Posts Tagged ‘Ronald Reagan’

Democracy

Monday, March 5th, 2018

headland sky by Ian of Zo

Headlands and Sky photo by Ian of Zo

“Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself.” Conan Doyle

In 1972 I was living in a twelve-person commune in Santa Cruz, part of the commune movement that sprung up spontaneously across America as the housing component of the cultural revolution known as the Sixties. And from 1968 to 1975, I was very excited to be part of that housing component and hopeful about the positive social, political, and cultural impact that widespread communal living could have on American society.

The first commune I lived in was an eight-person affair I started with a friend. I left after a year of frustration because my fellow communards were extremely reluctant to subsume their individual needs, even a little, for the betterment of the collective. We gave lip service to that idea, but aside from shared meals, it was largely every man or woman for him or her self.

So I was excited to join a commune with much more collectivity built into an operating system that quite effectively served twelve members and our many guests. I planted a huge vegetable garden and organized the eager volunteer gardeners, we shopped and cooked and cleaned collectively, and the entire group met once a week to discuss practical and emotional problems.

I felt there were a few duds in the dozen, but overall the communal living experience was economical, ecological, healthy, and emotionally satisfying. Four heterosexual couples and four singles, two straight, two gay, composed our twelve, and my only secret complaint was that most of my fellow communards were not particularly creative.

After a year and a half in that commune, my girlfriend and I were on the verge of breaking up, and our dyadic divide coincided with two members of the commune moving out, thus creating two vacancies to be filled through our well-established selection process. Our commune was famously successful in Santa Cruz, we were right on the beach, and we had dozens of people applying for those two spots on the roster.

Eventually we winnowed the applicant pool down to four finalists, three men and one woman. One of the men was Ted, twenty-five, boyishly handsome, charming, a fine musician and actor, a graduate student at the university, and one of the most brilliant, funny, interesting people I’d ever met. The other two men were boorish stoners and I was baffled every time either of them made the next cut. The woman, Tina, was twenty-four, a zealous gardener, poet, yogini, dancer, professional cook, and bright and funny.

I assumed we would immediately and unanimously elect Ted and Tina, and I was so excited about them joining the collective that I kicked off our final group discussion before we voted by extolling their many virtues and speaking of Ted wanting to host a Drama night and Tina wanting to help me expand the garden and lead a daily yoga session.

To my horror, only one of the five women in our commune voted for Tina, and only one other man joined me in voting for Ted. All the women voted for Ted, and all the men voted for Tina, but since eight votes were required to win a place in the commune, Ted and Tina were not invited to join, while the two boorish stoners got the nod. Two weeks later, I broke up with my girlfriend and moved out of town.

But before I moved away, I spoke privately to each of the men who voted against Ted, and I spoke privately to each of the women who voted against Tina; and I asked them why they voted against such wonderful people and for such boorish dopes?

Three of the women admitted to being threatened by Tina’s charm and talent, and especially by how much the men liked her. One of the women said she felt Tina was too good to be true and didn’t trust her. One of the men said Ted was “hyper”, another of the men said Ted was “too intellectual”, and the third male dissenter said he was intimidated by Ted’s talent and by his girlfriend’s attraction to Ted.

Thinking about that turning point in my life—I might have written a hit song with Ted and married Tina and had three kids and moved to Denmark—I am reminded of when George W. Bush was running against Al Gore. In a large national poll conducted a month before the election, seven out of ten American men said they would rather have a beer and hang out with George than with Al, and in that election 75% of all male voters, Democrats and Republicans, voted for George, and 75% of all female voters voted for Al.

And that reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from the movie Blazing Saddles when Gene Wilder is explaining to Cleavon Little why the townsfolk won’t accept an African American as their sheriff.

“What did you expect?” says Gene to Cleavon. “A welcome sign? Make yourself at home? Marry my daughter? You’ve got to remember these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know…morons.”

And that reminds me of a recent and shocking study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center that found only 8% of high school seniors across America today identify slavery as the main cause of the Civil War, while 57% say tax protests caused the Civil War. How can this be? And isn’t it interesting that this phenomenon exists throughout the United States, not in isolated areas of the former Confederacy.

I am often chided by friends for being a conspiracy theorist, so I will not elucidate my theory about how and why one of the most important historical facts in American history is not properly taught in our schools. I will say that this monstrous educational lapse cannot, in my opinion, be accidental. Who would be best served by misleading entire generations of Americans about the cause of the Civil War?

And that reminds me of when I watched Jimmy Carter debate Ronald Reagan prior to the 1980 Presidential election, the last Presidential debate I ever watched. I howled with delight as Jimmy made a fool of Ronald at every turn in the debate, and I danced out of my house overjoyed that Jimmy would soon be re-elected, only to read the next day that multiple polls revealed well over 90% of Americans, Republicans and Democrats, felt Ronald easily won the debate.

Which is why, conspiracy theories aside, it didn’t surprise me even a little bit when Donald Trump was elected President of these United States.

Coup

Monday, June 20th, 2016

i've been waiting for the sun tw

I’ve Been Waiting For the Sun painting by Nolan Winkler

“If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out.” Oscar Wilde

I think it is important to view the Bernie Sanders saga in the context of the larger takeover of our society and our government and our psyches that began in earnest in the 1970s and was vastly accelerated by the enthronement of Ronald Reagan as President in 1980.

True, our society and government were heavily influenced by the wealthy elite from the moment our nation was founded, but the Great Depression and FDR modified that influence tremendously, and thereby ushered in a social and cultural renaissance that peaked in the 1970s when the corporate oligarchy began to take the requisite steps to wrest complete control again. Every President of the United States since Reagan has obediently carried out the agenda of the corporate overlords.

I published my first novel in 1978 at the close of the era of independent publishers. From my point of view, the corporate takeover of publishing and the movie industry at that time were key steps in stifling dissent and preparing the population for submission to corporate rule. I worked very hard to break into publishing, only to watch in horrified fascination as virtually overnight, teams of politically conservative anti-creative money crunchers replaced the most creative and open-minded people in every large publishing house in America.

The first order of business for these anti-creative teams was the firing of any innovative editors, many of them middle-aged, who believed it was their purpose in life to find new and original voices to bring into the cultural matrix. In the movie industry, similar house cleaning took place, with innovation and counter-culture ideas verboten.

Whenever several corporations take over entire industries, corporate consolidation of that industry inevitably follows, and within a decade after the initial takeovers, a few massive corporations owned all previously freestanding publishers, all the movie studios, and eventually most of the mainstream media outlets: newspapers, television networks, and radio stations.

Simultaneously, our public schools were being gutted and turned into pseudo jails, citizens who could afford to would send their children to private schools, and our universities became little more than conduits for the best and the brightest to find their places in the corporate machinery that was quickly taking hold of every aspect of our lives.

