Posts Tagged ‘generosity’

The Beggar

Monday, March 13th, 2017

The Beggar

Buddha Statue photo by Todd

a story from Buddha In A Teacup

Each morning on her way from the subway to her office in the pyramid building, Cheryl passes hundreds of beggars. And each evening on her way home, she passes most of the same beggars again. And there are beggars in the subway station, too.

Every few weeks, moved by a compulsion she has no explanation for, she empties the kitchen change jar into a paper bag and carries these hundreds of coins with her to work. On her way home at the end of the day, she gives this change to the only beggar she has ever admired. She has never told her husband or children what she does with the money, nor have they ever inquired about its repeated disappearance.

The man she gives this money to is tall and handsome, olive-skinned, with short brown hair and a well-trimmed beard. He is, she believes, close to her own age—forty-nine—and he wears the saffron robe of a Buddhist monk. He sits cross-legged on the sidewalk in front of the Costa Rican consulate, a stone’s throw from the subway entrance. His back is perfectly straight, his head unbowed, and he sits absolutely still. He is not there in the mornings, but he is there every evening of Cheryl’s workweek, except Wednesday evenings.

His large brass bowl sits on the ground directly in front of him. When money is dropped into the bowl he does not alter his pose in the slightest, nor does he make any outward gesture of thanks.

As the weeks and months and years go by, Cheryl finds herself thinking constantly about her favorite mendicant. He has become something of a hero to her, though she knows nothing about him. She begins to wonder where he lives and what he does with the money he collects. She has no idea when he arrives at his begging post or when he leaves. She doesn’t know if he is mute or deaf. Does he beg on Saturdays and Sundays, too? She only knows that he is there at six o’clock on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday evenings, sitting very still and gazing straight ahead, receiving alms.

When she begins waking in the night from dreams in which she and this man are fleeing together from some unseen terror, she decides to change her path to work. She tells herself that if she stops seeing him four times every week, she will eventually stop thinking about him. So she chooses another subway stop, one a few blocks further from the pyramid building, but with only the rare beggar along her way.

For the first week, her new route gives her sweet satisfaction. She feels as if an enormous weight has been lifted from her shoulders. She hadn’t realized what a tremendous strain it was for her to pass by all those poor people every day. And she no longer sees him—that impeccably silent man in his golden robe. She no longer sees his piercing eyes or his sensuous lips or his beautifully formed hands resting palms up on his knees.

Still, she thinks of him constantly. She wakes exhausted from dreams of making love to him, of being his wife, his judge, his executioner. But it is only when she fails to sleep at all for three days and nights in succession, and feels herself dissolving into madness, that she decides to learn all she can about him.

She takes a week off from work, though she doesn’t tell her husband she is doing so. On a cold morning in November, she rides the subway into the city at her usual hour. She stands on the sidewalk across the street from the Costa Rican consulate and waits for the object of her obsession to arrive.

At noon, his spot still vacant, Cheryl goes to a restaurant and fortifies herself with a meal, though she has little appetite. She has lost several pounds during the weeks of her growing concern about this man. Her husband believes she has finally discovered a successful diet.

Tired of standing, she is sitting on the sidewalk, her back against the wall of a bank, when he appears a block away—a golden flower in a river of darker flowers. He walks with stately grace, his begging bowl in his left hand, and a small rug, tightly rolled, in his right. When he has attained his place, he bows slightly in each of the four cardinal directions, places the bowl on the sidewalk, unfurls the rug, sits down upon it, and assumes his meditative posture, his eyes fixed on his bowl. He takes a deep breath and exhales, after which his breathing becomes imperceptible.

A moment passes, and now money begins to rain down, the bowl filling so quickly Cheryl is certain the monk will move to empty it, but he does not.

A man in a filthy black coat, a beggar Cheryl has seen a thousand times before, approaches the man in gold, nods to him, and empties the overflowing bowl into a small cardboard box.

A few minutes pass and the bowl is full once more. Now the veteran with one leg who sits in his wheelchair by the fire hydrant with a cat on his lap, rolls up to the man in gold, and leans down to dump the rich bowl into a red tartan sack.

And so it continues hour after hour until the last commuter has gone home and the bells of a distant church chime eight o’clock—seventy-seven beggars of every age and sex and color gifted by the begging bowl of the man in gold. Cheryl has tallied them in her notebook, the ink smeared by her tears.

A few minutes past eight, the man rises from his rug and stretches his arms to the sky. Now he bows to each of the four cardinal directions, rolls up his rug, picks up his empty bowl, and crosses the street to stand in front of Cheryl.

She looks up at him, speechless with love.

To which he replies softly, and with the force of a hurricane, “Hello my dear friend.”

Wrong Ending

Monday, March 6th, 2017

inside moves covers

Four Editions of Inside Moves photo by Todd

“Sometimes the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious.” George Orwell

A few weeks ago I had an inquiry about the movie remake rights to my novel Inside Moves. I replied to the inquiry (I do not own those rights) and then burned some sage and prayed to the gods of cinema to please make a second film from my novel. And though a remake is highly unlikely, just the thought of a new iteration of Inside Moves took me back thirty-eight years to the making of the first movie and the many conflicts I had with the filmmakers about how that movie should be made.

The narrator of the novel Inside Moves, Roary, is disabled from wounds suffered while fighting in Vietnam. For the movie, made in 1979, the screenwriters changed Roary from war veteran to a man who attempts suicide by jumping from a tall building. He miraculously does not die from the fall, but is somewhat disabled due to his injuries. I fiercely opposed this change because I felt it undermined the veracity of the entire story, nor is it ever explained in the movie why Roary wanted to kill himself.

John Savage plays Roary in the movie, and though superb in the role, I didn’t find him credible as someone who wants, or wanted, to kill himself. But the moviemakers were shy of bringing Vietnam into the story and they loved the shock value of showing someone jumping from a tall building. To compound the wrongness of their idea, when they filmed that suicide-attempt scenes they blocked traffic on the streets around the tall building and a huge crowd gathered. That crowd appears in shots of Roary’s jump, though in the movie, Roary sneaks into a building, goes to an upper floor, and quickly jumps, so there would have been no witnesses, no crowd. Oops.

