Archive for June, 2011

Thus Spake Angelina

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

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

“Rejoice in the things that are present; all else is beyond thee.”  Montaigne

I used to hate it when I predicted something long in advance of when it happened, and then no one remembered I predicted it or believed me when I insisted I predicted the thing. And I used to really hate it when I invented something but didn’t bother to patent it because I didn’t have the money or the time or the personality, and then someone else found out about the thing I invented and they patented it and became filthy rich from my invention. But now I don’t mind when people don’t believe I predicted important things before they happened. Nor do I mind when people get rich and famous from my inventions. And here’s why.

The writings of my hero Buckminster Fuller convinced me it was a colossal waste of time to worry about people stealing our ideas or not believing us because ultimately the universe (transcendent of human pettiness and ignorance) responds appropriately and exquisitely to our thoughts and actions regardless of whether we own the patents on the lucrative inventions or whether people believe us.

For instance, I invented snail tongs. Yep. That (those) was (were) mine. I knew I would be ripped off (just as I know you don’t believe me) and that’s why I wrote up the invention several years ago, made precise drawings of the device, and sent the write-up and drawings to dozens of gardening supply catalogs, garden tool inventors, and a few hundred people selected randomly by using pages torn from phone books, darts, a blindfold, and the appropriate incantations. The rest, as they say, is history. Snail tongs, with or without teak handles, and with or without the accompanying snail bucket (with Velcro pad or dainty hook for connecting to your gardening belt) are now de rigueur for serious gardeners who don’t like to get slimed whilst plucking mollusks from precious garden plants.

I have no idea how the universe has reacted to the invention of snail tongs. Just because people have made millions from selling snail tongs and now live in abject wealth because of those sales doesn’t mean snail tongs are a good idea. Indeed, the universe may be withholding from me great gobs of money and success and access to daring and creative publishers and brilliant green-lit movie producers because I loosed snail tongs on the world. After all, expensive snail tongs (not the ones made entirely from recycled materials) use valuable natural resources that would be better left in the ground. To be quite honest, I now regret letting anyone know about snail tongs. But I was so curious to see what would happen, I couldn’t keep from letting the tongs out of the bag, so to speak. Fortunately, no one believes me, so I am at least safe from persecution by humans for that crime.

“Remember, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.” Faith Whittlesey

Note the date. June 29, 2011. I predict that Angelina Jolie, the famous movie star, will become the first female President of the United States. When? I’m guessing 2020, but possibly 2016. Why do I make this prediction? Because everything she has done and is doing, and everything that has happened and is happening in terms of the evolution of mass media, the state of the world, and the exigencies of fate (I love that expression) lead me to believe Angelina’s ascendancy is virtually a done deal.

If you think I’m crazy, please view recent video clips (easy to find on the internet) of Angelina visiting Syrian refugees in Turkey or flood victims in Pakistan (and wearing the traditional garb of the women in those locales) or more recently paying tribute to the inhabitants of the Italian island of Lampedusa for giving aid and comfort to boat people refugees from the strife-torn Middle East. Wherever she goes in her role as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations, Angelina, without a script, speaks eloquently, knowledgably, compassionately, and with charismatic strength on behalf of the refugees, and refugee women in particular. She has also adopted three children and raised them along with three children she’s had with her movie star and politically sort of left and totally supportive (so far) husband. Angelina is picky about the roles she takes, refuses to play bimbos, is on the verge of portraying Cleopatra in a movie that will probably cost more to make than the Gross National Product of Belgium, and recently directed a serious romantic drama set during the siege of Sarajevo. In other words, she is a beautiful, articulate, feminine feminist; she knows what’s going on and she’s nobody’s fool.

By 2016, the world will be firmly in the grip of widespread social and environmental chaos, at which point Angelina will be forty-one and ready to answer the call of billions of women and poor people and smart people chomping at the bit to make the great global transition to universal socialism, free healthcare, disarmament, material minimalism, and gluten-free dining. I will serve in Angelina’s cabinet if she will have me, but only if I can do so from my home via weekly essays.

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Alan Kay

I also invented the bandarang. Yep. That was mine, too. Forgive me if you’ve been bopped by one of the larger ones whilst minding your own business at the beach. Yes, I should have foreseen they’d turn the wonderful thing into yet another tool of competition and consumerism, though you must admit that some of the things people do with bandarangs are absolutely mind-boggling. Sadly, I was recently informed that the military is developing explosive bandarangs as well as new stealth aircraft employing bandarang aerodynamics.

Okay. I know what you’re thinking. You invented the bandarang, Todd? Then why aren’t you rich as Croesus and producing your own movies? Well, because I gave the idea away, just as I gave away the idea for snail tongs and several other inventions you won’t believe I invented. And I gave them away because along with being a devoted follower of Buckminster Fuller (see above theory of adjudication by Universe), I am also extremely lazy regarding anything requiring contracts, lawyers, or government bureaucracies; and though I knew bandarangs would be popular, I never imagined they would be voted Thing of the Century by the Union of Unconcerned Hedonists.

