Thinking about death: “What’s Left?” September 2018, MRR #424

I light candles for the people in my life who’ve died. It comes from my Catholic upbringing, and any opportunity I get to visit a church with a votive stand—whether Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, or even Buddhist—I light candles. But it doesn’t have any spiritual meaning beyond ritual. There’s no “I’m spiritual but not religious” bullshit for me. I’m a recovering Catholic striving for atheism on a good day. On a bad day I’m a feeble agnostic.

My parents were never really churchgoing. When my sister and I were up for the childhood sacraments of penance, communion, and confirmation we had to go to Sunday School, learn the catechism, and attend mass. But after receiving them my parents no longer required church participation of us. When my mom got small cell lung cancer, my dad started attending mass again, praying for a miracle. After a course of chemo, one night my mom got into the family car, drove to an unknown house, knocked on the door, asked if my father was there, then drove home when she learned he wasn’t. A month and a half after she died of the cancer, my dad died of a heart attack. Despite my irreligion, I’m haunted by John 14:2: “In my Father’s house are many mansions. […] I go to prepare a place for you.”

The meaning of life is that it stops.
—Franz Kafka

My parents died in their 60s. Having gone through the second World War, their respective families in Poland were decimated. So the death of my uncle, aunt, and niece in Chicago virtually eliminated the American side of my family. My wife’s parents died in their 80s, although her extended family remains quite large. Now that I’m 65, many of my friends and acquaintances are around my age or older and I’m having to attend more and more funerals and memorials. We hosted a memorial in April for a friend of my wife who she knew for over 40 years.

But I’ve been lucky. I wasn’t born and raised in poverty, or with daily domestic violence, or in a war zone, so the death of people close around me wasn’t a regular occurrence. Throughout my schooling I personally knew maybe three individuals my age who died. The last was David Pickett, a UCSD student who was one of the most active members of an independent Leftist student newspaper called “The New Indicator” to which I belonged. He was also a drinking buddy of mine. In researching San Diego politics from 1979 to 1981 for a recent column in various UCSD digital archives (MRR #419), I came across details of his death. He “was injured in a road accident while vacationing in Mexico over the Spring break. It was a long drive to the nearest hospital, but he was still alive when he arrived. The hospital, however, was a private one and David was refused treatment because his ability to pay was in question. En route to a public hospital he died.” The description of David’s death concluded with the comment that his life “just wasn’t as important as the profit column in the hospital ledger.”

The article concluded with an angry rant against capitalism. People die every day in car accidents, factories, wars, and being “turned away from hospitals all the time in the U.S., in Mexico, everywhere in the world where hospitals must yield a profit.” “Our system maximizes profit; and profit and human welfare are two very different things. […] We remember David; we don’t think he had to die. Those who agree with us should help us oppose the system that prefers profit to life.” (https://library.ucsd.edu/dc/object/bb0239978w/_1.pdf) Forty years later, I chose to remember David Pickett’s death by crafting his life into a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” as a longish short story that I then converted into a prequel to my science fiction novel, 1% Free. Such are the advantages of fiction over fact in capturing truths not immediately evident in reality.

Being alone, reading voraciously, writing this memoir, I’ve done a lot of thinking, and I believe the constant, underlying thought of all men who think must be of their own death, no matter what the surface thought might be. When they think of living, they are also thinking of death, for the two are mingled.
And thinking is a curse.
—Edward Bunker, No Beast So Fierce

The three things I’ve been most interested in as an adult—politics, writing, and rocknroll—all have a higher-than-average mortality rate. Practicing politics can lead to an early grave under authoritarian regimes, or in the US if you have the wrong skin color and are a particularly effective leftist activist. Such was the case with Malcolm X, Bobby Hutton, Martin Luther King, Fred Hampton, and scores more. Writers experience a greater incidence of early death thanks to their propensity for substance abuse due either to the mistaken belief it’s a necessary part of the creative process or to overall depression from thinking too much. My list of great alcoholic writers includes Jack London, Earnest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, and Hunter S. Thompson, but it would almost be easier to enumerate those writers who didn’t drink themselves to death. Unlike my ineffectual political activism or my alcohol abuse however, I’ve never been more than a fan of rocknroll. I was never a musician. I never played an instrument or was part of a band.

The youth lifestyle and culture associated with rocknroll music also kills more people than the wife-two-kids-a-dog-and-a-house-in-the-suburbs middle-class life to which most normies aspire. Jim Carroll made that the subtext of his song “People Who Died;” heavily cribbing its Catholic sensibilities from Ted Berrigan’s poem of the same name with its final line “My friends whose deaths have slowed my heart stay with me now.” In turn, the band Detention had fun skewering the infamous 27 Club meme in “Dead Rock and Rollers.” It was mere coincidence when Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, and Jimi Hendrix all died of drug overdoses at 27 years old, but it seemed like a genuine curse when Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse joined their ranks. “And what about you, Jim Carroll?/All your friends have/What are you waiting for?” Detention asked in 1983, with Carroll eventually joining those dead rockers in 2009.