Without a vibrant creative culture, the collective imagination withers, and this withering makes for dull minds, and dull minds cannot discern truth from falsity, nor can dull minds raise children capable of discerning truth from falsity. This, in my opinion, is the context in which the Bernie Sanders saga must be viewed.

“A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end…but not necessarily in that order.” Jean-Luc Godard

A few weeks ago, Marcia and I were walking along Albion Street in Mendocino on a windy evening, our stomachs full of excellent food from the Mendocino Café, when I espied a crimson geranium plant lying by the side of the road, leaves and flower clusters wilting, a tangle of roots spread out on the ground like the tentacles of a dying octopus.

I picked up the beautiful plant, soon we were home, and I planted the dying geranium in a big pot already containing a recently transplanted rose bush. I gave those withered roots a big drink of water, and for the next few days babied the plant until some of her leaves began to show signs of revival. I pruned off those branches and flowers that were clearly not going to survive, and now we have a spectacular blood-red geranium as companion to an equally spectacular pink geranium gifted us by our neighbor Marion.

“Remember, the music is not in the piano.” Clement Mok

So we live in a country that purports to be a democracy, and is certainly not. We live in a country where elections are now routinely rigged. We live in a country that is the home base of a huge and aggressive military-industrial complex that perpetuates war in order to perpetuate itself. We live in a country that has a government serving the interests of a small percentage of the population at the expense of a large percentage of the population. And we live in a country that is the leading cause of the demise of the entire biosphere.

What can we do to counter these truths about the country where we live? I think Bernie Sanders’ campaign provides an answer, though his campaign is not the answer. His campaign has lasted one year. In that short time, he galvanized tens of millions of people to give him money and support his candidacy. He harnessed the enormous desire in the population to take back our government from the corporate oligarchs.

But we the people don’t just want an honest government; we want a decent society and a vibrant culture. And those are things we might create without the influence of corrupt government. Imagine a hundred million Sanders supporters boycotting movies and television shows that promote violence. Imagine a hundred million Sanders supporters working to institute Single Payer Healthcare state by state. Imagine those Sanders supporters actively and rigorously supporting local businesses instead of out-of-town corporations. Imagine a hundred million Sanders supporters striving to use public transportation instead of cars.

Part of why the corporate oligarchy never greatly feared Bernie Sanders or his followers is that they thought we were not going to do much more than support Bernie and hope he would win and do all sorts of wonderful things for us, rather than start doing wonderful things whether Bernie won or not.

Smart phones are portable computerized televisions that tether us to the corporate system. Unless we are willing, en masse, to change our lives so we are not servile users of the system, we will never have a Bernie Sanders become the leader of this nation. Bernie Sanders proved there are many people who want big changes. But he has yet to prove there are many people willing to make big changes.

Shortly after the anti-creative corporations took over the book publishers and the movie studios, the collective imagination began to wither.

Trust

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

Question & Reply

Question & Reply painting by Nolan Winkler

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

“You must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible.” Anton Chekhov

Trust is a tricky thing. Long ago, I held writing workshops for groups of eight people meeting for two hours once a week in my living room, each course lasting eight weeks. At the outset, I would reiterate what I had explained to prospective participants when they called to sign up for the process: we would be doing my original writing exercises and there would be no lecturing or criticism or analysis of anything we wrote, by me or anyone in the group, and no one had to read aloud anything he or she wrote unless he or she wanted to.

Of the hundreds of writers who participated in these workshops over the years, nearly all believed there would be lecturing and analysis and criticism and judgment of their writing, despite my proclamations to the contrary. And almost all believed if they did not read aloud what they wrote, they would be made to feel stupid and ashamed.

By the end of the first session, there were usually two or three participants trusting they would not be criticized or shamed when they read or did not read aloud what they had written. But there were always people who needed three or four sessions to fully trust they would simply be listened to when they read what they wrote, and so they had to wait a long time to find out that being listened to by a group of non-critical people can be a deeply illuminating and inspiring experience.

And it was only when everyone in the group fully trusted that no one would criticize or be criticized, that we truly became a group and not eight individuals separated by fear and mistrust doing writing exercises. Everyone in the group would feel this momentous shift when the last doubter surrendered to the embrace of non-judgmental group mind. Talk about synergy! Talk about people taking chances, going deeper, and discovering things about their expressive talents they would never have experienced without trusting that anything they wrote was allowed.

“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.” William Shakespeare

I make a part of my minimalist living selling my books and music and art. Customers can buy things from me using their credit cards via my web site or they can send a check to my post office box or they can bump into me at the farmer’s market and give me cash. I have a policy, established two years ago, that I no longer send or deliver orders until I have the money in hand. Had I established this policy ten years ago, I would be thousands of dollars richer than I am today.

Why did I continue to trust people after numerous people did not pay me for goodies received? Because I prefer trusting people to not trusting people, and I was embarrassed to imply to my friends that I didn’t trust them. But the fact is, since most of my customers are my friends, most of the people who stiffed me, knowingly or unwittingly, were my friends. I think poverty and forgetfulness, rather than malice and greed, were behind most of the stiffing, but still.

Yet it wasn’t until a very close friend ordered several hundred dollars worth of books and music CDs to give as Christmas gifts, and I gleefully sent off the big package to her before I received her check (money I was counting on) and then I never got her check, though she claimed it was immediately cashed yet was unable to confirm who cashed it, that I finally installed my policy of having the money in hand before shipping the goods.

And, yes, I have since lost sales to friends infuriated with me for not trusting them, which is why I say trust is a tricky thing.

“Trust, but verify.” Ronald Reagan

When I moved to Sacramento in 1980, my neighbors told me that our neighborhood was so safe no one ever locked their doors and there had never been a theft of anything for as long as anyone could remember. And so I never locked my house or my car and I left my bike unlocked on the front porch, and for several years what my neighbors told me proved true, and life was groovy.

Then one night somebody stole a neighbor’s Volkswagen. And in a twinkling, everything changed. Everyone started locking their cars and locking their doors. I continued to leave my bicycle on the front porch unlocked, but then it was stolen, and thereafter I kept my bike in the locked basement accessed through a padlocked gate.

And the unexpected result of this rash of thefts, this new economic reality, was that my neighbors began to mistrust each other and me, and there were fewer block parties, life became less casual, and people spent more time indoors. It seems that once mistrust becomes the overriding modus operandi, it permeates everything.

Then I moved to a working class neighborhood in Berkeley and my neighbors told me there hadn’t been a theft of anything in the hood for as long as anyone could remember, at least fifty years. And until rent control ended and the dot com explosion rendered Berkeley unaffordable for most of my neighbors, our neighborhood was blissfully safe and crime free. But once the street was gentrified, robberies became commonplace and gloomy mistrust descended and life sucked.

