The parable of the little feather

By William B. Wetherall

Fall 2007

One bright summer day, I went for a hike on a mountain trail. After a while, I came upon a little feather shining in a sunspot on the trail just ahead of me. It was gray and blue and tinged with white. It seemed to smile at me through a sheen of soft iridescence. It was charismatic. I picked it up and stuck it in my hatband.

As I resumed my trek, I began to ponder the significance of this seemingly simple event. What meaning or import does it have among the infinitesimal events simultaneously taking place throughout the universe? A rose petal falls in Keokuk, Iowa, while a cosmic convulsion rages in a black hole 100 light years away. Is either event more important than the other in the scheme of things? And how did it happen that this particular feather and I came together at this particular time and place?

The chance of that happening would defy the reach of any random number generator.

Speaking of reaches, when I reached down to pick up the feather, did I really have any say in the matter or was that act genetically preordained? When a certain spore, among a myriad of spores, joined hands with a certain ovum, among a myriad of ova, many years ago, as a precursor to my birth, was my meeting with the feather then in the works? Are all happenings in the universe bound together in a unified system of relentless causation, of absolute, universal determinism? Am I just a windup toy skittering around on the earth until I run down? Is so-called free will merely a self-gratifying illusion?

As these thoughts scampered through my mind, a soft twitter came to my ears, followed by a sweet chirping sound. And then these words:

"I have been following with interest your philosophical ramblings. They are typical effusions of a mysterious organ called the human brain, which has endowed your species with extraordinary mental powers, such as powers of communication, memory, imagination, deliberation, innovative dreams and reflective thinking. The free will/determinism debate and the related tug of war between heredity and behaviorism have been around a long time.

"My own view of these matters is pretty simple (as are most of my views). Every creature which has developed physiologically to the state of having a consciousness, an awareness of being, has some degree of control over the creature's actions. As Descartes put it,"I think, therefore I am".

"The extent of this autonomous mind power depends, of course, upon the extent to which the master organ, the brain, has developed. In this respect, it appears that you humans have made considerable headway (pardon the pun), and it seems likely that many other animals, in varying degrees, have some conscious control over their actions. At the highest level of this brain power, you have, for example, Aristotle, whose wide-ranging mind sought to answer every question that besieged it; Leonardo da Vinci, a free-wheeling genius of amazing versatility; Shakespeare, whose fertile imagination soared far above his mundane world; Einstein, who had extraordinary powers of cognition; and Toscanini, whose mind was an inexhaustible data base of musical notes and knowledge.

"But don't let this will power thing make you think you are invincible. It is always limited by genetic inheritance, as modified by behavioral factors. I think it was Shakespeare who said, "There's a destiny that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we may". If you are 5 feet 10 inches tall and weigh 200 pounds, your will power, however potent, will not get you over a high jump bar set at 7 feet. If you have an average IQ and are stocking shelves at Walmart, you are not likely to make it into the Rand think tank, no matter how ardently you aspire to do so.

"One further comment about the human brain. It is a well-spring of feelings and emotions, some of which are colloquially attributed to the heart. They play a dominant role in the life of every individual.To understand them and to deal with them is a constant challenge. The only advice I can give you on this fascinating -- and to me, inscrutable -- subject is to sort them out as best you can. Confront them and manage them for your overall benefit. The "good" ones -- for example,love and joy -- will enrich your life. As to the "ungood" ones -- such as anger and despondency -- face up to them and try to deal with their root causes, but by no means bury them alive.

"Another thing about that autonomous will and brain power stuff. In my view, your consciousness includes a conscience -- an intuitive ability to distinguish "right" from "wrong", whatever that means. It is sort of a built-in moral compass. How it came about we don't know. Although essentially innate, it is often confirmed by behavioral expediency.

"When you were freed from your mother's womb and became a person, you had no say in the matter. But now that you are here, you might as well make the most of it. Use that brain, but don't deny your heart. Use that will power as a weapon and join the hunt. It's your life, the only one you can be sure of. So take charge and give it your best shot."

As I was listening to this stimulating monologue, the trail took me through a canopy of conifers. Then suddenly it led into a lush meadow, embroidered with lupine and goldenrods. I realized that this quiet meadow was a treasure trove of nature's progeny, much of which was "born to blush unseen". I slowed my pace in order to absorb the beauty that surrounded me and to savor the sweet-smelling grasses. Along the way, I sighted a patch of wild strawberries languishing in the sun alongside the trail. They were ripe and begging to be picked. I was more than willing to accommodate, and I continued to pamper my appetite until all of the ripe berries were gone.

Again came the twitter and the chirp, chirp, chirp. Then these words:

"It's nice that you are enjoying the meadow, but don't you think you were a bit heavy handed in dealing with those strawberries? You should have realized that maybe other hikers would have enjoyed some of them. Did you ever hear the old saying "all things in moderation" or "take a little, leave a little"? Such admonitions, I think, are inspired by that inborn sense of right and wrong that I mentioned a moment ago.

"Aphorisms of this kind, which are simply versions of the Golden Rule, reach far beyond the sharing of strawberries. For example, your economic system, with all of its vaunted productivity, is in many ways a reproach to this "think of the other guy" philosophy. So-called capitalism, as practiced in your country, has fallen into the hands of powerful multi-national corporations whose sole mission is to make money and to get bigger in order to make still more money. So the name of the game is to take all and leave nothing for a competitor, if any -- just as you did with those strawberries. In all stages of production and distribution these corporations, with their insatiable appetite for profits and their gung-ho efforts to reduce or stamp out competition -- or avoid it by way of mergers and cannibalistic takeovers -- have been allowed to develop into juggernauts of economic power. Collectively, they are aptly referred to as "big business".

"Big business deceptively claims to be a paradigm of capitalism, whereas in some ways it is an abomination of true capitalism. As expounded by Adam Smith, its much revered herald, capitalism has three basic elements: first, freedom of the individual to prosper from work and ingenuity; second, honest competition; and third, a fair and just operating system maintained through government oversight. As corollaries of these principles, Smith decried monopolies, whether private or governmental. He supported the unionization of labor. And while he believed in limited government, he avowed that government has a duty to protect every individual from injustice or oppression from others, a duty to provide an exact administration of justice, and a duty to maintain those public works and institutions which cannot feasibly be carried on by individuals or small groups.

"The failure of your economic system to match this template of theoretical capitalism is stunningly obvious. Adam Smith came out with his "Wealth of Nations" in the pre-machine age of the 18th century -- in fact, it was in 1776, the year of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. What a coincidence that these two great paeans of freedom and independence -- one economic and the other political -- should be unveiled in the same year! At that time, Smith could not have foreseen, in his wildest imagination, the enormity and complexity of today's economic system. I am not an economist and I will make no pretense of talking about your economic system in depth, but I can't resist the urge to sound off on a few of my pet grievances.

