Posts Tagged ‘H. G. Wells’

Perceptions of Wealth

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Perceptions of Wealth

Roses Pancakes Coffee photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“I got plenty of nothing, and nothing’s plenty for me.” DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin

Say what we will about the silliness of Hillary Clinton claiming to be dead broke when she and Bill exited the White House in 2001 to make way for George “Picasso” Bush, at least her ridiculous boast brought to light the collective insanity of the obscenely wealthy. Wait a minute. We already knew the obscenely wealthy were insane. Or did we?

In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, I was part-time secretary to a wealthy woman who lived and worked near the top of the socio-economic pyramid of the city-state of San Francisco. At the beginning of my tenure as her secretary—in the archaic sense of being her editor, chauffer, escort, confidante, tea maker and typist—I interpreted her frequent claims of being poor and broke and penniless as a kind of self-mockery, and so simply ignored that particular line of blabber. But over time I came to realize she truly believed she was poor, her belief arising from consorting with people who had a great deal more money than she.

Over the course of five years of working for this wealthy woman, I met dozens of extremely wealthy people perched near the tippy top of that socio-economic pyramid, and I was astonished to find that many of them spoke often and bitterly about how little money they had and how terribly constrained their lives were for lack of funds.

“We were going to stay on our farm in Provence for the usual two months, but Jack said we could only go for six weeks this year and only spend a month at the Montana ranch because he had to be here for some stock thing. And we haven’t had a spare minute to get to the beach house this summer because we’re completely redoing the kitchen and it’s a matter of life and death. I am so done with black and red marble. Give me green serpentine! Did I tell you we’re busting out the south-facing wall to turn the dining nook into a dining room? I felt like I was in prison. I wanted the room to vault out over the canyon, but Jack said sinking steel girders into the cliff would add way too much expense and we’re just strapped right now.”

“In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” H.G. Wells

One day I arrived on my bicycle at the splendid Berkeley home of my employer to assist a renowned chef who was catering a seven-course luncheon for which I would prepare seven outrageously expensive teas—four greens and three blacks. I stowed my bike and knapsack in the garage, changed into suit and tie, climbed the twelve stairs to the front terrazzo and gazed westward over the descending hills to San Francisco Bay—the distant towers of the Golden Gate Bridge rising out of white fog.

The front door swung open and here was my employer, a tall youthful woman in her late sixties, dressed as if for her coronation and beckoning urgently. I followed her into the dining room where the enormous oval table was set for twelve with heirloom Dutch china and gleaming Swiss silver, the royal scene crowned with a spectacular floral centerpiece of rare Brazilian jungle blooms—to be removed moments before the guests were seated.

The chef’s assistant peeked out from the kitchen and said, “Madame? Would you care to taste the soup?”

“Be right there,” said Madame, frowning gravely at me. “I have a terrible feeling there’s something not quite right about the mix. See what you think.”

I circled the table, noting the names on the parchment place cards, each card an original work of art by a well-known calligrapher—the guest’s name rendered in gold leaf and embraced by a fanciful watercolor rose.

I had forgotten nearly everything Madame told me about the people coming to her luncheon, except that they were all culturally influential, vastly wealthy, and food snobs. Knowing Madame would not be satisfied with a simple “Looks good” about her placement of the Very Important People, I was relieved to find one end of the table overburdened with males and correctly deduced that pointing this out would give Madame something to sink her teeth into before the guests arrived.

At which moment, there came a timid knock on the front door, and in my capacity as butler I went to answer. And here was Phil, a portly middle-aged fellow wearing dilapidated shoes, raggedy pants, a filthy gray sweatshirt and a red tartan tam o’ shanter. Accompanied by his ancient dachshund Boris, Phil was an alcoholic Scotsman who came to Madame’s house every week to beg for food and money.

Phil was about to say something when his stomach growled so loudly it sounded as if someone was trapped in there and crying for help. Phil waited for the impressive growl to subside, smiled sheepishly and said with his charming Scottish brogue, “Now that tells the tale better than I can, wouldn’t it?”

