Archive for August, 2012

Cheating

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

 

 

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2012)

“I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam; I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me.” Woody Allen

So…Melky Cabrera, the star outfielder of our San Francisco Giants, has been suspended for fifty games for using performance-enhancing drugs, which means all his game-winning hits and spectacular catches are now suspect and this year’s success of my favorite team is suspect, too.

“Everyone cheats,” said Carlo, when I called him to commiserate about Melky’s suspension. “You think he’s the only one cheating? Guys on every team cheat every day because if they don’t cheat they’re out of work. That’s why they risk getting caught, because at least when they’re on the juice they’ve got a chance as opposed to no chance. And it’s not just baseball and football and the Olympics. This whole fucking society is built on cheating. Look at the toxic derivatives the Wall Street cons use to bankrupt the world. Cheating on a massive scale, protected by the fucking government, and the fuckers get huge bonuses for cheating. That’s all Melky was doing, going for a big bonus. Look at the income tax system. Legalized cheating if you can afford a smart enough accountant. Cheat or pay. Look at all the great inventions stolen by the big corporations. Screw the inventors. Look at Romney, offshore tax cheat, cutthroat business cheat, lying cheat. Fucker could end up President for all his lying and cheating. Look at Obama breaking every promise he ever made, selling out to the worst Wall Street crooks and lying about helping average Americans while he drone bombs women and children on the other side of the world. So Melky hit the juice hoping for a big payday and got caught. What else is new?”

“The first and worst of all frauds is to cheat one’s self. All sin is easy after that.” Pearl Bailey

I was thinking about Carlo’s spiel on our cheating society when a friend called to ask if I’d seen the defamatory Amazon reader review of my book Buddha In A Teacup. I had not seen the poison epistle, so I went to Amazon and was baffled (and angry) to find a brief commentary containing the following spiteful and entirely false declaration. “We could listen no more after 5 out of 7 stories were centered on the attainment of curvy, slender, and busty women with extra commentary on their sexual appeal or glistening naked bodies.” Wow! I am well accustomed to people expressing their negative opinions of my work on the interweb, and though I may not like people calling me a lousy writer, I have no problem with the free expression of opinions, however lame and misguided. But expressing opinions is entirely different than blatantly lying about my work.

If you are among the few who have read or listened to Buddha In A Teacup then you will know that none of the forty-two stories in my little tome are about attaining busty, curvy, slender women, nor are there any (let alone extra) commentaries on the glistening nudity of such. If that were the case, I might actually have made some money by entitling the book Buddha In A Bordello or Busty Glistening Buddha Babes or The Buddhist Way of Attaining Busty Curvy Slender Glistening Women. But I did not choose any of those more titillating titles because they have nothing to do with my book.

Fueled by my outrage, I wrote to Amazon and said, “Because I assume it must be against your policy to print false and totally misleading accounts of the books you sell, I hope you will speedily delete etc.” To which Amazon replied, “The reader’s comments do not violate our guidelines.” Amazing. One wonders what would violate their guidelines. Threats against the author’s life? Racist profanity? Detailed plans for a nuclear bomb? In any case, lying, which is the essence of cheating, apparently does not violate the Amazon guidelines.

So…the end result of cheating is that others are cheated, as I am cheated by the jerk who tainted my book with his lies; and to be cheated is to be robbed; and to be robbed is to be violated. So it occurs to me that if Carlo is correct in his assertion that our whole fucking society is built on cheating, then we, the people, are constantly being robbed and violated, and it makes perfect sense that we should come to believe/think/feel that robbing and violating and cheating are the way of the world, the way of our society, and perfectly appropriate ways to behave.

“The truth is more important than the facts.” Frank Lloyd Wright

I once knew a strange little man, an eternal boy, who made a very good living as a cheat-for-hire at Harvard University. A brilliant polymath, he had once been a student at Harvard but could not, for complex psychological reasons, complete any of the course work required of him and so was forced to resign. He was, however, entirely capable of completing other students’ work, as well as taking tests for them, and many desperate clients paid handsomely for his services. He had a lovely townhouse in an upscale part of Cambridge, a fantastic collection of rare books, and several suitcases full of cash. At the time I knew him he had been a professional cheater for several years.

He met his clients at various cafés and pubs in the university district to receive his assignments from them and to hand the giddy undergrads their completed essays literally under tables in exchange for wads of cash. I was present at one such exchange, and after the happy client scurried away, the cheater said to me, “You know, I have now written over seven hundred essays for these people, and all but thirteen of my essays got A’s, and those thirteen should have gotten A’s.”

“Gads, you could have graduated from Harvard fifty times by now,” I said, finding him almost impossible to relate to. “Aren’t you afraid you’ll get caught?”