Then I moved to Mendocino, and the first joke I was told by two gregarious locals who sat with me in the café and paid for my tea was, “Why do you lock your car in Mendocino? Because if you don’t, someone will leave a bag of zucchini on your front seat.”

So far no zucchini, though I never lock my truck.

Trillions

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

31 In The Field of Gold

in the field of gold by Ellen Jantzen

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2015)

“All the waste in a year from a nuclear power plant can be stored under a desk.” Ronald Reagan

Yes, those were the words spoken by a man who was Governor of California and President of the United States, a man revered by millions of People With Small Brains. I stumbled upon that example of Reagan’s snotty idiocy while hunting for cogent things people have said about waste, and though Reagan was rarely cogent—and the world might be a better place had he, in his youth, sat for a few hours at a desk under which was stored a year’s waste from a nuclear power plant—his remark struck me as an apt preamble to the problem I want to discuss with you.

“Thank God men cannot fly, and lay waste the sky as well as the earth.” Henry David Thoreau

Not so long ago, when Americans in relatively large numbers (one per cent of the population?) still actively protested the dastardly wars sponsored by the imperial supranational overlords—before voluntary servitude to cell phones won the day entirely—I attended a big peace march and rally in San Francisco at which the brilliant historian and political scientist Michael Parenti spoke.

Early in his remarks, Parenti enumerated the good that could be accomplished if money spent to build the latest species of fighter jets for the American arsenal was spent instead on education, healthcare, and helping those living in poverty. And I noticed that the moment Parenti intoned the words billions of dollars, the crowd lost all interest in what he was saying and he might as well have been speaking to five people instead of the fifty thousand gathered to protest the wasteful stupidity of war.

Since then—my Parenti epiphany—I have confirmed on numerous occasions that while many people can hang with discussions involving one or two million dollars, any sum larger than that has little or no meaning to most of us. Why? Because money is real and important in our lives, and real money to most people is much less than a million dollars.

When we enter the realm of billions—a billion is a thousand million—we might as well speak of neon gorganzalids. Huh? Neon whats? The imperial overlords are well aware that we cease to pay attention when talk turns to hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, and not paying attention is what they want us to be doing while they rob us blind, year in and year out.

“Why waste time learning, when ignorance is instantaneous?” Bill Watterson

In 2008, when the worldwide Goldman Sachs-created toxic derivative hedge fund Ponzi scheme bubble burst all over the world, the imperial overlords ordered their operatives at the Federal Reserve to spend an initial trillion dollars to prop up the collapsed financial regime (while doing nothing for the unwashed masses) and thereafter ordered the Federal Reserve to spend a hundred billion a month to re-inflate the bogus stock hedge fund derivatives bubble. You’re getting drowsy aren’t you?

That’s my point. Government-condoned financial thievery of epic proportions goes on every day in America, thefts totaling at least ten trillion dollars in the last seven years, and we the people have no concept of what those thefts mean in relation to our collective and individual lives. You and I could sure use seventy dollars or seven hundred dollars or seven thousand dollars—wouldn’t that be nice?—but millions and billions and trillions…snore.

Add to the stolen ten trillion another trillion a year spent on the military and…Huh? Sorry. Dozed off.

“After a certain point, money is meaningless. It ceases to be the goal. The game is what counts.” Aristotle Onassis

On the other hand, sports, sex, food, violence, death, and the breasts and penises of famous celebrities and fashion models, these are things we are hardwired to be interested in. Penelope Cruz in an itsy bitsy bikini. Tom Cruise wearing skimpy underwear. See? You woke up. The overlords know this and have structured modern mass media to inhabit your television computer tablet phone as a never-ending stream of lurid high-definition images and videos of sports, sex, food, violence, death, breasts, and penises, or the bulges therefrom.

The media moguls keep the titillating deluge raining down on us day and night so you and I will pay no attention to the men behind the curtains (referencing The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland version) robbing us of billions and trillions of…your eyes are closing.

“Free will is an illusion. People always choose the perceived path of greatest pleasure.” Scott Adams

The perceived path of greatest pleasure. Hence, Las Vegas. Hence the election of Ronald Reagan and so many others of his kind to positions of great power over us. Hence the dominance of amoral bankers and hedge fund criminals who do grasp the terrible significance of redirecting trillions of dollars representing the collective wealth of the earth into the coffers of a relatively tiny number of Incredibly Greedy People.

What if those trillions had been wisely used for the good of everyone? Hard to imagine. Indeed, our minds boggle when we begin to imagine what our world might become should those stolen trillions ever be spent on reversing the current trends. Yes, our little hardwired breast and penis and food and sex and sports-loving little minds boggle when we try to envision a future in which all the clichés about freedom and equality and sharing the wealth come true. And that’s just how the overlords want our minds to be. Boggled.

Off The Map

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

Green Chair oil Nolan Winkler

Green Chair oil on canvas by Nolan Winkler

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

“We now live in a nation where doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, universities destroy knowledge, governments destroy freedom, the press destroys information, religion destroys morals, and our banks destroy the economy.” Chris Hedges 

Marcia and I are on the two-movies-a-month plan from Netflix, and many of the movies we watch are foreign films and documentaries. For my taste, most of the American films made available to the public in the last thirty years are so badly written and badly acted and poorly directed, I want no part of them, though once in a while a miracle occurs and I am reminded of how vibrant and creative American cinema used to be before the televisionization of everything.

A couple months ago, Marcia suggested, “What about the one where the IRS guy goes to audit the family living in the middle of nowhere?”

Never having heard of such a film, I entered movie about IRS guy auditing family in middle of nowhere into my favorite search engine and up came Off The Map (2003), directed by Campbell Scott, the co-director with Stanley Tucci of one of my favorite American movies of the last few decades Big Night (1996). To our delight, Off the Map was available from Netflix (which is not true of many films we wish to see), and a few nights ago we watched Off the Map, which I found genuinely funny and touching and thought provoking and full of beautiful imagery.

One of the main thoughts this tenderly made movie provoked in me was how terribly impatient people have become as the result of the massive and ongoing reprogramming of our expectations of how life should be, as opposed to how Nature actually is. This reprogramming, carried out by the mass media and by the mass incarceration of children in mind-numbing schools and by fear-driven previously reprogrammed parents, is at the heart of our collective dissatisfaction and depression and abnegation of our true natures in service to an economic and social system entirely disconnected from Nature.