We are ignoring the fact that bringing death to the level of consciousness is an important element of mental health . . . Hagakure insists that to ponder death daily is to concentrate daily on life. When we do our work thinking that we may die today, we cannot help feeling that our job suddenly becomes radiant with life and meaning.
—Yukio Mishima, The Way of the Samurai

I’ve had a dozen risky close-to-death experiences and a couple of health crisis incidents in my life that made me suddenly aware I was alive, and glad to be alive. But there needs to be some other way to value life than to flirt with death.

Paul Haller, the abbott of the San Francisco Zen Center, once advised me in a private consultation to “meditate on death” as a way to appreciate life. By the way, that very same attitude toward death is why Zen was the religion of the Samurai, why Japan’s Zen denominations wholeheartedly supported the Emperor throughout WWII, and why zen mindfulness is used as therapy for PTSD by the US military. Because it’s also part-and-parcel of the Zen attitude toward the military, taking life, war, and the like. That’s a subject for a future column however. I’ll have turned 66 by the publication of this column, and thinking about death has become frequent. I’m by nature an introverted, introspective person who frequently thinks about my life, what I have and haven’t done, and what my dwindling future holds. My loved ones, friends, frenemies, and enemies are all getting old and infirm. Some have already died. So, given that I’m also a little OCD, meditating on death has become a daily occurrence.

Our white, mainly Protestant society doesn’t deal well with death and dying. We have no dominant ceremonial holidays like the festive Mexican Catholic Dia de los Muertos or the somber Jewish Yom Kippur and few personal rituals like my candle lighting practice to comfort us. “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die” according to that popular country western song lyric. But in not believing in heaven, what I’m left with is not wanting to die. I haven’t made up my mind whether thinking about death helps me feel more alive or that thinking itself is a curse. “And who shall I say is calling?”

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Tales of Capitalism: “What’s Left?” January 2016, MRR #392

Tales of Capitalism

Pascal Rigo is a baker and an entrepreneur, a French citizen who moved to the United States and became an American. After opening a bakery in Los Angeles, he moved to San Francisco and started a French-based bakery called La Boulangerie on Pine Street. The concept as well as the food was a success with locals when Rigo opened a café/restaurant nearby called La Boulange, then another and another, until he had a small chain of 23 food establishments around the Bay Area (and one in LA). As his empire grew, Rigo partnered with other restaurateurs and investors to start up or buy out local restaurants, coffee houses, even another confection-oriented baking chain.

Now, having vacationed in Paris a number of times, I’d grade his La Boulange effort a C+/B-. The Franco-American fair was decent, meaning above average for the Bay Area and below average for Paris. Rigo had managed to capture a semblance of the Parisian sidewalk café experience without succumbing to the excesses of Bay Area coffee house laptop culture, with many of his stores becoming popular neighborhood hangouts. But as his economic empire grew, a less benign side to La Boulange surfaced. Rigo managed to sidestep or finesse most of the City’s rules against chain store proliferation as a local chain with a lot of clout. Yet toward the end of La Boulange’s rapid expansion, plans for prospective stores met with increasing neighborhood resistance, as when West Portal residents unsuccessfully opposed the closing of a local grocery store to make way for yet another La Boulange. As the La Boulange chain grew, baking shifted from the Pine Street bakery to a South San Francisco factory, which meant standardizing the product and reducing its quality.

There was grumbling in the Bay Area over the chain’s precipitous growth, but Rigo’s business success generated national corporate interest. Starbucks bought out the La Boulange chain for $100 million, gave Rigo a VP position, and integrated a selection of Rigo’s bakery items into Starbucks coffee shops, all announced on June 4, 2012. That meant more local grumbling, even some anger and fear, as quality continued to decline and Starbucks’ intentions became clear. It was an old-style faux friendly corporate takeover strategy where the corporation taking over strips away all the important assets from the taken over corporation before discarding what remains. Starbucks had all of Rigo’s recipes, so they claimed they could no longer afford to operate a parallel chain of restaurants and announced Starbucks was closing the entire La Boulange chain by the end of September, 2015.

Hundreds of people lost their jobs as a consequence of Starbucks’ corporate shell game, and in the end nothing could be done. Capitalism does not respond well to the hard power of the working class expressed in labor agitation, organizing and strikes. The soft consumer power of “voting with your dollars” through economic campaigns, targeted shopping and boycotts often gets a more conciliatory response.

