Posts Tagged ‘money’

Olden Days

Monday, February 26th, 2018

still I'm still here

Still I’m Still Here painting by Nolan Winkler 

A friend recently (2018) sent me an article about a small vacant lot zoned for a single-family dwelling in Palo Alto, California, just a little plot of land, selling for seven million dollars. In another article about a housing development the San Francisco Giants are financing in San Francisco near their ballpark, the big excitement about the project is that 40% of the 1300 units of housing will be rented to working-class families only earning 80-150 thousand dollars a year.

Hmm. I have never been a big fan of science fiction. As a teenager I enjoyed I, Robot and a few other classics, but in general sci-fi has never been my cup of tea. For one thing, we can’t go faster than the speed of light, so we’re stuck here. Why can’t we just accept that and fully embrace the here and now and figure out how to live sustainably on this planet instead of dreaming about going to other planets we will never get to? For another thing, who can relate to a reality in which a family with an annual income of 150 thousand dollars is thought to be working class? In that reality would a homeless person be pulling down fifty grand a year?

In any case, these nutty financial figures got me thinking about my youth in Palo Alto and San Francisco, when seven million dollars would have bought you two hundred nice houses and their lots in Palo Alto, and a hundred grand a year would have made you filthy rich in San Francisco. Yes, I know, inflation and all that, but not really. According to our government, and you’ll know this if you depend on Social Security income as I do, there is no inflation to speak of and hasn’t been any inflation for the last decade. (Oh, that’s right. They don’t count food prices or rent or much of anything in their calculations. I wonder why not.)

When I attended Woodside High School, my pals Rico and David and I put out a mimeographed counter-culture magazine called Lyceum. We had several dozen subscribers and sold copies at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, and when, after eight issues, we folded up shop because David and I were going off to college and we’d run out of things to say, Rico reported we had amassed a profit of eighty dollars. We decided to celebrate by taking three lovely young women for a day and evening of fun in San Francisco.

The year was 1967, the month was June. Our budget was eighty dollars. For the six of us. The three writer editors dressed as wannabe North Beach poets, the three lucky women, under the command of my girlfriend, wore saris. By the end of our long day, the gals would regret that clothing choice. We took the train from Menlo Park to San Francisco, took the bus from there to Chinatown, and after a splendid meal in a Chinese restaurant, we wandered around for a few hours shopping for volumes of poetry and gaudy scarves.

Exhausted by our wandering, we had lattes and biscotti at Caffe Trieste in North Beach and then went for all we could eat supper at the Spaghetti Factory. Well-stuffed, we waddled across North Beach and saw The Committee perform. And though I didn’t understand most of what those witty people said or why the audience found them so riotously funny, I felt sophisticated and worldly and adult and hip. Then we caught a bus back to the train station and rode home triumphantly out of money, our eighty dollars covering everything the six of us did and saw and consumed on that day.

Over the ensuing fifty years, I have only twice earned more than a hundred thousand dollars in a year, my average annual income being in the fifteen to twenty thousand dollar range, some years less, rarely more. I have scraped by, so to speak, yet whilst scraping by I lived in a beautiful room in a big house right on the beach in Santa Cruz and my rent was thirty-five dollars a month, and I lived in a lovely house in Ashland, Oregon, my rent sixty dollars a month. And fairly recently I lived in a nice house in a quiet neighborhood in Berkeley before the erasure of rent control ended the era of reasonable rents. And Rico lived for many years in a prime location in San Francisco and paid 270 a month for a spacious two-bedroom flat.

When I dropped out of college in 1969, I didn’t worry about money, though I had almost no money. The reason I didn’t worry was that in those days it took very little effort to earn enough money to rent a room and buy enough food to eat, and by very little effort I mean a few hours a day earning a couple bucks an hour covered my expenses. A visit to the doctor was ten bucks, and if he or she prescribed antibiotics, a few dollars more. For some years I made my living playing the guitar and singing in taverns and cafes. Ten bucks and a hearty meal and free beer plus tips amounting to another ten bucks all for a few hours of strumming and singing. Three such gigs a week meant I was making around sixty dollars a week. I was rolling in dough!

I was able to pursue my writing and music because things, the necessities of a decent life, did not cost much. Money was important, but not all important. Today, however, when a loaf of bread is seven dollars and brown rice is $2.50 a pound, and when we visited Portland and saw vast armies of homeless people living in the streets, and when I stand in line at the grocery store and watch the high school kids spending ten dollars for a bottle of pop and a bag of chips and a candy bar and my friend’s daughter pays 1200 a month for space in a house in Berkeley she shares with five other people, I wonder what the young Todd I used to be would do in today’s world to survive and still be able to work at writing and composing music.

I have no idea what I would do if I was twenty today and embarking on my life as an artist. Everything I did in my life was predicated on being able to live on next to nothing. I travelled by hitchhiking or bus, I never went to Europe, I rarely ate at restaurants, I didn’t own a car or have health insurance. I just got by. And that was enough for me so long as I had time to make my art. But what if I hadn’t been able to live on next to nothing. What would I have done?

Four Chairs

Tuesday, January 5th, 2016

four chairs

Four Chairs photograph by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2016)

“All I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.” Spike Milligan

Marcia and I recently bought four new chairs for our dining nook, and I think the way we got these chairs and the feelings they inspired will be of interest to people of my generation, those of us born in America between 1945 and 1955 or thereabouts. We were teenagers and young adults during the world-changing era known as the Sixties, which I believe lasted roughly from 1963 to 1975. By no coincidence those are also the years of the American chapter of the Vietnam War.