"As a general observation, I will point out that your economic system is and always has been a managed -- or mismanaged -- economy. In reality, it is a mix of capitalism and socialism. Many of today's so-called capitalists are obsessed with the first element of Adam Smith's theory -- the profit motive -- and tend to overlook or try to sneak by the other elements stipulated by Smith, that is, competition and government oversight. In essence, Smith's theory itself calls for a managed economy. In Today's world, that requires a wide range of comprehensive laws and regulations in order to safeguard the public interest and to keep the competing economic forces from taking unfair advantage of each other. To the extent that these measures are intended to protect society as a whole, they are in a sense socialistic.

"As a prime example of the pell-mell pursuit of the profit motive, you have a Walmart, the world's largest retail establishment, selling everything from peanuts to automobiles, and bulldozing every "mom and pop" store that stands in its way. Do you know that you can go to one of Walmart's super layouts with a kidney problem and they will take a sample of your urine? And I recently learned that they are planning to force their way into the fiercely competitive banking and investment business. Your country has pursued the money-making feature of capitalism with such vengeance that Adam Smith would be embarrassed by it.

"Throughout the system, there has been a constant drum-beat for growth, which is glorified by most present day economists. The fallacy of this growth gospel is that if followed to its logical conclusion it would totally destroy the environment and all life on the earth. Moreover, the ongoing globalization of this growth trend, with your country in the vanguard, may someday lead to an Armageddon of industrialized nations as they vie for "market share" and for ever-diminishing natural resources.

"Your economic system, as revolutionized by technology, has indeed created a bonanza for consumers. This may seem like good economics, short term, but is it good sociology? The unbridled surge of the profit motive has corrupted many segments of your society. A notable example of this is the arrogant pharmaceutical industry, which by aggressive promotion and advertising, much of it misleading and some of it actually fraudulent, is creating a nation of addicted pill pushers, imbibing chemicals to treat every conceivable symptom of pain or physical quirk, even including "restless leg syndrome". There are pills to wake you up, pills to put you to sleep, and pills to keep you happy in the interim. I recently learned that a staggering number of people -- I believe it was 40 million -- now take sleeping pills on a regular basis.

"In an attempt to justify the high cost of prescription brand-name drugs (fortunately, three-fourths of them are available in much cheaper generic form), the pharmaceuticals brag about the huge outlays they make for R&D in order to keep the pipeline full of miracle products. However, they fail to tell you that they spend more on advertising and promotion than they do on R&D. The TV screens are flooded with pleas to "ask your doctor" about this or that nostrum, and the doctor, of course, is well supplied with free samples of these magical drugs, which he freely distributes to his patients, not to mention that he and his staff have been well"buttered up", or may I say, bribed, by gifts of lavish lunch food, "educational" seminars, and the like.

"Please understand that my complaint has nothing to do with the production of pharmaceutical products as such, with their reasonable use, or with the underlying research. My protest concerns the inordinate and often unnecessary, and sometimes harmful, use of these products and the vulgar manner in which they are prescribed and marketed.

"This predatory aspect of your economic system has also taken its toll on your erstwhile "noble" professions -- law, medicine and accounting. They are no longer professions. They are businesses. Their main focus is on the "bottom line". Law firms, especially the big law factories, are obsessed with "billable hours" and are so grimly specialized that the practice, I am told, is no longer fun.

"There was a time, not long ago, when it was unethical for a lawyer to advertise, other than by handing out a simple business card and listing a phone number in a telephone directory, and ambulance chasing was considered a cardinal sin. How times have changed! Now lawyers are running full page ads in those directories and have turned to the TV screens in making obsequious solicitations for business. Free turkeys, anyone? Do you know that a study conducted by the California Bar a few years ago revealed that 70 percent of the then practicing lawyers were unhappy with their plight and would rather be doing something else.

"Medicine also has lost the aura of professionalism. Most doctors are on a daily fast-moving treadmill, seeing as many patients as can be processed within the allotted time. When not jousting with insurance companies, they are to a large extent simply treating symptoms by writing prescriptions to make the patient feel better. Whatever happened to the old "an ounce of prevention" idea?

"Accountants thrive on the problems that are spawned by the infamous Internal Revenue Code. For decades your politicians have righteously proclaimed that the Code is a disgrace to civilized society, but they have lacked the will to do anything about it. Why? Because the Code, as cobbled together over the years, is the darling of long-pocket special interests and their K Street hirelings, who have been ever so kind to the politicians, especially at election time. As a cornucopia of tax "incentives" -- subsidies, if you will -- for those who have couth or clout, the Code is Exhibit No.1 in support of the proposition that capitalism, U.S.A. style, is socialism for the rich. In this setting, large CPA firms in recent years have become so imbued with their clients' growth mania that their advice has led to the downfall of several enormous international corporations, with devastating effects on employees and shareholders.

"When I was talking about the pharmaceuticals, I could not help but think about your health care system, which has been almost fatally crippled by the undue and ill-advised influence which your so-called capitalists have brought to bear on public policy. Although your country has the ability to provide health care of the highest order, its delivery system lags far behind that of other industrialized nations.

"With health care costs increasing at a rate twice that of inflation, and with the number of uninsured on the rise because so many insured are being deprived of their coverage through the loss of retirement benefits or because they are unable to pay the ever-increasing premiums, your people are unable to take full advantage of your world-class medical capacity. And with emergency rooms being inundated by nonpaying patients, many of your hospitals are being forced into bankruptcy. The present system is breaking down for the simple reason that it is under the control of the insurance industry. Instead of devoting their undivided attention to their patients, doctors are having to hassle with those who pay their bills and who have a monetary interest in restricting the medical care of the patient.

"The goal of universal health care, although certainly a necessary step in the right direction, falls short of the mark. The only real reform of your health care system will come with the adoption of a unified single-payer system operated by the federal government, with standard coverage and with cost-saving, uniform and simplified procedures and paper work. The shareholder profits and executive bonuses of private insurance companies would no longer be a component in the cost of health care. You would simply be following good capitalistic economics by removing an unnecessary middleman from the system, which could well be a modified extension of Medicare. Furthermore, you would be in league with Adam Smith, who believed that government has a role to play in matters that cannot feasibly be handled by the individual, whether acting alone or collectively in small numbers.

"The mere mention of such a solution, of course, generates screams of "socialized medicine" from the insurance companies and their henchmen. While in the past doctors have, in the main, been opposed to a government-run system, more and more of them are coming to realize that the present system is fundamentally flawed and that they would be better off dealing directly with the beneficiaries of the system, through their governmental representatives, than bickering with mercenary intermediaries.

