I'll
tell you something. You get in close enough to anything, and you
really mean business, you'll be surprised at the things you can do."
Yessir, I nodded. And I got in close to a lot of things.
The flight from Brussels to Rwanda was seven easy hours, with clear
skies all the way. The earth rolled under our little jet like a
perfect promotion for National Geographic: alps, sea, desert, jungle.
From 30,000 feet, it all looked as clean and virgin as the day it was
In seat 7A, I dropped a file of notes and clippings into my old gray
shoulder bag. I had picked up that bag years before in a jammed Hong
Kong alleyway. I had carried her on hundreds of trips through places
in boom or in trouble, packed with the simple tools of the
correspondent's trade. In India and Moscow and Nicaragua and Tokyo
and Tibet she had been my portable note file, the rough sling for my
laptop, my stashbox of rumpled press credentials, my lumpy pillow, my
companion. Her zippers stuck. Her worn pocket corners were full of
strange small coins and odd phone numbers and dust from all over. I
was stupidly loyal to that bag, sentimental the way you might be
about a favorite saddle or an old baseball cap. Or maybe an old
career. Now we were on the road again, and I was testing.
This spring's itinerary was all laid out in her side pocket. Rwanda.
Zaire. Somalia. The Balkans. Even with stopovers in London and Paris,
it was a nasty lineup, by design. I had taken a few years off the
road to work as an editor at the newspaper. I was cocky. My climb
through the newsroom ranks was very fast. For a moment it seemed just
possible that I might be running the whole show before lunchtime. But
it didn't work out that way, and I was bailing out of the race for
This was my first season back in the field. I didn't want to ease
into it. I wanted destinations that would put my nose right back in
the hard spots. I had always loved the news business, with its
deadlines and drama. But I was hitting the age when journalists ask
themselves if they really want to spend the rest of their lives
chronicling other people's passions. There was still a newsroom to be
run, and I would have a hand in that, but I was suffocating there. I
needed to be out, maybe farther than I knew, to see if the old joy
would still meet me. And it was there, but it was changed and so was
I. I was judging in a new way. What I saw was sorrowful and moving,
but it looked older than news should be, as if the world were living
all at once across so many centuries that flight was time travel, and
I was headed back when I wanted to go forward, to find the world's
new energy, and my own. The past would be with us always, present and
consequential and demanding. But I didn't have always. I had now.
Forgive me, I thought, walking through the gutted streets of
Mogadishu and Vukovar and graveyards on the equator. For a while I
may need a different vista.
And there was a candidate. They called it the Internet, and it was
supposed to be the new frontier. It was young and fresh and knew
nothing of genocide and war. My pal David Levitt had been talking
about it by different names for years, since his early days at MIT. I
barely understood it, but I did understand "new frontier." That had a
ring to it. I thought about it one blazing afternoon when a Somali
gunman laid the business end of his grenade launcher against my neck
at about the same moment that my kids were heading off to school on
another continent. He was General Aidid's man, at the shell-pocked
edge of General Aidid's godforsaken bit of turf. But what difference
did that make?
I needed a change.
The baby came right on schedule. She was beautiful from her first
wrinkled, blue, and mucky moment, straight out of the womb, to the
drying table, to her mother's arms. She bellowed like a little sailor
and we cried, Danielle and I, like we always cried, and I felt the
familiar, primal rush of emotion. I would die for this child. I would
kill for this child. And most of all, I would live, really live, for
We named her Lauren Ingrid, an American name teamed with a middle nod
to family Germans and Swedes. Danielle had vetoed India, my first
choice, as too colonial and odd, and who could care now that she was
here. Her hair was jet black and stood straight up, as if she carried
an electric charge. Her tiny face beamed with instant self-
possession. Her brothers, Dylan and Ben, huddled happily around their
mother and new sister on the hospital bed, and I saw my whole family
right there, young and trusting and vulnerable.
From the middle of the tableau, exhausted and serene, Danielle's deep
green eyes stared straight into mine. I had known those lovely level
eyes for a long time. I couldn't hide much from them. They saw. And
they spoke. And right then they were speaking bigtime.
I'm counting on you, her eyes said as she cradled our tiny new
daughter. Do you understand that?