You may be interested to know that I didn’t so much invent the bandarang as discover it. Wikipedia erroneously reports that the inventors of the original bandarang were competing teams of nerdy dweebs at Harvard, MIT, and Oxford circa 2007-2011 using computer modeling and origami brainstorming to perfect the design, but that is hokum. It was I alone standing in the shallows of the American River (up to my knees in the icy flow) in Sacramento on a blistering hot day, August 17, 1989, who first discovered/invented the bandarang.

I had just lost another Frisbee to the swift current. Feeling bereft (as I always do when I lose a Frisbee to a river or the ocean) and wanting to continue playing with the wind, I rummaged in my knapsack and found a large rubber band—three inches in diameter if spread open to approximate a circle. I carried the rubber band with me into the aforementioned shallows, and using the thumb of my left hand as fulcrum, I shot the rubber band almost-but-not-quite straight up in the air. When gravity halted the flight of the projectile some thirty feet above the blessed waters, the elongated band contracted and relaxed into the form of a circle, which, in the dainty breeze, rotated counter-clockwise as it drifted back to earth and settled gently around my upraised index finger. Thus was born the banderang.

On September 9, 1999, after a decade of intermittent experimentation, I settled on an optimal size and weight (and color: neon orange) of rubber band, angle of launch depending on breeze coefficients, etc., wrote a clear description of the bandarang, made precise drawings, and sent forth packets of the salient information to Harvard, MIT, Oxford, and myriad toy manufacturers.

On April 13, 2012, a twelve-foot-long bandarang (flaccid) will be stretched by a pneumatic traction crane to a length of two hundred and thirty-seven feet using a top corner of a thirty-story office building in Oakland, California as fulcrum, and shot up and out over San Francisco Bay. The neon orange, seventy-seven-pound rubber bandarang, with finely tapered edges coated with micro-thin Teflon, will attain an altitude of 1778 feet and a rotational speed of 174 revolutions per minute, catch a friendly westerly breeze, travel 3.7 miles, and gently (erotically) settle upon a phallic obelisk on Treasure Island to the roaring approbation of eighty thousand giddy bandarangists (also known as rubberoos) gathered on the island to greet the mythic rubber ring.

“What a distressing contrast there is between the radiant intelligence of the child and the feeble mentality of the average adult.” Sigmund Freud

June 29, 2011. I predict that the ongoing nuclear disaster at Fukushima marks the beginning of the end of nuclear power (and eventually nuclear weapons) on earth. Safety and decency, however, will not be the reasons the powers-that-be finally grok the insanity of nuclear power. No. What will ultimately tip the balance in favor of livingry (a term coined by Buckminster Fuller to mean the opposite of weaponry) will be the stunning decline in male fertility brought about by the enormous and continuous release of radiation and radioactive particles from Fukushima and other soon-to-be-announced failing nuclear reactors around the world.

As the human population begins a precipitous (and ultimately fortuitous) decline, trillions of dollars will be diverted from weaponry and needless pharmaceuticals and worthless hedge funds and earth-killing genetically modified grain growing into the male-dominated fear-driven medical industrial complex to find a cure for sterility, resulting in the ultimate realization that the best way to keep human love goo viable is to entirely clean up our act, environmentally and emotionally speaking, and never again, one earth under Angelina with liberty and justice for all, ever foul our nest again!

Todd’s books and music and a blog archive of 117 AVA essays are available at UnderTheTableBooks.com

Her Children

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

Photo by Ginger Malisos

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

“My mother is a poem 
I’ll never be able to write, 
though everything I write 
is a poem to my mother.
” Sharon Doubiago

I’m about to pull out of the Presbyterian parking lot and make a right turn, when I see a woman on the sidewalk across the street dragging a heavy suitcase. She has a baby girl on her back in a makeshift backpack, and this baby has a smile on her face as big as the world. The woman lets go of the suitcase and backtracks about twenty feet to where she’s left a bulging duffel bag and a blue plastic laundry basket piled high with clothes and toys and whatnot. She takes hold of the duffel bag and starts dragging it to where she left the suitcase, and as she drags the duffel she calls to two tiny children waiting for her some twenty feet further along the sidewalk beyond the suitcase.

“Wait for us at the corner,” she says, her voice clear and musical; and I am struck by how calm she sounds, how sure she is that the three-year-old girl and the four-year-old boy will obey her, which they do.

So I roll down the passenger side window of my little truck, make a left instead of a right, and pull up beside the woman. “Need a ride?” I ask, smiling out at her.

She assesses me in a twinkling and says, “That would be great. We’re just going to the bus stop down there.” She points in the direction of the new wooden bus cottage adjacent to the one and only public bathroom in the economically distressed village of Mendocino, about two city blocks away. “If you could take our stuff, we’ll meet you there.”