"As a good example of your failure to live up to Adam Smith's third tenet of capitalism -- governmental oversight -- your cringing lawmakers have allowed the oil companies and auto makers, behemoths of your economy, to maintain a stranglehold on the regulatory process. As a result, you have created of a massive nationwide grid-lock of automobiles. At peak traffic hours, there are millions of gas guzzling over-sized vehicles, including SUV's and trucks the size of railroad cars, lurching along in stop and go lines from sea to shining sea, squandering the precious time of their occupants and sullenly drinking up and wasting a precious, limited and irreplaceable natural resource. At the same time, a commute train rocks and rattles its way alongside a congested freeway from Sacramento to the Bay Area in such a way that would be considered disgraceful in Europe or Japan.

"Proposals to build fuel-efficient, rider-friendly public transit systems are ridiculed with cries of "subsidy" and "government intervention". The opponents of such proposals have short memories. They seem to forget that less than two centuries ago your government gave away thousands of acres of public land, and other benefits, to private corporations as an inducement to the construction of transcontinental railroads extending to the West Coast. This was the "mother of all subsidies" and it established a clear precedent for further government participation in the maintenance and improvement of public transportation. However, your weak-kneed lawmakers, bullied by the oil, auto and trucking industries, and their lobbyists, have for the most part backed away from making adequate railroad subsidies and have eschewed the benefits of public transportation. And they have, in effect, subsidized the very industries which have opposed government aid to railroads and public transit systems by constructing a vast system of ugly, boring, noxious freeways, and Rube Goldberg interchanges, extending from coast to coast, thereby providing a tax-paid network of roadbeds which enables those industries to flourish.

"Speaking of oil companies, for decades your political leaders have known that your dependency on foreign oil might someday get you into trouble. Sure enough, it has led to two wars, the Gulf War and now the war in Iraq--tragic and immoral consequences of your failure to develop alternative sources of energy and to regulate the auto and oil industries in a way that would help make your country energy independent.

"Another example of regulatory misfeasance on the part of your lawmakers is the manner in which your cigarette industry was allowed for decades to mislead and defraud the entire country about its products, thereby causing irreparable damage to the health of addicted smokers and others within range of their fumes, as well as tragic loss of life and untold property loss as the result of fires caused by cigarette use. It is sadly ironic that, if I am not mistaken, your Congress continues hypocritically to subsidize the tobacco growers.

"Also, as you may know, Lake Erie, for lack of effective regulation, was at one time allowed to become a cesspool of toxic industrial waste, which led to billions in cleanup costs.

"I could go on and on about your government's failure to carry out the third postulate of Adam Smith's proclamation of capitalism -- that is, a fair and just system maintained by government oversight. Under that precept, through appropriate laws and regulations the first two of Smith's postulates--profit seeking and honest competition -- would be pursued in a system that would provide a level playing field and rules of the game for the participants, and at the same time would protect the interests of the general public.

"Human nature is such that no matter what economic or political system you have, it will fail unless it is vetted with reasonable guidelines of behavior. Without them, the managed capitalist system as practiced in your country is doomed to fail. It contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction -- the seeds of greed and lust for power, which are the raw emotions that fuel the first two principles of capitalism as stipulated by Adam Smith. These seeds are formed when the government fails to carry out the third principle as vouchsafed by Smith, that is, the duty to mollify the first two principles -- profit taking and competition -- with appropriate laws and regulations in order to have a system that is fair and just.

"A shipwrecked libertarian, alone on an island, can do pretty much as he pleases. But if he puts ashore on Manhattan, he instantly becomes dependent on many other people, and at the same time he immediately undertakes certain obligations to others, all of which sets the stage for guidelines of conduct. Most of your people are probably libertarians at heart, but they are also realists, and they know that human nature is such that even the most conscientious libertarian cannot be trusted to do the proper thing at all times, especially if he has no objective guidelines to go by. There's an old saying that liberty breeds license. As a corollary, I would say that in today's world unrestrained libertarianism invites chaos.

"The advance of technology, coupled with globalization and out-sourcing, has accentuated the interdependency of all human beings on the earth and has enhanced the need for reasonable regulatory systems, domestic and world-wide. Like it or not, you are living in a one-world society, largely brought about by the fact that your country, by extending its economic tentacles throughout the world and by flamboyant TV advertising, has aimlessly proselytised the world regarding your "Western" way of life. As symbols of that lifestyle, McDonald's golden arches now protrude like stalagmites in 131 countries all over the globe. Like it or not, global affairs have become so interdependent that your country is now fighting a war over oil in the Arabian desert and funding it with money borrowed from China, a formidable and fast-rising economic competitor. Like it or not, the orphan child in Darfur is your next door neighbor.

"Yes, the world is flat and it's getting flatter all the time. At your doorstep right now are new challenges of immense range and sensitivity, such as how to deal with global warming and how to keep digital science from tearing down the curtains of personal privacy all over the world. These problems are not going away and they will not be solved by orthodox libertarianism. They will be addressed by government regulation on an international scale.

"As I have said, your economic system has long since ceased to be truly capitalistic, if it ever was. With its subservience to the pressures of politics and special interests, and its history of tax incentives, farm and business subsidies, industry bail-outs, "earmarks", and legislative, executive and administrative favoritisms of all kinds, your government has defiled the sacred "free market" philosophy of capitalism.

"The difficulty in adopting appropriate regulations has been exacerbated by the attitude and tactics used by the opposing forces, mainly big business and anti-government ideologues, with their armies of deep-pocket lobbyists. In their view, the "private sector" is the citadel of "free enterprise". They continuously extol the virtues of "privatization" and they preach that property rights are inviolable. They rant and rail about the vices of "big government". They demonize the government. This, of course, is masochistic; you learned in 8th grade civics that "the government is us". As Plato put it, more grammatically, "the state is the man writ large". When confronted by a regulatory proposal which tends to threaten the "bottom line", the opponents often greet it with what I call the "shibboleths of shame" -- cries of "socialism", "government intervention", "government paternalism" and even "un-American".

"On the other side of the fence, the proponents of regulation, with the ardent support of consumer and "watchdog" groups, as well as business entities that would stand to benefit from the proposed regulation, often take positions in support of their causes which are unreasonable and indefensible.