One of the things many people love about the novel Inside Moves is the generosity and kindness of Roary and the gang at Max’s bar, where most of the story takes place. And this generous spirit does infuse the movie. However, the screenwriters added an ending in which Roary does something so antithetical to his nature, so opposed to the message of the rest of the movie, I several times beseeched the director, Dick Donner, not to end the movie that way. I also spoke at length to John Savage, and he agreed the ending was terribly wrong. John was certain that when Donner saw a rough cut of the entire movie, he would not use the misguided ending.

But because the people making the film were spending a large part of the production budget staging and filming the ending scenes of the movie, I was not hopeful. I attended the filming of those scenes at what is now Oracle Arena in Oakland, and was deeply saddened by an ending that had nothing to do with my book or the rest of the movie they made.

A couple months before the movie was to be released, I was invited to attend a sneak preview in a huge theater in San Francisco. I brought several friends with me and we sat in the jam-packed theater with hundreds of other people, most of them unaware of what movie they were about to see.

This was my first time watching Inside Moves, and I could barely process what I was seeing. There were times when the audience howled with laughter, and there were moments when I could feel everyone in the theatre deeply connecting to the characters and the story.

Then came the final ten minutes of the movie. In the scene just before those scenes filmed at the Oakland arena, Roary and several characters from Max’s bar are on their way to attend Jerry’s first basketball game as a member of the Golden State Warriors. While the group is waiting for their bus to arrive, Roary encounters Ann, Jerry’s former girlfriend, a hooker, who knows nothing of Jerry’s success. The interaction between John Savage and Amy Wright in this scene is a brilliant enactment of a scene lifted verbatim from the novel. As Roary says goodbye to Ann and joins his pals on the bus, the music swells and EVERY PERSON IN THE AUDIENCE THOUGHT THE MOVIE WAS OVER!

Because it should have been. The audience began to applaud and cheer, and hundreds of people gave the movie a standing ovation. But wait. The movie wasn’t over. Alas, there was an implausible and wrongheaded revenge scene glued to the end of the film. So people sat back down, and all the excitement and good feelings drained from the theatre as the senselessly violent scene played and then the credits rolled.

Filing out, we heard dozens of people saying how wrong the ending was; and many people made that comment in the questionnaires accompanying the screening. Then we went to a pub full of people who had seen the movie, and everyone was talking about the movie—how good it was except for that terrible ending.

And I hoped the director and producers, who were all in attendance at that sneak preview, would see the wrongness of their ending and cut it. But instead they shortened the scene of the bus driving away with the gang from Max’s, and they brought up the announcer’s voice at the Oakland arena while Roary was getting on the bus, to insure the viewer understood the movie was not over yet, lest they miss the violent ending.

So if by some miracle the cinema gods do remake Inside Moves, I hope they allow Roary to be a man transcending the wounds of war, and they end the movie with a message of kindness and generosity, not vindictive violence.

What Shall We Do?

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

wildgardener2

The Wild Gardener painting by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2014)

“Life is full of obstacle illusions.” Grant Frazier

Congress has just voted to cut nine billion dollars in food stamps for poor Americans while voting to spend an initial sum of twenty billion dollars to bomb people in Syria and Iraq. That’s twenty billion on top of the trillion dollars Congress gives the Pentagon every year to, you know, bomb people all over the world.

Is there anything we the people can do about this insanity? Hypothetically, yes. We can engage in massive protests and strikes, say fifty million of us, demanding more money for the American people, an emergency national conversion to renewable energy sources and drastic cuts to the Pentagon budget. And we could organize and carry out a super effective boycott of Chevron. But none of that is going to happen because the vast majority of Americans are so busy scrabbling to make ends meet or scrabbling to buy the latest iPhone and other neato stuff we don’t need or sitting on our asses watching television, that from a political perspective we the people are irrelevant. From an economic perspective, we the people are a source of trillions of dollars of income for multinational earth-plundering corporations; such plundering funded by we the people buying neato stuff and overpriced medications and inadequate health insurance.

So what shall we do, you and I, in the face of what we know to be true about what is happening to the earth and to our society, and also knowing that the ruling elite can watch half a million people march in Manhattan to protest global warming and not give even a tiny hoot?

It is never too late to be who you might have been.” George Eliot

Here are some ideas about what you and I can do.

Idea #1: Give money to poor people. I know there is a strong sentiment that giving money to poor people only encourages them to stay poor, but that is untrue, cynical, and verges on the insane. So let us give money to poor people. If you don’t feel you have much to spare, just give a little.

Idea #2: Let us not buy a neato thing we were going to buy. We just won’t buy it. We’ll make do with other neato things we already have. Remember: long before that neato thing you want existed, you were getting along okay. Not buying that neato thing will free up cash for food and giving money to poor people.

I know we shouldn’t have to give money to poor people. Our country is so incredibly wealthy there need not be any poor people, not a single one, but the ruling elite have rigged the game and conquered our brethren with neato things and television and car-centric everything so equality and sharing the wealth is not going to happen in America any time soon. So let us not think of giving money to poor people as something we should do but as something we want to do to help counter the gross social and political imbalance the stupid meanies have created and we have acquiesced to.

Idea #3: Be kind to everyone we meet. Sometimes I make a fool of myself being kind to people, but most of the time the person or people I’m kind to appreciate my kindness and respond in kind. Today, for instance, I was buying a half pound of ground beef to go on the pizza we’re making tonight, and I was kind to our usually taciturn butcher, and though he resisted at first, eventually he smiled and even laughed a little when I said perfecto because he guessed to within a fraction of an ounce the amount of beef to put on the scale to make a half a pound.

Being kind to everyone we encounter makes it impossible to maintain attitudes of disdain and fear. I think disdain and fear are not only closely related emotions, but are two of the fundamental factors causing people (and they are just people) in Congress and in the huge voracious corporations destroying the earth to do the horrible things they are doing to our society and the earth.

From a Buddhist perspective, disdainful and fearful rulers and insanely rich people and people mindlessly watching television and compulsively buying neato things are mirrors for us. Their actions and attitudes are reflections of our own actions and attitudes, and we would do well to stop denying this and explore ways to change our own actions and attitudes. Who and what are we disdainful of? What are we afraid of? Why are we disdainful? Why are we afraid? What can we do to stop being disdainful and fearful?

