Posts Tagged ‘Mendocino Beacon’

Meaningful Life

Monday, May 7th, 2018

sans hat

Arno photo by Todd

There is the wisdom of all-accomplishing action, in which speed does not have to be included in one’s working situation, but things fall into your pattern.” Chögyam Trungpa

In the midst of cleaning up her office a few days ago, Marcia found a Mendocino Beacon dated February 1, 2018, in which there was an obituary for Martin Knott, a fellow I got to know a couple years ago after seeing him walking around town with his dog for the last decade or so. Martin’s dog was medium-sized with the gorgeous complex coloring of an Appaloosa horse. Martin and his dog would saunter around town, the unleashed dog in the lead and Martin following way behind.

I got to know Martin because two years ago Marcia came home from shopping at Harvest Market in Mendocino and said, “Marty wanted me to tell you how much he enjoys your articles.” That was when my weekly pieces were still appearing in the Anderson Valley Advertiser. Being a devoted patron of Corners of the Mouth, I rarely shopped at Harvest and didn’t know the names of any of the Harvest checkers, so I could only imagine who Marty was, and for some reason I envisioned him as a slender young man with brown hair and glasses.

Some weeks after Marcia mentioned Marty enjoying my articles, she and I were in Harvest together and she fell into conversation with a beefy, bearded, gray-haired fellow.

“Todd,” she said, “this is Marty. Marty, this is Todd.”

Marty did a double take and said, “You’re Todd Walton?” He had seen me around town many times, but it had never occurred to him that the guy with the free-range hair and the Giants sweatshirt was the writer of articles he enjoyed, just as it never occurred to me that the bearded guy huffing and puffing as he followed his dog around town was Marty who worked at Harvest and liked my articles.

Thereafter when we met on our walks, Marty and I would exchange hellos, celebrate the sun or philosophize about the fog, and go our separate ways. His obituary says he was into woodcarving, horticulture, writing, travel, sailing, and building uniquely designed sailing boats, but we never spoke of those things.

On several occasions, I saw ravens following Marty as he trudged along behind his dog, and it was not until the last time I encountered him, a few months before he died, that I discovered what made him so attractive to those big black birds.

I said to Marty, “Those ravens really love you,” and he explained he occasionally got old sausage from the butchers at Harvest Market, and as he walked around town he would fling bits of sausage to the ravens.

Another time I said to Marty, “Your dog always seems so determined to make his rounds.”

“He is determined,” said Marty, nodding. “And as you can see, he walks me.”

Since I was accustomed to not seeing Marty for long stretches of time, news of his death came as a surprise to me. I didn’t really know him, but I liked him, and I liked his dog, and I liked how their presence added to the lovely feeling of living here. So though I didn’t miss him before I knew he was gone, I miss him now and I wish we’d had a chance to talk about writing and gardening and uniquely designed sailing boats.

The obituary informed us that Marty was seventy-three when he died, a fact that prompted Marcia to say, “That’s not very old.”

So I looked up death in America and found that in 2017 the average age of death for men was seventy-seven, for women eighty. In that context Marty was not so young when he died. However, Marcia’s mother died last year on the verge of ninety-nine, and Marcia expects to live well into her nineties, too, so in that context seventy-three is, indeed, not very old. Marcia and I are both sixty-eight and many of our friends are in their seventies—and because we don’t want any of them to die, yes, seventy-three is not very old.

Then there is our neighbor Defer (pronounced Deefer), who is nearing eighty and still works as a tree feller for a redwood logging company. Every once in a while Defer will come over after he gets home from work to do some chain-sawing for us before he changes out of his work clothes. Watching Defer work is both humbling and inspiring. He is currently bucking up some big logs for us, and he gets so much accomplished in so little time, I am in awe of his skill and strength.

A few days ago, in virtually no time at all, he bucked up three big lengths of a pine trunk and made thirty-six big rounds for me to split into firewood. When he was finished, I walked with him back to his place and learned he was working full time these days dropping redwoods.