Exhaustive economic studies have found that my generation, despite the mythos of the Sixties, is the most materialistic generation to ever live on this earth. Whether that is true or not, when I and many of my age peers were in our twenties, we rejected the materialism of our parents and the larger society and chose lives of intentional simplicity, a choice that profoundly shaped my life ever after.

For one thing, choosing to live lightly on Mother Earth separated me from the vast majority of other people in America and made me keenly aware of the hierarchic nature of our social system, a hierarchy based on how much money and possessions a person has. Thus by choosing to have little, I found myself at the bottom of the heap, but because many of us made this choice in the Sixties, I did not feel lost and alone. On the contrary, I felt encouraged and excited about the potential for societal change that material minimalism and egalitarian socialism promised.

Anyway, the Sixties fizzled out, the so-called hippies became ravenous materialists, and those of us who remained true to the ethos of the Sixties found little support for our ideas and proclivities. Had I been even slightly prescient in 1972, I would have bought a few houses in Santa Cruz when a nice two-bedroom home a block from the beach could be had for seven thousand dollars. But I was not prescient and I didn’t buy, so today I do not sit on a mountain of gold.

“I had three chairs in my house: one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” Henry David Thoreau

Which brings me to how we got our four new chairs. Marcia and I went to Santa Rosa to spend three days before Christmas with Opal, Marcia’s mother, a sneaky good pool player who always says, “Pure luck” after sinking another in a series of formidable shots en route to victory.

For lunch one day the three of us went to the Nepalese Indian restaurant Yeti, and when we were seated in our elegant wood-framed, broad-bottomed, high-backed, royally reddish upholstered chairs at the handsome dark wood table, Marcia declared, “I love these chairs. They are so comfortable. I would love to have chairs like these.”

We inquired of our friendly Nepalese waiter if he knew where one might purchase these enviable chairs, and a moment later the owner of Yeti, a charming man named Narayan Somname, came to our table and said, “Yes, I have more of these chairs in my warehouse in Glen Ellen. How many would you like?”

“Well, er, four,” I said, looking at Marcia to see if she wanted to jump at the chance. “How much do…”

“I will sell them to you for ninety dollars each,” he said, nodding. “They require some assembling.”

We pondered the situation for the rest of our scrumptious meal and concluded we would buy four. We arranged to meet Narayan at the restaurant the next day to give him a check and get the chairs, which he would bring from Glen Ellen, and that is what we did. The chairs came two to a box marked Made In China, the two boxes just fitting in the trunk of our trusty old Camry.

As Narayan closed the trunk, he said, “You may have noticed in the restaurant we affixed braces to the legs because after a year, some of the chairs began to wobble. I will take ten dollars off the price of each chair so you can purchase the necessary hardware.”

We arrived home in Mendocino on Christmas Eve, and after we got the woodstove roaring and our frigid house was habitable once more, I unpacked the chairs and found in each box a piece of fabric wrapped around a couple dozen bolts of widely varying sizes, with no directions for assembling the chairs.

Four hours of cursing and futzing and puzzling and grunting later—did I mention cursing?—the four chairs were assembled and arrayed around our dining table where, for the last ten years, four small uncomfortable folding chairs had served us with the aid of additional cushions for butts and backs.

We sat in our new chairs, Marcia pronounced them marvelous, and I thought they were marvelous, too, but I also felt a little guilty about having such beautiful chairs to sit on.

The next day, writing to my friend Max, I said, “These new chairs make me feel very adult. I wondered if I ever would.”

Max wrote back, “I laughed aloud at this. Maybe all along you merely needed the exactly right chair in order to experience a change of consciousness? Or I should ask: what is it about these chairs, do you think, that causes you to feel very adult?”

I replied, “The previous chairs I bought were small and inexpensive and not particularly comfortable, and there was a Spartan precarious feeling to them. I still feel slightly immoral buying new clothing, though I do buy new shoes and I bought a new piano in 1980. I don’t know. Maybe in so completely rejecting materialism, I got stuck in the mindset of my penniless twenties, and spontaneously buying four groovy chairs feels antithetical to my lifetime practice of owning a few excellent things and making do with minimal everything else.”

How Much Do You Love Him?

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

How Much Do You Love Him?

Django on Marcia’s Lap

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

“The story of cats is the story of meat, and begins with the end of the dinosaurs.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Our cat Django is a very large and handsome gray cat, or as our veterinarian said politely, “Shall we call him obese?”

“But he hasn’t gained any weight for several years,” we hastened to explain. “He’s holding steady at twenty pounds and a little.”

The good doctor of cats and dogs was not greatly impressed by our feat of maintaining the status quo of Django’s enormity. We had rushed our twelve-year-old kitty to the one and only veterinarian office in the village of Mendocino because he was in severe distress, which turned out to be the result of urinary tract and kidney difficulties that could, sooner than later, lead to his death if we don’t start feeding him special expensive food or unless, as our vet explained, Django undergoes an operation to eliminate the problem entirely by turning him into a female in regard to how he urinates.

“How much do you love him?” said our vet, smiling sympathetically. “Such an operation costs around fifteen hundred dollars. The better diet and shedding some weight should do the trick for some years, though if he is blocked again, then short of surgery we would have to catheterize and hospitalize him for three days, after which he could have another episode, so cost can become an issue for some people.”

“That would be us,” I said, not entirely comfortable with equating the willingness to spend money and love, but I knew our vet was trying to be clear and up front about how much various procedures cost, and we appreciated his candor.

In any case, the vet bill certainly gave us pause, pun intended. For the emergency visit, urine analysis, blood analysis, antibiotic injection, painkiller injection, ten cans of special food, and kitty litter so we could keep the big fatso inside for a couple days while he recovered from his ordeal, our cost was three hundred and forty-two dollars. How much do we love our cat? That much. So far.

