marcia playing

Marcia Practicing photo by Todd

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

“There are two sentences inscribed upon the Delphic Oracle… ‘Know thyself’ and ‘Nothing too much’—and upon these all other precepts depend.” Plutarch

The Mendocino Music Festival is upon us once again, and that means several things to me now that I’ve lived in Mendocino for eight years. The village will be cloaked in fog for many days of the festival, a majestic white tent will stand upon the headlands across the street from Dick’s, my darling wife Marcia, who has played in the festival orchestra for all the twenty-seven years the festival has been going, will practice her cello even more diligently than she usually does, the village population will be peppered with sophisticated classical musicians from urban areas who have come here to play in the festival orchestra, there will not be enough Mendelssohn on the program for my taste (I love Mendelssohn), and there will be so much fantastic music to hear, both classical and otherwise, that it will be impossible to attend but a small fraction of the musical delights on offer.

On the day of the festival’s opening night concert, I walk to town in fulgent sunshine and wonder if this brilliant clarity will attend the concert tonight or whether the fog, hearing the orchestral strains emanating from the majestic tent, will swiftly come hither and blanket the headlands.

At the corner of Highway One and Little Lake Road, my path converges with that of a young white man with long blond Rasta locks, a bulging knapsack on his back, and two enormous dogs on rope leashes. As we wait together for the light to turn green so we might be among the living when we reach the village side of the highway, I say to the young man, “How you doing?”

“Not good,” he says angrily. “This fucking place doesn’t have a laundromat, so poor people can’t wash their clothes. Fucking elitist enclave.”

“Well, the problem as I understand it is that the village has a chronic water shortage and laundromats use an enormous…”

“Bullshit,” he says, as we embark on our journey across the five lines. “I lived here twelve years ago. I know all about this place. They just don’t want any poor people around here. In Israel they have laundromats that use hardly any water. They could get some of those. But they won’t.”

“I’m sorry,” I say, feeling the need to apologize for having a washer and a dryer and a good well that, knock on wood, has yet to go dry this year.

“And try hitchhiking with two big dogs,” says the young man, scowling at me. “Not easy.”

We part ways and I think to myself that the absence of a laundromat in the village is certainly unfortunate but also understandable economically and environmentally, while hitchhiking with two enormous dogs seems to be this man’s choice and not something imposed upon him by a cruel and unjust society. Then again, maybe he needs those dogs in order to feel safe in this cruel and unjust society, and from his point of view he doesn’t really have a choice about hitchhiking with giant dogs or not. Indeed, when I lived in Berkeley, I knew several women who owned large dogs for the express purpose of feeling safe when they went walking anywhere, and not just at night: anywhere any time.

“If you arrive early, you’re neurotic; if you arrive on time, you’re compulsive; if you arrive late, you’re hostile.” Kay Hannah

After I shave away my three-day beard, I exchange paint-stained shirt and trousers for much cleaner clothing, load Marcia’s cello into the trunk of our car, and chauffer Marcia and our delightful neighbor Marion Crombie, viola, down to the festival tent for the long awaited opening night concert. Both gals look beautiful and full of equipoise in comfortable but elegant black attire, and they both express quiet optimism that the concert, despite the absence of anything by Mendelssohn, will be a good one. Verdi, Prokoffief, and Rachmaninoff are on the menu, and the sun, miraculously, is still shining brightly as I navigate the crowded lanes of the village, the air vibrating with the collective excitement that composes the prelude to the orchestral miracle we are about to witness.

I was going to bring along my little silver transistor radio so I could listen to the Giants game before the concert and during the lengthy intermission, but I chose to leave the tiny thing behind so as not to appear gauche and insensitive and possibly more interested in baseball than in my wife’s life work. Tim Lincecum is pitching tonight, and the dramatic arc of Monsieur Lincecum’s career especially intrigues me. After a stellar first few years, the wunderkind has fallen on hard times and is now in the throes of trying to reinvent himself as someone with a fastball in the low nineties instead of a fastball in the high nineties.

