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About this site
Interviewed by Court Tefft
Jan. 29 2007 at Struggle Mountain
Degree in Theater Arts
Profession – Writer
Michael and son Nicholas
Court - How ya doing?
Michael – Great.
Court – You had some thoughts on Anarchy?
Michel – I just want to say we had a slogan at The Land “there’s no government like no government” and that sounded pretty political but the reason we were for awhile able to adhere to that was because if somebody inside our system didn’t work out they were asked or told to leave. The moment the commune or state entity is so big that …well, first of all who is going to decide that they have to leave...that immediately begins some form of government. You look within the community to those whose judgment…whose wisdom you trust and you leave it to them to say either as individuals or collectively…it’s like we had the land committee…so no “government” my ass! We had government…there was a trial period…people had to come and spend a certain amount of time before the Land committee would even consider making them permanent residents. If somebody had started to shit out in the open by the long house it wouldn’t have been too long before a bunch of voices were raised and saying…we don’t do that here…we can’t do that here and still function…so you had a rule whether it was written or unwritten…so there have to be rules and it’s to idealistic to think that there can’t be. We drive on the right here…if people were free to drive wherever they chose there would be an accident every few feet. So we all agree were gona drive on the right…stop on the red light and go on the green.
Court- I tend to agree. There always are the unwritten rules…there are always the unelected leaders of the moment…you may be up one day and down another…I’m not convinced that anarchy necessarily works because people are not always responsible and one persons idea of responsibility is not another persons idea of responsibility so I don’t believe that “The Land” was an anarchist community.
Michael – It was not.
Court – Black Mountain definitely had more structure associated with it at different times.
Michael – Even there where we had the question of Marie giving LSD to her little kids and the rest of us decided…we can’t just sit by and not say something…we consider that to be wrong. There has to be within a group…within a family…ideally there is
a mechanism for the wisest voices to prevail…otherwise kids would be telling their parents we’re going to have candy for dinner rather than parents telling the kids we’re going to have vegetables.
Court – Earlier you mentioned that the impact of these communities made a difference in how you raised your own son. What were some of the things that changed your philosophy about raising children?
Michael - It wasn’t just the communities…the communities were just sort of one offshoot of a branch…the branch goes way way back…the French Revolution…the American Revolution. 18th century. 19th century with Hawthorne, Walden, and Thoreau who have
Environmental causes…group consciousness, the rights of everyman. You can go back to the Greeks…every time people have tried to organize themselves there’s been a seed of idealism present.
What I was saying about parenting…not just the communes but for shorthand I’ll say the 60’s …where my fathers generation let the women do the cooking and change the diapers by the time I became a parent…my whole generation at least in Calif. maybe not in Texas…we knew better than that. It was my responsibility to get up half the time and change half the diapers.
Court – A coyote is walking by…unafraid of us… just looking at us…a ratty old matty coyote.
Michael – Wow! First time I’ve ever seen that. (Laughs)
Michael – I spend a lot of time in Poland these days which is so backward in a lot of ways. Because I’m a child of the 60’s,a Calif. and New York version…where the 60’s really did happen…I don’t give a shit if someone is gay, or black, or rich or poor, those are not the determinants that dictate how I view that person…those are details not nuts and bolts. To go back to more provincial places…they still care. Warsaw recently banned the gay pride parade because it seems such a threat…they’ve got a lot of catching up to do…it can be done. In Spain where Franco and the right wing ideology prevailed and the Roman Catholic Church was conservative…they’ve gone within a very short number of years from being regressive to progressive. They are now perhaps the most progressive government and society at large in Europe…so we have the capacity for it but it takes circumstances to unleash them and in the communes here were hoping to unleash the better parts of ourselves.
Court – So for you was it a good experience or bad experience living in these communities? Would you do it again? Why did you do it to begin with? How did you end up there? Was it ideological or accidental?
Michael – It was largely ideological because I was one of “those” who came from sort of middle class or upper middle class circumstances and we looked at our parents lives and they were sucking up their martinis and cheating with the neighbors and getting divorced and the Vietnam fiasco and we questioned their values…we were searching for other values and I was in my twenties and that’s an awkward time…a time of discovery and I think a lot of what I did was awkward. When my father was dying we revisited those years and I said “you must admit that at least we were a moral generation because what we were espousing peace and love, and environmental awareness” these were the goals and I think you can even get conservatives like (sarcastically) our man Bush…”who ain’t our man” to agree to those end causes…yeah peace is great…love is great but how you get there…well the devil is in the details.
