Thursday

"The most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time. It pays off slowly, your agent will sneer at it, your publisher will misunderstand it, and it will take people you have never heard of to convince them by slow degrees that the writer who puts his individual mark on the way he writes will always pay off.” --Raymond Chandler

Monday

Steinbeck, Star Wars, and Me.


"But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars."

The first time I remember being awed by a story, I was very little, maybe 3 or 4, watching Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments,"at that time already an old movie,  on TV.  I still make a point to watch at least part of that film every year to this day, but back then, the campy pleasure of watching the marathon scenery chewing competition between Charlton Heston and Yul Brenner was years away.  That film, and the powerful mythological themes it presented, washed over me like a wave.

I was raised a Catholic.  A religion of powerful stories and icons.  I recall the fear and awe of the massive crucifix behind the altar of my boyhood church, with all its monochromatic gore and courage in the face of suffering.  I recall once noticing the shimmering waves rising from a heating vent in front of a statue of St. Joseph and mistaking them for the Holy Spirit.

From the beginning, I believed in something.  I just didn't know what it was exactly.

I was 10 years old when the first Star Wars came out.  The real first one, the uncorrected version  wherein Han Solo shot first.   The one we are now asked to call Episode IV despite the leaden weight we feel in our stomachs from knowing better.

Ten years old is right in the wheel-house for imprinting wonder and awe on a child.  Seeing Star Wars at 10 made an impression that was both indelible and indomitable.  From that point on, going to the movies was an exercise of diminishing returns.  That's not to say that future movies couldn't be better films, but there could never again be a first impression like that for me.  I was totally unprepared for Star Wars, as was everyone else who saw it at that time.  If being awestruck can be compared to sex, then you can't lose your virginity twice.

My strongest memories of childhood therefore are all of similar feelings of awe, aroused or inspired by stories - in books, film, or tradition - of things greater than what was within easy reach.  "Roots" was a multi-night, multi-hour cultural event back in the 70's when there were only a few channels to watch.  John Amos held the baby Kunta Kinte up to the stars of the night sky and said "Behold, the only thing greater than yourself."  That's the only detail I remember from the whole mini-series.  The only line I can quote from memory.  All I needed to hear.

The "Lord of the Rings" was a 1,500 page epic which I read for the first time around age 11.  There are many moments of awesome in this story.  But the one I remember the most, the one that can still close off my throat until my eyes water when I talk about it out loud, is the moment in "The Fellowship..." when all the great heroes of the world are arguing over what to do with the ring.  Whether they are greedy for it or fearful of it, the mightiest are all at a loss, powerless, useless... until little Frodo offers up quietly below the din, "I will take it."  Only Gandalf hears, and his heart breaks at the courage of the only one who could be up to the task, the meekest among them, taking the imaginable burden for himself, alone.  This is the man behind the altar again.

As I got older, I began to find that adulthood's assault on wonder created a less illumined world than the world of my childhood, and held few satisfactory answers to the same questions I kept asking it.  While the words of many prophets rang true much of the time, organized religion seemed like a increasingly hollow pursuit all the time, and I eventually lost interest in it.  This might sound odd, but despite my enormous interest in what it purported to offer, religion never seemed as true to me as that feeling, that glorious swelling in the chest that came when Luke Skywalker switched off his targeting computer.   I still feel it to this day, even when I'm merely watching "A New Hope" on cable with its new, non-threatening Jabba the Hut and the castrated Han Solo.

By the time I was a young adult, therefore, I was lost.  From what I understood, religion was "the way, the truth, and the life."  Which was terrible news because I had run the numbers on it and, for me anyway, it just didn't add up.  There was only one way religion could create that feeling in me.  And that was if, as it was for Frodo, the man behind the altar could be me.  Unfortunately, in the religion I was raised on anyway, he could not.  Or I could not.  You and I can mimic his behavior, and it is officially recommended that we do so or face dire consequences, but in the end, it would only be mimicry.  Jesus was the only Son.  You and I are merely creatures.

I wanted religion to work for me.  And it certainly wasn't for lack of trying, but I didn't feel it.  And Star Wars, of course, was just a movie.  It was not a philosophy you could live your life by.

Then, as an adult, I began to find evidence of the thing I was looking for.  First, it came in the form of a lesson I learned when I was teaching a creative writing class to high school juniors.  We had read all the material in the book of short stories we were using, but there was still a lot of time left before summer.  I put it to the class then.  What do you want to read?  The year before, when this group were sophomores, I was their English teacher and we had read "The Grapes of Wrath."  So I was delighted that they liked that experience so much they asked for more Steinbeck.   Together we chose "East of Eden," in part because I had never read the book either.

So we read the book for the first time together.  A fun and challenging experience for me because I didn't get to think it over or plan anything out in advance.  This turned out to be a defining moment for my life.  A blessing, and an epiphany.

 "Timshel."

When God spoke this word in the Old Testament, did he give us a command, a promise, or a choice?  A word of warning before you read on.  Answer this question in one of those ways, and you become Frodo, Luke Skywalker, and the brother or sister of the man on the cross.

