Captain Fantastic

January 9th, 2017

Vito & Todd

Vito & Todd photo by Marcia

“We may divide thinkers into those who think for themselves, and those who think through others. The latter are the rule, and the former the exception.” Arthur Schopenhauer

As the inauguration of Trump fast approaches, many frightened Americans talk of moving to Canada, in much the same way frightened Americans spoke of moving abroad when George Bush became President. But Canada and other safe haven countries only want us these days if we are wealthy or possessed of highly desirable technological skills. Thus we common folk must consider other responses to the new regime.

One vision of a response to the madness currently gripping and deforming American life is the 2016 movie Captain Fantastic, written and directed by Matt Ross, a California writer, director, and actor who lives in Berkeley. I mention where he lives because I seriously doubt that a writer/director living in Los Angeles could have written a screenplay as far outside the Hollywood box as Captain Fantastic. That Ross also raised millions of dollars to make this fairly outrageous movie and was able to land a distribution deal resulting in the film turning a profit is nothing short of miraculous.

I will not spoil the film by recounting the plot, but I will say that Captain Fantastic bears some resemblance to the excellent 2003 American film Off the Map, and the dreamy Swiss/Italian 2014 film The Wonders. All three films involve adult couples seeking to live independently of the dominant capitalist paradigm, and each of these movies focuses on the children of those seekers as they collide with the outside world.

I found Captain Fantastic by turns funny and sad and disturbing and uplifting and maddening and deeply moving; and twice during the movie I had to get up and go outside to catch my breath and calm down, but not because the film is violent; it is not, thankfully. Marcia and I have been talking about the movie for several days now, and that alone makes Captain Fantastic a rare American film for us.

Meanwhile, here in the so-called real world, we are facing a Congress, a President, and a Supreme Court poised to wreak havoc on our already inadequate healthcare system, dismantle Social Security, remove constraints on industrial pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and enact laws to benefit the wealthy and further punish the beleaguered lower and middle classes as defined by income and assets. These same dangerous people are anti-women, anti-minority, anti-peace, and anti-anybody other than white Christians. And that is why so many people are afraid, and why so many people wish they could leave the country.

“There are three kinds of economist. Those who can count and those who can’t.” Eddie George

I am currently writing a new screenplay, having recently rewritten an old one for a director in Canada. I had not immersed myself in the screenplay form for more than a decade, and the rewrite got those juices flowing again. And though the odds of getting a movie made of anything I write are not quite as good as the odds of winning the national lottery, should I ever buy a ticket, I do enjoy the screenplay form and love imagining the scenes I write coming to life.

Yesterday, under the influence of Captain Fantastic, I read what I’ve written so far of my new screenplay and thought: I wonder if I’m writing this story in lieu of trying to flee the country.

Speaking of fleeing the country, it was recently reported in various mass media outlets that Ford Motor Company was about to spend a couple billion dollars opening a new plant in Mexico. Then President-elect Trump bellowed at Ford for being un-American, Ford cancelled the Mexico plant, and instead says they would invest 700 million dollars in upgrading a Michigan assembly plant. This would reportedly save at least 700 American jobs and give a much-needed boost to the Michigan economy.

Was any of this true? Maybe some of it was sort of true, but probably none of it was true. Ford Motors now says they are proceeding with plans to increase production in Mexico by enlarging their existing facilities there and not opening a new plant. Does this give us more reason to doubt Trump’s credibility? Yes. Ford Motors stated they prefer doing business in Mexico because they feel oppressed by so many federal and state regulations in America having to do with decreasing pollution and increasing safety and requiring the payment of taxes, and they are hopeful that under Trump they won’t have to worry so much about those annoying things.

So what are we common folk to make of all this? I think that henceforth we must assume anything we hear or see or read in the news (not counting really good fiction and neighborhood gossip) is probably not the whole truth, or even part of the truth. Did Donald Trump save 700 jobs in Michigan? Unlikely. Why did Obama expel dozens of Russian diplomats for something that may not have happened? We don’t know. Why are automobile manufacturers still allowed to make cars that run on gasoline? Because unregulated capitalism cares nothing about the environment.

The most popular American movies nowadays are animated films featuring animals behaving like goofy people and speaking English, live-action films set in other galaxies featuring humans with British accents, films about wizards and vampires rife with astonishingly bad dialogue, and films about impossibly strong and violent people who say very little as they run amok. Oh, yes, and films about morons and bimbos are popular, too.

Captain Fantastic is entirely about Now and full of real people dealing with the many and complicated challenges of being human. In this way, the movie reminded me of my favorite movies from the 60s and 70s, movies exploring contemporary society from the perspectives of people for whom the dominant cultural paradigms do not serve—movies about eccentrics and rebels and artists and innovators who are questing, as many of us were in those days, for ways to live healthy and meaningful lives on spaceship earth.

Earth Sorrow

January 2nd, 2017

Winter Buddha

Winter Buddha photo by Todd

 “As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.” Henry David Thoreau

Today is a beautiful sunny winter day in Mendocino. The town is full of tourists and locals, college kids are home for the holidays, the pace of life has slowed since the coming and going of the annual frenzy known as Christmas, and if I didn’t know what I know about human-driven climate change, and if we hadn’t just returned from visiting Marcia’s mother in Santa Rosa, I would be tempted to say all is right with the world.

But we did go to Santa Rosa, and that once bucolic town is now a sprawling mess of roads and housing developments and malls and a permanent kind of frenzy gripping the populous—a frenzy born of out-of-control growth with no real care for the future. And in that way, Santa Rosa is a microcosm of what humans have done and are doing to the entire planet.

