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Change

during

before, during a photographic collaboration of Todd, Marcia, and Max

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Carl Rogers

We recently saw a French film made in 2008, Summer Hours, written and directed by Olivier Assayas and recommended to us by Louis Bedrock, the writer and translator. A beautifully made film set in present-day France, I immediately loved the sights and sounds, but found I was not connecting emotionally with the characters. About twenty minutes into the film, my lack of emotional connection with anyone in the movie almost made me stop watching, but then I surrendered to the flow of imagery and the unfolding story.

By the end of the movie, I was glad I’d watched the entirety, though I couldn’t elucidate why I was glad. I never came to care much about the individual people in the movie, but I could identify with what they were going through—the swift evolution of culture from one generation to the next.

The next day, I found myself remembering many of the scenes from Summer Hours and admiring how this tapestry of key moments in the lives of three siblings captures the reality of our modern era—the cultural paradigms defining French society and French art obliterated by new global and technological realities.

Two days after seeing the movie, I was at work on my latest novel, re-reading pages writ over the last few days, and came to the following reminiscence of one of my characters.

“When I was a young man, before I met Honey, I lived in San Francisco and was by turns a house painter, janitor, dishwasher, desk clerk in a cheap hotel, window washer, and dog walker. This was before the advent of computers when San Francisco was an affordable place to live for people of all walks of life, not just people with lots of money. Thus the city was full of artists and eccentrics and musicians and poets—hundreds of poets.”

Reading that reminiscence, I was put in mind of the ending of Summer Hours when dozens of teenagers descend upon the now-empty country home outside of Paris where much of the movie is set. At the beginning of the film we are introduced to this house as the home of an elderly woman dedicated to keeping alive the work of her uncle, a lesser-known Impressionist painter—the house full of rare and expensive furniture and glassware and artworks from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

After the long opening scene, we learn of this woman’s death, and watch as her three middle-aged children decide what to do with her house and valuable works of art—opting to sell everything and split the fortune three ways. And at last, we see the woman’s grandchildren and many of their friends and acquaintances partying and smoking dope in the shell of that ark that once contained artifacts from the epoch before the coming of television and computers and digitalized globalized everything.

While watching the young people take temporary possession of the old house, I felt anxious they might burn the place down, though there was nothing to suggest they would do much damage. They were having a party. They would stay for a day or two and then go back to their lives of scrabbling to make livings while trying to make sense of the fleeting images on their phones. Ere long, another wealthy person would take charge of the estate and fill the house with things.

These musings put me in mind of when I was twenty and had no fear about dropping out of college, despite my parents’ withdrawal of support, because there was a super-abundance of places to rent for next to nothing along with many part-time jobs to be had. After a few years of roaming around, I settled in Santa Cruz, circa 1972. My monthly rent for a big room in a lovely old house was thirty dollars, my monthly grocery bill about the same.

Imagine the artistic ferment today, if people knew they could survive perfectly well on a hundred dollars a month, or today’s equivalent, and there were plenty of jobs to be had.

The most valuable artifacts in the beautiful old house in Summer Hours are paintings by the landscape painter Corot, whose work is considered an important bridge between the Neo-Classical tradition and Impressionism. I was thinking about Corot when I wandered into the Oddfellows Hall in Mendocino to view the latest show of paintings by local artists. The term Post-Everything kept coming to mind as I wandered around that airy old building hunting for something to love.

And the idea of hunting for something to love put me in mind of the very last scene in Summer Hours. The granddaughter of the woman who owned those Corots, having invited her friends to invade the old manse before the new owners take possession, leaves the party, finds her boyfriend swimming in the pond, and leads him into the wilder lands of the estate.

When they come to a wall marking the boundary of her grandmother’s property, the granddaughter says to her boyfriend, “Come on, I don’t want them to find us.” Her boyfriend gallantly scales the wall by standing on the seat of an abandoned bicycle, helps his beloved over the wall, and she leads him into the unknown.

Having had a week now to digest the movie—thanks, Louis, for the recommendation—I feel more tenderly toward the young people I encounter in Mendocino, young people clutching their phones and looking away when I say Hello. And I feel more tenderly toward old people, older even than I, who remember the days before computers, the days of neighborhood barbecues and children playing games in the dusk, those days when societal change came more slowly than it does now, or so it seemed.