(Michael and Trigg)
Court – Would you consider these communities successful or not or where were they successful?
Michael – In my old age I don’t deal with absolutes as readily as I did when I was younger and I think that they succeeded for some in some ways and not for others. They had limited reach. It’s almost like an explosion when your closest to the blast it can knock you off your feet but if your far enough away you might only feel the heat…further yet you might see a light in the distance and further yet you don’t seem to feel it at all except somebody might come into your life who had felt the explosion and you’re touched then by it. These were explosions going on. Joan Baez…Institute for the Study of Non-Violence, The October Moratorium when I was 12- those were social explosions just as we saw in Washington the other day the first real enmasse rally against the war. I asked my son age 18 “What are you guys doing? Because all they’re worrying about is do I have the latest I Pod, and where am I going skiing…why aren’t you out in the streets? He said “the draft” and it’s really true, he doesn’t have that direct self-interest.
Court – Does he have a political consciousness….is he concerned with what is occurring at this point in time, are his friends concerned?
Michael - Not anywhere near the degree to which we did. I guess I haven’t thought about it long enough or had enough to have a theory about why that is. Things are even more fucked up in many ways than they were…environmentally…the ice shelves are melting…what we had feared back then…so much of that has come to pass and accelerated…so I would think succeeding generations would be increasingly involved but
instead they acquiesce…life is so good…so cushy it takes a lot and I speak for myself…I can eat at any restaurant…I can travel…I can do as I like…so to force yourself to somehow have the moral vigor to rather that dedicate the day to what I want to do…I’m going to take into account what I should do…that requires moral strength.
Court – What did you do on a daily basis when you were living on Black Mountain or The Land? What did your experience consist of?
Michael - Well…that old song…you know…I smoked two joints…sex, gardening…you lead us in that direction, you and Rip…French intensive gardening…we didn’t want pesticides and we listened, as I’m listening to right now in the car, to Crosby, Stills and Nash, Sweet Guinevere.
Court – Don’t forget Young…he’s a neighbor – his wife Pegi lived in a teepee on Star Hill. At the time Donna from Black Mountain was her best friend. Occasionally she would come to visit Donna and Bean, go swimming with us at Pacific and what not.
Michael – On a daily basis I was doing stain glass with Cindy, going to shooting ranges with Dean and recycling the brass shell casings, selling some pot, growing some pot.
Literally $27 here and $52 there, Cindy was getting food stamps and AFDC (aide to families with dependent children) and only just putting together within 5 bucks what it took to live in a plastic dome.
Court - It cost us about $40 a month back then and I think part of the beauty of the time frame was people were not forced to work…all the time, so people had opportunities to be creative. Even though we were living on a survival level it wasn’t so bad. Somehow…perhaps, that even united us and inspired us. What would you say?
Michael –I loved it. I feel strong today so much in part because of those days. I know that I can hitchhike. I know I can forge food out of a dumpster behind a supermarket. I did it all again and again and again. Now-a-days I’m living the life of Reilly, as they used to say. It’s ironic. I’m staying in a hotel for one month, as I’m visiting my mother here, the bill is going t o be over 10,000 bucks for one month and it is within sight of Palo Alto at Alma where the homeless sleep under the Bridge. I’ve slept, not under that bridge, but I’ve slept under a lot of bridges in my tent and all that funky stuff.
On the one hand I know that I can survive, thanks to those days. There was more joy, there was more romance. We lit candles and played guitars in a plastic dome. It was a more romantic and in many ways a richer setting than some of these fucking villas where I go today.
It means so much more when you’ve gone without and I look at myself now…I’m able to appreciate this because of then. On the other hand I’m a bit of a hypocrite because the idealist in me thinks you should you know sort of feed the world.
Court - What were your relationships like with the people you lived with in these communities…did you feel close to people…did you connect with people… were you just passing thru…are you friendly to this day with the same people? What about the personal relationships at that time? Were they richer than ones you have now or different?