We made it back to the hinterlands safely, and the first article I read upon our return was about the incredibly high temperatures being recorded right now in the Arctic, temperatures some fifty degrees higher than what used to be called normal, temperatures approaching thirty-two degrees—the melting point. Climate scientists are debating the ramifications of this fantastic temperature increase, but there is wide agreement that such elevated arctic temperatures in the depths of winter do not bode well for the global climate picture and are probably the cause of the current ferocious cold weather in the lower northern hemisphere.

On our way home from Santa Rosa, we passed the rail station in Cloverdale that was built several years ago for the train that was supposed to run from the Bay Area to Cloverdale, but the project has never been completed because…

Well, in general terms, the train does not go to Cloverdale because mass transit is still not a priority for most people in California, and therefore is not a priority for most politicians. How can this be?

I like to imagine getting on the train in Cloverdale and chugging down the tracks to Larkspur, walking onto the ferry, sailing across the bay, lunching in Chinatown, spending the night with friends, and sailing and training home a day or so later. That will almost surely not happen in my lifetime, though such travel is the norm in most countries in Europe, and has been the norm there for several generations.

Which is all to say, I have a case of what I call earth sorrow today, a sadness that colors everything I do, knowing I am a member of a species that might have avoided our demise had we collectively chosen to do things for the greater good and not for individual short term gain.

When I share my earth sorrow with friends, I get varying advice about how to cope. One friend points out that since there is nothing I can do to reverse the forces already set in motion, I should learn to accept the ruination of the biosphere as I come to accept my own inevitable death.

Another friend suggests that this global crisis is a necessary passage for our species to navigate if we are to ever take the next step of living in balance with nature on earth. If we can’t figure out a way to successfully take that step, we will go the way of the dodo. So be it.

Another friend avers that the history of life on earth is the history of species coming into being and going out of being. Some organisms have been around for hundreds of millions of years, but most don’t last so long. Tigers, for instance, have been around for about three million years and are soon to be extinct. That human beings might have made other collective choices and did not make those choices is simply a matter of the nature of our species—not something to be mourned, but understood and accepted.

These suggestions help me intellectually, but my sorrow remains, especially because there are human societies outside of the United States where people are making enormous strides reducing greenhouse gas emissions, generating most of their energy without burning fossil fuels, riding trains and buses instead of cars, sharing the wealth, and so forth.

The other source of my sorrow comes from being awakened fifty years ago to the environmental, financial, and social problems we’re dealing with today. These problems and solutions have been known, and well known, for virtually my entire life, yet despite the best efforts of many people over those fifty years, the solutions have been largely ignored and the problems made worse.

We can blame the corporations and our government, but that, for me, is to blame people we elect and do business with as the causes of our problems. I am more comfortable, rightly or wrongly, blaming our lack of imagination for the mess we’re in, and a lack of imagination may simply be a limitation of our species.

Countless studies have shown that our brains and nervous systems and senses have evolved to support our living and surviving in the present moment, reacting to our immediate circumstances with little concern for what happened a week ago or what might happen a year from now. Yet concern about the long-term consequences of our actions seems to be something all long-lived indigenous societies had as an integral part of their social and spiritual systems, a concern for the future developed over thousands of years of experience. i.e. You don’t shoot all the deer around here or there won’t be any deer for the next generation to shoot. That kind of thing.

But nowadays everything is measured by the split second, not by the decade or the century. And maybe that is the source of my sorrow: things go way too fast now for the likes of me.

Here’s To You

December 26th, 2016

You You

You You by Todd

“We have not all had the good fortune to be ladies. We have not all been generals, or poets, or statesmen; but when the toast works down to the babies, we stand on common ground.” Mark Twain

I would like to propose a toast to the coming year, 2017. May this be a good year for you and your loved ones, and for your neighborhood, your community, and the world. May this be the year we start to turn things around as a species living on a planet of finite resources and a biosphere overtaxed by greenhouse gases.

It seems to me that sharing is the not-so-secret key to solving many of our problems, both as individuals and as a society—not just sharing the wealth and ride-sharing, but sharing our ideas and feelings with each other.

I was in the grocery store the other day and looked around at my fellow shoppers, and I realized we were all kind of ignoring each other, not in a malicious way, but in the way that has become the habit of people in our society. Even when I smiled at people, most of them were unaware I was looking at them, so they didn’t see the smile I was giving them.

I’m not suggesting you start going around smiling at everyone, unless you want to. I am suggesting that in 2017 we might try to be a little more aware of other people in our lives, people other than our friends and family—just random other people. I have no hard facts to back this up, but I have the feeling that our unawareness of each other is one of the sources of unhappiness in our society—a general sense of disconnect from each other and a disconnect from the totality of our each-otherness.

Now and then I will strike up a conversation with someone shopping near me. A few days ago in the produce aisle, I said to the man hunting vegetables a few feet from me, “Isn’t the red leaf lettuce spectacular right now?”

The man looked at me, and not recognizing me as someone he knew, he frowned. Then he looked at the red leaf lettuce and said tentatively, “Yes, that is some fine looking lettuce.”

“I just had to exclaim,” I said, laughing.

“I know what you mean,” he said, smiling.

Then we went our separate ways. Nothing profound. But I felt good about connecting with him. I liked that we got to exchange smiles. Some minutes later, when I was in the checkout line, I saw the man leaving the market, and he saw me seeing him leaving, and he raised his hand in farewell and I raised mine.

“Always remember there are two types of people in the world. Those who come into a room and say, ‘Well, here I am!’ and those who come in and say, ‘Ah, there you are!’” Frederick L. Collins

I had a friend who ended his answering machine message with, “And remember…be good to yourself.” The first few times I heard his message, I winced at what I took to be excessive schmaltz, but then at some point I stopped wincing at his message and allowed myself to think about what he meant. I came to realize that I was not often good to myself, and that I frequently beat myself up for no good reason. I understood his message as, “Stop treating yourself poorly. You’re a good person. Open up to that idea and see what happens.”

