Posts Tagged ‘Great Depression’

So It Turns Out…Part One

Monday, November 6th, 2017

Goddy and Casey and Howard

Winton & Waltons

“I was curious by nature. I observed the grownups, their behavior. I listened attentively to their talk, which I sometimes understood and sometimes did not.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

I’m in therapy again at the age of sixty-eight after a twenty-seven-year hiatus. And very much to my surprise, something has come to light that I got an inkling of when I was twelve and came to understand was a huge emotional component of my life when I was forty, but it was not something I fully opened to, delved into, and accepted as a fundamental aspect of my being until now.

I’m Jewish.

I don’t simply mean I am descended on my mother’s side from Jewish people who came to America from Poland and Ukraine in the late 1800s and settled in and around Detroit. I mean I carry in my psyche, in my neural pathways, and in my DNA, the experiences of an entire society as represented by unique individuals: my Jewish ancestors.

My non-Jewish father was a powerful influence in my life, but the deep emotional lake I swam in from the moment I was conceived and throughout my childhood was largely fed by the psycho-spiritual torrent flowing from my mother and her parents and her parents’ parents. I should also mention that my father’s parents disowned him when he married my mother, for they felt marrying a Jew was the worst thing their son could do. And though my father’s parents relented somewhat along the way, my connection to my father’s people never amounted to much.

By contrast, we, my siblings and I, adored my mother’s parents, and they, Goody and Casey, adored us. Nevertheless, I did not know my mother and her parents were Jewish until I was twelve-years-old. However, that didn’t stop me from becoming best friends with Colin, one of the only (other) Jewish boys at my elementary school—a friendship that has lasted sixty-two years and counting.

And I now realize that my friendship with Colin saved me from a childhood of denying my authentic self; for when I was with Colin, which was frequently until I was twelve, I was free to be who I really was, a Jewish kid who didn’t know he was Jewish.

How did I get to be twelve without knowing my mother was Jewish? Well, my mother’s parents, Goody and Casey, changed their last name from Weinstein to Winton during the Great Depression—the 1930s—so they could rent places to live in Los Angeles and find work there during a time of ferocious anti-Semitism in America. Thus they raised their two children, my mother Avis and her younger brother Howard, with the dictum: tell no one you are Jewish and exhibit no behavior that will reveal you are Jewish.

This imperative was re-enforced in my mother when kids at two different elementary schools she attended discovered she was Jewish, followed her home after school, shouted Jew and Kike, and threw rocks at her.

Which is no doubt part of why my mother rebuffed her Jewish suitors while attending Beverly Hills High and chose instead to marry my non-Jewish father. Raising her four children in the cultureless anonymity of the San Francisco suburbs, my mother gave no clues to her friends or her children that her parents were Yiddish-speaking Jews and her grandparents were immigrants from Poland who came to America to escape poverty and murderous prejudice.

Goody and Casey, however, continuing to reside in Los Angeles, eventually became wealthy from Casey’s real estate investments and “came out”, so to speak, in that city full of Jews. In the post-World War II boom times, they hobnobbed with other Jewish folks in the intertwined entertainment and real estate industries, and one summer when I was twelve, during our family’s annual visit to Los Angeles, Goody and Casey threw a big party, and at this party…

Picture a skinny twelve-year-old Todd wearing black slacks and a short-sleeved white shirt, reveling in the delicious food and the company of his cousins and siblings. Picture Goody, Todd’s effervescent grandmother, five-feet-tall in heels, leading him to a group of four Jewish matrons, introducing Todd as her grandson, and hurrying away to greet a newly arriving guest.

I stand before the four matrons. One of them pinches my cheek and says, “Oh what a cute Jewish boy you are. You’re gonna break lots of hearts, honey.”

To which I reply, “I’m not Jewish. I’m Unitarian.”

The matrons laugh and the cheek pincher says, “Of course you’re Jewish, sweetie-pie. You’re Avis’s child. What else could you be?”

“What do you mean?” I ask, feeling confused and a little frightened.

And another of the matrons frowns at me and says, “They would have burned you. The Nazis.”