I got it - loud and clear. I always had. I had always delivered. Not
riches, not mansions. But a full fridge and good pay. Now I'd been
with one employer, and doing well, for more than a dozen years. If
that wasn't steady, I didn't know what was.
But I was twitching, and she knew it. She knew my rhythm. And now it
had a reason. A big wave to ride and a hole to watch out for. Despite
every near-giveaway and marketing trick the Globe's inventive
circulation department could come up with, the paper was losing
readers. So was nearly every other major newspaper in the United
States. I didn't have the same old confidence in the institution that
cut my paycheck. For that matter, the whole brick-and-mortar economy
seemed to be shouting the same message we saw on the flood of mutual
fund fliers that fattened our daily pile of junk mail: past
performance is no guarantee of future returns.
Brick-and-mortar. I had just begun to hear the phrase used, and used
derisively. Brick-and-mortar as distinct from online, from
electronic, from digital. Brick-and-mortar meant factories and
warehouses and stores - and printing presses. It meant any commercial
asset that was physical, heavy, solid, depreciating - as opposed to
the world that was electronic, light, untouchable. For thousands of
years, wealth and power had been measured by brick-and-mortar. Now,
brick-and-mortar was suddenly the butt of jokes. It was the past.
Zipping electrons were the future. Brick-and-mortar was a burden, a
ball and chain. It was the old economy. It was history. And its past
performance was no guarantee of future returns. Damn straight, I'd
tell myself, proud to imagine that I was no slave to habit or fear.
Every boomer and under with six ounces of awareness ought to be
asking him- or herself right now how they were going to make it when
the rain came, when their corner of the old economy met its maker.
The scythe of time. The new economy.
Yessir, I would spout when the kids were in bed and I was brooding
and pacing. It's all changing, and I for one am not going to be
caught flat-footed. Not me. No way. I would not be frozen by dumb
fear and some pitiful need to gulp the next paycheck. I would walk
"But to what? What is your alternative?" Danielle would gently ask,
looking up from a stack of bills and the checkbook (which to my great
relief she ran). She had heard me rant many times before, then calmly
packed me off to work or the kids' soccer games or maybe Africa, and
I would cool off and get back into our routine. My outbursts were
coming more often now. And each time, those green eyes would level in
for just an instant, for a quick reading, just checking the bullshit
meter, deciding there was nothing unmanageable to worry about. Not
Now she was taking her reading again, locking eyes from the big
hospital bed, her long hair pushed back and spilling over one
shoulder of her dressing gown, her children gathered around her, our
new daughter perfect and helpless in her arms. I have just given you
another child, her eyes said. You wanted a daughter, and I have given
you a daughter. She was still exhausted from the delivery. I could
see it in the economy of her movements - nothing wasted, nothing
quick. Even her eyes moved at a slow, gentle roll, taking in her
sons, her daughter, me, the moment, defining the intimate universe of
We are counting on you, her eyes said.
I stepped close to the bed and leaned down to put my forehead on
hers, my arms around the boys. Yes, I thought. I'm here for you.
Always. With everything I have. Everything.
But what does that mean I should do? I wondered in the car on the way
home, while Dylan and Ben laughed and tussled in the backseat. Dig in
or move on? Fight on with the paper or get the hell out?
And if, just if, I left the paper - hell, maybe leave newspapers
entirely - what about Danielle's question?
What exactly was the alternative?
I wasn't sure. It would probably never happen. But I was starting to
see a slim little path. I was keeping dangerous company.
Rolly Rouse was the only person I knew who stopped breathing when he
It wasn't that he breathed less. He didn't breathe at all, for long,
long stretches. There wasn't time. And there wasn't leftover brain
capacity for mundane chores like firing up the lungs. When Rolly
talked, he thought, and when he thought, his brain was like a great
furnace that sucked up all the oxygen in his body, sometimes all the
oxygen in a room. They say humans use only ten percent of their
mental capacity. Rolly surely used more, much more. When he got into
high gear, which is where he spent most of his time, he used so much
of his brain that he couldn't breathe.
For a long time I didn't know this. We were spending more and more
time together, after work, on weekends, over lunch. I was looking for
new ideas and inspiration, and Rolly was a blazing idea factory. He
was medium height and weight, with the big shoulders of a former
lacrosse player now set above a hint of middle-age paunch. His skin
still had its youthful translucence and his face its fine features.
