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Outage

Django In Dark

Todd and Django In the Dark photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“Never underestimate the power of human stupidity.” Robert Heinlein

The power was out in our neck of the Mendocino woods for nearly five days last week. Can we blame PG&E? I do. With the money they’ve stolen charging millions of people ten dollars a month not to have stupid, er, smart meters, combined with the billions of dollars they spend annually responding to multi-day power outages all over the state, they could easily have afforded by now to bury all their power lines and be done with outages forever. But that’s not how monopoly capitalism works.

“Knowledge is power.” Francis Bacon

Marcia, prescient wonder that she is, long ago chose the first four of those five days of outage to go jaunting to Santa Rosa to visit her mother Opal, indulge in cuisine not to be had hereabouts, shop for things unavailable in these hinterlands, take a workshop on musical improvisation from Joe Craven in Ukiah, catch Joel Cohen starring on cello with the Ukiah Symphony, and visit various far flung friends—leaving me in the dark with the cat.

Marcia returned for the final twenty-four hours of outage and made the best of the absence of electronic distractions—email, Internet, lights, hot water—to clean her office. Intimidated by her sensible approach to our altered circumstances, I decided to clean my office, too.

Attacking a mountain (no exaggeration) of paper on one of my tabletops, the mountain wedged between a large round rock (who put that there?) and a large glass former peanut butter jar crammed with dubious pens (where did those come from?) I found most of the mountain made of material sent to me by insurance companies urging me to buy Medigap insurance from them, and several hundred more pages of material sent by various government agencies to help me make sense of the material sent by the insurance companies—further proof of why Single Payer (socialist) Healthcare would be such a better way to go.

“The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.” Edmund Burke

Weary of office excavating, I ventured out into our storm-ravaged yard and discovered a large redwood branch had fallen from on high and seriously compromised a stretch of our deer fence, while another much bigger branch had torn off a chunk of our woodshed roof. Not good. On the brighter side, a large section of old wooden fence bordering the western edge of our property had been blown to smithereens by the tempest, something I’ve wanted to do since we moved here.

As I cleaned up the fence fragments, our neighbor, a chain saw savant, came over to see if we needed his services (we often do) but this time, miraculously, we did not. I spent another hour clearing the driveway of fence shards and tree branches, then suffered an energy outage and went inside to take a nap by the fire.

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Abraham Lincoln

I was just drifting off to sleep when Marcia reported that a friendly recorded woman at the PG&E outage number said the outage would either be over by midnight or there would be a new guesstimate at midnight of the duration of the outage. Marcia then suggested we cook supper (on our woodstove) before it got too dark.

I’d been cooking on the woodstove (we also heat our house with wood) for four days, so I was up to speed in that department. I brought in a pile of small and medium-sized kindling to enhance temperature control while I cooked, and ere long, just as darkness fell, we were gobbling a scrumptious meal of sautéed vegetables, Basmati rice, and one of Marcia’s superb green and purple salads.

Sipping her wine, Marcia opined that a day without electricity was a welcome respite from the usual order of business, and I agreed that a day without electricity was not a bad thing, but that five days (unless one intentionally goes wilderness backpacking) was perhaps not such a good thing, though certainly profound.

“Experience hath shown, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.” Thomas Jefferson

There was a time when a power outage meant the coming of deep regenerative silence. Not anymore. Now a power outage means people around the hood fire up their gas-powered generators (without mufflers) and simulate the sound of a major construction site in downtown Manhattan. Ah country living.

At nine o’clock, the stars fantastical in the absence of porch lights, the phone rang and a nice recorded man said that PG&E hoped to restore our electricity late the following evening. I asked him if he would like to smell my armpits after four days without even lukewarm water for a shower (our hot water heater is electric) and he thanked me for my patience and said he was sorry for the inconvenience.

“Power doesn’t corrupt people, people corrupt power.” William Gaddis

Marcia suggested we drive into downtown Mendocino, get some ice and potato chips and a chocolate bar at Harvest Market and see what was happening in our beloved burg. So we hopped in the car and coasted down the hill, noting various uprooted trees and bushes along the way, and found the amply stocked grocery store with lights blazing, only a few shoppers availing themselves of the cornucopia.