"East of Eden" is a story about an American family.  It is also obviously analogous with a story from the Bible. Genesis 4, to be specific.  In this chapter, Adam, Eve, and therefore the human race have been banished from the Garden and gone to live in the land of Nod, somewhere to the East of Eden.

Somewhere in the middle of his book, Steinbeck answered every question I ever asked.  Or at least the important ones. This is the part of Genesis where Cain complains that Jehovah seems to favor his brother Abel over him, a story that ends badly, as you may recall, for Abel. In the following passages from "East of Eden," two wise patriachical figures have returned to an old conversation about this section of Genesis 4 they had begun years earlier...
“Ten years nearly,” said Lee. “Well, the story bit deeply into me and I went into it word for word. The more I thought about the story, the more profound it became to me. Then I compared the translations we have—and they were fairly close. There was only one place that bothered me. The King James version says this—it is when Jehovah has asked Cain why he is angry. Jehovah says, ‘If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.’ It was the ‘thou shalt’ that struck me, because it was a promise that Cain would conquer sin.”
Samuel nodded. “And his children didn’t do it entirely,” he said.Lee sipped his coffee. “Then I got a copy of the American Standard Bible. It was very new then. And it was different in this passage. It says, ‘Do thou rule over him.’ Now this is very different. This is not a promise, it is an order. And I began to stew about it. I wondered what the original word of the original writer had been that these very different translations could be made.”
 Skipping ahead Lee reveals his discovery - that the original Hebrew word Timshel” did not mean "Thou Shalt" (a promise) as one version says, or "Do Thou” (a command) as another version says... but rather it means “Thou Mayest.”  The conversation continues...
Samuel said, “It’s a fantastic story. And I’ve tried to follow and maybe I’ve missed somewhere. Why is this word so important?”
Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”
“Yes, I see. I do see. But you do not believe this is divine law. Why do you feel its importance?”
“Ah!” said Lee. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.
Adam said, “Do you believe that, Lee?”
“Yes, I do. Yes, I do. It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there. And do you know, those old gentlemen who were sliding gently down to death are too interested to die now?”
Adam said, “Do you mean these Chinese men believe the Old Testament?”
Lee said, “These old men believe a true story, and they know a true story when they hear it. They are critics of truth. They know that these sixteen verses are a history of humankind in any age or culture or race. They do not believe a man writes fifteen and three-quarter verses of truth and tells a lie with one verb. Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars.” Lee’s eyes shone. “You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness.”
Adam said, “I don’t see how you could cook and raise the boys and take care of me and still do all this.”
“Neither do I,” said Lee. “But I take my two pipes in the afternoon, no more and no less, like the elders. And I feel that I am a man. And I feel that a man is a very important thing—maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed— because ‘Thou mayest.’”

The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers

Wednesday

“Don’t you believe in God?"


“I don’t believe,” Book seethed, “because I’m not blind and I’m not stupid."  He paused, thinking he was finished, but a quick breath brought even more of a lifetime of rage and disappointment to the surface.   “I was a vice cop!  No God worth believing in could account for what happens here every single day.  If there is a God, then I promise you he doesn’t give a damn about you, and he doesn’t give a damn about me, and he doesn’t give a damn about that girl!" John heard Book’s voice break at the mention of the girl.  The young man’s fear was plain and fully exposed. People he loves die, and there is nothing he can do about it.  After a long moment, the Assassin responded in an even tone. “I think he’s just waiting.” 



