Posts Tagged ‘communes’


Monday, March 5th, 2018

headland sky by Ian of Zo

Headlands and Sky photo by Ian of Zo

“Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself.” Conan Doyle

In 1972 I was living in a twelve-person commune in Santa Cruz, part of the commune movement that sprung up spontaneously across America as the housing component of the cultural revolution known as the Sixties. And from 1968 to 1975, I was very excited to be part of that housing component and hopeful about the positive social, political, and cultural impact that widespread communal living could have on American society.

The first commune I lived in was an eight-person affair I started with a friend. I left after a year of frustration because my fellow communards were extremely reluctant to subsume their individual needs, even a little, for the betterment of the collective. We gave lip service to that idea, but aside from shared meals, it was largely every man or woman for him or her self.

So I was excited to join a commune with much more collectivity built into an operating system that quite effectively served twelve members and our many guests. I planted a huge vegetable garden and organized the eager volunteer gardeners, we shopped and cooked and cleaned collectively, and the entire group met once a week to discuss practical and emotional problems.

I felt there were a few duds in the dozen, but overall the communal living experience was economical, ecological, healthy, and emotionally satisfying. Four heterosexual couples and four singles, two straight, two gay, composed our twelve, and my only secret complaint was that most of my fellow communards were not particularly creative.

After a year and a half in that commune, my girlfriend and I were on the verge of breaking up, and our dyadic divide coincided with two members of the commune moving out, thus creating two vacancies to be filled through our well-established selection process. Our commune was famously successful in Santa Cruz, we were right on the beach, and we had dozens of people applying for those two spots on the roster.

Eventually we winnowed the applicant pool down to four finalists, three men and one woman. One of the men was Ted, twenty-five, boyishly handsome, charming, a fine musician and actor, a graduate student at the university, and one of the most brilliant, funny, interesting people I’d ever met. The other two men were boorish stoners and I was baffled every time either of them made the next cut. The woman, Tina, was twenty-four, a zealous gardener, poet, yogini, dancer, professional cook, and bright and funny.

I assumed we would immediately and unanimously elect Ted and Tina, and I was so excited about them joining the collective that I kicked off our final group discussion before we voted by extolling their many virtues and speaking of Ted wanting to host a Drama night and Tina wanting to help me expand the garden and lead a daily yoga session.

To my horror, only one of the five women in our commune voted for Tina, and only one other man joined me in voting for Ted. All the women voted for Ted, and all the men voted for Tina, but since eight votes were required to win a place in the commune, Ted and Tina were not invited to join, while the two boorish stoners got the nod. Two weeks later, I broke up with my girlfriend and moved out of town.

But before I moved away, I spoke privately to each of the men who voted against Ted, and I spoke privately to each of the women who voted against Tina; and I asked them why they voted against such wonderful people and for such boorish dopes?

Three of the women admitted to being threatened by Tina’s charm and talent, and especially by how much the men liked her. One of the women said she felt Tina was too good to be true and didn’t trust her. One of the men said Ted was “hyper”, another of the men said Ted was “too intellectual”, and the third male dissenter said he was intimidated by Ted’s talent and by his girlfriend’s attraction to Ted.

Thinking about that turning point in my life—I might have written a hit song with Ted and married Tina and had three kids and moved to Denmark—I am reminded of when George W. Bush was running against Al Gore. In a large national poll conducted a month before the election, seven out of ten American men said they would rather have a beer and hang out with George than with Al, and in that election 75% of all male voters, Democrats and Republicans, voted for George, and 75% of all female voters voted for Al.

And that reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from the movie Blazing Saddles when Gene Wilder is explaining to Cleavon Little why the townsfolk won’t accept an African American as their sheriff.

“What did you expect?” says Gene to Cleavon. “A welcome sign? Make yourself at home? Marry my daughter? You’ve got to remember these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know…morons.”

