Archive for June, 2013

Nothing

Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

jennysletter

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2013)

“Your life is the fruit of your own doing.” Joseph Campbell

One of my favorite stories from Joseph Campbell is of a wise man introducing his young son to one of the great mysteries of life. They are sitting together under an enormous banyan tree, which is a tropical fig tree, and the man asks his son to pick a fig and cut the fruit in half.

The boy slices the fig in half and his father asks him, “What do you see?”

“I see thousands of tiny seeds,” says the boy, marveling at the innards of the fig.

“Now take one of those seeds and cut it in half,” says the father.

With some difficulty, the boy manages to extract a single seed from the fig and cut the tiny thing in half.

“What do you see?” asks the father.

“I see…nothing,” says the boy.

“From that nothing came this great banyan tree,” says the wise man. “From such nothingness came the entire universe.”

I often think of this story when I am planting rows of lettuce or carrots, the seeds so small and seemingly insignificant. Of course I know there is something inside the tiny seeds from which will sprout, under the right circumstances, shoots of life that will grow into scrumptious heads of lettuce and sweet carrots, but that something is so tiny that until very recently in human history we lacked the means to see that something was there inside the seeming nothingness.

“Where every something, being blent together turns to a wild of nothing.” William Shakespeare

Yesterday as I was walking through the Harvest Market parking lot in Mendocino, I saw an astounding scene. Well, I suppose it would be more accurate to say I saw a scene that astounded me. The scene might not have astounded someone else and thereby would not have been universally astounding. In any case, here is what I saw.

Parked between, and dwarfing, what I had theretofore considered a large Volvo station wagon and a large Mercedes-Benz station wagon was a humongous green pickup truck mounted on a massive tubular suspension attached to four gigantic tires such that the bottom of the behemoth truck was elevated a good seven feet off the ground. And as I was trying to imagine why anyone would want to suspend a truck so high off the ground, a man inside the cab of the truck opened the driver’s side door and climbed down the several silver rungs of the ladder/stairs used to access the cab from the ground and vice-versa.

The man—I guessed he was in his late twenties—was wearing camouflage fatigues, brown boots, and a green Australian outback commando quasi-cowboy hat. He was not a big man and seemed positively tiny juxtaposed to his enormous truck suspended high above him atop the massive tubular suspension affixed to the four gigantic tires. He came around to the back of his truck, pointed a remote control device kin to a television channel changer at the tail of his vehicle, and another ladder of silver steps was slowly extruded from a slot just below the bottom of the tailgate and came to a stop about a foot off the ground. The young man then climbed up the ladder/stairs and opened the tailgate of his colossal rig.

At first I thought his tailgate would open downward, as does the tailgate of my itsy bitsy teeny weeny pickup truck, but the young man’s tailgate was split in the middle and each half could be opened out like the door of a refrigerator. I stood in frozen fascination as the young man opened the right side tailgate door and in so doing revealed that the mammoth bed of the gargantuan truck held nothing but a small green plastic box from which the man extracted a big red dog biscuit. The man then closed the plastic box, closed his tailgate, descended to the ground, the silver steps were sucked back up into the tail of the truck, and the man returned to the driver’s side door of the truck. He then climbed the silver steps, opened the door to the cab, and gave the dog biscuit to a tiny dachshund.

“One must bear in mind one thing. It isn’t necessary to know what that thing is.” John Ashberry

I love how when we thank someone in Spanish by saying Gracias, the response is usually De nada, which means It’s nothing, but which might also be translated Of nothing, which suggests to me that embedded in the language is the humble acknowledgment that all the gifts of life spring from the same nothing from which the universe was born. Perhaps I’m reading too much into a simple figure of speech, but I don’t think so.

When I was twenty-one, I was the translator for a marine biologist and his family traveling from California to Costa Rica and back again. We were a low budget expedition, to say the least, traveling in a large International Harvester delivery truck that we remodeled to sleep eight people, so we only needed access to a bit of level ground for our nightly accommodations to be complete. Thus every day in the late afternoon, wherever we happened to be, my job was to find us a spot where we could bivouac, and I would do this by hailing someone I liked the look of and asking if he or she knew of a good place in the vicinity where we might camp.