Then there is the problem of Django’s broken tooth. “Extractions of this nature,” said our vet, “can run from five hundred to a thousand dollars. If you don’t have the tooth removed, infection may ensue resulting in abscess, in which case dental work would be imperative or…” How much do we love this cat?

“A veterinarian and cat specialist, Dr. Richard Thoma, trying to locate a cat’s purr with a stethoscope, found that the sound was equally loud all over.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

When I was a landscaper forty years ago, I lived in a bunkhouse adjacent to my boss’s house on the outskirts of Medford Oregon. My boss and his wife grew up on farms in Kansas and considered cats semi-wild animals to be tolerated around their two-acre homestead because the cats kept the rodent population in check. Every year or two, when the resident cat population became overly robust, my boss would gather up all but the best hunters and the most elusive cats and drown them.

I thought about this matter-of-fact drowning of kittens and cats as Marcia handed her credit card to the vey nice receptionist at our excellent village veterinarian clinic, and I thought of a photo essay I saw recently of cat meat vendors in China selling both live and butchered cats to eager shoppers in an open air market. And though I have no desire to drown or eat Django, that’s where my thoughts wandered when I thought of three hundred and forty-two dollars suddenly disappearing from our bank account, with further Django-related expenses looming on the not-too-distant horizon.

“People who have both dogs and cats can verify the statement: when called, the common response of dogs is to come, and of cats is to answer.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

That afternoon in the post office, I fell into conversation with a friend who responded to my emotional account of the Django crisis by telling me the story of her parents’ beloved and also impressively heavyset cat Hercules, who suffered from the identical malady Django suffers from, with costs of dealing with such urinary kidney problems eventually outstripping her parents’ devotion to the cat.

“It was that really cold wet winter a few years ago, and their roof was leaking badly, towels and buckets catching drips everywhere, the roofers supposed to come that afternoon, and there they were standing in the examining room looking down at big old Hercules sitting on the table with the vet petting the sweet old thing and waiting for them to choose between a dry house and the cat.”

“Even being fed by a person must seem like old times to a cat, because of the person’s manner of delivering food. A person characteristically puts down a dish of food and moves away from it, offering plenty of space, which invites the cat to approach and eat. In the same way, a hunting mother cat puts down the dead bird she has brought, backing away from it to show that she will not compete for the carcass and that her kitten can approach.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Save for a few brief stretches in my life—sixty-four years and counting—I’ve always had a cat or two and they’ve had me. Their personalities and propensities have been as varied as those of humans, and their intelligence quotas have been variable, too, ranging from clairvoyant geniuses to barely functional idiots. And until today, I never spent more than a few dollars on veterinary care for any of my cats, largely because I didn’t have the money and I wasn’t partnered with someone willing to spend hundreds of dollars to keep a cat alive. Most of my cats lived long and healthy lives, but one died young from feline leukemia, three were hit by cars, and one was snatched by a coyote. My sister’s beautiful young cat was plucked from her terrace by a hawk.

Thinking back and remembering Chubs and Girly Girl and Suzy Cat and Boy Boy and Bucky and Pele and Juju, I realize that part of their collective appeal was that they were largely independent from me and didn’t need much more than sufficient food and warmth and occasional shows of affection. They did not, in fact, cost hardly anything considering all the pleasure and help they gave me, and if they had cost very much, I would not have so blithely taken them on as one does with cats when one is in the habit of having them and being had by them.

“Long ago, around the southern shores of the Mediterranean, little African wildcats took shelter in people’s dwelling places, probably finding the supply of mice and rats and the escape from heavy rains much to their liking. There they stayed. Perhaps they even liked the warmth of people’s fires. The earliest cat known is from Jericho (now Israel) nine thousand years ago when one of the few amenities that people had that might attract a cat was fire.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Our mighty federal government grants me six hundred and eighty-four dollars a month from Social Security, and we just gave exactly half that amount to our veterinarian to save Django’s life. Two weeks ago our healthcare insurance provider Anthem Blue Cross, seeing that I will turn sixty-five in seven months and Marcia will turn sixty-five in a year, decided to jack up our insurance rates nearly three hundred dollars a month to extract as much more money from us as they possibly can before we graduate to Medicare.

So to save a little money, we made the leap to Obamacare, and lo it came to pass that under the new healthcare system we will be covered by, wouldn’t you know it, Anthem Blue Cross and pay them a little more than the usurious sum we were paying them before they jacked up our rates to ever more dizzying heights, except under Obamacare our deductible is so high it would be laughable if it were not obscene.

Meanwhile, Django is lolling by the fire, fully recovered from his painful ordeal and blissfully unaware that if we hadn’t spent a big wad of cash, he would probably be looking for a dark place to curl up and die.

I rub his ample belly and say, “Hang in there, Django. Another seven months and I’ll be getting Medicare, otherwise known as Single Payer, which is what everyone in America would have if not for the crooks running our government. Then we’ll have a bit more money should you need some help and we decide we love you enough.”


Friday, August 26th, 2011

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2011)

“Flow with whatever may happen and let your mind be free. Stay centered by accepting what you are doing. This is the ultimate.” Zhuangzi

Something happened to me a few days ago the likes of which hadn’t happened to me in eons. I was shooting hoops at the elementary school, playing alone, as is my custom now that I am deep into middle age and easily injured, when I became aware that I was caught up in an extraordinary flow of action involving my body, the ball, the air, the backboard, and the hoop. I think this was what sports commentators mean when they say a player is “in the zone,” playing with seeming effortlessness, yet playing superbly and flawlessly for an extended period of time. A frequently used adjunct comment to saying a player is “in the zone” is “he’s unconscious.”

