Archive for April, 2011

Old Pot Folks

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

(This story first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2011)

“How’s your back?” asks Marvin, handing me cash for pruning his fruit trees.

“Pretty good,” I say, lifting my ladder into the back of my pickup.

“Mine’s all fucked up,” he murmurs, looking away. “Can’t lift a damn thing.”

“You need something lifted? I’m good up to fifty pounds.”

“Well,” he says, fidgeting. “I…the thing is…” He frowns. “You want to earn a quick hundred?”

“How quick?” I say, looking at my watch. “I have a couple big apples to get done before dark.”

“Half an hour,” he says, nodding. “Hour at the most.”

“I charge forty an hour for pruning, so…”

“This isn’t pruning,” he says, taking a deep breath. “This is pot.”

“You have a prescription?”

“Two,” he says, beckoning me to follow him. “One for me and one for Candy. Need to empty the old mix and fill the pots with new stuff, but the bags…”

So I follow him to the house where Candy appears on the front porch and shields her eyes from what I don’t know since the sun is hidden behind dark clouds. Candy is seventy-two, petite, with shoulder-length gray hair and a penchant for long skirts and mono-colored long-sleeved shirts. She sometimes wears a brilliant red tie, which sets her apart from the other hippie gals. Marvin is a heavyset seventy-four with bristly white hair, a wearer of suspenders and a smoker of an enviable manzanita pipe. Candy is a batik artist and calligrapher, Marvin a retired carpenter.

“Would you care for some tea?” asks Candy, her accent faintly British. “My sister just sent us some fabulous Darjeeling.”

“He’s in a hurry,” says Marvin, obviously uncomfortable about involving me in their agricultural enterprise. “Can you show him what to do? I gotta take a pain pill and lie down.”

So it is Candy who leads me to the grow house, a well-insulated single-room shed about twelve-feet square, with walls and ceiling covered with aluminum foil to reflect the light of several grow lamps. Twenty black plastic five-gallon pots crowd the floor; the plants having been recently harvested so only a little stump remains in the center of each pot.

“To start, if you’ll empty this old mix into the wheelbarrow and take it out to the compost pile,” says Candy, smiling brightly, “that would be a great help.”

“Where would I find your wheelbarrow?”

“Oh, sorry,” she says, hurrying away. “I’ll get it.”

But she only goes about twenty feet before she turns back to me and says plaintively, “Would you mind getting it? My sciatica…”

I follow her to the garage where the big old wheelbarrow sits beside their big old station wagon, the back of the wagon loaded with large colorfully illustrated plastic bags of organic grow mix concocted in Humboldt County.

“Marvin tried to unload these, but his back…” She laughs gaily. “We’re helpless.”

“How long have you been growing pot?” I ask on our way back to the shed with the wheelbarrow.

“Well,” she says, “we always used to grow a plant or two down by the spring, you know, for ourselves and friends, but we didn’t start doing this whole indoor thing until four years ago when I got laid off at the gallery and we didn’t have enough money to pay our property taxes. Our daughter helped us get started. It was this or lose the place, so…”

Three trips in fifteen minutes from shed to compost pile takes care of the twenty stubby cylinders of compacted root-bound soil; and Candy has me hack up the cylinders with a shovel so they are not so obviously the aftermath of a grow. And it takes me another three trips and fifteen minutes to haul the big bags of grow mix from car to shed.

“These are certainly heavy,” I say, dragging the first bag to the mouth of the room where Candy is waiting to supervise the filling of the pots. “How do you guys do this if you can’t lift the bags?”

“Marvin’s always been able to get the bags here until last time,” she says, handing me a razor blade for slitting open the top of the bag. “But his back is terribly inflamed now, so last time we had to drag the bags out of the car and then cut them open in the garage and scoop enough for a pot at a time into the wheelbarrow, which was all we could lift, and even that killed us. Took forever and we were both wrecked for days after.” She laughs her musical laugh. “It’s insane, but we can’t think what else to do.”

One bag of the pot-specific ingredients fills four of the pots, and in another fifteen minutes I’ve got all the pots full and arranged as Candy wants them.

“You’re a godsend,” she says, giving my hand a squeeze as we walk to the house. “How much did Marvin say he’d pay you?”

“Forget it,” I say. “Glad to help.”