I made this request of men and women every afternoon for the six months we traveled in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica—more than one hundred and fifty times—and virtually every time I asked, “Hay un lugar acerca de aqui a dondé podemos acampar?” the person would reply without hesitation, “Yes. I will show you a good place.” or “Yes, you may camp here on my property.” or “Yes, come to our village.” Sometimes our hosts were poor, and sometimes they were wealthy, relatively speaking. Sometimes we stayed on farms, and sometimes we stayed on the outskirts of villages, but no matter where we stayed the people always brought us gifts, usually of food.

A man in Nicaragua invited us to camp on his beautiful farm and gave us as a going away present a huge bunch of green bananas that ripened slowly and sequentially so we had perfectly ripe bananas every day for weeks. A family in Mexico gave us a place to camp right next to their small adobe house, and in the morning before we departed they insisted we pick vegetables from their big garden. A fellow in Costa Rica took us to a camping spot on the banks of a crystal clear stream in which there were thousands of tiny silver fish, and that evening the fellow and his wife and children came to visit us, bringing with them a pot of delicious turtle soup to share. And once we stayed in a village where the people were very poor, yet two children were sent to us by their mother to present us with a little basket containing three freshly made corn tortillas.

We always thanked our hosts profusely, and we often invited them to join us for supper, though such invitations were rarely accepted. I also always offered to give our hosts a little money in thanks for their generosity, but very few people, even those who were obviously poor, would accept money for the help they gave us. And every time we took our leave and I said to our hosts Gracias mucho, the reply was invariably De nada accompanied by smiles and Buena suerte—good luck.

I know things have changed greatly since that expedition in 1970. Today, eight scruffy gringos in a yellow milk truck would probably not be treated so kindly and generously as we were treated in those countries forty years ago, but I still marvel at how willing so many people were to invite us into their lives. And I wonder what I would do if tomorrow a van pulls up beside my garden where I’m weeding and watering, and a scruffy fellow leans out the window of the van and says, “Excuse me, but do you know of a good place around here where we can camp tonight?”

I would probably suggest they try a nearby state park or private campground, though those places are no longer the bargains they used to be. Or I suppose I could invite them to make their camp right over there by that little stand of redwoods on the corner of our property. They wouldn’t be in our way and they’d be gone tomorrow. I could give them some vegetables from our garden, vegetables that came from nothing, and I could ask them where they came from and where they were going. I could do that, I suppose, though I would have to like their vibe. No, I would have to love their vibe, and only then would I open our place to them.

Ling Ch’i Ching

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

LCC

Glorious Auspiciousness photo by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2013)

“Marvelous things approach the gate door.” Ling Ch’i Ching

One of my great pleasures is to look back over the course of events that brought me to my current relationship with a beloved place or person or thing, and to remember the coincidences and actions and interactions that were key steps in those journeys from there to here, then to now.

My relationship with the Ling Ch’i Ching began when I was living in Berkeley in the mid-1990’s. I was not yet hooked up to a futuristic new thing called the internet, and I still received lots of handwritten letters in the mail. No one I knew had a cell phone or a laptop or a digital camera or an app. I was a frequent visitor to Berkeley’s many marvelous used bookstores and I was also a customer of the overstock bookseller Daedalus Books, their colorful catalogues arriving in the mail every month. I enjoyed reading the pithy little Daedalus blurbs that made every book in the catalogue sound like a masterwork, and I was occasionally tempted to order a book or two in hope of finding something good to read. Once in a great while the pithy blurb turned out to be true and my hungry mind would feast on the masterful tome.

One such catalogue brought news of a book called Ling Ch’i Ching, a classic Chinese oracle translated by Ralph D. Sawyer. Daedalus was selling the esoteric tome for $5.98 and the pithy blurb said the Ling Ch’i Ching was kin to the I Ching only much easier to understand and every bit as poetic and mystical and groovacious. I was tempted, but didn’t bite until a few months later when the price dropped to $2.98.