That adjunct comment turns out not to be true, because the cool thing about being in the zone, and this has been corroborated by many athletes speaking about their in-the-zone experiences, is that they were not unconscious, but rather fully aware of being in the zone yet not consciously controlling what they were doing. That is to say, they were not conscious of making decisions about what to do next while they were caught up in the flow of action because they were, in essence, inseparable from the flow of everything going on.

It is also true that the more practiced and skillful an athlete, the more easily and often she will find herself in the zone; zone being a misnomer since it is not really a place, but a state of being. My in-the-zone moment was probably the result of playing more often these past few months when school has been out and my access to the courts has been unlimited.

My experience of being inseparable from the ecstatic flow began with the awareness of the ball coming into my hands as if thrown to me by an invisible cohort, the ball leaving my hands as if self-propelled, the ball arching high into the air and tumbling down through the center of the hoop, the ball returning as if passed to me by that same invisible friend, my body dancing back from the hoop to a distance I usually, consciously, avoid, the ball leaving my hands again, arching high, smacking through the net, on and on, dozens of times without a miss from near and far, until I had the thought, “This is so fun!” and the ball caromed off the rim into the weeds.

“As far as I’m concerned, the essentials of jazz are: melodic improvisation, melodic invention, swing, and instrumental personality.” Mose Allison

Musicians, artists, dancers, inventors, thinkers…all creative people aspire to be in the zone.

“Memory is funny. Once you hit a vein the problem is not how to remember but how to control the flow.” Tobias Wolff

On the way home from my in-the-zone experience on the basketball court, I fell into a memory of my largest (in terms of numbers of dollars) experiment with money. I was a pauper by American standards from 1969 when I dropped out of college until 1980 when I made what was for me a small fortune through the sale of the paperback rights to my first published novel and the simultaneous sale of the movie rights to the same novel. Shortly thereafter, I paid a large amount of income tax, moved to Sacramento, and bought the only house I’ve ever owned. And then in 1984, just as my movie money was running out, I got married and resumed my practice of making just enough to get by.

Then in 1995, hot on the heels of my divorce and the concurrent disappearance of my house, I made the second small fortune of my life through the unlikely sale of a one-year option on the movie rights to my obscure novel Forgotten Impulses, published in 1980, for one hundred thousand dollars, and the even more unlikely sale of my novel Ruby & Spear to Bantam for twenty-five thousand dollars. In the case of Forgotten Impulses, no movie was ever made, and in the case of Ruby & Spear, Bantam took the wonderful book out of print the day it was published (though copies of both novels can still be found on the interweb for pennies, and you may listen to me read Ruby & Spear (and play all the different characters) at Audible or iTunes). But in any case, I suddenly had, by my standards, another large pile of money.

And I decided to give this second fortune to favorite friends who had very little money and would greatly appreciate some cash. Having spent much of my first fortune on myself, a strategy that brought me little joy and much sorrow, I was curious to see what would happen if I shared my wealth. My hope was that in giving away my fortune I would be priming the cosmic pump, so to speak, which priming would eventually bring me even more money.

As it happens, giving away a fortune in America is not as simple as simply giving money away. First of all, one must pay a large portion of the fortune to the federal and state governments, and this portion is especially large if one is not in the habit of making big sums of money and does not have shelters and deductions and depreciations and such to mitigate the taxes owed. Not wanting to go into debt, I called my accountant and, despite his good-natured assertion that I was insane, we figured out I could give away seventy-six thousand dollars and still have enough left over to pay the taxes I owed, make an impressive contribution to Social Security, and have a few thousand dollars left for rent and food and a new basketball. So I made a list of people I wanted to give money to, most of them artists and poets and musicians working at low-paying jobs while painting and writing and making music and hoping for big breaks such as the two big breaks I’d gotten, and I gave them each two thousand dollars.

Some weeks after mailing out those thirty-eight checks, I got a postcard from Paris from one of the recipients informing me that on the day she got my check she bought a round trip ticket to Europe, packed her bags, and, as she wrote, “I knew it was now or never, so I went for it. Merci!” Another recipient sent me a list of how she spent her two thousand: one thousand donated to a non-profit organization dedicated to spaying feral cats, three hundred for art supplies, six hundred and fifty rent, and fifty bucks on expensive coffee beans. Several recipients said they felt weird taking money from me and wanted to give the money back. When I insisted they keep the cash, they all seemed mightily relieved. And most fascinating to me were the four recipients who never said a word to me about receiving the money, though cancelled checks confirmed they had, indeed, gotten the loot.

Did my giving away my small fortune prime the cosmic pump as I hoped it would? I assume so, though my income for the next several years remained barely adequate to cover rent and vittles, and the Internal Revenue Service did audit me for that year because of what my auditor called “an unlikely income spike.” But money, after all, is not the only measure of how Universe indicates her support for what we do and how we do what we do.

“My hand does the work and I don’t have to think; in fact, were I to think, it would stop the flow.” Edna O’Brien

So today I’m sitting on a bench on the terrace at the Presbyterian, summer fog cloaking the village, and I overhear the following snippets of conversation going on two benches away where six people, four men and two women, are passing pot pipes around and shooting the breeze.

Woman #1: Dude. You were married? For real?

Man #1: So, yeah, I was like totally married. Only she was like thirty and I’m like six years younger, so she just didn’t get me, you know? Like we were from totally different generations.

Woman #1: So are you like…divorced?

Man #1: Totally.

Man #2: Hey, where have you been? Nice shoes.

Woman #2: I was, you know, in LA and like…now I’m out on fifty thousand dollars bail.