“I hope you aren’t working too hard,” I said, finding it incomprehensible that I could have ever felled giant trees fulltime, even in my muscular youth, let alone ten years from now when I’m seventy-eight.

“You know,” said Defer, smiling wryly, “I’ve never worked too hard. I work at a steady pace I can maintain with a few breaks for water and a longer break for lunch. That’s how I get it done.”

My grandmother Goody was fond of saying, “The goal is not to live as long as you can, but to live a meaningful life.”

Shunryu Suzuki wrote, “As long as we are alive, we are always doing something. But as long as you think, ‘I am doing this,’ or ‘I have to do this,’ or ‘I must attain something special,’ you are actually not doing anything. When you give up, when you no longer want something, or when you do not try to do anything special, then you do something. When there is no gaining idea in what you do, then you do something. In zazen what you are doing is not for the sake of anything. You may feel as if you are doing something special, but actually it is only the expression of your true nature; it is the activity that appeases your inmost desire. But as long as you think you are practicing zazen for the sake of something, that is not true practice.”


Ganapati photo by Todd


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.”

Homeless Forum

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

Photo by Kate Greenstreet

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

Unable to attend the forum on the homeless that was held in Mendocino near the end of January, I did read the three articles in the Mendocino Beacon that reported in some detail and with a certain us-against-them slant on the gathering attended by Sheriff Allman and Supervisor Hamburg and members of the community, including innkeepers, restaurateurs, business people, residents of Mendocino, and even a few homeless people.

The upshot of these three articles as I read them (and I admit to reading things differently than other people read things) is that one: the Mendocino Headlands need to be cleared of blackberry bushes so the homeless will have no place to hide or camp or ambush each other and hapless tourists, two: some people are afraid to walk alone at night in Mendocino for fear of being attacked by homeless people, and three: we need more posters telling people not to give money to homeless people because homeless people just use the money for drugs and then defecate in inappropriate places.

Now why would someone, even a drug-crazed homeless person, defecate in a planter box or in the grass adjacent to the sidewalk or even right on the sidewalk instead of, say, in a toilet in a public restroom? Oh. There are no public restrooms open at night in Mendocino. Could that be the reason the crazed homeless person chose to poop in a planter and thereby deeply offend the discoverer of the homeless poop? For the record, I am a tax-paying resident of Mendocino, a year-round resident, mind you, and I’d like to know why we don’t have a decent public bathroom in our village? Is there one mentioned in the new general plan? No? Why not? And why is the one hideous bathroom we do have now locked at night? To keep the crazed homeless people from taking shelter there, of course.

Speaking of defecating, how about the hundreds of dogs that our upstanding non-homeless residents and out-of-town visitors illegally let off their leashes to shit all over the headlands and Big River Beach? Where do innkeepers and law enforcement stand on the dog shit issue? As one who steps in shit all too frequently in our lovely coastal hamlet, I can tell you that the Mendocino shit I step in is always dog shit, not human feces. And don’t tell me the bad canines belong to homeless people and the good canines belong to the homeowners, because I know that’s not true. I have been much more intimidated by big aggressive dogs owned by people driving cars that would make very nice homes than by the few scruffy trios and quartets of homeless people, mostly guys, who are now resident in and around Mendocino.

And why are these guys homeless? How many of them are mentally ill? How many of them are not welcome at Hospitality House in Fort Bragg? Why don’t we have a homeless shelter in Mendocino? Has anyone noticed the economy, the actual one, not the fantasy one, is falling apart and the number of homeless people in our society is increasing by leaps and bounds? Did we expect the homeless people to all stay in Oakland or Oklahoma or Peoria? If you were homeless, would you rather be in Mendocino or Oakland? Oh, but of course you would never be homeless. Why is that? Luck or skill?

I, too, occasionally feel intimidated by homeless guys, though not because they do anything except look kind of scary to me, and not as often as I am intimidated by aggressive dogs and people driving while talking on their cell phones or butting in front of me at the bakery. And I can see how homeless people are problematic for businesses in Mendocino. Who wants a surly non-conformist vagabond in frayed clothing and a scraggly beard posing in front of his or her tourist trap?