She is dressed as most women in America dressed two hundred years ago, with a floppy white bonnet covering her head and obscuring much of her face, a long-sleeved white blouse tucked into a floor-length gray skirt, and brown walking shoes. I assume she is young, but I can barely see her face, so I am not sure how old she is. In any case, she decides to entrust me with all her worldly possessions, save for her children and a black purse.

“You’re welcome to ride in back,” I say, trying not to sound too eager to help, though I’m desperate to lighten her formidable load. “I’ll drive slowly.”

“Okay,” she says, heaving the duffel bag into the bed of the truck. “Come on, Gino, Tina. He’s giving us a ride to the bus stop.”

“I can climb in all by myself,” says Gino, swaggering up to the back bumper. Gino is as cute as a button, his pants and sweater notably clean, his shoes new. “Don’t help me, Mom.”

“Don’t help me, too,” says Tina, who is as cute as two buttons and not much bigger than the baby on Mom’s back. “I climb myself, too.”

So everyone climbs in, Gino and Tina unassisted, and as they settle amidst their luggage, Mom laughs and says, “Isn’t this fun?”

Gino shouts, “I love this truck!”

Tina shouts, “Me, too!”

And the baby on Mom’s back gurgles and grins.

“Ready?” I ask.

“All set,” says Mom.

So off we go on our two-block ride to the bus stop, and I’m thinking, “Who is this woman and where is she going with her three little kids?”

When we come abreast of the bus stop cottage, I make a U-turn and park in the No Parking zone next to the cottage so Mom can unload. Mom climbs out with admirable grace, lifts Gino out and sets him on the ground, lifts Tina out and sets her down, and says to them, “Go on and play by the tree while I unload.”

“Can I climb it?” asks Gino, frowning at the big tree.

“Wait for me to come watch you,” says Mom, nodding to affirm her command.

Now she comes around to my window and takes off her bonnet. “Thank you,” she says, blessing me with a radiant smile. “Thank you so much.”

Her hair is black and cut very short, her eyes brown, her cheeks flushed from the exertion of lifting children and lugging heavy baggage. She reminds me of a woman I was crazy about long ago in my fabled youth, a woman who was forever falling in love with louts and never cared much for me.

“Where are you going?” I ask, and I mean that both literally and philosophically.

“South,” she says, with a quaver in her voice. “We just missed this bus yesterday so we had to stay over. Got a late night special at the Sweetwater Inn. Seventy dollars. We’re headed for Guerneville. I have a friend there who said we could camp on her lawn until I figure out what to do. The bus only goes as far as Point Arena, so we’ll stay over at the Surf Motel and get the bus to Guerneville tomorrow.”

I give her a twenty-dollar bill. She bows her head, a smile playing at her lips. “Have a grateful day,” she intones, which I take as a reference to the Grateful Dead marching bears the previous owner affixed to the back window of my pickup; and I also take it as a gentle reminder to be grateful for being able to help her.

Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” Elizabeth Stone

When I get home I tell Marcia about my encounter with Mom and her three little children, and I admit I was tempted to bring them home with me, though I doubt Mom would have accepted such an offer from an unshaven old coot in a rusty pickup. And where would we have put them while we went about our lives, Marcia and I self-employed and working at home in a two-bedroom house we do not own? I laugh as I imagine informing our landlord that her tenants are suddenly no longer two, but six.

I wheel the wheelbarrow to the woodshed, imagining Gino and Tina tagging along to help get wood for the evening fire. I love children, though I have never fathered any—a conscious choice made in deference to a world I judge to have too many humans on board.

“I’ve got my faults, but living in the past is not one of them. There’s no future in it.” Sparky Anderson

In 1970, a year after I dropped out of college, I was employed by a marine biologist as his assistant, translator, and tutor to his four children as we traveled for six months in a converted milk truck along the Pacific coast from California to Costa Rica and back again, exploring tide pools and estuaries. My pay for six months work was a few hundred dollars and a great adventure. Nearly every afternoon of our odyssey, I would hail someone and ask, “Hay un lugar acerca de aqui a donde podemos acampar? Is there a place near here where we can camp?” And not once did a person reply No, but rather, “Come to my house. Come to our village. Come to our farm. Yes, follow me. I will show you a good place.” I had never known until then, and have never known since, such endemic generosity.

When I wasn’t working, I explored our surroundings; and everywhere I went in Mexico and Guatemala and Honduras and El Salvador I was followed by gangs of little boys—skinny, hungry boys with enormous eyes and solemn faces, solemn until I made them laugh with my clunky Spanish or until I gave them food, and then they would smile as big as the world. I had long talks with many of these boys, and I was constantly surprised to learn that boys I thought were six or seven-years-old were actually twelve and thirteen. Most of these children had never eaten meat, few had ever worn shoes, and many had never been to school.