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Drought

Austerity

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2014)

“Rigid beliefs make disappointments seem unbearable, whereas realistic beliefs help us to accept disappointment and go on from there.” Eileen Kennedy-Moore

We are currently in the midst of a local drought that coincides with a state drought that coincides with a regional drought that coincides with the global climate change crisis that more and more scientists believe is now irreversible and will soon, as in the next decade or sooner, lead to famine, wars, plagues, the death of billions of people, and possibly the extinction of all, or nearly all, life on earth. Darn. There go my books and music being rediscovered five hundred years hence as the great unheralded literary and musical creations of Now. There go all my favorite species of plants and animals, and my favorite people, too. There goes living to a riper old age than the age I eventually live to.

According to even fairly cautious climate change scientists and climate change research institutes, things are beyond dire for human and other life on earth. I wonder if that’s why I’ve been feeling the need to nap more frequently of late. Humans have never lived on a planet with so much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and maybe this excessive amount of carbon dioxide induces drowsiness. According to many of these same scientists, the only hope of slowing and reversing climate change and the disastrous effects of that change—an extremely slim hope at best—would be for all fossil-fuel-dependent societies to entirely collapse, which would result in the cessation of fossil fuels being burned, which would quickly lead to famine, wars, plagues, and the deaths of billions of people, but maybe not the extinction of all, or nearly all, life on earth. I say maybe not because of those hundreds of pesky nuclear power plants all over the world that require enormous amounts of electricity and functional infrastructures to keep those tens of thousands of nuclear fuel rods cool (even when the plants are no longer operating) so they don’t melt down and explode and radiate the entire earth.

For the time being, Marcia and I have plenty of water for our minimal water needs, but if the current drought were to turn into a multi-year drought, which it very well might given that local, state, national and global weather patterns are wonkier and crazier and more extreme than ever before, what would we and the other people in Mendocino do for water? Thinking about what we would do in response to a local catastrophe is an interesting (and scary) way to start thinking about what humans will do en masse in response to such catastrophes that are occurring with more and more frequency around the world.

I suppose if most of the people around here couldn’t get enough water to lead minimally decent lives, most of the people around here would try to go elsewhere, assuming there were relatively safe and affordable ways to go elsewhere and there were other places with plenty of water and housing and employment for thousands of people from here and millions of people from other drought-stricken places. You see where I’m going with this. Without enough water, our entire local and state and national economy and society would be kaput. And according to climate change scientists, not enough water is soon going to be reality for billions of people on earth—very soon. So where will all those people go?

To put the current drought in historical perspective, 2013 was the driest year in California in at least 165 years. That is to say, humans started keeping records of rainfall hereabouts in 1848, and since then there has never been a drier year than the year just ending, with not a drop more rain predicted for Mendocino and most of California in the few days remaining in 2013. Mendocino’s rainfall total for the entire calendar year will end up being less than fifteen inches. Our historical average here on the coast is fifty-one inches a year. Let us hope that January and February prove to be fabulously wet months, though we got less than two inches of rain all of last January and February.

Before he died in 2000, Marc Reisner, the famous writer about the history of water in California, predicted that water would become so scarce in California over the coming years that at least half of California’s thirty-eight million human residents would be compelled to go eastward, far eastward, to the New York side of the Mississippi River where rain continues (currently) to fall in abundance. However, Marc was not privy to the current computer models suggesting that most of the interior of the United States will be too hot for human habitation in another ten to twenty years, so those twenty million Californians will not only have to go east, but north. Yet north is…Canada. No problem. Canada has tiny army. America has big army. We conquer Canada for their land and water resources and then several million lucky former Americans will go up there to live.

Sound farfetched? Consider this. Swiftly changing weather patterns in Spain (population 47 million) suggest that the climate and amount of rainfall in the Iberian Peninsula will soon resemble that of present-day Algeria, which means most of those Spanish people will have to head north to find enough water and food to survive. But wouldn’t you know it, France and 66 million French people are already there.

A friend recently sent me a link to a slideshow of shocking photographs of three huge Chinese cities: Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu. These pictures appear to have been taken on moonless nights, when, in fact, they were taken on sunny days when the smog was so thick that no sunlight could penetrate the dense black air. So toxic is the air in these cities that for many days of the year children and elderly people are not allowed outside. Hundreds of flights a week are canceled at the international airports servicing these cities, yet the people and governments of these cities do nothing to address the terrible problem, though China says they will begin taking steps to slowly shift away from burning coal as their primary means of producing energy. However, for now and the foreseeable future, the people in these cities will live (for as long as they can) with the deplorable situation because the alternative, in the short term, would be the loss of jobs and a slowing of economic growth.