And that reminds me of a recent and shocking study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center that found only 8% of high school seniors across America today identify slavery as the main cause of the Civil War, while 57% say tax protests caused the Civil War. How can this be? And isn’t it interesting that this phenomenon exists throughout the United States, not in isolated areas of the former Confederacy.

I am often chided by friends for being a conspiracy theorist, so I will not elucidate my theory about how and why one of the most important historical facts in American history is not properly taught in our schools. I will say that this monstrous educational lapse cannot, in my opinion, be accidental. Who would be best served by misleading entire generations of Americans about the cause of the Civil War?

And that reminds me of when I watched Jimmy Carter debate Ronald Reagan prior to the 1980 Presidential election, the last Presidential debate I ever watched. I howled with delight as Jimmy made a fool of Ronald at every turn in the debate, and I danced out of my house overjoyed that Jimmy would soon be re-elected, only to read the next day that multiple polls revealed well over 90% of Americans, Republicans and Democrats, felt Ronald easily won the debate.

Which is why, conspiracy theories aside, it didn’t surprise me even a little bit when Donald Trump was elected President of these United States.

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.


Why Bother?

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2012)

“Isn’t it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties? Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope; perhaps one could never find sense in life without first experiencing its absurdity.” Vaclav Havel

Dave Smith’s invaluable Ukiah Blog Live pointed me to a sobering presentation by Guy MacPherson on YouTube entitled Twin Sides of the Fossil Fuel Coin. MacPherson is a prominent conservation biologist who argues clearly and concisely that the only hope for the survival of humans beyond another couple of decades is the complete collapse of our global industrial society right now, today, and even that probably won’t be soon enough to stave off fast-approaching human extinction and the extinction of virtually all living things due to increasingly rapid global warming.

I watched the nearly hour-long presentation alone and then I watched it again a few hours later with Marcia, and then I spent a sleepless night wrestling with the overwhelming evidence that, barring a confluence of major miracles, we are about to experience massive economic and environmental collapse, and when I say “we are about to” I mean any day now, with some very reputable scientists suggesting the earth will be uninhabitable by humans in less than twenty years.

That’s right. Twenty years. Why? Well, in a nutshell, all recent data suggests that the warming oceans and the concurrent melting of arctic ice and the thawing of previously frozen bogs of Siberia, Canada, and Alaska are combining to release so much methane into the atmosphere that earthly temperatures will soon rise to deathly levels and everything that needs oxygen to survive will perish. And long before the oxygen runs out, crop failures and water shortages and catastrophic storms and economic collapse will instigate mass starvation and unimaginable social chaos. There will be no safe havens when there is no oxygen to breathe. We cannot move to a nicer place. This is it.

Meanwhile, I’ve got bills to pay and the men have arrived to install a deer fence. The house needs a new roof, we’re out of carrots, and we better get that package in the mail today or the presents won’t get to my sister before Christmas. Marcia is rehearsing some lovely cello-piano duets with Carolyn in the living room and the greedy bastards have just upped our health insurance twenty-five per cent and Obama is caving into the Republicans on tax reform because he is a Republican, and by the way, Obama doesn’t give a rat’s ass about global warming and the fast-approaching death of everybody’s children including his own.

So how do we proceed when we know the end of everything is so near? We can carry on as usual until something stops us from carrying on, or we can call our friends and say, “Let’s put our heads together and think of what we can do to try to help save the world?” And then we can start doing whatever we figure out to try to do. In either case, according to MacPherson, we’re doomed to a horrific future because we’ve waited too long to make the substantive changes we needed to make to avert global disaster. So why bother to try to improve things if we’ve already missed our chance? Why not just enjoy life as much as possible for however many years we have left and then when things get really icky, commit suicide?

That is probably what some of us will do. And some of us will hoard food and water in hopes of staying alive for a few months longer than we might otherwise live. And most of us will starve to death or be killed by other starving people or…you see why I had trouble sleeping.