Off The Map is an insightful portrayal of the healing power of kindness and generosity and cooperation and patience, not with the usual Hollywood flourishes and swelling music, but through the graceful capture of hundreds of reflexive acts of kindness and sharing by a few good people living far enough off the map, literally and figuratively, that they have reconnected with the founding truth of human society, which is that we cannot survive in any meaningful or satisfying way without being of service to each other, and even if we could survive without helping each other, what fun would that be?

“All great change in America begins at the dinner table.” Ronald Reagan

In distinct contrast to the movie Off The Map is the play Other Desert Cities, which Marcia and I just saw performed by the Mendocino Theatre Company (performances continuing through April 6.) The big reason to see this play, as far as I’m concerned, is to watch Sandra Hawthorne, who is so extraordinary and impressively real in the central role that the difficulties I had with the play’s story and writing pale next to her remarkable performance. If you go, try to sit close to the stage because the acoustics in the venerable Helen Schoeni Theater severely suck. If I ever strike it rich, I will endow MTC with sufficient funds to have local sound wizard Peter Temple install a few excellent microphones and speakers in the appropriate nooks so actors’ voices may carry with ease to the far reaches of that sound absorbent little box.

Other Desert Cities was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, which is vivid proof of the current silliness of that prize, and though the dialogue in Other Desert Cities is far superior to the awful speechifying in the last play we saw at MTC, Time Stands Still, the dialogue in Other Desert Cities suffers from far too much on-the-nose expository telling and not nearly enough nuanced character-revealing showing, which is true of all new American plays that find their way into production these days. Subtlety and complexity and shades of gray, not to mention dialogue reminiscent of how people actually speak to each other, are apparently suspect now in contemporary American theatre, and companies large and small seem to operate on the assumption that their seats will be filled, if they’re lucky, with not very bright children trapped in the bodies of adults—and maybe those theatre companies are right.

Which brings me to another thing I loved about the movie Off The Map: the author, Joan Ackermann, and director Campbell Scott, completely ignored the dominant trend in American books and plays and movies today, which is to speak down to the audience—down down down into idiocy. On the contrary, the makers of Off The Map (a film I’ll bet lost money) trusted that people watching their movie would possess sufficient intelligence and imagination to come to their own conclusions about much of what happens in the film, just as we come to our own conclusions about the myriad mysteries in life. What a concept.

“A man of great common sense and good taste—meaning thereby a man without originality or moral courage.” George Bernard Shaw

In the play Other Desert Cities, one of the characters, a television producer, is incredulous when his sister claims she has never heard of The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, a highly unlikely claim given that she is a New York sophisticate, a literary writer, and is about to publish an excerpt from her lurid memoir in The New Yorker. Her brother opines that her saying she has never heard of Tolkien is either a lie or snobbery or both. This was a most telling moment in the play for me, and I was eager to see how their conflict would progress, but the subject was summarily dropped and never broached again.

“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” Groucho Marx

Yesterday I was having a cookie at the Goodlife Café & Bakery when I was approached by a man I’ve known for several years who prefaces all our conversations with, “I see you’re still writing for the AVA,” though he has never divulged if he reads me. Curious. Anyway, this fellow seems to think that because I am a writer, I must also read piles of popular contemporary books, which I do not. Every time I bump into this guy, he enumerates the many bestselling books he has consumed since our last meeting, each title followed by the name of the author and a one-word review such as “important” or “heavy” or “painful” or “sobering.”

This man is repeatedly dismayed to learn that I have not read any of the books he enumerates, and my explanation—that I read very few books these days because I spend so much time slaving over my own hot lines—does not console him. He is adamant that it is my duty to read the current darlings of corporate publishing in order to…what? Learn from them? Imitate them? I dunno.

“Bad taste creates many more millionaires than good taste.” Charles Bukowski

A reader recently wrote to suggest I add book recommendations to my weekly articles. I explained to her that I no longer recommend books or movies or much of anything to anyone because so many of my past recommendations proved grave disappointments to those I sought to please. For instance, I used to zealously recommend Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim to anyone who would listen to me, prefacing my recommendations by saying I’ve read Kim several times and continue to imbibe the blessed tome every couple years because for me Kim is more than a novel but a holy text, a gorgeous epic poem, and a timeless masterwork.

Alas, nearly all the women who, on my recommendation, attempted to read Kim loathed the book and said the story was sexist, racist, outdated, confusing, adolescent, boring, a guy thing, and unreadable. Guy thing or not, most of the men who tried to read Kim on my recommendation said they found the book confusing, imperialist, irrelevant, childish, implausible, clunky, outdated, and unreadable.

“I would suspect that the hardest thing for you to accept is your own beauty. Your own worth. Your own dignity. Your own calling to learn to love and allow yourself to be loved to the utmost.” Alan Jones

Those words by Alan Jones, former Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, perfectly elucidate the guiding theme of the movie Off The Map, as well as the guiding theme of all my favorite novels and stories and plays and movies.

Todd’s new novel Ida’s Place is available exclusively from UnderTheTableBooks.com

Nature Bats Last

Thursday, November 15th, 2012

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

“Deer have been around for five million years and must know what they’re doing.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Our new home turns out to be a deer park, the resident deer so numerous and hungry that only rhododendrons and redwoods and ferns and huckleberries (the bushes not the berries) and a few other large trees can hope to survive the ravenous hordes. A crumbling wooden fence surrounds our property, and here and there remnant strands of barbed wire speak of a time when the previous owners may have experienced a modicum of deer-free living. I am a vegetable and herb gardener and hope to have a large garden growing soon, as well as berries and fruit trees and flowers, with a few raised beds off the deck outside the kitchen, none of which I can have until we transmogrify the deer situation.

To that end we have engaged the services of a deer fence installer, and at the moment he arrived last week to give us a bid, there were not four or five deer, but seventeen of those hungry animals browsing the shrubs and lower branches of trees and vacuuming up the golden leaves fallen from a very tall plum tree and devouring lilies and daisies, and shitting profusely everywhere around our house. And the deer fence guy, scanning the assembly of does and bucks and fast-growing fawns, quipped, “I see the problem.”

We have decided to bequeath the northern half our property to the deer and other wild things while fortifying the smaller southern portion of our humble homestead. The deer fence fellow is booked several weeks in advance and can’t start working on our property until December, so I might not get my garlic in this year, though I may plant a small bed and surround it with land mines or a more humane equivalent.

“There’s no place on Earth that’s changing faster—and no place where that change matters more—than Greenland.” Bill McKibben

Having recently read a number of fascinating and frightening articles about the sudden disappearance of the Greenland ice sheet, I was not surprised to hear that the super storm Sandy caused upwards of eighty billion dollars of damage. Such awesome storms are precisely what numerous new weather models predict will be the direct consequence of the vanishing ice sheets combined with warmer ocean temperatures, rising moisture content in the atmosphere, rising sea levels, and myriad other factors related to global warming. In other words, though Sandy has been called the storm of the century, she may very well be the first of many such super storms to frequently pummel North America in the foreseeable future. Even as I write this, another massive storm is swirling through New York and New Jersey and Pennsylvania, with winter barely begun. Yikes.

