Posts Tagged ‘irony’

Mowing

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

Mowing Two

Mowed Down photo by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2015)

“In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Henry David Thoreau

A friend called last week to ask if I was aware of the recent carnage wreaked on the Mendocino headlands from Ford House down to the land above Portuguese Beach. She said giant bulldozer mowers had mowed everything, except the very largest shrubs, down to bare earth. I said I would take a look.

“All those lizards and bugs and flowers and grasses just gone,” she said. “The official word from the state park people is they did it to control non-native species, but we know they did it to make sure there’s no place for homeless people to lie down or take a pee. No more privacy, no more wildness. I’ve been crying about it for two days.”

I walked to town the next day to check out the mown headlands. On my way I passed a favorite field that had just been mowed, and my first thought was what a pity the lovely vetch and clover that had been on the rise would now not bloom to feed the bees and bugs and birds. My second thought was how spiffy everything looked—civilized. The house attached to the newly mown field has been empty and for sale for two years, the price steadily dropping from the absurd to the upper reaches of plausible. Did the realtor think mowing the field would make the place more saleable?

“Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.” Albert Einstein.

I love the wildness of the unkempt headlands, as do birds, lizards, snakes, gophers, rabbits, bees, bugs, birds and people who like to pick blackberries in August and September. Seeing the south side of Main Street mowed down to the bare earth was a shock. I’ve written poems and scenes in novels set here among the wild grasses and poppies and renegade callas and wild roses that abound on this particular swath of headlands, or did abound until they were rendered unsequestered carbon by the whirring blades.

Now the place looks like a raggedy golf course or a field waiting to be plowed and planted with Brussels sprouts, kin to the coastal fields north of Santa Cruz. If not for the inconvenient water shortage hereabouts and the headlands being public property, condominiums could be built here with ample parking and lights blazing day and night. Damn that water shortage and the socialist conspiracy known as state parks. Hell, with a big desalinization plant, we could have a casino here. After all, Mendocino was once the site of a Pomo village, so…

 “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” William Shakespeare

Except we like that the only human construction rising on these slaughtered fields will be the music festival tent that comes and goes every July. We like the vetch and mustard and brassica, the poison oak and poppies, the seed birds, the bunnies, the lupine, the blackberries and rambling roses, some of which will come back eventually, now that the mowers are done and gone—assuming they don’t come back for another several years.

We doubt the mowing was done to eradicate non-native species. They mowed everything, native and non-native. I think they mowed to make the place inhospitable to homeless people and people who like to pee outside rather than suffer the slimy stench of the shameful public bathroom bunker, and because they, whoever ordered the mowing, are mean-spirited dummies.

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” Albert Einstein

On the bright side, we now have the opportunity to watch how Nature goes about re-wilding land that humans have trashed. Nature works fast around here, left to her own devices. True, she might reseed the new mown fields with Pampas Grass and Scotch Broom and eucalyptus, invasive non-natives all, but reseed the fields she will. I say lets help her by broadcasting a hundred pounds of wildflower seeds out there. Why not?

“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed.” Frederick Douglass

A stone’s throw west of the scalped fields we come to a multi-acre expanse where all is grasses and mustard and lupine bushes and renegade brassica, with no large shrubs to hide behind—a place where homeless people rarely venture to rest and pee. No, this is acreage upon which valuable turísticos tread to reach the scenic shorelines whereupon photogenic waves crash, and from where whales may be espied spouting. Here in this fairly bland ecosystem (bland compared to the one that just got mowed) a tiny section of the headlands has been cordoned off with flabby orange plastic fencing for the purpose of (so says the sign) Native Habitat Restoration.

This privileged chunk of native habitat seems to be mostly mustard, a few native and non-native grasses, and vetch. What’s really going on is the footpath tracing the edge of a precipitous cliff is about to collapse into the sea, and the aforementioned dummies are hoping to delay a trail collapse resulting in the death of a tourist or two. To call this operation native habitat restoration is plain silly, especially considering the destruction of fifty times as much native habitat right over there.