“Your career has a path, do not rail at its slowness.” Ling Ch’i Ching

I’ve known a lot of oracles in my time, to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart, but the Ling Ch’i Ching was really something special. To many of my friends and acquaintances this ancient oracle was little more than codified superstition and nonsense, otherwise known as hackneyed spiritual crap, but for me the Ling Ch’i Ching was thought-provoking, revelatory, and the gateway to a really neato art project: the creation of twelve disks to be cast by the querent to determine an oracular response.

“In the past, matters did not proceed as desired; now you will be able to follow your ambitions.” Ling Ch’i Ching

One of the many things that appeals to me about the Ling Ch’i Ching is that the querent need only make a single throw of the twelve disks to create a pattern corresponding to a particular oracular response. Unlike the multiple throws of coins required to get a reading from the I Ching, this single release of Ling Ch’i Ching disks allows the querent to focus the entirety of her intention on that one action, rather than necessitating six separate gatherings of focus and intention. There is nothing to write down when consulting the Ling Ch’i Ching, and no moving lines to muddy the meaning of the initial oracular pronouncement.

I also like that the discs are made of wood, and that I chose that wood, cut the disks and drew the appropriate symbols upon them. Sawyer’s introductory text reads, “…these disks should preferably be fashioned from wood cut from a tree that has been struck by lightning. Obviously the lightning strike, being the essence of yang, is understood as empowering the wood (which is yin), making it receptive to the process of divination…” Lacking access to lightning-struck wood in downtown Berkeley, I made my disks from eucalyptus branches that fell from the very tall eucalyptus tree growing in my front yard, her branches imbued with the energies of the oceanic winds that blew night and day through our neighborhood situated directly across San Francisco Bay from the Golden Gate.

“Above and below both settled, the mind does not give birth to perversity. Contented, it has no worries. Do not believe rumors.” Ling Ch’i Ching

All twelve of the disks are blank on one side. Four of the disks bear the symbol for Heaven, four bear the symbol for Man, four bear the symbol for Earth; and it is the particular interaction or lack of interaction between the forces animating these three realms that determine the nature of each of the 125 oracles and corresponding verses that make up the text of the Ling Ch’i Ching. Some of the oracles and verses are extremely baleful, some extremely auspicious, and all of them present both a literal response as well as a poetic symbolic one. The I Ching was a divinatory tool used for thousands of years by royalty and intellectuals in China, with an extremely symbolic and metaphorical text open to an infinite array of interpretations. By contrast, the Ling Ch’i Ching, also used for thousands of years, was a favorite of farmers, soldiers, bureaucrats and carnival fortunetellers catering to common folk—a much more straightforward and easily accessible divinatory tool than the I Ching.

“Ruler and subject, exchanging positions, are about to give rise to great profits.” Ling Ch’i Ching

For Christmas gifts that first year of my enchantment with the Ling Ch’i Ching, I made several sets of disks and bought several more copies of Sawyer’s book to give to friends predisposed to enjoying this sort of inquiry. I developed the habit of consulting the oracle every week for a few years until one day I loaned my book and disks to someone and that someone never returned them. I intended to make a new set of disks, but the years passed and I did not make a new set. Eventually I forgot about the Ling Ch’i Ching, moved to Mendocino, married Marcia, and stumbled along as best I could without consulting an oracle.

“The minute again resurges like melon vines stretching and extending, gradually arising and ascending.” Ling Ch’i Ching

Four years ago we were visiting some old friends in Richmond, and I was delighted to find that they had used the set of Ling Ch’i Ching disks I’d made for them as part of their Thanksgiving decorations—the symbols for Heaven, Man and Earth being quite beautiful. This prompted us to gather up the disks, get out the book, throw the disks, read aloud the provocative oracles and verses, and blab for hours about the year ahead and all we hoped to do with our lives.

“Spring comes, the myriad things are glorious.” Ling Ch’i Ching

Upon our return to Mendocino, I ordered a used copy of the text from an online bookseller, made a new set of disks out of a branch of manzanita (having yet to locate any lightning-struck wood) and resumed my weekly consultations with the forces of universe as they manifest in this earth-based human realm and might be interpreted through seemingly random configurations of wooden disks.