Chapter 52

Free now of its heavy brass casing, the King’s X flashed black and gold in Book’s hand as he turned the ring over and over between his fingers.  Even as the young policeman outside continued to announce himself in rising tones and bang on the locked door with the pad of his fist, Book studied the unfamiliar, darkly dancing inscriptions.
This was no wedding ring.  Even as his eyes became more deeply fixated on the shimmering metal, Book could see what his father had done.  At the munitions plant, at the height of the war, Carl Book operated the press into which the molten brass alloy was poured, cooled, and then stamped into the form of a firing cap for an artillery shell.  He knew long before the hunters caught up to him that he needed to hide the ring.  So, when no one was watching, he simply dropped it into the molten mix and stamped it.  But even though no one had seen, Book reasoned, his father still knew what he had done.  They would still come in his sleep to see what he had seen, to know what he knew.  And the old man had also known that if what Rachel had told him was true, it would be far too long before she could return.
His father had commissioned a lawyer, Grissom, to deliver a package to his son twenty-four years to the day after Rachel’s death, trusting beyond faith that 1968 would be the year she would seek him out to retrieve the thing hidden inside.
And the hunters did catch up.  For those nine days after they had found him, Carl Book did not sleep.  While the hounds circled, he held on.  Through the exposing of his wicked past in the newspaper, the murder of his wife, and the inevitable disintegration of his mind, he held on until the last of his strength failed.  Rather than give in to sleep and open his thoughts to his enemies, he went out to the garage with a gun and put a stop to all of his thoughts at once.
“It’s time, Book,” John announced, cutting through Book’s fixed attention.  “You’ve got to go.”
Book closed his fist around the ring so that he might finally look away from it.  The policeman at the door had walked off toward his patrol car.
“I can’t.  Not while there’s still a chance to find her.”
“There is no chance of that, Book.  But there is still a chance for everything else.  Everything.”  John’s stare implored him.  “She fought for us all, Book.  All that she has won, over lifetimes, is in your hand right now.”
Book could not quite discern the fine line between mania and conviction in his voice as John’s personal story merged still tighter with his own.  
“This is why you are here.  It’s you Book.  You’ve got to take it now.”
Book’s head spun from blood-loss.  He stepped out of the crimson slick gathering around his left boot and retreated painfully to sit in a chair.  He steadied himself, the shotgun still tucked under his good elbow, the ring clutched in his good hand.  He sought options and saw none.
“Take it where?”
“I don’t know.  Away.  And fast.  You can’t let them find you.  Not now.”
Book heard the echo of Molly’s last words to him in what John said.  Don’t look back.
John turned to watch the young officer standing by his squad car, only a few feet from the locked door.  He moved closer to the dirty glass.  “Book,” he said without turning.  “I have suffered at their hands and brought a great deal of suffering to others because of them.  But I have lived long enough to know what has happened to me, and I am grateful to them for one thing.”  John reached for the lock on the door.  “I know a secret.”
Book opened his palm and returned to studying the ring. 
“What secret?” he asked, his weakening voice just above a whisper.
The young policeman was speaking into the car radio, too far away to hear.  John carefully slid the bolt out of its brace, unlocking the door.  He turned once more toward Book and Chuck Townsend, who sat and waited.  A plan had formed in John’s mind, and he didn’t have much time.  Still, his answer sounded reasoned and calm, as if they were not the thoughts of a mad man.
“There is nothing to fear.”
Book had heard those words earlier, and he was no less skeptical of them the second time.
“The Second Secret.”  He offered the grand title as confirmation, but the look on John’s face showed that Book’s response meant nothing to him.  “Because of God, right?”  
John paused to wonder at the sarcasm in Book’s voice long enough for the distracted detective to notice the two-by-four in his hand.
“No, wait!”  Book climbed painfully and too late to his feet as John swung the door open to the street.
As quickly as John stepped outside, Chuck Townsend seized on the distraction to run.  Book saw the mechanic disappear around a corner toward the rear exit, but did nothing to stop him.  Instead, he hobbled after John into the alley.
The Assassin moved with such speed and violence, the officer had no time to defend himself.  He dropped the radio microphone to reach for his revolver, but the thick board caught him first in the solar plexus, then came down across his back with the force of a falling tree.
The rain had stopped.  The setting sun gashed the horizon beneath the grey sky to the west.
Both men heard the concerned voice of the dispatcher on the other end of the radio.  “34?  What happened?  Unit 34, respond…”  
“Don’t you believe in God, Book?”  John asked.
Overwhelming anger surged in Book as he saw his own fate once more being decided by the whims of mad men.  The madness of convictions that drove his father, the madness of the old man in his bookshop, the madness that Molly had brought with her, the madness that fueled his mother’s killer long ago, and the madness of this moment powered his words now.
“I don’t believe,” Book seethed, “because I’m not blind and I’m not stupid!”  He paused, thinking he was finished, but a quick breath brought even more of a lifetime of rage and disappointment to the surface.  “I was a vice cop!  No God worth believing in could account for what happens here every single day.  If there is a God, then I promise you he doesn’t give a damn about you, and he doesn’t give a damn about me, and he doesn’t give a damn about that girl!”
John heard Book’s voice break at the mention of the girl.  The young man’s fear was plain and fully exposed.  People he loves die, and there is nothing he can do about it.  After a long moment, the Assassin responded in an even tone.
“I think he’s just waiting.” 
Book had heard his own voice crack, too.  He turned deeper into his anger, into his own madness to quell the rising agony of loss.  He glanced back at the open door to the auto shop, no longer a place to hide.  He listened to the voices of the police on the radio.  They were nearby and coming fast.  The agony remained.  Molly was gone and there was, as always before, nothing he could do about it.
An unexpected impulse overtook him in that moment.  Book’s anger turned to laughter.  He laughed to keep the pain from taking over.  He laughed at the hole in his shoulder and his own blood on the ground.  He laughed at the hopelessness of his predicament.  He laughed at the things Molly had said.  And he laughed at God.  It was the laughter of a fool.  And he knew that, too.
Stung by the laughter, John’s anger rose to meet Book’s.
“Did you ever think that maybe you are not just a walking, talking piece of meat, pushed around by the wind?”
Book stopped laughing and stared at him, a madman, a murderer, the broken shell of a man whose name was John, who’d had a wife and family a lifetime ago.
“Did you ever stop to think that maybe God needs you as much as you need him?” John asked with quiet, tempered certainty.  “Because I have.  I’ve thought about that a lot.”  His eyes drifted around the alley, as if gathering evidence for what he was about to say.  “I see him sometimes walking the street, shaking his fist at the rain like a dumb animal.  Impotent.  Foolish.”
He came back to Book once more, the same unnerving stare.  
“I hear him sometimes,” He continued.  "He talks in a voice that sounds like mothers wailing for lost children, or men crying out for justice or even a goddamned cup of coffee.  Sometimes he shouts with a voice that shakes the ground, that explodes like bombs falling out of the sky.  I’ve heard him calling out like a helpless father kneeling by the crib where his baby sleeps too deep, sick with fever and at the edge of death.  Wake up!  Like thunder.  Wake up!  Like war.  Please, child! Wake up!”  Tears streaked the dusty surface of John’s paper skin as he told Book of the God he had come to know.  “Understand me.”  It was John’s plea to be heard just one time.  “I have seen him crying.
Book saw madness and no madness in him now, like his father just before the end.  He felt Molly’s ring, the King’s X, heavy within his clenched hand as the heat returned to the back of his neck.
“What is he waiting for?” 
“He’s waiting for you, fool” John snapped, like an angry parent to a selfish, complaining child.  “He’s waiting for you.”
The two men remained locked in a stare, unflinching even as the sirens sounded in the distance from every direction.  Book had understood every word and none of them. 
“Run, Book!”  John commanded sternly as he slid behind the wheel of the police cruiser.  He slammed the door and jammed the car into gear, turning once more to find Book standing frozen in the alley beside him.  “You’re free!  Run!” 
The tires squealed on the wet pavement and the cruiser shuddered away as the sirens came still closer. Book stood alone in the alley, the King’s X in his hand, his body weakening by the moment. Without the blood that flowed from the throbbing bullet hole in his shoulder, a fog encroached on all his senses and thoughts.  As John’s stolen cruiser accelerated toward the far end of the alley, toward the approaching sirens, Book came all the way back to the present danger.  Whatever he was going to do, he would have to do it now.
He lurched toward the open door of the auto shop.
Alone inside, he moved for the possibility he had seen before.  A motorcycle, repaired, reassembled, and awaiting the return of its owner.  Struggling to drag his stiff right leg in front of the other, he stumbled.  His useless arm hanging, he was unable to catch himself.  Book struck the concrete floor with the left side of his face and his ruined shoulder hard enough to blast away what awareness he had left.  The shotgun skittered away.  The golden ring escaped his clutching hand, bounced, rolled and spun like a jingling top until it came to rest a few feet away.
An electric surge of pain through his rapidly failing body brought Book a moment of consciousness.  His mind was no longer capable of holding many thoughts, but there was a new sensation beginning to drift through him just below the surface.  Peace.  Like a gentle stream that took him suddenly out of the vast river of pain, he seemed to move with a flow of bliss, as if it aimed to take him somewhere.  After a moment or two within this soft current even the notion of longing for more of the feeling it carried began to give way to having no notions at all.  He sensed that he was drowning in it.  He had no strength left and no wish to fight it.  Wendell Book was dying.

