Soap Opera II: an Open Letter to David

(The following began as a my reply to a comment from David appended to the post entitled “Soap Opera” (June 9), below. But it grew too long to save there. And since it deals with issues that are significant beyond the immediacies of my own life, I think it actually belongs here, on the main thread.)

I APOLOGIZE FOR THE fact this is so very long. But its length is mandated by my Southron-proud and deeply offended need to address David’s apparently insulting inference that writing honestly about my own troubles is somehow trolling for a “free ride” -- that what I am doing here is therefore merely an electronic variant of the silent begging the sad-eyed derelict with the “help me” sign does at the exit from the local Safeway parking lot. If I misunderstood – if no insult was intended – then I apologize for that too.

The fact of the matter is that my pension is so far below the poverty line, it qualifies me for a broad spectrum of “welfare benefits” – none of which I have ever applied for – solely because I recognize that submitting myself in abject serfdom to the malicious whimsey of a “welfare” bureaucracy I know to be both malevolently feminist and vindictively authoritarian is to start down a road that could only end in a shortcut to the graveyard. This is hardly the behavior of someone on a quest for a handout.

I have managed to get by for the past dozen years by living in the pump-house on property that until two years ago belonged to my two best friends. The pump-house has neither bathroom facilities nor hot water, but with my own carpentry skills, I converted a 20x20-foot storage space adjacent the small pump-room (which contains the well-head) into a reasonably comfortable wood-heated one-room cabin with a very adequate cold-water kitchen. For toilet and bathing facilities I use the “big house,” the main house on this fenced but mostly-wooded tract of rural land.

As to my cabin itself, I frankly love the place. Its windows are underscored by potted plants, and its interior walls are a geometric collage of crowded bookshelves, framed photographs, wooden cabinets and a homemade rack that accommodates three fly rods and two extra-long spinning rods – not that I am allowed to fish any more, not since the state has gated-off all the access roads to the back country and turned nearly all the rivers to catch-and-release streams. Even so the cabin is home to me and my two canine companions – in several senses more home than I have ever known – and the prospect of leaving it is profoundly saddening.

I was never charged a penny rent because of the primitiveness of the accommodations, but I nevertheless felt it was my duty to help out as much as possible with all of the diverse chores associated with rural living, and I am also a skilled organic gardener. So each year I raised a substantial crop of vegetables for myself and my friends, and I volunteered my labor whenever else it was possible too. It was a good arrangement for everyone concerned. My friends, a married couple who have known me through three decades, were both still working then, and to a large extent, I became the defacto caretaker of their property. In other words, I am anything but the bum David seems to have implied I am.

This informal partnership was to last forever – until all of us became too old, or died off or whatever. But three years ago the husband retired and discovered that – thanks to the shenanigans of his employer – his pension was only half what he expected it to be. He and his wife had no choice but to sell this place. Their intent, in recognition of all of the work I had done here, was to use the proceeds of the sale to help me finance returning to Tennessee – where, unlike Washington state, hunting and fishing is not increasingly de facto illegal. Another alternative, particularly if I turned up a worthwhile job somewhere locally, was to help me finance the purchase of a reasonably-sized travel-trailer or a smaller mobile home – so I could keep my dogs and avoid the no-firearms clauses that are increasingly part of rental agreements in Washington state: a dire legacy of the fact that, by law, renting a house or apartment here requires “voluntary” relinquishment of all one’s Bill-of-Rights freedoms while inside the dwelling or on the landlord’s property.

By the summer of 2002, I had decided to return to East Tennessee and was especially looking forward to visiting the many still-wild places I had fished and hunted during my boyhood. I would rent a small apartment there owned by one of my half-sisters on fenced property that would accommodate my dogs and allow for vegetable gardening. But then an in-law suddenly offered to buy the Washington state place if I would remain here to help her care for it. This seemed to everyone to be the perfect solution, especially since all of my efforts – which included construction of two large vegetable gardens (one 110' x 33', the other 66' square) – would stay, as it were, in the family. Hence I agreed, and on that basis the transaction was completed. But by the spring of 2003, a lot of old family antagonism had resurfaced, and I was once again the family hate-object, just as I had been during my entire childhood. My desire to escape that – it is depressing to live in a situation where every human interaction includes a reminder of how much I am despised – led me last February to ask the half-sister if the apartment was still available. She said it was, and my plans progressed from there.