“I’d love to get caught,” he snickered. “But I never will be because my clients will never tell on me and the professors don’t care who writes the papers and the university doesn’t care so long as the tuition is paid. It’s all just a game to these people until whatever comes next. They have better things to do than study and write papers. They go to parties and take drugs and have sex and make connections, whereas I have nothing better to do.”

“Truth is mighty and will prevail. There is nothing the matter with this, except it ain’t so.” Mark Twain

Then again, I, and most of the people I know, don’t make a practice of cheating; at least I don’t think we do. We occasionally go over the speed limit and we don’t always thoroughly check the grammar and spelling in the emails we send, and we do occasionally eat things we said we weren’t going to eat, but we don’t lie or steal or intentionally rip people off. In fact, it seems to me that we go out of our way not to cheat, not to overcharge, not to take advantage of others, but rather to help when we can. And this, one might argue, is what cheaters depend on: the honesty of other people.

Romney and his ilk get away with hiding their billions of dollars in offshore tax havens because you and I and hundreds of millions of non-cheaters dutifully pay our taxes to keep the country running (sort of), and most of our money goes to paying the interest on the national debt and supporting the gargantuan military tool of the master cheaters of the world.

I could go on and on about cheating and cheaters I have known, but…how depressing! Instead, shall we cheer ourselves up by listening to some baseball on the radio and imagining that no one on either team is a cheater, that the contest is entirely fair; and may the best team win?

Helen Gurley Brown

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

Photo of 1978 Cosmopolitan by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2012)

“How could any woman not be a feminist? The girl I’m editing for wants to be known for herself. If that’s not a feminist message, I don’t know what is.” Helen Gurley Brown

Why am I writing about Helen Gurley Brown, famed editor of Cosmopolitan magazine and a champion of sexual freedom or a promoter of sexual enslavement, depending on your particular socio-political orientation? Well, because Helen Gurley Brown just died at the age of ninety, and though many people consider her a traitor to feminism, and many others see her as a pioneering feminist and social revolutionary, Helen was one of the very few magazine editors in America in the 1970’s and 80’s who would publish my short stories about the challenges facing men and women in the chaos of sexual and social change that arrived with the birth control pill and the dawn of the feminist epoch; thus I have no doubt about where I stand regarding Ms. Brown’s place in the history of psycho-sexual discourse.

Ironically, or appropriately, I intended all eight of my stories that were eventually published in Cosmopolitan to be published in other magazines, notably Esquire and The New Yorker, for I did not read Cosmopolitan or have any great desire to be published therein. But I was not famous, nor was I a member of the literary society with access to the editors of those seemingly more sophisticated magazines, and so despite the valiant efforts of my incomparable literary agent Dorothy Pittman, I was never able to publish a story in either Esquire or The New Yorker, though we received many flattering rejection letters from editors at both magazines.

The very first short story I ever sold for actual money (as opposed to the mere glory of seeing my name in print) was to Cosmopolitan in 1975 for the staggering sum of one thousand dollars, with ten per cent of that fortune going to Dorothy. In one fell swoop I was lifted out of poverty, for in those days my monthly nut was seventy-five dollars: thirty dollars rent (I was living in a garage in Eugene, Oregon), thirty dollars for food, fifteen dollars for everything else. One day I was surviving on rice and beans and barely making ends meet with minimum wage work, the next day I was writing full-time and buying the occasional chicken to round out my menu.

Naively, I thought the publication of Willow, a provocative tale of a woman boxer who gets a shot at the male welterweight crown, would quickly be followed by more sales to Cosmopolitan and other magazines, but the gods did not so smile on me again until those nine hundred dollars were long gone and I had moved to Medford, Oregon to work as a landscaper. But oh how I relished that year of unfettered scribbling, a twelvemonth that saw the completion of my novel The Gimp that would be published three years later as Inside Moves, which publication procured for me a few more years to concentrate entirely on my writing and music.

And so I owe my fleeting success as a writer to Helen Gurley Brown, who, lest we forget, published her wildly successful and influential book Sex and the Single Girl in 1962, a year before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Ms. Brown is also widely acknowledged as the first editor of a mainstream women’s magazine to publish frank discussions about sex and sexuality as ongoing centerpieces of her editorial content. Speaking of which, in honor of Helen Gurley Brown, I unearthed my cache of ancient Cosmos so I might revive herein my story Annihilation, published in the American Cosmopolitan in 1982 and subsequently reprinted in the Australian and Italian editions of that fabled rag.

ANNIHILATION

“Annihilate me,” Alana whispered.

He tried to annihilate her. He tried to be brutish. He had to think of things that made him angry. Income tax. His alcoholic father. Alana’s former lover. He began to lose his erection. He opened his eyes, looked at her belly, her taut little breasts, her dark honey hair, her pleasure-wracked face. He was renewed, yet filled with feelings of tenderness.

“You were marvelous,” she said afterward.

“Thank you,” he said, unable to look her in the eye. “I love you. I’d do anything for you.”

