Posts Tagged ‘heaven’

Blame

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

Baby Goats

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2013)

“Blaming speculators as a response to financial crisis goes back at least to the Greeks. It’s almost always the wrong response.” Lawrence Summers

Speaking of speculators and the Greeks, hundreds of thousands of the most highly educated and technologically skillful people in Greece have fled that country in the last two years, and more are leaving every day. Why? Because the austerity programs imposed by the European Union in response to Greece’s speculator-caused debt crisis have created such a severe economic depression that there is little hope of an economic recovery in Greece for many years to come. Greece only has ten million people, yet in the face of this massive brain drain and the elimination of tens of thousands of public sector jobs, the European Union has just decreed that Greece must amplify her austerity campaign and get rid of tens of thousands more public sector jobs.

Here in the United States, our own government is treating the public sector, including state and county governments, as if they are Greece and the federal government is the European Union. The postal service is being intentionally sabotaged and demolished, our social safety nets are being shredded, our states and counties have been bankrupted by vampiric private health care insurers and pension programs built on the shifting sands of hedge-funded banks, and we the people are as supine before the corporate oligarchy as are the Greek people. But where can we flee to in the face of this concerted attack on the public domain?

Most recently, as I’m sure you’ve heard by now, Ronald Obama, I mean Barack Obama, has proposed a budget that will severely reduce the amount of money that poor people, elderly people, and veterans will receive in Social Security payments. To celebrate this latest proof of Obama’s perfidy, I contacted a few friends who, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, have steadfastly insisted that Obama is a much better choice to ruin, I mean run, our country than the two Republican candidates he defeated, as well as being much better than the Democratic challengers he defeated prior to the 2008 election, including Billary, I mean Hillary, Clinton. For the record, I voted for Obama in 2008, but not in 2012.

“He’s good on gay marriage and…I just like the guy,” said one of my Obama-loving friends when I asked what he thought about Obama proposing to cut Social Security after vowing he never would. “And healthcare, he’s good on that, too.”

“That remains to be seen. But what about his proposal to reduce Social Security payments?”

“I’m sure he has a good reason.”

“Why are you sure of that?”

“He’s a good person and his wife is terrific. She cares about poor people.”

Another Obama-supporting friend said, “He’s way better than the Republicans on women’s reproductive rights and appointing liberal judges.”

“Maybe,” I said, “but what about his attack on Social Security?”

“It’s the obstructionist Republicans. They won’t let him do anything.”

“What does that have to do with his proposal to cut Social Security?”

“He’s got to do something to pass the budget, doesn’t he? This is all they’ll let him do.”

And a third Obama fan said, “I’m sure he doesn’t want to, but what choice does he have?”

“How about raising taxes on the rich and on corporations that currently pay little or no taxes?”

“They won’t let him. He would if he could. He can only do what they let him do and the Republicans won’t let him do anything.”

“Our culture peculiarly honors the act of blaming, which it takes as the sign of virtue and intellect.” Lionel Trilling

There was a fascinating article, fascinating to me, recently published in our own Mendocino Beacon with the catchy headline Alcohol Outlet Density Study. An alcohol outlet is defined as a place where the alcohol sold is taken elsewhere to drink, so not a bar or restaurant but a liquor store or grocery store. According to the study, Mendocino County has an extremely high density of alcohol outlets compared to the state average, and the authors of this study say that this higher density of alcohol outlets corresponds to a higher-than-state-average incidence of underage drinking, alcohol-related violence, unprotected sex, and driving after drinking. If I understood the article correctly, the authors of the study conclude from their data that it is not alcohol or drinkers of alcohol that cause these unfortunate behaviors, but the alcohol outlets.

We recently watched the movie Smashed, and when Netflix asked us to rate the film we gave it five stars. Smashed focuses on a young heterosexual alcoholic couple at a juncture in their lives when the woman in the couple, an elementary school teacher, decides to stop drinking and get with the Alcoholics Anonymous program, while the man in the couple continues to drink. The power of the film for me resides in the superb and subtle performances of the actors portraying the couple, and the truthful presentation of the alcoholic’s dilemma in the absence of violence, abuse, and other stereotypical behavior patterns most frequently portrayed in movies about people struggling with addiction. The end of the film, which I will not reveal, is one of the most perfectly honest endings to a movie I have ever seen.

“One should examine oneself for a very long time before thinking of condemning others.” Moliere

At a party in Berkeley some years ago, I found myself in conversation with two psychotherapists, a female psychiatrist and a male psychologist, neither of whom I knew. I cannot recall exactly what prompted me to say, “I think everyone is doing the best they can,” but I do recall that my saying this caused both therapists to look at me as if a large horn had suddenly sprouted from my forehead.

“You can’t be serious,” said the psychiatrist. “If that were true, I’d be out of business.”

The psychologist said, “Why would you ever think something like that?”

And I replied, “I am serious and I think everyone is doing the best they can because that’s the conclusion I’ve come to after being alive for fifty-five years.”