In the meantime, I sure am enjoying the music Marcia and Carolyn are making in the living room—such masterful players, and so attuned to each other. What a miracle that humans evolved to where we could compose such gorgeous music and invent such fabulous instruments on which to bring forth such heavenly sounds. As it happens, I’ve been composing some new piano pieces I hope to record in the new year, and I’m looking forward to my novel Inside Moves being reissued in paperback in June with a flattering introduction by the famed Sherman Alexie; and I’m in talks with a publisher about bringing out a new edition of my book of writing exercises The Writer’s Path, and the deer fence guys are making great progress, which bodes well for the big vegetable garden I’m hoping to plant in the spring, and…

Gardens? Books? Music? Writing? What am I talking about? The human experiment is about to end. Forever. No more Shakespeare, no more Mendelssohn, no more Edith Wharton and Tony Bennett and Bill Evans and Eva Cassidy and Vincent Van Gogh. No more duets in the living room, no more walks on the beach, no more talks by the fire, no more snuggling in bed, no more laughter, no more Anderson Valley Advertiser, no more Giants baseball, no more going to the post office to get the mail. And no more garlic and basil and olive oil and almonds, i.e. no more pesto. Damn!

“The whole thing is quite hopeless, so it’s no good worrying about tomorrow. It probably won’t come.” J.R.R Tolkien

In 1971, at the ripe old age of twenty-two, I started an eight-person commune in Santa Cruz with the intention of becoming adept at organizing and operating group living situations that would, among other thing, minimize our use of automobiles and fossil fuels while maximizing regenerative ways of warming our dwellings in winter and growing lots of nourishing organic food. I was stoked (as we used to say) about the prospects of creating social systems that fulfilled the creative, emotional, culinary, and spiritual needs of individuals while enhancing life for the larger group and impacting society beyond the group in highly positive ways. What I discovered was that it was relatively easy to create such systems, but it was almost impossible to get American people, even fairly enlightened American people, to embrace such collective living arrangements for more than a little while.

Following the failure of the various communal systems I was involved with, I was initially at a loss to explain why so many people were so fiercely resistant to communal living (or even just neighborhood sharing systems) that were so much more economical and fun than going it alone. After years of thought, I came to the conclusion that social systems based on sharing rarely succeed in America because Americans (certainly those born after 1950) are entrained from birth to think of themselves first as individuals, secondly as members of a family (a distant second), and then maybe, and only maybe, as members of a larger group. Thus our various experiments failed because successful communal systems require individuals to put the group first, at least some of the time, which is the antithesis of the American way. In short, I was trying to fit round pegs into square holes, and I, too, was one of those round pegs, especially when it came to how quickly I lost patience with my fellow humans.

I mention these communal living experiments because in thinking about the fast-approaching end of life on earth, I think I understand why we have not been willing to change our ways to slow the destruction of the biosphere. We do not inherently feel we are part of anything beyond our separate selves. But even so, had we not invented such horribly destructive industrial systems and cars and trucks and trains that run on gasoline, and had we not so grossly overpopulated the world with our kind, we might be here for another two million years. Yet those destructive systems and inventions were born of our urge for individual power and control over others, and overpopulation is a function of our unwillingness to sacrifice individual desires for the good of the larger group.

So…do you believe Guy MacPherson, that the end of life is really very near? If you do believe him, what are you going to do about it? And if you don’t believe him, why don’t you?

Meanwhile, the deer fence guys are going great guns and Marcia and Carolyn are sounding fabulous and I want so much to believe that the scientists haven’t figured everything out that mother earth might do to cool herself down, and maybe we’ve got more time than they think and maybe my friends’ children and grandchildren won’t perish too soon. I’m sixty-three, so if I die ere long I will at least have had a fairly long life, but…

This just in! A planet with conditions capable of sustaining life is orbiting a star neighboring our sun! The star, called Tau Ceti, is only twelve light years away. Quick! Ready the giant spaceship (and dub her The Ark) and load the sacred vessel with two each of…

But seriously, folks, as the rain drums on our roof, and life goes on a while longer, I think of Mary Oliver’s poem The Buddha’s Last Instruction that begins

“Make of yourself a light,”

said the Buddha,

before he died.

