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Humility

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

“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” T.S. Eliot

Several recent conversations with friends focused on how might we counter the cyber takeover of our society while at the same time fomenting positive change and a more vibrant local community; and the answer seems to be to invite people over to share a meal and talk.

“Four things come not back: the spoken word; the sped arrow; time past; the neglected opportunity.” Omar Ibn Al-Halif

A friend wrote that in an effort to regain the souls of her husband and children she instituted a rule that cell phones and cyber pads were not allowed at the dining table. The initial response to this rule was that her children and husband wolfed their meals and rushed back to their devices. So she instituted a second rule that dinner had to last half an hour. After a week of dismal dining experiences filled with complaints, her children and husband adjusted to the brief nightly respite from tweeting and staring into little screens and “there have even been some nights when the family lingers at the table after the half hour is up because we are so engrossed in conversation.”

“Any genuine philosophy leads to action and from action back again to wonder, to the enduring fact of mystery.” Henry Miller

One of my favorite Isaac Bashevis Singer short stories is about an outwardly successful man, pious and wealthy, who is not very nice to his wife and children and other people. He rigorously follows the religious and civil rules of his society and continuously wins the economic battle, but no one likes him. Eventually this man’s sons and daughters want nothing to do with him, his wife is perpetually distressed by what a sourpuss he is, and he finds himself more and more isolated and unhappy. So he goes on a journey to a famous spiritual teacher and explains his situation (as he perceives it) to the teacher, and the teacher whispers a little something in the man’s ear.

Having gained the sage’s advice, the man returns to his home and is so changed that his wife and children and business associates can hardly believe he is the same person. In just a few days, this tight-fisted, judgmental, self-righteous egotist has become a generous, open-minded, loving, humble sweetie pie ready to lend an ear to anyone who needs a good listener, a hand to anyone who needs help. And as the years go by, the man becomes so loving and wise that he is regarded as a saint.

One day the man’s oldest son, who previously hated his father and now adores him, asks his father what the spiritual teacher whispered to him all those years ago that so transformed him. And the man reveals that the teacher suggested he pretend to be generous and loving and open-minded, and to continue pretending until the pretense became his habit and transformed him.

“What this world needs is a new kind of army—the army of the kind.” Cleveland Amory

I recently had a visit from a friend who arrived armed with an Iphone, an Ipad, and a Kindle reader. “I don’t know how I ever got along without these,” he said as he searched for something on the screen of his phone.

“I remember you without those,” I told him, “and you seemed to be getting along pretty well.”

“I’m a thousand times better organized now,” he said, continuing to scroll around on his phone. “Much more connected to everything. No more waiting to get news or books or movies. Everything I want fits on these three devices with room to spare.”

He gave me a tour of several apps on his Ipad, took photos of this and that with his Iphone, instantly posted the photos on three social network web sites, and then downloaded an e-book version of my novel Under the Table Books onto his Kindle.

“See,” he said, grinning triumphantly. “We did all that in no time at all.”

And because I love the guy I said, “Amazing! Truly amazing.”

“The twin elements of a life lived intelligently are fidelity and spontaneity.” Edward Hoagland

The late great Juliette White of Albion was a master of the spontaneous dinner party. Sometimes she would invite us the day before the party; sometimes she’d call an hour before the food was ready. To our question, “What can we bring?” she might reply, “Just yourselves,” or “Salad” or “Anything.” Of the twenty or so spontaneous dinner parties I attended at Juliette’s, the largest number of people in attendance was ten, the smallest number was six. The most remarkable thing to me about these gatherings was that there was nothing remarkable about them, yet I always felt I was taking part in Holy Communion.

Humility (from Buddha In A Teacup)

Thomas is seventy-seven. His wife Denise died unexpectedly in her sleep a year and a month ago.

Thomas’s work—the completion of the seventh and final volume of an exhaustive history of the English language—has not progressed a word since Denise’s death. An oppressive sorrow has lain upon Thomas for these thirteen months, and he has little hope of living beyond his grief.

A tall, lean Englishman with pale blue eyes and red hair going gray, Thomas is roused from his stupor at the kitchen table—his bagel and tea untouched—by loud rapping on the front door. His first thought is to ignore the summons, but the rapping persists, so he reluctantly rises and goes to the door.

“Yes?” he says, frowning curiously at an enormous young man with dark brown skin, a shaved head, and muscular arms covered with tattoos.

“I’m Oz,” says the young man, holding out a piece of paper to Thomas. “You the tutor?”

“I don’t believe so.” Thomas peers at the paper and realizes through a fog of despair that his daughter Maureen must have gone ahead and fulfilled her threat to sign him up for after school duty.

“Got the address right,” says Oz, his voice deep and sonorous. “Seven seven six.”

“I stand corrected.” Thomas chuckles at his daughter’s audacity. “Come in.”

“Like a library,” says Oz, stopping on the threshold to gaze around the living room, every inch of wall given over to bookshelves. “You read all these books?”

“Most of them more than once.” Thomas scans the thousands of volumes for any he might have skipped.

“Smells old in here.” Oz wrinkles his nose. “You got a sunny room?”

“The kitchen,” says Thomas, leading the way. “I’ll make a fresh pot of green tea.”

“I ain’t never had no green tea,” says Oz, pausing in the hallway to look at a picture of Thomas as a young Oxford scholar. “Get a buzz?”

“There is some caffeine in green tea,” Thomas replies, gesturing to the kitchen table. “Make yourself at home.”

“Coffee jitters me bad,” says Oz, taking a seat from which he can observe Thomas. “Green tea don’t do that, do it?”

“No, it’s more subtle.” Thomas fills the kettle. “It invigorates in a wholly different way than coffee.”

“You show more accent than your daughter,” says Oz, nodding his approval of the cheerful room. “Me likes.”

“Oh, so you do know my daughter.” Thomas sets the kettle atop the flame. “That was my supposition.”

“Word,” says Oz, grinning at Thomas. “She chose me special just for you.”

“Why is that, do you suppose?” Thomas peruses his collection of teas and decides on a pungent green from Taiwan.

“She flunked me twice.” Oz nods slowly. “But she knows I’m not stupid.”

“No, you’re obviously exceedingly intelligent.” Thomas clears away his lunch dishes. “May I offer you something to eat?”

“No.” Oz looks glumly at the floor and cracks his knuckles. “How come you use that word? Exceedingly? Means more than enough, yeah? Like you think I’m very smart. Which I am, but…how come you think so?”

“The way you take things in.” Thomas sits down opposite Oz. “The way you listen and respond. We’ve been in real conversation from our very first moment together, and that’s quite rare in my experience.”

Oz nods. “You write books?”

“I have written books,” says Thomas, studying Oz’s handsome face, the chiseled cheeks and jaw, “though I doubt I will ever write another.”

“How come?” asks Oz, hearing sorrow in Thomas’s voice. “Must be nice to write a good book.”

“I have lost my inspiration,” says Thomas, thinking of Denise and how everything he wrote, he wrote for her. “I’m old now. Tired.”

“So why you want to be a tutor?” Oz rises to quiet the whistling kettle.

Thomas is about to reply that he doesn’t want to be a tutor, that this is all his daughter’s doing, that he’s very sorry but he’s just not up to it. Instead, after a thoughtful pause, he says, “Perhaps I can still be useful to someone.”

“Someone maybe like me,” says Oz, shaking dry tealeaves into his hand to inspect them. “You wanna show me how to make this drink?”

“Ah,” says Thomas, raising a knowing finger. “The art of tea.”

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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.