“Oh, but…” She struggles to find the right words. “We would very much like you to help us again. In about two months? Could you? We don’t really know anybody else we can trust.” She laughs. “That is, anyone who can still pick up a fifty pound bag.”

“If you can’t find anybody else, give me a call.”

“Do you grow?” she asks, squinting at me.

“No.”

“Smoke? I’d be happy to…”

“No. I’m a reformed addict, so…”

“Me, too,” she confides. “Marvin smokes for his back, and it so helps him relax and sleep.”

“How do you sell the stuff?” I ask, smiling at the thought of Marvin and Candy consorting with shady characters driving BMWs.

“Our daughter,” says Candy, sighing. “She comes up from San Luis Obispo and helps us trim. We both have arthritis in our fingers, so it would take forever without her.”

“Can she lift a fifty-pound bag?”

“I doubt it,” says Candy, “and besides, the timing doesn’t work out.”

“So she pays you wholesale and takes the stuff back to southern California?”

“She drops some of it with somebody in San Francisco and sells the rest in Los Angeles.” Candy shrugs. “We are blissfully ignorant of the details and wish to remain so. Come in and say goodbye to Marvin before you go.”

We find Marvin in the living room, sprawled on the sofa, his pipe stuffed with glistening bud awaiting ignition. “I got all settled and forgot the matches,” he says, his voice suffused with pain. “Bring me one, sweetie?”

She fetches a match from the hearth and lights her husband’s pipe. He takes a deep hit, holds the smoke inside for a long time, and now, with a marvelous sigh of relief, releases a pungent cloud.

“So…how are the trees?” he asks, smiling at me. “Think we’ll get some plums?”

“The prognosis for plums this year is not good,” I report. “And that prognosis is not specific to your trees. The cold and rain this year coincided with most of the early blossoming, so…but we should have another prolific apple year.”

“You’ve resurrected our trees,” says Candy, putting a kettle on. “You’re sure you can’t stay for tea?”

“No, thanks,” I say, raising a hand in farewell. “A Fuji and a Golden Delicious await me.”

“Did you pay him?” asks Marvin, wincing at a sudden jolt of pain. “For…”

“Yes,” she says, winking slyly as she ushers me out the door. “And he said he’d help us again if we need him.”

“You’re an accomplice now,” says Marvin, closing his eyes. “Thanks so much.”

What’s Going On?

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2011)

“You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.” Malcolm X

One of my guilty pleasures is watching sports highlights on my computer, many of which are prefaced by thirty-second ads for shoes, cars, beer, and the Army. I have become adept at turning off the volume and relaxing for those thirty seconds before each highlight, but occasionally a new ad grabs me and I’ll watch and marvel at the senseless inventiveness of capitalism. The last Army recruitment ad I watched began with a video-game-animation of Caucasian American soldiers morphing into actual Caucasian American soldiers interdicting and arresting impoverished American black men, brutally and at gunpoint.

I haven’t the slightest doubt that twenty years ago such an ad would have caused a huge public outcry for its racist violence and for the implication that American armed forces are servants of a racist police state. But this ad, I have since been informed, has been running for several weeks through several mainstream media outlets, and no outcries are being reported (which, of course, doesn’t mean outcrying isn’t going on.)

“I think I’m an actor because I have a very strong imagination and empathy. I never studied acting, but those two qualities are exactly the qualities that make for an activist.” Susan Sarandon

As I was pondering this latest indication of the thorough conquest of our media by the corporate state, my brother sent me a link to an article about a large new study by the American Red Cross that reveals nearly sixty percent of American teenagers (both male and female) think brutal torture of suspected enemies is acceptable. And more than fifty percent of teenagers also approve of killing captured enemies on the spot in situations where the enemy is thought to have killed Americans. If that doesn’t creep you out, consider that forty-one percent of American teens thought it was fine for our enemies to torture Americans.

The study further reveals that a large majority of older Americans are opposed to torture under any circumstances. So what’s going on? We might simply blame television, but the parents of today’s teenagers watched as much television as their children, and they, the parents, do not largely approve of torture. So perhaps it is the nature of television and mass media today in contrast to how it was twenty years ago. Or we might blame the new generation of extremely realistic video games, most of which require the player to slaughter as many enemies as he or she can slaughter before they, the enemies, slaughter the player.