“Don’t be silly,” she said.

“How am I being silly?”

“Love,” she said, shrugging. “We’re animals. The real pleasure comes when we don’t try to tame the animal with ideas. Just take me. That’s all I want sexually.”

“Which animals are we?” he asked. “Lion, tiger, hippopotamus, bullfrog?”

“Don’t spoil it,” she said, getting out of bed. “Just be the animal you are. And be wild.”

“I cannot be wild on command,” he said to his psychiatrist.

The doctor smiled over her glasses at him. “I like that. Would you mind very much if I used that? For my book?”

“Not at all,” he said. “Glad to be of assistance.”

“That’s one of the big problems, isn’t it?” she said, nodding. “I call it feminist backlash. They finally get the gentle, caring person they were so adamant a man should be, and they find him inadequate. They want what they were lobbying against. To a certain extent.”

“And the solution?”

“Be yourself.”

“And lose Alana?”

“Or lose yourself. And here you are just discovering what that is.”

“Do you wish for annihilation in sex?”

“I really don’t think it appropriate…”

“Sorry,” he said, biting his thumbnail. “I’ll take that as a yes.”

Over breakfast one morning.

Alana: You were…you took so long. (A quick smile) I loved every minute of it, but I was wondering if…

Him: If what?

Alana: If you enjoyed it.

Him: Every minute of it. Though I must admit that lately I worry about…

Alana: You worry too much. Everything is fine. Isn’t it?

Him: Is it?

Alana: Of course it is. What’s wrong?

Him: (Blurting it out) Am I wild enough? Do I annihilate you adequately?

Alana: Yes. I was a fool to have ever started talking about it. Forgive me?

Him: Yes, if you’ll forgive me.

(She rises, goes to him, undoes her bathrobe, and cradles his head against her breasts.)

His friend Arthur, a notorious rogue, sat across the table from him at Chez Annihilation and gave him a rundown on the week’s activities.

“Monday night I destroyed the little brunette who sells skin cream. Massacred her.”

“Tuesday?”

“Quickie at lunch with Meg. Tennis for two hours. Early to bed. Saving myself.”

“For?”

“My day off Wednesday. Bombarded Sarah from nine till noon. Then, finally made it with You Know Who in the late afternoon. Decimated her.”

“Dare I ask about yesterday?”

“Quickie at lunch with Meg. Stayed in bed last night. Watched television. Great National Geographic show—Life and Death in Africa.”

“Anything on for tonight?”

“What’s Alana doing?” He laughed.

“Leave her annihilation to me, please.”

“It’s depressing,” he said, turning to the woman beside him at the bar.

“That’s an interesting opening line,” she said, winking. “But tell me, how did you know I was a neurotic?”

“Four gin and tonics at three in the afternoon?”

“I might just be an alcoholic.”

“True,” he said.

“What’s depressing?”

“The whole notion of sexual annihilation.”

“Nihilism?”

“Annihilation.”

“Ooh,” she cooed, her eyelids fluttering. “Sounds divine.” She moved closer. “You’re quite attractive, you know.”

“Why?”

“Well, among other things, you have very nice eyes.”

“No, why does annihilation sound divine?”
“Because to be annihilated is to be totally lost, and we only totally lose ourselves when we let go of everything, and we can only really let go when we are overwhelmed, when we simply lack the strength to defend ourselves, and have no choice. The decision is made for us by the overwhelmer. We escape our fears by becoming our fears. Ecstasy through annihilation.”

“You say that with such sureness,” he said.

“I know when I’m happy.”

That evening.

Him: (As he takes the glass of wine from her) Alana, have you ever…that is, since we began sleeping together, have you ever wanted another man?

Alana: (Eyeing him suspiciously) Have you?

Him: I prefer females.

Alana: Other females?

Him: I asked you first. Have you…

Alana: Of course. But as Mae West used to say, “It doesn’t matter where you get your appetite, just so long as you eat at home.”

Him: And where exactly do you get your appetite?

Alana: At the movies, in the car, when I close my eyes, when I see you, when I don’t see you, when I look at pictures of naked women, when I…

Him: Really? Naked women?

Alana: Naked women. There is nothing so erotic as a beautiful naked woman.

Him: Naked men?

Alana: In my mind, yes. And you. Otherwise no.

Him: Why naked women?

Alana: Perhaps by seeing an idealized picture of myself, posed ideally, I can more easily see the ways in which a man might…

Him: Annihilate you.

(Alana closes her eyes, sighs deeply.)

Annihilate: To reduce to nothing; to cause to cease to exist; to destroy completely; to exterminate.

Professor Cardin was speaking on the sexual basis of war.

“Long ago,” began the professor, addressing a full house, “the connection between fighting and mating was obvious. One had to win a mate. Not only did one have to defeat other males, but the female had to be subdued, too. This is genetic reality.”

Several women in the audience booed.

