Uncommon Courtesy; Stewart Brand launches a school to teach 'compassionate skills'
Of late, Stewart Brand has been bedding down in the pilothouse of a battered 1912 logging tug named Mirene.
There, in Sausalito's houseboat flotilla, he resides with his solar-powered bilge pump, a ruby red Japanese bathtub, and more dry rot than he cares to think about. He lives, you might say, with a certain style, free-spirited and inimitable. Conformity and Stewart Brand are as different as chalk and cheese.
Which is why there is something captivatingly incongruous about watching this irreverent editor, this countercultural oracle, descend a tottering gangplank in worn jeans and scuffed shoes to announce that what the world needs now is a ripsnorting revolution in courtesy.
Before you have time to curtsy, Brand is waving ''Amy Vanderbilt's Complete Book of Etiquette'' as if it were the next ''Reveille for Radicals.''
''Courtesy is in a state of chaos,'' says Brand, ambling back toward the offices of CoEvolution Quarterly, his iconoclastic magazine housed in a converted luncheonette. ''That chaos, in one way, is a great creative opportunity, and ought to be taken.''
Brand wants to ''make doing good do better.'' Toward that end, this summer he founded Uncommon Courtesy, a tuition-charging ''school of compassionate skills.''
This romantic brainstorm comes from no naive Goody Two-Shoes. Brand is an original thinker with a remarkable batting average. In 1971 The Last Whole Earth Catalog, his newsprint paean to self-sufficiency and funky compendium of homespun technology, won a National Book Award. It became an international best seller, selling over 1.6 million copies.
A few years later he started CoEvolution Quarterly, an inventive, interdisciplinary journal that publishes lively book reviews and trenchant ''think pieces'' on everything from cockroaches to Gerard O'Neill space colonies. Every three months, CQ pries into the future, and ''SB,'' as Brand is known in the columns of the magazine, peers around corners we never knew existed.
Brand writes in this summer's CQ: ''My generation threw out courtesy back when we were throwing out hypocrisy. It's clear that simple courtesy - and its secret ingredient, humor - is the main glue holding society together, especially where there's disagreement going on. Beyond that, it is courtesy that imbues every individual with the habit of thoughtfulness, of respect, which keeps all communication and the whole idea of good itself alive.''
Brand is not strictly interested in a world where chivalrous men surrender bus seats to old ladies and children never throw food at the dinner table - though neither sound like bad ideas. Rather, he wants a school that will matriculate ''multiple-threat do-gooders.''
This year's course ''catalog'' includes: firefighting (specifically, brush fires in rural and suburban areas); home care (skillful nursing by family); ''street saint'' skills (training neighbors to advance beyond defending themselves to defending the street); creative philanthropy (how to be good and rich); and local politics (how to serve as well as how to win).
''Compassion is a given; it comes with life,'' says Brand, rocking in a leather chair heavily patched with gray duct tape. ''You don't have to elicit it , encourage it, or reward it. What people lack are compassionate skills.'' In his description of the ''street saint'' skills course, Brand amplifies one aspect of this theme: ''Nearly everyone feels the impulse to help - the crime victim, the accident victim, the passed-out drunk, the beleaguered cop, the publicly despairing - but we're uncertain whether to intervene and, more important, how to intervene. And we are well aware that as long as we feel powerless to help, the street is an alien place. When we do succeed in helping, the street is ours.''
At first blush, his school sounds all too top-heavy with the happily-ever-after stuff fairy tales are made of. Could Stewart Brand, fellow traveler with Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, self-proclaimed master of the fauz pas, be opening a finishing school?
''No,'' he says, and grins. ''I think what we're doing is more like a starting school.''
Swinging an oversi:e hoe like a man possessed, Brand races with the urgency of someone on the way to a fire.
He is. This is the finale of Uncommon Courtesy's Saturday firefighting class in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, just north of San Francisco. A half dozen students are cutting a fire line around an imaginary brush blaze, ''sweeping'' across a cow pasture. Dressed in a yellow baseball cap and a black silk ''Reality Club'' jacket, Brand works at the head of the line, gouging turf with his hoe, called a McLeod, literally leaving a herd of cows and the rest of the firefighters in his dust.
''The California countryside will be unusually flammable this summer, thanks to the heavy rains last winter,'' says Brand in the Uncommon Courtesy course ''catalog.'' ''All that extra grass is extra fuel for fire. You can help protect yourself and your neighborhoods from the state's greatest property hazard by learning the basics of how to prepare your structures, land, and self to prevent fire - the best fire is the one that never starts - and by learning the techniques of fire suppression so you know what to do during the critical minutes before professional crews arrive and how to help once they're on the scene.''