Finding every parking place within three blocks of the festival tent taken, I commandeer a space near the post office and traipse from there through the lovely flower-infested grounds of the MacCallum House and down the walkway that begins behind the Mendocino Hotel and pops out on Main Street across from the fabulous festival tent. Seeing I have nearly a half-hour before the music begins, I wander down to the trail across the street from Out of This World and traverse the headlands to the cliff’s edge from where I look down on the shining water, the surface of the sea as calm as a lake on a windless day. Intoxicated by the glorious scene, I fall into a reverie about Felix Mendelssohn and Tim Lincecum and Sergei Prokofiev and Madison Bumgarner and Jimi Hendrix and Sergei Rachmaninoff, geniuses all.

Fortunately my reverie concludes in time for me to join the tail end of the pre-concert melee outside the grandiloquent tent where I bump into Sam Edwards who kindly invites me to join him in a glass of wine, his treat, but I demur because of my deathly allergy to alcohol. We discover we both have complimentary tickets for seats in the nosebleed section courtesy of our partners who play in the festival orchestra, and upon comparing our tickets we find that my seat is directly in front of Sam’s.

“See you in there,” I say, as the bell clangs to summon the masses to find their seats.

With a few minutes remaining before the trouble begins, as Mark Twain liked to say about his public appearances, I wander down the aisle to the epicenter of the tent to say hello to Peter Temple, our local sonic master manning the bridge of his audio Enterprise, so to speak, riding the soundboard controlling the microphones suspended above the stage where a hundred and twenty-some musicians are vigorously sawing and tooting and banging away on their instruments to ready themselves for the exciting adventure they are about to embark upon.

When I inform Peter that I have been assigned a seat way in the back, he taps the chair beside him and says, “Sit here,” and so I do—best seat in the house. Am I lucky or what? I have a clear view of Marcia in her seat next to Stephen Harrison, our superb Principal cellist, and I have plenty of room to stretch my legs and wiggle in my seat as much as I want while the music plays. Yes, I’m lucky, but I suppose I made choices along the way that made such luck possible. Do we make our own luck? Is luck really luck or the manifestation of karma?

The lights dim. Allan Pollack enters from the wings. The crowd erupts in applause. Allan steps up onto the podium, faces the audience, smiles radiantly, and bows. I’ve seen Allan conduct the Music Festival orchestra and the Symphony of the Redwoods orchestra dozens of times, and I always have the same three thoughts whenever I watch him conduct: 1. What a cool guy 2. He reminds me of Groucho Marx in the best sort of way 3. How does he manage to get all those people with their separate egos and divergent inclinations to perform so harmoniously and with such unanimity of feeling?

“A man has only one way of being immortal on this earth: he has to forget he is a mortal.” Jean Giraudoux

The concert a smashing success, the pianist James D’Leon triumphant over the monumental Rachmaninoff, Marcia and Marion in a celebratory mood, we arrive home to the news that Tim Lincecum just pitched the first no-hitter of his illustrious career, and I unashamedly burst into tears, having been cracked wide open by the metaphysical music and feeling Tim’s historic victory as a resurrection, both his and mine, however inexplicable that feeling is—proof of the interconnectedness of all things, the orchestra in that tent on the headlands supplying the quantum physical musical soundtrack to Tim’s remarkable achievement.

I find a video on the interweb that shows the final pitches of all twenty-seven outs recorded in Tim’s phenomenal game, including thirteen strikeouts and three great plays at Third Base by Pablo Sandoval and a truly miraculous diving catch by Hunter Pence in Right Field. I watch the twenty-seven outs twice and cry each time Buster Posey grabs Tim in a bear hug the split second after the last fly ball settles into Gregor Blanco’s glove, the ever stoic Lincecum breaking into the fabulous grin of a man who has finally conquered his greatest enemy—self-doubt.


What We Do

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

“One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.” Bertrand Russell

The first few times I finished writing a novel (each book representing two or three years work), I was gripped by the same terrible fear that I might die before I could make copies of the books and send them out into the world. Before the advent of personal computers and the ability to send massive documents in email attachments, making copies of fat manuscripts meant going to copy shops and leaving the precious documents overnight while copies were made.  Then, exhausted from lack of sleep and worry, I would pick up the copies and mail them to people scattered far and wide, so that in the event of multiple unforeseen disasters a few copies of my masterworks might survive to be discovered by future generations, etc.