Friday

DARE TO BE GREAT


Joseph Campbell once said, (paraphrasing) The Grail Knights never entered the forest at the same point, but always found their own way in.  Because the moment you take the path already cut, you are on someone else's path, and you should already know that the Grail is not there.

He means YOUR Grail.  As an artist, your work, and your journey to create it, IS your search for the sacred.

I just just read a great post last night - for any author or artist - over on the blog of Kristine Kathryn Rusch (linked below).  

There's a great quote from Adam Levine of Maroon 5 in her piece that illustrates the possibilities of the new digital world for artists of all stripes.


Levine said, “ The diversity in people’s tastes now is so much cooler. Everyone is saying MP3s and the Internet have ruined the music business—and it’s sad there are no record stores—but music is just so present now in the culture. More than it’s ever been. That’s a result of the [technological] advancements we’ve made. I’m such a huge fan of where music is right now.”


Rusch also explores runs-ins with gatekeepers of various kinds, and  how the new reality of the digital world frees you to bypass them, if you’ve got the guts.


It reminded me of a column I wrote last year about the same thing, and what the new freedom for writers might mean for books.  From my earlier post…


None shall pass!


But the new development in publishing might just be the most radical of the big three.  A very short time ago, books were very expensive to print and very difficult to distribute.  The gatekeepers were firmly entrenched in a New York based business that had a strangle hold on the magic elixir (Distribution).

But then something happened.  Amazon’s experiment with electronic books, the “Kindle,” worked.  People liked it.  They told their friends and bought more.  Other companies with internet presences followed suit with their own ereaders.

And now, quite suddenly, books are not expensive to produce.  And distribution is readily available for an after market cut of the profits.  That is to say, there is no distribution cost to the manufacturer (the writer).

Imagine that you have been guarding the same bridge for one hundred years, then the water in the river suddenly drains and there is no need for your bridge.

“Oh my God,” some of you might say, “I LIVE on the other side of that bridge!  Doesn’t this mean that there will be a flood of crap writing from every wannabe poet and novelist who couldn’t get by the Gatekeepers?”

I’ve got two answers for that.

First, in 1977 there was a movie that was even better than Stars Wars.  But even Alan Ladd Jr. wasn’t interested.  So I never saw it.  You never saw it.  Nobody will ever see it because it doesn’t exist. (I'm obviously just joking to make a point here because, as everybody knows, there has never been a movie better than Star Wars).





And second, Yes. Yes, of course there will be tons of crap.  But unless there is something terribly wrong with you, you ought to be able to recognize and easily side step crap.

But keep your eyes open because there will be a lot of other things coming as well.

