Archive for October, 2010

A Tale From the Global Economy

October 28, 2010

From early 1978 to late 1982, during the time that I was living on the street, I took up the study of the Italian language. I bought a book called “Teach Yourself Italian,” and made friends with some local Italians who helped me. I got good enough that for awhile I tutored others. But I’ve since let it slide. Last month, when I was in Europe, I decided I ought to brush up. So, I bought a set of grammer books and started working through them. Here’s one of the dialogues in its entirety. It’s called Let’s talk about work.

Carla: Hi. How are you?

Luigi: We haven’t seen each other for a year.

Carla: Yes, we finally meet. But are you always busy?

Luigi: Always busy, always working. I’m under a lot of stress.

Carla: Me, too, you know. My day starts very early. I wake up at six in the morning, I get up, I wash, I get dressed, I sit down for a second to have coffee, and right away I go out to go to work.

Luigi: But at least you have breakfast.

Carla: You don’t?

Luigi: That’s the way it is. And in my office, I sit at my desk all day. I feel tired. I never have a moment to enjoy myself.

Carla:  But you have a good job!

Luigi: You can’t complain either!

Carla: That’s true. I can’t complain either.

Defining My Terms #1

October 25, 2010

I’ve been putting up a lot of posts that many people will consider “doom and gloom.” (See my previous post, for instance.) And I completely agree that it’s no good just to lay back and criticize without having something positive to offer. I do, in fact, believe there is hope. There isn’t any hope for our current way of doing things—that has quite nearly run its course now—but there is a path we can move to that does work. I believe we’re going to have one more chance to set things right. It may well be our last chance. I’ve been reluctant to get into these positive possibilities because of a problem with language. Words trigger automatic reactions in people’s minds—words like “terrorist,” “conservative,” “liberal,” “evil,” “socialist,” “pacifist.” They create images that are seldom useful for arriving at an understanding.

I keep seeing that one word I will have to use in any discussion of possibilities is “God.” The idea of God that most Americans argue over is the anthropomorphic idea of God, the creator God, the sometimes loving, sometimes angry guy in the robes and white beard who lives outside his creation and passes judgment on us all. This is the God that atheists love to ridicule and Christians feel compelled to promote and defend. As far as I can tell, it’s been a completely useless debate. Nobody is talking about anything real. God is, first of all, a word, a word that we use to discuss something that’s nearly impossible to discuss. The word really refers to the massive intelligence of the universe, the intelligence that is beyond physics and beyond intellectual comprehension. It doesn’t have a personality. It’s of a different order than that. I don’t believe that Jesus believed in this creator God. Those who surrounded him and who followed him did, but they never really understood what Jesus was talking about. And I don’t believe that Buddha was an atheist. Buddhists who say he was are either pointing out that he didn’t have a belief in a creator God, or they don’t know what they’re talking about. I find that there are just as many Buddhists who don’t understand their own religion as there are Christians who don’t understand theirs. Actually, there is no Christianity and there is no Buddhism. There is only one religion, and it has no name. Both Buddha and Christ saw and believed the same thing. (I use these two examples because, other than Lao Tzu, who is less known, they are the ones whom I’ve studied in greatest depth.)

Having said all that, my experience in conversation is that I can explain what I intend when I say “God,” and the next time I use the word, the person I’m talking to will immediately conjure up the image of the creator God. The image is so deeply imbedded. I could use terms like “the Great Spirit,” and I undoubtedly will. But “Great Spirit” often sounds affected to me. “God” is the word I almost always want to use. It’s simple and to the point—I wish. For those unfamiliar with this idea of God, I will add that it’s not of my own making. It’s ancient. There’s a more detailed exposition of my view in my book, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, in the chapter called “Consciousness Explained.”

An Inside Job

October 25, 2010

This weekend I saw the new documentary film, Inside Job, which is about the economic crisis of 2008. It’s very well done, and I recommend it. (It’s web site is here and includes a list of theaters where it will soon be showing.) I’ve been reading about the crisis and have had some trouble understanding the economic jargon. The film helped me clarify meanings. Mostly, though, it confirmed what I already knew, that the trouble began with Reagan administration and its push for deregulation. The film did give me a greater realization of how massively corrupt—sociopathic, really—the capitalist system has become. But the most striking moment for me was a particular image of skyscrapers and cranes in some Asian country (I don’t remember which) that made me aware of how completely globalization has ensnared the world. The system is intended to be “too big to fail.” We’ve been dumbed down to think that we can muddle along indefinitely and that we have entered a road from which there is no turning back. But everything that is corrupt undermines itself until it finally collapses. That’s universal law. We have the choice of dismantling the system deliberately and gracefully or of waiting for catastrophe. Even if we do get the corporations and banks under control, oil scarcity is going to put an end to the current system. Our way of life is absolutely unsustainable. Unbelievably, the political energy seems to be running in the direction of greater deregulation. Like everyone, I’m waiting to see how this election goes. If the right wing ideologues get what they want and the markets are let off the leash, we will be putting ourselves in line for economic chaos and failure on a scale that will dwarf what we saw just two years ago.