Before I could reply, Madame appeared behind me shouting, “Go away! Immediately! I can’t have you here. Come back tomorrow.”

Phil frowned and muttered, “Piece of bread?”

I turned to Madame and said, “I’ll take care of this. And my only comment about your table is that the west end is decidedly masculine, but otherwise…perfect.”

“Of course,” said Madame, smacking her forehead with the palm of her hand. “Hurry up with him and then come help me make things right.”

I stepped out onto the Welcome mat, closed the door behind me, and said to Phil, “Meet me at the end of the driveway and you shall have bread and cheese.”

His smile returned. “Didn’t see any cars but hers so I thought it would be all right to come up. Throwing one of her fancies, is she? Just a little bread and I’ll make myself scarce, though I was hoping to have a snooze under the pine back there. Think she’d mind?”

“No snooze here today, Phil,” I said, shaking my head. “Can we make this quick?”

“Say no more,” he said, beginning his descent with little Boris at his heels. “Just a bit of bread. Maybe some cheese.” Then he paused halfway down the stairs and murmured hopefully, “Perhaps a spot of tea.”

Crisis & Opportunity

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014


* Sally holding Molly 9-1 - 10-6 & 12-15-2013 email

Sally Holding Molly photo by Bill Fletcher

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2014)

“When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” John F. Kennedy

According to Chinese philologists, President Kennedy’s famous assertion about the Chinese word for crisis is either untrue, not entirely true, or true under certain linguistic circumstances but not under others. In any case, this now popular idea always reminds me of challenging situations in my life that proved to be opportunities for creative inventiveness.

“I’m trying to use the language of today to express a general existential crisis that I think the world and I are going through.” Sean Lennon

In 1967, when I was a senior in high school and intending to grow up to be a star of stage and screen, I landed one of the leads in the Woodside High production of the not-so-great musical Take Me Along, based on Eugene O’Neil’s play Ah, Wilderness. The musical ran on Broadway from 1959 to 1960 and starred Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidgeon. I got the Walter Pidgeon part and Joe Tiffany got the Jackie Gleason part, though I was far more Jackie Gleasonish than Joe, and Joe was far more Walter Pidgeonish than I. However, this was a high school production wherein teenagers impersonated middle-aged adults suffering midlife crises; thus the entire play was miscast.

You may recall the title song Take Me Along because the tune became an annoying advertising jingle for United Airlines in the 1960’s. Take Me Along was the show’s only remotely memorable song, though I enjoyed singing my big solo number I’m Staying Young, a song in which my character laments everyone else growing old while his character is determined to stay young, speaking of ironic poignant existential hokum sung by a horny seventeen-year-old virgin hoping to seem convincing as a fifty-five-year-old grandfather.

Existential hokum aside, the climax of the entire show was the song Take Me Along performed as a bouncy upbeat duet sung by the Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidgeon characters while they executed a good old smile-provoking tap dance routine. I don’t know about Jackie and Walter, but Joe and I were vomitously bad dancers, and no matter how many hours we put in with the choreographer (the sweet but wholly inept Miss Stewart) we sucked. Or as we liked to say in those innocent days of late adolescence, “We sucked raw turkey eggs.”

The rest of the production was pretty okay, and our singing of Take Me Along was fine, our harmonies solid. But our dancing was beyond awful, so much so that we never once made it through the entire routine without screwing up, and that included our dress rehearsal performance, which was so painfully grotesque that even the two-hundred drama groupies assembled by the director to cheer us on were stunned and horrified by our colossal ineptitude.

“The crisis of today is the joke of tomorrow.” H.G. Wells

So we spent two more hours after that dress rehearsal and two hours just prior to the opening night performance practicing the dance routine, but rather than improve, we got worse. Miss Stewart smiled bravely and declared, “I’m sure it will come together when you do the dance in the context of the play.”

When Miss Stewart was gone, I said to Joe, “It will never come together, and we both know it. So here’s what I propose. We do our best not to fuck up, but when we do, we improvise. Okay?”

“But we almost got it,” said Joe, giving me a terrified look. “Let’s just…try to get it.”