His fingers were lean and deliberate - what you'd expect in an
architect or fine craftsman. The ponytail of his college days was
years gone, but his brown hair was still on the long side, and he
still wore the full Sundance Kid mustache, slightly drooping at the
corners, that gave him, at first glance, a jaunty wayfarer's look.
But he was not a jaunty guy. With a monumental effort, he could laugh
and slap backs and play the hail-fellow. But his pale eyes always
blazed under long, thin lids and a swept-back pair of hawkish
eyebrows. And when he talked, not breathing, those eyes began to
bulge, and in his passion and intensity and oxygen deprivation and
rising flush, you could see a touch of Mongol warrior. If this guy
rode into your village on horseback, you hoped he was on your side.
Conversation with Rolly was not for the faint of heart. There were no
throwaway lines, no casual, uncommitted riffs. Every statement was
linked to a sincerely held idea, and every idea was linked to a
hundred more equally impassioned ideas, and each of those to a
thousand more, and every single one joined in a vast, deliberate
mental matrix that Rolly's mind never stopped tending and updating
and rearranging and testing. It was a full and amazingly detailed
worldview and fact catalogue and logic engine behind those bulging
Way back in college I had already thought of Rolly's interior life as
unusually intricate, conscious, crystalline. Xanadu. A grand and
mindful intellectual project in all the ways that my inner music was
simply sensual and wild. Now, twenty years later, I realized to my
astonishment that his intellectual project, the great crystal palace
in his mind, had never stopped growing, had never even slowed down.
It had doubled up and doubled up like compounding interest behind
those pale, fired-up eyes. And it was still growing, like that fifty-
ton mushroom unearthed in Michigan, like the expanding universe, like
Xanadu on steroids.
For precious chunks of nearly every day I checked out of deliberate
thought - singing out loud, savoring a sunset or a pretty smile,
rolling on the floor with the kids. Just a happy, dumb animal. Rolly
never checked out. He couldn't. He was too desperately committed to
the project within. It was his pride and his prison.
In social settings I would watch as some unsuspecting soul cradling a
glass of wine stepped into Rolly's perimeter, exchanged pleasantries
for a moment, then made a casual remark that held the slightest,
uncrafted, unintended hook of a serious idea. Rolly would turn, the
hook would go in, and the palace within would be engaged. His poor
chatmate had no idea what she was in for, and Rolly had no way of
disengaging. It was the old pig and python story. Once he bit on an
idea, even a mere notion, he had to go all the way with its
consideration. All the way to hidden assumptions and nineteenth-
century antecedents and Renaissance parallels and the base behavior
patterns of our Neanderthal ancestors. Every idea that hit the
perimeter had to be processed and tested and integrated or rejected
or finally, very rarely, laughed off. There was no reverse gear and
Some people ran. Some played through. I loved it. It was just the
amazement I was looking for, just the fresh prism and challenge and,
maybe, the brewing vat for a change of life. And once I understood
that he wasn't breathing, that the flush and desperate edge had a
simple physiological explanation, it was even relaxing to engage his
realm, a relief from the ordinary chatter that poured out of the
radio and the TV and half of what I read. It was invigorating.
Rolly, Carole, and Kendra lived just ten or twelve blocks from us, in
a bungalow on the other side of the town center, on a quiet street
that nestled up against wooded reservation land. The house was homey
- with a steep roof, perched on a hillside with a big green and white
awning that shaded its front porch in the summertime. Rolly and I sat
there in the summer of 1994 and talked and talked. The subject was
usually new media - the CD-ROMs and online services that were
beginning to change the way information was moved and shared. The
goal of our conversations wasn't clear, but we were each looking for
something that maybe the other had.
When I had headed off to Hong Kong in 1977, Rolly had thrown himself
into the innovative end of the energy business. Those were still the
years of energy crisis, and Rolly had become a leader in passive
solar design, working out of the Massachusetts Energy Office. In the
mid-'80s, he joined Citizens Conservation Corporation, a subsidiary
of the innovative oil company Citizens Energy run by Bobby Kennedy's
By the mid-'90s, Rolly had left Citizens, where he had been chief
operating officer, and launched a successful consulting business
using sophisticated software to help multifamily property owners
update their buildings to maximize market value and profitability. He
was making good money, building a great reputation - and crawling out
of his skin - not so much with boredom as with a sense that this
could not be what life was all about.