I think of this every morning

as the east begins

to tear off its many clouds

of darkness, to send up the first

signal—a white fan

streaked with pink and violet,

even green.

The Manure Chronicles, Part Two

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012


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

“Pleasure is spread through the earth in stray gifts to be claimed by whoever shall find.” William Wordsworth

Long ago in the Santa Cruz of 1972, I was a member of a large commune occupying a grand old abode on the edge of the sea. A former stagecoach stop, hotel, brothel, and motel, the three-story main house shared a two-acre plot with four one-room cottages and a large barn that had once been a carriage house and served us as woodshop and garage. I am convinced that my vow to plant and maintain a big vegetable and flower garden was what decided the communards to vote me in, but it may also have been that they liked me.

In any case, I did plant a big vegetable and flower garden, roughly a fifth of an acre, and I not only grew enough vegetables to feed our twelve members and myriad guests throughout the year, but I frequently traded surplus vegetables for eggs and fruit produced by other communes in the area, and I made a bit of extra money for the communal pot from passersby attracted to my Pick-Your-Own-Bouquet sign affixed to the trunk of a fallen but still-living cypress at the mouth of our driveway. Our soil was sandy loam and needed help in the way of manure, most of which we got from a horse ranch on Trout Gulch Road out of Soquel, but there was one spectacular load of manure that came to us as a most surprising gift.

I made my money in those days as a laborer and musician. The minimum wage circa 1972 paid to Santa Cruz hippies for physical labor was two dollars an hour. Being a prideful sort, I would never work for less than two-fifty, and some people paid me three. This may not seem like much by today’s standards, but when you consider that cheese in those days, good cheese, was twenty-nine cents a pound, a loaf of fantastic organic bread made at our local bakery was eighty-nine cents (and half that a day old), and a towering glass of draft beer was fifty cents, then three dollars an hour was serious money.

But even living frugally, I was always low on cash, and so when I landed a four-days-a-week job as an estate gardener at four dollars an hour, I was suddenly a wealthy man, riding my bike six miles up into the mountains to a five-hundred acre estate of redwood forest surrounding rolling hills of wild grasses and poison oak transected by a narrow asphalt road leading to a spectacular house of stone and wood perched on a bluff overlooking Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay, an eagle’s eye view of what once was surely paradise.

My employers were an exceedingly wealthy middle-aged couple, he from Boston, she from Cincinnati, with one child, a bearded man of twenty-seven who still lived at home, their fortune inherited from the wife’s predecessors who had established one of the world’s largest oil companies. The husband had an office and a townhouse in San Francisco and would go there for days at a time to venture capital, I suppose, but more probably to get away from his wife who was phenomenally bossy and intrusive and sour.

They had lived in the Philippines for many years, which is where their bearded son had developed his great passion for polo, and where they had employed legions of servants and kept dozens of polo ponies and had a mansion on the outskirts of Manila and a beach house on Puerto Galera Bay and a mountain chalet near Baguio City; and they had loved living there. However, two failed but terrifying attempts by guerillas or crime lords (they were never sure which) to kidnap the bearded son convinced them to return to America, to build a house overlooking the Pacific on one of their many landholdings, and to live in peace and safety. They missed their legions of servants and days of splendor at the polo club, and the sweet warm evenings on various verandahs, and the divine luxury of having anything they wanted at any time, but they did not miss masked gunmen trying to kidnap them.

Since returning to America, the wife had taken to raising champion Saint Bernards, which pastime was the centerpiece of her life. The sire was a massive champion weighing well over two hundred pounds, the bitch a champion, too, weighing a petite one hundred and seventy. When I began working there, the champion pair had nine yearling male pups yet to be sold, each pup destined to surpass his father in size. These enormous dogs roamed free during the day and spent their nights in a quarter-acre pen ringed by a ten-foot-high cyclone fence. They were beautiful beasts, friendly and full of fun, and God help anyone they decided to have fun with.