In retrospect, yes, the machinations of my deluded ego can be seen as humorous or pathetic or pathetically humorous or plain silly, but I understand now that my fear of dying before my creations had a chance to live was proof of my total immersion in, and identification with, the things I made.

On one such pre-computer occasion in the early 1970’s, I took a play entitled The Last Temptation to one of the first photocopy shops in the Bay Area, a joint in Menlo Park, and handed over my one and only copy to the friendly shop owner. He said he would have my copies ready in two days. The play was loosely based on a brothel scene from Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ and on the Pontius Pilate character in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I was certain the play (as I had previously been certain about various novels and stories) would lift me from poverty and obscurity, etc.

On the day those ten precious copies of the play were supposed to be ready, I arrived at the copy joint and was greeted by the perturbed proprietor with the news that my play had disappeared. Please imagine a formerly sensible human being, me, with a formerly relatively low voice, turning into a screeching banshee. To make a very long story short, the employee assigned to make photocopies of my opus turned out to be a zealous fundamentalist Christian who thought the play might be blasphemous, and he had therefore taken the play to his minister to determine whether or not the thing should be burned at the stake.

I screeched at the copy shop owner to call the police. The poor man begged me to give him a little more time to retrieve the manuscript before we involved law enforcement. Then he giggled and said, “Please don’t sue me.” Later that day, he called to say my play had been returned unscathed and that he would have copies for me the next day, which he did.

In answer to your questions: Yes, he charged me full price, which I paid without protest because that’s the kind of fool I am, and No, the play was never produced.

“My work is a game, a very serious game.” M.C. Escher

I have been asked many times in my life by well-meaning people as well as by snide creeps why I continue to write books and plays and screenplays when it appears no one wants to publish them or produce them or film them? The short answer is: I don’t know. The longer answer is: I have my theories, but none hold water. The very long answer is that I love what I do and I have never ceased to believe that whatever I’m currently creating will lift me out of poverty and obscurity, etc. In other words, it’s what I do.

There is a curious and wonderful phenomenon that overtakes many a creative person as they work on their books or songs or paintings or essays or equations or you name it. And that is, at critical junctures along the way, these creative persons are convinced they have fashioned or discovered something fabulous and original and unprecedented that will change the course of (name of art form or academic discipline) for all time and lift them, the creator, out of poverty, obscurity, disfavor, etc.

But that’s just the beginning of the phenomenon. Upon completion of that first draft or sketch or version of the thing, there dawns upon the creator the realization that the thing is not quite the masterwork he or she thought it was whilst in the throes of convincement. Indeed, the thing once thought to be marvelous now seems to be quite possibly poop. This is the moment that separates the men from the boys and the women from the girls. This is the first opportunity for the easily disappointed to decide something is a failure and to give up.

But creative people take deep breaths and sally forth into the next iterations of their works to find themselves once again, we hope, utterly convinced they have made something magnificent that will change the course etc. And this “it’s-genius-oops-it’s not-oh-wait-it-is” pattern continues until the thing is done.

I am now convinced this self-tricking pattern is genetic and responsible for most of our cultural and artistic evolution. Unless creative individuals can be repeatedly self-tricked into thinking they are making things of exquisite value, they aren’t going to spend hundreds of hours, let alone years and decades, working on these creations when they could much more easily and profitably help destroy the earth or watch television.

“I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.” Thomas Jefferson

One of the things I love about that Thomas Jefferson quote is that it echoes Buckminster Fuller, a primary guru of mine. (Or Bucky echoes Tom if you believe time only goes in one direction.) Bucky’s book Critical Path was a gigantic game-changer for me. I love the idea that through our work we constantly create potential landing pads for cosmic largesse, intervention, collaboration; or what Jefferson called luck, except he was being mildly facetious on one level and absolutely serious on the next level down.

Which puts me in mind of the expression: “I’m waiting for my ship to come in.” which implies you have sent your ship (or ships) out (done your work); otherwise there wouldn’t be any ship out there to return laden with largesse (luck).

Bucky also said: “I assumed that nature would ‘evaluate’ my work as I went along. If I was doing what nature wanted done, and if I was doing it in promising ways, permitted by nature’s principles, I would find my work being economically sustained.”