The Buddhist practice of sending thoughts of loving kindness to others requires the sender to first get comfortable sending those loving thoughts to one’s self. When I first undertook this practice, I found it difficult to say, “May I be loved. May I be supported. May my suffering be at end.” I felt I was being greedy and selfish to ask for these things for me.

Why did I need to get comfortable sending myself loving thoughts before I sent loving thoughts to others? I came to understand that the practice was preparing me to be a conduit for sending love. If the conduit is clogged with self-recrimination and fear of being loved and supported, my sending loving kindness to others will be freighted with those fears.

“I would suspect that the hardest thing for you to accept is your own beauty. Your own worth. Your own dignity. Your identity as one who blesses and is blessed in return. Your own calling to learn to love and allow yourself to be loved to the utmost.”  Alan Jones

When I lived in the Berkeley, I would go to Evensong at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco a couple times a month to hear the fabulous boys’ and men’s choirs accompanied by the grand cathedral organ. At the end of Evensong, Alan Jones, the Dean of the Episcopal, would make a brief prayer urging us to open our minds and hearts to the miracles in our lives, and to be merciful to those less fortunate than we.

I was always touched and empowered by the singing and Alan’s words, and I would walk out into the night feeling great tenderness for my fellow humans. My walk down the hill to Market Street was always a processional full of wonder, the ride home on BART enjoyable, the company of my fellow humans at least fascinating and often a pleasure.

Yes, our society and our government are in big trouble, and our precious planet is in even bigger trouble. But we are not powerless. We can be kind to each other and supportive of each other, and we can make a positive difference, each of us, every day, somehow or other.

Here’s to you. Happy New Year!

Reflections

December 19th, 2016

dancing in the shadows

Dancing In The Shadows painting by Nolan Winkler

“As democracy is perfected, the office of the President represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be occupied by a downright fool and a complete narcissistic moron.” — H. L. Mencken, Baltimore Evening Sun, July 26, 1921.

Since the election of Donald Trump, I have been haunted by aphorisms. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Everything is connected. There are no accidents. Life is but a dream.

More and more, as Trump’s inauguration approaches, I am reminded of the days following the election of George W. Bush. Okay, so George wasn’t technically elected the first time, but he was elected the second time. Remember? He won twice. His cabinet was a horror show. Yet so many people seem to have forgotten that, along with everything else that happened before last week.

Trump’s election is hardly unprecedented when it comes to electing narcissistic morons. Does the name Ronald Reagan ring a bell? And though he was not a moron, Bill Clinton would give any other narcissistic ruler in history a run for his or her money. Marie Antoinette may have said, “Let them eat cake,” but when Bill Clinton pushed through NAFTA while dismantling Welfare, thus relegating millions to poverty, he essentially said, “Let them eat nothing.”

Oh but Trump is worse. Worse than what? The Obama administration, it is now revealed, subsidized dirty coal and dirty oil all over the world to the tune of several hundred billion dollars, yet Obama-wan calls himself the Environmentalist President. Reminds me of Trump calling himself a feminist.

But more interesting to me than our general forgetfulness and gullibility is the question posed by the Mencken quote at the beginning of this article: do these narcissists and liars and morons we keep electing represent the inner soul of the American people? Are we essentially a nation of dishonest narcissistic morons?

What is a narcissist? Narcissus, so says the myth from whence comes the term narcissist, became enamored of his own reflection to the exclusion of all else. He did not fall in love with his essence because he had none. He could only see and relate to his reflection—that which he appeared to be, not what he actually was

Narcissists are incapable of empathy because empathy requires an inner-self capable of bonding emotionally with others. And why would so many people in America repeatedly choose emotional ciphers to be our leaders, our lawmakers, and the stewards of our futures? Why would we choose people incapable of being kind and generous and thoughtful?

There must be something we, the general we, mistrust about genuine kindness and generosity and thoughtfulness; and there must be something we find attractive and reassuring about narcissists. And I think these tendencies begin very early in our American lives.

Do you remember the first time you realized that being smart and creative was appreciated by your teachers, but not by all of your peers? Do you remember seeing someone being teased for wearing glasses? Or maybe you were teased or bullied for being smart or wearing glasses.

In high school, I hung out with a gang of people who loved poetry and music and art. They were sensitive, thoughtful, empathetic, self-effacing, and appreciative of each other, while the general high school population looked upon them as strange and flawed and weak. As you may have guessed, none of them pursued careers in politics.

We, the general we, also do not like complex solutions to complex problems. Nor do we like complex explanations. We don’t really want to know the details. We are an impatient people. We want instant results, and if not results, then the promise of results. Or maybe we just want promises. Maybe because we were raised on promises, not results, we learned to value promises more than the fulfillment of promises. Trump promised to build a wall to rival the Great Wall of China. Now that is an amazing promise, one he will never keep. But maybe we like being amazed by impossible promises that can only come true using special effects in super hero science fiction fantasy movies.

Maybe we, the general we, no longer distinguish between reality and fantasy, between promises and the aftermaths of promises, between what people say and what people do. Maybe we choose narcissists to rule our country because they are not constrained by truth, and those who are constrained by truth seem weak and might wear glasses and listen to classical music and have complex explanations for why something will take more than a minute or two to fix.

Jimmy Carter, who was not a narcissist or a moron, told the nation we needed to start taking action to address the limits of natural resources. We needed to stop plundering and start regenerating. He talked about complex things, such as the interconnectedness of everything. Huh? This sounded strange and weak, so we replaced him with Ronald Reagan who said we could have anything we wanted without limits, that there was no reason to worry about the environment, that America was the strongest and the best in the world, so go for the gusto. Have it all.

