CRAIG K. COMSTOCK
Craig has lived in a small town in southern Oregon since January 1, 2000. A friend in the San Francisco Bay Area, his former residence, jokes that Craig moves every millennium whether he needs to or not.
Though formally retired, Craig failed to scale down his activities in a decorous manner. Apart from studying Buddhist meditation and taking part in a small men’s group, he has produced and hosted 101 episodes of a half-hour TV interview show with “people doing something admirable,” written over 80 articles for the internet (mainly published first in Huffington Post), and written three books, Gift of Darkness: Growing Up in Occupied Amsterdam (2015), about a Dutch friend, and Enlarging Our Comfort Zones: A Life of Unexpected Destinations, with examples drawn from a decade of his own life. In that period he worked as a “book creation coach,” was initiated into tantra, had what friends called a mystical experience, did an intensive workshop on family of origin, and as both author and foundation executive, took part in the effort to end the Cold War. In 2017 Craig published Living a Better Life: Honoring Social Inventors, Exploring New Challenges.
Craig started with some big advantages. After growing up in a stable two-parent family in the suburbs of New York, he attended Harvard College, won a fellowship for travel abroad, and attended several graduate schools, including Stanford where he composed an interdisciplinary program. He has traveled to North Africa, Central America, Japan, and Russia, and has lived near the Mediterranean, on a California ranch, and in a university town.Although he made his living mainly by helping authors plan, research, and write their books, Craig twice served in small institutes. After graduate school, he was co-director of the William James Center for Adult Development in Berkeley. Later he was director of the Ark Foundation, also located in the San Francisco area (1984-89).
Apart from such mentors as John U. Mono and David Riesman, both at his college, Craig coauthored books with Nevitt Sanford, a well-known psychologist, and with Don Carlson, an entrepreneur and philanthropist. With Sanford he did Sanctions for Evil: Sources of Social Destructiveness (1971); with Carlson, a pair of books, Citizen Summitry and Securing Our Planet, both about how to end the cold war (1986). The book with Sanford was published by Beacon; the books with Carlson, by Tarcher (now a part of Penguin). Earlier, Craig wrote a history of and argument against the McCarthyite “loyalty affidavit,” with a Foreword by John F. Kennedy, then a Senator (1960).
Craig in his 40s, the period described in his memoir, Enlarging Our Comfort Zones
A sometime journalist, Craig was on the executive board of the Crimson, his college paper, served an internship with TIME magazine, wrote free-lance articles for various publications including the Christian Science Monitor, and as noted above, wrote extensively for the internet, including not only Huffington Post, but also Alternet, Op Ed News, and Resilience.
On this website there is a list of his recent articles, with links; as well as paintings by him, photographs by him, and some brief excerpts from his books.
View a conversation with Craig K. Comstock with Dennis Remick: It covers or touches on Craig's background, family life, Harvard, experience in Russia, writing for the internet, current politics, etc.
Transcript from Video Interview
An Early Imprint
Q: You’re an author, an editor, a television producer, a book coach. Where did all this begin?
A: Where it began—I think it began when I was in grade school, and I was over at my best friend’s house, and there was a picture magazine, maybe it was LIFE or LOOK (or something like that). It showed what would happen if a nuclear bomb exploded on Times Square. I realized that my father’s office was about four blocks away. Not a good place to be.
I think that was [the beginning of] an interest in war and peace, which has threaded through my whole life. I was one of the people who thought nuclear war had a very tiny chance of happening but, if it happened, it would so devastating, you don't want to take any chance.
Q: Did you come from a family of literary people? [This interview was conducted right after publication of Gift of Darkness: Growing Up in Occupied Amsterdam.] Or professional people?
A: My father was an electrical engineer. My mother wanted to be an artist, when she was in high school. But [while] the boys in her family went to college, it was enough for a girl to go to high school and learn typing, I guess. You could become a typist or a nurse.