The first thing I did every morning when I arrived (following my strenuous forty-five minute bike ride) was to release the pups from their pen. Why, you might ask, didn’t the wife or her bearded son or the German housekeeper or the Mexican cook release the pups? Because releasing the pups was a downright dangerous and heroic act, and here’s why.

Imagine nine two-hundred pound dogs, albeit friendly and full of fun, each possessed of frightening strength, hurling themselves against a cyclone fence in a frenzy to be released to go running over the hills and through the forest, sniffing and peeing and chasing deer and all other living things. Imagine the large outward-swinging gate needing to be unlatched, the person doing the unlatching directly in the path of the nine exuberant monsters who wished to show their gratitude to their brave savior by jumping on him and breaking his bones while licking him to death.

Further imagine that some fifteen feet directly in front of the gate was the thick trunk of a sprawling old live oak, a trunk wide enough, and ascending at such an angle, that an agile human could run up the trunk some seven or eight feet before needing to use his or her hands to climb another ten feet up into the tree. Now imagine a person, me, using a very long pole to flip up the latch on the gate, dropping the pole, running up the tree trunk, and then climbing high into the tree while eighteen hundred pounds of Saint Bernard came crashing out of the pen, and six or eight hundred of those pounds came running up the trunk of the oak in joyful pursuit of me. Eventually the colossal pups would leave me treed and rush away and I would climb down, sorely regretting that I had taken this job, yet counting myself lucky to have it.

Oh, the stories I could tell about those crazy rich people; but this is a story about manure, so I will cut to the chase. One day the wife and I were doing what we did every afternoon after lunch, which was to sit in the dappled shade of an oak on the hillside overlooking the flower garden I was forever repairing and replanting because of the rampaging pups. There in that dappled shade we would comb the coats of the huge dogs in search of burrs and wild oats the dogs had collected while rampaging over the hills, some of those oats having corkscrewed into the flesh of the dogs which required us to unscrew the oats and pluck them out—a painful procedure eliciting growls and yips and sometimes snaps from the behemoth canines.

I hated this part of my job more than any other part because I knew that the moment I released the burr-free dog, he would wander into the high grass and invite more oats to jump on for a ride. Or he would traipse down the hill and roll around on the newly planted petunias or begin digging furiously in the just-repaired tulip bed, uprooting bulbs and plants in search of gophers that were never to be unearthed. And the wife would smile at the demolition of my morning’s work and say things like, “They certainly love to dig, don’t they?” or “Where do they get so much energy?”

And the wife confided in me. She told me everything about her life, her husband’s life, and her son’s life; and on this one day, for the first time in the many months I’d worked for her, she asked me about my life. I told her I was a writer and hoped one day to publish stories and novels.

“Well,” said the wife, arching an aristocratic eyebrow, “then you’ll be interested to know that we were good friends with William Faulkner. We visited him three times in Mississippi and the last time we saw him he sold us the desk on which he wrote The Sound and the Fury. Do remind me to show it to you next time you come to the house for your pay.”

“Wow,” I replied, feigning enthusiasm. “The actual desk,” though the idea of these obscenely wealthy people buying Faulkner’s desk ignited a rage in me that spawned the fantasy of my stealing the desk and fleeing with the blessed thing to Oregon. Why should they have Faulkner’s desk? If anyone should have Faulkner’s desk, it should be me, not them. I had, after all, read As I Lay Dying twice!

And as I was having my silly fantasy of stealing her desk, my usually brash and bossy employer said in the sweetest way, “If you could have anything in the world, what would it be?”

In retrospect, I think she may have been asking me to say “Faulkner’s desk.” But at the time, her question seemed so ridiculous and insensitive—I, the struggling artist unscrewing wild oats from her huge dogs, she the billionaire heiress unscrewing wild oats from her huge dogs—that I almost said, “If I could have anything in the world it would be for you to hire someone to install an electric gate opener you can activate from the safety of your house so I won’t have to risk my life every day,” but instead I said, “I’d like a huge truckload of well-aged horse manure delivered to my garden.”