I mention these terrifying images from China because I feel that we, the American people and American government, are doing essentially nothing to address the terrible problem of climate change that has so severely darkened the future of life on earth. What will it take before we realize that our individual actions multiplied by hundreds of millions of us are the cause of these terrible overarching problems? When I look at those pictures of tens of millions of Chinese people trying to live in atmospheres black with poison, I think the answer must be that most of us will never realize we are the source of the problem because we have lost our natural connections to the earth and to the fabulously interconnected processes that make life on this precious planet possible.

Despite (or maybe because of) the dismal prognosis for life on earth, I’ve been having vivid dreams lately (and remembering them) in which I am confronted with seemingly unsolvable puzzles and insurmountable obstacles, yet I somehow manage to solve the puzzles and surmount the obstacles and wake up feeling optimistic, if not about the future of humanity and the planet, then about the next few hours and the possibility I may learn something or write something or play something on the piano or have a conversation with someone or plant a seed or have a vibrant thought that sparks a reaction from Universe or at least gives me the feeling I may have sparked a reaction from Universe.

Wishful dreaming? What am I talking about? I’m talking about why I continue to write a weekly article and novels and music in the face of the unsolvable puzzles and insurmountable obstacles that may soon render me and every other breathing and photosynthesizing thing dead. I am not in denial of what is happening to the earth, yet I continue to believe that for however long we are alive, our purpose is to consciously interact with Universe in loving and creative ways. Universe, so say my teachers, loves for us to take creative regenerative actions, because Universe, more than anything, loves to respond to what we do. I know I’m anthropomorphizing Universe by endowing her with the ability to love. So sue me. Happy New Year!

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Exact Equality Redux

Exact Equality Redux

I first wrote this essay a few months before the election of Obama. I posted it on my blog and had several responses, some angry, some supportive, and one that suggested I preface the piece, as I am now doing, with the disclaimer that this musing is intended to ignite your thinking about gender equality and our current socio-economic reality without making any claim to certainty about any of the ideas contained herein. You may call that a cop out, but if reading this piece inspires you to ponder the possibility of a connection between the feminist movement and the more recent (last forty years) machinations of the vile male oligarchy that currently rules our nation and much of the world, I will feel justified in sharing my epiphany. 

I recently came upon this quote from Mark Twain. “No civilization can be perfect until exact equality between man and woman is included.”

Not his most erudite aphorism, but certainly thought provoking. Many feminists consider Twain to be a prototypical American misogynist, yet Twain called his novel Joan of Arc his most important work; a novel he was compelled to self-publish at the height of his fame because no publisher would touch it. What were the publishers afraid of? Or to put the question another way, what did the ruling elite find so threatening about Twain’s account of Joan of Arc?

The novel depicts France in economic ruins at the beginning of the fifteenth century, the nation ruled by a horribly corrupt Church and monarchy (essentially one and the same bureaucracy) with much of the country occupied by foreign troops and brigands. There is seemingly no hope for France’s salvation until a young woman rises from the lowest ranks of society to set the nation free.

To write this book, Twain learned to speak and read French, spent years studying the life of Joan of Arc, pored over the historic records of her time, and went to France to retrace the steps of Joan’s life and study the original transcripts of Joan’s heresy trial that led to her being burned at the stake. In his novel, Twain depicts Joan as intuitively brilliant, mysteriously strong, and endlessly resourceful. He suggests that Joan’s phenomenal strength and wisdom derive from a deep and loving connection to the earth and through direct communications with God. Twain’s Joan has no interest in personal success or proving herself the physical equal of men. She is pragmatic, honest, and wholly intent on making life better for all her countrymen.

At the heart of Twain’s quotation is the expression exact equality. I find his inclusion of the adjective exact to be the most original part of his proclamation, though a hundred years ago in America the entire remark would have been revolutionary.

The feminist movement that gathered momentum and grew large in the 1960’s and 70’s addressed social, economic, and sexual inequalities, with exact equality an ideal to be strived for, though certainly never realized. As far as I am aware, the feminist movement paid little attention to spiritual equality, and this, I think, proved to be a disastrous oversight—not that there was ever a comprehensive plan guiding the movement. When I speak of spiritual equality, I am not referring to women struggling to gain the right to become ministers and rabbis and priests in the various patriarchal religious systems, but to an active recognition of the common humanity of men and women transcendent of gender.

