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How batty can you get?

By Bob Harris

I JUST GOT BACK from a week in Texas, the only state in America even weirder than California.
This is a cool culture: On a highway near Dallas, I was passed by a Lexus ... with a gun rack.

That's what I call a real man.

They don't talk about it much, but if you go to the Texas Capitol building in Austin, walk straight down the front steps, keep going straight down the street--that's Congress Street--and stop at the first bridge you come to ... you're dead center over the lair of the largest urban bat colony in America and possibly the world.

The Austin Chamber of Commerce doesn't advertise it much, but there are tens of thousands of bats living underneath the Congress bridge, and just before sunset every night, they all come out at once in a giant cloud that is easily the weirdest and coolest thing I've ever seen.

One minute, there's a beautiful sunset on the water, and the next minute, there's a 100-foot-wide ribbon of solid batwings blotting out a chunk of the sky. They keep pouring out for about 10 minutes, until the ribbon of bats extends all the way to the horizon.

That might sound sort of scary or creepy to stand in the middle of, but it's actually really neat. The bats navigate well enough not to smack into you, and they wouldn't bite if they did. They apparently feed on gnats, but even if they were looking for meat, they'd have better pickings in the state of Texas than the likes of you.

So what you get for your time is a quick peek into a whole vast dark world that's always there, even if nobody wants to look at it. Cool.

I was surprised at how few of the locals wanted people to see the show. I wouldn't have even found the spot without help. There's no souvenir stand selling rubber bats wearing cowboy hats or anything. But everybody down there knows there's a big pulsating mass of creatures underneath Congress. It's just that nobody wants to talk about it.

I can't think of a better metaphor for politics in America.

If we're going to make the government work for the average guy someday, we'll all have to work up the courage to wade into the darkness and shine a light on some stuff we'd rather not see.

But take heart. The swarm of lobbyists and hidden donors in our capitals may be scary to look at, but if I can handle 30,000 bats, I'm pretty sure the rest of us can handle a bunch of Yale grads.

Although the bats are mostly cuter and definitely less creepy.

A FEW WEEKS AGO I got some flak for disparaging televised golf tournaments, which are the reason that Hell is wired for cable: 72 channels, nothing but golf, welcome to Hell, here's your remote.

Apparently I didn't fully appreciate the subtlety of watching flabby millionaires whacking and walking and walking and whacking for four non-stop hours of fun, punctuated with commercials for financial services I'll never need unless I accidentally marry a Forbes.

Well, I got a couple of e-mails from people who said I should watch a major tournament all the way through sometime so I'd really understand.

OK, I have watched, and I do. I watched the Masters last weekend, and I'll admit I learned a lot.

I learned that, just like everywhere else in the world, almost anything remotely near your visual field--from the side of a golf bag to a hand towel to the back of a player's glove--is becoming ad space.

I learned that some of the players even sell ads on their shoes and pant legs, so that when the camera zooms in during a putt, the corporate logo fills the screen.

And I learned that, at least among the well-off who can afford the stuff the advertisers are selling, a frightening value system prevails.

The Travelers Insurance people, who are branching out into a broader range of financial schemes, repeated a series of ads all weekend in which various objects were creatively captioned to help us perceive them anew.

I'm quoting here: "This is not a baseball game; this is a steady cash flow."

"This is not a church; this is a site on the World Wide Web."

"This is not a 4-year-old; this is $3.4 million in lifetime income."

Whoa.

I thought at first the ads were some sort of self-parody.

After seeing them a dozen times, I'm convinced they're not. Travelers is now a financial services company seriously trying to redefine itself as an innovative player on the global stage.

If you aren't supposed to perceive the remapping of religion, tradition, and simple humanity into dollar signs as something creative and cool, then you wouldn't be expected to think the same of the redesign of the company itself.

So Travelers is actually bragging about its ability to see a 4-year-old child in purely financial terms.

Y'know, I'd worry for those people's souls, but then again, there's no reason to.

Where they're going, at least they'll enjoy the cable TV.

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From the April 23-29, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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