Archive for February, 2012

On San Francisco

February 26, 2012

A while ago I told someone who reads this blog that I would write something about what I see happening in San Francisco. As I remember, the reader used to live here but had to move to Florida and was curious to know what the city is like now.

I first came to San Francisco in late 1973 and, except for a year in exile in Oakland, I’ve been here ever since. In that time, the city has gone through a lot of changes. Few of the changes have been for the good. We have a reputation for being a city filled with radical leftwing kooks who are anti-business. I wish it were true. The reality is that San Francisco is a money town now, and the interesting people—who seldom have the goal of getting rich—can’t afford to live here anymore.

One thing I see happening is that Silicon Valley has filled the town with technophiles who are so enchanted by their gadgets and virtual realities that they have very little concern with the world they actually inhabit. San Francisco has been a beautiful place, but that beauty is quickly being destroyed by mindless development. More and more, the people who live here don’t care. They want a job, an apartment, and good cell phone reception. Everything else is of little importance. So business has a free hand to “create jobs.” Doing meaningful work seems a meaningless goal to most people. All they want is a paycheck. A lot of these same people have the goal of turning San Francisco into a “world class city,” which means “high-powered,” big, bright, and crowded; taller and taller buildings that look exactly like the buildings in every other town you go to; big sports events.

One of the biggest job creators here is tourism. Tourists started coming to San Francisco in large numbers because it was different from other American cities. It had soul. But tourism kills the soul of every place it infects. I’ve seen it happen in many other places. No one can tell me it’s not true. San Francisco is losing its soul. For a lot of people, the trade-off is worth it, and I find that immensely disheartening.

The reason all this bugs me so much is that when I first arrived, there were a lot of people here working to create something that met real human needs and concerns. It was a rare endeavor within American life. These kinds of movements are hard enough to start, let alone pull off. We Americans like to think of ourselves as practical and utilitarian. I think we’re merely mundane. The powers that be—the Chamber of Commerce, certain newspaper columnists—have mocked and vilified those movements to the point that they have very little support anymore. They are worthy endeavors. Sometimes they get a little unreal, but that’s because being creative and real are so foreign to us as a people.

I live in a garden on Telegraph Hill. It’s one of the most unique neighborhoods in the United States. Because the neighborhood is officially designated an historic district, it often feels removed from developments going on in the rest of the city. But money having the free hand that it does now at City hall, this feeling seems more and more like an illusion. I’m going to be writing more about this in the near future.

Modern Chivalry

February 24, 2012

Walking home today I overheard a fragment of a conversation between a man and a woman. As they passed the man said, “There must be some way we can package and market ourselves as a team.”

Progress Report #73

February 23, 2012

This is written for those interested in the minutia of my creative progress for Street Song. Warning: It may be dry reading for most.

My original concept for the book was derived from a single image I had of myself walking alone down Grant Avenue, the main drag of the quaint old bohemian neighborhood here in San Francisco, North Beach. I assumed the book was the story of my 15 years or so on the street here. I wasn’t always on the street itself, but during that entire time I had no fixed address or even any ID. I slept in bushes, on rooftops, in store rooms, and so on. I started the project by doing a lot of research and then wrote a quick and dirty first draft.

After the first draft was finished, I continued doing research and started work on a second draft, which I knew was going to be a huge expansion of the first. I want the final version to be around 350 pages, and to get there I’ve been working from an idea I found in the Tao Te Ching.

If we wish to compress something, we must first let it fully expand.

After telling the tale of just my first year and a half on the street, I was already up to 900 pages. A large chunk of those pages deal with the ideas and events that led me to the street. It was at this point I realized that the essence of the story was what I’d just worked through. The next thirteen and a half years, while worth going into, are of less importance to the story. I decided then (this was last March) to go back through those 900 pages, cull out what was most likely to end up in the final draft, and from those notes make a detailed writer’s outline. I finished this project a couple of days ago. From that work, I know what I need to say about the last thirteen and a half years, which will be highly compressed. That’s what I’m working on now—creating the outline for the end. This should only take me a few days. Once I’ve finished it, I’ll resume writing the second draft, which I see as taking me a couple more months to finish.