One morning in Mexico, a few weeks before we returned to the United States, I walked into the nearby village to buy freshly baked bread at the panaderia. We had been camping near this village for two days, and each time I ventured away from our camp, hordes of little boys would follow me. On this morning a veritable army of boys accompanied me to the bakery, the growling of their stomachs loud in the morning quiet. And as I approached the bakery, something gave way inside me—some persistent idea of myself—and I was overcome by fear and desperation. I wouldn’t say I had a nervous breakdown, but something inside me definitely broke.

I entered the bakery and bought a hundred small loaves of bread, five big shopping bags full, which cost the equivalent of ten dollars—a small fortune to me in those days. Then I came out into the sunlight and gave each boy a loaf until all the loaves were gone; and there were still many more boys hoping to be fed.

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Frederick Douglass

When I was twenty-three I got a job as janitor and teacher’s assistant at a day care center in Palo Alto, California established by the city especially for working mothers. We had an enrollment of thirty children, ages two-and-a-half to five-years-old, with twenty-eight of the children from single-parent homes—all those single parents women. The center opened at 6:30 AM and officially closed at 5:30 PM, though I was often mopping the kitchen floor while simultaneously watching over a handful of children when the last moms arrived long after six.

Two of the thirty children came from two-parent homes, and when one or both of those fathers came to pick up their children, the stacking of blocks and finger painting and playing in the sandbox and swinging on the swings and teeter-tottering ceased as the miraculous fathers came into our midst and shone their radiance upon the children who did not have fathers. And verily, the fatherless children were in awe of these rare men.

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” Albert Schweitzer

Two weeks have passed since I gave Mom and her kids that slow ride to the bus stop, and I wonder if I will ever stop thinking about them. Sometimes I wake in the night worrying about Gino and Tina and Baby, worrying they might be cold or hungry or afraid. Sometimes I find myself worrying about Mom, wondering how she’s holding up. Sometimes I think I should have brought them home, at least for a day or two, and then driven them to Guerneville and given Mom enough money to make a new start. Sometimes I imagine Marcia and I buy a place with room for six, and we go on a quest to find Mom and Gino and Tina and Baby; and they come to live with us unpredictably ever after.

But most of the time when I think of Mom and her beautiful children, I remember their smiles as big as the world, and I am grateful.

He Is Us

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2011)

“When men are most sure and arrogant they are commonly most mistaken, giving views to passion without the proper deliberation which alone can secure them from the grossest absurdities.” David Hume

I may be wrong. I thought I’d begin with that disclaimer to defuse the notion I think I’m right. What troubles me most about zealots is that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is not only deemed wrong, but bad. Oh, get to the point, Todd. Well, but this is a big part of the point, this trouble I have with people who think they have the one and only true answer, true faith, true way to grow strawberries. There’s no way to have a meaningful discussion with them.

When I had my oh-no-we’re destroying-the-earth-we’d-better-change-our-ways epiphany in 1965 at the tender age of fifteen, even most of my fellow Sierra Club members thought I was either crazy or a dangerous radical. Forty-six years later, my assertion that radically reducing our individual resource consumption can help save the earth is scoffed at and ridiculed by a growing cadre of environmentalist celebrities who insist that personal lifestyle changes no longer matter. The only thing that can possibly save us now, they proclaim with absolute certainty, is violent or semi-violent opposition to oil drilling, coal mining, forest cutting, and other forms of large-scale resource extraction and resource combustion.

A recent email to me from a follower of one such environmentalist celebrity said, “You’re the problem. Your copout attitude that we can humanely reduce human population and make a difference by using less water and energy is the problem. Quit giving people excuses for not fighting the earth killers.”

Another email said, “We’ve tried to get people to consume less. It doesn’t work. We have to directly attack the corporations to keep them from raping the earth.”

These emails and the environmentalist celebrities they echo make me despair for humanity almost as much as the Fukushima nuclear disaster and people opposed to family planning.

Honestly, how hard have we tried, collectively, to consume less? I would say hardly at all. Have we done anything approaching the scale of tens of millions of people planting victory gardens during World War II? Have we had a serious several-years boycott of Chevron, the flagship oil company of the American and Saudi oligarchs? No. Have we, the people, embarked on a conscientious energy conservation program? Nope.

How is it that the connection between consumption and the rape of the earth is so difficult to comprehend for anti-corporate environmentalists? Why isn’t human overpopulation the centerpiece of every environmentalist celebrity’s stump speech?

“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Sherlock Holmes

I recently happened upon an amazing, to me, video clip from German television (because such news was not available from American media) about the Japanese government’s plans for addressing their nation’s huge and potentially catastrophic energy shortage resulting from the ongoing Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdowns. Attractive male and female models paraded for cameras to show off the new “cool look” fashions the Japanese government hopes a large portion of the population will adopt to help immediately lower energy consumption fifteen (15) per cent.