Realizing that I had unconsciously lived my life that way before I read Bucky’s elucidation of the phenomenon, I decided to consciously adopt his assumption of a discerning and collaborative universe as the universal joint, so to speak, of the vehicle on which I would travel through life. And I discovered that Bucky was entirely correct. Nature does evaluate my work and provide or withhold support depending on her evaluations, but nature also evaluates all my life choices, including my choices of people to travel with; and whenever I choose people who think Bucky is a crackpot, nature withdraws her support prontisimo.

“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life.” Joseph Campbell

One of my favorite recordings is Joseph Campbell at 80. For his eightieth birthday Joe gave a one-hour talk in which he attempted to sum up the philosophical gist of his lifelong studies. I’ve listened to this talk at least ten times over the years, usually when I’m feeling at low ebb about having followed Bucky’s game plan and fearing I may have made a serious mistake. Joe always cheers me up and assures me I made the correct choice for the kind of person I am.

What I find most cheering about Joe’s eightieth birthday talk is hearing a wise and erudite old person talking about traveling the path he made for himself, and how he found help and happiness along the way despite myriad obstacles and countless people telling him he was a crackpot.

Our journeys, inward and outward, are the water; destinations are mirages.


Going After Nathan (a short story)

            My mother tells people I’m in the insurance business, which is certainly true, though not in the way most people think of insurance. The one time I was arrested and prosecuted for assault, the district attorney called me a two-bit hoodlum. The man spoke from a place of extreme ignorance, for I am neither a hoodlum, nor two-bit. And if you interviewed the people who pay me a little something each month, you’d find them all quite satisfied with my services.

            In the neighborhood where I currently reside, and which prior to my arrival was plagued by robberies, vandalism, drug dealing, graffiti, and litter, there has been a drop to almost zero in all categories of crime. What the cops couldn’t do in thirty years, I did in six months, and I’ve kept the peace here for five years. Established businesses have flourished, new businesses have opened, house prices have skyrocketed, and the area is now considered one of the hippest spots in the entire metropolitan area.

            How did I accomplish this? I became a tax paying resident of the neighborhood and introduced myself to the citizenry by frequent and consistent visibility in the business sector, otherwise known as the village. Through my demeanor and actions, I demonstrated my muscle, in the larger sense of that word, and then I discretely informed business owners of the services I was prepared to provide for a reasonable percentage of their profits. And most importantly, I gained the respect of the citizenry by swiftly dispatching the most troublesome local miscreants.

            I am, in essence, the privatization of law and order. Indeed, I am so effective, new businesses tend to sign up with me before I have to make my sales pitch. The word-of-mouth on me around here is nothing but good. Even the real estate agents give me a cut when they make a sale.

            To what end, you ask, am I working? Surely I’m not merely collecting a few bucks from every player. Surely I’m dealing drugs or infecting the community in some other way. Surely I’m a criminal worthy of your contempt. Yet here are testimonials to the contrary.

            Ben of Ben’s Bagels wrote and posted the following flyer on the front door of his establishment. I did not ask him to do so. This was a spontaneous act of gratitude. “Thank God for Herb. Before he moved here, I had my windows smashed every couple of months, sometimes twice a month. I was robbed at gunpoint three times. People were afraid to come into this part of town. The cops couldn’t do a thing. Now I’m finally making a decent living and the neighborhood is a Mecca. People come from all over to hang out here. It’s a dream come true.”

            Mr. Liu of Good Tea effused to my superiors, “Oh, Herb. The best. We used to keep door lock. Business bad. Now we open all time. Have new garden in back with fountain. People all come. Better make reservations on Saturday and Sunday. Very big crowds come.”

            As I said, I work on a percentage basis. Ben started paying me next to nothing. Now I make a grand a month from him, a grand he’s happy to part with because he clears ten times that now. I, in turn, give half the take to my umbrella organization, and another quarter to my employees. The rest is mine.

            What we have determined, my organization and I, is that the elimination of crime is by far the most profitable use of this sector of the city. We had more trouble with the police about this than with the various so-called criminal elements. Nowadays the police have absolutely nothing to do around here except hassle me. Ironic, no?