Meanwhile, the myriad creatures displaced by the mowing, those that weren’t killed, are adjusting to the new reality. Earthworms continue doing their thing, snakes and lizards and rabbits have moved to safer ground and keep up their relentless search for sustenance. Ditto bees and butterflies. Gophers carry on as if nothing has happened. The homeless and the desperate pee elsewhere for now. Locals continue to walk their dogs here, and their dogs continue to sniff and pee and poop and bark.

Seeds, native and non-native, are already germinating in the scarified soil. Life, such as it is, goes on.

Taste

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

Thurber Django

Thurber Django photo by David Jouris

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

“My psychiatrist told me I was crazy, and I said I want a second opinion. He said okay, you’re ugly, too.” Rodney Dangerfield

Years before the dawn of tweeting and texting, I ran a summer writing program for high school kids who wanted to become professional writers. The teachers I hired were accomplished, open-minded, inspiring writers who could clearly communicate their ideas about the craft of writing. My one piece of advice for my teachers was that they avoid saying anything construable as dislike of a student’s writing, and I cautioned them about making even mild editing suggestions during the first week of the month-long intensive lest our neophytes experience such suggestions as disapproval.

I also asked my teachers to remind our writers that the opinions of others about their writing, even the opinions of professional writers, are highly subjective and should be taken as such. The response of a reader to a story or poem often says far more about the reader than it does about the writer, and one person’s negative response to a story doesn’t make the story bad, just as one person’s positive response doesn’t make the story good.

To illustrate this point, I told my young charges about how the advent of photocopy machines changed my understanding of taste and helped me overcome the scourge of self-doubt. Prior to the coming of copy shops in the early 1970’s, making multiple copies of a manuscript necessitated the time-consuming use of a five-layer sandwich of carbon paper and typing paper rolled into the typewriter on which the manuscript would be typed, with typos requiring fixes with white-out on the original copy and a razor blade on the carbon copies, with the end result being the barely adequate original and two smeary copies no publisher would accept. Thus most of my early stories existed as single copies, and if the first person to read a story of mine didn’t like it, my insecurity would be inflamed and I might never show the story to anyone else.

Then one day, wanting to create a special gift for my best friend’s wedding, I fell into a trance and wrote a novella and a collection of short stories entitled What Shall The Monster Sing? and other stories. (That title is a line from a poem by Lawrence Durrell.) Completing my opus coincident with the opening of the first photocopy shop in Santa Cruz, I splurged and had ten bound copies made, nine of which I distributed to friends and fellow artists, one I kept safe for the newlyweds.

A week later, a poet of local renown came to the boarding house where I lived, stood in the doorway of my room and declared What Shall The Monster Sing? a disaster and most of the accompanying stories dreadful, though he did allow that three of the stories were gems.

Before I succumbed to despair, a fellow boarder shouted, “Phone for you, Todd!” and I ran down the hall to the pay phone.

What Shall The Monster Sing? is genius!” shouted a playwright calling from Los Angeles. “What a great film it would make. And Carli’s and Ophelia…magnificent!”

Returning to my room buoyed by the playwright’s praise, I found the poet arguing with a locally beloved chanteuse who was madly in love with Monster, as she so familiarly called my novella, and whose favorites of my short stories were the least favorites of the poet, and vice-versa. As I listened to these artists passionately praising and damning my writing, I had a revelation. Yes, everyone knows, intellectually, that taste is subjective. But to experience such extremes of taste from three intelligent and creative people in the span of twenty minutes was to have the revelation burned into my consciousness, which burning serves me well to this day.

 “A taste for irony has kept more hearts from breaking than a sense of humor, for it takes irony to appreciate the joke which is on oneself.” Jessamyn West

My essays about my past, my family, my personal life and my creative life occasionally elicit comments from readers, some thoughtful and illuminating, some praiseful, and some from people who insist I am a very bad writer and a self-pitying self-aggrandizing narcissist who would do the world a huge favor by ceasing to write.