She had the plan to go to the Bauhaus because--her family had originally, in the 19th century, come from Germany. Her parent didn't think it was proper for a young woman to travel alone to a foreign country, or otherwise she would have been studying with people like Klee and Kandinsky and Gropius, but this never happened.
So it was not a literary family at all, to answer your question, although in my sibling’s generation it has become a literary family, because all four of us have done books in the last couple of years.
Q: As a group were they a highly educated family?
A: My father was raised on a farm in southern Minnesota. And he and his brother went to the University of Minnesota, and he became an engineer; his brother, a geneticist. That was the education in that generation [at least of the boys[.
My mother declared that her daughters, if any, and her sons—there were two of each—were all going to go to college and, if they wanted, to graduate school. I don't know how they managed: I think it was a lot cheaper in those days.
I would describe us as a close-knit family. I’ve heard the joke that the American ideal is to have a close-knit family—maybe two or three thousand miles away. Actually, all my siblings are now in Ashland, with which we had no relationship before what? [seventeen] years ago.
Q: So where did you grow up?
A: I was born in Milwaukee, and am very pleased to be from the Mid-West, but [when I was] four my father went to the New York office of his company, which made electrical switches, so I grew up in the suburbs of New York. My mother w as like an immigrant to New York from the mid-West. It was kind of like, “oh, the big city.” A different kind of culture.
Q: So where did you go to school? What is your educational background?
A: I went to a really unknown prep school, for high school, called Concordia Prep, which was run by the Lutheran church. (My parents were both Lutherans.) Then to Harvard College, then to a bunch of schools after that. I was—I didn't know quite what I wanted to do. I went to a year of law school (at Yale), I went to MIT (political science), to Stanford for a made-up degree, which was about social imagination. I was kind of a proto-academic.
And then, when I was about 40 years old, a published author [Sanctions for Evil, with the psychologist Nevitt Sanford], a highly-paid consultant, my whole life fell apart. Which has happened to a lot of people: divorce, my father had dementia. I went back to graduate school: my thesis adviser died. And I had a road accident. It was wonderful, because I had a chance to start over.
I didn’t know quite what I wanted to do, but gradually became [what my sister Kani later called] a “book creation coach,” working with clients who wanted to write their own books. So I met a succession of wonderful people, and heard about their ideas and material a couple of years before the public. It was great.
Q: You mentioned at one time that you were an editor of the Harvard Crimson—would you like to tell me about that?
A: Well, yeah, but don't hold it against me. That was a long time go. It was so exciting. We had a linotype machine in those days—no desktop publishing. When I would go to bed late at night I would hear the little linotype slugs falling down the rails. It was a great adventure, with wonderful people around the news-room, wonderful colleagues. I had a chance to write and meet amazing people who would come to Cambridge to speak.
I remember Willy Brandt once, before he was Chancellor of West Germany, well, before he was even Mayor of West Berlin, came to talk, and it felt natural to have him to dinner with a few friends. [Actually, he had become Mayor a few years before the dinner.] He was very polite. With college kids, it can't have been all that interesting for him. The Crimson opened a lot of doors.
Q : Talk to me about Pravda. The Russian newspaper. Pravda.
A: Ah, “truth.” There is a Russian saying. “There is no truth in Pravda and no news in Izvestia” (which means “news”). [In the 1980s] I met a man named Don Carlson, at lunch. I think he wanted to do a book, and I viewed him as a potential client. He said, “you haven't had any experience setting up foundations, have you?” I told him the truth, which was, “I don't know anything about it at all.” He said, “well, how soon can you start?”
He was a multi-millionaire. [He said,] “I’ll stay as much in the background as is wise, and will help out as much as is necessary.” We had the one task for the foundation of helping to end the Cold War, which seemed impossible. He said, “Craig, I know it seems impossible, but it’s necessary.” Well, I was completely sold. Somebody like that…
So we collaborated on a couple of books about ending the Cold War [Citizen Summitry and Securing Our Planet], supported I think around thirty groups, foundations and others working in citizen diplomacy. So it was a great opportunity.
Q: Did you work with the government, the U.S. government?
