At the Dianetics Foundation booth in the Sunflower Building at the Kansas State Fair last weekend a man was explaining to me how the Dianetics system works. Neither of us used the word "scientology," but we both understood what we were talking about.
"The only time you fail to learn something," he said, "is when you don't understand a word that is used." He took a copy of the L. Ron Hubbard bestseller Dianetics and opened it to a sentence reading, "It was found that when the crepuscule arrived the children were quieter and when it was not present, they were much livelier."
"Now," he continued, "do you know what 'crepuscule' means?"
"Twilight," I answered.
His smile faded and I could see that I had ruined something. "OK. But if you hadn't, if you hadn't known, then see how you wouldn't have had the full meaning of that sentence?"
I was skeptical. "What about trigonometry?" I asked. "It seems to me that if you don't understand trigonometry then it's a concept rather than a word that you're missing."
"Yeah, but remember how in trigonometry there are, like, sixteen main concepts, and that if you understand those you can figure out anything?"
I didn't think my question had been answered. "Are you sure it's a word you mean? Not a concept?"
"No, it's 'word.'" He showed me the copy of Dianetics and it was right there in the text: Hubbard specified "word."
"I don't know…" I could think of dozens of things that required more than a dictionary to learn.
"OK, let me ask you this. What are you going to gain by not reading this?" He tapped the desk copy.
I was at the Dianetics Foundation booth because my brother Tom had gone there the day before and taken a free "stress test," and he insisted that I do the same. In the stress test, you're given two handles to hold, shaped liked aluminum cans and attached by wires to a Hubbard Professional Mark Super VII Quantum that sits on a tabletop. The Dianetics Foundation booth-worker then instructs you to remember distressing events from your past, and the Hubbard Professional Mark Super VII Quantum gauges the level of stress that these events hold for you. What had Tom thought of the test?
"It's a load of horseshit," he said. "It's just a galvanometer. I could build you one for twenty-five bucks in about fifteen minutes and these guys have made a hundred million dollars off of it."
Tom's an electrician. He had explained to me how the galvanometer works by testing the surface resistance of your skin. Apply the tiniest amount of pressure to the handles and the galvanometer's needle will move to the right; in Dianetics terms, this indicates heightened stress. Decrease pressure and the needle drops; you're relaxing. Tom had assured me that, armed with this knowledge, I would be able to make the Hubbard Professional Mark Super VII Quantum do whatever I pleased.
"OK, remember an event from your past that's upsetting to you," the man at the booth instructed me. I squeezed very slightly and the needle on the Hubbard Professional Mark Super VII Quantum gauge shot to the right. "There it is," he said. Tom lurked around the corner, out of sight. "Now think of something less upsetting." I squeezed even less slightly and the needle moved a little less to the right. "There it is," he said again.
What I didn't get was how my stress levels were connected to scientology; it felt more like I was taking part in a magic trick to which I knew the secret. I asked the man at the booth, and that's when he produced a copy of Dianetics. "We can show you how to let those things go," he said.
Tom explained more fully as we walked off down the midway. "Auditing," he said enigmatically. "They have a numbers man who can increase the limit on your Discover card right there on the spot. They told me that my I.Q. is malleable, that they could increase my I.Q. twenty points in one hour."
I wanted to know more but all Tom could think about was how mad the Hubbard Professional Mark Super VII Quantum made him. I kept asking questions but he spoke only in technical terms from there out. He doesn't multi-task.
As Tom peed next to the car in the parking section reserved for media representatives, I reflected on how, in public, he can be read as a little bit wild. Being that I was at the state fair, there were others who left a similar impression and I toyed with the idea of a competition. There could be a pavilion.
And visiting with Linda Joslin and Marla Patrick at the National Organization for Women booth in the grandstand, I learned that they had been visited by a potential contestant.
"There was a very hostile man who wanted to dismantle the booth," Patrick told me in response to my stated concerns about the safety of NOW volunteers at a red state fair. "He came back three times — he was screaming — and the third time we finally had to call security."
Let me guess.
"He was anti-choice. We were baby killers. It's always the same — never same-sex marriage or the ERA. These people can choose not to have abortions — isn't that a choice? — but that doesn't seem to be what they're after."
NOW was at the state fair supporting a variety of causes, including an equal rights amendment to the state constitution, and to register voters and generally raise awareness about the organization. But those who voiced their unhappiness with NOW ("more people than we'd like, but fewer than you'd expect," according to Joslin) tended to focus on abortion.
"For some people," Joslin offered, "everything revolves around this one issue."
The music of Raven-Symoné, the former Cosby star who was then performing overhead on the fair's main stage, echoed loudly through the concrete hallways of the grandstand as Joslin continued the story. "Anyway, even as this gentleman was yelling at us we had people — maybe more people — coming up and talking to us because they could tell he wasn't right." By "not right" Joslin meant "unbalanced," not "incorrect." She was being very gracious, but to me he sounded like a nutjob.