Fast forward to about eight months ago when the inimitable Amanda Outten and her incomparable hubby Jamie Roberts were working on our new house, she a wizard with tile, he a most excellent carpenter. Somehow or other we got talking about the Ling Ch’i Ching and I mentioned that ideally the disks are to be made from lightning-struck wood, but that I lacked a source of such wood, and Amanda said, “We’ve got some lightning-struck redwood. I’ll bring you a couple hunks.”

Which she did, and the lightning-empowered hunks sat untouched in our workshop for some months as I not very diligently investigated ways to extract round plugs of wood from the hunks so I could cut those plugs into disks. The problem was that I did not want holes in the centers of the disks and the plug-grabbing drill bits that would work with my wimpy little electric drill made holes in the centers of the plugs and so were not appealing to me and…then we needed a new roof. Our first winter in our new house informed us that the very old roof not only allowed water into the house, but the roof was not at all insulated, so every bit of heat we generated went quickly out of the house.

To make a long story short, one of the carpenters on the roof job was rummaging around in our workshop one day, espied the lightning-struck hunks of wood, asked what they were, I told him about the disks I wanted to make and the problem with holes, and he said, “Cut those hunks into blocks, put those blocks on a lathe, create a round rod, and cut the rod up into disks.” Not having a lathe, I nevertheless liked his idea very much and made a note to ask around to see if anyone I knew could direct me to someone with a lathe. But then I got distracted with one thing or another and forgot about my quest until…

Two weeks ago, I went out to the workshop to fashion a wooden box for something or other, and there were those beautiful hunks of lightning-struck redwood sitting on the table and vibrating gently with their divinatory power. I impulsively placed my hands on the redwood hunks and proclaimed, “Let it be known I would like to connect with a master lathe person so I can finally transform this wonderful wood into disks. Amen.”

“You will receive Heaven’s blessings.” Ling Ch’i Ching

Three days later a neighbor called to invite me over to meet a fellow who had made a beautiful piece of art she thought I would like to see. I went on over, met the fellow, and discerned that many of the pieces of his beautiful wooden creation had been crafted on a lathe. I mentioned this to the fellow and he admitted that he was, indeed, a master lathe person. I then told him about the hunks of lightning-struck wood and…

Today I took possession of eight magnifico rods (six to nine-inches long, and one-inch in diameter) of lightning-struck redwood from which many disks can be cut. From a ninth rod of this divine wood, the master lathe fellow used his band saw to cut twenty-four disks for me. Now I’m set. I need only sand those discs, carefully paint on the symbols, face north, focus my intention, cast the disks, and see what’s going on.

Into the Mystic

Thursday, June 13th, 2013

into mystic

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2013)

“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” Chief Seattle

On several occasions during the summer when I was twelve-years-old, I felt certain I was on the verge of understanding how everything fit together, and I do mean everything. I would find myself sitting or standing very still and feeling all the countless separate parts of reality coalescing and clicking together; and with every passing moment I would become more and more excited as the myriad fragments fell into place in relation to each other and in relation to the entirety of everything else. And I felt sure that if I could only hold still a few moments longer without being interrupted, the mystery of life, of the universe, would be solved for me, and ever after I would live in a state of blissful knowing. Yet every time I felt I was only a few seconds away from such a complete understanding, something would interrupt my reverie, and the exquisite construct of the totality of everything would collapse.

I could not, as far as I knew, intentionally precipitate such reveries, though I tried to do so many times that summer. I would go off into the woods far from other people and sit absolutely still for hours on end, hoping my stillness would incite the myriad separate parts to begin their coalescing, but that never happened. I did have marvelous experiences sitting so still in the woods, but those glorious occasions when I nearly grasped my own grand unified field theory only came unbidden and when there was a high probability of being interrupted.

One evening that summer, standing under an olive tree not far from our house, I was so certain the last piece of the vast puzzle was about to fall into place, I held my breath so as not to disturb the grand finale. But then my mother shouted, “Dinner’s ready!” and the miraculous vision shattered.

I was in a foul mood when I came inside to eat, which prompted my father to ask, “What’s wrong with you?”