Man #2: Dude. Fifty thousand. What did you do?

Woman #2: Lots.

Man #1: Pot?

Woman #2: No. I said lots. Credit cards and shit.

Man #1: Whoa, Dude. I thought you said pot.

Woman #2: No and one of the big credit card things was totally not mine, so…

Man #1: You want to smoke some hash on top of that?

Woman #2: Sure. Why not?

Woman #1: Totally, dude. Go with the flow.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks. com

Rich People

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2011)

“ Of all classes the rich are the most noticed and the least studied.” John Kenneth Galbraith

I know people who own nice houses and multiple cars and have sufficient wealth to eat and drink whatever they want to eat and drink, and to take occasional vacations, too, yet they do not consider themselves rich. That is, they do not think of themselves as people who should pay higher taxes because, well, they feel they pay high enough taxes as it is, too high, actually, and besides, they aren’t part of that one per cent we hear so much about, those multi-millionaires and billionaires who pay no taxes at all. These people I know don’t own three and four homes, for goodness sake. Some of them own two houses, and maybe a rental or two, but no one ever gave them a golden parachute. They voted for Clinton and Obama. They proudly click buttons on web sites to indicate their opposition to icky pipelines and their sympathy for homeless people and their support for endangered species. So…now their houses are plummeting in value, their stock portfolios are crashing, and the price of everything edible and the price of anything that produces heat and electricity and horse power is skyrocketing, so it’s not as if these people have much to spare. In fact, when you add everything up, these people I know with houses and money are, relatively speaking, poor, though the words poor and rich are not precise terms; so let’s just say that these people I know with houses and cars and money are adamant that they are not rich.

“A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money.” W.C. Fields

I was six-years-old when my family moved from a tiny house in a working class neighborhood in San Mateo to a three-bedroom house in Atherton. For those of you unfamiliar with Atherton, it is a town of eight thousand residents and their servants not far from Stanford University, twenty-seven miles south of San Francisco on the northern edge of what is now called Silicon Valley, formerly Santa Clara Valley. The town of Atherton, though there is no commercial sector to speak of so it isn’t really a town but more of an enclave, is where the fabulously wealthy robber barons (Stanford, Spreckels, Crocker, Hopkins, etc.) built huge estates in the late 1800’s to escape the madding crowds and cold foggy summers of San Francisco, the climate of Atherton kin to Camelot. Indeed, those untaxed zillionaires built a private railroad to carry them in gilt coaches from their San Francisco mansions to their Atherton mansions, which railroad became the commuter line that today runs from San Francisco to San Jose.

The vast estates of these robber barons were eventually divided into twenty-acre estates for the next generation of wealthy crooks and entrepreneurs, and when my folks bought their flimsy two-year-old house in 1956 for thirty thousand dollars, most of those twenty-acre estates had been subdivided into one-acre parcels. Today, Atherton is home to some of the wealthiest people in the world. That is to say, some of the wealthiest people in the world today have at least one of their houses in Atherton. But when I was a lad, the homeowners in our neighborhood were teachers, doctors, dentists, car salesmen, airline pilots, merchants, stockbrokers, graphic designers, advertising executives, and businessmen; and their wives. Most of these homeowners were children of the Great Depression, came from working class backgrounds, and had surpassed their parents on their way up the economic ladder to snag three-bedroom houses in Atherton.

My parents were forever out-of-step with the Atherton ethos, which is to say my father thought of our acre as a little farm, and so he planted a fruit orchard in the field in front of our house, planted a grove of twelve redwoods, let the wild oaks grow large, and cultivated a big vegetable garden on the edge of a small grove of ancient olive trees (planted hundreds of years ago) behind our flat-roofed one-story sort of modern-looking house. Everyone else in our neighborhood had manicured gardens patrolled by vigilant Japanese gardeners. I am proud to say that in my parents’ fifty-year tenure in Atherton, at least two ordinances were passed specifically to curtail the Beverly Hillbilly tendencies of my derelict father. The first ordinance forbade field grass to be above six inches high, and the second ordinance forbade the hanging of unsightly objects in trees—my father forever dangling strips of aluminum foil in his fruit trees to scare away voracious birds.

Which is all to say I grew up in the midst of rich people, went to school with a mix of rich kids and working class kids, had a few extremely wealthy friends, and was, in fact, rich, though I didn’t know I was rich because my mother insisted we were poor and if I wanted money I would have to work for it, which I began to do in earnest at the age of eleven, gardening for neighbors and babysitting their children, many of whom were not much younger than I.

“Do not waste your time on Social Questions. What is the matter with the poor is Poverty; what is the matter with the rich is Uselessness.” George Bernard Shaw

Shortly after the passage of Jarvis Gann in 1978, the infamous Proposition 13 that put a ceiling of one per cent on property taxes in California, and with the ensuing ascendancy of Ronald Reagan and his everything-for-the-rich-nothing-for-anybody-else policies, housing prices in Atherton went from high to incredibly high. And though my parents’ falling apart old house was by then essentially worthless, the acre it sat upon was worth a million dollars in 1980, two million dollars in 1990, and three million dollars in 1995. When I came home to visit over the course of those fifteen years, I found Atherton undergoing a shocking transformation that reached a crescendo of obscenity at the height of the dot com insanity circa 1997.

In the Atherton real estate parlance of the 1990’s, houses built in the 1950’s and 60’s were called scrapers, not tear-downs, but scrapers, because when such a house sold to a wealthy buyer, the entire lot—house, driveway, trees, everything—was scraped down to bare earth to make way for a massive new house that would cover most of that acre of ground and sell for between seven and fifteen million dollars. These new houses, by the way, were not passive solar, active solar, or even attractive. They were huge blocky hideous monstrosities, ecological disasters housing extremely rich people.