“I am not saying that this need be manifested in a purely physical way. Courtship, after all, can be largely non-violent, but consummation must be satisfactory, and this usually calls for a modicum of physical strength.”

Several women in the audience applauded.

“With the advent of a social order wherein weak, as well as strong, individuals could survive, the population began to expand at the phenomenal rate that continues to this day. Yet, the genetic need to conquer, especially that need in the more aggressive males and in females wanting those males, began to manifest in warfare.”

Several men in the audience booed.

“Yes, gentlemen. It is threatening to realize that the major wars throughout history have been fought because of the inadequate sexual identities of a handful of men.”

Several more men in the audience booed.

“Furthermore, we stand on the brink of complete annihilation because a handful of sexually frustrated old men with severe personality disorders hold the reins of power in this country and abroad. What should be a fierceness and physicality in bed is transmuted into bullying and genocide on a global scale.”

Several people in the audience applauded.

“The solution may be in a true sexual revolution. One in which the frequency of intercourse becomes as important as the orgasm.”

The audience reaction was greatly mixed.

“Well,” said his mother, serving him a bowl of ice cream. “When are you planning to have some kids? Soon, I hope.”

“Kids are not so much the issue,” he said.

“No. What is?”

“Well, I’m not so sure I’m giving her what she wants.”

“You’re speaking of sex?”

“Not sex so much as the kind of sex.”

She sighed, then sat down and shook her head. “I never told you this, but your father…” She hesitated. “He was extremely tender when we made love.” Her eyes filled with tears. “He couldn’t help it. I learned to accept it.”

“You were taught to be accepting,” he said, pushing his ice cream away, his jaw tightening. “Times have changed.”

“Now,” said the instructor, a Burt Reynolds look alike, “hitting is not a good idea. However, shoving, grabbing, spanking, shaking, and pulling are all techniques we’ll be investigating and practicing.”

“What about verbal abuse?” someone asked.

“The entire third and fourth sessions are devoted to that,” said the instructor, nodding. “But the main thing we’ll be working on is attitude.” He pounded the blackboard with his fist. “The first thing I want to hammer into your heads is that through disdain and contempt, by learning to be an emotional brick wall, you’ll have women crawling all over you. It’s attitude, attitude, attitude.” He scowled. “Now, sure, some women want a little warmth, a little sibling give and take, but they’re the exceptions. You can handle the exceptions once you know the rules.”

He practically kicked the door down. He flung the flowers at her feet. As she knelt to pick them up, he placed a foot on her shoulder and pushed her onto her back. She looked up at him, her eyes filled with terror. He was undressing. She started to get up. He growled. She lay back down.

“Take off your clothes,” he whispered fiercely. She did. He dropped to his knees, took her roughly in his arms, and annihilated her.

“Darling,” she said in the darkness, “you exhaust me.”

“So?”

“I’m sorry.” She touched his shoulder. “I love you. I’d do anything for you.”

“Don’t be silly,” he said.

“Anything,” she said, pleading with him.

“Prove it,” he said. “Annihilate me.”

••

 

 

 

 

 

Civil War

Thursday, August 16th, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2012)

“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.” Abraham Lincoln

I was on the phone with my old pal John Grimes, a cartoonist with funny and provocative insights about American society, and John said, “It’s 1850 all over again. The nation is as deeply divided as we were right before the Civil War.”

My initial reaction was to agree with John—visions of red states versus blue states dancing in my head—but the more I thought about his idea, the more I disagreed. I don’t think America is divided, except that six people with my last name (no relations) have more money than forty-two per cent of all the people in America.

If we were a nation divided, half the people would vehemently oppose our ongoing foreign wars and the maintenance of hundreds of military bases around the globe that cost us trillions of dollars we might better spend on culture bases here in America. But there is no anti-war movement to speak of today, and the candidates representing the supposedly opposing political parties have identical foreign policies, except that the Democrats traditionally spend a pittance on family planning programs in Africa while the Republicans abhor helping women anywhere plan the size of their families.

If the nation were divided, half the people would oppose Single Payer healthcare, otherwise known as Medicare for all, and half would be in favor of such a marvelous thing. But poll after poll shows a vast majority of Americans in both blue and red states would love to have Single Payer Healthcare, yet for some inexplicable reason we keep electing boobs who won’t give us that boon.

If the nation were divided, half the people would want to increase taxes on the wealthy and half wouldn’t, but poll after poll indicates that the vast majority of Americans would love to increase taxes on the wealthy, yet for some inexplicable reason we keep electing boobs who won’t give us that boon.

No, I think Americans are remarkably undivided, certainly compared to the Italians or Greeks or French or Russians. When was the last time we elected a socialist president or dissolved the government for lack of confidence or marched in the streets to protest unfair austerity measures (let alone to protest elections decided by politically appointed judges)? The difference between the Republicans and the Democrats today is infinitesimal compared to the differences between the top two Greek parties, or the top two parties in any democracy, which we most definitely are not.