“Faced with crisis, the man of character falls back on himself. He imposes his own stamp of action, takes responsibility for it, makes it his own.” Charles de Gaulle

The first act of Take Me Along went off without a hitch. The orchestra sounded plausibly orchestral, no one forgot his or her lines, and the audience seemed mildly appreciative. Yes, the production was deadly dull, but the second act rambled along without disaster until we came to that moment we’d been dreading—our climactic Take Me Along duet and tap routine.

Joe and I moved to the front of the stage, the curtain closed behind us, and we were illumined by spotlights that would follow us around the stage for the duration of the number. Joe winked at the conductor and said, “Maestro, please,” and as the orchestra began to play, two straw boater hats and two white canes were handed up to us from the orchestra pit. We popped those hats on our heads at rakish angles, tucked those canes under our arms, and off we went.

After a few moments of roughly synchronized approximations of tap dancing, and as predicted…we fucked up. Badly. So I launched into a goofy Groucho Marx kind of dance, spinning and sliding and twirling my cane and hamming things up, while Joe doggedly and gracelessly tried to remain faithful to Miss Stewart’s clunky dance routine. And something about what we were doing—perhaps the ridiculous juxtaposition of elements in tension—struck the audience’s funny bone and we brought the house down. Thunderous laughter shook the auditorium, and as we hit the harmonic bull’s eye with the last notes of the song, five hundred people jumped to their feet and applauded for so long we had to come back out for an encore of me sliding and twirling around while Joe relentlessly butchered Miss Stewart’s dance and the orchestra repeated the last few bars of the song.

And though our ridiculous pas de deux unquestionably lifted the show out of the trough of mediocrity into the realm of sublime silliness, Miss Stewart was terribly upset by our failure to adhere to her choreography. Joe apologized profusely to her and promised it (whatever it was) would never happen again. Fortunately, it happened five more times and saved five more shows. Sadly, the one and only time we managed to sort of get through the routine as we were kind of supposed to, the response from the audience was exactly what we’d gotten at the dress rehearsal—embarrassed silence followed by a smattering of disingenuous applause. But every time we fucked up and I improvised and Joe doggedly tried to get the steps right, the audience went insane with laughter and stomped and clapped and cheered until we had no choice but to come out for a curtain call.

 “There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.” Henry Kissinger

Darwin suggested that evolution is a progression of genetic responses to environmental crises; and most scientists, until quite recently, believed that those genetic responses resulting in new physical traits and new behaviors were chemical and random. But now a growing number of epigenetic researchers posit that some or all of these genetic responses are actually choices made by something (what, where, how?) that directs genetic potentiality in a less than purely random way, even, perhaps, as a conscious response to crisis.

Nonsense, Todd, you magical thinking dimwit. Go wash your mouth out with soap and write five hundred times: The Universe does not think. Everything that happens is the result of random chemical centrifugal fractal accidents guided by unfaltering principles that we narcissistic humans actually think we understand, even though we don’t.

 “There are two principles inherent in the very nature of things—the spirit of change, and the spirit of conservation. There can be nothing real without both.” Alfred North Whitehead

A few years into my eleven-year sojourn in Berkeley, I ran out of work, ran out of money, and found myself the sole support of a woman slowly recovering from a nervous breakdown and her unemployed teenaged daughter and two cats, not to mention moi. As a consequence of this wholly unanticipated crisis, and with three weeks to earn enough to pay the usurious rent while continuing to buy groceries, I spent three days and nights trying to drum up editing work. Failing there, I wracked my brains to think of someone, anyone, I could borrow money from, and when I could think of no deep pocket to implore, I got so panicky I ran out the front door, down the nine steps, and along the sidewalk until I was out of breath and slowed to a walk and asked the unseen powers of Universe, “What am I going to do?”