However, I think it is naïve to say that too much television and too many violent video games are the causes of our teenagers lacking empathy for others. For though television and video games certainly may influence our thinking and behavior, to a much larger degree television and video games reflect the larger social and political scenarios into which today’s teenagers were born. I think it is crucial to remember that virtually all of our individual prejudices and emotional inclinations are thoroughly hardwired by the end of the first four years of our lives, long before most kids make their first video kills.

What I and many others theorize is that the social fabrics woven of direct human connections and human interdependencies that have defined and supported people for millennia have been largely replaced by a technological fabric purporting to connect us, but that in reality keeps us terribly isolated and starving for emotional fulfillment. I view the cell phone/computer as close kin to the tracking devices affixed to convicted felons serving their sentences at home. Indeed, a growing number of people I know have become so neurotically attached to their mobile phones that their lives seem to be little more than extensions of that attachment.

“Touch has a memory.” John Keats

When I was a young man, an older man I knew and admired was convicted of statutory rape and sent to prison. I was so devastated by this wholly unexpected (by me) turn of events that I sought solace in reading everything I could get my hands on about rapists and criminals and prisons. And in almost every book and study I read, there were two points made again and again that struck me as most telling: that the vast majority of those who are sent to prison were deprived of loving touch as children, and rapists in particular were, for the most part, extremely unimaginative and had great difficulty satisfying themselves sexually through fantasy and autoeroticism.

Well, you probably see where I’m going with this. If instead of love and lots of physical and emotional interaction with us and other people, we give our children gadgets and videos that take the place of and inhibit the development of their imaginations, and we isolate them so they grow up socially and verbally inept, and we ourselves are hooked into our computers and phones, thus modeling for them what it is to be a human being, the scene is set for a collective criminality, if you will, criminality defined as a lack of empathy and compassion for others—a wholly self-serving mode of survival.

“How often I found where I should be going only by setting out for somewhere else.” Buckminster Fuller

This may seem like an unlikely segway, but have you noticed that the ongoing nuclear disaster in Japan has suddenly vanished from the news? The same folks running recruitment ads using violent racism as bait for desperate teenagers without imaginations have decided that in-depth news about the multiple nuclear meltdowns might interfere with corporate profits both in the short and long term so…

But in Germany, as a result of the Fukushima disaster and ensuing public and electoral protests, the German government has announced they are going to phase out all their nuclear power plants as soon as possible and aim those billions of Euros instead at energy efficiency and the development of alternative energy sources. And I guarantee you that when their shift away from nuclear power proves to be wildly successful and surprisingly profitable, we won’t hear a word about that success on NPR or ABC, just as we don’t hear any words about the marvelous success of Single Payer healthcare in Canada and England and Europe.

Who are these people controlling what we get to hear and see? Weren’t they, too, sweet innocent babies in the beginning? How come they grew up so angry and disconnected and cruel?

“Either war is obsolete, or men are.” Buckminster Fuller

Buckminster Fuller suggests that there are two massive forces competing for supremacy on earth at this time in our human and planetary evolution. He called them the forces of Weaponry and Livingry. Bucky coined the word livingry, a word my computer’s dictionary does not recognize as legitimate, but what does it know? Only what it was told to know.

These forces of Weaponry and Livingry are fueled by the actions of people, and as events in Germany demonstrate, people can change a nation’s course in almost no time at all if they are permitted to express their collective will. This is the vision I am holding right now; that despite the sudden news blackout in America about what’s really going on in Japan regarding the Fukushima nuclear power plants and the irradiation of an entire nation (and to a lesser extent the entire world), the forces of Livingry have been given a great gift, and the forces of Weaponry are now more vulnerable than ever.

And the other vision I’m holding is that out of the ongoing economic devastation visited upon this country by the criminal overlords (criminal as in unloved sad lonely emotionally starved insatiably greedy) will come a revival of the ancient and natural way of living that requires no microwave cell towers, no nuclear power plants, and absolutely no torture. Bucky called this Livingry, but I’m confident we can come up with even more beautiful words for what he meant, along with dances and songs and ceremonies and celebrations.

Todd’s web site is Underthetablebooks.com

Young Pot Moms

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2011)

“Youth is wasted on the young.” George Bernard Shaw

When I and my middle-aged and elderly Mendocino Elk Albion Fort Bragg peers convene, talk often turns to the paucity of younger people coming along to fill the local ranks of actors and musicians and writers and artists and activists. The excellent Symphony of the Redwoods plays to audiences of mostly white-haired elders and is itself fast becoming an ensemble of elders, ditto the local theater companies, ditto the legions of Mendocino artists and social activists. People under fifty in audiences and at art openings hereabouts stand out as rare youngsters; and the question is frequently asked with touching plaintiveness, “Will it all end with us?”