A: No, not at all. The whole idea of citizen diplomacy was to work with people who were not officials. We were quite critical of governments, because we thought [that while] they were quite good at running the Cold War, quite skillful on both sides, [they] didn’t have a clue how to end it. Until Gorbachev came along. [He became General-Secretary in 1985.]
I was puzzled by Gorbachev for years. Every day I read the news and asked myself, “Does he know what he’s doing? Or is he just trying to reinvigorate the Soviet system and this is all happening accidentally? Or was there a plan?” I would go back and forth. (Now I am still reading about the end of the Cold War, finding out a lot of stuff.)
Cuban Missile Crisis
We had unusual access as Americans in those days--we’re talking about the 1980s now--because they hadn’t seen many unofficial Americans. So I was able to talk, for example, with Fyodor Burlatsky, who had been at Khrushchev’s elbow during the Cuban Missile Crisis. When messages came in and Khrushchev was wondering what to send back, Burlatsky was advising him.
The two of us had coffee (in Moscow). He told me about the Cuban Missile Crisis from the Russian side. He told me some things that U.S. intelligence didn't know. For example, the Soviets had brought tactical nuclear weapons, including warheads, to Cuba, to repel a [naval] invasion; and at the time the U.S. was practicing an invasion off the Dominican Republic.
So we were very close to nuclear war. I mean, it didn't happen because Khrushchev pulled back, turned the ships around. All Dean Rusk could think to ay was, “I think we were eyeball to eyeball and the other fellow just blinked.” Well; I’m glad he blinked.
[For a more complete account see Comstock’s article called “A Nuclear Secret,” published on June 20, 2010: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/craig-k-comstock/a-nuclear-secret_b_618768.html]
Gorbachev, you asked about. I think he wanted, he certainly wanted, a new relationship with the West, especially the United States, partly to [be free to] work on the domestic politics of the Soviet Union. He was very impressed by Euro-communism, He was a loyal communist, but what kind of communist? A communist who was very like a social democrat? Some of his friends in Europe had been like social democrats.
He wanted a very different [international] system, where the Soviet Union would not impose on Eastern Europe but let them work out their own fate, country by country. And he wanted an arms control agreement with the United States.
The U.S. authorities, very reasonably, wondered whether Gorbachev really meant it, or whether this was just the usual propaganda in a new form. And so it took a while,. They had the Geneva summit, and then the Reykjavik summit.
I was in Reykjavik for that summit, by accident. I had arranged to go there [for another reason] and made hotel reservations and then the summit was declared and all hotel reservations were cancelled: they had to bring the staff on the American side and the Soviet side. So I arranged to stay with someone at the University of Iceland, a graduate student who helped me out. Those were the citizen diplomacy days.
When I retired to Ashland the first thing I did was work with a Zen meditation teacher, Had never done anything “spiritual.” I worked with him, and gradually started writing articles for the internet (for Huffington Post, Alternet, and so forth). And started a TV show, because here in Ashland we have “community access” television, which I think is great. I’ve had my hands full, I’ve never been so busy.
Q: Tell me what you’ve learned working on public access television. You started off as a neophyte. Now how many shows have you done?
A: I think I’m still a neophyte, after about a hundred half-hour episodes [called “Like Wow,” the show consisted of conversations with guests who were “doing something admirable.”]. My trick was that I never prepared questions. I always just asked something obvious and then listened, and the only trick besides that was getting good guests, people who could talk, and trying to establish an informal atmosphere (“don't look at the camera, look at me”).
What I discovered was--the basis of doing the show was—a lively community, which I think Ashland is. The trick of it is social inventions. I mean, we’re full of social inventions here. And people are attracted by that, whether it’s “aging in place” at Mountain Meadows or many volunteer organizations in the community. There is no shortage of guests. I had planned to do perhaps a dozen episodes and then people would say, “you have to call so-and-so,” and then they would say, “so-and-so.”
Q: Your life seems to have been one of meeting interesting people.