We bought our goodies and then toodled up and down the streets of Mendocino—every house and business sans lights, save for the town’s three drinking holes: the Mendocino Hotel, Dick’s, and Patterson’s. Those holy places were ablaze with light—their bartenders busy quenching the thirst of outage-weary sojourners.

And for some reason, seeing those booze joints jumping while everything else was shut down brought to mind that famous Sixties slogan: Power to the people, right on.

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Giants and Greece

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

“We don’t have to look far to see how pervasive suffering is in the world.” Joseph Goldstein

Matt Cain recently pitched a perfect game for the San Francisco Giants while Greece is in the midst of a massive economic collapse. Gregor Blanco made one of the great catches in Giants history to preserve Cain’s perfecto while Spain is in economic freefall with over 25% unemployment and Spanish real estate prices falling falling falling. Cain gave his catcher Buster Posey much of the credit for the no-no while Syria is in the midst of a horribly bloody civil war with thousands of casualties, many of them women and children.

Cain’s perfect game is only the twenty-second perfect game in the 130-year history of baseball while the Japanese government has ordered the restarting of several of their dangerously unsafe nuclear power plants despite a vast majority of the Japanese people opposed to nuclear power in the wake of the ongoing catastrophic meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plants.

And how about Melky Cabrera, the Melkman, leading the National League in hitting while the American economy is collapsing around our ears. True, Tim Lincecum is having an awful year so far and Barry Zito is showing signs of faltering after a strong start, but the rest of the Giants starters are pitching magnificently while California’s budget deficit is several billion dollars more than state officials anticipated, though anyone with half a brain knew that such drastic cuts in government spending would guarantee equally drastic economic contraction.

“We may have compassion for the victims of social or political injustice, but can we feel compassion for those who perpetrate that injustice?” Joseph Goldstein

For many years I have been in the habit of listening to Giants baseball games on a little silver transistor radio I carry from room to room and out into the garden. When I lived in Berkeley, I had a neighbor who was bothered by my interest in the Giants, and he told me so one day when he found me in my vegetable patch listening to a game while I pulled weeds and watered.

“You’re such an intelligent person,” he said, shaking his head. “How can you listen to that meaningless junk when there’s so much suffering in the world?”

This fellow, I hasten to add, walked his talk. He was a medical doctor who worked long hours in a clinic for poor people and spent the rest of his time reading books about social injustice and political corruption and writing passionate letters to government officials and marching against social injustice and wars waged for corporate hegemony. He lived frugally and gave away most of the money he made to help fund the clinic where he worked, so…

“This is an antidote to my own suffering,” I replied, comforted by the inimitable ambience only baseball on the radio provides. “A form of guided meditation.”

“Sponsored by earth-killing corporations,” he said, pointing at my radio dangling amidst the snow pea vines. “Listen. Yet another ad for Chevron.”

“I studiously do not buy gas from Chevron,” I said—an easy boast since I didn’t own a car.

“But why do you like that garbage?” he asked, visibly upset. “You like basketball, too, don’t you?”

“Love basketball,” I said, nodding. “Basketball was my salvation and succor for many years.”

“And you actually care who wins?” He sighed despondently. “What a waste.”

“I care and I don’t care,” I said, as one of our boys led off the seventh with a single. “The game matters in the moment and doesn’t matter in the next moment. I’m not attached once the game is over. For long.”

“But do you know why the major corporations sponsor these games?” he asked, waving his arms in frustration. “Because it keeps people occupied so they won’t take any meaningful action to create substantive change. It’s a mechanism of social control. And look what they’re selling. Gasoline, beer, cars, insurance, computers, plastic, Las Vegas.”

“So what do you think I should do?” I asked, trying not to hold him responsible for altering the game with his negative attitude (see quantum physics) and causing the double play that just wiped out our first decent scoring opportunity since the first inning. “I don’t have a television or a car or health insurance or really much of anything except a piano, a guitar, a very slow computer, and things to cook with. You want me to toss the little radio and take a vow of chastity and silence? Gimme a break, it’s baseball. I love baseball. I played baseball growing up. Baseball is in my bones, in my blood.”