“The supply of good women far exceeds that of the men who deserve them.” Robert Graves

A few days ago I was waiting my turn at the one and only cash dispensing machine in the picturesque and economically distressed village of Mendocino, my home town, and I couldn’t help noticing that the woman using the machine was young (under forty), expensively dressed, and pushing the appropriate buttons with an ambitious energy that made me tired.

When it was my turn to stand before the cash dispensary, I noticed that the young woman had declined to take her receipt, which hung like a punch line from the slot of the robot. Being a hopeless snoop, I took possession of the little piece of paper, affixed my reading glasses, and imbibed the data. Did my eyes deceive me? No. This young woman had a cash balance in her Savings Bank of Mendocino checking account of…are you sitting down?…377,789 dollars.

In a panic—dollar amounts over four figures terrify me—I turned to see if her highness was still in sight, and there she was climbing into a brand new midnight blue six-wheel pickup truck the size of a small house, her seven-year-old companion, a movie-star pretty girl, strapped into the passenger seat.

“Did you want this?” I cried, wildly waving the receipt.

She of great wealth slowly shook her head and smiled slyly as if to say, “That’s nothing. You should see the diamonds in my safety deposit box.”

Staggered by my encounter with this local femme Croesus, I wandered toward Corners of the Mouth hoping to find my eensy teensy rusty old pickup parked there, and further hoping a little overpriced chocolate would calm me down. My truck was not there, but I didn’t panic. I only park in one of four places when I drive into the village, so I was confident I would eventually find my truck: somewhere near the Presbyterian church or adjacent to the vacant lot with the towering eucalypti where I gather kindling or in front of Zo, the greatest little copy shop in town (the only one, actually, and not open on weekends.)

In Corners, the cozy former church, I came upon three young (under forty) women, each in jeans and sweatshirt, each possessed of one to three exuberant latter day hippie children. These lovely gals were gathered near the shelves of fabulous fruit comparing notes on diet, marriage, motherhood, and who knows what. Beyond this trio of young moms, and partially blocking my access to the chocolate bars, were two of the aforementioned latter day hippie children, a very cute snot-nosed four-year-old redheaded girl wearing a bright blue dress, and an equally cute roly-poly snot-nosed five-year-old blond boy wearing black coveralls and red running shoes.

The boy, I couldn’t help but overhear, was trying to convince the girl to secure some candy for him because his mother wouldn’t buy candy for him, but the girl’s mother would buy the candy because, according to the boy, “Your mom let’s you have anything you want, and my mom won’t,” which, the boy indignantly pointed out, was not fair.

“But my mom will know it’s for you,” said the girl so loudly that everyone in the store could hear her, “because I don’t like that kind.”

I reached over their innocent little heads and secured a chunk of 85% pure chocolate bliss flown around the globe from England, and feeling only slightly immoral to be supporting the highly unecological international trafficking of a gateway drug (chocolate is definitely a gateway drug, don’t you think?) I headed for the checkout counter where two of the aforementioned young moms were purchasing great mounds of nutritious goodies.

Remember, I was still reeling from my encounter with she of the massive blue truck who had enough money in her checking account for my wife and I to live luxuriously (by our Spartan standards) for the rest of our lives, should we live so long, when Young Mom #1 took from the front pocket of her form-fitting fashionably faded blue jeans a wad of hundred-dollar bills that would have made a mafia chieftain proud, and peeled off three bills to pay for six bulging bags of vittles.

The clerk didn’t bat an eye, ceremoniously held each bill up to some sort of validating light, and made small change.

Meanwhile, Young Mom #2 had stepped up to the other checkout counter and proceeded to pay for her several sacks of groceries from a vast collection of fifty-dollar bills which she pulled from her pockets like a comedic magician pulling so many handkerchiefs from her coat that it seemed impossible she could have crammed so much stuff into such a small space.