            My father, who died a broken man trying to live by the laws of a society that spits on his kind of decency, used to say, “I wouldn’t mind paying high taxes if the money went for anything I could believe in. But it all goes for war and to pad the pockets of the rich.”

            Well, I guarantee you the money people pay me goes to things they not only believe in, but to things essential to their safety and well-being and success. And when business is not so good, I am far more understanding and forgiving than any bank would ever be. I’m here. I see what goes on day to day. The cops don’t live here. The bankers don’t live here. I live here. These are my neighbors. As Jacqueline at New Dawn Books likes to say, “You’re our samurai, Herb. Blessings on you.”

            Which is not to say it’s all a honeymoon. When Rambling Rose Nursery is jammed with people all weekend long and Carl says he can’t pay me because he’s not making any money, I take him for a little walk. I make a little speech. That usually suffices. If not, gates forget to be locked, things disappear, something goes wrong with his truck. Suddenly, he has money for me.

            Or we get some bad boys cruising the area, looking to sell some dope. We usually can handle the situation ourselves, but if we identify a larger force behind the dealers, we refer things to my manager and he makes the appropriate calls on our behalf. That usually does the trick. If not, we might tip the cops to what’s going on. And if they’re not interested, maybe then, and only then does someone have to get hurt. We do not like to use guns. But since every punk and psycho goes heavily armed now, it is sometimes a necessity to reveal our hardware.

            I tell you all this as background to the story of Nathan, who works for me. A good boy, recruited locally, with great potential, Nathan is tall, handsome, a former football player, an avid reader, and a decent amateur guitarist. When I first met Nathan he was dealing pot to high school kids, walking around in crummy clothes, and calling anybody driving a new car a fascist. He smoked more dope than he sold and unquestionably contributed to the highly negative atmosphere permeating our village.

            For my first few months here, however, Nathan was of little concern to me. I had to shut down a large meth lab run by some extremely unfriendly chemists. I had to persuade five well-entrenched meth dealers to leave the area, and I had to establish working relationships with local business owners—all of them highly suspicious of me at the outset. And my most arduous task was getting the frigging cops off my back so I could operate with some impunity.

            Meth almost always involves larger forces than its local manifestation, and this is where my umbrella organization with its extensive resources and highly placed connections comes in handy. Compensatory deals are made when possible, and failing there, expeditionary forces are deployed to remove impediments with as little public fuss as possible.

            The meth lab, for instance, employed sixteen people, seven of whom were unwilling to voluntarily relocate out of the area. These seven individuals are no longer with us. Yet not a whisper of their disappearance reached the police or the press. I was present for the elimination process, and though I am not a fan of violence, I must admit I found the silent efficiency of the strike a thing of terrible beauty.

            The dealers left by command of their superiors. Their fates are largely unknown to me. I say ‘largely’ because I know where one of them is—he works for me. The other four, I assume, have gone to jail, to their maker, or to street corners elsewhere. The two crack houses in the vicinity both mysteriously burned down.

            And so as my attention turned to the punks and petty criminals, Nathan became a larger concern to me. He avoided me at first, but eventually we had a little talk outside the bagel shop. I told him, among other things, that I had no objection to him dealing pot, but I would not allow him to continue selling to minors. Nor would I tolerate his continued public belligerence. It was bad for business. If he wanted to carry out his trade in a quiet, discreet, professional way, pay me the requisite commission, and behave himself in public, he would find me smiling favorably on him. If not, fate might prove cruel.

            He called me a fascist, but I knew he was impressed by me. Nathan appreciates confident people. His parents are wimpy intellectuals who’ll do anything to avoid conflict and nothing to resolve it. Everyone in the neighborhood was aware that I was the force driving the local renaissance, and this fact was deeply intriguing to Nathan. I appeared to be a throwback—I have a penchant for the oversized clothes of the 1930’s—and I speak as I write. I don’t waste time. I’m effective.

            So he tested me. He continued to deal to minors and the engine of his Toyota froze up. He went into Heidi’s Flower Shoppe and called her a fascist, and when he came out, some crazy street person hit him in the nose. Broke it. When he got home, his stash was gone.

