I've often thought there ought to be a manual to hand to little kids, telling them what kind of planet they're on, why they don't fall off it, how much time they've probably got here, how to avoid poison ivy, and so on. I tried to write one once. It was called Welcome to Earth. I got stuck on explaining why we don't fall off the planet.My life is not of sufficient interest (except to me) to justify an auto-biography. What I am writing here is instead a meta-biography. That is, I am writing about the lives of 150 people (including myself) who were born in 1935. We have lived through the same world events together. We were all 4 years old when World War 11 started and 10 years old when it ended. We grieved the assassination of Jack Kennedy together when we were 28, and we all celebrated the first step of Neil Armstrong on the moon, as promised by Jack Kennedy, when we were 34. Despite this common experience however, we lived vastly different lives. This book is about the factors which determine the lives people lead. Focussing on those particular 150 people will help make the abstract issues more concrete by providing specific examples from the lives of my cohorts. Many people have written biographies of the Life and Times of a particular person; I am writing the Lives and Time of 150 people.
Kurt Vonnegut Junior
in Afterword to Marlo Thomas, Free to Be - You and Me
Astrologers play with the notion that people born under the same sign share some human characteristics and a common fate which we can check day by day in our newspapers. This is harmless fun and, of course, nonsense. Let us say, we decide to make astrology more precise by focussing on the exact date (May 8) when a person is born rather than a range (Taurus, April 21 to May 21). What could I possibly have in common with Henry Gibbon (1737), Harry Truman (1884), Sonny Liston (1932), and Gary Glitter (1944) beyond the fact that we were all born on May 8? Chinese astrology may be more interesting, since people are grouped by the year in which they are born. Such groups share the experience of the same world events at the same age. However, there is no reason why they should have anything in common with people born 12 years earlier or 12 years later as their designated group cycles around again. The focus here is on those born in that one year - 1935 - and on the huge differences in the lives they led despite the fact that they experienced the same world events at the same age. The focus is not on what we have in common because of our birth date but on how we differ.
Why 150 people? Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist, noted that the size of the brain of primates correlated with the optimal size of the social group to which they belonged [DUNBAR]. Using data from 36 primates, he arrived at an optimal figure of 147.8 for our species. Dunbar's Number, usually rounded up to 150, has been confirmed for a variety of groups. Scholars have demonstrated again and again that when a group grows beyond this constant, it starts to break down spontaneously into two groups or it evolves a hierarchical structure.
In honour of Kurt Vonnegut, one of the truly wise people on our planet, I will refer to my group of cohorts as my "karass". Vonnegut introduced this term, in Cat's Cradle, to describe a team of people, without national, institutional, occupational, familial, and class boundaries, who do God's will without ever discovering what they are doing [VONNEGUT]. The useful function served unwittingly by MY karass is that, by living their varied lives, they clarify the options for others who are seeking enlightenment on how to lead a productive life. What brought Vonnegut into his karass was the book he never finished which was to be called The Day the World Ended: what brings me to my karass is the book which I may never finish which will be called An Operating Manual for Species Homo Sapiens. (Similar to another book Vonnegut didn't write - Welcome to Earth - described in the opening quote to this chapter). My own life experience is not enough to convince members of my species of the need to find the missing operating manual. So I have recruited 149 cohorts born with me in 1935 to make the argument based on our collective experience.
Each of the chapters will open with an event, involving a member of my karass, which will trigger a discussion of some factor (nature or nurture?, chance or choice?) which influences the various lives we have led. Thus, for example, the publication of her first novel at 18 by Francoise Sagan in 1953 initiates a discussion of genius (see 1953 ON GENIUS), the accidental meeting of Elvis Presley with Colonel Tom Parker in 1955 will trigger a discussion of the role of chance (see 1955 ON CHANCE) and the introduction of Dick Assman, an obscure gas-pump attendant, on the David Letterman Show raises the issue of fame and its fickle companion, fortune (see 1995 ON FAME AND FORTUNE).