Imagine the French putting up with a trillion dollar student loan debt. Wouldn’t happen. Their nation would be shut down in a trice by protests and roadblocks and huge crowds of furious former and current students, and France would stay shut down until the student debt was forgiven. But Americans, blue and red alike, fit ourselves to the yoke of debt to the same bankers who bankrupted our nation and then helped themselves to a few trillion more. In a nation divided, half the people would demand that those crooked bankers forgive the student debt, yet there is no popular support for such a good idea.

The thing is, we Americans are fanatically undivided in our love of cars and computers and television shows and 3-D action movies and comfortable living. Oh, and in the absence of royalty, we worship celebrities. We know more about celebrities than we do about our government. In fact, we know almost nothing about our government. Come to think of it, we know almost nothing about anything except celebrities and television shows and cars and apps (whatever apps are), and our ignorance, to a large degree, is what unites us.

And the rulers of our nation know very well that ignorance unites us, so they make the continuance of our ignorance the focus of their governing and educational policies, while keeping us stuffed with up-to-the-minute information about which celebrity was recently driving drunk or in possession of an illegal substance or cheating on his or her wife or husband with another celebrity, and whether or not his or her cheating will help or hurt the box office numbers of his or her next incredibly violent 3-D action movie or sappy heartfelt romance or bloody police drama.

I tend to think that a celebrity having an affair with another celebrity would, in general, help that celebrity’s box office numbers. Don’t you? I mean, people (at least half the people) will be curious to see if the celebrity seems different now as a result of his or her affair, so I would think our collective curiosity would bring us to the multiplexes in greater numbers than if he or she had not had an affair. No?

Okay, so I’m being cynical, but factual, too. I think the ruling puppeteers use the idea of a great divide to distract us from our cohesiveness and to keep us from discovering how easy it would be for us to overthrow the puppeteers. Indeed, we are an extremely united people, and that’s one of the main reasons we don’t revolt. We feel the solidity of our union and we like the feeling. And though we may think we disagree about Romney and Obama, in our collective heart of hearts we know Romney and Obama and Clinton and Bush and on and on ad infinitum are all superlative representatives of the ruling elite and never deviate from the orders of their overlords. In our ignorance, we do not know who those overlords are because overlords are masters of invisibility, which is one of the prerequisites for becoming an overlord and keeping your job.

Oh, what do I know? I don’t even have a cell phone or an app, whatever an app is. Where and how I get off commenting on American society when I don’t belong to even one social network, I don’t know. Forgive me.

“The people will save their government, if the government itself will allow them.” Abraham Lincoln

Speaking of great divides, I was living in Seattle in 1977 when Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hall came out. I was a big Woody Allen fan back then and remained a Woody Allen fan until around the time he married his daughter. I didn’t stop going to his movies because he married his daughter. Woody marrying his daughter just happened to coincide with his movies becoming redundant and annoying and pointless, as far as I was concerned. But I loved Annie Hall, saw it several times, and was vociferous in championing the film. Today I won’t watch Annie Hall for fear I will find the film retroactively pointless and redundant.

So…at the height of my infatuation with Annie Hall I went to a party and fell into conversation with a man who thought Woody Allen movies were stupid, especially Annie Hall, which he had walked out of after twenty minutes. He said he found the movie pointless and shallow and badly acted and horribly written. “Anyone,” said the man, shaking his head, “who likes that movie has a screw loose.”

“I love that movie,” I said, trembling with sudden rage. “Anyone who doesn’t like that movie is a shallow doofus.”

“Touché,” said the man, clutching his heart as if stuck by a rapier. “So does that mean you loathe Monty Python?”

“I love Monty Python,” I said, trying to dislike the man but finding I liked him. “Especially The Cheese Shop.”

“Then we can be friends,” he said, holding out his hand to me. “The truth is, my ex-wife loves Woody Allen and I associate his movies with her, which is probably why I walked out of Annie Hall because I kept thinking about how much she would love the film, so…”

We shook hands and he told me a joke I still have in my repertoire.

So this guy goes to a psychiatrist. At the end of the hour, the psychiatrist says, “I think you’re crazy.”

And the guy says, “Hey, wait a minute. I want a second opinion.”

“Okay,” says the psychiatrist. “You’re ugly, too.”

“These capitalists generally act harmoniously and in concert, to fleece the people.” Abraham Lincoln

I am fascinated by how passionate you and I and most Americans are about books or movies or music or celebrities or Youtube videos we love or despise, yet how dispassionate we can be about the ongoing crimes against humanity perpetrated by our government in concert with the fleecing capitalists, the ongoing social inequities, the ongoing environmental degradation of our planet, the ongoing criminality of our healthcare system, ad infinitum. Of course, it is that ad infinitum that renders us dispassionate, for we are overwhelmed and benumbed by all that is wrong with our society even as we participate in that wrongness by using electricity and driving cars and surfing the interweb and buying groceries and widgets and whatnots.