And if you were poor and disadvantaged, that wasn’t Reagan’s fault. Just as nothing will ever be Trump’s fault and Trump will never be wrong, just as Bush and Clinton and Obama were never wrong. Narcissists are never wrong. They look in their mirrors and see knights in shining armor.

Then they stand before us and say, “I am a knight in shining armor. I’ll slay the dragon, build a giant wall, give everyone jobs, lower taxes, rebuild the infrastructure, and make you happy. I promise.”

And despite history and reality, many of us will believe those narcissists, over and over again. Maybe it’s genetic. Maybe the tendency goes back a million years to some crucial moment when a big stupid narcissistic ape appeared to save the species, when our real savior was the little ape wearing glasses and writing a poem.

There We Were

December 12th, 2016

La Entrada

La Entrada (Lily Cai Chinese Dance Company) ©2016  David Jouris / Motion Pictures

“It takes a long time to become young.” Pablo Picasso

When Marcia gave me the news of the terrible fire and deaths of many young people in the Oakland warehouse that had become a haven for artists, I first worried about a few young people I know in Oakland who would have been attracted to such a scene. When I confirmed those few were alive and well, I settled into grieving for those who died in that conflagration.

Their tragic deaths are no more tragic than the thousands of deaths in Syria and other war zones around the world, no more tragic than those dying in shootings in cities and towns in America and many other countries, no more tragic than those dying from lack of access to decent healthcare, but the death of those dozens of young people hit me especially hard because when I was in my teens and twenties, the artistic ferment in that warehouse scene would have been highly enticing to me.

When I was twenty-two, I rented an old three-bedroom house in Santa Cruz with my friend Thom and we invited seven other people to live with us. The garage became a bedroom/potter’s studio, the sunroom off the living room became two bedrooms, the master bedroom became two smaller bedrooms, and the basement became a bicycle repair shop and art studio. We got an old piano to go with our many guitars. We often had several overnight guests, and we were the in-town mail drop and crash pad for two rural communes.

Our collective took shape spontaneously, was highly imperfect, and ultimately dissolved, but for a few years we provided a safe, warm, stimulating home for young artists and those intrigued by living in ways counter to the dominant cultural paradigm—none of us with much money.

Men’s groups and Women’s groups and musical groups used the living room for meetings and rehearsals, we dined communally, we had a big vegetable garden, we helped each other through illnesses, and we encouraged each other to pursue whatever it was we wanted to pursue. People came and went; we adjusted. We were trying to figure out how to be happy without following the dictates of our parents and societal norms aimed at making us obedient and unimaginative servants of the overlords.

Nowadays in California, nothing is cheap. That house the nine of us rented for four hundred dollars a month in 1972 is worth at least three million dollars today. For young artists and fringe dwellers without much money, California is no longer an easy place wherein to find a niche. And yet, there in Oakland, in that unworthy warehouse, something kin to our Santa Cruz communes tried to happen again in response to the exorbitant cost of living in the Bay Area.

We have an odd culture. In nursery school and kindergarten and through the first few grades in American schools, making art and music and inventing games and writing fiction and poetry are encouraged. These are the most formative years in our lives, so no wonder the seeds of making art take hold in so many. But then, strangely and abruptly, the message is reversed. Art is not practical say our parents and teachers. Making art, writing stories, making music, those are games, not real work. Furthermore, except for a lucky few, society and economic reality will not support those who try to make livings as artists.

But the seeds of artistry have taken hold, and happiness for many people is bound up in focusing their energies on being creative artists. Those who can be happy making art as a hobby while working at so-called real jobs will not be so conflicted as are those who identify themselves as artists in a society that does not support artists. Self-identity drives us. Those who must be artists will live in garages or derelict warehouses rather than take jobs that have no meaning for them.

This is not to suggest our society should be more supportive of artists, but to say I understand why those young people chose to live and dance in a death trap. I understand why I chose to live on little money and no health insurance and no car for much of my life: so I could be an artist first and foremost.

When I dropped out of college to pursue my dream of becoming a professional writer and musician, my mother was heartbroken. Several times over the next ten years, she urged me to go back to college and offered to pay my way if I would do so. In my thirties, she started suggesting I join a trade union and become a plumber or an electrician.

“Write for fun,” she would say. “Play music for fun. You don’t want to be poor when you get old. We are young for a short time and old for a long time. Being poor when you’re young isn’t easy, but when you get old, being poor is unbearable. A living death.”

But it takes all kinds. We do what we do. I think of those young people, many of them artists, dancing to original live music in that warehouse, and I am filled with sadness that they died so young. I see myself there, dancing with them. I see my artist friends dancing with them, too. I hear Joseph Campbell saying, “The path of an artist is one of great danger.” But so is it dangerous to stifle our passions, for that, too, can be a living death.

 

Just Us

December 5th, 2016

The Magician

The Magician (Lily Cai Chinese Dance Company) ©2016  David Jouris / Motion Pictures

“In 1978, Proposition 13 passed with almost 65% of those who voted in favor and with the participation of nearly 70% of registered voters. After passage, Proposition 13 became article XIII A of the California Constitution.” Wikipedia

We’ve been picking up our neighbor’s Press Democrat while he is away in Idaho hunting elk. The headline article of the Sunday edition is about the shortage of rental properties in Mendocino and all over California and America due to so many people choosing to go the Air B&B route with their rental units rather than rent long term to locals.

What does that have to do with the famous Proposition 13? In my view, the Airbnb phenomenon is the grandchild of Proposition 13, and the election of Donald Trump is a sibling of Airbnb.