Humans cannot construct storm fences around their big cities, though there is serious talk of building a gigantic sea wall around the island of Manhattan in anticipation of rapidly rising sea levels. (You gotta be kidding!) I wonder who will pay for the construction and upkeep of such a gargantuan wall? And how will such a wall keep hurricanes from toppling skyscrapers? Then, too, the eastern seaboard is rife with crappy old nuclear power plants full of plutonium ready to start melting down, several of those junky old plants identical to the crappy ones currently melting down at the Fukushima nuclear facility in Japan and radiating the entire Pacific Ocean. How many super storms will come and go before one or another of those nuclear power plant time bombs goes off? Not to be an alarmist, but we may very well be on the verge of millions of Americans and tens of millions of people in other countries being displaced annually by super storms and super droughts and super famines and super nuclear disasters; and I wonder where all those displaced people will go.

“He knows nothing; and he thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career.” George Bernard Shaw

Election night, as Marcia and I took turns monitoring the voting results on our computers, I suddenly found myself hoping fervently that Obama would win, though I did not vote for him and I think he is a supreme poophead regarding most of the tremendous challenges confronting humanity today. What, I wondered, was behind this sudden hope that Obama and not Romney would be President for the next four years? And as I wondered, my mind filled with visions of being part of a band of ancient hunter-gatherers watching two alpha males fight to the death for control of the band. Both alphas were cunning and violent, but one of them was vastly more intelligent and resourceful than the other and would be much more likely to act to insure the survival of the entire band when we were down to our last few pieces of deer jerky and giant tigers were pawing at the walls of our hut—or so I felt in that moment of their mortal combat.

“America makes prodigious mistakes, America has colossal faults, but one thing cannot be denied: America is always on the move. She may be going to Hell, of course, but at least she isn’t standing still.” e.e. cummings

When my sister Kathy lived in Los Angeles, she rented the ground floor of a two-story house at the end of a little canyon road at the base of a steep hillside composed of wholly unstable soil and stone, a formation geologists call a junk pile. In the winter of 1979 torrential rains caused massive mudslides, one of which obliterated Kathy’s home and smashed her car to smithereens with a boulder the size of an elephant. Having lost most of her possessions to that torrent of mud and rocks, my sister moved out of the hills and settled in the flatlands. And less than half a year later, her former abode had been rebuilt and leased again (with an exorbitant increase in rent) to a couple newly arrived in Los Angeles who had no idea they were pitching their tipi, so to speak, in the line of inevitable disaster.

In that same year, while visiting my sister in the aftermath of the mudslide and her relocation to level ground, I dined with a movie producer whose home was built at the top of another massive junk pile of soil and rock very much like the one that had shed part of its mass and obliterated my sister’s place.

“Amazing view,” I said, gazing out on the smog-cloaked city. “I’ll bet it’s really something on a clear day.”

“Don’t be sarcastic,” said my host, joining me on her deck. “The air is getting better. It really is.”

“Do you ever worry about losing the house to a landslide?” I asked, noticing several ominous cracks in her patio.

“I’ve been told this place has gone down twice in the last twenty years,” she confided with a shrug. “And they are forever shoring up the foundation and sinking piers and doing whatever to keep it from going again.”

“So…”

“So that’s why I’m leasing instead of buying,” she said, nodding confidently, “and why I’ve got the best renters’ insurance money can buy and why I stay in my townhouse in Santa Monica when the rains get crazy.”

“All great change in America begins at the dinner table.” Ronald Reagan

One young left-of-the-mythic-center pundit we listened to in the wake of Obama’s victory over Romney opined that henceforth the only way the Republican Party would ever be anything more than an obstructionist gang of amoral dinosaurs, and a shrinking gang at that, was if they could find a charismatic leader, a latter day Ronald Reagan, to take the helm and mesmerize the masses as old Ronnie did.

Now I was never for a minute mesmerized by Reagan. On the contrary, I found him repulsive and so obviously the puppet of George Herbert Bush and his cronies that I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why anyone found him attractive, let alone likeable and trustworthy. He knew almost nothing about anything, said only what he was told to say, and did such serious damage to our country and the world that we are still suffering from the impact of his policies. And yet he was the most popular President since Franklin Roosevelt. Why? I dunno.

“It’s too bad that stupidity isn’t painful.” Anton LaVey

From all I’ve read about the evolution of humans and human society, it is clear that we would not have survived as a species for long had it not been for our ability and willingness to cooperate with each other for the greater good, the good of the group transcendent of the selfish desires of individuals. And in thinking about the recent election and the San Francisco Giants winning the World Series and how people voted on the various state propositions and our wanting to install a deer fence around part of our property and the dawning of the age of rampant super storms and super calamities, it occurs to me that stupidity should henceforth be defined as the unwillingness to do what is best for the greater good.

After the Giants won the World Series, I read several articles by baseball writers and so-called baseball experts who were all baffled as to how the Giants could have possibly beaten the Reds, the Cards, and ultimately the Tigers, when the Giants, according to these experts, were so clearly the inferior collection of individual players. What a bunch of shortsighted knuckleheads! We, the Giants, were clearly the superior team and that’s why we kept on winning—because a great team is always far more than the sum of its parts and is invariably a highly cooperative community intolerant of selfishness. Or put another way, a great team is a collective dedicated to the success and well being of the entire group, and not just the enrichment of a few jerks who don’t care about anybody else. 

Homelessness

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

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

I am currently in the throes of rewriting a novel I first completed in 2003, rewrote entirely in 2006, and then did not touch for six years. I have only undertaken this kind of extended creative venture a few times in my life because most of my long dormant creations do not stand the test of time for me; so I have no interest in spending another thousand hours remaking them. Nor would I have had the opportunity to rewrite any of these long slumbering works had I been a more successful writer with publishers and producers clambering for my works as I completed them the first time. In any case, these books and plays and screenplays I remake multiple times over the course of many years are my favorite creations, regardless of their commercial fates.

This novel I am rewriting is a quasi-autobiographical tale about a middle-aged man who invites a homeless woman and her four-year-old son to live with him. His relationship with the boy is loving and parental, his relationship with the woman in no way sexual, though sexuality is one of the larger subjects of the novel. And though I am still keenly interested in the book’s exploration of sexuality, I am most interested (at the moment) in the subject of homelessness, for I was reminded when I read this manuscript that homelessness has played a central role in many of my books and stories, both published and unpublished.