Then I stopped, turned full circle, took a deep breath and turned full circle again. And as I made that second revolution, I saw not one, not two, but five fruit trees in need of pruning. I had not pruned trees for money in nearly two decades, but as I walked home to get my notebook, I felt overjoyed at the prospect of resuming that line of work. I then slipped handwritten notes under the doors of the three houses attached to those five trees in need of pruning. The notes mentioned the specific trees I felt needed attention, identified me as a neighbor who would expertly prune those trees at a reasonable rate and/or be happy to give advice and free estimates for my services. Universe apparently dug where I was coming from because the phone began to ring and I never lacked for work again.

What’s New?

Thursday, November 22nd, 2012

Hungry For Color note card by Todd Walton

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

“Life is full of obstacle illusions.” Grant Frazier

A recent San Francisco 49ers game ended in a tie with the St. Louis Rams, the first professional football game to end in a tie in four years. I’m still not used to the Rams being the St. Louis Rams because they were the Los Angeles Rams for all of my youth and for decades thereafter, which made them our dread rivals along with the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Los Angeles Lakers and all things Los Angeles. The Lakers, by the way, are called the Lakers because they were originally the Minneapolis Lakers, Minnesota having lakes whereas Los Angeles has viaducts; but the Los Angeles Viaducts would have been a silly name for a basketball team, so…the Dodgers were originally the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the Golden State (Oakland) Warriors were originally the Philadelphia Warriors, and soon the San Francisco 49ers will be playing their games in Santa Clara and…nowadays professional sports franchises move ever more frequently from city-state to city-state at the whim of their billionaire owners.

This year, for instance, the Brooklyn Nets played their first games with that moniker having been moved to Brooklyn from New Jersey by their new multi-billionaire Russian owner who just built a billion-dollar sports complex in Brooklyn to house his new team. The Nets are the first professional sports franchise to call Brooklyn home since the Brooklyn Dodgers fled to Los Angeles in the 1950’s, and now New Jersey is without a professional basketball or football or baseball franchise. Oh well.

Anyway, that 49er’s game ending in a tie took me back to my senior year of high school when I was the goalie of the Woodside High soccer team and we were playing Sequoia High for the league championship. The year was 1967 and a long time before soccer would become the major American institution it is today. There were no such things as soccer moms in those days because there were no soccer leagues for children to be driven to. In fact, very few American high schools in 1967 had soccer teams, soccer being of such little interest to most Americans that we never had more than a handful of spectators at our games, and most of those were girlfriends of the players.

When we played for the league championship against the perennial champion Sequoia, there were perhaps fifty people in the stands, most of them the fathers and mothers and siblings of Sequoia’s many Mexican players, the large Mexican population of Redwood City being the basis for Sequoia’s perennial dominance of a soccer league otherwise composed of white kids, most of whom had played soccer for a few years at most, while the Mexican kids had been kicking balls around since they began to walk.

Miracle of miracles, and largely due to our stifling defensive play, that championship game ended in a 1-1 tie, and in those days penalty kick shootouts were a thing of the future. Ties happened and that’s just the way it was. I do remember that most of my teammates and all the Sequoia players were angry that the coaches wouldn’t let us play on until one team or the other scored a winning goal, but our anger quickly morphed into relief. After all, we probably would have lost had the game continued, and what was wrong with being co-champions? Nothing. Nowadays every sport from the peewee leagues to the pros has elaborate protocols for coming up with a winner in the event of a tie at the end of regulation, and I’ll wager this latest 49ers tie will set off a flurry of demands for rule changes to eradicate tie games in professional football forever.

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

As I was musing about why tie games have become so unacceptable in America, I happened to catch a few minutes of a radio program featuring the president of the California Teachers’ Association and two other well-informed educators talking about the educational holocaust created by Bush’s No Child Left Behind, a program Obama has continued under the new name Race To The Top. This asinine system has severely damaged an entire generation of students (and teachers) by teaching the kids absolutely nothing while insisting they memorize and regurgitate masses of useless information in order to be tested on how much useless information they can memorize and regurgitate. These millions and millions of brilliant young people were not taught to write well or how to think critically or how to create art or how to invent things or how to solve problems or how to play musical instruments, and most importantly, as far as I’m concerned—and this relates to our new cultural taboo against games ending in ties—students were not taught to work together, to help each other, to cooperate, to share, and to undertake group projects that end in ties with everyone winning.