A: I met a lot of interesting people, by accident. I mean, when I was college, another dinner we had was with a visiting Danish author called Isak Dineson, who wrote, as you know, Out of Africa. I was attracted to her writing for romantic reasons: going to colonial Kenya, having a coffee farm, being friends with an aviator who flew over the Serengeti. All wonderful, but I realized that much of her writing was about very dark things, [as in] Seven Gothic Tales. I said this at the dinner. She said—she was then an older woman—she said, “young man, you can stand anything if you can make a story of it.
Q: Tell me a little bit about working in Chicago [in summer 1965].
A: I went to Chicago after spending a year in Tunisia with my wife. I worked [as a correspondent] for TIME magazine, as the very lowest man on the totem pole. As the junior member of the staff, I got weekend duty the first weekend of the summer.
Well, race riot. I had to cover this thing. [The editors in Manhattan] pulled the cover [they had planned and decided that that the big story] was going to be about the riot. I had to report it. I knew the way from my apartment to the office, but I hadn’t yet established contacts. I found somebody from the area where the riot occurred. We went out in a car together. He didn't know left and right, the words: he would say, “a this way turn” and “a that way turn.” It was like being thrown into the deep end of the pool when you don't know how to swim. It was wonderful.
I enjoyed that summer. Among my beats was the Playboy mansion that Hugh Hefner started in Chicago before he went out to Hollywood. It was a lively time.
Q: Are you still looking for that perfect—
A: Perfect wave? [Along with these activities] I’ve read a lot. In fact, my wife Shoshanah says that my tombstone should read, “Craig Comstock, he read a lot.” It’s not the worst thing. It’s pretty harmless. Not all that expensive: it takes time to read. [In my work as a book creation coach] I’ve not been a proto-academic, but I’ve liked words.
In the time of my life falling apart (to put it dramatically) I deliberately took up painting, because I’d never done images since kindergarten (and those were images that only a mother would save, as she did). I wanted to exercise the right side of the brain, something I didn't know how to do at all. I did a picture a week for a year, big [24 x 36 inches]. Like any first-year art student, at best.
Q: Did you save any of them?
A: I threw away the first ones (all long gone) but the last ones were not totally bad. so I did save those.
Q: You said you came to Ashland [in the year 2000]. Why?
A: I came to Ashland because my mother was living in the [San Francisco] Bay Area but wanted to move, I suppose to escape the tremendous squalor of the Bay Area, and I volunteered to take her up to Roseburg [Oregon] where she had an adopted sister living. She decided not to move to Roseburg. She was in her eighties at the time, but it seemed natural to her to move to a new community.
On the way back, it was getting dark, so we stopped here in Ashland, just to spend the night, not to have to drive at night. The next day she totally fell in love with Ashland. Ursala Le Guin was appearing at Southern Oregon University that night, talking about her new translation of the Tao Te Ching, with an improvisatory musician on the stage with her. And we went to “the bricks” and saw some Shakespeare, and the next day she bought a condo. All her poor children moved to Ashland at different times. All still here.
As humans we make up stories about our lives so thy make sense, like a resume. But a lot of things happen by accident. We meet people by accident, to whom we turn out to be very close. It’s not bad. I feel that way about my life, that there have been a lot of happy accidents.
In my twenties I [also] had a lot of unhappy accidents where for a moment I wasn’t sure I wouldn't be really hurt, maybe killed. One involved sliding on a fifth story roof. Another involved an avalanche in Austria. [From a valley floor road] I saw the avalanche beginning and realized what it was but didn't know where it would come down, so I didn’t know which way to run, so I just stood and put my jacket over my head and the snow grew more and more dense and then less and les; it cleared and there was blue sky. It was an interesting thirty seconds or so. That was an accident, too. I mean, why was I there? I don't know.
I’m seventy-six. On my seventy-fifth birthday I spent the whole day writing a letter that I intended to be a single page and it turned out to be ten. It was a letter of gratitude, gratitude about my life. I think we’ve been in a very fortunate generation: after World War Two, not necessarily involved in the Vietnam War, not involved in any of our subsequent wars. It’s been prosperous. We’ve had various kinds of freedom. It’s been wonderful, a wonderfulness that is not shared by most people in the world. So I just give thanks for that, and feel that most of the accidents in my life have been happy ones, some of which have allowed me to contribute, in a small way, to not making the world a worse place.