Before I could think better of speaking about such things to my father, I tried to explain how close I had been to a moment of comprehensive understanding, to which my father replied, “That’s just infantile magical thinking. You might as well say you believe in God, and you know how ridiculous that is.”

I knew it was folly to say anything in response to my father when he got on his atheist soapbox, so I held my peace as he lectured me on the idiocy of my thinking and feeling. Little did I know that my father was a preview of the many people I would encounter in my life, and whom I continue to encounter, who consider my experiences of the mystical nature of life either hackneyed spiritual crap or delusional nonsense.

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.” E.M. Forster

When I was fifteen, I made the B basketball team at Woodside High School, though I was not a starter. Indeed, on our twelve-man team, I was the twelfth ranked player and rarely got into a game. Every day, following an hour of exercises and drills and practicing plays, our starters would scrimmage against the second five, with I and the other third-string fellow subbing onto the second-string team.

One day our coach sent me into the scrimmage, and for reasons I have no plausible explanation for I was overtaken by a power transcendent of the usual power that animated me. Suddenly the other players, many of them taller and bigger than I, seemed small and weak and slow moving, and I moved among them like a speeding giant. Prior to that scrimmage I had never been able to leap high enough to touch the ten-foot-high rim, but on that day I could reach above the rim. I snatched rebounds away from our tallest players and scored with an ease that was, in today’s vernacular, sick. I shot from near and far, made dozens of shots without a miss, and so thoroughly dominated the game that even those starters who had previously looked down on me were full of praise for my playing.

After practice, our coach called me into his office, and when he was convinced I had not ingested some illegal substance, said he was going to put me into tomorrow’s game against Sequoia as a reward for my extraordinary play that day. I thanked him and spent a restless night anticipating my first chance to shine in a real basketball game.

True to his word, our coach put me into the game midway through the first half, and I immediately grabbed a rebound and took a shot. But when my shot missed the mark, our coach took me out and never played me again. I was disappointed, of course, by the brevity of my playing time, but I was also aware that whatever extraordinary power had possessed me the day before was entirely absent on the day of my debut. Nor did that power return to me again until the very last day of basketball practice that year.

To end the season on a dramatic and competitive note, the coach created six two-man teams and we had a tournament to determine which duo would be crowned champions. I was paired with the other lowest ranked player, and we were expected to lose to all the other teams. But that transcendent power came into me again and we demolished our opponents, including the team composed of our two star players. We won so easily, much to the chagrin of our coach, that the biggest star of our team gave me the ultimate compliment by saying, “What are you on, man? I want some.”

What was I on? Fools Crow, the revered Lakota holy man said (in the inspiring book Wisdom & Power) that there is an inexhaustible source of spiritual power ever present in universe, and that those who consciously or unconsciously empty themselves of ego may invite this spiritual power to work through them. Fools Crow said he used prayer and ritual to make of himself a hollow bone to be filled by this spiritual power with which he accomplished his healing work. And that’s what I think was going on those times when I played basketball so much better than I had ever played before; I was filled with spiritual power and became an instrument of the unfathomable universe.

 “There is nothing in the world that is not mysterious, but the mystery is more evident in certain things than in others: in the sea, in the eyes of the elders, in the color yellow and in music.” Jorge Luis Borges

One of my favorite stories about the Mbuti people of the Ituri rainforest in the Congo is that Christian missionaries found it almost impossible to convince the Mbuti to believe in, let alone worship, a punitive God because the Ituri forest, which the Mbuti believed to be the most important of all gods, provided them with such abundance and so obviously loved them. I think of this story whenever I encounter people who consider my belief in the mystical nature of existence to be hackneyed spiritual crap or self-delusion.

Yesterday, for instance, I began to write an email to a friend I hadn’t heard from in several months, and two sentences into my missive I received an email from that very friend. What made this seeming coincidence even more remarkable to me was that my two sentences were specific questions, and my friend’s email began with detailed answers to those specific questions. Is this proof of the mystical nature of existence or is it merely, as Buckminster Fuller suggested, that most of what goes on in Universe is inexplicable because we lack the technology to see or hear or measure most of what is going on in this and contiguous dimensions? Imagine what a surprise it must have been to discover radio waves? Who knew?