I seek an explanation not from my mother but from my father who tells me in his I-Know-Everything way, “According to Jewish law, if your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish, but that’s religious nonsense. You’re just a person. And you’re too intelligent to get tangled up in primitive religious stupidity.”

Thereafter, the few times in my life when the subject came up, I would tell friends and girlfriends that my mother’s folks were the children of Jewish immigrants, but my mother didn’t consider herself Jewish, so…

In 1979 a movie was being made of my novel Inside Moves. For the first time in my life I had more than enough money to cover rent and groceries. With some of my surplus cash I decided to make a fifteen-minute movie from a script I’d written: Bums At A Grave. I was twenty-nine. This was in the days before digital everything so I hired a cameraperson, sound engineer, producer, and continuity person to make the 16-millimeter movie starring my brother and me.

During our two days of filming on forested land near Grass Valley, I felt I was doing what I was born to do—write and direct movies. Bums At A Grave turned out well and we had a premiere party at my house in Sacramento—a house purchased with more of that movie money.

A hundred people came to the lavish affair, many of the guests dressed as their favorite movie stars. My parents attended, and my mother came as Gloria Swanson, the famous Jewish actress and producer.

Bums At A Grave was subsequently screened at Filmex in Los Angeles to thunderous applause from a huge audience and was shown several times on an arty television station in the early days of cable TV. I never for a conscious moment thought Bums At A Grave had anything to do with me being Jewish or denying my Jewishness or being a self-sabotaging emotionally derailed human being. But this morning, opening and delving as never before, I realized that if there was ever a movie about a Jewish man unconscious of his Jewishness trying desperately to connect with his hidden identity, Bums At A Grave is that movie.

The movie is set in 1933, the year my grandparents changed their name from Weinstein to Winton. Willy, played by my brother, a handsome fellow who certainly sounds Jewish, is a homeless bum. He comes upon another itinerant, played by yours truly, completing the burial of someone.

Who am I burying? An old guy who happens to be…wait for it…a Jew. As we stand by the grave, I ask my brother if he knows anything appropriate to say, and he innocently asks, “Do you know any Jewish songs?” And I say, “He taught me one.”

I then proceed to sing “Hine Ma Tov”, a song I learned as a counselor at a Quaker summer camp when I was nineteen. The lyrics are the first verse of Psalm 133. “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”

When I finish singing my heart out over the buried Jew, my brother invites me to join forces with him to sing for our breakfast at a nearby farm, and on the way to the farm we talk about the buried Jew who I reveal was a great joke teller. I then tell my brother a joke about Democrats and Republicans that could just as easily be a joke about Jews and non-Jews. Then we sing an Irish folk song together. Fade Out.

You can watch Bums At A Grave on my web site, Under the Table Books.

Critical Delusion

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

“The fraudulent practices that got people into homes they couldn’t afford are at the heart of our problem.” Robert Scheer

There is no doubt I am happier and more productive and healthier and much more hopeful when I lose touch with the world outside the local watershed; and I am especially happier when I don’t read articles by Robert Scheer and Chris Hedges and Jim Kunstler and other brave and intelligent left-of-the-now-non-existent-center pundits. When I do read articles by these folks, or essays by relatively moderate commentators like Paul Krugman, I feel depressed and hopeless and mentally bludgeoned because these well-meaning folks keep saying the same things over and over again, week after week, month after month.

So to climb out of my slough of despond, I abstain for days on end from news of the outside world, and the bloom returns to my cheeks, and my writing picks up steam, and new melodies present themselves, and I improve as a husband and friend and neighbor, and I start to think life is pretty okay; and then someone sends me an incisively gruesome article or someone emails me a link to a frightening treatise, and I am once more sucked into reading commentaries elucidating how and why things in the great big world are, indeed, going from bad to worse, and I feel bludgeoned again, and while I’m being bludgeoned I try to make sense of the avalanche of facts about the legions of crooks who own and run the world, though the ultimate sense to be made is the same sense I’ve been making since they ran Jimmy Carter out of office in 1980 with a fake oil shortage, to wit: we’re headed for even bigger economic and environmental catastrophes than the ones we’re in the midst of.