“In their property was a portion dedicated to the beggar and the disinherited.” The Qur’an

Some years ago in San Francisco I was with two fellow artists, a man and a woman, on our way to a Chinese restaurant known for excellent food and wonderfully low prices; and even at those wonderful prices going out to supper was a serious splurge for me. The city was teeming with poor people and I had long since given away my spare change and one-dollar bills.

We were just about to enter the Chinese restaurant when we encountered a frighteningly gaunt man who said, “Hate to bother you folks, but I am starving to death. Can you help me?”

I reached for my wallet and my male friend grabbed my wrist and said, “Don’t. He’ll just use it for drugs.”

“No, I won’t,” said the gaunt man. “I need food.”

I gently disengaged from my friend, took out my wallet, and found I only had a twenty-dollar bill therein. If I gave the gaunt man my twenty I would not have money for supper. Meanwhile, my female friend had opened her purse and given the gaunt man a dollar. This so outraged our male friend that he threw up his hands and cried, “Don’t be fools!”

Then I said to the gaunt man, “We’re going into this Chinese restaurant. If you come in with us, I will pay for you to have some food.”

The gaunt man nodded and followed us into the restaurant where he ordered rice and vegetables—costing me seven dollars—and sat apart from us at a small table, wolfing down his food and drinking many glasses of water and dozens of cups of the complimentary tea. My two friends and I had a wonderful meal and laughed until we cried about something I can’t remember.

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.

Receiving

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

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

“It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Jesus, Acts 20:35

John Steinbeck’s preface to his wonderful The Log From the Sea of Cortez is a celebration of Ed Ricketts, Steinbeck’s friend and mentor and co-author of that fascinating record of their marine biological expedition to the Sea of Cortez—the text rich with philosophical asides. Steinbeck felt that Ed’s great talent and finest gift to his friends was his ability to receive, and in receiving with grace and delight and heartfelt gratitude, he gave the givers priceless gifts. The idea that receiving can be a gift contradicts hundreds of famous directives, Biblical and otherwise, but it seems deeply true to me.

Einstein said, “The value of a man resides in what he gives and not in what he is capable of receiving.” But I don’t think Einstein really meant receiving, I think he meant getting or taking. Receiving involves surrendering, and that is the gift—opening our hearts to the giver.

One of my favorite books is a little tome entitled Love Is The Wine: Talks of A Sufi Master In America, the master in this case being Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak. Here is the beginning of his talk on Generosity.

Many years ago, a traveler came to a small town. The custom at those times was to open your door to whoever came as “God’s guests” as they were called. When someone knocked on your door and said, “I am God’s guest,” you were to invite him in, feed him, and give him a place to sleep.

The traveler came upon a group of townspeople and asked, “Is there a kind person in town who has space to put me up for the night? The next morning I will continue my journey.”

The townspeople said, “Well, yes, there is one person who does welcome guests. If you stay there, he will feed you, put you up, and be very kind to you. However, we have to warn you that he has a strange habit—in the morning, when you are leaving, he will beat you up.”

It was winter and very cold. The traveler said, “I’m not going to spend the night on the street, hungry. I will go and take what comes to me. I will eat, sleep in a warm room, and if he’ll beat me up, he’ll beat me up.”

The traveler knocked on the door and a very pleasant man opened the door. The traveler said, “I am God’s guest.” The man replied, “Oh, come in, please come in.”

He offered the traveler the best place and his best cushions. The traveler replied “Eyvallah.” (Eyvallah means “As you wish”. It literally signifies our willingness to accept whatever we are given—good or bad, delightful or unappetizing—remembering that it comes from God.)

“May I put a pillow behind you to make you more comfortable?”

“Eyvallah.”

“Are you hungry?”

“Eyvallah.”

The host brought out a delicious dinner, and then asked his guest if he would like some more.

“Eyvallah.”

The host said, “Coffee?”

“Eyvallah.”

“Would you like a cigarette?”

“Eyvallah.”

“May I make up your bed?”

“Eyvallah.”

The host made up a wonderfully soft bed and put a feather comforter on it.

“Would you like some water before you go to sleep?”

“Eyvallah.”

In the morning the host was up early. He asked the traveler, “Would you like some breakfast?”

“Eyvallah.”

The host served a wonderful breakfast.

Once breakfast was finished the traveler realized it was time to take leave of his host. After the stories he had heard, he was afraid of what might happen, though this man had just devoted almost a day to take care of him. “I would like to take my leave now,” he said, fearfully.

The host replied kindly. “Eyvallah,” and added, “You seem to be a man without much money. Would you permit me to give you some money?”

“Eyvallah.”

The host gave him ten pieces of gold. The traveler thought to himself, what a beating I’m going to get after this!

The host saw him to the door, saying, “May God go with you. Goodbye.” The astonished traveler said, “I beg your pardon? There is terrible gossip going around about you. You are the most generous person I have ever seen. They say that you act hospitably with guests but that in the morning you beat them up. May I go and spread the word that you do no such thing, that you are a wonderful man and wonderful host?”

The host said, “No, no. What they say is true.”

The astonished guest said, “But you did not treat me that way.”

“No, you are different. My other guests are much more trouble. When I offer them the best place in my house they say, ‘Oh no, no thank you, you sit there.’ When I offer them coffee they reply, ‘Well, I don’t know. I don’t want to bother you.’ I ask them to have dinner and they say, ‘No, it will make too much fuss.’ Those people I certainly beat in the morning.”

“We are not cisterns made for hoarding, we are channels made for sharing.” Billy Graham

When I was forty-eight, I blew out my knee and was on crutches for six months. I was living alone in a second-floor dwelling and did not have a washing machine and dryer, nor did I have a car or any feasible way to get to a coin-op laundry, let alone to a grocery store. This was the first time in my adult life I was so incapacitated I had to ask friends for help, something I had never done before and something I found almost impossible to do.

I will never forget the day my friend Mindy came to get my laundry to take to her house to wash. “Your sheets are scary,” she opined, glancing at my unmade bed. “I’ll wash those, too.”