For men: short-sleeved shirts or sleeves rolled up, open collars, no ties (a radical break with propriety in Japan) and lightweight pants. For women: loose blouses and short sleeves and modestly short skirts. These comfy outfits will, the Japanese government hopes, allow people to set their air conditioning thermostats at eighty-two (82) degrees and not suffer unduly. And if the people of Japan don’t reduce energy consumption by fifteen per cent, immediately, there will be unavoidable and massive power outages because, frankly, Japan doesn’t have enough energy to keep 130 million people cold in summer and hot in winter.

The Japanese government calculates that by setting home and factory and automobile air conditioner thermostats to eighty-two (82) degrees, there will be an immediate ten (10) percent energy savings for the entire nation. Add to this the fact that Japan is a nation of super-fast-food consumers with six million (6,000,000) big energy-guzzling refrigerated vending machines they could easily do with half of, and you can see the low lying fruit, so to speak, of energy conservation is abundant and in plain sight.

As for the eighty-two (82) degree thermostat setting: I lived in Sacramento for fifteen years. I was told when I moved to the capitol in 1980 that my days of treading lightly on the earth in terms of my personal energy consumption were over. I would definitely need a car to get around, and most definitely need air conditioning to survive the brutally hot summers there. When I asked how people had survived in Sacramento before the advent of air conditioning, no one knew, but everyone was certain the people must have suffered terribly because without air conditioning, life in that former swamp was unimaginable.

In keeping with my minimalist modus operandi, I decided to give life in Sacramento a try without air conditioning and without a car. Incredibly (not really) I did okay. The old house I lived in was built in 1910, long before the advent of air conditioning, and was possessed of a six-foot deep basement. If I opened my windows in the late afternoon on days when the outside temperature exceeded 95 degrees, and left those windows open all night, the house cooled down wonderfully. I would close the windows around nine in the morning, and the house stayed cool until the afternoon, at which point I would open the windows. Those very hot (over a hundred degrees) afternoons, I deduced, must have been the times when our ancestors suffered so terribly from lack of air conditioning, because those were the times I often resorted to bicycling to the river for a swim or standing in the garden holding the hose over my head while simultaneously watering the tomatoes.

Amazingly (not really) my body became accustomed to the heat, so those days when the temperatures rose to only 95 degrees seemed cool, and those days when the temperatures rose to 82 degrees (the temperature at which the thermostats of all the air conditioners in Japan are being set) called for a sweater until the zenith of the so-called heat.

You see where I’m going, don’t you? Upwards of two million people live in the Sacramento area, and another eight million live in the hot central valleys of our golden state. Nearly all of these people have their air conditioner thermostats set much lower than eighty-two (82) degrees. Another fifteen million people live in southern California, and most of those people use air conditioners, too. Indeed, the Enron scandal heist of our recent past that knocked Gray Davis out of office and ushered in the reign of Arnold Schwarzenegger was predicated on energy demand from…wait for it…air conditioners.

Shall we call it ironic or idiotic that a huge chunk of the energy being consumed today all over the world, energy contributing mightily to global warming, is energy being used to artificially cool down naturally warm air? As I said at the outset, I may be wrong, but I remain convinced that, in the famous words of Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The worst part for me about living in Sacramento, environmentally speaking, was not the heat but the toxic quality of the air and water. For several of my years in Sacramento, I attended meetings of a group of concerned citizens hoping to do something to improve local air quality. Consequently I learned many distressing facts about Sacramento air pollution, one of which is that upwards of eighty per cent of all the air pollution in Sacramento does not originate there, but comes from the Bay Area borne on powerful easterly winds, and from agricultural field burning outside the metropolitan area.

So. Here is a scenario I’d like us to consider. As a matter of national and global security and to ensure a livable future of our children and grandchildren, the people of the United States, with or without the cooperation of our government, agree to set all the air conditioning thermostats in the country to eighty-eight (88) degrees, including automobile air conditioners because running a car’s air conditioner drastically reduces fuel efficiency. This unanimous effort of the people will immediately save billions of barrels of oil and billions of gallons of propane and natural gas, a sudden savings that will cause the prices of crude oil and gasoline to tumble, which will immediately cause food prices to fall, too.

But we won’t stop there. Turning down thermostats and wearing skimpy clothing is easy. We want to save the earth, so we’ll take on the hard stuff, too. We, the people, each and every one of us, will consciously and demonstrably eliminate not one but two automobile trips per week. This might mean one less trip to the store per week or making one commute per week to work or school by bus or bike or on foot. Or it might simply mean occasionally resisting the impulse to jump in the car and zip to the store for that six-pack. Hey, there’s always tomorrow, and this is the earth we’re saving.