And it occurred to me as I was reading Robert Scheer’s recent tirade from which I culled the opening quote—The fraudulent practices that got people into homes they couldn’t afford are at the heart of our problem—that I have the same difficulty with Scheer and Hedges and Krugman and Kunstler that I had with most of the speakers at the anti-war rallies during the George Bush years, which is that these angry intelligent people are so stuck on exposing the already entirely exposed current crop of crooks that they don’t delve deeply enough into human nature.

For instance, yes, millions of people were duped into buying homes they couldn’t afford, but that is not the heart of the story. To get to the heart, I will pose and answer three questions. 1. Why were those tens of millions of fraudulently sold houses so incredibly expensive? 2. Why were tens of millions of people so easily duped into buying absurdly expensive houses? 3. Why, in the recent California election, did a majority of voters defeat a proposition that would have, for eighteen dollars a year, made our several hundred fabulous state parks wholly viable and free to everyone?

The answers to these questions are:

1. In 1996, in the working class neighborhood where I lived in Berkeley, California, a little (and I mean tiny) house went on the market for 139,000 dollars. After six months on the market, this eensy teensy house sold for 119,000. However, four years later in 2000, this same iddy biddy house sold for 540,000 dollars, and my neighborhood was working class no more. Two years later, in 2002, this same miniscule home sold for 790,000 dollars. Now, honestly, these price increases did not occur because of fraudulent practices. These increases occurred because of collective insanity springing from greed, fear, and delusion. Thus I conclude that collective insanity is the answer to why all those eventually fraudulently sold houses were so expensive and unaffordable even had they been sold without a hint of fraud.

2. Many millions of people were so easily duped into buying insanely expensive houses they could not afford because they, the duped people, were greedy, fearful, and delusional. Why they and most Americans were and are greedy and fearful and delusional is another question, one might even call it The Big Question, and I’m coming to that.

3. The majority of voters in the last election voted against paying eighteen dollars a year—the same eighteen dollars they spend on useless crap every day—for eternal free admission to hundreds of groovy state parks because they, the No voters, are greedy, fearful, and delusional. Yep, the same answer as numbers 1 and 2.

Therefore, I conclude that greed, fear, and delusion are at the heart of the economic meltdown, the perpetual state of war, and the takeover of our country by crazy amoral jerks, not fraudulent practices that got people into homes they couldn’t afford. The end. Not quite.

“It is the author’s working assumption that the words good and bad are meaningless.” Buckminster Fuller

Let us investigate greed, fear, and delusion, shall we? Okay. I will endeavor to make this interesting rather than depressing. Greed, I think we can agree, is born of fear. People who constantly overeat and over-consume (expressions of greed) are afraid they won’t get enough to eat and will die of starvation. This fear-induced greed, whether partially or entirely unconscious, was probably ignited in the greedy gobblers in early childhood and doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with a real lack of food or safety, but springs from primal fears that every human is genetically prone to. Once the fears of starvation and/or homelessness are ignited in a person, quelling those fears is no easy task.

Over the course of my life, I have known a good number of people with millions of dollars, and none of these millionaires considered themselves wealthy or felt they had enough money. When I asked them why they didn’t think they had enough money, the universal answer was that they lived in fear of some sort of catastrophe rendering them poor and homeless and soon to die of starvation or worse.

Some of these millionaires were children of the Great Depression, some were grandchildren of the Great Depression, and a few were great grandchildren of the Great Depression. None of these millionaires felt they had enough money to be safe, which is why they needed more money than the millions they already had. How much more? As much as they could get until they died so they could leave as much money and property as they could to their children who would also never have enough no matter how much they got. In other words, they were all insane. And more importantly, you and I are no less insane; we simply lack those millions of dollars.