There once was a concept known as the Greater Good, otherwise known as our community. Before the passage of Proposition 13, California had excellent schools, universities, parks, healthcare, mental healthcare, and public libraries, along with many other public goodies, too. Ten years later, those public systems were collapsing as the wealthy fled the public sector for private systems only they could afford—to hell with the middle and lower classes.

I recently fell into conversation with a woman who, upon finding out I owned a house in Mendocino, asked if I had a cottage to rent? “Or even a garage that doesn’t leak?”

She was expensively dressed and driving a new BMW, so I doubted she was looking to rent something diminutive for herself. “We decided to go Air B&B with our cottage,” she explained. “So now we have to kick our renter out and I’m hoping she can find another place around here so she doesn’t have to relocate. She’s the greatest person. I hate to do it, but we need the money. She’s paying twelve hundred a month. We can make five thousand a month doing the Air B&B thing.”

“Lot of work,” I said, smiling wanly. “Sheets to wash, cleaning up after…”

“With the money we’ll be making, we’ll get someone else to do that,” she said, shrugging. “Really hurts. She’s the best renter we’ve ever had.”

Yes, for some people doing the Air B&B thing is a necessity, but for many people doing the Air B&B thing is simply a way to make more money than they were previously making. And making more money at the expense of a vibrant community and great people is precisely what people did when they passed Proposition 13. In the short term, property owners got to keep more of their money for themselves. In the long term, they wrecked our society.

The great appeal of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton and the Georges Bush and Ronald Reagan, who might be called the Uncle of Proposition 13, was the message: you affluent folks can have anything you want and need not worry about the less fortunate people we destroy here and abroad so you can have your anything.

The appeal of Bernie Sanders was that he reminded people who remembered or had heard about that Other Time, the time of The Greater Good. And he suggested we could have another such time if we designed our systems of governance and taxation so everyone paid their fair share of the cost of a system benefiting everyone.

Alas, too much time had passed since the days of fair taxation, since the days of banks being banks instead of gambling dens, since the days of stock markets reflecting the actual worth of companies and commodities, since the days of high school graduates knowing how to read and write, since the days of superb public libraries, since the days when, truly, there were no homeless people—so in this last election most of those who voted opted for a continuation of privatization, voted for continuing to deny what is really happening to our world and our society, voted for a fantasy that capitalism can bring prosperity to more than a fraction of the population.

Now there is a movement afoot to recount the votes from the Presidential election and prove, some people hope, Trump didn’t win and Hillary did. And I marvel at the outpouring of money and support for this ultimately futile process, as if the system as it is now constituted would allow for a reversal of a national process predicated on the fantasy of fairness.

Fantasy. My hobby of monitoring movie trailers and ensuing box office results show that the most successful movies of the last two decades are fantasies about wizards and super heroes and invulnerable strong people (mostly men) battling the forces of evil. The public can’t seem to get enough of Harry Potter and the aftershocks of that pre-adolescent fantasy of kids using magical powers to conquer the nasty meanies of life, magical powers gained not through practice and wisdom and insight, but just because, you know, wizards are, like, granted magical powers because, you know, because they’re, like, chosen.

This pre-adolescent fantasy stuff is profoundly related to the election of Trump, for if we grow up believing important things only happen because of magic (luck) and not through clear intentions and hard work, we cannot possibly understand how things actually happen in this reality, nor do we know how to make things happen. And we grow up believing wizards or Super People will save us, save society, make things better.

I think we, the people, are now so passive and misinformed and entrained to stare at screens projecting fantasies, the spectacle of Trump versus Hillary was the best we could hope for. Bernie Sanders was too down to earth (and I don’t mean Middle Earth) and what he envisioned would have required us to share, to be part of a larger community, a society of equals. No wizards. No waving of wands for the easy fix. Just us working together and sacrificing together for the greater good.

Two Love Stories

November 27th, 2016

love story

love story photo by Todd

Here are two brief love stories from my new novel Magenta.

Henry’s Story

When I was a senior in high school at Fort Orford High and causing my God-fearing parents great distress by playing the guitar, I fell in love with Iriana Ceja, a beautiful Mexican woman three years older than I.

Iriana was a waitress at the North End Café, now Dave’s Donuts, and believe me, Iriana was the only reason anyone knowingly went to the North End Café. The food was bad, the coffee uniformly bitter, the décor ugly and uncomfortable. But Iriana was so lovely, so friendly, and such a sparkling conversationalist, hundreds of people made the North End Café a daily part of their lives, and I was one of those people.

I went there after school to gawk at Iriana and listen to her talk and laugh. I would buy a stale cookie and a cup of bitter coffee and stay for hours, supposedly doing my homework, but really just reveling in Iriana. My life at home was torture because my parents were so fiercely opposed to everything I loved, especially my playing the guitar and writing songs. School was drudgery and my peers were largely disinterested in the poets and artists I admired.

Iriana was my solace.

She called me Hank—no one else did—and when I finally got up the courage to ask her why she called me Hank, she gave me one of her darling smiles and said, “Como Hank Williams, por supuesto. I heard you playing your guitar at the beach. I love your music. Why don’t you bring your guitar here and play for us?”

Us meant Iriana to me, so I started bringing my guitar to the café and playing for her when she took her breaks. She would sit at the picnic table under the oak tree behind the café, smoke a cigarette, and listen to me play. She sang harmony if she knew the song and hummed harmony if she didn’t know the words.

After every song, she would say, “So beautiful, Hank,” or “I love that song, Hank,” or “You’re so good, Hank. Bueno bueno.”

So of course I wrote songs for her, and after I played her the third song I’d written for her, she kissed me and we were officially a dyad.

We had a hundred passionate tussles under that oak tree and at the beach, but whenever I asked her to make love with me, she would say so sweetly, “When we are married, I will make love with you every day.” So I vowed to her that when I turned twenty-one, if she hadn’t found someone else, I would marry her.