“Love is metaphysical gravity.” Buckminster Fuller

When I first moved to Mendocino, I would go to Big River Beach almost every day to marvel at my good fortune and celebrate having had the courage to make the move. One day I was sitting with my back against a big log and gazing out at the breakers, when into my mind came the face of a woman I hadn’t seen in twelve years, a woman I had been smitten with during my last year of living in Sacramento. Her name was Ida and she worked in a bakery and I had spoken to her a grand total of five times, three of those conversations consisting of Ida asking me, “What can I get you?” and my replying, “Two blackberry muffins, please.” The other conversations were a bit longer because I ordered coffee, too.

Which is to say, I didn’t really know Ida at all. But every time I saw her, I felt a powerful jolt of recognition and love, and I liked to think, whether it was true or not, that she felt a similar jolt.

In any case, I hadn’t had a conscious thought about her in over a decade, yet here I was on Big River Beach seeing her vividly in my mind’s eye and wondering what might have happened if only I’d had the courage to speak to her at greater length and perhaps ask her…

After a delightful little snooze, I packed up my knapsack and headed back to the parking lot, and just as I was about to walk under the Big River bridge, a little girl came running toward me, shrieking with delight as her mother pursued her, her mother being Ida.

Worlds Collide

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

worlds collide

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2013)

“There are only two emotions in Wall Street: fear and greed.” William Le Fevre

In search of good chicken for our once-a-week intake of animal flesh, I saunter into our magnifico Mendocino Market across the street from Mendocino’s blessed post office, my basket laden with the latest edition of the admirable Anderson Valley Advertiser, and I find the lovely little market and deli in the midst of a calm before the inevitable lunchtime arrival of legions of tempestuous teenagers and loquacious locals and inscrutable turistas.

Jeff, the jocular and unflappable co-master of Mendocino’s finest sandwich shop, has a few moments to wait on me, and as he rings up my purchase of four superb legs and thighs, he shares the following story.

“So yesterday, this guy comes in and I know he’s somebody famous, an actor, I’m sure. I’ve seen him on television. Has to be him, but I can’t think of his name. And then he uses a credit card to pay and his name comes up: Timothy Geithner.”

“Wow,” I effuse. “ Former Secretary of the Treasury, master criminal, and most definitely an actor.”

“I know,” says Jeff, smiling. “Amazing.”

“What did he buy?” I ask, guessing Timothy purchased a few bottles of expensive organic wine.

“Couple of chicken salad sandwiches,” says Jeff, nodding. “On a road trip.”

“Wow,” I say, “Timothy Geithner. God of the one percent. Stood right here and handed you his credit card.”

“Yeah,” says Jeff, chuckling, “we’ve got this Recession Special I was going to tell him about, but I decided not to.”

“Armaments, universal debt, and planned obsolescence—those are the three pillars of Western prosperity.” Aldous Huxley

Thinking about Timothy Geithner buying sandwiches in our very own Mendocino Market, I try to imagine being so powerful and important that the President of the Unites States would appoint me Secretary of Anything, but my imagination fails me. However, I do have a vivid fantasy of shopping at Corners and bumping into Timothy Geithner in front of the broccoli and saying to him, “How could you? Have you no conscience?”

And that fantasy and the questions I asked therein, remind me of Obama’s recent appointment of billionaire Penny Pritzker to be Secretary of Commerce, which reminds me of my encounter with Penny’s father, Donald, at a fundraiser in Atherton, California just a few months before he died of a heart attack at the age of thirty-nine while playing tennis at a Hyatt Hotel in Honolulu, the Hyatt Hotel chain being one of several corporations owned by the Pritzker family, Donald the CEO.