And two days later, as I was planting lettuce in the commune garden, a big old dump truck heaped high with well-aged horse manure came backing down the drive and hissing to a halt, the driver jumping out to ask where I wanted the glorious stuff dumped.

There should probably be a moral to this story. I dunno. I quit that job a couple weeks after the manure was delivered because a woman I was crazy about started dating the bearded son and changed overnight from a sweet hippie gal who used to come to my gigs and sing along to my songs and gift me with scintillating smiles and congratulatory hugs and kisses bordering on sex, into a snazzy club-hopping fashion plate. And she and the bearded son would come zooming up in his spanking new convertible Porsche to the fabulous house of stone and wood on the bluff overlooking Monterey Bay, dressed like movie stars at an opening night gala, while I was kneeling in the dog piss dirt replanting the flower bed for the umpteenth time under the watchful eyes of gigantic dogs…and I just couldn’t handle it anymore, though the money was awfully good.

Occupy Yourself

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

Photo of Todd by Marcia Sloane

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

“The young always have the same problem—how to rebel and conform at the same time.  They have now solved this by defying their parents and copying one another.”  Quentin Crisp

In 1972, when I was in my early twenties, I founded a commune in Santa Cruz, California, a collective of eight people (with numerous and frequent overnight guests). We were disenchanted with American society, with America’s wars of aggression, with America’s pyramidal scheme of things, and with America’s environmentally disastrous use of the land, so we decided to explore new (to us) and regenerative ways to interface with the world rather than follow in the destructive footsteps of our parents and forefathers.

To that end, the eight of us shared a house built for a family of four, created a large organic garden (some of us having worked with Alan Chadwick in the university gardens), and pooled our minimal resources for the good of the group. Our experimental community lasted two years before collapsing under the weight of selfishness, immaturity, and a profound lack of preparation for such an undertaking. Our intentions were flawless; our skills and execution abysmal.

Nevertheless, I learned many valuable lessons from that adventure, and my next communal experience was vastly more successful, though it, too, died a sorry death for lack of skills, experience, and commitment by the majority of the participants. We were children, after all, though we had attained the age of adults in other societies; and children, with rare exceptions, eventually need guidance from elders to make the transition from play into self-sustaining living.

A few nights ago, after watching a raft of Occupy Wall Street videos sent to me by fascinated friends, I was reminded of a night in that first commune, when several of us were gathered by the fire in the living room, rain pounding the roof of the house owned by an opportunistic university professor with a penchant for young hippy chicks, the owner of several houses he rented to gangs of youthful experimenters, many of whom I have no doubt would have flocked to the Occupy happenings of today—for the fun and adventure if nothing else.

So there we were discussing Marx and Sartre and Steinem and the tyranny of patriarchal theocratic monogamy mingled with visions of interconnected communes and solar organic farms and grassy walkways instead of cement sidewalks; and mass transit and bicycles instead of poisonous factories and cars and freeways—utopia manifesting in clouds of cannabis—when Pam appeared on the threshold connecting the kitchen and living room and said, “Hey, I totally dig where you guys are coming from and where you’re going, too, but who’s on dishes tonight? The kitchen is totally gross.”

“To heal from the inside out is the key.” Wynonna Judd

A psychotherapist once said to me, “The problem with blaming others for our unhappiness is not that those others aren’t important in the history of our sorrow, but that blaming them for everything interferes with our taking responsibility for what we have done and are doing now.” And one of my problems with blaming Wall Street and Washington and the wealthiest people for the woes of the nation (and the world) is that though many Wall Street operators and politicians and excessively wealthy people are unscrupulous jerks and thieves, blaming them for all our social and economic problems seriously interferes with taking responsibility for what we of the so-called 99 per cent have done and are doing now.