“No,” I said, trembling with shame. “You can’t.”

She smiled quizzically. “Why not?”

“Well,” I said, panicking, “I just…they…”

I sat on my living room sofa listening to her strip my bed and I became so upset and so terrified, I shouted, “Stop! You don’t have to do that. I’ll…I can do it. I’ll wash them in the bathtub and…”

“Cool it,” she said, coming out of my bedroom. “I enjoy helping you. I’ll see you in a couple hours.”

In those couple of hours, I came face-to-face with a big fat fundamental rule governing my life: no one was allowed to do anything for me; and that rule, otherwise known as a crippling neurosis, explained the nature and quality of my relationships with women up to that point in my life, as well as the nature and quality of all but a few of my friendships. I could never have asked the host in that Sufi tale to put me up for the night, but would have spent the night on the freezing streets if I lacked money to pay for a room.

I’m a little better—fifteen years later—about allowing people to do things for me, but only because of practice gained while I was ill or injured and needed help from others in order to survive. And what I find most fascinating about my particular neurosis is the large number of people I have met who suffer from the same malady.

Where did this crippling neurosis come from? One therapist I spoke with suggested that as the child of alcoholic parents I became a classic enabler at a very early age. In order to avoid my parents’ wrath, I learned to fend for myself, to do my parents’ bidding in hopes of pleasing them, and to ask as little as possible from them. As the therapist was suggesting this to me, I remembered that one of the very first things I learned to do for my parents—I was six-years-old—was to make coffee for them in the morning.

Knowing how miserable and angry my mother was until she’d had two cups of coffee, I would get up long before anyone else in the family, tiptoe into the kitchen, climb onto a high stool, fill the kettle with water, and start it heating on the electric range. Then I would open a drawer adjacent to the electric range and take out a big round piece of brown filter paper, which I would fold in half and then in half again so the folded filter would fit into the top of the hour-glass-shaped Pyrex coffee maker. Then I would spoon seven scoops of Hills Brothers’ dark roast coffee from a two-pound can into the filter and pour boiling water over the ground coffee again and again until the bottom of the hourglass was full of black brew.

I remember that for the first year or so of making coffee for my mother, I lacked the strength to lift the kettle high enough to pour water onto the coffee in the filter atop the hourglass, so I would pour the boiling water into a metal bowl and use a ladle to scoop the water over the coffee. After the coffee was brewed, I would make my lunch for school: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a banana. Then, if my mother hadn’t gotten up and come into the kitchen, I would tiptoe down the hall to my parents’ bedroom and say quietly, “Mommy, your coffee is ready.”

Eyvallah.

Homelessness

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

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

I am currently in the throes of rewriting a novel I first completed in 2003, rewrote entirely in 2006, and then did not touch for six years. I have only undertaken this kind of extended creative venture a few times in my life because most of my long dormant creations do not stand the test of time for me; so I have no interest in spending another thousand hours remaking them. Nor would I have had the opportunity to rewrite any of these long slumbering works had I been a more successful writer with publishers and producers clambering for my works as I completed them the first time. In any case, these books and plays and screenplays I remake multiple times over the course of many years are my favorite creations, regardless of their commercial fates.

This novel I am rewriting is a quasi-autobiographical tale about a middle-aged man who invites a homeless woman and her four-year-old son to live with him. His relationship with the boy is loving and parental, his relationship with the woman in no way sexual, though sexuality is one of the larger subjects of the novel. And though I am still keenly interested in the book’s exploration of sexuality, I am most interested (at the moment) in the subject of homelessness, for I was reminded when I read this manuscript that homelessness has played a central role in many of my books and stories, both published and unpublished.

When I lived in Sacramento in the 1980’s, I became fascinated with several of the many homeless people who gathered downtown in Plaza Park before the park was gussied up and gentrified and made off limits to those outcastes I came to know quite well. The result of my fascination was a novel entitled Two Rivers, four years in the making, an epic stream-of-consciousness prose poem I was never able to publish, though two unusual literary agents and three brave New York editors fell in love with the book and strove mightily to convince the powers that be to publish it. In retrospect, I understand why the book was anathema to corporate publishers, for the interlocking stories composing the novel lay bare the truth of our society’s great shame—the abandonment of those most in need and the terrible legacy of that mass abandonment.

Because homelessness has recently returned to the fore of my consciousness, I am keenly aware that homelessness is almost never mentioned by any of the politicians currently running for local and national office. There is much talk of the great stress being put on the middle class and elderly by the current economic crisis, but homeless people and homeless families are rarely spoken about, though their ranks grow larger every day. Of course, homeless people do not vote, so why should politicians waste their precious cash appealing to the victims of our failing system of governance? Yet it is the unspoken specter of homelessness that is the very monster driving voters into the arms of countless crackpots who blame Big Government for the woes of our society, when our government is not acting in nearly big enough ways to do what must be done to resurrect a viable safety net for all our citizens.

If you are under forty you will not remember when there were virtually no homeless people in America, but that’s the way it was before Ronald Reagan became governor of California and then President of the United States. Certainly there were poor people and itinerant alcoholic bums before Reaganomics became the de facto law of the land, but there were not millions of homeless families in America or even thousands of them. I will not attempt to sum up the sickening history of how Reagan’s overseers shifted the political and social sands to create the economic forces that created the epidemic of homelessness we have today, but be assured that homelessness is the direct and recent result of the craven and amoral rigging of our systems of taxation to benefit the wealthy while sacking those social programs aimed at helping the economically disadvantaged.

What interests me more than the financial mechanics that caused so many millions of people to become economically disenfranchised is what homelessness means as a reflection of our collective response to such suffering. And I think our collective response, which is to do nothing to reverse the horrific policies of our so-called leaders over the last thirty years, is a reflection of a totally false and tactically implanted fear in all of us that there is not enough food and shelter and security for everyone, so that sharing our wealth with others is perceived to be the direct path to homelessness. That may seem simplistic, but that is what I observe in individuals and groups in response to individual homeless people and to homeless people as a growing sector of our population. The homeless are to be pitied or scorned, but not given the means to substantively improve their lives, for we have been programmed to believe that such giving will only impoverish us, when, in fact, the opposite is true.