There will be beautifully written stories in which nobody but the teller had a say in how much or how little sex and violence “needed” to be in it or not in it.  Or in how long or short a book must be in order to save on printing costs.  Or in who lives and dies in the end.  Or in how many sentence fragments can be strung together with artistic license in order to make a point about artistic license... (see what I did there?).

There will be concepts that are so different from whatever was successful last year that they will shock and delight you.  Rules will be broken for worse or for better. And readers who are not gatekeepers will find that there are books out there written, it will seem, just for them.

And new things that work, new things that are good, new things that may surprise and delight, will be picked up by those for whom they were intended.  Word will spread to others who like the same things, and before you know it, somewhere within the millions of diverse minds, tastes, and interests that exist in cyberspace, audiences will come together.  Perhaps so small that they are barely a blip on the world wide web, but easily large enough for writers they enjoy, to write for.

Find the rest of my post here - GOT BOOKS?

Stumbling over Rusch’s post last night was uncanny because I was JUST having the same conversation over dinner with my wife.  We were discussing how my goal as a novelist  is to write “unexpected.”  How high-concept themes and stories don’t have to be delivered exactly as they’ve been seen before…

From Rusch’s article - But those things forced me into a series of ever smaller boxes, the idea that I should write only certain things, even though I wanted—and was capable of—writing several other kinds of things. To make matters worse, many of those boxes formed because other opportunities died because of someone else’s incompetence, or simple dumb luck. It wasn’t because I was best at the things I ended up doing; it was because those were the things that had had better breaks.

It all seemed random, and that made it even more frustrating...
And then there was the changing role of advisors.

Somewhere along the way the advisors felt they should control my career rather than allowing me to control it. All of this was before 2007, and since then things have only gotten worse.

Only instead of saying “Out! All of you!” to advisors like that, most writers embrace the criticism or the snide comments, and try to shove themselves into the tiny boxes, not realizing that they’re destroying the one thing that makes them unique.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s article is well worth the read.  And it’s right HERE…

Over dinner last night…

It was exactly like this...

...my wife and I spoke about how my belief that my voice will resonate has been the driving force.  And how I can’t wait to work every day, and get deeper and deeper out there in this new water.

The point is, the sudden ability to bypass gatekeepers was never a green light to produce trash.

It is an invitation to dare to be great.






One Great Thing - Terrence McKenna


“...scattered through the ordinary world there are books and artifacts and perhaps people who are like doorways into impossible realms, of impossible and contradictory truth.”  
--Terrence McKenna

My favorite thing about the internet is that, for all its silliness and obscenity, it also seems to be a storehouse of the sum total of human knowledge and achievement.  It is a place where you can get up close and personal with the recorded thoughts and deeds of absolutely amazing people you might otherwise have never heard of.  

Here’s One Great Thing (a brilliant mind in this case) that you can learn all about with ease, simply for having been born when you were.   Congrats!  (Seriously.)
Many of you may already know all about Terrence McKenna.  He’s pretty famous.  But I didn’t.  Never heard of him until recently.  Through the miracle of the internet, I’ve been reading up on this strange and wonderfully insightful person who died in April of 2,000.
I am not an advocate of psychedelic drugs, nor am I a user of them, nor a detractor.   Then again, I could say the same thing about Skydiving.  I’m probably a little too cautious/scared for either of those things.   But, whatever path Terrence McKenna took to come to some of his ideas, it was certainly a fruitful one.  



Here’s a clip of Joe Rogan’s podcast (language warning!) where they discuss McKenna's “Stoned Ape” theory (from that book above) of how human intelligence evolved. 

He also said things like this - paraphrased in this article from the Scientific American website…  
"Modern science often depicts humanity as an accident, a bit player in the universe, but the timewave theory puts us at center stage in the cosmic drama, according to McKenna. If he had to define God, he would define it as this novelty-generating process. This definition could serve as the basis for a new moral order. “Anything which destroyed novelty would be bad, and anything which helped build it up and advance it would be good.”
What about Nazi Germany? I asked. Wasn’t that novel? Or the hydrogen bomb? Or AIDS? McKenna acknowledged that novelty may be accompanied by increased suffering and death, but in general progress of some kind emerges out of these catastrophes. In the case of Nazi Germany, “the twentieth century had to deal with the issue of fascism. It couldn’t close its eyes and waltz past that. And it did! So in that sense Nazi Germany, with its science-fiction production values and its silly rhetoric, served a useful purpose.” McKenna, deep down, was apparently an optimist.”
See?  
Here’s a lot more, the thing that got me interested to read up on this “whoa, who the hell is this guy?” guy.   It’s the last recorded interview with McKenna before his death.  At least it claims to be that, but it’s from the internet, so who really knows?  It’s also in the middle of the woods for some reason.  Which is strangely appropriate and awesome.  The video is over and hour long. and the most amazing part (cuz there is a LOT of “amazing” in here) is that he’s basically just talking.  Free-forming stunning thoughts in complex constructions of logic, insight, and what many may feel is total wackiness, like he’s ordering lunch for 500 co-workers at a drive-thru window.  Barely takes a breath.  Just goes and goes…
Definitely worth the time. 



Thursday

Fear Nothing. We Have Work To Do.