Michel – That touches on personality. I’ve never really been a joiner…that was true then and it’s true today. I’ve got the temperament of an artist…I was set apart from the crowd. So there are few very few people like you and Patsy and Michael King and Dean
who got into my heart. For the most part I didn’t feel like I was part of a community. Part of the problem is I’ve been a part of so many communities. By the time I was 5 years old I had been born in Princeton, then moved to New Haven, gone to Vienna Austria for a year, come back to New Haven and moved to Calif. by age 9. So…by the time I was one I was already from some place else.
Court – Did the communities seem functional or dysfunctional to you? Did they work?
Michael – It’s like my own biological family…love it, hate it, love it... hate it…love it.
It’s working, it feels so good it’s working…it feels so bad…it’s not working, but I felt that it was important. I look back at it now and the thing that excites me is that we tried…we were really trying stuff versus just letting life happen to you.
You had to make it up this hill…you had to go out of your way to be there and to do that and it wasn’t just flipping channels on the TV, microwaving dinner, and sitting in your lazy boy. It was a lot of effort and I think that was well rewarded.. it was for me.
Court – Think back…what’s the first thing you would flash on…what are the top three things that come to your mind when you think of the back-to-the-land-communal experience you had?
Michael – The idealism of youth…the integration with nature. You know…I was the tree…the tree was me…I believe that to this day. I don’t feel I’m any better than these trees, the freedom to define our own lives. I like the freedom to dictate your own rules.
Court – How about drugs? What kind of an impact did drugs have on your life? Was it positive or negative?
Michael – Negative. I sobered up 3 years ago. I haven’t smoked pot or had a drink for 3 years. I’m an alcoholic.
Court – and your name is Michael.
Michael laughs. I started drinking when I was 5 years old. My parents gave me my own little beer stein at dinner…by the time I was twelve I was stealing bottles from the local liquor store and I thought I was so cool I could offer girls sherry or pot…I was smoking pot and then we did the MDA thing (thank you Rico) at Black Mountain. We couldn’t afford coke but later in my life I was lucky I never really liked it. I never tried heroin…not a single time…I was afraid I would like it too much…but in my case I was using those things to get away from stuff. I tell my son…if you smoke a joint now and then…that’s cool…I wish I could do that but I don’t have the capacity. To do that stuff all the time like I did, it was just fucked up.
I wasted so much of my life because of drugs and somehow I survived it. I fell from the 4th story in Spain, I’ve had car accidents. My life is okay. I smoke cigars now. I quit smoking cigarettes. I have my lung capacity back – I swim and I love the clarity. I thought we were looking for clarity back then and yet we were all sort of in a constant
haze back then and it wasn’t enlightening. It wasn’t Don Juan doing his mushrooms on some ritual occasion…it was just pushing stuff away. I am emotionally retarded to this day because I’m finally confronting feelings that I stuffed away from drugs and alcohol for all those years. I’m dealing with stuff that I’ve been afraid of dealing with since I was 12 years old. I don’t want to run from it anymore…I’m willing to face the discomfort and I feel so much stronger…I’m dealing with it…it’s a new kind of high. The other stuff had just gotten boring.
Court - Living the simple life?
Michael – Hearing children play – there’s nothing I could buy today that would be as sweet as those moments, a sunrise, a sunset, the stars watching a fire, making your own music – we were not poor – we didn’t have much money, that’s a cliché. I do know, or have known many rich people who are as poor as can be if their hearts aren’t full.
(Michael playing in the snow at Black Mountain)
Court – How about Hierarchy, status, and rivalry within and between communities, did that exist?
Michel – Yes
Court – How would you explain it?
Michael – It goes back to that comment there is”no Government like No Government”. You had seniority…that gave some people some sort of hierarchical advantage over others. Intelligence is a factor… the cream is going to rise to the top in any sort of vessel. Those who were more intelligent tended to have more influence. Wisdom, which wasn’t written into any rules…but again we tend to listen more carefully to those who are speaking from a more considered place than those who just shoot from the hip. Then you had this…I don’t remember so much about the strict hierarchy…but I do remember there were some who had much more say in how the affairs were handled…that was more so at “The Land” than at “Black Mountain”. Black Mt. was kinda…that was a free for all as I remember it. I don’t remember it that well. At the end of the day on Bl. Mt. and The Land we each had our own individual domes, tepees, houses, boats, and homes to retreat to so there was a collective part of it but we weren’t sleeping in bunk beds under a single roof.
