Archive for December, 2016

Here’s To You

Monday, December 26th, 2016

You You

You You by Todd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s to you. Happy New Year!

Reflections

Monday, December 19th, 2016

dancing in the shadows

Dancing In The Shadows painting by Nolan Winkler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There We Were

Monday, December 12th, 2016

La Entrada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Just Us

Monday, December 5th, 2016

The Magician

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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