"In a nutshell, the conflict between your regulatory zealots and your free enterprise junkies, as resolved in the form of regulations groped out by your often inept, and sometimes corrupt, policy makers, has resulted in a regulatory bureaucracy that rightly deserves much of the obloquy laid upon it. The fact is that your economic system is permeated with government regulations, from the federal level on down. You have long standing major controls such as anti-trust and fair trade laws, as well as a seemingly endless array of "alphabetical" agencies such as FTC, FDA, FPA, EEC, FHA, ICC, NOAA, and so forth, ad infinitum and ad nauseam, regulating everything from the interest rate on your mortgage and the real value of your dollar bill to the quality of the hamburger you get in a Big Mac.

"Over the years, your regulatory systems, federal, state and local, have become infested with laws and regulations which should never have been adopted in the first place. Some of them have been sponsored by entrenched career bureaucrats looking for a way to extend their influence and augment their paychecks. And some were instigated by well-intentioned "do-gooders" and impassioned reformers who were indifferent to the burdens involved.

"A classic example of this last category of unnecessary controls arose in California a few years ago, when Los Angeles County adopted an ordinance requiring Notaries, when executing an acknowledgement on any instrument involving title to real property, to make a thumbprint of the signer. The purpose of this, of course, was to assist law enforcement in dealing with forgeries. Someone in Los Angeles County had been victimized by a forgery and became a crusader. Two years after this pilot test was undertaken, the State Legislature was persuaded to pass a law extending the provisions of the ordinance throughout the State.

"Nevada County has always been my habitat, and while I am aware that check forgery occasionally occurs, I don't think I have ever heard of a case involving forgery of a deed. In order to be recordable, deeds have to be acknowledged before a Notary and the person executing the deed is required to sign it in the presence of the Notary and to submit proof of identity to the Notary. Thus, the possibility of a forgery is almost nil. Now, however, throughout California on every workday -- in law offices, title companies, banks, and the like -- countless hours are devoted to this additional, and I say preposterous, thumbprint ceremony, which, needless to say, resulted in an increase in the standard notarial fee and perhaps in the fees of attorneys and others who have to put up with the delay caused by this needless process. The law obviously had the support of the Notarial Association because it elevated the function and income of its members, and without a doubt it was welcomed by the businesses which stood to benefit from the sale of ink pads and journal supplies to the Notaries.

"In my opinion there was no justification whatever for this law. Even assuming that it might help in tracking down an occasional forgery, the minuscule benefit to society is far outweighed by the price thus paid in terms of the time and expense involved in complying with the law. Considering the fact that law enforcement was able to cope with forgeries for centuries without this thumbprint routine, how did this law ever get through the State Legislature? No problem. When the vote-hungry lawmakers were solicited for support, how could they say "no"? If they did so, they would lose the votes of the proponents; and besides, in the next election their opponents would accuse them of coming down on the side of fraud.

"The real problem lies in the quality of the necessary regulations. Some of them are ineffectual because they are not clearly drafted or are fraught with loopholes deliberately connived by the opponents during the negotiation process. Others are openly biased in favor of the parties or interests being regulated. Still others are bereft of value because they have been eviscerated by ill-advised compromises. And some should never have been adopted in the first place because the public benefits sought to be derived were outweighed by the burdens of compliance, such as paper work, record keeping and reporting; placed upon the "innocent" parties -- sometimes an overwhelming majority -- whose behavior would have been acceptable without regulatory constraints. And then there are cases where the cost of administering and enforcing a regulation, in itself, is greater than any conceivable benefit.

"Be that as it may, it is time for special interests and anti-government forces to realize that big government is here to stay. It is time for regulatory bodies to realize that big business is here to stay. And it is time for both sides to realize that it is in their mutual interests that they approach the problems of regulation as partners and not as adversaries. It is time for the competing parties to check their ideologies and their abrasive rhetoric in the cloak room, along with their topcoats, and come to the conference table with the understanding that government regulation is inevitable, but that it is not appropriate in cases where the projected benefits are clearly out outweighed by the cost and burdens of compliance. Above all, regulations must be reasonable. Reasonableness is the lodestar of effective regulation.

"In other words, "rugged individualism" must be reconciled with what a die-hard capitalist would call "stultifying socialism". This is the only way to protect the public interest and at the same time provide at least some semblance of opportunities, incentives and rewards for individual enterprise and achievement. In truth, government regulation, though much maligned, is the salvation of capitalism.

"When I started to talk about your economic system I had no idea that I would be rattling on so long. I could talk a lot more about the sociological and environmental abuses that have been perpetrated under the banner of capitalism, and the shortcomings of the regulatory system, but if I were to do so, I'm afraid you'd be going home in the dark, so I'11 just tap into that will power I've praised so highly and leave you with your own thoughts for a while."

From the meadow the trail proceeded along the wall of a deep, tree-clad ravine. With my eyes fixed on the beauty of the ravine, I stubbed my toe on a rock and pitched forward to the ground, barely avoiding an unscheduled descent into the ravine.

I struggled to my feet and continued my trek. Again I heard a twitter, a chirping sound, and then these words:

"Congratulations! Be thankful that you did not roll down the cliff. It pleases me that you did not let a bruised elbow cause you to give up your jaunt. For your decision to keep going instead of turning back you can thank that wonderful autonomous will power I talked about awhile ago.

"I'm sure you've learned by this time that there are many pratfalls and pitfalls along the trail of life. It is certainly no disgrace to fall down, as you did, or to fail or falter in some valued endeavor. These are situations in which that will power may come in handy. If your brain tells you you are able to get up, or that your unsuccessful quest is worthy of further pursuit, let that magic will empower you to recoup and carry on.

"The prophetic words "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are among the most cherished and most quoted words in almost every language. The word "life" and the word "liberty" pretty much speak for themselves, but I would like to make a point about the rest of the expression. Most people tend to pass over "pursuit" and concentrate on "happiness". In my view, the word to be highlighted is "pursuit". In a real sense, it is the key to happiness. It is pursuit that enables you to achieve your goals and objectives, which, in turn, evokes a feeling of contentment and fortifies your self-esteem. All this adds up to real happiness. So don't be too concerned about the happiness factor. You are more likely to be happy if you are steadfast in the pursuit of your goals.

"So "damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead!" If you fall, get up and go. If you fail, try again. Pursuit is the thing."

Suddenly a rainbow vaulted across the ravine just ahead of me. I stopped in my tracks and drank it in. Then came that twitter, the chirp, chirp, chirp and these words:

"I see you are impressed by the rainbow. You are now undergoing an emotional experience, a feeling, which as I said before, is one of the wondrous things that are sponsored by your brain -- or by your heart, if you want to put it that way. In this case, you are undergoing one of the "good" emotions in observing a masterpiece of nature. Enjoy it while it lasts. Although it is physically evanescent, it will miraculously live on in your memory. "A thing of beauty is a joy forever", whether it be a Grecian urn, an ancient ojima [Oshima in Matsushima?], a "host of golden daffodils", the Ode to Joy, the Taj Mahal, the 23rd Psalm, Monet's lily pond at Giveny, a maple leaf in autumn, the Adagio in Beethoven's Pathetique, a puppy's face, or indeed, a rainbow in the sky.