“Experience demands that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the general prey of the rich on the poor.” Thomas Jefferson

True story. Just up the hill from my parents’ house, a shady lane departed from the main road and wended its way around a dozen large homes built in the 1950’s and 60’s, each house sitting on a two-acre lot. I used to go up that lane when I was a boy, braving the growling dogs, because at lane’s end there was a fabulous gorge filled with live oaks and a seasonal creek—a wild refuge inhabited by deer and bobcats and quail and nature spirits. I played there for many a summer, sometimes with friends but more often alone, imagining I was an Indian, and I don’t mean someone from India.

Forty-some years later in the 1990’s, a young man devised a kind of software I shall not name, software used for accounting, and he became a multi-billionaire. With a small portion of his fortune, he bought all twelve of the large houses on that shady lane, and he bought the wild gorge, too, along with several other adjacent properties. He paid five and six and seven million dollars for each of the shady lane houses, and twelve million for the house of an old woman who was not going to sell to him at any price, at first. Then the young man did an odd thing. He invited several of his friends to party with him in those many houses he’d bought, and in each house he and his friends put golf balls on the floors, and using the best golf clubs money can buy, the young man and his friends hit those golf balls through the windows of the houses. Fun? I don’t know.

Having shattered the windows of these many houses (some of which were designed by famous architects and featured in Sunset Magazine and Architectural Digest) this young man and his friends drove gigantic bulldozers into and through and over these houses, for the fun of it, I suppose, before they turned the work over to professionals who really knew how to scrape everything away down to the ground.

Then the young man ordered thousands and thousands of gigantic truckloads of dirt to be brought from faraway to fill the wild gorge so the land would be level for his very own nine-hole golf course, no skimping on distances, designed by a famous golf course designer. Then the young man had a house built at the high point of his property, a house that took dozens of carpenters and masons three years to build, an enormous four-story mansion resembling the castle in the Disney logo; and the young man also had a huge indoor athletic facility built a stone’s throw from his castle, a facility housing a big swimming pool and a tennis court and a racquetball court and a full-sized basketball court. And then, along with two posh guesthouses, one Japanese modern, one Swiss Chalet, he had a beautiful fountain installed at the bottom of the gently sloping hill behind his castle.

Only this is no ordinary beautiful fountain. No, this young man’s fountain, which resides in the center of an enormous plaza accessed by an immense staircase descending from the vast terrazzo behind the young man’s castle, is an exact replica of the largest fountain at Versailles. The young man had the massive fountain and the enormous plaza and the immense staircase built by a small army of skilled craftsmen flown from Italy to California to make these colossal replicas out of exquisite white marble quarried in Carrara.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks. com

Poor People

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” Anne Frank

On my way out to water the garden, the living room radio tuned to our local public radio station, I hope I didn’t hear what I think I just heard, especially since I recently renewed our membership to that radio station. But when I come in from the garden, Marcia confirms that some nincompoop guest on said station did, indeed, say, “You shouldn’t give money to the homeless people in Fort Bragg because they’ll just use it to buy drugs.”

If I had a hundred dollars for every person I’ve heard say that about homeless people, I’d be rich. And if I had a hundred dollars for every person I’ve convinced to think otherwise, I could buy each and every homeless person in Fort Bragg a delicious organic apple. I choose to call the guest of that listener-sponsored radio show a nincompoop because the word describes him precisely. A nincompoop is a simpleton, a shallow thinker, someone who speaks without knowledge. And this nincompoop’s statement is not only false, but also cruel, and his cruel lie makes me so angry I absolutely must refute him.

Henceforth I will address you directly, my dear nincompoop. Here are some ironclad facts for you to consider.

1. Many poor and homeless people are not drug addicts.

2. Many people with homes are drug addicts.

3. The only difference between homeless people and people with homes is that homeless people do not have homes, and people with homes have homes.

4. The only difference between poor people and rich people is that rich people have lots of money and poor people have very little money.

Here are some questions for you, my dear misinformed nincompoop. I will supply the answers since you are not here. And though I don’t know you, I am certain these are the correct answers.

1. Have you ever been homeless? No.

2. Do you know any homeless people? I don’t mean, do you know of any homeless people, I mean do you actually know any homeless people well enough to sit around with them and shoot the breeze or take drugs with them or eat food with them? As their pal? No.

3. Where do you get off saying homeless people only buy drugs with the money we give them? You get off saying that because some radio talk show host needs his head examined for inviting you on his show.

4. Have you ever been extremely hungry, as in starving, and not had any money to buy food? No.

5. Have you ever purchased wine or marijuana or prescription drugs? Yes, you have. Thousands and thousands of dollars worth.

6. Do you think buying wine and pot and prescription drugs is qualitatively different than buying illegal drugs? Yes, you do, but you’re wrong.

7. Have you ever heard of Angela Davis? Yes, the political activist scholar with the famous Afro. She has written convincingly, with pages and pages of unassailable data to back up her claims, that poor and homeless people buy illegal drugs because they don’t have health insurance or enough money to afford prescription anti-depressants, painkillers, mood elevators, and all the other legal drugs bought by people with health insurance and enough money to buy such drugs. Poor and homeless people buy speed and dope and uppers and downers and fortified wine to self-medicate just as you and I and hundreds of millions of people with homes and money do.