My parents were terrified I would fulfill my vow to marry Iriana. They were racists, not violently so, but they wanted me to marry a white woman, not a Mexican. I graduated from high school, turned nineteen, and went on a hitchhiking trip to Canada with my pal Gunnar Digs. Not long after we got back, I joined the Army.

When I came home from Germany two years later, the North End Café had turned into Dave’s Donuts and Iriana was married to Fernando Viramontes and pregnant with the first of their two kids. She was working at Stuyvesant’s by then and would work there for the next forty years. It was Iriana who encouraged me to go to Nashville and try to sell my songs.

“You have to go and try, Hank,” she said, sitting across the table from me at Stuyvesant’s, just a few weeks before she gave birth to her daughter Veronica. “God gave you a special gift. Maybe you won’t succeed, but you will never be happy if you don’t try.”

When I came home from Nashville three years later and hid my guitar away and took up the chainsaw, I ate at Stuyvesant’s three or four times a week. The food was good, but that’s not why I went there.

I went to be in the presence of Iriana, my dear friend who never stopped believing my music was beautiful.

Theodore’s Story

When I was living in Santa Cruz and working in a bookstore, my greatest joy was attending poetry readings in San Francisco. I enjoyed the adventure of hitchhiking up the coast to that great metropolis, but more than the journey, I loved the atmosphere of those readings and how everyone was so curious about new and original ways of using words to convey feelings and ideas. And I was most intrigued by the couples who came to these readings, for they often seemed, at first glance, to be fantastically mismatched.

One such couple was Janice Cleveland and Rufus Borenstein. Janice was a buxom black woman in her forties with short hair and red glasses perched on the tip of her nose. She wore blouses made of colorful fabric from Nigeria, tight slacks, and high heels. Rufus was a tall slender white guy in his fifties with a pointy white goatee and a monocle that was forever falling out of his eye. He wore a gray tweed jacket over a black T-shirt, faded blue jeans, and white high-top tennis shoes decorated with red and yellow polka dots.

I first met Janice and Rufus at the intermission of a poetry reading starring two of my idols, Kate Fetherston and D.R. Wagner. Janice came up to me and said, “We heard you read at the open mike after Jane Blue’s reading last month. We totally dug your poems. You gonna read tonight?”

“I am,” I said gleefully. “And I want to kiss you.”

So she puckered up and we kissed.

“What’s going on here?” asked Rufus, joining us with two glasses of cheap white wine, one for him and one for Janice. “Hey, it’s you. Your poem about waiting for a ride on the coast highway. Brilliant. Can we get a copy?”

“Of course,” I said, giddy from their flattery. “Where do I send it?”

“You got one of our cards, Rufe?” said Janice to Rufus.

He fished in the pocket of his tweed jacket and brought forth two volumes of poetry—Robert Duncan and Kenneth Rexroth—a rubber band, three small crystals, and a somewhat banged up business card:

Janice Cleveland & Rufus Borenstein  Tarot & Psychotherapy

I took the card and said, “If only I could afford you.”

“You can,” said Janice, laughing. “You give us some poems, we give you tarot and psychotherapy.”

So I sent them some poems and the next time I was in San Francisco, I had a fantastic tarot reading from Rufus and some incredibly helpful talk therapy with Janice, after which we went out for spaghetti. They became my good friends and remain my friends to this day, though sadly they got priced out of San Francisco and moved to Victoria, Canada five years ago.

Solar Postage Socialist

November 21st, 2016

goldens

Goldens photo by Todd

“At a time when the Post Office is losing substantial revenue from the instantaneous flow of information by email and on the Internet, slowing mail service is a recipe for disaster.” Bernie Sanders

I recently sent a little book, not much more than a glorified pamphlet, to Switzerland. The least expensive way to send the little thing was via the Post Office for twenty-three dollars.  Not very many years ago, the postal service offered inexpensive international mail service, but that was eliminated because…

No one seems to know or remember why the slow boat option was eliminated, but I suspect the cessation went hand-in-hand with all the other things Congress, in service to the Evil Ones, did to wreck our once great postal service.

As a cottage industry artist who sells my books and CDs via my web site, and then ships those goodies to lucky buyers, I am grateful for the wonderful and inexpensive Media Mail option offered by our postal service, with free tracking, but I lose several international sales every year because the cost of shipping books and CDs abroad is more than the value of my products. International postage turns a twenty-dollar book into a forty-five dollar book, and a five-dollar CD becomes a fifteen-dollar CD.

Well, Todd, if you’d make your books available as e-books…no, I don’t want to. I understand why large publishers make e-book versions of books, but the books I sell are limited edition, signed and numbered, actual three-dimensional coil-bound books. Original intriguing well-written fiction. What a concept. I rarely sell more than fifty copies of each book, and I rarely make a profit. And with international postal rates being what they are, I rarely sell to people abroad who express interest in my work. Such is modern life.

Speaking of modern life, I’ve been reading about Morocco, specifically the Moroccan government, turning to solar and wind power to free the country from a dependency on imported energy. In just a few more years, Morocco will go from importing 97% of their fuel and electricity to importing less than 50% of their fuel and electricity. This government subsidized conversion is not only creating thousands of jobs and boosting the economy, but eliminating pollution, saving billions of dollars a year and…sounds like socialism to me.

Why can’t we have a massive conversion to solar and wind and tidal power in the United States? And why can’t we have affordable international postage? And why can’t we have Single Payer Healthcare? Well, we can. But we won’t.