"By the way, if you should find a pot at the end of the rainbow, don't put too much stock in what may be in it. Anything more than what might be needed for your comfortable survival is not all that important. And here's another good place to fall back on that good word "pursuit". Pursue the rainbow, not the gold in the pot."

As the rainbow faded, I came to a fork in the trail. One branch, somewhat wider that the other and obviously more used, continued along the rim of the canyon with little change in elevation. The other, showing less travel, seemed to be on a rise toward the crest of the ridge. A nearby post was doubtless the remnant of a directive sign. The signboard had been removed -- probably by a souvenir seeker. Without giving the matter any serious thought, I took off on the narrower trail.

As I proceeded uphill, it became evident that the trail I was on would probably scale the pinnacle of the ridge. If so, where would it go from there? It seemed doubtful that it would switch back and merge with the main trail. If not, where would it take me? Would it dead-end at the pinnacle? These thoughts put pressure on my resolve to go on. Perhaps I should turn back and pursue the safe course.

At this point, I decided that a handful of trail mix and a fried egg sandwich might help me to cope with these unsettling thoughts and also energize me for the rest of my journey. So I sat down on a nearby log, unzipped my backpack and took out the sandwich -- all in the vicinity of a chattering squirrel anxiously awaiting the time-honored handout.

Immediately came the introductory twitter and chirping, and then:

"I noticed that you paused to reflect upon your choice of trails and that you chose the one less travelled. However, the rational choice seemingly would have been the one most used. By your decision, whatever its motivation, you put your faith in the less used trail, trusting that it would eventually merge with what appeared to be the main trail or would otherwise take you toward your intended destination. This observation leads me to muse a bit about your faith in a broader sense -- religious or spiritual faith. Since you are obviously a young man, I assume that your search for faith is in its early stages, and, therefore, I will speak in very general terms.

"From the time Homo sapiens first began to think, the human race has been haunted by the mysteries of life -- by questions concerning the origin and purpose of the universe and of life on planet Earth. The responses of primitive man to such questions were correspondingly simple. They were based largely on fear. The approach was polytheistic and the gods were elemental. Over time, with the proliferation of knowledge, the answers, explanations or beliefs concerning such questions (which, simplistically, I call "religion"), have become increasingly intricate, with an infusion of behavioral standards and concepts of morality, and with a predominant belief in one God, anthropomorphic. This process has resulted in a vast number and diversity of religious and pseudo-religious entities and organizations, many of them with international reach, espousing a bewildering variety of beliefs, creeds, "isms" and practices. "Organized religion", so-called, has long been a dominant force in the affairs of mankind, and the results have not always been beneficent.

"In recent times, religious thought and doctrine have been significantly impacted by advances in science and technology. Your wizards of physics, mathematics, biology and genetics have made exponential inroads in the microcosm, smashing atoms to smithereens, opening a new world of quarks and gluons, splicing genes, and so forth, albeit these crusaders are still facing the j inks laid down by Zeno in the 5th century B.C. -- that is, no matter how many times you divide something, there is still something left to divide.

"Similarly, in the macrocosm your astronomers and astrophysicists have learned that no matter how far your Hubble lenses, space ships and photographic technology may extend the boundaries of the known universe, there is still more universe to be explored.

"In this connection, I am reminded of a story they tell about the noted philosopher, William James, when in one of his lectures he referred to the earth as a spherical body spinning in an orbit. At that point, a lady in the front row blurted out that the earth actually rested on the back of a giant turtle. The learned philosopher, thinking he would let her down gently, responded, with a condescending smile, "My dear lady, on what does that turtle rest?" "Oh, no, Dr. James", the lady shot back, "you haven't got me there -- it's turtle all the way down". So be it. It's universe all the way down.

"Darwin, of course, has left his sizable footprints in what was once exclusive religious territory. Whether organic evolution is a scientific fact or remains merely a theory is perhaps an open question. It has weathered a storm of theological condemnation, and the theory itself has been constantly revisited since Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan faced off in the Scopes trial.Assuming that random mutation and natural selection are scientific facts, by no means do they conclusively negate the concept of creationism.

"Although, taken literally, the detailed Biblical cosmogony has for the most part been discredited, evolution does not explain how the process got started in the first place. It presupposes the existence of matter or energy in some form. Without the start-up ingredients, the primordial slime would not have evolved. What are the ingredients and how did they come about? In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas observed that no scientist yet knows the essence of a fly. Today, with the awesome advances of knowledge over many centuries, the essence of a fly is still a mystery.

"Scientific knowledge, including evolution, as developed by finite minds, will never in my opinion provide an answer to the fundamental issues addressed by religion, which necessarily involve notions of infinity -- speculation, if you will, about the unknowable. Although science deals with causation, its revelations in my view will never explain the First Cause; it deals with processes -- how things work after the start-up -- whereas religion deals with the supernatural, the metaphysical. So, in a sense, religion takes over where science leaves off -- or perhaps I should say, in proper sequence, that science takes over where religion leaves off. This is not to say that one supersedes the other. It is merely a figurative way of differentiating their spheres of influence. Clearly, these spheres are overlapping. They are coexisting and concurrent. As such, each has a role to play and should respect that of the other. Religion and science should complement each other.

"Most of your people probably think of religion in terms of a fixed creed or set of beliefs. Some people, indeed, need such tailor-made systems as props against a weary life. Karl Marx once said that "religion is the opiate of the people1". To a certain extent that may be true. But it should not be construed, as Marx intended, as a put-down of religion. If religion provides a refuge for a tortured soul, I say, so be it; and be thankful for it.

"If you find comfort in a collective or group approach to religion by joining an established church or organization, your options are almost limitless. Even within the realm of Christianity, for example, your options of a religious home will range from the "little brown church in the wildwood" to a great Gothic cathedral, with creeds and ceremonies as varied and disparate as their architecture. I recently counted the churches and meeting places listed in the Church Directory of your local newspaper [The Union], and believe it or not, there were 37 different denominations, some of which had more than one church in the area, and there were 18 additional churches listed as "independent".

"In your consideration of creeds, however, I suggest that you let your brain have its way. It will screen out any doctrine that it finds unworthy of belief and will keep you honest in setting your religious goals. For example, the heaven/hell (carrot/stick) dichotomy may give you pause. You may reject the notion that those of you who turn out to be "sinners" will be doomed to burn forever in the fires of hell. This is not necessarily because there is no evidence of a hell, but because it is inconceivable that a loving God would stoop to such barbarism in the treatment of his children. To endow the Deity with attributes that are subhuman seems bizarre, to say the least.