“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” Edmund Burke

When I lived in Berkeley not very long ago, once a week I would take BART to San Francisco where hundreds of poor and homeless people gather at the mouths of the underground to solicit donations. I would emerge into the sunlight and see these multitudes of poor and homeless people, and I wanted to give each and every one of them money because they all quite obviously needed money. But paying my rent and buying food left me very little money to spare. I couldn’t afford health insurance, I didn’t own a car, my clothes were hand-me-downs from friends, and I went out for a meal about never. Indeed, the primary thing distinguishing me from those poor and homeless people begging at the corner of Powell and Market was that I had a bit more money than they and a few more options for earning what I earned.

Just how does one decide which poor person to endow with a buck or two out of the hundreds and thousands and millions of poor people who need money? And by the way, dear nincompoop, even poor homeless drug addicts spend some of the money you don’t give them on food, so they will have the strength to take those horrible drugs that you take, too, only you don’t call them drugs because you are misguided.

Having been homeless for some years in my twenties, and having lived for many years on the verge of being homeless again, and having depended on the kindness of friends to get me through my most difficult times, I knew that anything I gave to these mendicants would be greatly appreciated. Even a dime or a nickel. I did not know if the money I gave would be used for drugs or food or shelter; but I did know that how the money was spent was none of my business. My business was to be compassionate, and so when I felt I could spare a few dollars, I gave them to whoever got to me first.

After a few months of running the gauntlet of these poor and homeless people who had been so abused and abandoned by our fascistic corporate oligarchy trickle down cruel and unusually punishing society, I hit upon the idea of taking a big fistful of change with me whenever I went to the city, and dispensing coins until they were gone. In this way I fulfilled my role as an executor of the final drips of trickle down economics.

One day, having dispensed a few dollars in quarters and dimes, and as my thoughts turned to earning enough money to pay my usurious rent, I was hailed by a young man I had given baksheesh to on a previous trip to the city. He smiled at me and was about to speak, when I interrupted with, “I don’t have any money for you today.”

“Wasn’t asking for money,” he said, shaking his head. “Just saying hello. You helped me out two three times before. Just saying hello.”

“Well,” I said, flushed with shame as I fumbled for my wallet, “I think I might have a dollar or…”

“You don’t have to give me money, man. I was just saying hello because, like…I know you.”

So I didn’t take out my wallet. But I did meet his gaze. And we looked at each other for a short infinity, and I saw that he was I.

And that is the heart of what I want to say to you, dear nincompoop. I am you, and you are me, and we are all together. And your nimcompooposity is mine, and mine is yours. And those poor homeless people, the ones you are so certain will spend the money you don’t give them on drugs, they are you, too. And by not giving to them, you are not giving to yourself. That may be a difficult concept to grasp, but it is absolutely how the universe operates.

The Golden Rule didn’t get to be the Golden Rule by accident. “Do unto other as you would have them do unto you” underpins every religious philosophy that ever lasted more than a week. The Golden Rule might also be called karma. Our actions create our reality. Yes. You are the owner of your own karma. Your actions create your happiness and unhappiness. And another helpful Buddhist idea is that duality and separateness are bogus illusions (as opposed to useful illusions) and as long as we see those poor and homeless people as separate from us, we will remain separated from ourselves.

“Act as if what you do makes a difference.  It does.”  William James

Here is what I propose you do, my friend, my mirror. Go to the bank and take out a thousand dollars in twenty-dollar bills, and do not rest until you have given those twenties to fifty people you think are homeless. And as you give that money to those people, ask them to tell you a little about themselves. I promise you will discover that they are you and you are they, and we are all together.

Now go home and take a luxurious bath and simmer in your own newly spiced juices. Get the living room nice and toasty. Pour yourself a glass of wine or some other refreshing beverage, and make yourself comfortable, because what happens next will blow your mind into brilliance.

(This essay was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2010)

Of Trees and Money

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

This is about firewood, water, the San Francisco Giants, and Single Payer Healthcare, among other things.

Marcia and I rent a house on Comptche Road, our backyard abutting a vast redwood preserve last logged some eighty years ago. In the wake of that clear-cut came madrone, manzanita, pine, fir, tan oak, spruce, and redwoods. Now, left alone for the span of three human generations, the redwoods have re-established their supremacy on the north-facing slope and the “transitional forest” is swiftly dying in the persistent shade of the towering monarchs.

Thus our backyard is both fabulous forest and graveyard to thousands of dead and dying trees—fallen, falling, or easy to fell. It has become my practice to harvest a tiny portion of this perfectly seasoned wood with a buck saw and ax to help keep us warm through the winter, give my body a good workout, and to absent myself now and then from the human realm.

I walk down into the forest this morning en route to a copse of several dozen dead fir trees, their trunks eight inches in diameter, each tree about sixty-feet tall, the whole bunch of them sun-starved by an uphill gang of surging redwoods springing from the trunks of giants cut down a moment ago in redwood time. I’m thinking about the San Francisco Giants, another exciting and frustrating baseball season about to end, our valiant squad ultimately no match for the big money teams, and I have a vivid memory of Jack Sanford, a heavyset right-hander who threw for the Giants from 1959 to 1965. My memory is of a picture of Sanford in the off-season staying in shape by sawing up logs and chopping wood. The picture, which must have appeared in the Chronicle, shows Jack working next to his small house. Big-time professional baseball player. Small house. Chopping wood.

As my buck saw cuts into the standing firewood, I realize that when I was a kid idolizing my Giants, it never once occurred to me how much money any of the players made, and most of them didn’t make much to speak of. Doctors and lawyers and plumbers made more than most ball players in those days. Contracts were for a couple years, and if a player ceased to be productive, the team was not encumbered by a long-term contract that kept them from letting the player go and buying or trading for somebody younger and on the upswing.