However, not giving homeless people money and mowing the blackberry bushes on the headlands and tearing down the brand new bus stop won’t solve the homeless problem. There will be more and more homeless as our economy continues to collapse and as our schools continue to fail to educate our children and as we continue to spend most of our public money on war and subsidizing oil companies instead of on our communities.

The Beacon articles did not, I hope, intend to make the homeless sound and feel like the enemy, but that’s what bad reporting will do. So we’ve got this problem, these faceless, intimidating, lurking-in-the-blackberry-brambles people without homes daring to come into our community and hang around near people who have homes and so much more. Why can’t the homeless just go somewhere else? Or why don’t they stop being homeless? Would these people like to have jobs? Find decent places to live? These are good questions, none of which was answered at the forum.

So what would I do to address the so-called homeless problem in Mendocino? First, I would make it a number one priority to build a state-of-the-art public restroom and bathhouse and safe napping facility in Mendocino with on-site attendants named Pierre and Celeste, large lockers, a really great community bulletin board, and regular visits from job and housing and mental health counselors dedicated to helping the homeless become unhomeless. Oh, sure, Todd. How will you pay for that? Easy. A tax on coffee drinks.

Second, I would annex Heritage House, and with grants from various liberal foundations, turn the place into a Life Rejuvenation Center housing two hundred formerly homeless people enrolled in rigorous spiritual warrior training and comprehensive classes in solar technology, organic horticulture, gluten-free baking, and animal husbandry. We will unleash a torrent of born again housed people on the world, solarize California, and reverse carbon emissions pronto. Oh, sure, Todd. Easy to say, but you’re talking mighty big grants to pay for that many people enrolled in spiritual warrior training. I know, but we’re just talking here, right?

By the way, the notion that homeless people spend most or all of the money we give them on drugs is nothing but dog shit propaganda. As a year-round resident of Mendocino, I watch homeless guys and girls buying food with their money every day. Yep. Bananas, potato chips, pizza, sushi, beer, carrots, refried beans, coffee, scones, almonds, chocolate. Actual food. Same kind you and I eat. Hard to believe, I know, but there it is.

Telling people not to give homeless people money is pure self-righteous selfishness and mean and cruel. If we actually had good places where all the homeless could go and relax and eat well and sleep safely, then there might be something to the idea of giving money to such places and urging homeless people to go to those places, but that is not the case, and wishing it were the case doesn’t make it so.

Thus I think we need posters that say, “Hey, you just spent nine bucks on a gluten-free scone and a large latte, how about giving that totally hungry dude over there a few bucks?” Or “So you just spent more than a thousand dollars for a romantic weekend in a luxurious inn, wine tasting and eating gourmet Mendocino cuisine, why not give a homeless person fifty bucks for a night of snooze and a shower in a decent motel?” Posters like that.

Seriously, folks, we’ve got to do better than removing hiding places on the headlands and not giving people money. The homeless in Mendocino illuminate what we’re all missing: decent public facilities, free community meals and socializing, a local solar-electric power company, a gigantic community garden where the homeless and the housed can work together and help each other, a commodious community hostel, and several excellent community camping places.

Oh, sure, Todd, how are you going to pay for that? Well, we probably won’t pay for any of it. We probably won’t do anything except mow the blackberry bushes and make a bunch of useless posters that won’t do anybody any good. And the dogs will continue to shit profusely on the beach and in the town, and the tourists will continue to come here and have their fun because they don’t mind homeless people because homeless people are everywhere now because our society has been taken over by the psychotically selfish. And as long as we delude ourselves that we are superior to homeless people and therefore deserve more and better than they, we are permanently screwed.

By the way, I have often used the cover of the blackberry bushes on the headlands for the purpose of pissing when I’m in town because I cannot stand the stench and slimy slipperiness of that hideous bunker that is the pathetic best this affluent community provides for us. So what will I do in the absence of the blackberries? What would you do?