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Dexter Digs Up His Lawn

sally's cactus blooms

Dexter was so looking forward to a lusty week at Happy Valley Retreat Center, but the love-in got cancelled because of the dang virus that’s going around, and going around is a humongous understatement.

So in the aftermath of that tragic cancellation, and having heard a voice while watching a cloud, a voice that might have been Dexter’s imagination but might have been the voice of the universe, AKA God, Dexter decides to follow the advice of the voice and dig up his scraggly lawn and put in a vegetable garden and plant some fruit trees.

Who is Dexter? Why should we care about him? Those are two good questions. I would even say they are essential questions. Many novels and stories and movies, especially movies, go wrong because we never get to know the main characters as people rather than archetypes, and we aren’t given good reasons to care about those characters.

Dexter is forty-six, a Caucasian American male born and raised and living in Springfield, Oregon, a UPS delivery person for thirteen years now after four years as an auto mechanic at Super Fast n’ Cheap Oil Change. Before being an oil changer he was co-owner with his mother Doris of an online 1960s memorabilia company called Quicksilver Memory Service, which Doris still has though her sales in the last twenty years haven’t amounted to much.

In the next three paragraphs I’ll try to answer the question about why you should care about Dexter. If what I tell you doesn’t ring your bell, I suggest you stop reading and do something else with your precious time. Doesn’t ring my bell, by the way, is one of Dexter’s favorite expressions, learned from his mother who uses it several times a day.

Dexter is a kind and thoughtful person who is genuinely interested in other people. He is fascinated by history and neurobiology and reads voraciously about both. He learned next to nothing in high school and did not attend college, yet his two best friends are highly educated and consider Dexter a wonderfully original thinker. One of those best friends is a middle-aged Chinese man named Luis, a microbiology software designer, and the other best friend is a forty-year-old Danish woman named Greta, a researcher for an online encyclopedia.

Painfully shy around women he finds attractive, Dexter finds most women attractive. He would love to be in a relationship, but his several attempts all ended unpleasantly, not because Dexter is a jerk, but because he grew up without any sort of model for how one goes about having a relationship, except with one’s mother.

Dexter is a sweetheart who is afraid of seeming too sweet. He loves classical music, something he got from his mother’s father who was a classical music clarinet player. He also likes music that swings, something he got from being human. He has two cats he dotes on, Frank and Ethel, and he would love to have a dog but doesn’t feel he has the time and energy after ten hours of delivering packages to give a dog the attention and exercise he or she would require. He also has a large aquarium, home to seven neon tetras. His favorite television show is the British game show 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, his favorite ethnic cuisine is Thai, and if none of that makes you care about Dexter, read no further.

However, if you are still reading, Dexter’s parents split up when Dexter was five, and though they legally had joint custody of Dexter, he spent most of his childhood with his mother Doris in her Airstream trailer in the Riverside Mobile Home Park where she still lives today.

A spry seventy-six, Doris starts every day with several cups of black coffee and reading Tarot cards for an hour or so. Thus it has been since Dexter was born. A retired bookkeeper, Doris owns three other Airstream trailers and the lots they sit on in Riverside Mobile Home Park. The rent she derives from those three mobile homes is sufficient to support her minimalist lifestyle and leave her a little extra each month to contribute to the local food bank.

She is not terribly afraid of catching the dang virus going around, but she is a little afraid, so for the time being she visits with Dexter on the phone and not in-person. She has groceries delivered to her doorstep every few days and walks her toy poodle Cream around the mobile home park for a half-hour every late morning and again in the early evening. She believes 1972 was the apex of human culture, and the décor in her Airstream, the music she listens to, the movies she watches, and the books she reads reflect that belief.

Doris raised Dexter to believe the 1960s and 70s were the golden age of humanity and he continues to believe this. He thinks of himself as a latter-day hippie. He has two extraordinary tie-dyed T-shirts, drives a faded red 1977 Volkswagen van, wears his longish brown hair in a stubby ponytail, and digs Van Morrison, though his go-to music is anything by Mendelssohn.

So here is Dexter on a cool Saturday morning in May, digging up the scraggly lawn in the little backyard of his blue two-bedroom tract home he has owned for fifteen years. Built in the late 1970s, the house is sturdy and unpretentious with a small front yard filled with rose bushes. The somewhat larger backyard is enclosed by a seven-feet-high wood fence that gives no view of the yards on either side of Dexter’s yard, or of the yard behind his yard.

Dexter barely knows his neighbors on either side of him and he knows nothing about the person or people who live in the house with the yard in back of his.

Sporting a bit of a paunch but otherwise in excellent shape from delivering packages five-days-a-week for the last thirteen years, Dexter is very much enjoying digging up the scraggly lawn, which is so scraggly there is little lawn to remove. As he turns the soil with his big shovel, the lawn remnants disappear. His plan is to dig up the whole lawn, get twenty bags of manure, dig that in, and plant some stuff.