“Whoever said money can’t buy happiness simply didn’t know where to go shopping.” Bo Derek

Further frazzled by the sight of so much filthy lucre, I stumbled to the post office to buy stamps and see if Sheila wanted to talk a little Giants baseball. Ahead of me at the counter stood a beautiful young (under forty) mom with one of her cute little kids sitting on the counter picking his nose, her other slightly larger cute little kid standing on the floor, embracing his mother’s leg while sucking his thumb. The beautiful young mom placed a pile of brand new hundred-dollar bills on the counter, a pile as thick as a five-hundred-page novel, and proceeded to buy a dozen money orders, each order (I couldn’t help but overhear) for many thousands of dollars, and each order duly noted in a leather-bound notebook.

The thumb-sucking lad clinging to his mother’s leg looked up at me and I made a funny face at him. He removed his thumb and half-imitated my funny face. So I made another funny face. He laughed and patted his mother’s leg. “Mama,” he gurgled. “He funny.”

“Not now Jacarandaji,” she said, keeping her focus on money matters. “We’ll go to Frankie’s in just a little while.”

Jacarandaji smiled at me, daring me to make another funny face, which I did. Jacarandaji laughed uproariously, which caused his nose-picking brother to stop picking and ask, “Why you laughing?”

“He funny,” said Jacarandaji, pointing at me.

At which moment, the beautiful young mom turned to me, smiled sweetly (ironically?) and said, “You want’em? You can have’em.” And then she gave each of her boys a hug, saying, “Just kidding. Mama’s only kidding.”

“Hope is independent of the apparatus of logic.” Norman Cousins

Who are these young (under forty) moms? They are pot moms, their wealth accrued from the quasi-legal and/or illegal growing of marijuana and the almost surely illegal sale of their crop to feed the insatiable appetite for dope that defines a robust sector of the collective American psyche. Many of these moms have husbands. Many of these moms have college degrees. And all of these moms have decided that it makes much more emotional and economic sense to grow and sell pot than to work at some meaningless low-paying job.

And let them grow pot, say I, so long as they don’t carry guns and shoot at people, and so long as they don’t have dangerous crop-guarding dogs that might escape and attack me or my friends as we’re riding by on our bicycles or walking by minding our own business. What I care about is this: will their children grow up to fill the ranks of the aging musicians and actors and artists and writers and activists who define the culture of our far-flung enclave? Or will those snot-nosed cuties grow up spoiled and arrogant and not much good for anything except growing dope, which will almost surely be legal by the time they’re old enough to join those aforementioned ranks, so then what will they do to make easy money?

Hear me, ye young pot moms. The lives you are leading and this place where you are leading those lives are rare and precious beyond measure. Thus it is your sacred duty to strictly limit the garbage your children watch on television and on computers. It is your sacred duty to give your children plenty of Mendelssohn and Stevie Wonder and Mozart and Joni Mitchell and Brahms and Cole Porter and Eva Cassidy and Richard Rogers and Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles and Nina Simone and Gershwin, to name a few. And beyond Harry Potter and the corporate guck that passes for children’s literature, at least give them Twain and Steinbeck and Kipling. Beyond today’s execrable animated movie propaganda, give them O’Keefe and Chagall and Picasso and Ver Meer and Monet and Van Gogh. Use your pot money to give your children not what the corporate monsters want to force them to want, but great art that will engender in them the feeling and the knowing that they were born into this life and into their bodies to do something wonderful and special and good.

Yay verily, I say unto you young pot moms, every last one of you beautiful and smart and good women, your children, and you, too, have come unto this bucolic place far from the madding crowd so they and you will have the chance to fully blossom. Feed your family well. Yes. Excellent organic food is good for their bodies, but do not neglect their precious minds and their generous hearts, for we oldsters desperately need them to fill our ranks when we are gone.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com

Kings and Presidents

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

(This essay first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2011)

“Divine right of kings means the divine right of anyone who can get uppermost.” Herbert Spencer

I just finished reading an excellent book by British historian Derek Wilson: A Brief History of Henry VIII, 386 pages of densely informative prose that is certainly not brief by American standards. I do not often read history, but I’m glad I read this book because it illuminates much of what’s going on in the world today. But before I tell you a little more about Henry VIII and why his story reminds me so much of George H. Bush, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and innumerable bullies and louts responsible for the ruination of our local, national, and global societies, I thought you might enjoy knowing how I came to be interested in Henry VIII.