Once I’ve finished the second draft, I have two more steps to go. The first is to start work on a final outline, one suitable for a publisher. Once I’ve gotten far enough down the line with that, I can start work on the final draft. I write in the morning, so I’ll continue work on the outline in the evenings. That outline shouldn’t take too much time. I see myself as needing a year and a half for the final draft. I don’t want to labor over the language too, too much. I want the book to sound natural and true.

There are a lot of books that tell writers the best, most efficient way to go about writing a book. They all say pretty much the same thing. They’re fine, I suppose, if you’re a factory writer of books. My method here violates almost all their precepts. But I think every real book has its own organic process. It makes its own demands. I couldn’t have done this book in any way other than how I’ve done it. My favorite part will be the writing of the final draft. Not because I’m coming to the end, but because that’s where the fun is: the final crafting of the story.

One last note: While I do have an agent, I don’t have a contract yet. You have to be around a year and a half out from the finish before you can go after one. My book The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill did well and enough people know about me through the documentary (millions have seen it) that I’m optimistic I’ll get a contract. Besides, it’s a unique story. (I’ll have more to say about that later.)

Rick Santorum’s Heretical Views

February 19, 2012

The former Pennsylvania senator said Obama’s environmental policies promote ideas of “radical environmentalists,” who, Santorum argues, oppose greater use of the country’s natural resources because they believe “man is here to serve the Earth.” He said that was the reference he was making Saturday in his Ohio campaign appearance when he denounced a “phony theology.”

“I think that is a phony ideal. I don’t believe that is what we’re here to do,” Santorum said. “We’re not here to serve the Earth. The Earth is not the objective. Man is the objective.”

I regard what Santorum is saying here as heresy. He believes that human beings have a right to be selfish, that our comfort—our luxury, really—is more important than the lives of the other creatures with whom we share this world. This is out-and-out evil. I don’t know what else to call it. Furthermore, I don’t know a single environmentalist who is happy with the Obama administration. The right wing has gone completely lunatic. They’re in competition with one another over who can be the craziest dude on the block.

Rick Santorum

February 18, 2012

I saw a headline today: Santorum Knocks Obama’s Christian Values

He said that Obama’s agenda is “not about you. It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your jobs. It’s about some phony ideal. Some phony theology. Not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology.”

Not that it makes much difference, but I hate letting this kind of thing go by without a response. (This is not support for Obama, about whom I’ve become less than indifferent. It’s simply revulsion at what passes for religion in this country.) Rick Santorum knows nothing about religion. He is a staunch opponent of real religion, a follower of a phony theology. While I think that anyone who believes that the Bible is the inerrant word of God is off their rocker (or should I say “sadly mistaken”?), I would add that Santorum actually opposes a great deal of the philosophy—stated plainly—that is in the Bible. Christ taught pacifism as well as redistribution of the wealth, and anybody who can’t see that is deaf, blind, or simply obstinate. People like Rick Santorum need to be exposed as the charlatans that they are.

Back from the Island; Progress Report #72

February 18, 2012
A Quiet Spot

A Quiet Spot

Judy and I just got back from eight days on Santa Barbara Island, a one-mile-square island 38 miles off the coast of Southern California that is part of Channel Islands National Park. There is nothing on the island save for its plant and animal life and a bunk house. Water has to be shipped to the island. The residence depends on solar panels for electricity. Because of its distance from the mainland and the difficulty in actually getting onto the island (we had to spend an extra day due to rough seas), it receives few visitors. There is a significant native plant restoration project on Santa Barbara. It’s one of only two sites in the United States where the brown pelican nests. The National Park Service takes us out there as volunteer caretakers—the island has been subject to vandalism when left unattended—and we’ve been the only people on the island when we’re there. Our only contact with other humans is through the park radio system.

The day after we arrived, I walked up one of the island’s two peaks to sit in the grass, feel the stillness and listen to the sounds, all of which come from nature: the chirping of birds, the barking of sea lions, the buzzing of insects, the crashing of waves on the island cliffs, and the wind in the grass. After sitting for a while I became aware of another sound, a high hum in the background, which I believed was my nervous system, all jacked-up from city living. I was curious if the sound would lessen after being on the island for a week. On the next-to-last-day of our stay, I went back to my spot to check it out, and the humming had indeed subsided—considerably.