He gets lost in a fantasy of going to the nursery to get manure and meeting an intriguing woman who is also buying manure and they fall in love. And just as he and this fantasy woman are about to make love, a voice says, “Gonna plant some veggies? If so, you picked a primo spot.”

Dexter looks up and around, wondering where the voice came from. This is not the same voice that might have been Dexter’s imagination or might have been the voice of God telling him to dig up his lawn. This voice came from nearby and is male and a little gravelly.

“Hello?” says Dexter. “Where are you?”

“Back here,” says the man, chuckling. “Looking at you through a knothole. Thought you’d like to know your soon-to-be-gone lawn used to be part of the commune vegetable garden back in the day. Sixties and Seventies. Before my old man sold the land to the developers. He kept three lots and the big old farmhouse and when he died he left them to me.”

Dexter leaves his shovel stuck in the ground and walks toward his back fence. The man sticks his finger through the knothole and waggles Hello.

“I’m Dexter,” says Dexter, waggling a finger at the knothole. “Who are you?”

“Godfrey Moonstone,” says the man. “My old man was Ira Levinson and my mom was Shirley Goldstein, but they legally changed their last names to Moonstone. They were hippies until I was twenty and then virtually overnight, or so it seemed, they turned into Republicans. I think of myself as a latter-day hippy.” He sighs. “But who knows what we are anymore. Things are pretty confusing now, don’t you think? With the virus and everything?”

“I’m kind of a latter-day hippy, too,” says Dexter, stopping a few feet from the back fence. “You been infected?”

“Not yet,” says Godfrey. “You?”

“Not as far as I know,” says Dexter, shaking his head. “You want a beer?”

“Love one,” says Godfrey, sweetly. “However, I’m a reformed alcoholic. Seventeen years sober.”

“Good on you, Godfrey,” says Dexter, smiling appreciatively. “Lemonade?”

“Perfecto,” says Godfrey. “How shall…”

“I’ll hand your bottle over the fence,” says Dexter.

“Cool,” says Godfrey. “I’ll get a ladder.”

“I’ll get one, too,” says Dexter.

So they stand a few rungs up on their stepladders and look at each other over the fence and drink lemonade together.

Godfrey is a tall angular man in his early fifties with olive skin and short black hair. He lives with his sister Melody who teaches online Home Economics for the currently closed high schools in Springfield and nearby Eugene. Godfrey is a spiritual counselor at the neighborhood Presbyterian, and he, too, is fascinated by history and neurobiology and reads voraciously about both.

In fact, Dexter and Godfrey have such a deep and meaningful time talking to each other over their back fence, they decide to knock out some planks and build a friendship gate.

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Occupy Yourself

Photo of Todd by Marcia Sloane

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

“The young always have the same problem—how to rebel and conform at the same time.  They have now solved this by defying their parents and copying one another.”  Quentin Crisp

In 1972, when I was in my early twenties, I founded a commune in Santa Cruz, California, a collective of eight people (with numerous and frequent overnight guests). We were disenchanted with American society, with America’s wars of aggression, with America’s pyramidal scheme of things, and with America’s environmentally disastrous use of the land, so we decided to explore new (to us) and regenerative ways to interface with the world rather than follow in the destructive footsteps of our parents and forefathers.

To that end, the eight of us shared a house built for a family of four, created a large organic garden (some of us having worked with Alan Chadwick in the university gardens), and pooled our minimal resources for the good of the group. Our experimental community lasted two years before collapsing under the weight of selfishness, immaturity, and a profound lack of preparation for such an undertaking. Our intentions were flawless; our skills and execution abysmal.

Nevertheless, I learned many valuable lessons from that adventure, and my next communal experience was vastly more successful, though it, too, died a sorry death for lack of skills, experience, and commitment by the majority of the participants. We were children, after all, though we had attained the age of adults in other societies; and children, with rare exceptions, eventually need guidance from elders to make the transition from play into self-sustaining living.

A few nights ago, after watching a raft of Occupy Wall Street videos sent to me by fascinated friends, I was reminded of a night in that first commune, when several of us were gathered by the fire in the living room, rain pounding the roof of the house owned by an opportunistic university professor with a penchant for young hippy chicks, the owner of several houses he rented to gangs of youthful experimenters, many of whom I have no doubt would have flocked to the Occupy happenings of today—for the fun and adventure if nothing else.

So there we were discussing Marx and Sartre and Steinem and the tyranny of patriarchal theocratic monogamy mingled with visions of interconnected communes and solar organic farms and grassy walkways instead of cement sidewalks; and mass transit and bicycles instead of poisonous factories and cars and freeways—utopia manifesting in clouds of cannabis—when Pam appeared on the threshold connecting the kitchen and living room and said, “Hey, I totally dig where you guys are coming from and where you’re going, too, but who’s on dishes tonight? The kitchen is totally gross.”