“Kings are in the moral order what monsters are in the natural.” Henri Gregoire

Several years ago, I wrote a play about a history professor who has a nervous breakdown that features visitations from Queen Elizabeth I, Henry VIII’s daughter. When I came out of my trance and found that the rough draft contained a goodly amount of Queen Elizabeth data, I thought it prudent to run a fact-check on my muse and see if she knew what she was talking about. So I read two biographies of Elizabeth and was pleased and mystified to find that the information in my play did, indeed, jibe with those historical records.

If this sort of precognition seems implausible or impossible to you, well, so be it. I had never read or seen anything about Queen Elizabeth prior to writing the play. I only knew she was not the same Queen Elizabeth of my childhood who was forever appearing in National Geographics watching African warriors and soldiers dancing and marching in her honor. Twenty years ago, I wrote a novel (not yet published) in which the protagonist, a pianist and piano teacher, knows a great deal about the life and music of Felix Mendelssohn, all of which was news to me. Shortly thereafter I bought my first recordings of Mendelssohn’s music, which I loved, and I read two Mendelssohn biographies to make sure the references in my novel were accurate, which they were.

How do I explain this sort of thing? Well, if you’ve ever been struck hard and completely out-of-the-blue by thoughts of a friend you haven’t heard from in years, and then the phone rings, and you pick up the phone, and it is that very friend, or if you’ve ever for-no-reason-in-particular decided to turn right instead of turning left as you have always turned a million times before, and because you turned right instead of the usual left you saw something that cleared up a mystery or changed the course of your life, then maybe what I’m about to say will make some sense to you.

Jung spoke of a collective unconscious wherein the cumulative experience of humanity resides and may be accessed by individuals, usually through symbolic dreams. In more modern terms, perhaps there is some sort of psychic internet, if you will, from which surprising and informative responses to our thoughts and desires may come, causing us to do things or create things we might otherwise not have created or done. Or maybe I have supra-phenomenal hearing I’m unaware of and without knowing it I listened to long and learned lectures about Mendelssohn and Queen Elizabeth emanating from UC Berkeley five miles from my house. I don’t know.

In any case, when I saw A Brief History of Henry VIII advertised in the Daedalus remainder catalogue for only five bucks, and wondering if there might be any new revelations therein about Elizabeth, I decided to give the book a try.

“If you’re asking me as President, would I understand reality, I do.” George W. Bush

Henry VIII became king when he was a teenager. George W. Bush became President of the United States and might as well have been a teenager, and not a bright one. Henry let other people run the country while he hunted and jousted and partied. George W. let other people run the country while he, I don’t know, watched television? They both had rotten fathers who thought their sons stupid. They both presided over ill-fated military adventures and appeared at staged victory celebrations—George W. emerging from a jet on an aircraft carrier, Henry arriving in a conquered French city wearing armor. The big differences seem to be that George W. only presided over the ruination of his country and the world for eight years, while Henry ruined England and France and Scotland for almost forty years, George W. wasn’t obsessed about producing a male heir and Henry was, and Henry founded the Anglican Church, had scads of wives, and was apparently lousy in bed, whereas George W. had only one wife and founded no church.

“Don’t forget your great guns, which are the most respectable arguments of the rights of kings.” Frederick the Great

One of my favorite books is The Prince and the Pauper, which is ostensibly, fictionally, about Henry VIII’s son. Interesting note: when I tell people The Prince and the Pauper is among my favorite books, I usually get one of three responses. 1. Dickens? 2. The children’s book? 3. Never read it. When I tell these respondents that The Prince and the Pauper was written by Mark Twain, that only smart and imaginative children will enjoy it, that I think the book is Twain’s most beautifully written work, and that I’ve read it five times, my respondents are invariably surprised.

Twain vividly portrays with fiction, and Derek Wilson shows with meticulous biography, that not only does Might Make Right, but once Might has established an entrenched bureaucracy and controls all the money and weapons and commerce of a nation or a world, then absolute nincompoops can be made kings (or presidents) and the monstrous pyramid will lurch along for decades before finally collapsing under the weight of its own corruption and stupidity.

In The Prince and the Pauper, which, by the way, is great fun to read aloud with your mate or children or friends, a pauper (who happens to be physically identical down to his eyebrows to the heir to the English throne, and who learned to mimic courtly speech and manners as a means of escaping, at least in his mind, the violence and grossness of grinding poverty and an abusive father) quite accidentally switches places with the boy who would be king, and the would-be king becomes a pauper in the manner of Dickens’ Oliver Twist.