The 150 members of my karass are listed in Appendix A. Since they are our Cast of Characters, they are listed in order of appearance on our global stage. The first column is their date of birth as year, month, day so as to appear in chronological order when sorted by this column. In the electronic version of this book, they will literally appear on the stage of the screen in that order.
The second column is their name. They are listed by their given names to remind us that, despite our various titles and such trappings, we are all members of the same species in the same predicament on the same planet. However, you would not recognise some given names - for example, you may not know that the Dalai Lama was born as Gyatso Tenzin. When their given name or some reduced version of it are the names you would recognise, there is no problem - hence, Adnan Khashoggi and Albert Samuel Waxman. When the familiar name is based only loosely on the given name or has incorporated some nickname, the familiar name is included in brackets or quote marks - hence, Allen Stewart Konigsberg (Woody Allen) and Salvatore "Sonny" Philip Bono. When the role or title is more familiar, it is included in brackets - hence George Kregse (The Amazing Kreskin) and Hussein bin Talal (King Hussein 1 of Jordan).
The third column is their nationality and the fourth column is their claim to fame. There would be little point in including people you would not recognise. Thus, the members of my group must have some claim to fame. The claim to fame is usually some activity in which they have excelled. Hence, Carol Shields (Writer), Donald Sutherland (Actor), Jerry Fodor (Scholar), Lester Piggott (Jockey), and Floyd Patterson (Boxer). However, some people are famous as soon as they are born before they can distinguish themselves by excelling in a particular area. If your fame is based only on being born in a royal family (e.g. Princess Elisabeth of Denmark) then you are listed under Royalty, and, if your fame is based on being related to someone who distinguishes themselves (e.g. Maya Picasso) then you are listed under Relative. In the chapter entitled 1995 ON FAME AND FORTUNE, we will consider the effect of such unearned fame.
The fifth column is the date of death. Alas, indeed, many members of my karass are already dead. I'll try to stay alive to record the lives of the fellow survivors, and fill those ghoulish empty spaces waiting for a death date. In the long run, we will ALL be dead. This sobering fact will be discussed in the chapter entitled 2005 ON MORTALITY.
I have only a very limited association with this group of people. Marcello Truzzi and I were both graduate students at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York during the 1960s. Doug McClure and I had a few beers together in the Hog's Breath Inn in Carmel, California in the 1970s and I caught a glimpse of Richard Brautigan in Enrico's on North Beach sometime during that decade. Marcel Braitstein is a friend and neighbour here in Hudson, Quebec and I met Sylvia Fraser in 2005 when she came here to give a talk at Greenwood Centre for Living History. However, I feel strangely close to them as a result of writing this book, and drawn to any news of them. The downside is, of course, that I start to worry about them. Much sleep was lost over the tribulations of Jerry Lee Lewis and Woody Allen as they got involved with under-aged girls who were related to them. When Luciano Pavoratti and Julie Andrews got sore throats, I found myself concerned that they would have to cancel their concerts.
In writing this book, I have got some insight into the life I have led, by comparing and contrasting it with those other lives. You may like to consider a similar project with YOUR cohorts, keeping in mind my warning that you may get attached to your cohorts, and start to worry about those members of your "family". In Appendix B, you will find a starter set of a list of people born in each of the years of the 1930s. This will also serve to give a general sense to all readers of who arrived on our planet in that decade.
If you were born before or after the 1930s, you are on your own. Well, not exactly on your own. The internet has been a breeding ground for compulsive list-makers like myself. For example, you can find long lists of people born in any year in Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.com), the free encyclopaedia built and maintained by its users. Having found your cohorts, you may be concerned with whether they are alive or dead. Just check with deadoraliveinfo.com. You can even go to findagrave.com to find where those who have died are buried.
Appendix C is a list of events that occurred in 1935. This could help provide a sense of the times then and, by extension, a sense of the huge changes which have taken place on our planet between then and now. One argument in this book is that those changes are so significant that the lives of future generations will be dramatically different from the lives described here. Once again, the internet can make compilation of the list of events for your year easier. Just go to www.brainyhistory.com and click on your year for a day-by-day list of events.