Indeed, I think that the acknowledgment and understanding of our inherited collective insanity is the key ingredient missing in the diatribes of Hedges and Scheer and Krugman and myriad other alarmist writers. These well-meaning pundits preach that corporate crooks and their political proxies and the crooks’ fathers and grandfathers did such horrible fraudulent things because they, the crooks, are inherently evil, i.e. insane. But the deeper truth is that these crooks are merely standout psychopaths in our vast population of crazy people.

“Humanity is moving ever deeper into crisis—a crisis without precedent.” Buckminster Fuller

So what is the solution? Few pundits offer pragmatic suugestions about how we might solve the problems caused by the insane elite manipulating our collective insanity. They, the pundits, speak in grandiose terms about throwing the crooks in jail or shifting our national economic policies in ways the insane crooks will never permit unless we overthrow them in a violent revolution, and I’m too old for that. However, I am confident we have the power to cure our society of the insanity that grips us.

First, we need to admit that we, you and I, are part of the problem. To that end, please repeat after me. I am greedy and fearful and part of our collective insanity. You didn’t repeat that after me, did you? Come on. Give it a try. I am greedy and fearful and part of our collective insanity. Good. Speaking the truth can weaken the grip of madness.

Secondly, we need to understand the basis of our greed and fear and resultant insanity. And that basis is, drum roll, please…our belief that there is not enough for everyone—not enough food or money or houses or fun. Why do we believe this? Because it used to be true, but it isn’t true anymore. Through the grace of collective genius and accumulated knowledge and the collaboration of the universe, we now possess the wherewithal and know-how to provide every person and every living thing on earth with enough of what they need to live healthy, happy, and meaningful lives.

You flinched, didn’t you, when you read that last line? Or you stiffened or frowned or thought This guy is nuts. Why? Because you don’t believe there is enough for everyone. But there is. Prove it, you say. There are now seven billion people on earth, you say. The fisheries are depleted. The biosphere is threatened with massive pollution and degradation beyond the point of no return. War! Famine! There can’t be enough for everyone. It’s natural to be fearful and greedy. We’re not delusional; you’re the delusional one, Todd. You with your Buckminster Fuller bullshit. There isn’t enough for everyone. There’s not. There’s not!

Yes, there is. And I’m glad you brought up Buckminster Fuller because Bucky, besides inventing the geodesic dome, wrote a book entitled Critical Path, the last book he published before he died; and in Critical Path he expresses the hope that whomsoever groks (deeply absorbs and understands) his message will try to translate Bucky’s stream of consciousness prophecies and revelations into language and art and technology and design and behavior that will open the minds of others to the paradigm-shifting truth that, among other things, there is enough for everyone, and we need to focus our individual and collective genius on transforming human culture to reflect that truth.

By the way, the expression critical path refers to the steps to be taken in order to accumulate and apply sufficient knowledge pursuant to accomplishing a particular goal. Bucky’s introductory example of a critical path process is the challenge posed by President Kennedy to design and implement the safe transport of humans to and from the moon, a task that required many quantum leaps in knowledge and technology in a very short span of time to accomplish the stated goal and simultaneously illustrate the astonishing things our well-funded collective genius might accomplish.

In conclusion, we need an all-nation critical path program to reverse global environmental collapse and to give everyone enough to live healthy and fulfilling lives. And while we’re helping to implement this marvelous global program, each of us can work on programming our individual psyches to accept the truth that we, collectively, have enough for everybody. And because there is enough for everybody, we no longer need to be fearful or greedy or delusional. There is enough for you, enough for me, enough for everyone. There really truly is.

(This essay first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2010)

Astrologers have told Todd that his natal chart indicates preternatural optimism. His cheerful web site is Underthetablebooks.com

Bums At A Grave

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

The first movie I remember seeing at a movie theatre was The Court Jester starring Danny Kaye, Basil Rathbone, and the very young Angela Lansbury. 1955. I was six years old. As we left the Park Theatre in Menlo Park, California, I distinctly recall turning to my mother and announcing that I was going to be a movie star like Danny Kaye. To which she replied, “Don’t be silly.”

Three years later, 1958, my parents took me to see Alec Guinness in The Horse’s Mouth, after which I proclaimed, “That’s what I’m going to be. An artist and live on a boat.” To which my father, a psychiatrist, replied, “Just what we need, another narcissistic sociopath.”