The news has shown us all some disturbing stories this week.  I suppose they aren’t really “particularly” disturbing.  After all, there will be more next week.  Anyway, I’m not going to talk about those things here.  I’m going to ignore them in favor of reminding myself, and hopefully you, of something much more important. 

We have work to do.   

Look closely at his hands.  The gesture means “Fear not."
There will always be turmoil in the world.  Obviously.  And of course.  Yet everything is as it must be.  Chaos is a necessary condition for evolution.  And evolution is what we are all here for.  It may not always seem like it, but that’s a good thing too.  Fear not.  Everything is okay.

It’s a very old symbol,
carried down across many cultures for one reason.
Because it’s true.
Everything is Okay.
Fear not.
At the end of each day on planet earth, the net-positive quietly outweighs the net-negative, bombastic and intimidating as it may be.  Even if we can’t easily see it, even if it doesn’t make the news, everyday a man goes without food so that another may eat, a woman goes without rest so that a child may sleep, and entire communities volunteer for hardship so that others may reach higher potentials.  

Every day a great step is taken.  
How great?  Let’s take a step back for some perspective.  No, a little further… a little more… Okay that’s far enough.  Let’s look for a moment at the really big picture.
What we call history, all the way back to the Big Bang, is really the story of growth.  We exist within an ongoing process in which simple things grow into more complex things capable of more and more over time.  On this particular island in space, simple elements evolve into breathable air and sustaining water.  Simple cells evolve into plants and animals.  Autonomous animals evolve from creatures of instinct to creatures of reason.  All of that growth happened over billions of years.  

The next step?  Over the last hundred thousand years or so - a grain of sand on the beach of time - creatures of reason have begun to evolve into beings with the ability to recognize an aspect of themselves we generally refer to as spirit or “soul.”  
Evolution does not happen overnight.  Fungus does not suddenly become a tree.  Instinct does not suddenly become reason.  And humankind does not suddenly become whatever it is we are working our way towards in an instant.  Rather, steps taken in the direction of higher states come from acts of courage born out of necessity.  Some lowly worm had to climb high into the trees before the first butterfly could come.  A fish had to venture onto the land before anything walked.  And some human being had to trust in something about himself which he could not see or point to before he could do something no animal ever could – take a stand on principle.  

Animals do not rush into burning buildings or throw themselves onto live grenades that fall among their comrades.  Nor does every man.  But with each step taken, more and more will be able say I do not need to fear because death has no dominion over me.     
Courage is the key.  Where do human beings get their courage?  Faith.  Not the faith of dogma or religion (although such things can sometimes help).  Ultimately, any act of courage comes from an understanding, whether fully realized in a moment or something more subtle, that we are more than our current situation makes it seem.  
A baby bird can’t really know what’s going to happen the first time it jumps out of a nest high in tree.  But he suspects something about himself, a potential unrealized while he sits and waits.  

After that first act of faith, birds can fly at will.  

“Expansion” by Paige Bradley

Monday

Most Kick-Ass President Ever


Here's another reason why people should read history.

In fact, I would like to know how it is possible that I made it through grade school without hearing this story, without a single history teacher realizing that this would make every student a little less jaded, a little less self-absorbed, a little more courageous, and probably even a lifelong fan of American History. 

Teddy Roosevelt, the man who preserved our nation's beloved national parks so they would be nice and clean for our beloved oil companies when they arrived to correct the height of the mountains a century or so later, was SHOT in the CHEST, THEN delivered a 90 minute speech. 

Many years later, a very famous male-model of windbreakers and hair products named James Dean, said...

"Dream as if you'll live forever, live as if you'll die today."

He wasn't talking about Roosevelt at the time.  In fact, he was probably just trying to get laid, but still, the sentiment is spot on.

Because as he stood on that podium, literally bleeding from the bullet of a fresh, and nearly successful assassination attempt, Teddy Roosevelt was still living his life, still leading, trying to be a guide toward a better direction.  His words on that day, kind of put things in perspective right now.  As history can sometimes do.

Here's some of what my new favorite President of the United States said before they pried him off the stage to get the freakin' bullet out of his chest.



"I am going to ask you to be as quiet as possible for I am not able to give the challenge of the bull moose quite as loudly. Now, I do not know who he was or what he represented. He was a coward. He stood in the darkness in the crowd around the automobile and when they cheered me, and I got up to bow, he stepped forward and shot me in the darkness. 

Now, friends, of course, I do not know, as I say, anything about him; but it is a very natural thing that weak and vicious minds should be inflamed to acts of violence by the kind of awful mendacity and abuse that have been heaped upon me for the last three months by the papers in the interest of not only Mr. Debs but of Mr. Wilson and Mr. Taft.

Friends, I will disown and repudiate any man of my party who attacks with such foul slander and abuse any opponent of any other party; and now I wish to say seriously to all the daily newspapers, to the Republicans, the Democrat, and Socialist parties, that they cannot, month in month out and year in and year out, make the kind of untruthful, of bitter assault that they have made and not expect that brutal, violent natures, or brutal and violent characters, especially when the brutality is accompanied by a not very strong mind; they cannot expect that such natures will be unaffected by it. 

Now, friends, I am not speaking for myself at all, I give you my word, I do not care a rap about being shot; not a rap.