I should note here for David’s sake that the radical difference in living cost between Western Washington (comparable to NYC and tied with San Francisco for the nation’s highest housing costs) versus East Tennessee (lowest cost of living in the U.S.) made the apartment very affordable. Once again, contrary to David’s apparent implication, this was anything but a “free ride.”

Then on the 8th my half-sister notified me that she had changed her mind. My post entitled “Soap Opera” was the immediate result. The long-term result is that now in all probability I am inescapably doomed to become one of the homeless. Not tomorrow, not next week, not even next month. But almost certainly before this time next year. And not homeless in terms of sleeping under a bridge somewhere; more likely homeless and sleeping in a tent on the side of some mountain – that is, if I can find a way past the gates and into the back country that doesn’t entail a 15 or 20-mile hike. In this context – and Linda please don’t take offense -- Internet access (or anything else unrelated to immediate survival) is simply irrelevant.

Next let me address David’s notion that “we are all responsible for our current conditions.”

If by this David means that it is our duty to cope as best we can with whatever burdens fate imposes on us, I could not agree more. That is precisely the understanding of reality that prompted me (at age 16) to talk myself into a copy-boy’s job on The Grand Rapids Herald in the fall of 1956 and within a few weeks convince Sports Editor Bob Host to let me try my hand at taking high school sports results over the phone and writing the details into stories. That experience took me to a much more lucrative stringership at The Grand Rapids Press and finally (thanks to a genuinely vicious family betrayal) to identical but substantially lower-paying work at The Knoxville Journal, which in turn led to a full-time job when I returned from a Regular Army enlistment in late 1962. All this in spite of a family that was at best uncooperative, at worst maliciously obstructive. Once again, not exactly a “free ride.”

But if what David means when he says “we are all responsible for our current conditions” is synonymous with “whatever is happening to us at any given moment is our own fault,” than I am profoundly disappointed to discover he is yet another otherwise-bright American who has fallen for the human-potentialist bunkum that “we create our own reality,” a notion that, reductio ad absurdem, says the women Ted Bundy murdered all chose to die exactly as they did, that the inmates of Dachau were there at the threshold of the gas chambers by choice, and that the three-year-old polio victim suffering in an iron lung is fulfilling the dream of a lifetime. In other words, just as untold millions of rapists have claimed, “she really wanted it.”

Whether it is the drivel spouted by Werner Erhard and his brainwashed “est-ies” or the nonsense proclaimed by “Lifespring,” the notion that “we create our own reality” is truly the apex of Occidental hubris. It is apparently the tragicomic result of a genuinely idiotic misunderstanding of the ancient Taoist/Zen concept of Tao and “suchness” and how suchness – reality with all its iridescent metaphysical nuances – is experienced. The misunderstanding (and I am being charitable here, because other more ominous conclusions are probable) derives from the fact that a number of writers on Zen have noted that nothing whatsoever exists outside of consciousness. While at first this seems no more than a statement of the obvious, its visual and emotional internalization is often the initial step in a novice’s passage toward enlightenment, a state of being that Alan Watts, in a deliberate play on Judaeo-Christian theology, describes as “at-one-ment”: the ineffable condition Zen calls satori, in which all distinctions between self and other vanish. What we are talking about is thus a profoundly powerful experience, all the more compelling to Americans because it is an experience that has been thoroughly purged from Judaism and Christianity, probably because it was so absolutely central to Druidical Paganism – note for example Taliesin’s “there is no thing in which I have not been.” But it remains an experience that is exclusively spiritual. It is no more relevant to understanding modern socioeconomic reality than the Japanese rape of Nanking is relevant to understanding Zen. Yet whether accidental or deliberate, its misrepresentation as “we create our own reality” is very useful as a goad to force people into the ratrace – no doubt the reason est, Lifespring and its kindred have found such weighty support in the boardrooms of corporate America, particularly as mandatory indoctrination for lower-level sales and managerial employees.

The foregoing is such an implicit indictment of private enterprise, I should perhaps point out here that I am a conservative not because I exalt the free market, but rather because I have seen the infinitely malignant evil of bureaucratic omnipotence – not in some far-off realm like Soviet Armenia, but right here in the United States. I do not exalt the “free market” as an alternative because in truth the “free market” does not exist. What we have in the world today are ultimately only two economic doctrines: one, variously labeled “socialism” or “Communism” or “fascism,” inevitably leads to ever-more-powerful bureaucracies; the other, variously labeled “free enterprise” or “capitalism,” is in reality merely “monopolism” and is thus nothing more than an updated version of feudalism, complete with a vast underclass of serfs.