Once the switch is made, the rulers of the entrenched bureaucracy conclude that the prince has gone mad rather than been replaced, and when they report their finding to Twain’s brilliantly drawn fictional Henry VIII, the king, who is dying, orders that the prince’s madness be tolerated and ignored, and that anyone spreading news of Edward’s distemper outside the castle will be summarily executed for treason. And that, from what I gather from Wilson’s biography, would have been just like Henry.

O, what a tangled web we weave;

When first we practice to deceive! Sir Walter Scott

Lying is the primary method of rule by an oligarchy masquerading as a monarchy or as a democracy with a congress and president. I am thinking specifically of what is going on right now at the Fukushima nuclear power plants in Japan, and how we, the people, are being lied to so egregiously it would be laughable except the powers-that-be, so far, are getting away with their lies and what they are lying about is the ruination of an entire nation if not a larger part of the entire world.

So why did Henry VIII lie as a way of life? Why did Bill Clinton lie with every breath he took? Why does Barack Obama lie with such maddening frequency? And how did these guys get so good at lying? My hunch is that they each developed a false persona early in life in order to survive a childhood that did not permit honesty, either self-honesty or honesty to others, and these false personas served them so well that they became, Henry and Bill and Barack, thoroughly false.

Of equal importance, of course, is why we, the people, so readily believe the lies of our lying overlords and keep electing and/or not overthrowing these monsters? After painful consideration of my own enduring gullibility, I think we believe our lying overlords (at least enough not to revolt) because the entrenched bureaucracy, by successfully controlling our religion, our media, and our education, has instilled in us from cradle to grave a foundational mythology of lies with which their current lies resonate as entirely plausible.

“The least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousandfold.” Aristotle

Regarding Fukushima, the foundational mythology says that the corporations that build nuclear power plants are inherently good. General Electric, after all, is synonymous with light bulb, and who doesn’t love a light bulb? Thus it is inconceivable to a well-indoctrinated citizenry that those who give us light and electricity to run our computers and play our video games would ever build a power plant that might turn Japan into an uninhabitable wasteland for centuries to come. Who wants to believe that? No one. And the puppeteers of king and president puppets know we don’t want to believe what may very well be true. So they say things like, “We are rigorously monitoring the situation, and we are confident the situation will be stabilized relatively soon and that negative impacts on the environment will be minimal,” when the truth is just the opposite.

Here’s a little tidbit I snatched from Reuters that sheds a tiny light of truth on what’s going on at Fukushima. “In its attempt to bring the plant under control, TEPCO is looking for “jumpers”—workers who, for payment of up to $5,000 a shift, will rush into highly radioactive areas to do a quick task before racing out as quickly as possible.” See? Clearly they’ve got things under control. And if you need some quick cash…

“Compassion is the basis of all morality.” Arthur Schopenhauer

In The Prince and the Pauper, while the pauper is fast learning to play the part of a prince, the real prince, who had yet to solidify his false persona, is learning firsthand what life among the downtrodden is really like. And ultimately he learns what it is to sacrifice one’s self for the good of others; which is the quantum opposite of what kings and presidents learn to do. Alas.

If only Obama and Bush and Clinton would each take a turn or two as “jumpers” at Fukushima. Maybe then we would finally see the beginning of the end to the nuclear madness.

The Play’s The Thing

Friday, April 1st, 2011

(This essay first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2011)

“More relative than this—the play’s the thing

Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” William Shakespeare

Yes, it will only be a staged reading in a tiny theater on the fringes of civilization, but I feel like my play Milo & Angel is about to open on Broadway. And you’re invited! When I was sixteen years old, I decided to try to make my way as a playwright and actor amidst the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd, but other scenarios intervened, other roads were taken, and all the plays I wrote remained hidden from public view.

True, the actors will be sitting in chairs and holding scripts as they perform, and they will only have rehearsed a few times under the inspired guidance of Sandra Hawthorne, but they will be on a real stage in a real theater (not a living room or a café) imbuing my lines with character. What an amazing process it has been so far, the blessed night still to come—April 13, a Wednesday evening at 7 PM at the Helen Schoeni Theater at the Mendocino Art Center—mark your calendars.