Both The Court Jester and The Horse’s Mouth have stood the test of time for me. I’ve seen them several times in the intervening fifty years, and I still consider The Horse’s Mouth to be one of the very best depictions of a person who cares more for his art than for anyone or anything else.

When I was nine, Willy Mays supplanted Danny and Alec as my supreme mentor and hero, and led me off my artist’s path into the glory of baseball and eventually basketball, my twin obsessions until late high school when I was felled by what the western medical doctors called a hot case of ankyllosing spondilitis, which ailment cut short my dreams of athletic glory, returned me full steam to writing and music and drama, and shortly thereafter saved me from going to fight in Vietnam.

When I dropped out of college at nineteen, I knew what I wanted to be: a professional writer, actor, and musician—Danny Kaye and Alec Guinness rolled into one.

Despite a thousand setbacks and highly annoying poverty, I held to this vision of myself, worked day and night at my writing and music, and at twenty-eight was rewarded by having my first novel published and made into a major motion picture. A year after that, I published my second novel, and Warner Brother paid me to write the screenplay for Laura Ziskin, famous most recently as the producer of the Spiderman franchise.

And though by the age of thirty I hadn’t made buckets of money, I had made a goodly chunk of change, so I decided to make a little film of my own to prove to myself and others that I had the chops to offer myself as a director of my own movies. This, of course, was in the days before digital anything, when making a good-looking movie, even in sixteen-millimeter film, was extremely expensive; and so was born my truly minimalist fifteen-minute fictive film entitled Bums At A Grave.

Within a year of completing the film, my career, so bright and promising (in commercial terms) had collapsed. Bums At A Grave became but a reel of celluloid in a canister that lay on my dusty shelf for nearly thirty years. And then a few weeks ago, at the urging of several old friends who remembered the movie and wanted to see it again, I had the film transferred to DVD in a good lab in San Francisco.

Seeing Bums At A Grave for the first time in twenty-eight years was a fascinating walk down memory lane for me. I wrote the script in 1979 when I was living in Santa Cruz, California. The film is set in 1933 during the Great Depression, and seems remarkably predictive of Now. We filmed it in the summer of 1980 shortly after I moved to Sacramento—a two-day shoot in 105-degree heat near Grass Valley. Richard Simpson was the cinematographer and editor, Doug Peckham handled sound, Bob Smith produced, Patty Nolan was continuity person and assistant-to-everyone, my brother Steve starred as Willy, and I co-starred as Trevor.

For years prior to the Bums shoot, I studied movies in search of filming techniques that particularly pleased me. This meant I had to go to movies multiple times, since VHS technology had barely been born and DVDs were not yet a glimmering in the eye of the future. I did not and do not like quick cutting from one scene to another. I very much enjoy action within a still frame, slow tracking shots, and a slowly pivoting camera on a tripod. No handheld shots, please!

Thus when I wrote the script for Bums At A Grave, I intentionally minimized the need for edits while creating setups for active and changing points of view. This not only made for more pleasing cinema, it saved money in those days when even 16 mm shooting and editing was expensive.

For instance: characters at a distance can move (in the course of a scene) to the forefront of the frame where a slow zoom to a close-up can add up to three or four “scenelets” in a single take without the need for an edit.

Bums At A Grave screened at the 1980 Filmex film festival in Los Angeles for an audience of 1200 hardcore film buffs and movie biz folks. They loved the film, laughed uproariously at the Republican joke (Reagan our brand new president in 1980), and gave us a rousing ovation at the end. While we were in LA, we screened the film for Laura Ziskin, and to my everlasting delight Laura pronounced, “Your agents are missing the boat with you. They should be pushing you as a director.”

But life, as the poets say, intervened and I took another road in the opposite direction of Hollywood. Today, at last, you can see scenes from Bums At A Grave on Youtube. Turn up the volume and have some fun. Or view the entire fifteen minutes of Bums At A Grave, Admission Free, at Underthetablebooks.com.