My great grandfather, an orthodox Jewish cantor, believed gossiping to be a variation on the sin of speaking ill of others and he steadfastly refused to gossip. Nevertheless, his friends and family persisted in asking him his opinion about what So-And-So did to You-Know-Who, to which he would reply, “There are all kinds of different kinds of people.”

“The fact is we can only love what we know personally. And we cannot know much.” E.M. Forster

One of my favorite movies is composed of three movies—Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight. Written by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, directed by Linklater and starring Hawke and Delpy, the movies were filmed nine years apart and set nine years apart, too. Each film is composed of mountains of dialogue between Delpy and Hawke as they wander around Vienna, Paris and Greece. I love their torrents of dialogue, though many people I know find such verbosity intolerable. For my taste, the individual films are excellent, their totality a masterwork.

In Before Midnight there is a scene near the beginning of the film in which the characters portrayed by Hawke and Delpy sit at a big table in Greece with three other European couples talking frankly about life and death and relationships. What I so enjoy about this scene is the real-seeming depiction of people from widely varying backgrounds, young, old and middle-aged, having a lively discussion full of insights and anecdotes and disagreement, with disagreement not only perfectly okay with everybody at the table, but appreciated as the spice of a conversation in which no one is attached to being right. How deliciously un-American! 

Protesting 101

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

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

“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

You will recall the famous line from the movie The Wizard of Oz, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” and how, until the little dog opens the curtain and reveals the fraud, Dorothy and her friends do, indeed, ignore the man behind the curtain and remain riveted on a false idol projected on a large screen obscured by smoke and fire. I remind you of this cinematic moment because it brilliantly captures the current cognitive conundrum confronting contemporary crusading consortiums, most notably the much-heralded occupiers of Wall Street.

I have carefully skimmed numerous articles by people criticizing the protestors for not having a clear and unifying agenda, and skimmed other articles praising the protestors for not having a clear and potentially divisive agenda. These articles reminded me of my involvement in the protests against the invasion of Iraq in 1990, and my involvement in protests against the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001-2003 following the event known as 9/11, and how almost everyone involved in those protests paid no attention to the men behind the curtains, and insisted on railing against idols obscured by smoke and fire—the George Bushes, Senior and Junior, and their more public allies.

Wall Street, and by that I assume the protestors mean the for-profit financial system of the United States symbolized by the financial district of Manhattan, is not the cause of our current economic crisis, nor will Wall Street provide the cure, just as the Bushes did not cause the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The cause of our current economic, social, environmental, and political crisis is, in my opinion, our collective infatuation with false notions of reality. One such false notion is that most of the money in America is concentrated on Wall Street and that if only those greedy billionaire bankers and amoral stock traders would give a chunk of their money to our government, then all our problems would be solved. Yet nothing could be further from the truth, since only a few short months ago our government gave those bankers trillions of dollars.

“Let’s form proactive synergy restructuring teams.” Scott Adams

I admit to active cynicism about systems that focus on attacking symptoms rather than dealing with underlying causes. My father, a medical doctor, had heart surgery late in his life and I was his nurse for some weeks after what turned out to be a nearly fatal and wholly ineffective bypass procedure. One of my jobs as his nurse was to make sure he took a mind-boggling array of drugs several times a day, twenty-three different medications, each purveyed by a pill of a different color, shape, and size than the other twenty-two pills.

One morning, five days after his surgery, as my father was surveying the great mass of pills he was about to ingest, a quizzical frown claimed his face. “Hey, wait a minute,” he said, holding up a pale pink pill, “I was only supposed to take (name of drug) for two days following surgery.”

“Good,” I said, eager to eliminate one of the four pink pills in the mix. “Let’s discontinue that one.”