            Then, because Nathan was extremely naive, he confronted me on the sidewalk in front of Ben’s Bagels. He is, as I said, tall and muscular and young. I am middle-aged and stout. However, I have black belts in two complimentary schools of karate. I waited for Nathan to make the first move—he shoved me—and then I cracked his rib, making sure not to break one that might injure his heart.

            He disappeared for several weeks. My clients were universally appreciative. Business was picking up. I eliminated several other sources of drugs flowing to the school kids and dealt decisively with the graffiti issue. Indeed, I had almost forgotten about Nathan when he drove by and took a shot at me. I saw him coming, sensed his intention, and ducked into Jerry’s Shoe Repair—the bullet shattering Jerry’s front window.

            In my early days with the organization, I would have immediately hunted Nathan down and killed him. But age has endowed me with a modicum of wisdom. Murder is messy and should always be avoided until every other option has been exhausted. Besides, Nathan embodied precisely what my organization looks for in a recruit: strength, determination, intelligence, and charm. Nathan, for all his shortcomings, was charming.

            With Jerry’s cooperation, I put the cops onto Nathan. The poor kid was about to be sentenced to seven years in the slammer for aggravated assault (he had a previous arrest for dealing dope) when my organization intervened on his behalf. All charges were dropped and he came crawling to me with his tail between his legs.

            Nathan has worked diligently for me for four years now. I consider him my right hand man. He has taken to wearing overlarge clothes from the 1930’s, too, though he likes his suits darker than mine. He drives a vintage 1957 Chevrolet, light blue with a white top. He sells pot to an older crowd, securing his weed from three local growers we have excellent relations with. These growers are, after all, no different from any of the other business folks in the area, except the Feds consider their product illegal.

            My organization likes to encourage the entrepreneurial spirit, so as long as Nathan does what I require of him, and he pays me twenty per cent of his profits, he can have any side business he wants so long as it does not conflict with our larger purpose.

            And now we come to the fulcrum of this tale. My operation, as I knew it would, has proven extremely lucrative. Whenever this happens, upper management, as in every bureaucracy, takes special notice. Along with commendations and rewards, including a celebratory junket to Paris (in April no less), an audit was conducted.

            Our kind of audit is not to be confused with an IRS audit. Hardly. My books are already checked on a weekly basis. Even the slightest error can bring a reprimand. No, an audit in our organization means that my district is visited, studied in great detail, and evaluated by a team of savvy upper echelon types. They report to management, and then management consults with me, after which decisions are made about what changes, if any, are to be implemented.

            The maximization of profitability without jeopardizing long-range stability is the foundational rule by which my organization functions and flourishes. And so when it was determined that my village is now sufficiently crime-free and has become a powerful magnet for affluent pleasure seekers, certain adjunct cash producing ventures were to be skillfully introduced into the scheme of things.

            I made the case that it might be too soon to make any large changes. I suggested waiting another year. I was lauded for my caution—the high-ups like that in a district manager—but it was nevertheless decided that a dozen high-class female escorts would be introduced into the social whirl of my purview. They should appear to be self-employed artists and live three to a house, the purchase and renovation of which I will oversee.

            Secondly, a high-end liquor and wine shop will be opened next to Green Leaf Natural Foods, featuring organic wine and booze costing three times what spirits cost in the less ritzy parts of town.

            Thirdly, and always highly problematic for me, is that the percentage I take from my clients shall be increased from eleven to fourteen percent.

            The final change is that I have been assigned a new right hand man, an up-and-coming young guy who needs a year under a seasoned manager before being given his own district. It was further determined that Nathan must either enter the employ of the larger organization and go through the requisite training, or I’ll have to cut him loose.

             When I informed Nathan of this fork in our road, he said he needed time to think. He said he would let me know on Monday, but Monday arrived and I had no word from him. That was four days ago. My new man arrives tomorrow. There is enormous pressure on me to find Nathan and resolve the situation before he reveals—either intentionally or unintentionally—the details of our operation here. That he has not kept his word to me requires that I have what my organization calls a Serious Discussion with him (once I locate him) followed by his having an even more serious discussion with two of my superiors. If, at the end of these discussions he is deemed untrustworthy, he must be eliminated.