Q: I know you don't plan things, so what’s next?
A: Well, I’m working on a book, because the world really needs more books. This book is called Venturing Out [working title] and it’s about enlarging your comfort zone, deliberately. [Since the interview, the title became Enlarging Our Comfort Zones]] That is something you’ve done. When you get to a place where you're at all bored, or attracted by something that, maybe, you once wanted to do, or something you’ve newly discovered, you go through a phase of awkwardness.
Of course one wants—framing a single comfort zone is a tremendous achievement. It means you can operate there. You know what to do. So why leave it? It’s fine with me if people stay in the first comfort zone they have as a college student, say, or a young adult. but if you want to go out, you have to go through his period of awkwardness (at least I did) and risk looking like a fool. Something that I’ve managed to do, repeatedly.
Like starting a television show. What did I know? Nothing. You learn, gradually learn. You can make a little contribution. I mean, the contribution of that show was to give people doing admirable things a chance to talk.
Q: It’s about not being afraid.
A: Well, it’s about being afraid, but not being afraid to be afraid.
Q: It's like the phrase you said about being willing to look like a fool?
A: My first client was Vicki Noble, who talked a lot about fools. [With a partner] she had drawn a tarot deck, and one of the cards is The Fool. I had always thought, in my ignorance, that “fool” was a critical term or you’re a Shakespearean fool (speaking truth to power), but she taught me that the [tarot] fool is the person who begins stuff. Who jumps off the cliff, on the card. Or in Buddhist terms, [who returns to] “beginner’s mind.” She said, “you’re really a fool.” It took me a while, but it was the beginning of a perfect friendship.
Q: Talk to me a little bit more about your relationship to Buddhism.
A: I had no relationship with Buddhism until I came to Ashland in my sixties, and don't call myself a Buddhist because –well, the part of Buddhism that I really like is [expressed by] Stephen Batchelor, who calls himself an agnostic Buddhist. I’m not critical of other people’s beliefs but that’s the side that appeals to me. I think the Buddha is quoted as saying—he was asked about the afterlife and he said, let’s talk about something serious, something we can know about. He was never drawn into theological discussions.
I had the good fortune to have a wonderful meditation teacher. We met every morning here in Ashland at dawn in a little sangha and during the meeting there was always what’s called dokusan, being [individually] with the teacher where he could ask you questions and vice versa.
So my relation was in old age, and with a special form of Buddhism, not Tibetan where most people believe in reincarnation. I don’t quite know what reincarnates because there’s no self. But something does. Mainly [meditation] was a form of mental training, of quieting the mind. I had a very noisy mind, as you can imagine.
My meditation teacher once said, watch the candle in the middle of the circle and count how many times it flickers. So I’m watching the candle: one, two, three. He wanted me to do this for half an hour. I realized I couldn't count this. Then I realized this was a koan. Rinzai Zen teaches through koans. The half hour ended and he said, “how many times did it flicker?” I said, “it flickered once—over and over.”
Q: He didn't whack you with a stick, did he?”
A: [laughter] One day, it was just dawn over the hills to the east, and a haiku, a triple haiku, came to me on his front porch looking at a ridge in the winter. It was:
powder on dawn ridge
the bell a way that silence
has of ringing us
us rung by silence?
soon you will be telling me
sun rises snow melts
there’s really nothing
to be distracted from when
birds play in this sky
That’s what I went in with. I don't know where it came from.
Back to Journalism
Q: You talked about when working for the Harvard Crimson : when you would go to sleep you could still hear the linotype machine dropping slugs into the slot. You write for the Huffington Post now, a totally different experience?