Okay. Two less car trips per person in America a week along with not turning on the air conditioner unless absolutely necessary, and we’ll have an instant and gargantuan global oil glut. An emergency meeting of OPEC ministers to discuss the precipitous decline in demand will result in the price of oil being lowered to almost nothing. But demand will continue to fall because people around the world are waking up to their collective ability to create a new and regenerative environmental paradigm, thus fulfilling the mandate of the hit song from the musical Hair.

The demand for genetically modified corporate-grown corn to concoct environmentally disastrous bio-fuel disappears overnight, and farmers all over the world are encouraged to reclaim the land stolen from them by multinational corporations that no longer need that land to grow stuff no one needs. With hundreds of millions of people growing their own food again, food prices continue to plummet, which frees families in the so-called Third World to educate their daughters, which in a single generation will lead to a vast decline in birth rates. It has long been known that the fastest way to swiftly and humanely reduce population is to educate the population, especially the girls, about everything, not just birth control.

We’re on a roll now, aren’t we? Empowered by the success of turning down thermostats and driving less and consuming less and turning off lights we aren’t using, twenty million exuberant people descend on Washington D.C. and surround the capitol until Single Payer Healthcare becomes the law of the land, not just in Vermont. Euphoric about that great victory, bills (with teeth) are passed ending our military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and everyone, including corporations, making more than a million dollars a year is asked to please pay at least a little income tax.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? So how do we begin? I could be wrong, but I think the first step would be to locate our thermostat(s), and the second step would be to meditate (for more than a minute) on the concept of less is more.

Todd’s new piano CD Ceremonies is available from iTunes and Amazon and UnderTheTableBooks.com

Something Missing

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

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

The following essay is about interpersonal relationships, though the opening paragraphs may seem to be about disaster, ignorance, greed, and selfishness.

“When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.” Jimi Hendrix

International news sources (because American media is mum on the subject) report that a powerful cyclone just blew through the out-of-control and inconceivably deadly Fukushima nuclear power plants, with more such storms on the way. The four nuclear power plants, in the words of the Japanese government, are uncovered, so the ferocious winds of the cyclone picked up and blew tons of radioactive debris all over Japan, Korea, China, Russia, and much of the northern hemisphere. The Japanese government released a statement saying they were sorry they were not able to cover the nuclear power plants before the cyclone hit, but they don’t have the resources or manpower or money to do much of anything about the situation, so…sorry. Meanwhile, the land around those power plants, thousands of square miles, will be essentially uninhabitable for thousands of years; and now a growing number of scientists fear that the megalopolis of Tokyo is doomed.

Am I missing something here? Is this not one of the worst environmental disasters in history? Probably. Isn’t the disaster worsening by the minute? Yes. Isn’t there unanimous agreement among nuclear power experts who have carefully studied the situation that the Japanese government and the utility company that owns the nuclear power plants are completely overwhelmed by the situation and desperately in need of help? Yes. So why hasn’t the President of the United States made this catastrophe a major priority? Why aren’t members of the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate taking immediate action?

Could it be that if America rushes to help quell this disaster, America will be forced to admit that nuclear power is unsafe and unaffordable? If we spend the necessary billions of dollars to save the earth from this particular nuclear threat, will the United States then be compelled to join Germany and Switzerland and other nations finally coming to their senses and phasing out nuclear power in their countries forever? I think so. Which means our government is choosing to allow this unprecedented disaster to worsen rather than admit we’ve wasted trillions of dollars subsidizing nuclear power, one of the costliest and stupidest boondoggles ever perpetrated on the people of the earth—amazing, but not unprecedented.

Throughout my life, various Presidents of the United States and myriad members of the United States Senate and House of Representatives have said with apparent sincerity, and I paraphrase, “We cannot withdraw from (name of country where illegal war is underway) because to withdraw now would be to dishonor those valiant men and women who died fighting to protect our freedom.” Now there’s some logic for you. We’ve made a gigantic mistake. We’ve wasted trillions of dollars. We’ve killed thousands of innocent people, including our own people, so we’d better keep spending money and killing more people so the previous waste and senseless deaths will be justified. Is this some sort of IQ test we keep failing?

This is the same kind of thinking, if you can call it thinking, by which our government continues to subsidize nuclear power. Hey, we spent all that money building these lousy contraptions; we can’t just give up now. Yes, these faulty plants are incalculably dangerous and entirely uninsurable and they create material so toxic there is no safe place on earth to store the murderous crud, but if we admit we made a big mistake then…what? People won’t like us or trust us or vote for us?

By the way, this same moronic illogic disallows Single Payer Healthcare, a system that would immediately save the nation and its citizens hundreds of billions of dollars. Over time, Single Payer would save many trillions that could be spent on improving our schools, cleaning up our degraded environment, rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, and subsidizing mass transit and the long overdue transition away from fossil fuels. Single Payer would also end the reign of amoral insurance and pharmaceutical companies and usher in an economic and cultural renaissance. Heaven forbid! By removing the profit motive from healthcare, medical services would rapidly improve, the health of the general population would rebound, and a whole new economic paradigm would take hold. Good grief! Can’t have that.