Court – anything to say in conclusion?
Michael – Just that I think that was such a vital time….as I look at the chapters in my own life that stands out. Those moments stand out as being among the most important in a broad context. The world was touching us and I think the lessons we learned and the lessons we taught are worth documenting. There’s a lot there…like fruit hanging from a tree and you don’t just want to see it disappear. Just to document…Love and Peace if that message doesn’t bare repeating I don’t know what would.
Court – Thank you Michael.
Michael – Just an after thought. History is always happening everywhere but some places and sometimes more than others. There were some critical moments when Calif. in particular San Francisco were really sort of in the eye of the storm and I think to have lived here during the days of the gold rush(1840’s) that was one such time. Another was when we were here the 60’s and 70’s. This was certainly not the only…London was happening, Greenwich Village, but this was as important as those places to history. Another time happens to be much more recent…considering computers and the way in which that’s changing lives…so if you’re a part of the high tec Industry…since the earliest days of Hewlet Packard, fast forward to Apple and Sun Micro and a zillion others, this again from that perspective is at the center of the thing. So this area has changed the world a number of times and we were very fortunate to be here during one on those dynamic times.
Some thoughts after Venture:
First and with all my heart thank you to Patsy and Court and Katie and Mark and everyone else who worked so hard to make the reunion happen. I think and feel something about it every day. Even in the busiest and craziest place like an airport I can close my eyes and for a minute feel again that “sweet California sunshine” and the even warmer feeling of being among old friends. From The Land there were too many of those to mention. From Black Mountain it’s easier: Dean, Patsy, Court, “that kid” Kim, Chris, Edie (even without your goats and chickens), it was so good to be together with you again. Thank you also to Jody, Tom, Sarah, Dean, Mecca, Rio and others for the music that still gets my toes tapping and my heart thumping when I think about it. It was all like music, even the silent parts.
This reunion was not just a reunion with others, it was also a reunion with my favorite part of me. I’ve gotten distracted by a lot of things over the years, alcohol, pot, money, climbing this or that ladder, but the part of Michael I like best, a part that first took root and grew on Black Mountain and later on The Land, knew that being rich has more to do with the heart than the wallet, being young is as much about spirit as body, and the greatest treasures of all are those two corny sounding old mantras Love and Peace. Venture was a sweet reminder of all that.
It also made me feel again like part of a community. I’ve never been very much of a joiner to be honest. I’ve roamed solo even through some of my relationships, trying to join, even pretending to join, but often coming up short. But our community never asked me to compromise on individuality. Just the opposite, it encourages difference. I think because of that, because I can just be myself with you, not feeling judged and not judging, I do feel like part of something bigger than myself and that’s really good for me.
I was one of the lucky ones who came to the mountain out of choice. Anytime I wanted to I could have hitched back down to the sort of creature comforts I was trying to outgrow. Just having that option already is a comfort, whether one’s taking advantage of it or not, and so just because I lived without electricity or running water and didn’t have a functioning car was very different from the life experience of someone for whom those aren’t romantic electives. But still those things brought me closer to understanding life’s basics. Waking up with Cindy and Peter and Zeke in a plastic dome, heading down a snowy hill to use the shitter, waiting for the morning fire to take light before feeling the warmth, trying to get five bucks of satisfaction from a two dollar meal, heading off with Dean in someone’s ramshackle vehicle to salvage brass shell casings from a firing range to sell to a scrap yard in San Jose…those things made me stronger and better and I wouldn’t change a day or minute of any of it. Every flat tire, every bouncing check, every thorny argument about who took what from the Main House fridge is about a hoot and a half to remember now. Funny how sometimes hard times make for the best memories (because they’re over) while the best times can make for sadder memories (for the same reason). Thanks to Venture “those” days are “these” days again. For some, like Leslie and Obie still living without electricity on their property off Skyline, and for the folks who share Struggle, they never stopped being these days. For others like me they seemed a whole lot of yesterdays away. But the reunion was like a big time software upgrade: Land / Black Mountain Etc. 2.0. Everything’s been updated. The faces in my mind’s eye aren’t just 20-something anymore. They’re still that, but now they’re also 50 or 60 or even 70-something and every bit as beautiful (especially you, Dean). And now it’s easy to think of us not just in the past or present but also in the future. (You must be rested up by now, Patsy, so come on, time to start planning the next one! Just let us know what we can do to help.)