When I lived in Sacramento in the 1980’s, I became fascinated with several of the many homeless people who gathered downtown in Plaza Park before the park was gussied up and gentrified and made off limits to those outcastes I came to know quite well. The result of my fascination was a novel entitled Two Rivers, four years in the making, an epic stream-of-consciousness prose poem I was never able to publish, though two unusual literary agents and three brave New York editors fell in love with the book and strove mightily to convince the powers that be to publish it. In retrospect, I understand why the book was anathema to corporate publishers, for the interlocking stories composing the novel lay bare the truth of our society’s great shame—the abandonment of those most in need and the terrible legacy of that mass abandonment.

Because homelessness has recently returned to the fore of my consciousness, I am keenly aware that homelessness is almost never mentioned by any of the politicians currently running for local and national office. There is much talk of the great stress being put on the middle class and elderly by the current economic crisis, but homeless people and homeless families are rarely spoken about, though their ranks grow larger every day. Of course, homeless people do not vote, so why should politicians waste their precious cash appealing to the victims of our failing system of governance? Yet it is the unspoken specter of homelessness that is the very monster driving voters into the arms of countless crackpots who blame Big Government for the woes of our society, when our government is not acting in nearly big enough ways to do what must be done to resurrect a viable safety net for all our citizens.

If you are under forty you will not remember when there were virtually no homeless people in America, but that’s the way it was before Ronald Reagan became governor of California and then President of the United States. Certainly there were poor people and itinerant alcoholic bums before Reaganomics became the de facto law of the land, but there were not millions of homeless families in America or even thousands of them. I will not attempt to sum up the sickening history of how Reagan’s overseers shifted the political and social sands to create the economic forces that created the epidemic of homelessness we have today, but be assured that homelessness is the direct and recent result of the craven and amoral rigging of our systems of taxation to benefit the wealthy while sacking those social programs aimed at helping the economically disadvantaged.

What interests me more than the financial mechanics that caused so many millions of people to become economically disenfranchised is what homelessness means as a reflection of our collective response to such suffering. And I think our collective response, which is to do nothing to reverse the horrific policies of our so-called leaders over the last thirty years, is a reflection of a totally false and tactically implanted fear in all of us that there is not enough food and shelter and security for everyone, so that sharing our wealth with others is perceived to be the direct path to homelessness. That may seem simplistic, but that is what I observe in individuals and groups in response to individual homeless people and to homeless people as a growing sector of our population. The homeless are to be pitied or scorned, but not given the means to substantively improve their lives, for we have been programmed to believe that such giving will only impoverish us, when, in fact, the opposite is true.

For many years before I wrote Buddha In A Teacup, a collection of forty-two contemporary dharma tales, I was immersed in the writings of several excellent Buddhist teachers, and what I discovered time and again was that generosity, the sharing of one’s self with others, not only underpins all aspects of Buddhist philosophy, but is apparently the most difficult concept for Americans to fully understand and incorporate into their lives. And the reason for this difficulty, according to many Buddhist teachers, is that American are deeply entrained to believe that the purpose of giving is to get something in return, whereas the essence of true generosity is to give without any expectation of recompense.

Here is the tale Generosity from Buddha In A Teacup. I would be very curious to know how this little story makes you feel.

Generosity

Tess, a slender woman with brilliant blue eyes and long gray hair, lives in Golden Gate Park—her camping place known only to her.

“I don’t leave anything there when I come out. If you were standing right on it, you wouldn’t know anyone lived there because it’s just a place along the way. I leave no indentation. Even if you found me there you wouldn’t know I lived there because I might just be a tourist sitting in the park. I only have my knapsack.” She smiles. “The only way they could bust me is if they found me there at night, but no one comes there at night. Except me. It’s such an unlikely place for a person to live.”

Tess and a middle-aged man named Thomas are having lunch at a café a few blocks from the park. Thomas has known Tess for three years. They met at an arts faire in downtown San Francisco where Tess was selling handmade greeting cards. Each card contains one of Tess’s original poems. She is a highly skilled botanical illustrator. Most of her cards are scientifically accurate drawings of flowers rendered with fine-tipped pens.

The first card he bought from her—Crimson Columbine—contained the following poem.

this wildflower

short-lived, yes,

but no prisoner

 

A few months later, Thomas met Tess walking on Ocean Beach. They were both searching for unbroken sand dollars. He introduced himself and asked if he might hire her to make a drawing of the leaves and flowers of camellia sinensis—tea—for his business card and stationery. She was happy to make the drawing for him and he was thrilled with the result. Since then they have met every week for lunch.

“I made you something,” she says, handing him a greeting card. “That’s Arnica mollis. Cordilleran Arnica. I love how the yellow flower stands out against the dusky green leaves.”

He opens the card.

Dear friend,

Winter is nearly upon us.

May I sleep on your sofa at night until Spring?

I will be quieter than a mouse.

I will leave no indentation.

For the rest of my life,

I will make drawings and poems for you.

Blessings and Love,

Tess

 

 

Austerity

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

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

“When we deeply understand that actions bring results, it can motivate us to take active responsibility for our actions and our lives.” Joseph Goldstein

Planting time: kale, lettuce, carrots, peas, beets, broccoli. Hearty potato plants rise from the ground and promise a good harvest of spuds in a month or so. Look! A hundred and eight beautiful garlic plants are nearing fruition after many months of growing. As I work in my little garden, I think about the lunatics running our state and national governments, advocates of what they call austerity (but what is actually senseless cruelty and greed), and I imagine a gang of these crazy people surveying my garden and proclaiming, “These seeds and plants aren’t producing anything we can eat right now. They need to be taught a lesson. They need to tighten their belts and pull themselves up by their own root straps. Stop watering them. Stop feeding them. Don’t give them anything until they learn to grow without any assistance from anyone.”

“But…” I try to argue, “…vegetables require time and nurturing to eventually…”

“No buts,” say the lunatics. “No time. No nurturing. Look at those redwood trees over there. You don’t feed or water them, do you? Yet they grow bigger every year. That’s how your broccoli should behave. That’s how lettuce ought to grow. Don’t coddle your sugar snap peas. Let them stand on their own.”

“At the end of his life, Aldous Huxley said that he had come to appreciate how most of spiritual practice is learning to be kinder to one another.” Joseph Goldstein

Years ago I read an article about an experimental program in a Swedish prison that treated inmates as people suffering from emotional and physical deprivations. Inmates were given massages several times a week, had frequent individual and group sessions with psychotherapists, got plenty of opportunities to exercise, learn new skills, make art, eat delicious nourishing food, and were treated with kindness and respect by a staff of skillful and compassionate attendants. Because exhaustive research showed that the vast majority of felons had been deprived of sufficient loving touch as children and adults, and were obviously starved for friendship and love, and because it was clear that punishing people for being emotionally wounded only exacerbated their emotional problems, this regimen of loving-kindness seemed a logical and humane approach. As you might imagine, nearly all the inmates treated for several months in this revolutionary way were positively transformed, so much so that five years after they were released, almost none of the felons had committed another crime.