Many people I know are still reeling from the election of Donald Trump. I find it fascinating that most of these folks see the election of Trump as some sort of wholly unexpected and surprising event, rather than the inevitable conclusion to a long-developing process, the effect of a cause. This has been coming for a long time, and I think it behooves us to look beyond the person who got elected and remember (know) his election is the end result of a long-developing process of privatization and the decimation of our foundational socialist institutions.

Next in line for demolition are Social Security and Medicare. The Evil Ones encountered little resistance to wrecking the postal service, and they are having no trouble stalling the conversion to solar, wind, and tidal power. And now that they control Congress and the Presidency and will soon control the Supreme Court, we will watch them attempt to privatize/destroy Social Security and Medicare. Will we stand by and let them do it? I think we probably will, in the same way we stood by and let them do all the other rotten things they’ve done since 1980.

So now millions of Americans are looking into migrating to Canada to escape the corporate takeover of the United States. Canada, however, does not want Americans moving there and taking advantage of Single Payer Healthcare and other groovy socialist programs that benefit everyone. Create your own socialism, they say, but we won’t.

Ten years ago, I was contacted by a Canadian movie director who wanted to make a movie of my novel Forgotten Impulses, from a screenplay by an American writer, the movie to be set in Canada. The Canadian government was considering funding the project, but after much preliminary excitement, they decided there were too many Americans involved to qualify for Canadian government funding. Darn.

However, a few weeks ago, I was contacted by that same Canadian director, and he said he was interested in making a movie from an original screenplay of mine. He thought if the film was set in Canada and I was the only American involved in the project, perhaps the Canadian film board would this time be open to funding the project. Turned out not to be the case, but for a few days the possibility got me interested in the script again.

And while I worked on the script, I kept wanting to feel excited by the possibility of a movie being made from my screenplay, but after so many near misses with movie producers and publishers over the last thirty years, I found I was far more interested in my latest coil-bound creation that will actually come out into the world and be read by actual people. What a concept.

However, the fact that I was dealing with socialists, as opposed capitalists, gave me a nice tingling feeling—so I let my imagination run wild. I saw myself taking a train to Montreal to watch the filming of my script, the movie became an international sensation (with a cult following in America), and the Canadian government invited me and Marcia to become Canadian citizens so long as I promised that all my future books and screenplays would be set in Canada.

In reality, Trump really did win the election and I’m sending out my annual holiday shopping reminder to my few avid fans, reminding them that no matter how many books and CDs or art cards they purchase, shipping to anywhere in the greater United States will only cost them five bucks. Socialism strikes again.

Cali Nation

November 14th, 2016

last little carrots

Last Little Carrots photo by Todd

Marcia and I woke the morning after the election to the sounds of Waste Management trucks picking up the recycling cans, and my first words to Marcia were, “Apparently total collapse of the system has been delayed.”

I find I am not surprised Trump won. He is the fruit, if you will, of forty years of economic policies that destroyed the manufacturing infrastructure of the nation and stole trillions from the lower and middle classes to fatten the rich; and people who were hurt economically and emotionally by that destruction and thievery elected Trump.

When I traveled around America in the 1960s and 70s, it became clear to me that America is a union of regions as different from each other as the countries of Europe are different from each other. Because of the physical enormity of our country, the design of our union encourages states to make their own laws and create their own operating systems, and that is what California needs to do now, more than ever, in the wake of Trump’s election and Congress becoming overwhelmingly Republican.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger was Governor of California, our state legislators twice passed a bill that would have created a statewide Single Payer Healthcare plan to provide all Californians with truly affordable healthcare and save the state tens of billions of dollars every year. Arnold vetoed those bills in service to the pharmaceutical and insurance companies who gave him millions of dollars in exchange for his veto.

Now that Trump and Paul Ryan plan to repeal the Affordable Healthcare Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, this is a golden opportunity for California’s legislators to again pass a Single Payer Healthcare law. We can also create a state bank to help us weather the inevitable economic downturns ahead. There is much talk about a progressive movement to take back Congress from the Republicans, but I suggest more substantive change can be implemented, and much sooner, on the state level.

Much is also being made of Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote but losing the electoral count, and how that needs to change. Good luck changing that system, and good luck implementing a parliamentary form of government that would free us from the dastardly two-party system that makes a shambles of democracy. The overlords will allow no such things as long as such trickery insures their continuance.

After I got up and got going today, I spoke on the phone to a friend in Canada who said he and many of his fellow Canadians were in shock over the election results. A large part of their dismay arises from a sense that the Republicans will do nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but rather accelerate global warming and catastrophic climate change, something Canadians are apparently more informed and concerned about than most Americans.

When I ventured out into the world to take advantage of the 10%-off-everything sale at Harvest Market, I wondered if the vibe in town would be one of sorrow and dismay. The grocery store was doing a brisk business, though there did seem to be a certain solemnity in the air, and I noticed several people gazing into space and slowly shaking their heads.

I came home to a good email from my friend Max in New Hampshire. He had hopeful things to say about how change happens and I was put in mind of when I moved to Sacramento and quickly learned that for those who worked for the state, the worst thing that could happen was the completion of a project.

The name of the game for those working in state government was Get An Extension. I attended several lavish parties thrown to celebrate new two-year and five-year funding extensions on profoundly nonsensical projects. Project completions meant people had to scramble to get repositioned, had to have the right connections, had to start over, and had to struggle for power. Quality and functionality were largely irrelevant in the maintenance of the vast ongoing bureaucracy.

Human systems tend to quickly adopt maintaining-the-status-quo as a top priority. That’s equally true for theatre companies and corporations and governments and public radio stations and universities. Book publishers tend to publish the work of their friends rather than look for new outsider talent. We tend to be most comfortable with the familiar.

Thus human systems can quickly ossify to the point of dysfunction and breakage is often the only way such ossification can be overcome, even if the aftermath of the breakage is messy. Trump’s election breaks many things. The big question is: how will we, the people, deal with the breakage?