“That’s idiotic,” said the psychiatrist. “Most people barely scrape the surface of their potential.”

“Most people have no idea what they’re capable of,” said the psychologist. “And so they rarely fulfill their potential.”

“I’m not talking about potential,” I replied. “I’m saying that people, from moment to moment, are doing the best they can. The baseball player may be capable of hitting a home run, but in that particular at bat, he grounds out, and that was the best he could do. An alcoholic may have the potential to cease drinking, but in the moment the best he can do is drink. And I assume when you’re with a client or a patient or whatever you call them these days, you do the best you can and sometimes get a great response or a wonderful result, but sometimes nothing much happens or the person quits therapy, yet you were still doing the best you could.”

“What’s your point?” asked the psychologist, frowning at me.

“I need to sit down,” said the psychiatrist. “This is idiotic.”

“My point is that when I assume other people are doing the best they can, I am much less likely to dismiss them or objectify them or blame them or judge them, and I am much more likely to empathize with them as fellow travelers.”

“Beware the lowest common denominator,” said the psychologist.

“I need a drink,” said the psychiatrist, smiling painfully at the psychologist. “Get me a glass of red?”

Off went the psychologist to fetch the psychiatrist some wine, and the psychiatrist said to me, “I don’t really think you’re an idiot. It’s been a crazy week. Forgive me.”

“Of course,” I said. “You were doing the best you could.”

“There is only one time that is important—NOW! It is the most important time because it is the only time we have any power.” Leo Tolstoy

President Obama and Lawrence Summers and the corporate oligarchs and the shortsighted people in Congress are all doing the best they can. Try to wrap your mind around that idea. The last time I tried to wrap my mind around the idea that Obama is doing the best he can, I was reminded of one of my favorite Buddhist parables.

A long time ago, long before the invention of firearms, a ferocious warlord and his army invaded a defenseless town. During the rampage, the warlord came upon a Buddhist temple. The bloodthirsty warlord broke down the temple door and found a monk meditating in the presence of a statue of Buddha. Something about the stillness and calmness of this monk in the midst of the terrible pillaging and slaughtering infuriated the warlord even more than he was already infuriated.

So the warlord drew his sword, walked up to the monk, held the tip of his razor-sharp blade a few inches from the monk’s face and snarled, “You think you’re so smart, so enlightened. Well, if you’re so spiritually advanced, tell me the difference between heaven and hell.”

The monk remained unmoving, his face expressionless, which only made the warlord even more furious.

“Listen you pompous fool,” shouted the warlord, “tell me the difference between heaven and hell or I’ll cut your head off.”

But despite the warlord’s threat, the monk remained unmoving, his face expressionless. And this so enraged the warlord that he raised his sword to behead the monk and was just about to do the terrible deed, when the monk pointed at the warlord and said, “That’s hell.”

The monk’s words struck deep in the heart of the warlord and he dropped his sword and burst into tears.

“And that,” said the monk, “is heaven.”

Solar School

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

(This piece originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2010)

Mendocino has a spanking new elementary/junior high school on Little Lake Road about a mile inland from the village, and I am happy to report that her shiny blue metal rooftops are being covered with photovoltaic cells to produce electricity. I was recently at the school shooting hoops on one of the three new outdoor basketball courts, fresh nets affixed to glossy orange rims, and as I huffed and puffed in humbling pursuit of my largely uncooperative basketball, valiant technicians were hard at work affixing the solar cells.

It was a sunny day, and in the absence of students or anyone else making use of the new school, I thrilled to imagine the school’s electric meters whirling in reverse as great currents of electricity flowed from the rooftops into the greater power grid. Such imagining made me happy in the face of the murderous gusher continuing to gush in the Gulf of Mexico. I am aware that solar power is not the ultimate answer to the woes of the world. I have read myriad articles by smart people explaining how electric cars are every bit as bad for the earth as gasoline powered cars. I have read even more articles by these same and other smart people explaining how renewable energy will never replace oil and that we are destined, rather soon, for a new Dark Age of lawlessness and mass starvation. But whenever I stopped to catch my breath from chasing my runaway basketball and saw those fellows affixing solar panels to the shiny blue roof, I felt twinges of hope.

When I was a young man I decided to try to make my living as a musician and a writer. I worked as a landscaper, a gardener, a janitor, a ditch digger, a farmhand, a day care worker, and at several other low-paying jobs. With whatever energy I had left at the end of each day, I practiced music and writing. And for ten years, every person I knew, including my best friends and many smart people, told me with absolute certainty, “You will never succeed as a writer or as a musician. Give it up.” And when I did succeed, these same absolutely certain people said, “I always knew you’d make it.”

Indeed, I have subsequently observed again and again that smart people are often very good at talking themselves and other people out of doing things by stating with absolute certainty that the thing in question cannot be achieved, and they know the thing cannot be achieved because they have the data to prove it. “Oh, so you put in a gray water system to water your garden and conserve water. Big deal. That won’t help. Corporations waste millions of gallons of water every minute. Your little gray water system won’t make a bit of difference. Ditto growing your own vegetables, driving less, having only one child instead of two, vacationing closer to home, carpooling, turning off lights, lowering the thermostat, or cooking your meals with a solar cooker. Won’t help. Don’t bother.”