We sat on his shaded porch one late afternoon in July as Rolly
described how he had opened a notepad at a suffocatingly dull energy
conference in 1991 and begun making a list of major trends he saw
unfolding in the world, then mapping them against what he was doing
with his life.
There was no match. And he began to dream.
He loved homes, beautifully designed homes that created environments
where people could find joy and thrive. He loved traditional homes,
not the boxy cookie-cutter homes of postwar modernism but the
soaring, celebratory, character-filled homes of the Victorian era. He
saw that a lot of other people were gravitating toward such homes,
too. People wanted to live, he joked, "in the home they wished their
grandparents had had." Not the dark, cloistered, and usually modest
home of reality but an open, gracious, sun-filled version of that
traditional home with all the modern conveniences. The home of
He told me how he had shared his vision with an old friend, Katherine
Ahern, in early 1994. Katherine was an artist working as a real
estate assessor who could never quite decide how to define her own
path in life, where the focus of her career should be. She had
listened closely as Rolly poured out his obsession.
"She just stared at me while I went on," said Rolly, solemnly
describing the epiphany he had had that day. "And when I was
finished, she put it right to me. She said, 'Look, Rolly, I don't
know what I want to do with my life, and I desperately wish I did.
You know what you want to do with yours, and you're not doing it!'"
So he had begun to push his ideas out into the world. He talked with
Buz and Shawn Laughlin, friends in Wellesley who were a talented
filmmaking and editing couple as well as serial home renovators; they
had repeatedly bought old homes, turned them into showplaces, sold
them at a good profit, and moved into ever-grander old homes. He had
talked with Megan Gadd, a ski resort heiress with a great eye for
design. And to Tom Timko, an old pal in high-tech marketing. And of
course to Carole, his wife, who oversaw the management of thousands
of units of public housing for the State of Massachusetts. And to a
few others, including me.
It was getting late, and I needed to install an air conditioner at
home for Danielle and the baby. Rolly and I kept talking as we drove
to a warehouse store, picked up a window unit, and took it to my
place. We had talked before about homes and new media and the
opportunity there. We had talked about home design and the
difficulties people faced in getting the homes they really wanted.
But this conversation was more concrete. Rolly was beginning to
decribe the outlines of a business, a business he wanted to call
He had written down some ideas, he said, and wanted me to take them
home and think about them and tell him what I thought. So I did. And
on that day I saw Xanadu beginning to come out into the sunlight.
The packet Rolly gave me was twenty-two pages long, on simple white
paper, stapled at the corner. It wasn't really a business plan.
Later, we would get to know all about business plans, more than I
ever imagined I would know. This document was more basic. It was part
business plan, part raw vision. And it was part - a large part -
simple fantasy. None of the software and systems it confidently
described even existed. There was no explicit mention of the
Internet. It was a set of ideas and an impulse. But it was a
beginning, and we took it seriously. Why be embarrassed to be
When Rolly had gone, I sat down on the back steps of the house and
took off my sneakers and socks. It was early evening. Sadie was
sprawled in the backyard, snapping at the occasional bee buzzing by
from our weedy flower garden. I leaned against the warm brick wall of
the house and began to read.
The Electronic Pattern Book Company presents
The New Victorian Home
A. Unique Selling Proposition
1. A New Way to Design Houses
The New Victorian Home is an "electronic pattern book" on CD-ROM. It
is a high-tech, high-touch version of the 19th century architectural
pattern book. (These popular, mass-market publications presented
design styles and ideas, practical construction advice, and
philosophical notions linking good building to healthy living.
Coupled with rising affluence and cost-cutting technological
innovations, they helped make possible the profusion of high-style,
high-craft "Victorian" houses that homeowners today hold in such high
Our pioneering program lets you make choices for yourself before you
hire an architect or builder. It helps you to explore the design
tradeoffs you think are most important. It zooms quickly from whole
houses to building elements and back and highlights relationships
between the parts and the whole. . . .