Race to the top? The top of what? The societal pyramid, right? And doesn’t that imply that if a tiny percentage of the people race to the top of the pyramid (or more likely are born there and jealously guard their lofty domain) that many more people will be on the bottom of the pyramid or near the bottom? Most people? Of course it does. We have the newest fangled gadgets and phones and computers and cars, but we have a fundamental design flaw in the organization of our society, a flaw we teach and preach as the law of the land. Race to the top, sucker, and you’d better get to the top or you will lose, no tie games allowed.

“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end.” Henry David Thoreau

One of the things I greatly appreciate about living in Mendocino is that most of the full time residents I’ve gotten to know could care less about racing to the top of any sort of social or economic pyramid or heap, and that’s one of the reasons they’ve chosen to live here. After abiding for eleven years in Berkeley where such racing and clawing and competing is endemic and exhausting, I am greatly relieved to live somewhere where I am liked or disliked for who I am rather than for who I know or where I live or how much money I have or don’t have. That racing clawing competing energy visits Mendocino on weekends and during the summer months when folks from the Bay Area come up to recreate or occupy their second (or third) homes; and whenever I find myself in the line of such unfriendly psychic fire, I escape post haste and thank my lucky stars I don’t live in Berkeley anymore.

“When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.” H.G. Wells

Speaking of what’s new, one of the best things to become established in America in my lifetime is the popularity of bicycles and bicycling. When I moved to Sacramento in 1980, my main means of transportation was a bicycle, and so few people rode bicycles in those days that I was soon known in midtown and downtown as “the guy who rides a bike.” Seriously. I’m not kidding. I walked all over town, too, and dozens of times I was greeted by complete strangers with, “Hey, where’s your bike?” or “Hey, it’s the bike guy.”

“You know what I always dreamed of? That with the greenhouse effect, one day Estonia can be what Los Angeles is right now. I always thought when the end of the world comes, I want to be in Estonia. I think then I’d survive.” Carmen Kass

Speaking of bicycles, things, as in the projected changes in the earth’s climate, based on actual measurable data, are not looking good for the survival of humanity beyond another couple of generations unless we dramatically fantastically and heroically shrink our carbon footprints to almost nothing, and soon. “Oh, dear,” we Americans collectively respond to the irrefutable information about what’s happening on earth at this very moment, “but how can we reduce our carbon footprints even a little if the powers that be won’t provide us with groovalicious mass transit and spacious sturdy solar electric cars made from recycled plastic and inexpensive renewable energy and stuff like that? How can we change the way we live if someone else doesn’t provide convenient and excellent alternatives to the way we’re living now?”

The answer is that we, you and I, are extremely intelligent and resourceful people, and there is no doubt whatsoever that we can figure out myriads ways to dramatically fantastically and heroically shrink our individual and collective carbon footprints to a perfectly reasonable level if we set our minds and hearts to the task. Not only that, but we are so resourceful and creative that we can dramatically reduce our carbon footprints and have fun at the same time. To get your imaginative juices flowing in that direction, think about walking, bicycles, insulation, potluck dinners, ride sharing, solar power, wind power, buying local, thermal underwear, driving less, candlelight, darkness, vegetable gardens…

And think about what Thomas Hedges just reported for Truthdig:

Since 2000, Germany has converted 25 percent of its power grid to renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and biomass. The architects of the clean energy movement Energiewende, which translates to “energy transformation,” estimate that from 80 percent to 100 percent of Germany’s electricity will come from renewable sources by 2050.

Germans are baffled that the United States has not taken the same path. Not only is the U.S. the wealthiest nation in the world, but it’s also credited with jump-starting Germany’s green movement 40 years ago.

“This is a very American idea,” Arne Jungjohann, a director at the Heinrich Boll Stiftung Foundation (HBSF), said at a news conference Tuesday morning in Washington, D.C. “We got this from Jimmy Carter.”

Indeed, the only thing stopping Americans from inventing and implementing wonderful new carbon-lite lives is our unwillingness to believe that such changes are truly necessary.