I believe that anytime we are choosing labels for socioeconomic phenomena we should employ the “by-their-works- so-shall-ye-know-them” test. Thus we might call the ideologies of socialism, Communism and fascism bureaucratism because the construction and expansion of bureaucracies is inevitably and demonstrably their paramount result. We could call monopoly capitalism moneyism because the acquisition of money is avowedly its sole purpose.

Bureaucratism is at its core the endorsement of parasitic hierarchies: a colossal pyramid scheme on the most outrageous scale imaginable. Ironically it claims to minimize or transcend the human jungle but instead becomes exactly like that quintessential jungle creature: the leech. Bureaucracies produce nothing and they enslave the people they pretend to serve. But their greatest evil is that without exception they sanctify bigotry and petty malice as policy, and do so utterly immune from any system of checks and balances or appeals, thereby squandering human lives that might otherwise have amounted to a great deal more. The ultimate example of bureaucratism is not the Soviet Union, in which the bureaucracies failed to self-perpetuate, but rather the Third Reich, where the bureaucracies functioned like clockwork even after the Reich itself had failed.

Moneyism on the other hand embraces the reality of the human jungle and provides – albeit only to the extent of its schemes for assigning fiscal worth – some limited opportunity for genuine achievement and real advancement. The maintenance of these opportunities demand in turn the guarantee of some small degree of individual freedom, which is tolerated specifically because it allows the system to be self-correcting – the pivotal distinction when contrasting moneyism to bureaucratism. The ultimate example of moneyism is organized crime.

My personal conservatism derives not from any real enthusiasm for moneyism but rather from the fact I recognize it as the lesser evil – not to mention the ultimate property-rights foundation of all our concepts of freedom and civil rights, and truly the only choice under which the human creative impulse has anything more than the chance of the proverbial snowball in hell.

Which brings me back to my own circumstances. With his reference to “They,” David seems to suggest I avoid acknowledging my own errors. This is an absurd contention: the decisions that brought me to my present impasse, all of which date from the 1980s, were mine alone. In each instance, these decisions were carefully and thoughtfully made on the basis of the best information available to me at the time, and in each instance that information proved to be wrong. Not because I misread it, but because repeatedly during those unspeakably awful years I was deliberately lied to by a few employers and a long succession of bureaucrats. In other words, my ultimate error was the error of trust – a manifestation of my abused-child’s profound desire to avoid conflict unless I am safe behind the shield of press credentials – and I hope I am at last strong enough to guarantee myself it is a mistake I will never again repeat.

But it was not error alone that flung me into this cesspool of seemingly inescapable poverty. The destruction by fire in 1983 of literally all my life’s work – all the drafts and research notes for two book projects; the associated photographs; a separate body of photographic work dating back to 1952 and my first camera (many of the images shown and/or published); journalistic research files; an irreplaceable collection of award certificates and letters of commendation from 1963 onward; unpublished poetry and short fiction; all but 11 years of a journal I had begun keeping in 1954 – all this and so much more, the loss could go on for many pages. The material devastation, which will weigh upon me until I am in my grave, is that the fire robbed me of all hope of any sort of a genuinely comfortable retirement. The psychological devastation – very much part of the robbery process – included a ruinous bout of clinical depression that stole at least half a decade from my life.

Literally, the fire seemed an act of god. As it was described to me (I was in New York City when it occurred and the house that burned was in northwestern Washington state), the bearings in a relatively new electric alarm clock seized – something the fire investigators said they had never heard of happening before anywhere. The clock, on a bedside table, overheated and set fire to a folded newspaper. The newspaper set fire to window curtains. The house – a century-old pioneer home built of cedar logs – went up like the proverbial tinderbox. The house was rural and isolated. The blaze was not discovered until the structure was, in the parlance of firefighting, “fully involved.” The most eerie and profoundly disturbing fact of all is that – according to the remains of the clock – the fire started at exactly 4:30 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time, which is 7:30 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time – precisely the moment I was meeting with a publishing-house editor in Manhattan to plan the marketing of a large segment of my work. Hence the fire was not only like an act of god, but like a lightning bolt of divine vengeance for some sin I cannot even imagine.