For many years before I wrote Buddha In A Teacup, a collection of forty-two contemporary dharma tales, I was immersed in the writings of several excellent Buddhist teachers, and what I discovered time and again was that generosity, the sharing of one’s self with others, not only underpins all aspects of Buddhist philosophy, but is apparently the most difficult concept for Americans to fully understand and incorporate into their lives. And the reason for this difficulty, according to many Buddhist teachers, is that American are deeply entrained to believe that the purpose of giving is to get something in return, whereas the essence of true generosity is to give without any expectation of recompense.

Here is the tale Generosity from Buddha In A Teacup. I would be very curious to know how this little story makes you feel.

Generosity

Tess, a slender woman with brilliant blue eyes and long gray hair, lives in Golden Gate Park—her camping place known only to her.

“I don’t leave anything there when I come out. If you were standing right on it, you wouldn’t know anyone lived there because it’s just a place along the way. I leave no indentation. Even if you found me there you wouldn’t know I lived there because I might just be a tourist sitting in the park. I only have my knapsack.” She smiles. “The only way they could bust me is if they found me there at night, but no one comes there at night. Except me. It’s such an unlikely place for a person to live.”

Tess and a middle-aged man named Thomas are having lunch at a café a few blocks from the park. Thomas has known Tess for three years. They met at an arts faire in downtown San Francisco where Tess was selling handmade greeting cards. Each card contains one of Tess’s original poems. She is a highly skilled botanical illustrator. Most of her cards are scientifically accurate drawings of flowers rendered with fine-tipped pens.

The first card he bought from her—Crimson Columbine—contained the following poem.

this wildflower

short-lived, yes,

but no prisoner

 

A few months later, Thomas met Tess walking on Ocean Beach. They were both searching for unbroken sand dollars. He introduced himself and asked if he might hire her to make a drawing of the leaves and flowers of camellia sinensis—tea—for his business card and stationery. She was happy to make the drawing for him and he was thrilled with the result. Since then they have met every week for lunch.

“I made you something,” she says, handing him a greeting card. “That’s Arnica mollis. Cordilleran Arnica. I love how the yellow flower stands out against the dusky green leaves.”

He opens the card.

Dear friend,

Winter is nearly upon us.

May I sleep on your sofa at night until Spring?

I will be quieter than a mouse.

I will leave no indentation.

For the rest of my life,

I will make drawings and poems for you.

Blessings and Love,

Tess

 

 

Austerity

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

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

“When we deeply understand that actions bring results, it can motivate us to take active responsibility for our actions and our lives.” Joseph Goldstein

Planting time: kale, lettuce, carrots, peas, beets, broccoli. Hearty potato plants rise from the ground and promise a good harvest of spuds in a month or so. Look! A hundred and eight beautiful garlic plants are nearing fruition after many months of growing. As I work in my little garden, I think about the lunatics running our state and national governments, advocates of what they call austerity (but what is actually senseless cruelty and greed), and I imagine a gang of these crazy people surveying my garden and proclaiming, “These seeds and plants aren’t producing anything we can eat right now. They need to be taught a lesson. They need to tighten their belts and pull themselves up by their own root straps. Stop watering them. Stop feeding them. Don’t give them anything until they learn to grow without any assistance from anyone.”

“But…” I try to argue, “…vegetables require time and nurturing to eventually…”

“No buts,” say the lunatics. “No time. No nurturing. Look at those redwood trees over there. You don’t feed or water them, do you? Yet they grow bigger every year. That’s how your broccoli should behave. That’s how lettuce ought to grow. Don’t coddle your sugar snap peas. Let them stand on their own.”

“At the end of his life, Aldous Huxley said that he had come to appreciate how most of spiritual practice is learning to be kinder to one another.” Joseph Goldstein

Years ago I read an article about an experimental program in a Swedish prison that treated inmates as people suffering from emotional and physical deprivations. Inmates were given massages several times a week, had frequent individual and group sessions with psychotherapists, got plenty of opportunities to exercise, learn new skills, make art, eat delicious nourishing food, and were treated with kindness and respect by a staff of skillful and compassionate attendants. Because exhaustive research showed that the vast majority of felons had been deprived of sufficient loving touch as children and adults, and were obviously starved for friendship and love, and because it was clear that punishing people for being emotionally wounded only exacerbated their emotional problems, this regimen of loving-kindness seemed a logical and humane approach. As you might imagine, nearly all the inmates treated for several months in this revolutionary way were positively transformed, so much so that five years after they were released, almost none of the felons had committed another crime.

“We really don’t need very much to be happy. Voluntary simplicity creates the possibility of tremendous lightness and spaciousness in our lives.” Joseph Goldstein

I am old enough to remember President Jimmy Carter delivering a famous speech in 1977 that began as follows. “Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you about a problem unprecedented in our history. With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes. The energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us, but it will if we do not act quickly. It is a problem we will not solve in the next few years, and it is likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century. We must not be selfish or timid if we hope to have a decent world for our children and grandchildren. We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources. By acting now, we can control our future instead of letting the future control us.”

Jimmy wanted Americans, with the help of the government, to insulate our homes, conserve energy, and prepare for oil and gasoline becoming extremely expensive. He spoke eloquently about the global environment being under severe duress, and he suggested that people as well as corporations needed to make substantive changes in energy use so the transition to a post carbon future would not be too arduous. Jimmy was my hero after he made that speech. Never before nor since have I heard a President of the United States speak so truthfully and with so little concern for his political future.

That speech, for all intents and purposes, ended Jimmy’s political career and rendered him a largely ineffective president for the rest of his one and only term in office. He had committed the unforgivable crime in a nation controlled by amoral corporations. He had suggested that unbridled capitalism was no longer a viable response to a planet overtaxed by out of control humanity.

Ronald Reagan then came to power by attacking the basic premise of Jimmy’s truthful and heartfelt speech. Reagan declared a thousand times that there was a superabundance of everything and no need to conserve, no need to worry about the environment or the future. We were, he declared, the strongest and richest nation on earth and we, collectively and individually, could have anything we wanted. And so Reagan was elected by a landslide. Yes, Ronald Reagan, the great idol of the austerity lunatics, rode to power as the champion of unlimited consumption.