A friend emailed from San Francisco, “What’s your take on our family’s new stepdad?”

To which I replied: Things are not looking good for the nation or the planet. More and more I think our collective responses to dire situations speak to the limitations of the human species. I know many intelligent people who equate knowing with doing; but those aren’t really the same things. From my days as a physical laborer, I know that working class people view the world in much different ways than do white collar folk and intellectuals.

For a working class person, life is a fairly straightforward process, though often a struggle, to make enough money for sufficient food and to pay the most pressing bills. Many working class people in America are suspicious of anything labeled socialist because they listen to and believe the Limbaughs who are forever equating socialism with Stalinist communism. Many working class people actually have no idea what socialism is, but many of them responded positively to Bernie Sanders and his socialist ideas because those ideas were about helping everyone, not just the wealthy.

In any case, Bill and Hillary Clinton and their clique of neo-liberals were leaders in implementing policies and laws that ruined the lives of hundreds of millions of working class Americans, and those millions have elected Trump, whoever he turns out to be.

Bob Kevin Culture

November 7th, 2016

windmill two

Windmill Sky photo by Todd

“There are two kinds of artists left: those who endorse Pepsi and those who simply won’t.” Annie Lennox

For a few weeks this past summer people kept asking me what I thought about Kevin Durant deciding to leave Oklahoma City to come to California and play for the Golden State Warriors, and lately people keep asking me what I think about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. Now that the basketball season has officially begun, the Kevin Durant question has resurfaced, and yesterday two more people asked me what I thought about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize.

I learned a long time ago that a fan’s love of a musician or band or athlete or sports franchise is a form of religious fervor, and I don’t mess with religious fervor. So I dodged the Dylan question by saying tangential things like, “Isn’t it odd they don’t award the Nobel Prize posthumously?” or “They gave Bob a Pulitzer, too.” To the Kevin Durant question, I answered, “The guy can shoot,” and “What a handle, huh?”

But I’ll tell you in the privacy of this article that my initial reaction to Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize was to recall when I was nineteen and driving through Hibbing, Minnesota on a hot muggy summer day, the mosquitoes ferocious, and I thought, ‘I know why Bob moved to California.’

The country I come from is called the Midwest. I was taught and brought up there, the laws to abide, that the land that I live in has God on its side.

My favorite Bob Dylan song is ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.’ I know he’s written hundreds of songs since, but that’s still my favorite. I resonate with every syllable and I love Peter, Paul, and Mary’s version as much as Bob’s, though my favorite rendition is a slow bitter blues take by Eric Clapton recorded at some Dylan celebration twenty years ago. Tore my heart out.

That said, I know almost nothing about Dylan’s music after 1969, and I’m sure Bob would be okay with that, the Bob who wrote ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.’

Over the intervening decades, several men have tried to convince me of Dylan’s ongoing genius. They insisted I listen to Bob’s later albums, with them watching me listen. And these experiences were always torture for me, though I never said so to my torturers because I don’t mess with religious fervor. I try to avoid it, but when I can’t, I feign reverent somnolence.

“There seem to be two causes of the deterioration of the arts: wealth and poverty.” Plato

Also over the last several years, several people have sent me links to advertisements Bob Dylan made for IBM, Victoria’s Secret, Apple, Cadillac, Pepsi, and Chrysler. Some people sent me those commercials because they were outraged Dylan would sell out like that, though they didn’t say what he was selling out. And some people sent me the ads because they thought everything Bob did was fabulous. I did not watch those ads until I started writing this article, and now that I have watched them, I wish I hadn’t.

As for Kevin Durant choosing to leave Oklahoma City and move to California, I’m sure he made that choice for the same reason Bob Dylan changed his name from Zimmerman to Dylan and moved from Hibbing to Malibu—in hope of having a more enjoyable life.

“The poet’s only responsibility is to write fresh lines.” Charles Olson

Now that’s an interesting and noble-sounding idea, but pragmatically nonsensical. It reminds me of the Peanuts cartoon dozens of people sent me before I managed to publish my first novel. Snoopy is sitting at his typewriter on top of his doghouse writing a letter to a publisher. “Dear Sirs, I have just completed my new novel. It is so good, you will just have to come get it.”

Snoopy is elucidating every artist’s dream—to be recognized and rewarded for our creations simply because we created them. But the truth is, our ships can’t come in, so to speak, unless we send our ships out. Artists must take their wares to market or no one will ever know about them. And to succeed in a big way as a musician or artist or writer in America, the artist must convince those who control the avenues of distribution and exposure to give them access to large audiences; and once initial access has been gained, the artist must continue to convince those in power to give them such access.

Though they work in different sectors of the entertainment industry, Kevin Durant and Bob Dylan are both savvy business people adept at sustaining and improving the value of their brands. Kevin Durant’s salary for playing basketball is twenty to thirty million dollars a year, but the Kevin Durant brand makes hundreds of millions of dollars a year from shoe sales and jersey sales and endorsements and advertisements. And the same is true of Bob Dylan. Making a Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler was good for his brand, and so is winning the Nobel Prize.

“Though he played so sweet and high, they knew he had never been on their TV so they passed his music by.” Joni Mitchell

When I was thirteen I bought Harry Belafonte’s new album Midnight Special. On that album, a young guy named Bob Dylan plays a harmonica solo. Midnight Special came out right before Dylan released his first album, and Bob’s harmonica playing on Harry’s album is reputedly Bob’s first official professional recording.

Until that Belafonte album was stolen from me in 1980, whenever I found a fervent Dylan fan had made his or her way into my house, I would bring out the Belafonte, lower the needle on Bob’s solo, and watch the true believer listen in reverent awe.