Question & Reply

Question & Reply painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2015)

“You must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible.” Anton Chekhov

Trust is a tricky thing. Long ago, I held writing workshops for groups of eight people meeting for two hours once a week in my living room, each course lasting eight weeks. At the outset, I would reiterate what I had explained to prospective participants when they called to sign up for the process: we would be doing my original writing exercises and there would be no lecturing or criticism or analysis of anything we wrote, by me or anyone in the group, and no one had to read aloud anything he or she wrote unless he or she wanted to.

Of the hundreds of writers who participated in these workshops over the years, nearly all believed there would be lecturing and analysis and criticism and judgment of their writing, despite my proclamations to the contrary. And almost all believed if they did not read aloud what they wrote, they would be made to feel stupid and ashamed.

By the end of the first session, there were usually two or three participants trusting they would not be criticized or shamed when they read or did not read aloud what they had written. But there were always people who needed three or four sessions to fully trust they would simply be listened to when they read what they wrote, and so they had to wait a long time to find out that being listened to by a group of non-critical people can be a deeply illuminating and inspiring experience.

And it was only when everyone in the group fully trusted that no one would criticize or be criticized, that we truly became a group and not eight individuals separated by fear and mistrust doing writing exercises. Everyone in the group would feel this momentous shift when the last doubter surrendered to the embrace of non-judgmental group mind. Talk about synergy! Talk about people taking chances, going deeper, and discovering things about their expressive talents they would never have experienced without trusting that anything they wrote was allowed.

“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.” William Shakespeare

I make a part of my minimalist living selling my books and music and art. Customers can buy things from me using their credit cards via my web site or they can send a check to my post office box or they can bump into me at the farmer’s market and give me cash. I have a policy, established two years ago, that I no longer send or deliver orders until I have the money in hand. Had I established this policy ten years ago, I would be thousands of dollars richer than I am today.

Why did I continue to trust people after numerous people did not pay me for goodies received? Because I prefer trusting people to not trusting people, and I was embarrassed to imply to my friends that I didn’t trust them. But the fact is, since most of my customers are my friends, most of the people who stiffed me, knowingly or unwittingly, were my friends. I think poverty and forgetfulness, rather than malice and greed, were behind most of the stiffing, but still.

Yet it wasn’t until a very close friend ordered several hundred dollars worth of books and music CDs to give as Christmas gifts, and I gleefully sent off the big package to her before I received her check (money I was counting on) and then I never got her check, though she claimed it was immediately cashed yet was unable to confirm who cashed it, that I finally installed my policy of having the money in hand before shipping the goods.

And, yes, I have since lost sales to friends infuriated with me for not trusting them, which is why I say trust is a tricky thing.

“Trust, but verify.” Ronald Reagan

When I moved to Sacramento in 1980, my neighbors told me that our neighborhood was so safe no one ever locked their doors and there had never been a theft of anything for as long as anyone could remember. And so I never locked my house or my car and I left my bike unlocked on the front porch, and for several years what my neighbors told me proved true, and life was groovy.

Then one night somebody stole a neighbor’s Volkswagen. And in a twinkling, everything changed. Everyone started locking their cars and locking their doors. I continued to leave my bicycle on the front porch unlocked, but then it was stolen, and thereafter I kept my bike in the locked basement accessed through a padlocked gate.

And the unexpected result of this rash of thefts, this new economic reality, was that my neighbors began to mistrust each other and me, and there were fewer block parties, life became less casual, and people spent more time indoors. It seems that once mistrust becomes the overriding modus operandi, it permeates everything.

Then I moved to a working class neighborhood in Berkeley and my neighbors told me there hadn’t been a theft of anything in the hood for as long as anyone could remember, at least fifty years. And until rent control ended and the dot com explosion rendered Berkeley unaffordable for most of my neighbors, our neighborhood was blissfully safe and crime free. But once the street was gentrified, robberies became commonplace and gloomy mistrust descended and life sucked.

Then I moved to Mendocino, and the first joke I was told by two gregarious locals who sat with me in the café and paid for my tea was, “Why do you lock your car in Mendocino? Because if you don’t, someone will leave a bag of zucchini on your front seat.”

So far no zucchini, though I never lock my truck.


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. 





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.