What I find most telling about the national rejection of Jimmy Carter’s suggestion that we make key changes in our personal and collective energy policies is that change itself was interpreted as austerity. People feared that if we couldn’t keep doing and having everything we wanted to do and have right this minute, and in ways we were accustomed to doing and having, we would be denying ourselves happiness. This was not Carter’s message, but rather how his opponents spun the message to tap the fears of people growing more and more accustomed to instant gratification and the superabundance of new things: gizmos, food, clothing, houses, cars, computers—stuff! And that was almost fifty years ago. Think of what we, the cell phone app people of 2012, have grown accustomed to.

“Practicing kindness means that we connect with people rather than dismiss them; kindness breaks down the barriers between ourselves and others.” Joseph Goldstein

Before moving to Mendocino, I rented an old house on the flats of north Berkeley, a block off Gilman Avenue. Homeless people, mostly men, with shopping carts piled high with cans and bottles were plentiful in our area because one of the main garbage transfer and recycling centers in Berkeley was on Gilman down near the freeway, about fifteen blocks from my house. Because I walked or bicycled everywhere, I got to know some of these scavengers and frequently gifted them with my empty bottles and cans, and less frequently I gave them a little cash if I felt I had some to spare.

Many of these homeless recyclers frequented a liquor and grocery store on the corner of Gilman and San Pablo Avenue, and it was not uncommon to find two or more of these entrepreneurs gathered on the sidewalk in front of the store with their wagon trains of shopping carts. Since I left Berkeley seven years ago, that area has undergone a profound gentrification, so I don’t know the current state of the homeless scene thereabouts, but in my day there were dozens of shopping cart scavengers using Gilman as their main route to the recycling center.

So…one day an old friend, a childhood pal I hadn’t seen in many years, came to visit me in Berkeley. Tina was married to an extremely wealthy man and lived in a mansion in Los Angeles—her life one of extreme luxury and privilege. Yet she was terribly unhappy and full of complaints. I, on the other hand, was not sure I would have enough money to pay my rent that month and buy groceries, so her complaints were not landing on sympathetic ears.

When I realized I had ceased to listen to her, I suggested we go for a walk and see the sights of my neighborhood. Tina was game, so off we went, and after I’d shown her my favorite front yard gardens, I decided (without knowing why) to take us by the liquor store on the corner of Gilman and San Pablo to see what we could see. And lo the gods had assembled five homeless scavengers with their many shopping carts in tow, three of the sweaty fellows having recently cashed in their treasure, the other two en route to do so.

Tina, I should add, was a beautiful woman as graceful as a deer and the object of admiring gazes from most everyone who saw her. And as we approached the liquor store, the gang of recyclers fell into reverent silence, as if to say, “Well lookee here, a goddess came down to give us thrill.”

Then one of the fellows hailed me. This was Jonah, a muscular black man who slept in a nest he’d fashioned in the heart of a massive blackberry bush not far from my house. “Yo! Mr. Todd. What’s doing?”

“Showing my friend the sights,” I said, leading Tina closer to Jonah and his compatriots. “Tina, this is Jonah. Jonah, Tina.”

“Where you from?” asked Jonah, his broad smile revealing a scarcity of teeth.

“Los Angeles,” said Tina, breathless with fear and excitement. “Near Santa Monica.”

Then we chatted a bit more, saying nothing of great import, Jonah doing most of the talking, Tina wide-eyed and smiling anxiously; and then we bid them adieu and headed home.

But before we had gone two blocks Tina touched my hand and said, “I want to give them some money. Do you think…would that be okay?”

I assured her it would be okay and we returned to the liquor store where Tina gave each of the men a twenty-dollar bill. Then two of the men began to weep, and Tina burst into tears, and so did I.

Yes, But…

Thursday, December 15th, 2011


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

“If there’s not drama and negativity in my life, all my songs will be really wack and boring or something.” Eminem

For many people, December is the most neurotic month; and Christmas marks the apogee of shame, jealousy, disappointment, and self-loathing. Indeed, most psychotherapists aver that Christmas in America might as well be called Crisismas. One can theorize endlessly about why Christmas/Hanukah (and the attendant mass gift buying) inflame the dominant neuroses of so many people, but the picture that sums it up for me is of a child surrounded by dozens of presents she has just frantically unwrapped, not one of which satisfies her craving to be loved.

“The ultimate lesson all of us have to learn is unconditional love, which includes not only others but ourselves as well.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

When I embarked on my first experience of formal psychotherapy, I knew my parents had abused me, but I could not clearly elucidate the rules of behavior instilled in me by their abuse. My therapist suggested I try to write down the basic rules governing my behavior so I might gain a more objective view of how those rules impacted my life.

One of the most deeply entrenched rules I uncovered was: Nothing I do is good enough. Sound familiar? I ask because I subsequently learned that this rule runs many people’s lives. And though I doubt our parents ever came right out and said, “Nothing you do is good enough,” I know that in myriad other ways they repeated that message thousands and thousands of times; and repetition accomplished the entrenching.

For instance, my mother used “Yes, but…” responses to everything I did or said. “Yes, but…” responses are characterized by positive (though insincere) opening statements followed by the word but, followed by subtle or emphatic derogatory proclamations. Here are a few examples of the thousands of “Yes, but…” responses I received from my mother over the course of my life.

Following my performance in a high school play, my mother said, “You were very good, but…you’re not going to be in another play, are you?”

Upon hearing about my very first sale of a short story, my mother said, “Well, that’s good news, but…they didn’t give you very much money, did they?”

And after meeting my girlfriend(s) for the first time, my mother opined, “Well, she seems nice, but…maybe just a little cuckoo/not too bright/might have a weight problem/might be anorexic/seems rather young for you/seems rather old for you/never finished college/works in a restaurant/rides a motorcycle/do you think she takes drugs?/she sure can drink/she wears an awful lot of makeup/why no makeup?”

