Archive for May, 2010

Life Without a Cell Phone

May 28, 2010

Both Judy and I have been unwilling to get cell phones, and it’s created some difficult situations. Last week I had a speaking gig in St. Charles, Illinois, which is around sixty miles west of Chicago. Sitting in the airport in San Francisco waiting to board, I watched people talking on their phones, playing with their phones, caressing their phones. Maybe I misunderstand, but it often seems to me that people are sitting and staring at them trying to think of somebody to call. That strikes me as peculiar.

At O’Hare, I took a shuttle out to get a rental car. The lady at the desk asked for a phone number, and I gave her my home phone, adding that it wasn’t a cell number, that I didn’t have one—something I always feel I need to tell people now when I’m transacting business.

She said, “We have you down for an economy car. Is that correct?”


She paused and then asked, genuinely puzzled, “Is that by choice?”

“Yeah. I’m not comfortable driving large cars.”

“No. I mean the cell phone.”

“Oh, yeah. I don’t like ’em.”

She laughed as though it were the funniest thing she’d heard all day. She’d asked me the question in the same way that confirmed meat eaters ask why on earth you’d want to be a vegetarian.

After finishing at the desk, I was supposed to call the house that I was to stay in in St. Charles, to let them know I was on my way. But there was no pay phone. So I picked up the car and started driving, keeping my eyes peeled for a phone booth. Google maps had sent me on a bizarre course that I hadn’t bothered to check before leaving. It was like flying from San Francisco to Los Angeles by way of Denver. I was going down some long and slow business corridor, where I assumed it would be easy to find a pay phone, but I wasn’t having any luck at all. I stopped several times to ask, but nobody knew of any. Finally, I spotted one behind an aging gas station. I called the house, but the person on the other end couldn’t hear me at all. The phone’s speaker was broken. So I got back in the car and resumed driving. It was raining hard, growing dark, and I didn’t know the area at all. It was a little maddening. Finally, I stopped at a convenience store and asked the clerk if I could borrow her phone, which she reluctantly allowed, and I got through this time.

It was a bit of an inconvenience for everyone concerned—for me, for the store clerk, and for my host. But I still refuse to get a cell phone. I’ve already gotten tied up in too many of society’s entanglements. Getting a cell phone feels like going one step too far.

Progress Report #29 and a Parrot Update

May 28, 2010

I’ve finished my second pass though the second draft’s Chapter Fourteen, “The Wanderer.” Now onto Chapter Fifteen. I don’t have a working title for it yet. That’s moot, though. This is going to be a long chapter, and I’m reasonably certain that these long chapters are going to be broken down into short ones in the third and final draft. This chapter deals with an incredibly intense four-month period in early 1974. I’m laying the foundations for life after music. Now that I’m ensconced in North Beach, I start meeting some interesting as well as some scary bohemians; I have a profoundly unsettling experience at a Bob Dylan concert; and I keep getting closer—although I don’t know it yet—to the day where I’m forced to move out onto the streets.

I struck gold yesterday. I was looking up some innocuous little detail on the Internet and stumbled upon an incredibly rich vein of information on the time and place—North Beach (San Francisco) in 1974—that I’m gearing up to write about.

For those following this: It’s quite clear now that the eggs underneath the bed are infertile. But Big Bird and Parker haven’t given up on them yet. They sit on them all day long and come out only to eat. They’re in a completely different state than we usually see them in. They are absolutely devoted to those eggs. They run out and attack our feet whenever we walk too close to the bed. We have to leave our shoes on at all times.

Crisis Economics

May 26, 2010

I’m reading Crisis Economics by Nouriel Roubini and Stephen Mihm. Roubini was the professor of economics who called the collapse of the economy several years before it happened. At the time he made his predictions, he was ridiculed. But it turned out that he was right on the money, so to speak. It’s an interesting book, even for someone who doesn’t really understand much of the time what Roubini is talking about. I’m with Henry Miller who asked, “But what makes money make money?” I just don’t understand.

As I read, one thing I notice is that Roubini’s underlying assumption is the same as the people he’s criticizing, namely that the most important human activity is economic. His issue with the businessmen who led the world into the abyss is simply that they were deluded about certain economic realities. I think that most Americans today—probably most people in the world today—would probably agree with the idea that economic activity, the creation of wealth, is our most important activity—which is to say that we live in a profoundly materialistic age. But it’s the road to ruin. The last crisis was a warning. We’re either going to let go of the chase gracefully or we’re going to be stopped, and in a most painful manner. “You cannot serve God and mammon.” It’s odd that they call this a Christian nation.