Today, fifty years after the feminist movement burst into the mainstream, the corporate media—which I view as our contemporary version of the omnipresent Church of Joan’s time—is more pervasive and dominant than ever and uses every means imaginable to control our bodies, psyches, and spirits, while the American economy is largely in ruins and our nation is now ruled by a totally corrupt oligarchy of wealthy crooks. And I wonder if there could possibly be a connection between the feminist movement and the subsequent ruination of our society by the male overlords, if you will permit me to give those shadowy villains a medieval moniker. I wonder why, with all the fabulous momentum of the gay, feminist, and civil rights movements of the 1960’s and 70’s, has equality between men and women, let alone exact equality, eluded us, and is, by many measures, rapidly regressing to the inequality that defined our society barely two generations ago? Could this moral decline be intrinsically related to the feminist movement and the backlash (see Susan Faludi) sparked among the corporate elite and reflected in the machinations of our government and media? I think so, and I think Twain’s Joan of Arc, in a roundabout way, posits a credible explanation for why, at least in part, this may be so.

Disclaimer: I grew up with two brilliant older sisters, a brilliant mother, and a not-so-brilliant but oppressive know-it-all father. I knew from an early age that women were easily the equal of men in every way except in terms of brute strength, and I saw how the creativity and intelligence and sensitivity of women was a threat to the supremacy of men who were in no way equal to such women. That is to say, my family reflected the greater reality of our male-dominated society. I identified more with my mother and sisters than with vader, thus I grew up a champion of women despite the societal stigma against such championing.

Addendum to disclaimer: My novel Ruby & Spear, published in 1996, is full of powerful female characters. The publisher, Bantam, one of the large corporate agencies of cultural control, was aghast at the strength and independence of my female characters and asked that I tone them down to make them “more acceptable to the reading public.”

Bantam or any of the current corporate publishers wouldn’t know what to do with Twain’s Joan of Arc, for she is so incredibly strong that by today’s standards she is a super hero, with one notable exception: her feats were real and historically undeniable. I note that Twain’s Joan is not called by God to liberate women, but to liberate all those suffering under the yoke of cultural and spiritual oppression. Modern feminism, while justifiably excoriating the patriarchal systems underpinned by the world’s major religions, unfortunately made villains of men in general and thereby alienated a vast army of potential male allies. Millions of men who loved women, truly loved women as people and women, were so often characterized as sexist pigs, agents of the patriarchy, and much worse, that they either turned against their accusers or became indifferent to women’s liberation. And the real enemies of women (those dastardly overlords) gleefully capitalized on this painful schism and used it, I believe, to hold our society back from an equality of the sexes that would have ushered in a new age of social dynamism and egalitarianism. Women striving for equality were, in essence, characterized by the popular media as men haters, which characterizations resounded in the collective unconscious.

Twain’s Joan of Arc did not misplace her enmity. She recognized and connected with the souls of all people, men and women, and was thus able to rouse a depressed and severely wounded population to oust the foreign occupiers. Indeed, so formidable was Joan’s power and influence, so threatening was she to the corrupt status quo, that very shortly after her miraculous military victories, the Church moved swiftly to convict her of witchcraft, sorcery, and alliance with Satan. How else to explain the miraculous successes of a mere woman?

My favorite part of Twain’s novel is the trial of Joan of Arc, wherein despite terrible privation and unspeakable cruelty at the hands of her captors, Joan daily repulsed the verbal and intellectual attacks of the most brilliant minds the church could muster against her. Joan’s triumph is recorded for all time in the transcripts of her trial. Unable to surpass Joan’s astonishing and inexplicable grasp of the most esoteric aspects of religious law, her enemies resorted to starving her, torturing her, and forcing her to sign a false confession so they could at last burn her at the stake. She was nineteen when the Catholic hierarchy killed her and shortly thereafter canonized her.

Some fifteen years ago, a wise woman said to me, “So now we’ve got women’s retreats and men’s retreats, everybody getting in touch with their inner woman and their inner man, which is all well and good, but the real revolution comes when men and women unite their spirits to experience our larger purpose here. As long as we define ourselves first as men or women, and only secondarily as human beings, we are too easily divided and conquered.”

John Trudell, the potent American Indian thinker, frequently invokes this same idea. Unless we think of ourselves first and foremost as human beings, and men and women and black and white and Indian and European second, the overlords will use these divisive self-perceptions to keep us from uniting. We are all earthlings, not Americans or Germans or Iranians or Africans, but human.

Exact equality between man and woman may seem an impossible idea. Men and women cannot be exactly physically equal. Indeed, the latest research strongly indicates that men and women have very different operating systems installed in our cranial computers, so to speak. I make the assumption Twain was speaking of spiritual equality, and exact equality means that we all have exactly the same value; each of us is priceless. Until we reshape our social institutions and our personal behavior to support this very reasonable concept of exact equality, our civilization will never approach perfection. In spiritual union, I and Thou become We. Inseparable. Exactly equal. 

 

Todd’s novel Under the Table Books will be published on May 18.