I find it maddeningly simplistic to suggest that we of the 99 per cent are not profoundly involved in the socio-economic systems of our towns, counties, states, and nation. As I read history, until the most recent collapse of the gigantic Ponzi schemes that kept our false economy bubbling along at least since Clinton took office in 1992, many of the people (or their parents) now bemoaning the economic imbalance of our society were perfectly happy to reap the rewards of that fakery, including the promises of fat retirements based on their 401 Wall Street retirement plans, and to hell with the rest of the world and those less fortunate than they. And I am certain the so-called one per cent know this about the 99 per cent, which is why they, the one per cent, do not take the 99 as seriously as they should.

“Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart.” Carl Jung

Shortly before Obama became President of the United States, I wrote that unless Obama moved quickly to institute Single Payer Healthcare and nationalize the banking system, within two years we would see massive social unrest. I was wrong. When the Occupy happenings began I thought they might be the start of that massive unrest, but now I doubt anything immediately massive will be sparked. I hope I’m wrong. But when someone sent me a link to an Occupy Kauai YouTube, and thirty seconds into the silly thing I was guffawing, I had the feeling the Occupy phenomenon might be well on its way to self-parody. Can the Occupy clothing line and Occupy Café chain and Occupy app be far behind?

“First they ignore you; then they laugh at you; then they fight you; then you win.” Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Cesar Chavez successfully employed non-violent protest, resistance, and boycott to further their political, social, and economic aims, and we are all beneficiaries of their courage and strategies. I assume some of the Occupy folks have studied the methods of Gandhi and King and Chavez, and I remain hopeful they will eventually decide to emulate those visionaries. Discussing my hope with an avid fan of the Occupy Wall Street folks, I asked, “So would you say the strategy of the occupiers is to not have a strategy?”

“Absolutely,” said my friend, “because to have a strategy is to commit to an ideology, which could quickly become vertical and therefore inherently divisive. This is a horizontal movement so no one is excluded.”

“Excluded from what?”

“From protesting how unfair the system is. That’s the beauty of saying we are the 99 per cent, because that’s totally inclusive except for the few people who have everything.”

“But a few people don’t have everything and the situation is much more complicated than some infantile delusion that one per cent of the population is determining everyone else’s fate. Among many other things, we do elect the charlatans passing the laws favoring the fat cats, don’t we?”

“Of course, but we don’t want to make this too complicated. By keeping things simple no one feels excluded.”

“I feel excluded.”

“That’s because you like things complicated. You want everyone to push for taxing corporations and socialized medicine and free education and shrinking the military. Talk about divisive.”

“Dream in a pragmatic way.” Aldous Huxley

Last night I had a wonderful dream in which I wrote the end of this article. In the dream I was madly in love with the Occupy Wall Street people and compared them to the disenchanted rebels and counter culturists of my youth in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I compared Occupy Wall Street to the Be Ins of those mythic times, and I wrote eloquently (as one does in dreams) about how the only agenda anyone had at those Be Ins was to “be there now” for whatever might go down, so to speak. Then, still in my dream, I thought of the television show Laugh In starring the young Goldie Hawn and Lili Tomlin; and in that marvelous way of dreams, Laugh In and Occupy Wall Street merged, and the protests became funny and sexy and good.

I think my dream was partly inspired by a slide show I watched before going to bed. Marcia sent me a link to a Huffington Post slide show of the Wall Street Occupation, a montage of compelling images that might have been shot in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury during the mythic Summer of Love in 1968, though I’m not saying the Occupy folks are a bunch of latter day hippies, but rather that they are as disenchanted (yet hopeful) as we were forty years ago, and they are passionately seeking alternatives to the earth-killing system that currently holds sway over our country and the world.

The article in my dream ended with lyrics to a beautiful song that made me cry. I wish I could remember the words, but they did not survive the transition to my waking state. What did survive was the feeling that just as we didn’t have an agenda forty years ago when we waved goodbye to the old ways and set out to figure out new ways that made more sense to us, neither do the Occupy people have an agenda other than to take things one day at a time, to be there now, to be good to each other, and to see what might evolve. So hurray for them, and by association, hurray for us.

Something Missing

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Todd’s web site is