Children who are constantly bombarded with “Yes, but…” responses grow into adults incapable of hearing or believing positive responses from anyone. If such a bombarded person sings a song and a friend responds, “That was beautiful,” the bombarded person will assume the compliment is false because in their experience honest responses (which are always negative) only come after the word but. Indeed, a statement not followed by but and a negative comment has no meaning at all to a person programmed to believe Nothing I Do Is Good Enough.

Some people grow up with “Yes, but…” fathers and non-“Yes, but…” mothers, or vice-versa; and these people tend to have mixed views of themselves as partly good enough and partly not good enough. Their versions of the Nothing I Do Is Good Enough rule are Nothing I Do Is Good Enough for Dad (men) or Nothing I Do Is Good Enough for Mom (women). However, if both parents employ “Yes, but…” responses to everything a child does or says, then that child will become an adult with serious trust and intimacy issues; and he or she will almost certainly fear and loathe Christmas because no matter what he or she buys for anyone, it, the present, won’t be good enough. How could the stupid thing be good enough? Consider the source!

Most of my father’s responses to me began with, “You know what you really should do?” followed by a lecture about what I should be doing as opposed to what I was already doing. In this way he re-enforced the Nothing I Do Is Good Enough rule with the I’m Never Doing What I Should Be Doing rule.

At best the family teaches the finest things human beings can learn from one another— generosity and love. But it is also, all too often, where we learn nasty things like hate, rage and shame.” Barbara Ehrenreich

I vividly remember the day before Christmas when I was twenty-two, a scruffy lad hitchhiking to my parents’ house for our annual festival of neuroses starring my brother and sisters and parents and moi. This was during the vagabond phase of my life—a cold and rainy day in California, the oak trees rife with mistletoe. I was standing on the western edge of Highway One, about ten miles south of San Francisco, the rain drumming on my gray plastic poncho, my backpack and guitar sheltered under a silver tarp, my soggy cardboard sign reading Half Moon Bay Or Bust. I was dreaming of a hot shower and a good meal and a warm bed, and trying not to think about the de rigueur verbal abuse that would accompany such parental hospitality, when a tie-dyed Volkswagen van stopped for me.

The driver was a loquacious fellow named Larry from Galveston, Texas, his coach reeking of tobacco and marijuana, his voice warm and comforting. After a few minutes of back and forth, he said, “Hey, man, I like you. Why don’t you come to our house for Christmas? Stay a couple days? We live right down here in San Gregorio. Kind of a commune, you know? My wife Suse is cooking a big turkey, my sister Clara’s making yams. Bunch of artists and musicians.” He bounced his eyebrows. “Lots of pretty women. You’ll dig it, man. There’s plenty of room to spread your kit.” Then he grinned enormously and added, “It’ll beat the shit out of mom and dad, guaranteed.”

As the child of two alpha “Yes, but…” parents, I was certain there was an unspoken but attached to Larry’s generous invitation—a problem or multiple problems. Larry’s wife might become violent after her third glass of wine, and the wine would probably be cheap and give me a headache. Their dog would bite me or give me fleas. Suse’s turkey would be overcooked, Clara’s yams inedible, and I’d become constipated or get the runs. I would hate the music Larry and his friends played, and Larry and his friends would hate my music. The women would not be pretty and the whole affair would be a disaster.

“The thing is,” I replied, hating myself for turning him down, “I promised my mother I’d come home for Christmas, and…she worries about me. I haven’t seen her in a year, so…”

“I hear you,” said Larry, nodding sympathetically. “But listen, man…if it sucks, you know where to find us. We’d love to have you.”

We parted ways at the San Gregorio general store and I hitched the last thirty miles to the festival of neuroses at my folks’ house. And that festival did, indeed, totally suck. So the next day, Christmas, despite the howling wind and torrential rain, I hitched back to San Gregorio, found the dirt road to Larry’s and Suse’s place, and arrived at their little farmhouse to find Suse storming around in the wreckage of her kitchen and raging on the phone at her mother in Los Angeles—Larry sitting in his van with his five-year-old son Lance, Buffalo Springfield on the stereo singing, “Listen to my bluebird laugh, she can’t tell you why. Deep within her heart, you see, she knows only crying. Just crying.”

“Hey,” said Larry, rolling down his window and smiling at me. “You came. Right on.”

“Is it still okay if I stay here tonight?”

“Absolutely,” he said, turning to his son. “Hey, Lance, this is Tom.”

“Todd,” I said softly. “Merry Christmas, Lance.”

“I got four books and a ball and crayons,” said Lance, nodding seriously. “What did you get?”

“Fifty dollars,” I said, thinking of my unhappy mother slipping me the money under the table so my dad wouldn’t see, and how, despite her disapproval of everything I chose to do, she loved me; if only I would be someone else.

“Suse is seriously bummed,” said Larry, shaking his head. “Bullshit with her mom. You don’t want to know. So…I think maybe you better sleep in my van tonight. Should be better in the morning.”

“I think I’ll just come back another time,” I said, taking a hit from the proffered joint. “But I thank you for the invitation.”

“Oh, stay, man,” he said, nodding encouragement. “This, too, shall pass. Besides, we need you to help us eat all the leftovers. Right, Lance?”

“Right,” said Lance, nodding emphatically. “There’s tons.”

Good People

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

Mr. and Mrs. Magician and their son Mischief by Todd

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

“When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.” Abraham Lincoln

Our maternal grandfather Casey died when he was eighty. He was institutionalized for a year prior to his death because his worsening dementia made him too unpredictable and uncontrollable for our diminutive and frail grandmother to handle. I visited Casey several times in that sad institution where he spent his last days, and though my parents always prefaced my visits to him by saying, “Casey just spouts gibberish now,” I invariably found him cogent and funny in a rambling sort of way.

At the tail end of my last visit to Casey, about a week before he contracted a virulent flu and died, he said two things that have stuck with me for thirty years. We were sitting side-by-side on a concrete patio in a little pool of sunlight when Casey arched his eyebrow (he reminded me of Groucho Marx in appearance and voice) and said, “You know, this is a very exclusive university. It’s extremely difficult to get in here. But eventually, everyone does.”

We laughed about that and then Casey said, “Listen. When you find yourself with the bad people, get away from them and go to the good people.”