"It was frightening," she admitted when pressed. "But there were a couple of men who came by and stood watching, and I knew that they were thinking that if he did something they'd need to intervene." Something in Joslin's delivery made me think that these men weren't necessarily liberals in appearance. The NOW women concurred. "For the most part we're dealing with really good people," Patrick said.
"And if they call us names, then maybe they'll get it out of their systems," Joslin concluded. "Then they can be nice to the other people they see."
Meanwhile the women who work in the press box wanted to be sure that I didn't miss the celebrity goat-milking contest. Or so they said, but then they also said, "You're late," when I first arrived at the fair this year — there is no set time when one is expected to arrive at the fair — and I remembered that last year they said, "We wondered if you were going to make it," when in fact they weren't expecting me and didn't know who I was.
So although I understood that they were only kidding I made my way to the Bison Barn, where the contest was already underway.
How was the contest? Who knows? Walking into the barn I noticed first that the bleachers were filled with uniformed highway patrolmen and second that the sound system precluded comprehension of anything the contest host was saying. Eventually I came to understand that the contest this year pitted the KWCH news crew against a certain division of the highway patrol, although I don't know who won. The judge looked like Attorney General Phill Kline; I pray that our attorney general — this particular attorney general — was judging a goat-milking contest, since I think that that fact would dovetail perfectly and without irony with his image outside the state. But again I never found out.
Seeing the highway patrolmen, Tom, who had been relaxing in the hot, dirty, gale-force winds outside the Bison Barn, remembered something else.
"Plus there were these two highway patrolmen?" he began without explanation. "They took the test before me?" He was still worked up about the Hubbard Professional Mark Super VII Quantum. "They bought it hook, line, and sinker. That needle shot up and one of them said, 'You know what that is that I'm thinking about, don't you?' And the other moron is like, 'Yeah, I sure do.'" Tom shook his head in disgust. "Monkeys," he said.
My press sheet meanwhile informed me that Madaline Garcia was performing on the Lake Talbott stage. Tom and I went there and found her, a beautiful, tall 15-year-old hailing from Colorado Springs whose mother was born and raised in Hutchinson.
Madaline, or Maddie, as her mother called her, is a vocalist; she has a wonderful voice which she has obviously devoted many hours to training. She began her show by performing a song popularized by Norah Jones, and numbers such as "Orange Colored Sky," Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide," and the Patsy Cline stalwart "Crazy" followed.
What was remarkable about Maddie, besides her lovely voice, was her self-possession. When the horrible wind began to blow over the music stand that held her set list, she caught it and set it upright without losing her composure as many 15-year-olds might. She even managed a smile for the audience, as if to say, "I hope you all are enjoying this horrible wind, too." She had no musicians with her, and she apologized as she explained that her accompaniment was provided by karaoke versions of the songs; she performs them with a young guitarist back home. During "Crazy" I did indeed hear the Jordanaires, singing backup for Maddie from her karaoke tape just as they did for Patsy Cline all those years ago.
Her audience didn't seem to mind, though; there was only a handful of spectators in the audience when Maddie took the stage, but people stopped as they walked by on their way to the petting zoo or the 4-H building and by the time she had finished there were fifty or sixty of us. Her mother, who had given Maddie instructions a couple of times during the show, approached the stage and whispered to her for a minute before her last song; since she had drawn a crowd, the fair spokesman on hand wondered if she could sing a few more, but Maddie had no other music with her.
After the show I spoke to Maddie, who was enjoying herself at the fair (the Kansas State Fair is apparently a big improvement on Colorado's) and to her mother, to whom I had complained that while Maddie had identified "Crazy" as a Patsy Cline song, hadn't Willie Nelson written it? Ditto "Landslide," which Maddie had introduced as a Dixie Chicks number; Stevie Nicks wrote it.
"What you could do," her mother said, "is say, this next song is by Fleetwood Mac, but more recently done by the Dixie Chicks, or that… say that although Fleetwood Mac wrote this next song, it's the Dixie Chicks that wrote… or rather performed…" She was interrupted for a minute and then continued, "That's OK, Maddie. You can practice it."
Maddie rolled her eyes.
Meanwhile my brother Tom, who had been by far the most enthusiastic audience member and had even howled out encore! during the middle of the performance, wandered over. He asked loudly, "Can I be your roadie, Maddie? When you get rich and famous? I know all about components. I can do you up a light show and everything."
Almost any young woman on Earth would have been frightened by Tom's presentation, but, you guys, Maddie's my niece. I am so proud of her! She said, "Yes, Uncle Tom, you can."