Alternative energy? Why it takes so much energy to mine the materials for solar cells, to manufacture the cells, package them, ship them, you might as well drive an old Chevy Impala from here to New York and back and stay in air-conditioned motels along the way. Replace oil and coal consumption with wind power and solar power? You gotta be kidding. Can’t happen. Look right here. These are the numbers. Can’t happen. Get ready to subsist on turnips if you’re lucky and huddle in caves and fight off hordes of starving cannibals until you die a premature death.

But I look up at those guys on the blue roof and I can practically hear the electricity being made out of sunlight. Gushers of electricity. I see herb gardens surrounding this new solar school, and fields of tomatoes and squash and potatoes growing where they’re currently gouging out a soccer field. I see these commodious classrooms being used by people who walk here or ride here in electric shuttle buses or come on horses or on bicycles, and I see these people learning from each other, sharing ideas and books and tools, playing music, quilting, weaving, carving, building, making food, feeding each other, and caring for each other.

I don’t think even the smartest prognosticator can predict what humans might do if we allow ourselves to be guided by our creative instincts rather than the analysis of dubious data about things having little or nothing to do with the countless things each of us might do separately and together.

That said, I do think the idea of bio-fuels is horrific on any scale larger than a backyard still, and when I hear about hundreds of thousands of people planning to gather on beaches around the world to protest offshore drilling, my first thought is, “Yes, but how will they GET to the beaches? Because if they’re driving cars, I’m not buying it.” And I agree there is a powerful denial-of-reality mantra etched into our media-warped minds that intones: They (whoever they are) will surely figure something out to solve the crises of energy and food and pollution and over-population and crime and environmental degradation and global warming and the extinction of whales and salmon and krill and phytoplankton so we can go on our merry way living high on the hog, so to speak.

But our collective denial of reality scares me far less than the growing insistence by so many smart people that there is nothing we can do, collectively or individually, that will make any positive difference to the degradation of the planet and society and the future. And I sincerely wish all these smart future prognosticators would spend more time trying to imagine and test new ways to groove efficaciously with the earth, and spend much less time explicating and arguing ad nauseum that nothing we do will make any difference, because I’m enthralled with those solar panels on the blue roof and visions of electric meters whirling backwards; and if I hear one more smart person look up at those solar panels, figuratively speaking, and say, “Won’t help, don’t bother,” I’ll throw my basketball at him. Odds are I won’t hit him, but that will be my intention.

No doubt my years of living in communes informs my impatience with those who pronounce with such certainty that the actions of individuals can’t possibly ameliorate the horrific disasters perpetrated by the likes of BP and the Pentagon and all the other rapacious forces of evil in the world. Had I not proven to myself that I could live happily with few things, and subsequently experienced a quantum improvement in my quality of life as I spent less and less money and used less and less energy as a result of my immersion in small-scale socialism, I, too, might believe that peak oil sounds the death knell for a comfy way of life. Had I not grown, with relatively little difficulty, much of the delicious food I and fifteen other people needed to survive, I, too, might believe that only misery and drudgery and premature death lie ahead. But I don’t think the transition from a greed-based society to socialism will be bad. I think the change will be difficult but ultimately marvelous.

Yes, it may turn out that Things In General will continue to go from bad to worse, and lawlessness and deprivation will soon engulf us all. But Things In General are, for the most part, so stupid and wrong and broken they ought to crash and burn and leave ashes to fertilize the new and very different system we put in place of the old general things. When I read descriptions of how the Mendocino County Supervisors are presiding over the steep decline and inevitable fall of our local basic services, I find their collective myopia and inaction highly instructive. They reveal themselves to be inmates of the larger state and national institutions that would rather take things away from the weak and defenseless than raise taxes on the wealthy. Their stupidity would be comical if the effects were not so terrible for those least able to protect themselves. The obvious solution is standing right in front of our duly elected officials, a perfect hero of a solution named Equality, except our benighted leaders cannot see her, for she wears the cloak of socialism, and socialism is taboo. But I digress.

What I’m suggesting is that there are many ways already known to us that will help spin the meters backwards, and many more ways we have yet to imagine and design and try out. Just because all these smart people have decided things are going to turn out a certain way doesn’t mean things will turn out that certain way or that we should cease our efforts to figure out ways to live less destructively on the earth. Smart people only know what they think they know. And not one of them knows some of the things you know.

We are only doomed to a disastrous future if we buy into those guesses of disaster (and that’s all they are, guesses) and forget that we, individually and collectively, are limitlessly creative. And I predict that if enough of us make it our daily practice to give some of our time for the greater good, however we imagine doing so, all heaven will break loose.

For some reason, Todd is in an optimistic mood this week. His web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com.