The New Victorian Home is as simple to use as leafing through an
interactive magazine and pointing and clicking on what you like. It
is a combination of a game, an educational program, and a practical
home design tool.
2. Satisfy the Baby Boomers
Available in both CD-ROM and applications software versions, The New
Victorian Home is designed to appeal to the rising architectural
tastes, standards, and construction budgets of the baby boom
generation. . . . Affluent "boomers" want houses that are the modern
day equivalent of those built during the Victorian Era. . . .
The New Victorian Home helps satisfy the growing demand for
customized house design by tapping into the skills, knowledge, and
learning capacity of the most important - and most disenfranchised -
player in the process: the home buyer or renovator. You choose the
building style and details you like best. You identify the attributes
(e.g. "a ten-room house with a wraparound porch and large kitchen")
and design qualities (e.g. "cute with lots of nooks and crannies")
that are most important to you. . . .
3. First to Market in Its Niche
Rapid growth in computing power, falling hardware prices, the wide
market penetration of the Microsoft Windows graphic interface, and
the explosive sales trajectory for CD-ROM players have set the stage
for a revolution in how people use computers. It is making possible
new ways of organizing, exchanging, and using information.
Our flagship CD-ROM product is designed to create a new market. By
being the first to take this approach, BBS hopes to define in our
customers' minds a new class of knowledge-building software. . . .
The New Victorian Home is based on a simple premise: that homeowners
need a way to sort out their home design options, preferences,
priorities, budget constraints, and household conflicts, and to do so
effectively. . . .
4. A Proprietary Open Architecture
BuildingBlocks Software will create an open graphical knowledge-
building architecture for The New Victorian Home. We will create
additional titles using the same interactive visual problem-solving
environment. We will encourage other companies to create titles using
our development platform, which will be a proprietary open
For example, building products manufacturers will be able to use
customized versions of The New Victorian Home to showcase their
products and services. This will create opportunities for in-context
informational advertising in response to specific or open-ended
customer requests. Use of BBS's object-oriented graphical environment
on both user and senders' computers will allow fast downloading of
complex images and information over standard phone lines. . . .
A mosquito made a pass at my ankle. I slapped it away. I was making a
mental list of questions. Object oriented? No idea. Graphical
environment? I guessed that meant the interface. Proprietary open
architecture? I had an idea what that might mean, but it sounded like
an oxymoron. Platform? I thought Microsoft and Bill Gates had a
pretty good lock on software platforms, what little I understood of
And what was up with all this Victorian stuff? It could be right, but
it sounded stuffy.
Still, something here was grabbing me. I liked a handsome house and
had seen people struggle to get the home they wanted. I could relate
to that. But there was more. Intuitively, this seemed to me like a
big potential piece of new economy turf. It was a long way from
covering the news, I thought. But this new economy, this digital
stuff, might be the news of the next century.
I riffled through, looking for the money part. It was the slimmest
section of the packet. Barely there. Bone simple. Up to fifty percent
of the company would be sold, it asserted, to build a prototype,
develop the product, and market it nationally. With no point of
comparison, that sounded fine to me.
How big was the market? Well, the United States had 60 million owner-
occupied homes, it said, and at any given time, probably half would
be interested in home design software that helped them "clarify their
preferences and options, have fun, and dream big dreams."
Have fun and dream big dreams. I liked that.
BuildingBlocks modestly assumed it could win a five percent share of
the market for such software in its third year, or revenues of over
$8 million on the sale of half a million CD-ROMs. But the real goal
would be to win half of the market, or ten times that revenue - $80
million - by year three.
Eighty million dollars! Fine! Beautiful! Why not?
Sadie jerked up off the grass and snapped furiously at some bug. I
moved to a lawn chair to stay in the fading light. The lawn was not
looking good this year. And the house definitely needed a paint job.
What would that cost me?
Never mind. Rolly's packet was getting deep into the realm of ideas.
The Decline of Modernism
For 75 years, the underlying ideology of architecture has grown out
of a core set of ideas - that a "universal" design style was
desirable and that ornament and attempts to achieve beauty were
decadent and misguided. Buildings were supposed to be simple, boxy,
and preferably white.
The modernist philosophy and aesthetic all but put architects out of
the business of home design. As a result, for decades builders have
been the primary arbiters of style.