I have had a good many experiences in my time and this is one of them. What I care for is my country. I wish I were able to impress upon my people -- our people, the duty to feel strongly but to speak the truth of their opponents. I say now, I have never said one word one the stump against any opponent that I cannot defend. I have said nothing that I could not substantiate and nothing that I ought not to have said -- nothing that I -- nothing that, looking back at, I would not say again. 

Now, friends, it ought not to be too much to ask that our opponents -[speaking to some one on the stage]-I am not sick at all. I am all right. I cannot tell you of what infinitesimal importance I regard this incident as              compared with the great issues at stake in this campaign, and I ask it not for my sake, not the least in the world, but for the sake of common country, that they make up their minds to speak only the truth, and not use that kind of slander and mendacity which if taken seriously must incite weak and violent natures to crimes of violence. Don't you make any mistake. Don't you pity me. I am all right. I am all right and you cannot escape listening to the speech either."

Milwaukee, Wis., October, 14, 1912

It goes on from there... for 90 minutes.

Tuesday

Conversations with Dead Geniuses: Mozart, Part 3

Mozart - Part 3 - "What about music?"


Part 1 is HERE
Part 2 is HERE

 If you could play just one of your favorite songs... for Mozart... 
What would you choose?





"How can that be?"  Mozart asked after a pretty long pause.

How would you explain...
Mozart and I were standing on the front balcony of my home, a corner apartment overlooking the boats in Marina Del Rey.  Christie had fed us a lovely chicken dinner shortly after we got home.  She had already determined that this odd little man was one of the most committed actors I had ever brought home, and had long since gone to bed.  Across the water, the glow of the city warmed the sky from beneath, but Mozart was looking higher, almost straight up at the flashing navigation lights of a 737 headed East from LAX.  I had just told him there were about 150 souls aboard.
Tough question to answer for a man who died in 1790.  Where do you even start?   The combustion engine?  The Wright brothers?
...all of this...
I also had a more immediate concern.  The static tingle of a building plasma burst was raising the hair on my arms as it gathered force in the air just beyond this balcony.  If Mozart felt it, he probably just thought it was another bizarre aspect of everyday life in my world.  But I knew what it was.  I had seen it before.  Whatever had brought him to this time and place was coming back for him very soon.  Maybe in just minutes.
I decided the best way to answer any question from here on would be to just yank off the band-aid in one motion.
"You're in the future,  about 250 years after you were born."
Mozart looked down at the glass of Napa cabernet in his hand, then emptied it down his throat as I continued.
"It was some time around your era, Mozart... a discovery was made that changed everything."
...and this...
I reached for the bottle, the second one we had opened since dinner, and refilled his glass.  He took another overfull mouth of wine and held it in his mouth like a squirrel stocking up on wine for the winter.  He swallowed it in stages as he listened to me.
"There is an invisible force all around us, all the time, very powerful.  We can't see it, except when it flashes in the sky as lightning."
"Lightning?"  Finally, something he understood.
"Yes.  Electricity is only one of many invisible fields that move all around and through us, through everything, all the time.  Constantly flowing.  In the last 200 years or so... mankind has discovered that these forces exist, and we have learned to harness them and use them for purposes that must seem to you like..."
"Magic."  He watched the unnatural lights of Los Angeles.  "Is that how you brought me here?"
"I didn't bring you here.  The truth is, I don't know how you got here.  I'm afraid time travel is still beyond us."
...and this...
"That's comforting to know." He drained his glass again.  "It seems that this is happening to you as much as it is to me."  Then Mozart turned to look me in the eye.  "Why do you think I am here?  For your benefit?  Or mine?"
Now it was my turn to look at the boats.
"I think it's just a conversation."
"Conversation?"
 "It's a chance for you to see what's become of the world since your time.  And a chance for me to hear what you think of it."
"It has become crowded, loud, and frightening.  Can I go now?"
"I'm sorry.  I don't control when you come and go."
"What about music?" It seemed like a question he had been considering for a while now, but was afraid of what the answer might be.  "In your carriage, before, the music in the air?  Was that..." he sifted rapidly through all the bizarre things he had seen and heard.  "...harnessed lightning?"
...and anything else you can think of...
I nodded.
"Through the power of electricity," I explained, "it is possible to capture a performance and listen to it as many times as you like."
Mozart's brow crinkled at the impossible wizardry and the mind expanding possibilities of what I had just said.  "Capture?"
I regarded him for just a moment as the energy in the air continued to move the hairs on my arm like iron filings near a magnet.  Then, I dug into my pocket for my iPhone.
I explained the earbuds to him as I searched through a library of music far larger than the one I used to have in the pre-digital era, when collecting vinyl records was the prime motivator of my life.
I didn't say anything else, no further set up.  I just selected Serenade No. 13 for strings.  "Eine Klein Nachtmusik," a song I sometimes listen to as I'm falling asleep,  a gorgeous, delicate melody by W.A. Mozart.
I hit "play."  The song was recorded in the 1990's by the London Philharmonic, but he didn't know that.  All he knew was that I held his music in the palm of my hand.
After a few moments, as tears of wonder flowed down his peculiar angel's face, I gently removed the ear buds.
"You still know my music."  He was grateful, humbled, and awed.
"Anyone in the world can have this or any music with them, any time they want."
"What else?"  His fear vanished in the face of undreamt possibilities opening right in front of him.  "What more has electricity done for music?"
In my living room was a 50 inch plasma TV.   I knew we only had minutes left.  A half-hour at the most.
It was tuned to CNN.  Mayhem and death delivered in high definition by a stern man in the box.  I quickly changed the channel.
...to Mozart...
"What was that?"  Even five seconds of that was pretty frightening.  Not exactly the glimpse of the world I wanted him to see.
"Those people are not inside the box.  It is just like my phone only it brings captured images as well as sound.
"My God."
I could hear the static crackle of the impending event, the plasma flash that would take Mozart away.  I regretted the time I wasted letting him get more comfortable.  Of course, this conversation and this moment were why he was here. There was no time left.
I jammed the connecting cable into my phone and tapped the little icon for youtube.
Music.   What had electricity brought to music?
I talked quickly as I searched.
"Besides the ability to record sound, electricity also allowed for amplification."
"Amplification."  He repeated the word like a student at a lecture.