Believe it or not, I met Donald Pritzker at the very same gathering where I met Daniel Ellsberg. What sort of gathering was this? And what was I doing there? I’ll tell you. The year was 1972 (Penny would have been thirteen at the time) and Daniel Ellsberg had recently become very famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and thereby seriously messing with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger and the ruthless rulers running the Vietnam War. I happened to be friends with a guy, a zealous anti-war activist, who had convinced his mother, a minor Pritzker, to host a private fundraising soiree for Daniel Ellsberg, who needed funds for his ongoing legal travails and anti-war activities. When I heard about the soiree, I begged my friend’s mother to let me attend so I could listen to the great hero, and she said, “I’ll need kitchen help.”

So I donned white shirt and bow tie and black slacks and showed up at the snazzy Atherton digs at the appointed hour, at which point it was decided I would ply the crowd with champagne and hors d’oeuvres before Ellsberg spoke and then manage the groaning tables of food and carve the roast beef after Ellsberg spoke. And while he spoke, I could listen from the kitchen with the swinging door propped open a few inches.

There were about twenty people in attendance on that sunny afternoon, the females outnumbering the males two to one, everyone in attendance fabulously wealthy. The women were dressed elegantly, the men wore suits and ties, and the accents of these loud-talking folk were predominantly Chicago from whence the Pritzker clan sprang, though many of them had relocated to California. I remember being struck by how handsome and strong all the women were, and how nondescript the men, and whether it was true or not, I concluded that this clan of Jewish siblings and cousins was a powerful matriarchy, the men mere sperm donors.

I also remember being keenly aware that I was serving people who were used to being served and that I was invisible to them because I was a servant. I had met a few super wealthy people in my life, and it was my impression that extremely wealthy people were void of humor, but I had never before been in the company of so many wealthy and resoundingly humorless people. Or so it seemed.

After the preliminary wining and dining, everyone took a seat in the large living room and Daniel Ellsberg rose to speak. I positioned myself at the kitchen door where I had a view of the daring whistleblower, and just as Ellsberg began, a short bullish man rose from his living room seat and came charging into the kitchen.

“Phone,” he barked at me. “I need a phone.”

This was Donald Pritzker, red-faced and pissed off, and this was 1972, long before the advent of cell phones. So I directed him to the phone on the kitchen wall from which he proceeded to make call after call, buying and selling, cursing and commanding, threatening and cajoling—running his empire—while in the other room Daniel Ellsberg spoke about the ongoing atrocities being committed by our rulers and our armed forces in Vietnam. What a disconcerting dichotomy!

Despite the proximity of Donald’s torrent of vitriol, I managed to focus on what Ellsberg was saying, and I realized he was speaking to his audience as if they had never heard of Vietnam and knew nothing about the war that had been going on for almost a decade, which may have been largely true. These were not people troubled by distant wars. Indeed, they were prime beneficiaries of a most successful imperialism and a booming economy.

Halfway through Ellsberg’s talk, Donald Pritzker snapped his fingers at me and said, “Coffee. I need coffee. With sugar.”

I prepared his coffee and set it on the counter next to him as he growled into the phone, “You tell that sonofabitch he’d better come through or…”

He was purple with rage, the veins in his neck swollen, his knuckles white as he clenched the phone in a death grip—not a happy person.

I returned to my post at the kitchen door just as Ellsberg finished his talk and asked, “Are there any questions?”

No one said a word. Not one of the handsome women and non-descript men raised a hand, and Ellsberg stood there for a short infinity, looking very sad and tired. Finally, the hostess, the mother of my friend who had arranged for me to be present at this strange soiree, leapt to her feet and cried, “Eat, eat, eat!” and the Prtizkers rose to begin their feasting.

  “There is only one way to endure man’s inhumanity to man and that is to try, in one’s own life, to exemplify man’s humanity to man.” Alan Paton

I think of Timothy Geithner and his wife driving south on Highway One, enjoying their excellent chicken salad sandwiches from the Mendocino Market and superb lattes from the GoodLife Cafe, just, you know, having fun being far from the madding crowd, enjoying the view of the shining pacific and the passing fields rife with mustard flowers and the cerulean sky dotted with puffy white clouds. For just a little while, a rare little while, Timothy and his wife forget all about the millions of less fortunate people who are, in essence, paying for Timothy’s fun. Yes, for just a little while, Timothy might be anybody.