Now the pendulum has begun to swing back. Consumers are again
defining the market. Styles and building design details are becoming
more and more elaborate, especially for high-end homes. Computer-
aided design has increased flexibility. Builders are offering more
choices. Architects are again designing houses.
Rising Aesthetic Sensibilities and Standards
We are living through a period of great awakening. Along with
democracy and markets, artistic sensibilities are on the rise around
the globe. This is not an elite phenomenon. People are getting better
and better at deciding what they like - at defining for themselves
what is beautiful. It is a virtuous circle, a rising tide of
sensibilities and sensations. It promises to lift upward our
aesthetic standards and physical surroundings for decades to come.
Something is happening to art that hasn't been seen for 120 years.
Art is blossoming at every level of life - in our magazines and
movies, in our greeting cards and grocery aisles, in our houses and
home computers, in our hand-crafted decorative arts and our mass-
produced objects from stores like Crate & Barrel. . . .
The implications of this are simple. For the next 25 years,
nonartists will get better and better at discriminating, and will
increasingly choose quality over kitsch. . . . The expanding market
will drive down costs, permitting the emergence of an enormous
consumer market for high-quality fine art, and decorative art, as
well as for aesthetically-pleasing mass-market goods and services.
Okay. That was a mouthful. And there was plenty more in that vein.
This was Rolly's crystal palace space/time/big bucks Xanadu analysis
machine in high gear. And I loved it. I had no idea how it would sell
in the real world. I had no idea if it would ever make sense as an
effort for me to join. But it sounded great. Big changes. Big ideas.
A bunch of exciting new technologies to support them. And big money!
The Internet was still just a peep on the national screen that
summer. But CD-ROMs were a phenom. And America Online was making
plenty of noise. There would be lots of technology avenues opening
up. Yeah, it sounded a little crazy. But weren't new things, real
breakthroughs, supposed to sound a little crazy?
So I told Rolly I liked it. I liked it a lot.
And the next packet he handed me had my name in it. And a title
attached. It was the second line in a hypothetical management roster:
Tom Ashbrook, President and Publisher. Publisher, as in the one who
would bridge the business side and the editorial side of this
hypothetical operation, with its editorially presented home design
information and images and ideas.
Next to my name and title was a penciled question mark. On the page
it looked small. In my mind it was huge.
Who was I kidding even thinking about this? I didn't know squat about
business or software or anything online. The only modems I had ever
used were to file news stories as fast as I could and catch the next
plane. The CDs I liked best were the ones I dropped into my stereo.
This was surely not the profile of your average high-tech startup
executive, not even the shadow of the profile.
And what about Rolly? Yes, he was brilliant and accomplished and knew
a lot about architecture and housing and had a good mind for
software. But he had never started a full-blown company before. He
had never written a business plan. Rolly, the chairman and CEO of our
pie-in-the-sky dream enterprise, didn't even breathe when he talked!
Yet here was the next packet, boiling again with ideas and numbers
and lists and refinements. BuildingBlocks would use software and
online services to help people design and furnish their homes. It
would help people get the homes they really wanted, not the mass-
produced junk that too many had to settle for. It would not try to
turn consumers into amateur architects or draftsmen like the flood of
shrink-wrapped "design your own home" software products that were
beginning to hit the market. It would start with wonderful whole
designs and let people easily tailor them to their own tastes and
needs, right down to the individual products that would make up the
The company would "secure a line of venture funding totaling $5
million from the start," the new packet said. Venture funding as in
venture capital, I assumed. I had a vague idea how that worked, but I
didn't personally know anyone who had ever raised a penny of venture
capital. I didn't know anyone who was a "venture capitalist," if that
was the right expression. The phrase brought to mind pirates and
adventure and sharp business school guys with boatloads of money and
a pair of dice in their pocket. The $5 million, combined with cash
from operations, the new packet said, would carry BuildingBlocks
through its first five years. At that point "we may take the company
public to raise additional capital for growth."
Simple as that! Boom! The first product would be ready in July 1995,
it said. Ten months away. No problem. Big idea, big money, big
But it couldn't be that easy, could it? This was just a fantasy. Just
a couple of twitchy guys playing catch in the backyard and
bullshitting and dreaming they were major leaguers.