            If I don’t find Nathan by tomorrow, I must inform my boss of that fact, and Nathan’s fate—his end—will be sealed. This is the hard side of the business, though one could make the argument it’s no harder than any of the pre-industrial initiation rites a boy underwent to become a man. He had to be tested severely. He had to prove himself brave enough to assume the responsibilities of manhood.

            I have left messages for Nathan with Ben, with Jerry, with Liu, with everyone in the neighborhood. I have searched for him. I have made him the number one priority of my life because I like him, and because I’m concerned about him, and I want the people of my district to know how I feel. I may even have jeopardized my position here by so obviously seeking Nathan—for if he disappears will I not be suspect?

            What makes this all the more poignant for me is that it echoes my own experience when I was Nathan’s age. I was majoring in Anthropology at a good college. I was eager to succeed. My professors said I showed great promise. Then my father died and my mother, who was very ill, along my little brother and sister, were evicted from their house and became instant paupers. I, of course, had to leave school and find work to support them.

            The state, the so-called protector of its citizens, had already destroyed my father, and now it was hell-bent on finishing off my helpless mother and siblings. I took two full-time jobs, but when I still couldn’t make enough for us to live on, I started selling weed and liquor to my former college pals and their friends. Soon my family had enough money to get by. I even started putting money away with the intention of buying back my mother’s house.

            But then I was arrested and sent to prison. I fought for my life. I fought to keep from being raped. I fought and fought, but finally understood that to fight alone was futile. So I allied myself with a man allied with other men, and when I got out, finding no so-called legitimate employment for the likes of me—none—and my mother in terrible straits, I made a call to a friend of my prison allies. And the very next day I was contacted by a recruiter. A month later, I joined the organization. Three years after that, I had to kill somebody or be killed.

            I did not want this to be my life. Oh, I’ve heard the pundits say we have a choice. I’ve heard countless stories of people climbing out of the gutter and succeeding in the so-called legal way. And I say to them, “I know your legal way and it tramples the weak.”

            My organization doesn’t hound widows out of their homes. The state does. My organization doesn’t pretend to be something it isn’t. The state does.

            Nathan is like so many people in this hypocritical culture. He wants to believe that if he acts a certain way, looks a certain way, speaks a certain way, things will work out for him. Granted, there was a time when for a particular class of people this may have been true. But it is no longer the case.

            Nathan knows this. He knows his choice is to become a timid rabbit who survives by keeping a low-profile and scraping by on the margins, or to become a strong wolf who survives by joining the pack, proving himself in the hunt, and taking by cunning and strength what he needs to survive and thrive.

            He has lived as a rabbit, and now he has tasted the life of the wolf, but only tasted it. I have sat in his house listening to him strum his guitar and sing his plaintive love songs. I have walked on the beach with him and gotten drunk with him and chased women with him. I have watched him grow out of his sullen, self-defeating persona into a young man of promise. But does he have the courage to test himself in the greater world without me?

            In many ways, he’s the son I never had, the son I always wanted. But for all the tender feelings he inspires in me—hope and admiration and love—I know if I am to be a good parent I must release him with no great fanfare, no sentimentality. Truth is the finest gift we can give anyone—the truth about this life, this hard hard life, which is ultimately sad and too short, but full of beauty if we are open to it, if we are not afraid to acknowledge the presence and necessity of death.

            So to finish my story that is an echo of Nathan’s, on the day before I was supposed to do the job—take somebody out—I ran away. I got in my car and drove fast for the border. But something made me stop and walk out into the desert. I took off my clothes and lay down in the sand and waited for the answer to my question, “What should I do?”

            After many hours, after a huge snake crawled over my belly, after the windblown sand scraped my skin raw, after the sun traversed the sky and left me burned, after my mind was empty of fear, empty of thought, the answer came. “Do what is best for the greater community.”

            “The what?” I asked, not sure I’d heard correctly. “The greater what?”

            “Do what is best for the greater community.”

            And that’s what I’ve done. You may say I’m delusional, that I’m merely making excuses for the inexcusable, but I know what I heard, and I know what I do. Every morning before I get out of bed, I ask myself, ‘Is my community better today because of what I did yesterday?’

            So Nathan, listen to me. When I can’t answer, ‘Yes, our community is better today because of what I did yesterday,’ I’ll take myself out.