Joel D. Eis doesn’t need a weatherperson to know which way the wind blows.
The activist, author and bookseller’s new memoir, Standin’ in a Hard Rain, The Making of a Revolutionary Life: Lessons from the Last Revolution, proves he not only knows where from come the prevailing winds of change but also his Dylan lyrics.
In its essence, Eis’ book is a bildungsroman that follows his development from a suburban Jewish kid to a committed lifelong radical, having cut his teeth in the kaleidoscopic hurly burly of ’60s social and political upheaval.
Throughout, Eis is present at a variety of cultural inflection points, when moments become movements—whether it’s with the Freedom Riders in the Deep South to the 1968 student strike at San Francisco State University, Eis’ experience reads like, as comedian and columnist Will Durst observed, “Forrest Gump for the 1960s, only it’s real!”
Asked when his interest in radical politics was first piqued, Eis deadpans, “In utero.” Several decades later, after years of regaling friends with stories of his radical heydays, he was motivated to heed their insistence to collect them in a book when Donald Trump received the GOP nomination for president. Six years later, the results were released as a 440 page paperback by World Beyond War, a publisher and anti-war organization.
Among those encouraging Eis was Rosa del Duca, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and author of Breaking Cadence: One Woman’s War Against the War. She observed that Eis’ book “…passes the torch to the next generation. He’s not only rooting for you, he’s counting on you.” Indeed, the book is not just a memoir but also a primer on how to be an effective activist.
“You can’t change people’s minds by throwing a brick through a window. You change people’s minds by going into the bank, for example, and talking to the people who work there about what their bank is doing,” Eis says. He reminds that a bank is more than merely a building but part of a complex series of systems that ultimately has a human face. “The bank is an activity carried on by people. Understanding how you make your energy constructive and practical is really important,” he adds.
Not all of Eis’ advice is as politesse. In one of his book’s later chapters, he writes: “In your organizing, always play hardball with The Systems. If you make it clear you’re willing to go to jail, the more likely the authorities will be to want to resolve your issue some other way, but don’t count on it. They get off on fucking with you. The whole situation is based on having the power to determine your life. Nevertheless, avoid arrest if you can. It involves more hassle than glory.”
Unique to Eis’ book is straight talk about what the radicals of his era endured after the relative chaos of the ’60s. Some were able to channel their energies productively; others, notably Abbie Hoffman and Eldrige Cleaver, fell into addiction and eventually died prematurely.
“How do you transition and take your progressive values into a productive life? A lot of people became teachers, they became NGO organizers, they became medical practitioners. They went into law or productive, what I would call, humanist occupations,” says Eis, who became a bookseller and runs San Rafael’s Rebound Bookstore (which he calls an “inherently progressive institution”).
In reflection, Eis is proud of what his generation accomplished. “It’s been the bedrock of the culture that we have today—which, you know, people are certainly taking for granted,” he says with a wry smile, “But it’s a more benign world.”
Joel D. Eis’ ‘Standin’ in a Hard Rain’ is available wherever quality books are sold including Rebound Bookstore in San Rafael. Eis will read from his work and speak at 4 pm, Saturday, April 15 at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corta Madera. The event is free.