Among my favorite new memories: pre-dawn conversation in the hot tub with Jody, talking about Shakespeare with Rio, hugging Rain, Leslie begging me not to jump naked into the pool for the group photo because her mother was there watching, hanging out with Wild Bill passing aspirin and dental tips back and forth instead of joints. And Brett standing in the circle up on Lone Oak Hill as he rewrote the old Woody Guthrie song, singing “This land is our land, this land is our land, this land is our land, this land is our land. This land is our land, this land is…” You nailed it, Brett. Thanks for the smile every time I think of it.
It was humbling and inspiring to hear the strength in the voices that spoke at the memorial. Even as they recalled the past they did so with love as alive today as it ever was. True love never does die, and we felt it. Sierra, Rip and Tommy King, Rico, Purusha, Diane, Norma, Cindy’s brother Bob and so many others, you were right there with us in that meadow, and your spirits are forever part of us and of that Land Brett was singing about.
Another voice stood out for heralding the future: Katie’s call to renew, refresh and re-everything this Community so that one day the children of the children will themselves have all of this to pass on. Struggle remains a great redoubt, but it will soon need reinforcements to keep waging, until it’s won, the long battle that Joan and David started. (Move over Bush, it’s Obama’s turn now!)
At the same time as new memories were being formed so many old memories came flooding back. I suddenly remembered my father coming up to Black Mountain to visit Cindy and the boys and me. He “dressed down” for the occasion, which meant not wearing a tie with his blazer, worsted slacks and Gucci loafers. The photos of that visit are like a mini-course in 20th century history! My mother, Johanna, visited us too, far more often and more comfortably. She would take off not just a tie but her whole shirt, basking in the sun behind the Long Hall with the rest of us as happy as anyone. You were really “with it” Mom, as you liked to say, and I was very grateful for the communion. Later, as an administrator at Stanford Hospital, she helped organize sleeping cots for those keeping a vigil during Sierra’s last days, and so after she died last year we spread my mother’s ashes on Lone Oak Hill where Sierra is also, among the wildflowers and tall grasses that she so loved. Diane Carter is with them now as well. It brings me a lot of joy to think of them together through the sunrises and the sunsets and the sunny days and the cool rains and all the quiet star filled nights. When my Dad was dying of cancer in 1998 he and I calmly revisited some of our debates of earlier years. I said to him, as we looked back on it all together, “You must admit that we were a moral generation; make love not war, be gentle to the planet, treat everyone equally, etc.” He thought about it for a moment and then, from the heart, said “Yes, I’ll give you that. You really were a moral generation.” We still are.
All of us had to make it through a lot to get to that reunion. Thirty years can represent a whole bunch of lost and found and lost again and found again cycles in life. I know it did for me. There’s so much I’m grateful for. The booze didn’t kill me. The drugs didn’t kill me. Falling drunk and stoned from a fourth story in Spain didn’t kill me. The little so-called hospital in Granada overlooking the Plaza de Toros didn’t kill me. And a lot of other things didn’t kill me either. And now with the benefit of hindsight even the losses feel like gains. (If we learn from our mistakes are they still mistakes?) I’ve had an awful lot of good luck, and at 51 hurtling toward 52 I feel both young enough and old enough to make the most of it. It’s a very sweet place to be. At the risk of rhyming, it’s a wonder to behold the cycles as they unfold. My son Nicholas is 20 now, the same age I was when we made the move from Black Mountain to the Land. As I write this I’m sitting in a little fishing village on Achill Island in Ireland visiting him while he’s here studying archaeology this summer. Soon he’ll be back in Boston studying music and history. He’s happy, kind, smart, funny, a great musician/songwriter, and even those who aren’t his mom or dad can see that he adds as much to this world as he gets from it. What parent could ask for more than that?