I wonder if those who pretend there isn’t a global catastrophe underway in Japan think they are somehow immune to…what? Death? Climate change? Gads. The latest news from many reliable sources, even fairly conservative sources, says that global warming is accelerating far faster than was predicted by scientists labeled lunatic fringe doomsayers just a few years ago. Life on earth is going to be increasingly difficult for everyone, and soon. Were we to end our dependence on fossil fuels tomorrow, the coming decades promise to be hard slogging for the luckiest and deathly for hundreds of millions. And what is Obama’s response to this information? Drill more oil! Drill deeper! To hell with the environment. That’s the response of the leader of the Democrats, the father of two children.

“America’s health care system is in crisis precisely because we systematically neglect wellness and prevention.” Tom Harkin

I was talking about all this with my wife Marcia, about this maddening illogic that we should stick with systems because we created them, long after those systems have proven to be ruinous. And Marcia said, “What about the illogic of people staying in toxic and dysfunctional relationships?”

As the former president of the Association Of We Who Stay In Toxic and Dysfunctional Relationships, I took her question to heart and saw how it directly applied to the question of why our leaders continue to wage war for oil, and why they continue to subsidize nuclear power and pretend nuclear power is safe. So why did I stay in toxic and dysfunctional relationships? Because I was afraid of the unknown, I didn’t think I deserved anything better, and because I was fulfilling the emotional programming of my childhood. And I had yet to go through the severe emotional crises and near-death experiences and life-saving therapy that enabled me to get well enough so I would no longer tolerate staying in toxic and dysfunctional relationships.

Extrapolating from that insight, perhaps humanity needs to go through ever more deadly crises and near death experiences and the equivalent of successful therapy before we can finally end the toxic dysfunctional relationships we have with our fellow humans, and the toxic and dysfunctional relationship we have with the earth, and create healthy and regenerative relationships.

“Friends are relatives you make for yourself.” Eustache Deschamps

A few weeks ago I received a note from a former girlfriend in which she said she was in her first serious relationship in a decade, and, in her words, “I really don’t want to blow this one.” To that end, she wondered if I had any insight into why our relationship had fizzled so she might not repeat the same mistakes in her new liaison. I thought back to my connection with her, and that caused me to think about my other previous relationships, including my unhappy first marriage, and I realized I am no longer the same person I was ten years ago.

How am I most different? I am much more at peace with my mortality. I know, rather than hope, I am a good person. I have terminated all abusive and dishonest relations, both personal and professional. And I am often happy rather than sad, though when I am sad it is mostly about the suffering of others rather than my own suffering.

“The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches but to reveal to him his own.” Benjamin Disraeli

In the early 1970’s, when housing was cheap and organic gardening was my new religion, I lived in the communes of Santa Cruz. I started one commune of eight people and moved into the second commune of twelve. I was excited and inspired by communal living, but foresaw the collapse of the movement because it was clear that most of the participants in that grand experiment were unwilling to put the needs of the group above immediate personal gratification. This primacy of the individual, which is not exclusive to America but is pronounced here, is an important element missing in most discussions of why our government—national, state, and local—relentlessly puts the needs of wealthy and powerful individuals above the needs of the rest of society.

We would like to think that the behavior of those at the top of our pyramidal system are the cause of our problems; those people invested in grabbing everything for themselves and annihilating the earth in the process. We would like to think that you and I would do much better if we were in charge. But I don’t think that would be true unless, before we took charge, we were well-practiced in living simply, sharing what we have with others, and putting the needs of the group above our desire to have everything we want right this minute.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com

What We Do

Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

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

“One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.” Bertrand Russell

The first few times I finished writing a novel (each book representing two or three years work), I was gripped by the same terrible fear that I might die before I could make copies of the books and send them out into the world. Before the advent of personal computers and the ability to send massive documents in email attachments, making copies of fat manuscripts meant going to copy shops and leaving the precious documents overnight while copies were made.  Then, exhausted from lack of sleep and worry, I would pick up the copies and mail them to people scattered far and wide, so that in the event of multiple unforeseen disasters a few copies of my masterworks might survive to be discovered by future generations, etc.

In retrospect, yes, the machinations of my deluded ego can be seen as humorous or pathetic or pathetically humorous or plain silly, but I understand now that my fear of dying before my creations had a chance to live was proof of my total immersion in, and identification with, the things I made.

On one such pre-computer occasion in the early 1970’s, I took a play entitled The Last Temptation to one of the first photocopy shops in the Bay Area, a joint in Menlo Park, and handed over my one and only copy to the friendly shop owner. He said he would have my copies ready in two days. The play was loosely based on a brothel scene from Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ and on the Pontius Pilate character in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I was certain the play (as I had previously been certain about various novels and stories) would lift me from poverty and obscurity, etc.