“We really don’t need very much to be happy. Voluntary simplicity creates the possibility of tremendous lightness and spaciousness in our lives.” Joseph Goldstein

I am old enough to remember President Jimmy Carter delivering a famous speech in 1977 that began as follows. “Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you about a problem unprecedented in our history. With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes. The energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us, but it will if we do not act quickly. It is a problem we will not solve in the next few years, and it is likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century. We must not be selfish or timid if we hope to have a decent world for our children and grandchildren. We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources. By acting now, we can control our future instead of letting the future control us.”

Jimmy wanted Americans, with the help of the government, to insulate our homes, conserve energy, and prepare for oil and gasoline becoming extremely expensive. He spoke eloquently about the global environment being under severe duress, and he suggested that people as well as corporations needed to make substantive changes in energy use so the transition to a post carbon future would not be too arduous. Jimmy was my hero after he made that speech. Never before nor since have I heard a President of the United States speak so truthfully and with so little concern for his political future.

That speech, for all intents and purposes, ended Jimmy’s political career and rendered him a largely ineffective president for the rest of his one and only term in office. He had committed the unforgivable crime in a nation controlled by amoral corporations. He had suggested that unbridled capitalism was no longer a viable response to a planet overtaxed by out of control humanity.

Ronald Reagan then came to power by attacking the basic premise of Jimmy’s truthful and heartfelt speech. Reagan declared a thousand times that there was a superabundance of everything and no need to conserve, no need to worry about the environment or the future. We were, he declared, the strongest and richest nation on earth and we, collectively and individually, could have anything we wanted. And so Reagan was elected by a landslide. Yes, Ronald Reagan, the great idol of the austerity lunatics, rode to power as the champion of unlimited consumption.

What I find most telling about the national rejection of Jimmy Carter’s suggestion that we make key changes in our personal and collective energy policies is that change itself was interpreted as austerity. People feared that if we couldn’t keep doing and having everything we wanted to do and have right this minute, and in ways we were accustomed to doing and having, we would be denying ourselves happiness. This was not Carter’s message, but rather how his opponents spun the message to tap the fears of people growing more and more accustomed to instant gratification and the superabundance of new things: gizmos, food, clothing, houses, cars, computers—stuff! And that was almost fifty years ago. Think of what we, the cell phone app people of 2012, have grown accustomed to.

“Practicing kindness means that we connect with people rather than dismiss them; kindness breaks down the barriers between ourselves and others.” Joseph Goldstein

Before moving to Mendocino, I rented an old house on the flats of north Berkeley, a block off Gilman Avenue. Homeless people, mostly men, with shopping carts piled high with cans and bottles were plentiful in our area because one of the main garbage transfer and recycling centers in Berkeley was on Gilman down near the freeway, about fifteen blocks from my house. Because I walked or bicycled everywhere, I got to know some of these scavengers and frequently gifted them with my empty bottles and cans, and less frequently I gave them a little cash if I felt I had some to spare.

Many of these homeless recyclers frequented a liquor and grocery store on the corner of Gilman and San Pablo Avenue, and it was not uncommon to find two or more of these entrepreneurs gathered on the sidewalk in front of the store with their wagon trains of shopping carts. Since I left Berkeley seven years ago, that area has undergone a profound gentrification, so I don’t know the current state of the homeless scene thereabouts, but in my day there were dozens of shopping cart scavengers using Gilman as their main route to the recycling center.

So…one day an old friend, a childhood pal I hadn’t seen in many years, came to visit me in Berkeley. Tina was married to an extremely wealthy man and lived in a mansion in Los Angeles—her life one of extreme luxury and privilege. Yet she was terribly unhappy and full of complaints. I, on the other hand, was not sure I would have enough money to pay my rent that month and buy groceries, so her complaints were not landing on sympathetic ears.

When I realized I had ceased to listen to her, I suggested we go for a walk and see the sights of my neighborhood. Tina was game, so off we went, and after I’d shown her my favorite front yard gardens, I decided (without knowing why) to take us by the liquor store on the corner of Gilman and San Pablo to see what we could see. And lo the gods had assembled five homeless scavengers with their many shopping carts in tow, three of the sweaty fellows having recently cashed in their treasure, the other two en route to do so.

Tina, I should add, was a beautiful woman as graceful as a deer and the object of admiring gazes from most everyone who saw her. And as we approached the liquor store, the gang of recyclers fell into reverent silence, as if to say, “Well lookee here, a goddess came down to give us thrill.”

Then one of the fellows hailed me. This was Jonah, a muscular black man who slept in a nest he’d fashioned in the heart of a massive blackberry bush not far from my house. “Yo! Mr. Todd. What’s doing?”

“Showing my friend the sights,” I said, leading Tina closer to Jonah and his compatriots. “Tina, this is Jonah. Jonah, Tina.”

“Where you from?” asked Jonah, his broad smile revealing a scarcity of teeth.

“Los Angeles,” said Tina, breathless with fear and excitement. “Near Santa Monica.”

Then we chatted a bit more, saying nothing of great import, Jonah doing most of the talking, Tina wide-eyed and smiling anxiously; and then we bid them adieu and headed home.

But before we had gone two blocks Tina touched my hand and said, “I want to give them some money. Do you think…would that be okay?”

I assured her it would be okay and we returned to the liquor store where Tina gave each of the men a twenty-dollar bill. Then two of the men began to weep, and Tina burst into tears, and so did I.

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

Aliens From Outer Space

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“Chances are, when we meet intelligent life forms in outer space, they’re going to be descended from predators.” Michio Kaku, famous theoretical physicist

So this morning I was listening to a radio interview of a reporter for the New York Times, and she laid out clear and irrefutable evidence of how the crooks took over our government and the banking system and didn’t even try to hide what they were doing—massive theft in broad daylight, so to speak. This radio interview was not on some lunatic fringe radio show hosted by a conspiracy theory fruit bat. No, this interview was on National Pentagon Radio and was listened to by millions of Americans; and the conclusion of the New York Times reporter and of the mainstream radio guy interviewing her was that, yes, the bad guys stole trillions from us and continue to steal trillions from us, but, well, so, let’s just hope and pray that the amoral scumbags will have a change of heart and give back a little of what they stole from the hundreds of millions of people whose lives they’ve destroyed.