"On the other hand, you may readily embrace the idea that a reward, a celestial sanctuary, is awaiting you at the end of your terrestrial sojourn. As far back as Zoroaster in the 6th century B.C., great thinkers have spelled out the promise of immortality. Emerson once said that the best proof of immortality is that so many people want it. But, of course, you do not need any objective proof at all to believe that there is an afterlife. It is no stretch to believe that the Source which brought about your present life is capable of extending it or creating another life for you down the road. If your spirit finds another home after your body dies, that will be a bonus. If not, the end will be peaceful oblivion. In either case, you win.

"Your brain may also reject the idea that unless you belong to a certain sect or religious group, you are an outcast or infidel and will not he eligible for any divine reward. I call this the "doctrine of exclusivity". It is one of many self-serving tenets or doctrines that have become ingrained in some organized religions as a means of preserving or extending their hegemony. You may have heard the joke about the Catholic priest who one Sunday addressed his flock by saying "This is good-news/bad-news day. The good news is, the Messiah is coming. The bad news is, we'll have to go to Salt Lake City to see him".

"My own view of religion tends to be individualistic. To me, religion is an intensely personal matter and is an ongoing open-ended pursuit (there's that wonderful word again!) of spirituality. Call me a freethinker, if you will. But that does mean that I am not religious. Actually, I feel a sense of relief when I realize that my search for spirituality is not bounded by a fixed creed. I look to all religions and philosophies for inspiration. I am exhilarated by the freedom to do so, and I am pleased to find that all of the world's renowned religions, when stripped of their trappings of promotion and expediency, and the barnacles of extremism, have very similar core precepts and values.

"So, my approach is sort of egalitarian, and, I must confess, somewhat transitory. I fully embrace the simple brotherly-love gospel of the historical Jesus and I find comfort in the teachings of Buddhism in relation to the sufferings of life. My spiritual leanings involve a reverence for nature and all creation, a la Albert Schweitzer, with a tinge of Emerson's transcendentalism. There are times when I think hard about pantheism. In keeping with the concepts of many faiths, I believe that love is the highest calling and the greatest force in the universe. Everything else is incidental. It is of little moment to me whether the baboon is your cousin or whether rocks are solidified energy. I also believe that faith without good works is a hollow shell. In other words, my religion includes a prominent strain of what you humans call humanism. And it has to be inspirational. It is a work in progress and the pursuit goes on.

"I have made no mention of atheism or agnosticism. As far as atheism is concerned, it is easy, by an exercise in logic, to make it seem unassailable. Infinity, by definition, has no beginning or ending. Since there is no beginning, nothing has ever been created; ergo, there has never been a Creator, a God. However, the issue of whether there is a God cannot be summarily dismissed by such a playful use of words. I sometimes wonder whether there is such a "belief" as atheism. Even an atheist, it seems to me, believes in something. Every breath he takes is an affirmation of life. Otherwise, like a good soldier who defies capture by the enemy, he would fall upon his sword and end it all. As the saying goes, you'll never find an atheist in a foxhole.

"Agnosticism is quite another matter.I dare say that every "true believer" has an occasional lapse into doubt. As Tennyson said, "There lies more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half your creeds." So don't despair if you suffer an occasional bout of skepticism.

"Whatever your religious belief may be, you will face a daunting challenge to your faith -- how to cope with the gross injustices and unspeakable tragedies that beset the human condition. A child is born with an imbecilic brain. Why? A vibrant young man at the threshold of his life is struck down by a hit-and-run driver. Why? Without warning, a tsunami sweeps 200,000 people to their watery deaths. Why? How could an omnipotent and loving God allow such atrocities to occur?

"Why did God treat Job the way he did? That question is explored in Robert Frost's "A Masque of Reason". In a verbal dual with God, Job probed valiantly for answers, but the most he could wrangle out of God was that the discipline man needs most is "to learn his submission to unreason". Though plainly dissatisfied with God's responses, Job finally gives up and concedes that "we know enough to go ahead with". Maybe Job would have fared better if he had consorted with Gautama Buddha.

"Speaking of unreason, I am personally challenged by the ruthless food chain in which I am an integral link. You see, I have my own personal dilemmas to deal with.

"By this time, you are doubtless wondering how I am able to speak to you in your language, sometimes as if I were one of you, and how I have been able to acquire my knowledge of human affairs. Of course, I often cavort at an elevation that gives me a pretty good overview of what goes on in your domain. But the real answer is that in this world of infinity anything is possible. That is the very nature of infinity. As Shakespeare said, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy". The world is awash with miracles. A lowly worm is transformed into a gorgeous butterfly -- a miracle. That same gossamer creature migrates hundreds of miles from Canada to Mexico -- another miracle. A little bird becomes a self-appointed "poor man's" oracle -- just call it another miracle.

"As far as religion is concerned, I've been "winging" it (my last pun, I promise). I hope I have not bored you, much less offended you, with my random pontificating, much of it oversimplified and sophomoric. I have just scratched the surface, as they say. (I'm pretty good at scratching -- just ask any worm).

"The main thing is, be the arbiter of your own beliefs. Beware of the provocateur who claims to have a pipeline to God or who purports to be directed by God in the conduct of his or her affairs. Believe whatever makes you comfortable, inspires joy and gives you hope, as long as your belief does not denigrate that of others. If, for example, you truly believe that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, you need not apologize to anyone. I know of no incontrovertible evidence that that did not happen. If you find solace in trinitarian Christianity, embrace it. If, on the other hand, you are leaning toward the "cosmic" religion of Einstein, go for it. If you believe in reincarnation, that's your call. If in your search for spirituality you find yourself in the grip of unyielding rationalism, that's okay, too. If your pursuit leads you to a structured code of moral behavior, don't be too self-righteous about it; leave room for an occasional peccadillo. After all, you are human -- an upscale animal. Let your inevitable mistakes teach you humility. And don't ever abandon your sense of humor. It is the flywheel of sanity. Above all, pursue. And let love and joy be the motivating passions of your life.

"Perhaps my comments will at least give you, in the words of Frost, "a momentary stay against confusion".

"Well, I must be going. I've enjoyed our visit. Just keep going and you'll find your way home. Maybe we'll meet again someday. So long and good luck."

The trail, sure enough, led me to the pinnacle of the ridge and then descended gently to a public road, which happened to be the same road that was intersected by the main trail, so I had no trouble finding my way home.