“Nothing can be more readily disproved than the old saw, ‘You can’t keep a good man down.’ Most human societies have been beautifully organized to keep good men down.”  John W. Gardner

So what makes someone good or bad? Or are good and bad essentially useless terms, since one nation’s mass murderer is another nation’s hero, and the town harlot turns out to be a tireless advocate for women’s rights, and that usurious money lender is the beloved grandfather of a girl to whom he gave a pony? I took Casey’s advice to mean: if I find myself entangled in unhealthy relationships, I should, as swiftly as possible, get out of those relationships and seek healthier ones. But maybe that’s not what Casey meant. Maybe he meant there really are bad people, and they should be escaped from and avoided; and there really are good people, and they should be found and hung out with. Or maybe he was just speaking gibberish.

“I’ve never met a racist yet who thought he was a racist. Or an anti-Semite who thought they were anti-Semitic.” Norman Jewison

We recently saw the wonderful movie Temple Grandin, a fictional rendering of the life of a real person. I knew nothing about the real Temple Grandin before we watched the movie and that made the story all the more fascinating to me, so I won’t tell you what the movie is about. But I will say that Temple Grandin confirmed in me that being an insensitive conformist is bad, and thinking you know everything is also bad, but insensitive conformists and know-it-alls are not necessarily bad people.

“If we’re bad people we use technology for bad purposes and if we’re good people we use it for good purposes.” Herbert Simon

As is my habit, I examine the little slips of paper that come with my PG&E bill because these little slips often presage rate increases for what I consider bad reasons. These slips foretold the coming of Smart Meters and explicated how we, not the private corporation PG&E, must pay for those stupid things with greatly increased rates. These tiny missives announced rate increases to repair and re-license disaster-prone nuclear power plants that never should have been built (with massive government subsidies) in the first place. Now this month’s bill brings news of yet another rate increase to pay for PG&E, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas and Electric forming a so-called partnership with…drum roll, please…Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, on a project entitled California Energy Systems for the 21st Century.

Dig this verbiage. “The partnership seeks to leverage the joint resources of the Utilities, California agencies and California research laboratories and institutions to develop the necessary technologies and computing power necessary to expand and enhance the use of renewable energy and energy efficiency resources for the benefit of California consumers, businesses and governments. The consortium will employ a joint team of technical experts who will combine data integration with the nation’s most advanced modeling, simulation and analytical tools to provide problem solving and planning to achieve California’s energy and environmental goals.”

In other words, three massive private corporations, each with more wealth than most nations, are going to jack up our rates yet again to pay for their use of public institutions, which you and I also fund with our taxes, to figure out new and more efficient ways to bilk us out of even more cash in the name of doing for the state what the state is now too bankrupt to do for itself. Leverage the joint resources? Puh-leez. How about plunder the dying carcass? I may barf, but then I’ll pay those higher rates because I prefer life with electricity.

For my money, literally, the people behind this latest PG&E extortion (the same people who brought us the exploding gas lines in San Bruno) are bad. Why are they bad? Because they know what evil they perpetrate, and they carry out their perpetrations self-righteously and with utter contempt for those they pretend to serve. So maybe that can be one of my definitions of a bad person: someone who knowingly does harm to others when he or she knows they are doing that harm for unnecessary self-advantage. I apply the adjective unnecessary because I can imagine someone who is starving to death doing harm to others to get food, and I might judge that person desperate rather than bad. The bad people of PG&E, however, are already so rich they should be ashamed of themselves for scheming to steal more.

“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

I wonder how Martin Luther King, Jr. would have defined a bad person. I’m guessing he believed in the essential goodness, or the potential for being good, in all people, but felt that racists were infected with racism and therefore had gone bad, as food goes bad when tainted with poisonous bacteria.

If all good people were clever,

And all clever people were good,

The world would be nicer than ever

We thought that it possibly could.

But somehow, ‘tis seldom or never

That the two hit it off as they should;

For the good are so harsh to the clever,

The clever so rude to the good.

This verse by Elizabeth Wordsworth is to be found in the Foreword to Buckminster Fuller’s Critical Path and is preceded by Bucky writing: “This book is written with the conviction that there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people, no matter how offensive or eccentric to society they may seem. I am confident that if I were born and reared under the same circumstances as any other known humans, I would have behaved much as they have.”

“But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.” Luke 14:13

When I was a young vagabond, I decided to read The Bible. I felt something was missing in my understanding of our society, and I thought I might find that something in The Bible. I thought this because I kept meeting people who would quote from The Bible and paraphrase the words of Jesus as His words were reported therein, and many of these people were kind and generous to me; so I spent several months plowing through the book, reading every word, though many of those words struck me as redundant and ill-conceived.

The Bible, as you probably know, is composed of two distinct halves, the Old Testament and the New Testament, each an anthology of booklets. Many authors contributed to both halves, and some of the booklets are far more interesting and better written than others. The editors of each of the two anthologies shared a well-defined agenda, and so excluded any gospels espousing beliefs contrary to that agenda, which was to increase the power of the Church and her operatives by making the case in booklet after booklet that the only way to access God was through the Church and her operatives, otherwise known as priests and ministers.

In the Old Testament, the pronoun He with a capital H refers to God, and in the New Testament He with a capital H refers to either God or Jesus, and depending on which booklet you’re reading Jesus is God or Jesus is the son of God. In any case, when I finished reading that enormous tome, I was most impressed by the command that is repeated dozens of times in the legends of Jesus in the New Testament; and that command is to be generous and kind to those weaker and less fortunate than we. Indeed, I think I could make an impregnable case that sharing our wealth with those less fortunate than we is the primary message of the New Testament, which is supposedly the guiding light of American Christianity, though sharing our wealth with those less fortunate than we is definitely not the guiding principle of the majority of representatives in Congress who claim to be Christians. Isn’t that odd?

“The young man said to Him, ‘All these commands I have kept; what am I still lacking?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’” Matthew.19:20

I love the word complete in that quotation. Complete. Whole. Connected to others in loving ways. For when compassion and generosity propel our actions, don’t we feel good? And when fear and greed propel our actions, don’t we feel just awful?

Something Missing

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com