That’s when I heard someone say, “Aliens from outer space,” and that someone was yours truly. Seriously folks, how else can we explain this? This being the takeover of our government and the takeover of several European governments by a bunch of amoral scumbags, and the acquiescence of hundreds of millions of people who are apparently more upset about Netflix raising their DVD rental rates than they are about having Social Security looted by these same amoral scumbags? Outer space aliens. That’s gotta be the explanation. Don’t you think?

“Extraterrestrial contact is a real phenomenon. The Vatican is receiving much information about extraterrestrials and their contacts with humans from its Nuncios (embassies) in various countries, such as Mexico, Chile and Venezuela.” Monsignor Corrado Balducci

See what I mean? Balducci is way up in the Vatican infrastructure. He’s no wannabe Catholic big shot. He is a Catholic big shot, and he says outer space aliens are real and making their presence known in Mexico, Chile, and Venezuela—two big oil producing countries and one major player in copper futures. Balducci stops short of saying the space aliens have taken over the American and British and French governments, but we can connect the dots, thank you very much.

“I looked out the window and saw this white light. It was zigzagging around. I went up to the pilot and said, ‘Have you ever seen anything like that?’ He was shocked and he said, ‘Nope.’ And I said to him: ‘Let’s follow it!’ We followed it for several minutes. It was a bright white light. We followed it to Bakersfield, and all of a sudden to our utter amazement it went straight up into the heavens. When I got off the plane I told Nancy all about it.”
 President Ronald Reagan describing his 1974 UFO encounter to Norman C. Miller, Washington bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal.

Wow. What a guy, Ronald Reagan. “Let’s follow it.” That’s so John Wayne. That’s so…reflexively heroic. Can you imagine Bill Clinton or Barry Obama or anybody short of Abraham Lincoln saying, “Let’s follow it.”? No way. I mean, what if the white light turned out to be some sort of voracious predator alien? Believe me, that’s the first thing Barry or Bill or either of the Georges would think if they saw an alien from outer space over Bakersfield; but not Ronald “Let’s follow it” Reagan.

“I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.” William Shakespeare

I have possibly had contact with aliens from outer space on two occasions. I say “possibly” because I don’t know for an absolute fact that these beings I met were aliens from outer space, but they very well might have been.

The first encounter took place on a winter evening in 1981 at Sacramento City College. I had just given a talk peppered with readings of my short stories to a goodly gathering and was about to exit the auditorium when a female (I am reluctant to say she was a woman because I think she may have been an alien from outer space) approached me and asked if she could speak to me. She was the most unusual person (if she was a person) I have ever seen, and I have seen some totally weird-looking people, as I’m sure you have, too.

She was approximately six-feet-tall, slightly taller than I, broad-shouldered yet slender, and she was wearing a sleeveless scoop-necked dress that at first glance seemed to be white, but at second glance seemed to be vaguely silver. At that same first glance she seemed to be exquisitely beautiful, but at that same second glance her face resembled nothing so much as the face of a praying mantis. And most striking were her eyes—huge multi-faceted white diamonds suspended in large transparent globes.

She was also radiant, and by that I mean she seemed to be alight, glowing from within—definitely a white light. When she shook my hand, I felt a jolt of electricity run through me that might have been sexually thrilling, except she was so far beyond any concept I’d ever had of a possible bedmate, I was not so much turned on as transfixed. Then she spoke and she had this terrific Serbian or Latvian or Russian accent, and she mangled English grammar and English words so beautifully I would have fallen in love with her for that alone if she hadn’t been completely off the charts in terms of how exotic and strange and alien she seemed.

“I em Yanina,” she said, her diamond eyes turning subtly turquoise before growing clear again. “I hev mosst unusual life to tell. But I em not writer. Hearing you, I em thinking, ‘Yes, he is what I em needing for to tell my story.” She took my hand again. “I pay you very well, and my book go all over world. Say you meet me tomorrow.”

I was about to say Yes, her honeyed voice and terrific accent and marvelous language mangling tipping the scales in her favor, when I came out of my trance just long enough to discern she was not alone. Standing some ten feet behind her was a huge man wearing a black suit and a red bowtie, his handsome jowly face dominated by a stupendous handlebar mustache. Yanina noticed me noticing her gigantic companion and said, “This is Raul. He is, as you say, bodyguard.” Then she smiled (and her smile might have been an ice pick thrust deftly between my ribs into my heart). “When you hear my story you will understand why I need such protection.”

Which prompted me to blurt, “You know, I’m really just focusing on my own stuff these days. I appreciate your thinking of me in this regard, but…”

“You are afraid,” she said, nodding sagely. “Don’t be. There has never been story like mine. It is worth big risk.”

And if not for Raul…

My second possible meeting with an alien from outer space also took place in Sacramento, seven years after I never heard from Yanina the probable alien again. The summer day was hot and humid, my garden a riot of basil and flowers and corn and tomatoes and myriad tasty comestibles. I was sitting on the bottom step of the stairs leading from the garden up to the deck adjoining my house and thinking about where in my garden to stand while I held the hose over my head to cool down, when I heard a whirring sound and espied something the size of a hummingbird zooming toward me at an altitude of about two feet. In fact, I thought the thing was a hummingbird because hummingbirds do make a kind of whirring sound when they fly fast (though this was a different sort of whirring than hummingbird whirring) and my garden was a popular hummingbird hangout.

A split second later the thing was hovering in the air about a foot from my face, and it was definitely not a hummingbird. I should note I was not under the influence of any drug or alcohol at the time, though I was excessively warm and more than mildly depressed. The thing was definitely a machine. I could hear other sounds accompanying the whirring, notably clanking and squeaking. I felt certain, and feel certain to this day, that the thing was looking at me. Either something inside the flying machine was observing me, or the thing itself, perhaps with a tiny camera, was checking me out.

Then the thing flew away, up and over my fence, and I never saw the like of it again. Until that moment, it had not occurred to me that aliens from outer space might be little. Some years after my encounter with the alien flying machine in my garden, I saw a documentary entitled Fast, Cheap & Out of Control by Errol Morris, the title referring to the work of Rodney Brooks, an M.I.T. scientist who designed tiny robots and wrote a famous paper suggesting we send one hundred one-kilogram robots to Mars or wherever, instead of a single hundred-kilogram robot. That way, if some of the robots broke down or didn’t work properly, there would still be many more robots to carry out the exploring. The paper was entitled “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control: A Robot Invasion of the Solar System” published in 1989 in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society.

After seeing this documentary, I was convinced that the flying thing I had encountered in my garden was one of thousands of exploratory robots sent from some distant solar system to check out life in ours. So now the question is: are the aliens from outer space who sent the hummingbird robots the same aliens behind the crooks who have ripped off trillions of dollars and brought humanity to the brink of extinction? I don’t know. But I wouldn’t be surprised.