Gerald Meyers, one of the instructors, is a fourth-generation logger from Humboldt County, and is a volunteer fire chief in Briceland, Calif. Meyers fights fire in remote regions ''where you can't call the fire department downtown because you are the fire department.'' He teaches with the authority of vaudevillian car mechanic - nuts and bolts with a punch line. ''Gerald and I come from the same stock,'' explained Brand, ''military hippies.''
Donning his yellow Nomex jumpsuit (a nonflammable material worn by race-car drivers and jet jockeys), a white helmet, goggles, and a pale blue handkerchief, Meyers begins a lecture on fire fashions. ''To fight fire, never wear nylon or rayon - not because firefighters are organic, but because nylon and rayon melt. Cottons are 'in' this fire season.'' A day of this school, for which Uncommon Courtesy students paid $45 a head, is elementary but memorable:
* ''Don't get in the way of a fire fanned by a Santa Ana wind. Nothing can stop them but the Pacific. If you're lucky you might save the beach, but you'll need a high tide.
* ''Before fighting a fire, take a breath and get it together between your ears. It only took me three years to learn to walk to the fire truck. Panic spreads, so does calm. Take a moment to think, and you'll be able to do all kinds of uncommonly courteous firefighting.
* ''My last rule is the hardest to learn. No matter how hard, how fast you work, you can't win 'em all.''Brand wants his classes taught by experts armed with boot-camp intensity. Brand, a former Army basic training officer at Fort Dix, N.J., has a prickly disdain for liberal arts laissez faire learning. He had his fill at Phillips Exeter Academy and Stanford University, and concluded some time ago that ''education is like opera: an expensive, arcane art form.'' Accordingly, he says his Uncommon Courtesy school will ''avoid the temptations of New Age squishiness'' by taking on a ''ferocity of rigor and explicitness. If somebody pays $50 for a day to learn something, they don't want a lot of chitchat and therapy.''
In 1971, Brand put to paper his romantic notion of ''do-gooding'' for the Point Foundation, which he created to give away the profits from the Last Whole Earth Catalog - over a million ''eventful'' dollars. He wrote in a memo to the Point Foundation Board: ''I have tentatively cataloged some elegance measures for evaluating missions and tactics.'' Among the qualities on his ''good mission list'':
Regenerative - effects live on, self-sustainingly.
Expanding - cascading benefits, increasing sophistication.
Independent - not personality-bound or externally support-bound.
Stable - self-correcting.
Reality-based - e.g., in real self-interest of all involved.
Locale-fitted - uses local resources, avoids local hazard, not threateningly exotic.
Cheap/funky - satisfying rather than optimizing.
Brilliant - unobvious solution.
Otherwise unlikely - if we don't lend a hand, it probably won't happen (this eliminates many good ideas, which turn out to be happening anyway).
Successful - it worked.''
The tide is out, and surf's up. Perfect morning for a few dozen runs on his Styrofoam ''boogie board'' at Fort Cronkhite Beach. But, with conduct becoming a gentleman, Brand instead went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to renew his driver's license, which had expired six months ago.
Back in his CoEvolution office the brass ersatz ship's clock now reads 1130 hours. Tacked to the plywood wall by Brand's desk is a world map of the ocean floors. Behind him is a case of motor oil, a peanut-butter jar, and his Greek sailor's cap resting atop the latest edition of Dale Carnegie's ''How to Win Friends and Influence People.'' The book, which has sold over 15 million copies since 1936, tweaks the editor's imagination.
''The curious thing,'' Brand says, cradling the back of his head in his cupped hands, ''is that (Carnegie) is teaching how to get your way by being courteous. He takes as given the reader's self-interest, which is a nice aikido blending of selfishness and courtesy.''
His Carnegie aside only nibbles at the edge of a pet peeve Brand is about to bite into. ''Traditional do-gooding goes awry in two ways,'' he begins.
''First, over-institutionalization. A self-satisfied do-good institution grows until it become an apparatus which takes care of itself instead of people. The second obstacle is when good intentions are considered important and sometimes sufficient. It's the old fallacy, thinking, 'Aren't the natives lucky? We have sent them the missionaries.' ''
''Professional do-gooding these days,'' the editor has written with purple accuracy, ''is rife, smug, unrigorous, unoriginal, routinely ineffective, and often harmful. Most of the real good done is accomplished by amateurs in their spare time with their left hand.