A: Yeah, and when I worked for he Ark Foundation--
which was in the 1980s, I’ve talked about that, about citizen diplomacy—the man who gave the money, a man named Don Carlson, suggested that I do some free-lance articles, so for a year I wrote free-lance, for the Christian Science Monitor, other publications, about the Soviet Union, about citizen diplomacy. That was wonderful.
I’ve dipped into journalism at different times. I have a real love of—a respect for investigative journalists, people who tell it like it is.
Q: In terms of media, what is the difference, comparatively, between the Huffington Post and the Christian Science Monitor?
A: The difference is you have an editor at the periodicals. Hiffington doesn't edit: they decide either to take a thing or not. I’ve had about eighty articles published. They must think [the articles are] okay.
Q: What about in terms of delivery? The media is no longer being sent to you in a newspaper.
A: I guess my little TV show is part of that [shift]. I’ve noticed on the internet there’s more and more video embedded in articles, and some articles are shorter. It’s like, “Read? Where’s the video?” I like both forms. Insofar as I even understand what to do on video.
On “Like Wow,” I liked to come in with my hair standing up, which it did very easily when I had more of it. I’d read about all the newscasters with their hair spray. I was sort of the anti-television. I looked like Bernie Sanders in the old days. (I should be so lucky.)
Q: Politics: is it different now than forty years ago?
A: When I was in college [which was over 50 years ago, not 40], JFK was the big thing, especially in Massachusetts; he was our Senator. He led the fight to get out of the National Defense Education Act a McCarthyite “loyalty affidavit.” Just ridiculous: anybody who was disloyal would sign it right away, and it was obviously unconstitutional, at least in those days of the Warren Court. Because it was vague, and it asked for your beliefs not actions. But Kennedy said, Congress has made this mistake, let them correct it, not wait for the Court to do it.
I wrote a thing [called “Worse Than Futile”] and he wrote a Foreword for it. We sent it to college presidents and heads of newspapers around the country. And they got rid of the affidavit. It was the last gasp of McCarthyism [in Federal legislation about higher education].
I admired Kennedy and went on the 1960 campaign, the penultimate week and [had] suggested to him that he propose a national program of youth service abroad, which became the Peace Corps. He had the courage to do this during the campaign. It might have ended very badly. It didn't. I guess the Peace Crops is still running, [more than] a half century later, under Republican administrations and Democratic.
So politics for me started with Kennedy, who I know had various sides, as did his brother Bobby, even more. I followed politics, but never felt comfortable in Washington. Never wanted to be in politics. I don't think I’d be very good at it. If I can do anything, it’s to think about the future.
Q: How do you see politics today?
A: Desperate. I’m desperate about it. It’s not healthy for one of our two [major] parties to be in denial about science. I was raised in a Republican family. My father, as I’ve said, was an engineer. My brother started a business. I’m not hostile to those values, but denying stuff because it’s inconvenient is very bad, it will end badly, and it's a burden on our country. They’ll probably say, when climate change becomes obvious, if it isn’t already, “mistakes were made” (by somebody else).
Q: I notice that you drink mainly tea.
A: On Friday afternoons I have a mocha club with my brother [Bruce] because during most of his adult life he lived across the country and even though we grew up in the same room I realized that I didn't know him any more. So [when he moved to Ashland] we started this mocha club: we don't have to make a [separate] arrangement, it happens every week. And that’s the only coffee that I drink, and it's half chocolate.
Gift of Darkness
Dennis Remick also made a 77-second video about a book that had just been published:
The book is called Gift of Darkness: Growing Up in Occupied Amsterdam. The darkness is the 1940s story of the occupation. Not the holocaust, because unlike his schoolmate Anne Frank, Robert Van Santen was never caught by the Germans. He was lucky. Three-quarters of Jews in the Netherlands were caught. And the gift is Robbert’s willingness to tell the story, which was painful for him, even at the distance of what? a half century, when I met him, in California. He would go back into these very traumatic situations, describing them in what? some thirty interviews. We also went to Amsterdam a couple of times. He dug down into material, some of which he’d ignored his whole life, for decades. To tell his story and share it. I thought it was brave and generous of him.