I should add that the film makes it clear that many of the people who got us into this mess (Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, and so on) are in positions of great power under Obama. As one interviewee, Robert Gnaizda, says of Washington D. C. in general, Democrat and Republican, “It’s a Wall Street government.” It gives me the creeps.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

October 18, 2010

This weekend the New York Times published an article about the stagnant economic situation in Japan. (You can read the entire article here.) Over and over, the assumption of the writer is that there is nothing more important in life than having lots of money. And it is a mainstream view. Someday this era is going to be regarded as one of the most deeply deluded in human history.

To wit:

The Japanese “enjoyed a level of affluence two decades ago that was the envy of the world.”

A Japanese man is quoted as saying “Japan used to be so flashy and upbeat, but now everyone must live in a dark and subdued way.”

Japan has been “shriveling from an economic Godzilla to little more than an afterthought in the global economy.”

Japan is currently seen by many economists as “a dark vision of the future.”

Fortunately, Americans have a “greater tolerance for capitalism’s creative destruction.”

Indeed, “In America, the bet is still that we will somehow find ways to get people spending and investing again.” That is, unless we fall into “the same deflationary trap of collapsed demand that occurs when consumers refuse to consume…”

Just two decades ago, Japan was a “vibrant nation filled with energy and ambition, proud to the point of arrogance and eager to create a new economic order…” But “Japanese consumers, who once flew by the planeload on flashy shopping trips to Manhattan and Paris, stay home more often now, saving their money…”

Young Japanese men are “widely derided as ‘herbivores’ for lacking their elders’ willingness to toil for endless hours at the office…”

“Consumers see it as irrational or even foolish to buy or borrow.”

“Bartenders say that the clientele these days is too cost-conscious to show the studied disregard for money that was long considered the height of refinement.”

The head of a consumer marketing research institute has a name for Japanese in their 20s. He calls them “consumption-haters.” “Their habits of frugality will have cost the Japanese economy $420 billion in lost consumption.” “‘There is no other generation like this in the world…These guys think it’s stupid to spend.'”

While this is all about the Japanese, the American writer is entirely sympathetic with those who despair over the young not being willing to chase after wealth or to be “consumers.” I think the point of view reflected in this article is way off the rails.

Progress Report #46

October 13, 2010

Two nights ago, I was awakened at 3:30 am by the thought that I needed to explain to the reader—some readers, at least—why I would voluntarily submit to a life on the street. I did try to explain it some in Wild Parrots, but I decided to try my hand at another bald explanation, a laying out of my reasons, and to go into them in a little more depth. So I’ve just finished a two-page Chapter 21, which has the working title of “Turning White Bread Into Toast.” I found it a good exercise, but depending on the way the third draft gets structured, it may not be necessary. Some people do understand why I did what I did. Others are confused by my choice, while there are still others who, oddly enough, actually get angry about it.

Progress Report #45

October 11, 2010

I finished the second pass through Chapter 20, which ends with me walking toward the street where I’m going to spend the next three months, sleeping in bushes and alleys and hunting for food. Before I can begin work on the next chapter, I have to sort through my notes. It was a hectic, fear-filled period, and while I’ve written down a bunch of memories, they’re scatter shot. I have to find a plausible order for them.

After I finish each chapter, I hand it to Judy, who used to be a copy editor at Prentice Hall. Most of what she’s reading, I’ve never told a soul. Ever. It’s all very much out of the ordinary, and it causes me some anxiety to finally be telling these stories. Occasionally I study her face as she reads. So far, so good.

Progress Report #44

October 6, 2010

I just finished my first pass through Chapter 20. Tomorrow I’ll start going through it again to clean it up. This was an easy one given that much of the material was already developed during the writing of The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. Chapter 20 ends with me being forced out onto the streets to live. Interestingly, after I finished writing for the day I went to look at my e-mail and found something from Praveen Madan, owner of the San Francisco bookstore, Booksmith. His e-mail contained a link to an article he’d written about the homeless situation here in San Francisco. As someone who has lived on the street and has firsthand experience of what goes on out there, it seriously bugs me when I hear people speak with contempt about the homeless, especially when they don’t know the reality. Praveen’s is one of the few genuinely thoughtful and principled articles I’ve ever read by someone who has never been homeless. I recommend it highly. You can read it here.

Progress Report #43

October 4, 2010

My last post was way too optimistic regarding my recovery from jet lag. The past week has been a real drag. Today I finally felt well enough to start the new chapter, Chapter 20, the contents of which are touched on in The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. This is the point in the story where I move into the back of a Volkswagen van parked here in North Beach, San Francisco and then am kicked out and end up on the street.