Clearly David did not know these things. Perhaps that is why he spoke of my alleged need to “find somebody to help” – which I happen to think is an absurd shift out of focus for someone who is having trouble helping himself – but the fact remains that helping others by providing vital information was one of the primary motives behind both of the lost-forever books and indeed remains one of the chief reasons I write. Moreover this is not fantasy; my belief that my own insights are useful to others has been confirmed more times than I can count. The problem is not their usefulness; it is rather the fact one of the expressions of the values inherent in moneyism is that no one is willing to pay for my skills (or anyone else’s) unless they can be shown to have a direct connection to the bottom line.

If I were advising a client, I would tell him to advertise, advertise, advertise. Which is unabashedly one of my reasons for writing this blog: perhaps it will get my message out to some potential buyer – perhaps even strongly enough to motivate a sale.

Beyond my alacrity with words I literally have no other useful talent. My knack for visual thinking is as keen as ever, but my photographic and design skills are as obsolete as the T-square and the Speed Graphic. True, I can still do physical work – but only for short periods of time, and even then, all too often at terrible cost in terms of subsequent arthritic pain – which makes my manual labor and gardening abilities utterly useless as potential income earners. An eight-hour day clearing brush – something I would not have flinched at even a decade ago – is forever beyond me.

Hence if I am forced by circumstances to stop writing, there is no way I will be of any use to anyone. Indeed there is no other aspect of me that is of any potential value at all save to my dogs and my few remaining human friends, who cherish me merely because I am. And the number of my friends continues to dwindle – most of my lifetime friends have already died.

Despite the limitations in my skills menu, I continue to prospect for job opportunities. I have met several times with employment counselors, but the problem that invariably stumps us both is the fact that journalism skills don’t transfer well. The two realms that offer the best fit are intelligence work and law enforcement – fields for which I am too old by several decades. After that is teaching, from which I am excluded by formal education requirements. Next on the list is public relations, but that invariably involves running the gauntlet of corporate personnel-office scrutiny, and the fact that journalists of my generation were typically iconoclasts and troublemakers by profession (often hired for precisely those reasons) guarantees my unsuitability for the corporate realm – its own yes-man ethos even more harshly conformist than a Victorian girls’ finishing school. The one area in which there is some legitimate reason for hope is the whole field of non-profit social service agencies, as in the various organizations that serve the aged or the severely disabled. Here the problem is not lack of interest on the part of potential employers, but lack of funding. One director with whom I spoke a few months ago said he would be delighted to have me edit his newspaper, but there had been no funding available for the job since his last editor was downsized out the door three years ago.

Some of my former employers are still alive, and their respect for my talent – particularly my ability to ferret out difficult, complicated stories and make them truly understandable to average readers – is unchanged. But they agree I am a kind of dinosaur, a relic of the old, blue-collar, start-out-as-a-copy-boy regime that is now so throughly disparaged. And they believe -- probably correctly -- that I would never be accepted in any major newsroom of today, with its academic snobbery, its victim-identity cultism and its genuinely Stalinist political “correctness.” Hence what I look for is a backwater weekly or a small rural daily. Not only would I probably fit right in, I can no longer really imagine living in a city again – even a small city. There is something dreadfully addictive about stepping out into your yard and looking up at the stars – their cold brilliance undiluted by city lights.

And maybe, since I will keep plowing the ground, something will turn up. I surely hope it will – and of course I will pounce on it if it does – but at the same time I have learned from bitter experience it is better to harbor no hopes at all about the outcome.

Meanwhile I think David may owe me an apology for apparently suggesting I am a sniveling bum. But in any case it is I who owe him thanks – for without his incentive, this essay might never have been written.

posted by on June 13, 2004 03:01 AM

Unfortunately, you validate my comment by your actions.

When an obviously talented person spends so much effort eliciting sympathy, instead of helping others, it smacks of professional victimhood.

Get on with life as best you can and keep writing. You have done some memorable posts and should write more. This blog deserves better fare than this soap opera.

Posted by: David at June 14, 2004 12:46 AM

In other words, David, you were indeed being deliberatly insulting. Then, sir, I will get right to the point: the fact you cannot distinguish beween begging and legitimate disclosure of one's circumstances (on the off-chance it might generate some new alternative) says all I need to know about the span of your intellect, and the fact you have resorted to ad hominem attacks tells me all I wish to know about your character and values. You may belittle and jeer at will -- this is surely an open site -- but don't expect any further response from me, either to your petty malice or to any of your faux-Nietzschean pseudo-profundities.

Posted by: loren at June 14, 2004 01:45 AM