As I trudged along the road, my head was teeming with the thoughts and ideas that had been showered upon me. I was reminded of the familiar expression, "a little bird told me". My experience certainly validated that saying. I was grateful for the infusion of hope and the encouragement to pursue the many issues that I had never thought about before.

For the moment, however, the most profound issue before me was what to fix for supper.

When I finally got home, I put down my backpack and hung my hat on a hook in the closet. I noticed that the little feather was gone.


Origin of parable

"The parable of the little feather" is a soliloquy in the guise of ventriloquy. William B. Wetherall, its narrator, is casting his own voice through the oracle, who is no dummy. His legal writing was part of his profession in the service of other people's interests, but his creative writing was a catharsis for digesting his own feelings about life. "Little feather" was his way of coming to terms with the meaning of his life after Orene's death in 2003, at which point he returned to the "first questions" people ask they pondering the nature and purpose of life -- what is life, why life ends, and what, if anything, comes before or after life. Would he every see her again?

Bill had not been a "religious man" in terms of church attendance. This writer (his son, WOW) cannot recall him talking about his religious experiences when growing up -- but then he rarely talked about his childhood, or about himself in relation to his side of the family.

While Bill and Orene were living in San Francisco, Orene was active in the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in the Sunset District, where the family lived at different homes between 1942 and 1955. She attended the church, on the southeast corner of 28th and Lawton, not because she was Lutheran, but because she thought her children would benefit from the Sunday school and other activities at the church, including Cub, Boy, Brownie, and Girl Scouting. It was also, for her, a chance to meet other young mothers and sing in the choir. Her own recent ancestors were mostly Methodists or Baptists (one gets the impression they attended whatever church was close). The Lutheran church attracted a number of neighborhood Protestants who weren't Lutherans. In this sense it was more like a non-denominational community center. The church was right across the street from the Sunset Recreation Center -- an entire block, then, of mostly grass where we played baseball. The Lutheran church later became a Chinese Buddhist facility. The buildings are still there but are now something else.

Bill rarely attended services or otherwise participated in activities at the Lutheran church. Once a year or so, however, he would drive the family to the First Unitarian Universalist Church on Geary Street near Cathedral Hill, only four blocks away from the Trinity Episcopal Church on Bush Street, where he and Orene happened to be married, though they had no connections with either the denomination or the church.

Bill's periodic attendance of Unitarian services was inspired mainly by his intellectual attraction to the liberal political philosophy of Adlai E. Stevenson II (1900-1965), who was a Unitarian. The church, as its name implies, rejects the doctrine of the Trinity, but it also rejects or questions the doctrines of original sin and predestination, among many other tenets of Christianity. Unitarian churches are open to people of all beliefs -- not only Christians (though most are Christians), but also agnostics, atheists, and pantheists -- virtually anyone who feels the pursuit of spiritual meaning is more important than belief in a creed. This is perhaps the underlying theme of "The parable of the little feather".

Adlai Stevenson's bids for president were important events in Bill's life. A Democrat perhaps by birth, he attended a huge gathering in Golden Gate park on the occasion of President Harry S. Truman's visit to the city and park in 1948, and he boosted this writer on his shoulders to get a view of the man. Stevenson was the Democratic Party candidate for president in the 1952 and 1956 elections following Truman's incumbencies. He would lose both elections to Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the Democrats would not return to the White House until John F. Kennedy beat Richard M. Nixon, who had been Ike's vice president, in the 1960 election.

Bill's political "activism" appears to have been inspired by "office politics" at the law firm of Malone and Sullivan, which he joined in 1947. The partners, William Malone and Raymond Sullivan -- and another attorney at the law firm, William Dowling, who also lived in the Sunset and would become close family friend -- were all San Francisco-born and Hastings-educated Irish Catholics. About the only thing Bill had in common with most of them was his name, Bill, and the fact that he was a Democrat. The office, he said, was politically charged, given Malone's leadership in the Democratic Party in San Francisco, and in California and even national Democratic Party activities.

This writer suspects that Malone confirmed WBW's liberal bona fides before hiring him. In the law firm's office, at least, politics trumped religion and surname ethnicity. San Francisco was then a very Catholic city in which public school lunches served fish on Fridays, and Italian and Irish Catholics vied for the town's leadership. The partners probably figured that a Protestant country boy from Iowa via Idaho couldn't do their cause any harm. The fact that Bill and Orene were then sending both of their boys (this writer and his brother) to a French Catholic convent school may even have raised hopes that the Wetheralls might someday take their First Communion.

In any event, the move of the Wetherall family from San Francisco to Grass Valley in 1955 was bracketed by Bill's hopes for Adlai Stevenson -- who dissenters dubbed an "egghead" on account of the support he got from university professors and others opposed to the McCarthyist "Red purges" at the height of the Cold War and fear of communism. After the move, all church attendance stopped. Orene continued with her Girl Scout work and devoted herself to a number of other volunteer activities, and Bill would become totally absorbed in his legal work.

While in San Francisco, Bill's "communions with nature" took the form of weekend picnics in Golden Gate Park and in parks and at beaches within easy driving distance of the city -- and in week-long summer camping expeditions, mostly to parks in the coastal redwoods. These, too, ended with the move to Grass Valley.

Living in Nevada County was itself a spiritual experience. One of the first things he did was split the lot behind his home with the neighbor on the other side, which brought more trees and shrubbery on his side of the new fence and gave him room for a vegetable garden. Orene, returning to her farm roots, put up all manner of fruits, vegetables, jams, jellies, pickles, mincemeat, and chutney -- many of the ingredients from the backyard. The only thing she didn't seal in Mason jars -- like her mother did after her father and other men in the family returned from a hunt on Central Ridge in Idaho -- was venison.

But Bill's mind could not ever have been too far from questions about the human condition. His line of work brought him into daily contact with the difficulties people have in life. He never talked about his work at home. He kept other people's problems to himself. His later clients probably had the impression he did only trusts and other estate work, but that came much later in his career, after Nevada County's population expanded several fold and its population of attorneys grew even faster. In the early years of his practice, he survived by taking most cases that crossed his threshold or were thrown his way by the court when his name came up on the public defender roster. He caught them all -- from murder and marijuana to divorce and other domestic disputes, in addition to the usual variety of boundary and inheritance issues.

Bill's reading of classical philosophy and literature, when in high school and college, would become the foundation for his own brand of liberalism and concern about personal, family, community, and world affairs. This is clear from the citations and allusions he sprinkled through "Little feather". Many people visiting his Grass Valley home had the impression that he was a voracious reader, but at home he read little other than newpapers and news magazines. Most of his "book reading" was limited to re-reading the classics he had read in high school or college.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Bill bought a number of Heritage Press editions of classical titles, some he had read, others he hoped to read. He proudly displayed them on low thick unpainted redwood plank shelves he had built along two walls in living room. At times he would take one of the Heritage volumes to his reading chair, remove it from its slip case, admire the binding and paper and fonts and illustrations, and run his eyes over some of the lines, even recite a few if he thought anyone would listen. A few minutes later he'd return the book to its proper place on the shelf and say -- in what became a refrain -- "One of these days I'm going to read this."

