. . . From a man with wooden teeth, 4 of 4


Part Four: Dreams or delusions trump drifting or despair

(Editor’s note: This is the final of four postings that originally appeared in November 2006 as a parable of youthful folly. If you’ve only just stumbled upon this installment part one appeared on Christmas Day. It tells how I moved to the Northern Californian town of Eureka to start a community newspaper only to lose my nerve and open a typesetting shop as a fallback plan. That sets the stage for part two in which I am found by the man with wooden teeth. In part three I am married in a big, fat Greek wedding — and learn to accept a certain foolishness in lieu of convention.)

I’m not sure when I told my wife that I wanted to pull out of the Barter Bank paper. We had no time to talk before the wedding, what with all the feasting and preparations. As it was my wife had been 45 minutes late for the ceremony which had set off a buzzing in the church. The Sunday morning after the wedding was our last party. Surrounded by the immediate family we opened gifts in my mother-in-law’s living room as my wife’s aunts — my new Theas — explained the genealogy of each and every dish and towel. Perhaps we talked during the long drive home. Hundreds of empty miles separate Sacramento from Eureke. There’s plenty of time to stare out the window and think. But it was clear that I had been bilked, and that if we didn’t disentangle ourselves from this scheme we’d put our new typesetting business and our reputations at risk.

When we got back to Eureka I sought out Rama at his apartment and told him we were finished with him. Its a long time ago and my memory of the particulars is dim. I don’t think he protested much, almost like he expected it. He tried to get the papers that I had printed but I refused. If he wanted them he could give us our money back. Otherwise we had produced the paper and paid for the printing. As far as I was concerned they were ours. I think I eventually threw them out.

I saw Rama one more time. A few weeks later in mid December, when Eureka gets wet and cold, he sought me out at our live/work loft. I wouldn’t let him in as I recall. We talked on the sidewalk. He offered to sell me the other half of the NorthCoast Journal and Barter Bank for $250. I laughed. He was obviously looking to skip town but I had no intention of giving him another nickle to help him “manifest.” I last saw him walking down to 5th Street, which is what Highway 101 is called as it cuts North through town. I’ve always imagined that he went looking for the Bhagwan. I didn’t begrudge him any happiness he might be able to find. He was just a wet and pathetic creature wrapped in orange. I wasn’t angry at him. In fact by then I’d even gotten over being angry at myself. I just chalked the whole thing up to experience.

My wife and I heard from Rama once more during the 10 years we lived and worked in Eureka. It was around 1988 or 1989. I can’t recall any more specifically. By then we had already produced a few local books and publications. My wife and I had bought, and were living on, a piece of land that we still own.

In the letter Rama asked our forgiveness, as I recall, and also talked about how much he missed the beautiful Redwoods. That last part alarmed me as I took it to me he planned to return and I made it my business to track down the return address — which turned out to be a federal prison someone in Tennessee.

In 1990, my wife and I — by that time we had one child — left Humboldt County so I could attend graduate school in journalism at Columbia University. We were following another one of my angsts. What would’ve happened if I’d done the sensible thing 10 years prior and gotten a newspaper job? I’ll never forget what one of my professors told me when I arrived at Columbia, disoriented at being back in the city and back in school, and worried about the prospects of finding a job. His name was Dick Blood. He had been a New York Daily News editor back in the day, a tall imperious man with silver hair and bushy eyebrows. He told me in essence, not to worry. That I was probably already successful. At the time I didn’t quite understand what he meant but I found it reassuring.

And I eventually did find a job, in San Francisco, where I like to joke that I’ve spent 15 years as an ill-tempered reporter for a middling metropolitan daily. For most of that time I’ve covered Silicon Valley. I’ve followed Apple through various of its gyrations, witnessed the birth of the World Wide Web, saw the rise and meteroic fall of Netscape, and dozens of other dramas. Four of those years I followed the evolving mystery that is biotechnology.

In that time I’ve covered big businesses and large characters, not silly little ones like those of my Eureka days. But the common thread I see in my personal experience and these larger events is the predominance of failure and the glory of perserverance. In Silicon Valley failure is no shame. At least not honest failure, the idea that sounded plausible but just didn’t pan out. There’s a metaphor that goes back to the Gold Rush. California was born of boom and bust and grandiose dreams. It’s in the nature of Californians to try and fail and sometimes come back again. Steve Jobs is the poster child in this regard. I met him during the dark days when his NeXT Computer was floundering. Now the world is at his feet. Most people only see the success. I’ve caught glimpses of the struggle.

I dwell on this to put my own shortcomings into perspective. Even my foolishness in buying half-interest in a newspaper from a man with wooden teeth pales in comparison to to the dot.com debacle. How many people got sucked into that insanity? People with suits and tassled shoes, with MBAs and leather briefcases that buckle on the side. And what of the thousands and millions of people were were lulled into thinking that the stock market would keep going up, up, up, and never had to come down?

So I’m no longer so ashamed of this episode as to keep it buried. I made a mistake. I corrected it. And I moved my life forward. And I learned from the experience, going back to my move to Eureka in the first place. That I don’t regret in the slightest. To this day we have great friends and great memories and a wonderful place in a circle of Redwoods where my heart yearns to be. Perhaps the only real error I made was in giving up on the idea of starting the community paper. Yes, I was ignorant of local conditions when I first arrived and the whole notion was an exercise in arrogance. But I wouldn’t have remained ignorant long, and I’ve seen passionate effort succeed against long odds. That’s been one of the privileges of being a Silicon Valley reporter.

And if it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between a dream and a self-delusion, I don’t find that particularly troubling. Either way I need some goal beyond simply living day to day, and the only difference between the two may be in the outcome, which is beyond anyone’s control. So maybe my real error way back then was to squander the invincibility of my youth. Because, since then, I’ve seen that all the belief and effort in the world can’t guarantee success. But the perverse opposite is true. Once you see youself as beaten, you’re done. Finished. Kaput.

So even if it seems self-delusional at times, all you can do is hang onto your dreams, put forth your best effort and improve your odds by trying. If the plan is well-conceived; if the circumstances favorable; if your karma is good; who knows, you may even manifest.