''When any attempt to do good is automatically considered noble - i.e., sufficient - the process is dead and deadly. Intention is a fragment of an act, not a substitute for it or justification for it. Do-good attempts - to be alive, to inform themselves, to adapt - must be utterly self-skeptical. As art and science are.''
Usefulness is one of Brand's principal tenets. ''Commonly, the idea of 'good' is wholly divorced from the idea of 'efficiency,' '' he continues. ''If someone stops a war with a phone call or heads off a famine with an idea, their recognition is diminished by their efficiency. If, however, they sacrifice themselves lingeringly and fail, recognition rewards their elaborate debacle.'' (Brand suggests in his description of the creative philanthropy session that participation be ''limited to persons with the means to try out what they learn.'')
Holding aloft ''The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette,'' Brand demands ''Listen to Letitia Baldridge's introduction.'' He reads aloud: '' 'My philosophy of manners is that they are based on efficiency, yes, but even more on a superb trait of character called kindness. ''Etiquette'' is a starchy word, but manners are not starchy. Etiquette has to do with when you wear white gloves and how you unfold the napkin on your lap' - neither of which I know,'' Brand says. '' 'Real manners are being thoughtful toward others, being creative in doing nice things for others, or sympathizing with others' problems.' ''
''As it happens,'' Brand points out, ''this book is subtitled 'A guide to contempoary living,' and it's got a lot of stuff on behaving around the office, male and female roles, bringing up kids. Here's a chapter on household management in servantless society, something on the firing of household employees, a full-page diagram of hospital corners on a bed, and who stands behind whom in a Catholic versus a Protestant versus a Jewish wedding ceremony.''
''So,'' the editor continues, ''there is a certain efficiency in manners. When you ask simply 'How are you?' and the other person says 'Fine' in a certain tone of voice, one syllable can give a nonthreatening, 'Please don't bother me now' answer.
''I never did buy the shallow, phony love propaganda of the '60s - you know, the hippie hug and soulful eye-to-eye contact. It became just as suspect as what it replaced. The honesty that replaced courtesy was not honesty but self-preoccupation. People would self-broadcast their mood, whether you cared to listen or not.'' Brand, who has made q cx ZO elling the Establishment that its Emperors had no clothes, now believes the pomp has a point. ''When Prince Charles visited California, everybody who was ever in the same room with him was just cooing at how sweet, wonderful, intelligent, he was. At about his 15th party, when he had blisters on his palms from shaking hands, someone asked him, 'How do you manage to do this?'
''He said, 'They train us rather well, you know.'
''Quite a nice answer, huh? Enormously self-deprecating
. . . . We could jolly well try some of that courtesy here. I would love to get a person from Buckingham Palace who could come over and teach those skills to the common folk.''
The rich are blessed with ''certain advantages,'' says Brand, and one assumes he doesn't just mean ceing able to throw soap away after the letters are worn off. ''When they discipline themselves,'' Brand says, ''the rich can be valuable human models.''
Amplifying this argument in CQ, he writes: ''Supposedly we despise the rich. In fact, we emulate them faithfully. When they are good and interesting models, civilization flourishes. When not, not. At various times the British gentleman, the landed European knight, and the classical Athenian citizen have been worthy models. These days, for good or ill, well-off Americans are models for the world. So far, our best are only medium good and medium interesting.''
The lunch hour is upon us, and the editor fixes his metaphorical mind on French food. ''A real man may not eat quiche,'' Brand says, ''but a 2eal man is courteous. A real woman is courteous, too. Courtesy is a majorpart of the(social apparatus of this world. Having good manners gives one a feeling of security in dealing with people. The effective politicians are usually routinely courteous.'' California Gov. Jerry Brown, a CQ contributor and close friendPO MNand's, ''had crude manners like the rest of my generation and became a good deal wyyh /ohed in the course of getting elected.''
But even a reformed Brand can't remain on his best behavior.
''Having rejected my mother's instruction in courtesy, I have made myself unwelcome at various social functions. Simply haven't been invited back. Dinner party chitchat is still insufferable, and doing it badly makes it more unbearable. Some people remember names. I don't. I still don't know which cheek to kiss a hostess on and I never figured out how to shake hands with blacks and revolutionaries.
''And another thing,'' the editor wonders aloud, ''who picks up the check at dinner? Amy Vanderbilt doesn't have a word on that, and the subject demands a whole chapter.''
For more information, write: Uncommon Courtesy, Box 428, Sausalito, Calif. 94966