“Only…” My father’s frown deepened as he held up a dark green pill, “I was taking (name of second drug) to counteract the side effects of (name of first drug), along with (name of third drug) because (name of second drug) is extremely dehydrating, so…”

To make a long story short, I called the surgery center, put my father on with a post-operative consultant, and a half hour later my father’s ingestion regimen was reduced from twenty-three to fourteen drugs, and three days later from fourteen to seven, but only because my father was a medical doctor and had some understanding of why he was taking which drugs for what reasons, not because the medical system was designed to take good care of him.

Now…along with thousands of people camping and marching on Wall Street, imagine millions of people all over the country protesting in front of hospitals and medical clinics to demand that American doctors stop behaving as American doctors are trained to behave and start behaving in more humane and comprehensive ways, free of the control of insurance companies and amoral pharmaceutical companies that extort trillions of dollars from people who feel powerless to resist them. Oh, wait. That would mean insurance companies would have to be kicked out of the medical process, and the pharmaceutical companies would no longer be allowed to charge criminally high rates for their drugs. Oh, wait. That would result in a Single Payer healthcare system covering everyone in America, a not-for-profit system paid for by an equitable tax system. Oh, wait. That would mean changing the current system of county, state, and federal taxation. And to do that, we would almost surely have to change from a two-party system to a parliamentary democracy wherein if the Green or Pink or Blue Party gets five percent of the vote, they get five percent of the government. Oh, wait. That would be, like, democracy.

“In some cases non-violence requires more militancy than violence.” Cesar Chavez

I pose the question: what would Martin Luther King Jr. say to the Wall Street protestors if he could speak to them today? I think he would congratulate them for their zeal and courage, and then he would ask, “What are the boycott components of your protest?”

And when he learned that the protestors did not have a boycott strategy, he would say, “So why do you think that these people in positions of power over you will change their behavior if you do not pose a threat to their profits and comfort? Out of the goodness of their hearts? You are naïve.”

“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” Aung San Suu Kyi

On a more personal but entirely related note, I just turned sixty-two, so in lieu of a big paycheck from the corporate-backed cultural mafia, (yes, I know it’s hard to believe, but another year has gone by without my winning a MacArthur Genius Award) I applied for Social Security. And soon, barring total economic collapse, some six hundred dollars will be deposited every month directly into my checking account by the government of these United States. However, in order to receive that vast sum, I promise not to earn more than eleven hundred and eighty dollars a month, else I will be deemed too rich and therefore undeserving of such lavish government support. Let’s see, eleven hundred and eighty times twelve is…fourteen thousand dollars a year. And the official poverty line in America is…

To clarify: I have agreed with the government adjudicators that if I earn barely enough money in a year to pay for grossly inadequate health insurance, I will forego the six hundred a month; which brings me to yesterday.

“Irony is jesting behind hidden gravity.” John Weiss

So I’m standing in line at the Mendocino post office, one of my favorite places in the world, a place threatened by evaporation through governmental retardation and corruption, when the woman ahead of me in line turns to me and says, “I read you in the AVA.”

“Oh,” I say, ever cautious about what that might mean. “Well…good. I hope.”

She nods minimally, which I take as a kind of approval if not a compliment. Then she says, “So are you gonna go join the protestors?”

“Where?” I ask, looking out the window. “Have they made it all the way to Mendocino? Far out.”

“No,” she says, glowering at me. “Wall Street. Los Angeles. San Francisco. They’re having protests everywhere. You could write about it.”

“Oh,” I say, certain now that my interlocutor has no sense of humor, “you know, I would be there already but I suffer from a fear of traveling. Even going to Fort Bragg is extremely stressful for me.”

“I’m sorry,” she says, grimacing sympathetically. “I have a friend who has the same thing. That must be awful for you.”

“Well, fortunately, I don’t really want to go anywhere, but I’ll tell you this, when the protests come to Mendocino, I’ll be there with bags of homemade gluten free cookies for my comrades. And we will occupy Main Street until those people give us what we want.”

“Main Street?” she says, horrified. “Why Main Street? And…which people? And…what do you want?”

“Everything,” I whisper conspiratorially. “For everyone.”