We, the people, are not divided in our culpability or in our desire not to feel culpable, yet we need and desire ways to express our outrage at feeling compelled to be culpable. So we blame rich people and politicians and pretend there are huge and important differences between Obama and Romney; and we passionately defend the only things we feel we have any control over: our taste in books (if we read) and movies and music and celebrities and web sites and apps, whatever apps are.

Or as a big scary drunk guy said to me in a bar in Los Angeles, “Far as I’m concerned, anybody who don’t like Country music might as well be dead.”

Goff & Krishnamurti

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

 

Mr. Magician, mixed media, by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2012, and was inspired by a remembrance of Krishnamurti written by William Edelen and recently posted on Dave Smith’s stellar community forum Ukiah Blog Live.)

“Conventional education makes independent thinking almost impossible. Conformity leads to mediocrity. Conventional education puts an end to spontaneity and breeds fear.” Krishnamurti

I spent my two of years in college at the University of California, Santa Cruz from 1967 to 1969 when the school was considered an experimental college because professors were supposed to write evaluations of students rather than give grades, and students were invited to invent their own programs of independent study.

One guy in my dorm did an independent study entitled Surfing Poems. He went surfing for ten weeks and wrote poems about his experience. Another fellow (he loved to play his guitar in our resonant dorm bathroom) did an independent study entitled Songs From My Life for which he wrote three songs melodically indistinguishable from Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right. And a young woman in the dorm across from ours did an independent study called Pill Parables resulting in a twenty-five-page monologue about birth control pills and their impact on her sex life.

I proposed several independent study projects, but could never convince any professors to endorse and oversee my endeavors. My proposal to read the complete works of Nikos Kazantzakis and then write a dissertation was turned down by five different professors, all of whom said Kazantzakis was of no literary importance, though I suspect the real reason they turned me down was that none of them were familiar with Kazantzakis’s writing. My proposal to write and produce an existentialist play entitled Food Fight, based on the several food fights that erupted in response to the execrable food served in the Stevenson College cafeteria, was rejected by two English professors, a professor of Drama, and my Anthropology advisor. And my proposal to take a daily photograph of the same naked person standing in front of the same redwood tree at the same time of day for ten weeks was turned down by no less than three professors in the Art department.

Thus, unquestionably, the four best things about my university experience were playing basketball, playing Frisbee, courting beautiful young women, and seeing, admission free and in the most intimate of venues, the likes of Segovia, Bola Sete, Charles Lloyd, Keith Jarrett, The Sons of Champlin, and Krishnamurti.

I would not have gone to see Krishnamurti (since I didn’t know who or what he was) had not my Philosophy professor Robert Goff urged his students to go; and Goff would not have been my Philosophy professor had I been accepted into a Creative Writing seminar. But my prose and poetry submissions failed to win the favor of the Creative Writing professors, and their last-minute rejection of me necessitated my quickly finding a class that was still accepting students, such classes being rare in those days of sudden and severe budget constraints (thank you, Ronald Reagan.)

I remember hurrying up the hill to the lecture hall on a chilly Tuesday morning in October and finding the place packed with a hundred and fifty other undergrads, most as desperate as I to get into one more class to complete their course loads. Goff’s introductory Philosophy course was one of the few classes still accepting students, perhaps because it was widely rumored that Goff actually required his students to do some work.

Promptly at nine, Goff entered the hall and walked sedately to the podium—a handsome man with black hair and a subtle goatee, his brown suit impeccably tailored. “I will require at least one essay a week from each of you,” he intoned forebodingly, “and you will be expected to read all the books and articles on the syllabus in order to be prepared for the rigorous final exam.”

Then he bowed his head and waited patiently as the vast majority of the assembled host fled the hall.

“Good,” said Goff, gazing at those of us who remained. “I look forward to seeing how many of you return on Thursday.”

Eighteen returned; and though I enjoyed Goff’s lectures and the challenge of writing essays in response to Descartes and Kant and Hume, the only thing I clearly remember about the course was Goff recounting his wonderful experience with Krishnamurti. However, before I tell you Goff’s Krishnamurti story, I will tell you mine.

So…every evening for a week in November of that year, Krishnamurti sat in a throne-like chair on the stage of the Cowell College dining hall, speaking about spiritual matters and answering questions from the audience. He wore an elegant suit and tie and a white turban that seemed too large for his slender face—small potted palm trees to his right and left. I attended two of his lectures and had an impossible time understanding anything he said. That is, I knew the meanings of the individual words he spoke, but I couldn’t make them add up to anything that made any sense to my nineteen-year-old brain. Yet I enjoyed him immensely and got great mileage out of doing shamefully misleading imitations of him for my friends, speaking in a high sing song voice with a stereotypical Indian accent.

