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Not Stupid

Todd and Squash

Todd and Hubbard photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” Harper Lee

What most frightens me about the millions of people who want Donald Trump or someone equally fascistic and misogynist and woefully ignorant of international affairs to be President of the United States, and also what frightens me about those who feel Hillary Clinton would be a better choice for President than Bernie Sanders, is that many of these people are not stupid.

When I was in my twenties and roaming around the Midwest working as a farm laborer, I spent several days working for a farmer in eastern Kansas who was unquestionably a genius. He had quit high school at fifteen to take over the family farm when his father died, and had managed through hard work and intelligent planning to become a very successful wheat, corn, and alfalfa grower.

He was in his early fifties when I met him, his three children grown, graduated from college, and disinterested in being farmers. Thus he, as most of the Midwestern farmers I worked for in the early 1970s before it became common practice there to hire immigrants from Mexico and Central America, was glad to hire me at three dollars an hour plus meals and a barn to sleep in, to do the heavy lifting and drudge work his sons and grandsons might have done prior to the corporatization of agriculture and the demise of family farms.

Over our long dinners—dinner the name of the mid-day meal on the farms in the Midwest—and suppers and breakfasts, this farmer shared with me his many ideas about society, capitalism, psychology, and many other subjects, and when I would say, “Well, you’re reiterating what Marx said about…” or “Freud said a similar thing regarding…” he would invariably and honestly say, “Who?”

He read the local newspaper but did not read magazines or books, and he was chagrined to admit he found The Bible largely incomprehensible. Yet his ideas about culture and society and economics, born of his phenomenal intelligence and curiosity, were as sophisticated and plausible as anything I had read before, during, and after college.

He was also a devout Christian, a staunch Republican, and a racist, though he had abandoned his belief that men were inherently superior to women—his two exceedingly bright daughters and highly intelligent wife having cured him of that. On my last day with him, I told him I was baffled that someone of his vast intelligence and possessed of what I considered formidable wisdom, could be a racist Republican, and he said humbly, “Intelligence has a hard fight against deeply ingrained beliefs.”

“Learning learns but one lesson: doubt!” George Bernard Shaw

My father was a vitriolic atheist and a psychoanalyst. In his old age, he was certain he had stumbled on the reason why so many people, even seemingly intelligent people, believed in God. He posited that the tendency to believe in God, what he called magical thinking, was genetic: that most people were genetically hardwired to be magical thinkers.

Any argument to the contrary infuriated him, so I would remain silent when he began his lecture about Type A People and Type B People, and how all of human history could be explained by understanding that Type A People, those who were not predisposed to believe in God, cleverly manipulated and controlled the much greater number of Type B People who had no choice but to believe in God. In other words, all the religious leaders in the world since the dawn of civilization were atheists who pretended to believe in God in order to control the genetically inferior masses.

My father believed it was the genetic mutation for atheism that began civilization, which was a direct consequence of one sector of humanity gaining power over another through this genetic intellectual superiority.

Science and history have shown my father’s theory to be nonsense, and modern history, current history, is replete with examples of masses of fanatically religious people being quite uncontrollable by people not predisposed to believe in God. And that, as I said at the outset, is what scares me most about the governors and legislatures of the majority of American states, and the current majority of representatives in the United States Congress, and the millions of people who favor Trump and Bush and Clinton over Bernie Sanders: these people are not stupid, they are insane.

Of course, they would say I am insane for thinking egalitarian socialism is a good way to go. They would say I am insane for thinking we ought to take half the military budget every year and spend it on solarizing every viable house in America and building fast electric trains to give hundreds of millions of people exciting and comfortable alternatives to automobiles, and making education free from kindergarten through graduate school. And they would say I am insane for thinking we should have Single Payer Healthcare.

“From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step.” Denis Diderot

Walking to town today, I crossed the coast highway at the only stoplight in Mendocino, and exchanged smiles with a large man hitchhiking south, his backpack lying on its back on the ground. I continued into town, did my errands, and on my way home found the big man still there, waiting for someone to give him a ride.

As I waited for the light to change in my favor, I said to him, “In my hitchhiking days, albeit a long time ago, I found having a sign naming my destination was helpful.”

He nodded affably and said, “I find that’s still true.”

“Where are you headed?” I asked, curious why he didn’t have a sign.

He shrugged. “Don’t really have a destination. Just looking for a place to camp for a few days and stay dry.”

The light changed, and as I started across the highway I said, “Good luck to you.”

“Not luck,” he replied, shaking his head. “Everything is predestined.”

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The Toilets of Mendocino

I was going to title this piece Pay To Poop or The Pooplic Option or something else related to the maddening absurdities of the current healthcare debate and the ongoing economic meltdown, but I didn’t want to offend anyone until they started reading. But seriously, folks, the powers-that-be have announced they are closing the only public restroom in the village of Mendocino! And these same enlightened ones just carted away the handicapped-access plastic latrine at Big River Beach. That’s right. The idyllic village and tourist destination of Mendocino may soon have No Public Potties. Why?