Progress Report #28

May 13, 2010

I finished the first pass through draft two’s Chapter 14, working title, “The Wanderer.” It describes my first two months in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. That was in late 1973, and I still live here. This chapter is the opening of the book’s second section, which I sometimes call “A Slow Boat to China,” at other times “Blue Monk.” Although a short chapter—only 27 pages—it was harder than I expected. The difficulty was that it has to set the stage for all that’s to happen in the rest of the book, and I hadn’t quite reckoned that out sufficiently. I’m very happy with the way it turned out. Next step: Go through the chapter to clean up any messes, and then start Chapter 15.

A Big Surprise

May 12, 2010
In the Nest

Parker (l) and Big Bird (r) under the bed

For the last seven years, Judy and I have been taking care of two birds from the wild parrot flock who have injuries. We’ve always assumed that both birds, Parker and Big Bird, were male. Every spring, Big Bird goes under our bed and stays there nearly all day long, tearing up the jute carpet. We’ve assumed he’s preparing a nest for a female, should one happen to pass by. He did it again this year, but this time “he” laid three eggs. For the first time, Parker, who is badly crippled, has joined Big Bird under the bed. If Parker is a male, there is some chance, of course, that the eggs are fertile. But we doubt he’s coordinated enough to mate. (They will lay eggs that have not been fertilized.) We’re waiting to see. It’s fascinating to watch the intense devotion these two have toward the eggs. They never leave them for more than a few minutes and only to eat. They also make a kind of purring sound while sitting on them.

My Favorite Books

May 6, 2010

A while ago, someone asked if I would list my favorite books. So here’s a shot at it. I’ve had many favorites that have fallen from favor, and I won’t list those. There are books I feel I should like, but for which I’ve never developed a true enthusiasm, and I’m not listing those either. So this is my current list of the books that I really love—my short list if I had to seriously reduce my library. In no particular order.

I Ching, translated by Richard Wilhelm. My favorite book. None of the other translations even come close to this one.

Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu. I have two favorite translations, one by Richard Wilhelm and the other by Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo.

A Reader’s Manifesto by B. R. Myers. A brilliant, true, and hysterically funny work about what’s gone wrong with American literature.

Ishi in Two Worlds by Theodora Kroeber. The story of the last wild Indian in America, or so the book says. Whatever the truth is, it’s an incredibly moving story.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. The more I learn about Nabokov, the less I like him. But he was a master of language, and the book makes me laugh.

The Real Work by Gary Snyder. I find his ideas more compelling than his poetry. This is a book of interviews, and I’ve learned a great deal from it.

Anything by Suzuki Roshi. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is the best place to start, but I like all the books that have come out under his name. They’re all edited transcripts of his talks.

Anything by Stephen Gaskin. Like Suzuki Roshi, his books are edited transcripts.

The Diamond Sutra One of the central texts of Mahayana Buddhism. Translation by Red Pine.

The Platform Sutra By Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen. Translation by Red Pine.

The Gospel of Thomas, one of the so-called Gnostic gospels. It’s a collection of the teachings of Jesus, and is free of all the mythology.

Cold Mountain Poems. Poems by an old Chinese hermit. I like the translation by Red Pine, which is complete. But Gary Snyder translated some in his book Riprap, and they are excellent.

Almost anything by Noam Chomsky. I have some disagreements with him, but not many. He taught me how to read the news.

Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire, and Nemesis. The Chalmers Johnson trilogy about the inevitable fall of the American Empire. (All empires are doomed to fall.)

The Party’s Over by Richard Heinberg. A recent find. I intend to post something here eventually about this book and its subject, Peak Oil. An important book.

Flying the Flag

May 4, 2010

Last night I went to the San Francisco Film Festival to see a documentary film about the poet Gary Snyder called Practice of the Wild. (I thought it was okay, not great.) I was reminded by the film and by the audience where my real allegiance lies: with the counterculture. By “counterculture” I mean the movement that started with the Beats in the late 1940s and peaked in the 1960s and early 1970s with the hippies and so on. I think it’s an unfortunate term in that it stresses our opposition to the current world order rather than the world we would like to see. But people know what you mean when you say it. Today, the movement is small and weak, but it isn’t dead. Most folks think it was all about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but I never saw it that way. The core of it was about recovering real values. But it was only a first effort, and it floundered when the powers-that-be (through their puppet Ronald Reagan) put their foot down, insisting that it was all about money and power.

Suzuki Roshi, the Japanese man who founded Zen Center here in San Francisco, once said that the hippies needed to become “super-hippies.” I think he meant that, yes, love is the answer, but to realize love requires a very serious effort. And yes, there must be justice, but there can never be justice until we are just in our smallest, every-day transactions. I don’t think you can argue with that. And because the culture-at-large is more serious about money than it is about love and justice, I cannot give my heart to it. So I’m letting my freak flag fly.