I've always loved traveling so I'm not bragging but just reporting that I’m also blessed to have five homes now, each in a very interesting place: London, Berlin, Warsaw, Dubrovnik and Menlo Park. I shuttle between them pretty much as I want or need to. Luck and work and more luck have made that possible. I even just bought a small and very beautiful if slightly run down 16th century monastery in Dubrovnik, Croatia, that I hope to turn into a little theatre to be called the Dubrovnik Shakespeare Festival.
Aside from the old building the theatre itself still only exists as a dream on paper, but I know that dreams can come true and so my hope is that it will someday grow to give something back to another community, Dubrovnik, that has also given me much. My father Ivo Lederer, who taught diplomatic history at Stanford, began a university in Dubrovnik back in the 70s at the same time as I was living on The Land, so there’s a symmetry there that brings me joy and satisfaction. And I'm so glad these places and plans are part of Nick's life as well. There is also an incredibly sweet lady in my life now, Katarina, who I love and who loves me. We’ve been together for four years. Who knows how long these good things will last, but they’re here today and my 12 step program has taught me that is the day that matters most.
"Michael and Katrina
Because poetry gets into me like nothing else, and because I think of myself as a writer, I'd like to end by sharing three poems I've written. One was from really long ago, the others were from less long ago.
A WISH COME TRUE
A poem for Peter and Zeke written on The Land, 1977
After living together for two years in the Blue Dome on Black Mountain Cindy Massie and I and her two magical sons Peter and Zeke moved to The Land. We lived in the tepee on the edge of the San Andreas Fault, beyond the large oak tree with the Spanish moss and across the golden meadow from Michael Emrys’ little cabin. Hawks circled above us and the boys played everywhere and there was firelight every night and much love. After about six months Cindy decided that she needed to take the boys back to her native New York where we had first met. I stayed on alone in the tepee for another six or so months before the missing them just got to be too much and I packed my own bags and hitched across the country to rejoin them. During that time I was alone I would think about them every morning and every day and every night and one morning when I woke up alone in the tepee I wrote the following poem for little Peter and even littler Zeke:
Yesterday as the sun went down
From Lone Oak Hill I looked around
And I didn’t have to look too far
Before I saw the night’s first star
I wondered if you saw it too
I knew that it was watching you
And I wished that I could see you too
Or even better be with you
So I closed my eyes and wished so hard
That with eyes closed I still saw stars
I wished I had a pair of wings
When suddenly I felt something
I looked behind and saw wings grow
When just then a gust of wind did blow
And I sailed that wind up to that star
Where I turned and looked down very far
And I saw you lying in your beds
With the glow of starlight around your heads
When just then some light shone in my eyes
And when I awoke to my surprise
My wings had only been a dream
And yet how beautiful it seems
That in the night my wish came true
For in my dream I DID see you!
Years later when The Land and tepee, and even Cindy and the boys, had morphed into sweet memories, I made my living for a few years as an actor in small funky theatres. I wrote this sonnet as my thank you to Shakespeare:
The kaleidoscope of meanings is never-ending
That seen forthrightly for what they are
The words of Shakespeare are elusive and undying
Like the universe itself outliving stars
And like some brilliant constellation of hallowed lights
So many beacons illumining mankind
Without them we should proceed with partial sight
Stumbling forward in strange kinship with the blind
But with them, the blind as well may see
Such richly varied colors, tones and hues
That they, like he, as he wove his tapestry
Command innumerable shades from which to choose
And so his words, like eyes, give vision to us all
To gaze upon a world that has no walls
And this is another sonnet called “How Fast is Love?” which is a line in a play I'm writing:
How fast is love? Is it like light, like fire, like waves upon a sea
When the storm sends forth its ripples ‘gainst the shore?
Could such love I feel for her she feel for me
And if so then could I love her all the more?
Can her feelings now, like so many sunrays through a glass
Through the prism of her heart burn such a fire
That focusing on me I dare to ask
If the colors of her love match my desire?
For were it so, then would my very dreams alight
And life itself in their place take wing
Then would my footsteps instead give way to flight
And I, too dumb to speak, must loudly sing:
Let both the thundering surf and skies above proclaim
That on this day a man was born again!
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