I further realize that much of my latter day frustration about our team is related to the mess that money has made of sports, all sports, and of our society in general. We’ve got Aaron Rowand, a chunky over-the-hill center fielder making six million a year and we are bound to keep him for three more years because nobody else wants him and our dimwitted general manager signed him to an absurdly long contract. We gave Barry Zito a zillion dollars for what turns out to be almost nothing, and we couldn’t trade him today for a cup of coffee. But we’re stuck with these guys for years to come. Meanwhile, our young stars can now ask for what we gave Barry Zito, because they are unquestionably better than he. And if we don’t give them what they want, the Yankees or the Dodgers or the Angels or the Red Sox will.

The fir falls cleanly down the slope, and it occurs to me that the drought may have something to do with the sudden swiftness of all these trees dying, in combination with the deepening shade beneath the redwood canopy, the same drought that has hastened the disappearance of the salmon as the dunderheaded powers-that-be divert the dwindling Delta flow to the millions of people who shouldn’t be living in southern California because the place was never meant by Nature to sustain more than a few hundred thousand people, if that.

When my folks were born in Los Angeles in 1922, the entire population of southern California—that’s everything south of San Luis Obispo, including LA and San Diego—was less than a hundred and fifty thousand people. When they were cutting down the redwoods in my backyard here in Mendocino eighty years ago there were less than a million people in the entire state of California. Today there are forty million if you count the ones they don’t count.

I cut the dead fir in half and drag one thirty-foot length at a time up the steep slope to my woodshed. I’m fairly winded by the time I get the second piece home, so I take a break and water my vegetable garden. We water our garden with gray water caught in a hundred and fifty gallon tub I sunk in a hole not far from the tallest redwood tree on our property. Without the gray water, we couldn’t have a garden since the spring that supplies our water is perilously low this time of year and serves to quench the needs of two other homes on the property.

So we catch our shower water, bath water, washing machine water, and sink water. Only the kitchen sink and the toilets flow into the septic field; the rest we recycle. And I have to tell you, now that we’ve been growing a big garden with gray water for the last two years, I don’t understand why everybody in this drought-stricken state isn’t compelled by a reasonable law to install such a system.

Reasonable law. Hmm. Something about those two words together sounds funny. Someone, probably Michael Parenti, once said that nearly all the laws in America, federal, state, and local, are essentially about protecting those with property from those without property. What that has to do with recycling water, I’m not sure, but I am sure that for many people the idea of being compelled to reuse bath water to water their gardens would seem like the onset of socialism, so forget about it. Let the salmon die. And let the whales that eat the salmon die. Let everything die, but don’t tell me I can’t take long showers with the last fresh water from the high Sierras. It’s a free country, right? Anybody should be allowed to do anything they have the money for even if it means ruining the environment. So what if some out-of-state corporation wants to buy the local election and evade local oversight to build a monster mall that will be the ruination of Ukiah? Let the free market decide everything, unless the free market turns out to be a massive Ponzi scheme, in which case, please, have the government bail us out. But don’t call the bail out socialism, because, well, socialism is bad.

So I’m sawing up the length of fir. Based on the ease of cutting, I guess the wood has been standing dead for three years. Perfect. I buy a cord of wood every year from Frank’s Firewood in Anderson Valley to augment what I drag out of the forest. We heat the house with two woodstoves, wood heat being one of the rare luxuries of living so far from urban areas where too much wood smoke combines with too much automobile and factory effluent to make the air unhealthy to breathe. Or so they say.

As I’m sawing the wood, my thoughts return to money and how out of whack our culture has become since I was a kid, and how this out-of-whackness and money seem inextricably bound. By American standards, Marcia and I live simply, our three largest expenditures being our rent, health insurance, and food. I didn’t have health insurance until a few years ago when I suffered through a medical emergency and felt threatened with the loss of everything I owned or might ever own.

I remember when I was living in a commune in Santa Cruz in the early seventies and I had an abscessed tooth, though I didn’t know that’s what I had. I only knew my head hurt and I was blind with pain. So my fellow communards drove me to see Doc Willis. He was an old man, a real doctor, and he charged ten bucks a visit. I waited a half-hour to see him. He came into the examining room, winced in sympathy, touched my upper lip, and said, “You need a dentist. Call this guy.”

When I tried to give his nurse/secretary ten dollars, she waved me away. “He said no charge.”

So today the San Francisco 49ers are without the services of their first round draft pick because this misguided young kid Michael Crabtree won’t sign with them because he’s been told he should get ten million dollars a year instead of eight, though he has yet to prove he can do anything as a pro except complain. Today, actors without talent made famous through media saturation get twenty million dollars to be in truly awful movies. Today corporate executives get hundreds of millions of dollars a year for successfully stealing money from a gullible supine population. And today we have a medical system that is the number one cause of homelessness.

If you go see a doctor today, about anything, your usurious medical insurance premium will almost certainly go up. So maybe you don’t go to your doctor, though you really think you should, because you really can’t afford to go to the doctor, either because you don’t have medical insurance or because you do.

The nights have turned chill this early October. I’m about turn sixty. If I had eight million dollars, no, if I had eight hundred thousand dollars, I would never have to work again, and that would be after I gave you half the money. And if we didn’t spend a third of our income on health insurance we’re afraid to use, who knows what we and everybody else might do with our lives?

In the meantime, I’m cutting wood, recycling water, hoping the Giants can re-sign Lincecum and Uribe, hoping we dump Molina and Rowand and Winn, and wishing Sabean would have an epiphany and move to Tibet. I continue to write to Obama and our corporate congress folk urging them to push for Single Payer. I continue to tell my Mendocino friends to vote No on Measure A. And I continue to believe the wisest course to follow is to spend at least as much time being a good friend as I spend trying to make money.

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in October 2009)