“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.” George Bernard Shaw

I wrote the first act of Milo & Angel in 2005, the year before my father died. The moment the play began to speak itself, I knew it would be both homage to my father and an attempt to exorcise his terrible power over me. Thus I was not surprised when my muse fell silent at the conclusion of Act I, for my father was still alive and I was not sufficiently free of his influence to reveal the darker story I knew Act Two must contain.

Then a few months before my father died, when I knew his death was imminent, I concocted a second act. But a poem or a story or a play that I consciously invent, rarely rings true for me; so the truth of this play, the tender truth, remained waiting in the wings, waiting for my father to die before she felt safe enough to emerge and speak her lines.

“Truth is truth, to the end of reckoning.” William Shakespeare

In 2007, my second year in Mendocino, I completed a draft of Milo & Angel that I felt was good enough to send out to the tiny number of theater companies in America who at least pretend to consider plays from writers without agents or influential friends; and this I did. I received a few kindly rejections and little else. I also gave copies to people connected to the Mendocino Theater Company, but got no response from any of them. So my ninth play seemed destined to suffer the same fate as my previous eight.

Then I gave a copy to Kathy Mooney, my friend and counselor, and she shared the play with Valerie McMillan who oversees play readings at the Mendocino Theater Company, and Valerie gave the play to Sandra Hawthorne, and after a time it was decided that Milo & Angel would be one of the plays in this year’s reading series. And I tell you honestly, I am as excited about having my play read in front of an audience—I hope you’ll come—than I was when they made a major motion picture out of my first novel.

Sandra took the helm, as it were, and from the pool of available and willing actors hereabouts cast the six parts. As of this writing, we have had three rehearsals, the cast has changed three times, I have rewritten the play with Sandra’s guidance four times (some scenes seven or eight times), and we only have two more rehearsals until the blessed night befalls us.

The cast members, barring further changes, are Alena Guest, Ruby Belle, Garth Hagerman, Todd Walton, David Woolis, and Julie Burns. I am told that such staged readings hereabouts usually only require of the actors two rehearsals, and this one will have five, so I intend to shower these generous volunteers with gifts (when I see who is still standing at the end.)

“The theater is so endlessly fascinating because it’s so accidental. It’s so much like life.” Arthur Miller

The most exciting aspect of this process so far has been conferring with Sandra after each rehearsal, when the flaws in rhythm and flow, and in my choices of words, are still fresh in our minds, and then figuring out how to fix the problems. With each new draft, the play improves and the emotional content deepens; and if the entire cast quits tomorrow and the reading never happens, I will have been the beneficiary of a priceless collaboration.

I have a long and mostly unsuccessful history of creative collaboration, which is why nowadays I mostly work alone. My more successful collaborations have been with women, whereas the old maxim Never Go Into Business With A Friend rings true as a summation for all but a few of my collaborations with male friends. And what is far more interesting to me than why those attempts at collaboration failed is why I continue to try to collaborate after so many dismal failures.

Having recently had a marvelous musical collaboration with my cellist wife Marcia, and now this excellent writing collaboration with Sandra Hawthorne, I am sorely tempted to say that the problem lies with men. However, I am a man, so perhaps it would be truer to say that the problem lies with me in relation to other men, which brings us, inevitably, to my father, my first and foremost male role model with whom collaboration of any kind was out of the question because he despised everything I loved and thought everything anybody else said about anything was stupid and wrong. Hmm.

I think the rehearsals we’ve had of Milo & Angel—actors sitting around Sandra’s commodious dining table—would make a wonderful basis for a play: people shifting out of their public personas into their characters in the play, their play characters changing as the playwright and director give them feedback, which changes in their play characters impact their public personas—characters quitting, switching parts, new actors coming in and interpreting their characters in ways so unlike the previous interpretations that the play (and the play within the play) shift from comedy to tragedy to farce to…it’s just an idea.

“You need three things in the theater—the play, the actors, and the audience—and each must give something.” Kenneth Haigh

I am one who laughs uproariously at things in movies and plays that other people tend not laugh out loud about. (I am thinking of movies such as Young Frankenstein and A Thousand Clowns.) Combine this tendency with the fact that I am my own biggest fan—I just love what I create—and you will understand why I have several times boldly proclaimed to Sandra, “Oh, that will get a big laugh.” To which she has wisely responded, “Audiences for staged readings tend to be small, and small audiences tend not to laugh very much.” Darn. Even so, I feel Milo & Angel, for all the tragedy it contains, is very funny, too. Just like life.