“Entrained since childhood,” he said, nodding dolefully. “That’s what they do. Cradle to grave entrainment disguised as entertainment.”

Then it hit me: this guy did not play baseball growing up. Baseball was not in his bones, in his blood. He did not understand what I was experiencing when I listened to a game on the radio because he had no real understanding of the language of baseball. He might as well have been listening to someone speaking Greek, assuming he didn’t understand Greek, which I think is a fair assumption.

And the moment I realized that his antipathy was as much about what he didn’t understand about baseball as it was about what he did understand about corporate control of the media, I was filled with compassion and said, “Want any lettuce? I have a vast surplus in need of harvesting.”

“Love some,” he said, his frown giving way to a smile.

“Compassion is the tender readiness of the heart to respond to one’s own or another’s pain, without resentment or aversion.” Joseph Goldstein

There are only eleven million people in Greece, about a quarter of the population of California, and because Greece is so small, relatively speaking, the annihilation of Greek society by their corrupt government in collusion with their corrupt banking system is easier to discern than the annihilation of American society by our corrupt government in collusion with our corrupt banking system. But the mechanisms of both annihilations are identical (not to mention intertwined), and what unfolds in Greece is predictive of things about to unfold here if the powers-that-be don’t quickly and dramatically shift current fiscal policy away from austerity to something resembling the stimulating policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

That is to say, a small minority of unscrupulous people in the banking/government system of America, stole trillions of dollars from the people of America, kept billions of those dollars in their personal bank accounts, and gambled away the rest. Then when the financial system began to totter and fall, these same criminals stole trillions more to prop up the markets and the banks a little while longer—which is where we are today.

In their most recent election, enough Greeks were scared by erroneous propaganda into voting for the same criminals who created the current economic mess so that the annihilation of their country will continue, in the same way that enough Americans in our upcoming election will be scared into voting for the same criminals who created our portion of the global mess so the annihilation of our country and the world will continue.

The good news is that the Giants are doing remarkably well this season and are poised to make a strong run in the second half. If Lincecum can get back on track and Pablo will shed twenty pounds and stop swinging at high pitches out of the strike zone, and if Blanco can keep getting on base ahead of Melky, and Melky and Buster keep hitting well, and Crawford keeps being Crawford, we might very well go deep into the post season if not all the way to the World Series. And once there, as we know from recent experience, anything is possible.

As Charles Dickens wrote to begin A Tale of Two Cities:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

And as Joseph Campbell said so eloquently on his eightieth birthday, “The field of time is a field of sorrow. Life is sorrowful. How do you live with that? You realize the eternal within yourself. You disengage and yet re-engage. You—and here is the beautiful formula: you participate with joy in the sorrows of the world.”

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Thieves

The only difference between samsara and enlightenment is attachment.

Thinley Norbu

 

My friend Iris hails me at the Mendocino post office and says, “You know how my car got stolen from my driveway, so I had to get another one? Well, the police found the one that got stolen. In Ukiah. They ticketed it every day for a week until some genius ran the plates and found out it was stolen.”

Iris lives in the hills a couple miles off the beaten (paved) path and always leaves her keys in the car since it seems highly unlikely anyone will venture up the long dirt road to her dog-infested driveway and steal her old car. But someone did.

“Was the car damaged?”

“Not at all,” she says, smiling in amazement. “Just ran out of gas. And here’s the cool part. The thief left the key on the seat along with my fanny pack and my really good binoculars. He only took a little cash and my Swiss Army knife. Oh, and he left his empties: a vitamin C drink and an Odwalla Smoothie.”

“He went through your stuff and selected what he needed?”

“That’s what I thought, too,” says Iris, nodding. “I have this vision of a guy living on the edge and really needing to get back to Ukiah. So he borrows a car he doesn’t have to hot wire, leaves it at his destination, and takes what he needs to enhance his survival. The police are hot to catch him, but I hope they don’t.”