The Bay Area’s angry reaction to Starbucks’ move filled the newspapers, blogosphere and airwaves for weeks after the announcement, causing the coffee giant concern for its reputation, its customer base and above all its bottom line. And Rigo, always the savvy businessman, saw a golden opportunity. He and Starbucks negotiated a deal by which Rigo agreed to take back his original Pine Street bakery and five of the most popular La Boulange store locations as La Boulangerie de San Francisco on September 25, 2015, thereby preventing tech money from installing chic high-end restaurants in their place, diffusing any potential consumer revolt for Starbucks, and making Rigo into a local hero of sorts.

***

This modest tale of capitalism is not intended to elevate some element of capitalism (markets, value, wage labor, the commodity, valorization) to centrality, even though I’m fond of chapter one of the first volume of Marx’s Capital. Nor will I argue over whether capitalism is an open system (per conventional Marxism) or a closed system (a la Marxist Value Theory), even though I consider a closed model to be an abomination before the big G (Gödel). Nor am I saying that small-scale capitalism is preferable to corporate capitalism or that government regulation should favor the former over the later. We live in a capitalist society within a capitalist world order, and continuous economic expansion is the only abiding reality of capitalism. The consequences of capitalist growth-without-end are increasing social misery, economic inequality and ecological destruction. Small-scale mom-and-pop or individual entrepreneurial capitalism inevitably becomes large-scale corporate and monopolistic capitalism. Yet there is a popular preference—whether ill-advised or enlightened—for small shopkeeper capitalism over large corporate capitalism as being somehow fairer, more equitable and less environmentally damaging. I myself enjoy a lively farmer’s market, in San Francisco or Paris, to the sterility of a supermarket any day anywhere, despite my economic fatalism. So, here are a few recommendations for socially responsible capitalist products or small-scale capitalist businesses to patronize:

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (movie): This favorable yet even-handed history of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s by documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson is a treat not just for nostalgic scenes of Oakland and cameo appearances by 60s celebrities. It’s also a powerful if cursory discussion of the triumphs and failures of the Party in general and individual Party members in particular which concludes with a searing indictment of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI, and their state-sponsored Cointelpro campaign to disrupt and destroy the Panthers. Fred Hampton’s assassination by Chicago police was only one of many government “liquidations” of Black radicals intended to prevent the rise of a “Negro messiah.” This might still be playing in movie theaters when this column hits print, but it will be available in DVD/streaming/download formats soon enough. (theblackpanthers.com)

Jacobin (magazine): The latest attempt to found “a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture.” Available in print edition or pdf download, Jacobin began with charting the death of liberalism and continues to offer quasi-radical socialist alternatives. Despite the bloodthirsty extremism implied by its name in honor of the Jacobin Clubs of the French 1789 Revolution and their unremitting reign of revolutionary terror, the magazine’s solutions rarely go beyond the social democratic let alone democratic socialist. The layout and graphics are surprisingly stodgy and there is no letters section, lively or otherwise. Their business model, in shunning advertising for a solid subscription base intended to fund the magazine, is sound and theoretically sustaining. I’m a subscriber. (Jacobin, 388 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11217/jacobinmag.com)

Arizmendi Bakery (worker-owned cooperative): A market economy based on producer and consumer cooperatives has been touted as a variation on capitalism, perhaps an alternative to capitalism, that avoids the excesses of capitalism proper. I’ve never found this analysis compelling, but I do enjoy a delicious chocolate thingy from Arizmendi Bakery. This is a thriving chain of six worker-run coop bakeries, plus the East Bay Cheese Board, that keeps the ideals of a coop economy alive. And just try asking an Arizmendi worker where to find the tip jar. Inspired by the Bay Area’s OG coop Rainbow Grocery, Arizmendi belongs to the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives (NoBAWC) which has some thirty member workers cooperatives. (arizmendi.coop, nobawk.org)

The Green Arcade (bookstore): An individually owned and operated bookstore in downtown San Francisco, this narrow space is crammed floor-to-ceiling with progressive-to-radical books, periodicals, pamphlets, calendars, and ephemera. Despite its location in the City’s bleak Hub neighborhood, the questionable viability of books and bookstores, and the vagaries of leftist politics generally, The Green Arcade has been open for seven years now. It sponsors community and political events, often in the McRosky Mattress Company building across the street. And it offers to locate hard-to-find items for customers as well as other bookstore services like gift cards and online ordering. Sweet. (The Green Arcade, 1680 Market Street @Gough, San Francisco CA 94102, (415) 431-6800/thegreenarcade.com)

Again, this is not offered as part of any comprehensive, radical critique of capitalism, but as suggestions for capitalist businesses and products that can make our lives a bit less harassed and a tad more enjoyable. For any true critique of capitalism, I still recommend starting with volume one of Marx’s Capital.

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