And yet, there was something compelling here. I couldn't let it go.
Rolly certainly couldn't let it go. It was all we talked about. We
would walk in the woods by his house, kicking up leaves and hopping
over old deadwood and thinking it through again and again. And the
more we talked, the bigger it got. And on really high days we would
actually start to run through those woods, laughing like idiots and
whooping and slapping trees. We would take new technology and the
Internet and remake a whole industry! Hell, we would roll up our
sleeves and change the way people lived, the way they slept and
cooked and saw the sun and loved and breathed and the rooms they
danced in. We would remake the whole freaking world, one house at a
time! And we'd get rich doing it! We would not get steamrolled by the
new century. No sir! We would ride this new technology like hot-damn
buckaroos. We would not be bugs on the windshield. We would drive the
car! I hopped up on a big rock, pissing a long arc into the woods,
laughing and crowing like a goofy rooster.
We would be golden geeks!
But maybe I wouldn't say too much about this to Danielle just yet, I
thought, walking back to the house. After all, I had a job - more
than a job. If you believed American journalism's claims to a
special, vital role in society, I had a calling.
And I absolutely did believe those claims.
And I had always loved that work.
And this was just an idea.
But maybe it was the way.
I knew I had dreams my life wasn't touching. I knew there was a clock
ticking. I knew the world was changing in ways that meant I shouldn't
count on old assumptions anymore. But I didn't know if I could act on
that, with kids and a mortgage and all the habits of a familiar life.
Hello, boomer! Are you stuck yet?
How funny that the Internet gold rush should show up in the middle of
our lives, a seductive, invisible frontier as big as our
imaginations. It was the direct descendant of every wild, golden
sunrise that ever set armies of dreamers in motion. We sing songs
about those times and pass down their legends, of pilgrims and
pirates and settlers and gold-mad '49ers.
I wasn't the only one who went chasing thrills and fortune on the
Internet, but I must have been one of the least equipped. I was not a
tech wizard or an entrepreneur. I had only been on the Internet half
a dozen times myself. I knew almost nothing about computers beyond
what it took to get through a working day. And I had never started a
business before, let alone one that would require millions of dollars
to get off the ground.
Here's what I did know: something huge was happening, something on a
scale so large that I was lucky to see it even once in my lifetime.
It was stirring economies and imaginations and possibilities like
nothing I had ever known. And the more I looked at it, the more
desperately I wanted to be part of it.
Here's something else I knew: I was going on forty and was desperate
for fresh oxygen. I probably would have joined a mule train or a
circus or any damned thing that moved if the Internet hadn't come
along. I wasn't twenty-four with nothing to lose or fifty-five with a
trunk full of play money. I was just a hungry soul crashing clumsily
into midlife vertigo a little earlier than most. I had played out the
better part of a first career and found some of its limits - and some
of my own. It was time to make the leap.
It was the kind of leap that, one way or another, we were all
beginning to weigh in those days. A leap from security to risk. From
the known to the unknown. From well-grazed limits to open vistas. It
was thrilling. It was terrifying. It changed me. It changed the
people I loved most, whether they liked it or not. But I couldn't
know that then. Hey, there were twenty-two-year-olds riding the
rocket all around me. How hard could it be?
Danielle, who deserved better or at least easier, had always said she
expected me to do something crazy in the middle of life. Just not
this kind of crazy. But maybe we don't get to choose our madness.
More often, it just shows up.
They called it a digital boom. I could hear it, in the distance.
Like a big train coming.
Copyright (c) 2000 by Tom Ashbrook. Reprinted by permission of
Houghton Mifflin Company.
What People are Saying About This
Meet the Author
William Munoz has an avid interest in ecology and the environment and has taken the photographs for a number of books written by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent. Mr. Munoz lives in Hamilton, Montana.
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent holds a Ph.D. in zoology from the University of California, Berkeley. She is the recipient of the Washington Post Children's Book Guild Nonfiction Award for her body of work, which includes more than 130 books for children and young adults on subjects ranging from biodiversity to the spirit bear. She lives with her husband in Missoula, Montana. You can learn more about her on her web site: www.dorothyhinshawpatent.com.
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