My Island Writing Desk

My Island Writing Desk

While on the island, I got a lot of work done on Street Song. Before leaving San Francisco, I made a list of the steps I need to take to finish the book. A year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to see them. There is still a ways to go, but the end is in sight. I’ve been doing a lot of traveling the last few months. I intend to stay home for awhile now and really get down to it.

Today’s Quote

February 11, 2012

The rise of the electronic communications infrastructure hasn’t done anything to improve the signal-to-noise ratio. It has merely amplified and enhanced it. Instead of ordinary bullshit, you can now have flaming digital bullshit bounced off a satellite for your listening and viewing enjoyment.

Stephen Gaskin

Science Meets Pantheism

February 5, 2012

As I wrote in my recent series on the Three Fundamental Views of Existence, the materialist/scientific view and the creator god view have very little awareness of the third view, which I’m provisionally calling the pantheistic view. Science deals with it most often in fields that deal with the mind. This is primarily because Buddhism has developed some very sophisticated ideas about the mind, and some scientists seem to feel obliged to respond to them.

I recently read an interview with Shimon Edelman, a professor of psychology who has a book out called The Happiness of Pursuit: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About the Good Life. My attention was drawn to this particular exchange.

You talk about the default human mind as constantly wandering in order to avoid the present moment, what you call “the tyranny of the here and now.” What about practices like Buddhist meditation, which aim to quiet the mind into a state of contentment?

That’s a really good question. I set out to write the book because I wanted to find out why I was restless in situations where I supposedly should have been perfectly content. You know, literally sitting on a mountaintop, seeing the countryside, I would still feel restless. And I think I found a kind of answer. To put it very bluntly, if you are successful in following the Buddhist precepts, you cease to be human. In fact, I think one can find support for this view in the Buddhist sources themselves. If you succeed to cease desiring, you are no longer human. Of course, the Buddha himself supposedly remained enmeshed with humanity to teach others. But if you do succeed in obtaining the state that you’re supposed to obtain, then you’re no longer human. And that kind of invalidates the questions because a psychology would need to be developed for understanding those kinds of minds—they are not regular human minds.

I find his answer revealing. First of all, the guy’s understanding of Buddhism is poor. Buddhism would say that the reason he feels restless sitting on a mountain top is because he hasn’t disciplined his ego, which is inherently restless. Buddhism—all true religion actually—says that there are two levels to human nature, the higher and lower. (Suzuki Roshi called it big mind and small mind.) The lower nature is the one with all the restless biological drives. Unfortunately, that’s the only side to our nature that out-and-out materialists recognize: our lower nature. The higher nature, which we don’t see much of these days, is also our better nature, and it is very much a part of what makes us human. But science can’t measure it, so it doesn’t recognize its existence. This is where science consistently fails. It oversteps its bounds by insisting on being the explainer of everything. But science and scientists are reliable only when dealing with the limited confines of the material plane. Scientists are human beings, and as human beings they have an obligation to seek out their higher natures. To do that, they have to go beyond their field. Science cannot deal with this kind of issue.

You can find the entire interview by clicking here.

I intend to write something someday about a crazy idea I have about physics—a crazy idea that I happen to think is true.

One other thing, I’m leaving Tuesday for Santa Barbara Island and staying a week. I’ll have limited access to the Internet during that time. If anybody has a comment that demands a response, I may not be able to get to it for awhile.

Progress Report #71

February 1, 2012

There isn’t much to report except that I’m still working through the outline and making regular, steady progress. I expect to be done around the end of February.

This morning, I was sitting at the table eating breakfast, looking at the buds starting to break out in the plum tree, watching the finches eat from Judy’s feeder, and noting that the Toyon she transplanted is doing well. It occurred to me again that this is the mind with which I must write my book. It’s not the mind I have looking at the computer and the Internet, which is shallow—a mile wide and an inch deep—but the mind that I have when I look at the real world. It’s been my intention all along to write the final draft with pen and paper. My experience this morning reinforced my commitment to doing it that way.