On the day those ten precious copies of the play were supposed to be ready, I arrived at the copy joint and was greeted by the perturbed proprietor with the news that my play had disappeared. Please imagine a formerly sensible human being, me, with a formerly relatively low voice, turning into a screeching banshee. To make a very long story short, the employee assigned to make photocopies of my opus turned out to be a zealous fundamentalist Christian who thought the play might be blasphemous, and he had therefore taken the play to his minister to determine whether or not the thing should be burned at the stake.

I screeched at the copy shop owner to call the police. The poor man begged me to give him a little more time to retrieve the manuscript before we involved law enforcement. Then he giggled and said, “Please don’t sue me.” Later that day, he called to say my play had been returned unscathed and that he would have copies for me the next day, which he did.

In answer to your questions: Yes, he charged me full price, which I paid without protest because that’s the kind of fool I am, and No, the play was never produced.

“My work is a game, a very serious game.” M.C. Escher

I have been asked many times in my life by well-meaning people as well as by snide creeps why I continue to write books and plays and screenplays when it appears no one wants to publish them or produce them or film them? The short answer is: I don’t know. The longer answer is: I have my theories, but none hold water. The very long answer is that I love what I do and I have never ceased to believe that whatever I’m currently creating will lift me out of poverty and obscurity, etc. In other words, it’s what I do.

There is a curious and wonderful phenomenon that overtakes many a creative person as they work on their books or songs or paintings or essays or equations or you name it. And that is, at critical junctures along the way, these creative persons are convinced they have fashioned or discovered something fabulous and original and unprecedented that will change the course of (name of art form or academic discipline) for all time and lift them, the creator, out of poverty, obscurity, disfavor, etc.

But that’s just the beginning of the phenomenon. Upon completion of that first draft or sketch or version of the thing, there dawns upon the creator the realization that the thing is not quite the masterwork he or she thought it was whilst in the throes of convincement. Indeed, the thing once thought to be marvelous now seems to be quite possibly poop. This is the moment that separates the men from the boys and the women from the girls. This is the first opportunity for the easily disappointed to decide something is a failure and to give up.

But creative people take deep breaths and sally forth into the next iterations of their works to find themselves once again, we hope, utterly convinced they have made something magnificent that will change the course etc. And this “it’s-genius-oops-it’s not-oh-wait-it-is” pattern continues until the thing is done.

I am now convinced this self-tricking pattern is genetic and responsible for most of our cultural and artistic evolution. Unless creative individuals can be repeatedly self-tricked into thinking they are making things of exquisite value, they aren’t going to spend hundreds of hours, let alone years and decades, working on these creations when they could much more easily and profitably help destroy the earth or watch television.

“I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.” Thomas Jefferson

One of the things I love about that Thomas Jefferson quote is that it echoes Buckminster Fuller, a primary guru of mine. (Or Bucky echoes Tom if you believe time only goes in one direction.) Bucky’s book Critical Path was a gigantic game-changer for me. I love the idea that through our work we constantly create potential landing pads for cosmic largesse, intervention, collaboration; or what Jefferson called luck, except he was being mildly facetious on one level and absolutely serious on the next level down.

Which puts me in mind of the expression: “I’m waiting for my ship to come in.” which implies you have sent your ship (or ships) out (done your work); otherwise there wouldn’t be any ship out there to return laden with largesse (luck).

Bucky also said: “I assumed that nature would ‘evaluate’ my work as I went along. If I was doing what nature wanted done, and if I was doing it in promising ways, permitted by nature’s principles, I would find my work being economically sustained.”

Realizing that I had unconsciously lived my life that way before I read Bucky’s elucidation of the phenomenon, I decided to consciously adopt his assumption of a discerning and collaborative universe as the universal joint, so to speak, of the vehicle on which I would travel through life. And I discovered that Bucky was entirely correct. Nature does evaluate my work and provide or withhold support depending on her evaluations, but nature also evaluates all my life choices, including my choices of people to travel with; and whenever I choose people who think Bucky is a crackpot, nature withdraws her support prontisimo.

“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life.” Joseph Campbell

One of my favorite recordings is Joseph Campbell at 80. For his eightieth birthday Joe gave a one-hour talk in which he attempted to sum up the philosophical gist of his lifelong studies. I’ve listened to this talk at least ten times over the years, usually when I’m feeling at low ebb about having followed Bucky’s game plan and fearing I may have made a serious mistake. Joe always cheers me up and assures me I made the correct choice for the kind of person I am.

What I find most cheering about Joe’s eightieth birthday talk is hearing a wise and erudite old person talking about traveling the path he made for himself, and how he found help and happiness along the way despite myriad obstacles and countless people telling him he was a crackpot.

Our journeys, inward and outward, are the water; destinations are mirages.