The narrator of "Little feather" came to a fork in the trail, and took the narrower, steeper choice, which the oracle called "the one less traveled." This was an allusion to "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost, one of Bill's favorite poets. For Bill, many of the books in his modest library, numbering perhaps 200 volumes, would become the road not taken -- the road Frost would have said he had "kept for another day."

Perhaps -- while writing "Little feather" -- William B. Wetherall had a premonition like that of the two lines that followed Frost's "another day".

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.


The emotional credibility of "Little feather" is grounded in Bill's experiences, mostly personal, some vicarious. The "Why?" injustices and tragedies, for example, are allusions to (1) Stephen Ward Vincent (1945-1966), the son of one of Orene's closest relatives, (2) Peter Owen Vodonick (1983-2004), his own grandson by his daughter, and (3) the victims of the tsunami caused by the earthquake in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Sumatra on 26 December 2004, which he witnessed on television. Peter's death and the tsunami came barely a year after Orene's death. The emotions that inspired "Little feather" had been burning for many years.


Drafts and editing

The first draft of three drafts I (WOW) received at my home in Japan is dated 7 October 2007. A very slightly corrected second draft, dated 25 October, is marked "Final draft" and an accompanying note says "Please deep-6 the copy I sent you some time ago." The third draft, undated but received circa 10 November, came with a card reading "Herewith is positively a final corrected and revised copy of my tirade."

The following text of William B. Wetherall's "tirade" is the third draft as received except for the following changes: (1) The opening, intermediate, and closing thoughts of the narrator are shown in italics to make them stand out a bit from the words of "voice" of the winged oracle; (2) A few words were respelled in accordance with more conventional spellings; (3) Missing quotations marks (") were added at the beginning of two paragraphs; and (4) Clarifications are shown in [square brackets].


During the last last decade of his life, WBW wrote and edited legal briefs without the help of a literate secretary, using an antiquated word processor and at times an electric typewriter. If sitting in the living room, you could sometimes hear him cuss from the back room where he worked, out of impatience with the computer or himself. He never wrote with the benefit (or curse) of a spelling checker. He kept a dictionary handy and consulted it when doubtful, but he made more typos as he lost the agility of his fingers and simply failed to catch them when proofreading. Many of the errors that remain in the third draft, however, represent his tendency to increasing spell -- with his ear -- words he couldn't clearly remember how to spell with his eye. The following words have been "corrected" -- or just "respelled" if one rejects the doctrine of "correctness" in spelling.

irridescence, infinitessimal, inexaustable, beseiged, invincable, Wal-Mart, dispondency, gung ho, forseen, reqires, Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart's, self-rightiously, pharaceuticals, goverment, unnessesary, irreplacable, railoads, taxpaid, shiboleths, mortage, occasionaly, preposturous, miniscule, idiologies, accross, Giverney, souvenier, homo, primative, anthropromorphic, dominent, benificent, Hubbell, expain, overlaping, afer, egalatarian, Sweitzer, dispair, upspeakable, Buddha Gautama, sophmoric, compfortable, pecadillo

WBW would have been the first to laugh. He, after all, was the human storyteller -- the ventriloquist casting his own voice through the oracle. And the oracle was no dummy -- especially with regard to its advice about leaving room for an "occasional pecadillo". Pope said "To err is human, to forgive divine." WBW might have said "To err is human. To blame it on the other party shows political promise."

"If your pursuit leads you to a structured code of moral behavior, don't be too self-righteous about it; leave room for an occasional pecadillo. After all, you are human -- an upscale animal. Let your inevitable mistakes teach you humility."
Little feather, William B. Wetherall, 2007

Who is to say that "pecadillo" and other "inevitable mistakes" in WBW's story weren't tongue-in-cheek irony on his part?

I confess to having been able to catch only about half of my father's erroneous -- or shall we say "alternative" -- spellings before running "Little feather" through a spelling checker. He was also uncertain of the spellings of a number of proper nouns. At times he imagined his father was keeping score. That's what happens when you're raised by a father who was embarrassed by his older son's low English grades. My father once bribed me with a stamp album if I would get a B in my 7th-grade English class at Marina Junior High School in San Francisco. That would be the first of only two Bs I would get in Engliish until Sierra College. I was pracically disowned for a D that nearly became an F in my senior English class at Nevada Union High School.

Quotation marks and punctuation

But back to "Little feather". Some editors religiously abide by style sheets as though they were "structured codes of moral behavior". WBW broke two general rules that most copy editors blindly follow, at least in the United States, with practically zero tolerance for case-by-case considerations.

The first rule he violated was to bracket both citations and citations embedded within citations in double quotation marks ("Abc "def" ghi") rather than shift to single quotation marks inside the double quotation marks ("Abc 'def' ghi"). The second was to place most periods and commas after closing quotation marks (Jkl "mno". / Jkl "mno", pqr) rather than before (Jkl "mno." / Jkl "mno," pqr).

The above text preserves both of his preferences. The second in particular reflects the stricter standards that he practiced in his own legal writing, which places punctuation within quotation marks only if the punctuation was part of the quoted expression. British usage generally allows such distinctions. And for some reason, unrelated to my father's writing, I (WOW) follow (and defend) liberal case-by-case puntuation rules, to the dismay of editors who insist on conformity with their (generally American-style) house rules.


The term "ojima" remains a mystery. It may refer to Oshima at Matsushima, which Bill and Orene visited when they came to Japan to attend my wedding in 1971. "Ojima" is a dialect variation of Oshima, a tiny pine-covered island reached by a short vermillion bridge from the coast of Miyagi prefecture on Matsushima bay. The bay, about three hours north of Tokyo, is famous for its numerous pine-covered islands, hence its name. Oshima, about 40 meters wide and 200 meters long, can be walked in just a few minutes. The connecting wooden bridge, built in 1952, was destroyed by the earthquakes and tsunami that devastated the region on 11 March 2011. A sturdier concrete version, about 20 meters long and 3 meters wide, was completed in 2013.

Historically the island was a retreat for monks affiliated with a Buddhist temple that had been built on the coast in the early 9th century. A number of caves survive, along with some images cut into rock formations, and a few latterday pagodas and stone memorials. Two of the stones memorialize Bashō and Sora and the Matsushima poems they wrote when visiting the island during their trek through the northern provinces in the late 17th century.