And there was one thing Krishnamurti said that I understood perfectly well—his words the answer to a question I asked myself every day: should I drop out of college or stay in? I cannot remember his exact words, but I vividly remember the gist of his advice, which was that you must be your own teacher or you might as well be a parrot.

“All authority of any kind, especially in the field of thought and understanding, is the most destructive and evil thing. Leaders destroy the followers. You have to be your own teacher and own disciple. You have to question everything that man has accepted as valuable and necessary.” Krishnamurti

On the Tuesday morning following the week of Krishnamurti’s visit, as Goff stood before the dozen of us gathered for his lecture, someone called out, “Nice tie, Mr. Goff.”

“Oh, this,” he said, looking down at his colorful silk tie. “Funny story about this. As you know, I spent quite a bit of time with Krishnamurti while he was here, and during lunch on his last day I complimented him on his beautiful tie, and the next day a package arrived in the mail. He’d sent me his tie, and here it is.” Goff paused momentously. “I wish I’d known he was in the habit of doing things like that because he drives a fabulous Jaguar XKE and I would have showered him with compliments about his gorgeous car.”

“Intelligent revolt comes through self knowledge, through the awareness of one’s own thought and feeling…this highly awakened intelligence is intuition, the only true guide in life.” Krishnamurti

Fast-forward thirty years to a dinner party in Berkeley at which I recounted the story of Goff’s tie and Krishnamurti’s XKE, to which a bearded fellow with a twinkle in his eye responded, “I doubt very much that Krishnamurti owned the XKE. It was probably a loaner from one of his wealthy admirers. He didn’t actually own much of anything.”

“How do you know?” I asked, ever curious about how people know things about famous people.

“I lived in Ojai for five years,” the bearded fellow replied. “I moved there to attend Krishnamurti’s talks. I had been severely depressed for several years when I heard a recording of Krishnamurti and his voice and words obliterated my depression. I was half-dead and he brought me back to life. So I moved to Ojai to sit at his feet. Literally.”

“What was that like?” someone asked.

“Wonderful,” said the bearded fellow, warming to his tale. “After I’d been to several of his talks, he began to acknowledge me as a regular and would often whisper to me, ‘You again? When will you ever learn?’ and pretend to be dismayed that I kept coming back, until one evening, after years of this little routine, I replied, ‘No, it’s not me again. I only seem to be the same person. I’m actually always someone else.’ And he laughed and smiled one of his lightning smiles and I’ve been happy ever since.”

“What made you so happy?” I asked, imagining I would be happy, too, if Krishnamurti appreciated something I said.

“I felt anointed,” said the bearded fellow, his smiling eyes brimming with tears. “Equal.”

Jehovah’s Witness

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

Mixed media, Shall We Dance, by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2012)

A friend recently wrote to me about his philosophical discussions with a Jehovah’s Witness, and his letter brought back boatloads of memories of my friend Woody, an African American Jehovah’s Witness, an elder in his church, who visited me every month for the eleven years I lived in Berkeley.

The first time Woody came up my stairs and knocked on the front door, I intended to say to him what I had been saying to Jehovah’s Witnesses since I was a boy. “No thank you. Please don’t come again.” That was the little speech my mother taught me to say to Jehovah’s Witnesses when they came to our house, and those were the words I dutifully repeated to every Jehovah’s Witness who called on me until I was forty-five and opened the door to Woody and the young man accompanying him.

Woody was about fifteen years my senior, handsome, honey brown, bald, slender, wearing a beautifully tailored suit and a royal purple tie. Before I could recite my oft-repeated rejection, I found myself totally disarmed by Woody’s mischievous smile and charming southern accent. “Good afternoon,” he said pleasantly. “We saw the moving truck here last week and wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood. Where did you all come from?”

“Sacramento,” I said, struck hard by the realization that this stranger was the first person to welcome me to my new home.

“Awful hot up there in the summer,” he said, nodding knowingly. “You’ll be glad you live here and not there come August.”

To which I replied, “Amen,” and then immediately regretted my choice of words.

“This is Aaron,” said Woody, introducing me to his companion. “He’s helping me spread the word today and we were wondering if we might share a short passage from the Bible with you, something I think you will find quite interesting and relevant to the situation in the world today.”

“Sure,” I said, enjoying the company. “Read to me.”

So Woody opened his well-worn leather bound Bible and read something about the terrible state of the world and how God was going to clear things up any day now. And though I was not moved by the words themselves, I was deeply touched by the halting way Woody read, as if he had only recently learned to read, and each word was a challenge to him.

When he finished reading the brief passage, he smiled like a boy who has accomplished a difficult feat, his eyes shining with pleasure at having conquered the troublesome words. And then, for reasons I have no explanation for, our eyes met and we both burst out laughing, and we laughed until tears ran down our faces.