...in only a few minutes.
"When you had your largest audience, how did you make sure everyone could hear?"
His answers came quickly.  "More instruments, compositions that might feature bass notes and percussion that could shake the room.  Hundreds could watch and listen."
"Yes."  I scrolled as fast as I could.  "Now imagine all the bass you would need, but  played by one person.  All the percussion, played by one person.  All the strings, by one person.  And a vocalist of any style could project his voice to audiences of... how big would you guess?"

He was right with me.  His mind no doubt clawing at the cage of his past experience to witness what these new truths could possibly mean.  "Hundreds?"  He asked.  Then thought better.  " a thousand?"
Of all the music in the little box I held in my hand... virtually every song ever recorded...  I had time for maybe just one song to play, one song to show him.  To show Mozart, for God's sake.  If I had more time I would start with Ken Burn's 10 hour documentary on "Jazz."  I would play Elvis records.  We'd go through the rise and fall of the Beatles... Everything.  "Thriller." "Purple Rain."  If it were my favorite bands it would be U2 or... what about Rush?  Mozart would love Rush.  
But what song?  What had electricity brought?  
No.   It was not one song.  As I frantically typed in the search, I knew.  One song is not what electricity had brought.  Electricity had brought intimacy through raw power.   Electricity had brought the composers and the musicians to the people in a way Mozart would understand right away.  A way he would love.  In the way he would use if this were his time.  
Mozart had composed for kings and popes, but he had also composed vaudevilles for the people.  Electricity had made the sheer joy of music accessible to everyone.  All at once.  If he could only see one thing that electricity had brought to music, he should see great musicians ride that harnessed lighting before not just thousands, but everyone.  
The world.  All together watching one thing.  One performance that answered Mozart's question as best as I could.
What had electricity done for music?  Here's what I showed him.


As the video played, I saw Mozart's face go blank with pure wonder, his eyes darting between the instruments creating the sound, the unfathomable audience, and Freddie Mercury holding them all so lovingly in the palm of his hand.  
With the song nearly over, I rushed from the living room back into my office.  There was no time to waste, and I knew he would want to try just once.  I grabbed my stratocaster and my practice amp, nearly pulling the plate from the wall as I yanked out the plug.
The video stopped.  Mozart stared at the frozen image of the audience.  Tears of awe at the sights and sounds of beauty as only he could truly appreciate.  Then he looked over to me at last and saw what I had brought.
I held the black Strat out to him.  He took it in his hands, recognizing how it would work right away.  Essentially it was an oversized violin.  He touched the fret board and the strings rang muted and nearly silent as I feverishly jabbed the plug at the wall socket behind the couch.
Suddenly, power.  Sound.  Mozart had seen Brian May playing this instrument in the video.  There was no hesitation.  Within seconds he was playing Queen's "Hammer to Fall" from memory after one hearing.  Instinctively he was aware of the ingredient I was withholding out of respect for the neighbors and my sleeping wife.
"Louder."  He said.
I reached for the master volume and gave him a little.  He saw which button it was and reached for it himself.
"Louder!"  He yelled and he really cranked it.
The sound was sublime.  He took the major A of that Queen song and seamlessly broke the components of the chords into stunning runs and arpeggios, all blasting through the distorted amp. 
Eyes closed, head tilted back, Mozart held harnessed lightning in his hands and he knew it.  He felt it.  
It was my turn to stand transfixed in awe.  What he did to that simple song was more Randy Rhodes classical than Jimi Hendrix blues.  Soon he moved his right hand onto the fret board and began pulling new sounds with both hands as if playing a piano.  If there was time, I could show him Van Halen too.  And Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and Ella Fitzgerald....
But there was no time left.  
The plasma flash lit up my living room for a split second. The black Strat, played just the moment before as it never had been and never wound be again, fell to the floor with a loud clatter and screech of feedback.
I picked it up, just as Christie sprinted into the room in her pajamas and a state of shock.
"It's one o'clock in the morning!  Have you lost your mind?!"
She noticed the sad look on my face as I turned down the volume on the screeching amplifier.
"Hey...?  Where's Mozart?"