For some reason, Iris’s story brings to mind the last time I was audited by the IRS. I’ve been audited twice for the only times in my life I made more than thirty grand in a year. When I asked the young auditor why they were wasting their time auditing a small fry like me rather than rich people, he said, without batting an eye, “Because rich people have really sharp accountants and tax attorneys. We have much better luck going after you do-it-your-selfers.”

They go after us. The vulnerable ones. The ones who can’t afford expensive money jugglers.

I enter the post office and find a notice in my box from Blue Cross, recently renamed Anthem (as in Anathema), informing me of a forty percent increase in my monthly payment. The notice contains no explanation of why my premium is being raised so dramatically, and since I have never used my health insurance except as a psychic buffer against the fear of losing everything should a medical catastrophe befall me, I can only assume the sickening spike is simply extortion. They know it is highly unlikely I can get health insurance elsewhere, so why not go after me?

This extortion letter puts me in mind of a cartoon several people sent me eons ago when I was a neophyte on the writer’s path. In the cartoon, a well-fed, well-heeled fellow is showing off his mansion, tennis court, swimming pool, and bikini-clad trophy wife to an envious guest. The caption reads: “There I was in a cold water flat trying to write the Great American Novel, when it suddenly occurred to me: Why not write the great American extortion letter?”

And that cartoon always puts me in mind of another favorite sent to me by at least twenty people: Snoopy sitting atop his doghouse typing, “Dear Sirs, I have just completed my new novel. It is so good, you’ll just have to come and get it.”

But I digress.

I go from the post office to Corners where I purchase two tomatoes, a little bag of cashews, a loaf of bread, a dozen mushrooms, a chocolate bar, and a hunk of sheep cheese for a grand total of sixteen dollars. As I find myself (just for fun) calculating a forty per cent increase in my total, I overhear two Cornerites discussing the sudden absence of certain products due to the growing number of companies going out of business. (Do-it-yourselfers, no doubt.)

The sad truth is that we are at the very beginning, not the middle or the bottom, of an economic decline unlike any we have ever seen in our lifetimes. I walk out of Corners imagining thousands and millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens reduced to states of desperation in which an unguarded car containing a bag or two of groceries would prove irresistible.

As if on cue, a homeless man I know greets me at my truck. “Hey, man,” he says, smiling hopefully. “Recognized your pickup. Haven’t eaten in two days. Help me out?”

I give him two pieces of bread, half my cheese, and five dollars, and then I calculate forty per cent of five dollars and give him that, too.

“It’s grim, man,” he says, eating ravenously. “Fuckin’ meltdown, man.”

Not quite ready to go home and write outraged letters to Blue Cross and my corporate congress people and corporate state legislators, I decide to chill by getting a sandwich and going to the beach. As I wait for my ham on rye in the lusciously warm Mendocino Market, I read a newspaper article about Obama’s plan for a Bad Bank in which the government will take over all the toxic investments of the criminals who bankrupted the nation. By the government’s own calculations the Bad Bank will add a trillion dollars or more to the swiftly mounting national debt. Obama says he hopes this Bad Bank will get the few remaining banks (run by the same criminals who created all the toxic investments) to start lending money (gotten from the government at zero interest) to small businesses and people for six to ten per cent interest.

And I wonder: Why doesn’t Obama’s government lend the money directly to the people? Why go through extortionists? Why doesn’t Obama’s government take over Anthem Blue Cross and put that mob of crooks and sadists out of business for the good of our nation and democracy and his daughters’ futures?

By the time I get to the beach my thoughts have frazzled into a snarl of anger and sorrow. I think of my recent three-minute eye checkup that cost a hundred and ten dollars, my auto insurance going up as the truck gets older, gas prices rising as crude oil prices fall, baseball players making twenty million dollars a year, movie stars making twenty million per movie, and millions of people without sufficient food or health care, and I’m too upset to eat my sandwich.

So I set the tasty comestible on a driftwood log, take off my shoes, and go wading in the shallows to cool my blood. And just as I’m starting to let go of the sorrows of the world, a great outburst of shrieking and crying turns me around in time to see three gulls and a raven fighting over the last few scraps of my sandwich.