According to Sigmund Freud, the short answer is that Americans are insensitive barbarians. Freud made his one and only visit to America in 1909, and his most lasting impression of our great land came not from Niagara Falls, but from the lack of public restrooms. He said, and I paraphrase, “A society that does not provide public bathrooms for its citizens is essentially cruel and maladjusted and barbaric.”

When I first moved to Mendocino four years ago, I was struck by the brusque, dismissive, and sometimes cruel manner in which merchants would respond to my query, “May I use your bathroom?” I was inevitably directed to the state-funded public facility on Main Street, a stinky concrete bunker maintained by the state park people on whose land (our land) the bunker resides. I would sometimes find a homeless fellow bathing in the toilet stall. Sometimes the floors were so slick with piss, the journey across the cement floor wasn’t worth the risk of a fall. But most times the place was relatively clean and usable, and I was relieved and grateful that such a depository was available to the likes of me.

Why aren’t there two or three public restrooms in a village whose economy is tied to the tourist trade? Good question. In my fourteen hundred days as a resident in Mendocino, I have been asked at least three hundred times by visitors in the vicinity of the post office, some doing that telltale jig as they asked, “Is there a bathroom around here I can use?” And I have dutifully sent them to the distant bunker that our public servants tell us they must close because it costs them twenty-five thousand dollars a year to maintain, and the state is bankrupt, so… Really? Twenty-five grand to hose the bunker out every few days? Well, yes, because the hosing must be done by someone in the union, you see, so the numerous offers by the community to maintain the bunker must be declined because, well, hosing out bunkers is, what, highly technical?

The removal of the bathroom at Big River Beach has caused the bushes thereabouts to bloom with toilet paper and stinky residue as needy beachgoers do what any of us would do in the absence of an official portal in which to relieve ourselves. Now the briny air of my favorite beach mingles with the scent of urine and feces. Ain’t it grand?

Let us look a little deeper into this stinky mess. Who will be most impacted by the closure of the public option? Not the wealthy tourists staying at one or another luxurious inn. They will have toilets to use before and after sallying forth to buy trinkets stamped with the local moniker. At a recent farmer’s market I heard a well-heeled couple returning their purchase of jars of honey, explaining, “When we got back to the Stanford Inn, we realized the label didn’t mention Mendocino.” These folks will not miss the missing toilet, nor will patrons of the Mendocino Hotel.

The Mendocino Hotel, by the way, is the current provider of the nicest quasi-public option available in the village, and I will be forever in their debt for allowing me to use their facilities even when I’m not dining or drinking therein. Scruffy folks, however, need not apply. The only time I was ever questioned by hotel staff while en route to the hotel bathroom was on a bad hair day when I hadn’t shaved for a week.

Hmm? Is it too much of a stretch to connect the closure of the public restrooms to the ongoing harassment of the growing population of poor and homeless folks living on the fringes of the village? Not at all. The local grapevine is buzzing with news that our local gendarmes are now arresting folks for sitting or lying down on the headlands overlooking Big River Beach, calling this resting “camping”, which is illegal and punishable with a two hundred dollar fine. I wonder at which sector of the population this new interpretation of the camping law is aimed?

So…for the time being I suggest you take preemptive measures before heading into the village. And should you tarry long enough to need to, you know, make water, be resigned to buying something (or pretending to buy something) at an establishment possessed of a john. Yes, they tell us a portable latrine will be placed somewhere near the Kelly House, and won’t that be an attractive boost to tourism?

But I say let us laugh in the face of economic collapse and start a fund raising campaign to buy the land across the street from the Mendocino Post Office whereupon we will erect a large scale model of the Parthenon in which will reside state-of-the-art toilets and all necessary extras pursuant to a fully satisfying elimination experience. The south-facing roof of the Parthenon will sport highly efficient photovoltaic cells producing lucrative electricity feeding back into the omni-grid, since bathrooms use little or no electricity. All waste will be recycled and eventually certified organic for use on the new community garden where cabbages the size of basketballs will rise from the amply fertilized soil.

Artists disenfranchised from the recently conquered art center will be invited to display their wares in the lavatory courtyard, and in good time a public bath, sauna, showers, and massage parlor will be added to the complex. Bumper stickers will be sold extolling the experience of “going” in Mendocino, and tourists from around the world will come to “have a go” in the famous pooper. I DID IT IN MENDOCINO and I WENT IN MENDOCINO will soon adorn a million bumpers, as locals proudly sport the resident variant I GO IN MENDOCINO.

Let us rise above the barbarism of our time. Let us be a beacon of light and a model for the rest of this plundered nation. Let us come together to build the Parthenon of public restrooms so that in our middle and old ages we can hang out in the village secure in the knowledge that when we have to go, the way will not only be clear, but commodious.

Todd’s web site is Underthetablebooks.com. This essay originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in November 2009.