“To heal from the inside out is the key.” Wynonna Judd

A psychotherapist once said to me, “The problem with blaming others for our unhappiness is not that those others aren’t important in the history of our sorrow, but that blaming them for everything interferes with our taking responsibility for what we have done and are doing now.” And one of my problems with blaming Wall Street and Washington and the wealthiest people for the woes of the nation (and the world) is that though many Wall Street operators and politicians and excessively wealthy people are unscrupulous jerks and thieves, blaming them for all our social and economic problems seriously interferes with taking responsibility for what we of the so-called 99 per cent have done and are doing now.

I find it maddeningly simplistic to suggest that we of the 99 per cent are not profoundly involved in the socio-economic systems of our towns, counties, states, and nation. As I read history, until the most recent collapse of the gigantic Ponzi schemes that kept our false economy bubbling along at least since Clinton took office in 1992, many of the people (or their parents) now bemoaning the economic imbalance of our society were perfectly happy to reap the rewards of that fakery, including the promises of fat retirements based on their 401 Wall Street retirement plans, and to hell with the rest of the world and those less fortunate than they. And I am certain the so-called one per cent know this about the 99 per cent, which is why they, the one per cent, do not take the 99 as seriously as they should.

“Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart.” Carl Jung

Shortly before Obama became President of the United States, I wrote that unless Obama moved quickly to institute Single Payer Healthcare and nationalize the banking system, within two years we would see massive social unrest. I was wrong. When the Occupy happenings began I thought they might be the start of that massive unrest, but now I doubt anything immediately massive will be sparked. I hope I’m wrong. But when someone sent me a link to an Occupy Kauai YouTube, and thirty seconds into the silly thing I was guffawing, I had the feeling the Occupy phenomenon might be well on its way to self-parody. Can the Occupy clothing line and Occupy Café chain and Occupy app be far behind?

“First they ignore you; then they laugh at you; then they fight you; then you win.” Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Cesar Chavez successfully employed non-violent protest, resistance, and boycott to further their political, social, and economic aims, and we are all beneficiaries of their courage and strategies. I assume some of the Occupy folks have studied the methods of Gandhi and King and Chavez, and I remain hopeful they will eventually decide to emulate those visionaries. Discussing my hope with an avid fan of the Occupy Wall Street folks, I asked, “So would you say the strategy of the occupiers is to not have a strategy?”

“Absolutely,” said my friend, “because to have a strategy is to commit to an ideology, which could quickly become vertical and therefore inherently divisive. This is a horizontal movement so no one is excluded.”

“Excluded from what?”

“From protesting how unfair the system is. That’s the beauty of saying we are the 99 per cent, because that’s totally inclusive except for the few people who have everything.”

“But a few people don’t have everything and the situation is much more complicated than some infantile delusion that one per cent of the population is determining everyone else’s fate. Among many other things, we do elect the charlatans passing the laws favoring the fat cats, don’t we?”

“Of course, but we don’t want to make this too complicated. By keeping things simple no one feels excluded.”

“I feel excluded.”

“That’s because you like things complicated. You want everyone to push for taxing corporations and socialized medicine and free education and shrinking the military. Talk about divisive.”

“Dream in a pragmatic way.” Aldous Huxley

Last night I had a wonderful dream in which I wrote the end of this article. In the dream I was madly in love with the Occupy Wall Street people and compared them to the disenchanted rebels and counter culturists of my youth in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I compared Occupy Wall Street to the Be Ins of those mythic times, and I wrote eloquently (as one does in dreams) about how the only agenda anyone had at those Be Ins was to “be there now” for whatever might go down, so to speak. Then, still in my dream, I thought of the television show Laugh In starring the young Goldie Hawn and Lili Tomlin; and in that marvelous way of dreams, Laugh In and Occupy Wall Street merged, and the protests became funny and sexy and good.

I think my dream was partly inspired by a slide show I watched before going to bed. Marcia sent me a link to a Huffington Post slide show of the Wall Street Occupation, a montage of compelling images that might have been shot in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury during the mythic Summer of Love in 1968, though I’m not saying the Occupy folks are a bunch of latter day hippies, but rather that they are as disenchanted (yet hopeful) as we were forty years ago, and they are passionately seeking alternatives to the earth-killing system that currently holds sway over our country and the world.

The article in my dream ended with lyrics to a beautiful song that made me cry. I wish I could remember the words, but they did not survive the transition to my waking state. What did survive was the feeling that just as we didn’t have an agenda forty years ago when we waved goodbye to the old ways and set out to figure out new ways that made more sense to us, neither do the Occupy people have an agenda other than to take things one day at a time, to be there now, to be good to each other, and to see what might evolve. So hurray for them, and by association, hurray for us.