Thereafter, every month, Woody would stop by to deliver the latest editions of The Watchtower and Awake! and to share a passage from the Bible apropos of the terrible state of our society. If Woody found my door ajar, which it often was, he would call to me as he climbed the stairs, “Tawd! It’s Woody. You home?”

I admit there were times I did not answer the door when Woody came to visit, times when I was in no mood for a Bible reading or for hearing brief synopses of articles in the latest Awake!, but I usually opened to him, and I was always glad when I did. Woody was a beacon of friendliness in a largely unfriendly world, and I greatly enjoyed our few moments together—moments filled with appreciation for each other.

For two of those eleven years, Woody came to my house with Clarence, a very serious man who was learning to grow vegetables. If the weather was good, Clarence and Woody and I would go out into my little garden and I would answer Clarence’s questions about my methods for growing vegetables and garlic, my tricks for catching earwigs, and what I thought about various methods of composting.

Now and then, after Woody read to me from the Bible in his halting, innocent, enthusiastic way, I would read to him from Buckminster Fuller’s Critical Path, which I told him was my Bible. I vividly remember the time I read him Fuller’s passage, “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,” and Woody frowned and pondered and finally said, “Well…that’s what God does, isn’t it?” And then we burst out laughing.

Only a few times did Woody urge me to come to a Bible interpretation meeting at his church, and each time he invited me, I said something along the lines of, “I appreciate the offer, but I’m not really interested in studying the Bible. I’ve read the good book, and I’m glad I did, and now and then I dip into Psalms, but I’m more interested in Buddhism these days.”

“Oh, Buddhism,” he would say, nodding thoughtfully. “We have a number of former Buddhists in our congregation. Wonderful people.” Then he would smile his mischievous smile and say, “Well, you let me know if you change your mind.”

One day, Woody came to my door accompanied by a beautiful and vivacious Eurasian woman with long black hair and black-framed glasses. “This is Carmen,” said Woody, gesturing to her in his gallant way. “Carmen, this is my good friend Tawd. I’ve been coming to see him for seven years now and it’s always a pleasure.”

Woody then asked Carmen to read a passage from the Bible, and she did so beautifully, her voice melodious and full of passion, her enunciation perfect. What’s more, Carmen proved to be the only one of Woody’s many companions who laughed with us when he and I laughed, which was almost every visit, and I flatter myself to think Carmen really liked me, and I know I really liked her. Yes, it was like at first sight, and being single as I was and seeing she wore no wedding ring, I often regretted I hadn’t met her at a café instead of over religious magazines featuring silly drawings of grinning people picnicking with tigers and lambs.

Carmen came with Woody four times, and the thought of seeing her always propelled me to the door with a greater than usual momentum. Alas, the last time she came with Woody, as I was enjoying her graceful descent of the stairs, Woody tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “I know Carmen would sure like it if you came to Bible study. She told me so, Tawd. Yes, she did.” And when I didn’t go to Bible study, Carmen ceased to accompany Woody on his visits to me.

During my last two years in Berkeley, Woody’s congregation fulfilled their dream of building a new temple near the North Berkeley BART station, and Woody invited me to attend the grand opening, but I did not go. Looking back over the years, I wish I had gone to the temple opening because I know Woody was immensely proud of that accomplishment.

When I told Woody I was moving away, he put on a sad face and said, “Where are you going, Tawd? I’m gonna miss you.”

“I’m moving to Mendocino,” I told him. “On the coast a hundred miles north of here.”

“I have heard of Mendocino,” he said solemnly. “And though I have never been there, I hear there are some very good people there, and I hope you meet them, I do.”

Then much to my surprise, we did not burst out laughing, but shook hands as tenderly as hands may be shaken. I cannot explain what it was about Woody that so appealed to me, or why we recognized each other as kindred spirits right off the bat, or why our good feelings for each other never waned. I just liked him and he liked me. He never once asked me about my personal life, nor did I ever ask him about his.

I especially remember one cold wet winter day as I was kneeling on my hearth and failing repeatedly to get my fire going due to lack of newspaper, when I heard Woody and a companion coming up the stairs, and I thought, Oh, good. He’ll leave an Awake! and I’ll be able to start my fire.

With that shameful thought in mind, I opened the door to behold Woody and Clarence, their raincoats soaking wet, Woody saying, “We can’t stay long today, Tawd, but we wanted to make sure you got the latest Awake! and Watchtower. Some very interesting articles.”

“You growing anything in your garden this time of year?” asked Clarence, ever serious. “Besides your garlic?”

“Lettuce and kale and chard,” I intoned. “They grow year round in Berkeley.”

“See,” said Woody, handing me my fire starter, “I knew he’d have something illuminating to say on the subject.”

Then, as we were wont to do, Woody and I burst out laughing, with Clarence perplexed as ever by our inexplicable gaiety.