Carrie Fisher

In 1987, Carrie Fisher published her first novel, Postcards From the Edge, a semi-autobiographical work reflecting her time in a drug rehabilitation clinic. It was an instant hit that launched her secondary career as an author and playwright.

The story is broken down into sections. The first details the month actress Suzanne Vale spends in rehab for cocaine addiction. It is written from two viewpoints, in first person as Suzanne alternating with first person as the secondary character, Alex Daniels. The other sections are in third person, and follow Suzanne through various travails of her glamorous-yet-tepid life. It is witty, charming, startling and insightful; a wonderful read.

Towards the end, however, is my favorite passage:

“I don’t know,” said Suzanne. “Maybe there’s some kind of joy I’ve never experienced, where you’re just flouncing around and giving everybody minute-by-minute updates on your never-ending glee.”

My god — Princess Leia invented Facebook!

Review: “I Am a Gay Wizard”

Sometimes being a wizard isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. This can be especially true if you don’t really believe you are one. But there are occasions when wizardry, like greatness, can be thrust upon you.

Johnny, a gay high schooler, is half-heartedly dabbling in magic with his trans friend Alison, who is deeply invested in the art.  After being subjected to a violent anti-LGBTQ attack, the two perform an act of magic so powerful that it attracts the attention of a cadre of wizards running a school for incipient practitioners. But when the two teens discover what the institution is really up to, they set off on a quest to put an end to its efforts altogether.

Along the way, Johnny is pursued by an entity straight out of his worst nightmare….

V. S. Santoni’s debut Young Adult novel is an insightful, contemplative yet gripping look at the notions of what we call “real.” In the guise of the adventures of a budding magician, it explores deep ideas about the nature of dreams and consciousness.

He teases us with his is-it-real-or-not imagery as Johnny traverses several levels of existence in his attempts to not only escape from the concrete prison in which he is incarcerated, but also his personal one: his own being, hopes and desires.

This is a true teen coming-to-awareness story. At once fast-paced and studied, it leads us along a path that many of us spend our entire lives following: The passage to self-discovery.

A Christmas Carol

In 1965, television station CBS was looking for a new Christmas special to air that season. They reached out to one of the most famous cartoonists in the country, Charles M. Schultz, to write the program and draw the cels, which would be animated by Bill Melendez. Schultz’s syndicated newspaper comic Peanuts was beloved by pretty much everyone, so the TV show was expected to be a hit. From inception to airing took six months — an incredibly short amount of time, especially considering that everything back then was done by hand.

And a hit it was. A Charlie Brown Christmas has been shown every holiday season for fifty-four years. (Although it currently appears on ABC.)

Schultz was an ardent Christian. He insisted that the show must not only address the crass commercialism of the Christmas season, but also include a scripture reading to emphasize the religious significance of it. This scared the producers no end; nothing like that had ever been done before in prime time. But they went along with his wishes nonetheless. Personally, I’m glad they did; it is arguably the most poignant scene in the show — as it was meant to be.

Schultz wanted to point out how the holiday had become nothing but an excuse for widespread consumerism (“It’s run by a big Eastern syndicate, y’know,” Lucy conspiratorially tells Charlie). And he was hoping it might spark a kind of awakening in the country.

Well, that latter event never happened. But tens of millions of Americans find ourselves nodding along every year with Schultz’s basic premise: The season should be meaningful.

It should be a period when we contemplate something bigger than our personal selves, while at the same time realizing that we are an integral part of that something. We are, in fact, one with the Universe, and that realization naturally leads us to a greater understanding and acceptance of one another.

It’s a good occupation, even if it only lasts a few weeks.

So, though it’s been said many times, many ways: Merry Christmas! Happy Ḥănukkāh! Blesséd Yule! And Happy Holidays!

Communal Coolness

I have, my entire life, been driven by a powerful inner need to be part of a select group. It is the primary definition of my existence, the one consistent and overwhelming fact of my personality.

I grew up in a time (the 1960s) when neighborhoods actually consisted of neighbors. I had tons of friends all up and down the block, and everyone’s house was an open house. I could walk into any one of them whenever I felt like it, as if it were my own, and even join the family for dinner if I wanted. The adults threw frequent block parties, filling their homes with friends and their friends’ children. I still have a group photo of my next-door neighbor’s ninth birthday party; there are easily fifteen kids in it. And the street, where we would play until 10 pm curfew, was an adolescent’s paradise.

When the Summer of Love hit in 1967, I wanted more than anything else in the world to strike out from my Southern California home and head for Height-Ashbury. But I was only twelve, so sadly, it was not to be.

In high school I was the geekiest of geeks. Although I was a horrendous athlete, I joined the track team just to be around my friends. Yet even being exceedingly uncool, I nonetheless hung out with the hippies, the stoners and the jocks. They embraced my geekiness, as it lent them an even better aura. They even gave me a cool nickname, “Rip,” which was a convoluted distortion of my given name. They didn’t do this to be mean; it was a bestowal of coolness upon an uncool kid who grokked and validated their own genuine coolness. Paradoxically, with me around, they looked even better.

In college I joined the prevalent trend of the age by becoming a “born-again” Christian. This was largely a result of serendipity. For one, I had read Hal Lindsay’s famous End Times screed The Late, Great Planet Earth as a class assignment during my senior year in high school. And for another, I was “witnessed to” almost the moment I set foot on the university campus. Feeling special for being “wanted,” I jumped at the chance.

I was only ever a nominal believer, but I was as committed and zealous as anyone else in the 300-member nondenominational Fundamentalist church. In other words, I perceived membership with such an elite group as bestowing the ultimate coolness. I therefore pursued it with a vengeance, even becoming a student leader. I joined one of the communal “brothers’” houses, where I lived for seven years, loving every minute of it. Until it became uncool. Then I left.

(That church, which eventually grew to span the globe, no longer exists except as a few scattered remnants. It fell prey to a pastoral scandal and dissolved in 2003.)

Immediately upon departing I sought out a new group. I visited Morningland (a combination Jesus/UFO cult in Long Beach that introduced me to meditation), and even the California chapter of Baghwan Shree Rajneesh’s ashram in Laguna Nigel (where I learned to transcend troubles through ecstatic dancing). These were cool places, and I liked the members, but ultimately I didn’t really connect there, and never became a full-time member of either one. I needed something a little bit more.

Decades passed in my uncoolness. I continued to explore communalism in an intellectual way, embracing such books as B. F. Skinner’s Utopian novel Walden Two and looking for ways to experience that kind of living again. But I never found one.

So I did the next best thing.

Eventually I moved to the Pacific Northwest, where I encountered a group whose leader taught that all of reality is in fact only a dream. I had been keeping a private dream journal for several years, so this really appealed to me. I was instantly embraced by the leader as someone who fully grokked what he was doing. It was cool for a while, but it quickly lost relevance for me (because their practices didn’t seem to jibe with their teachings).

After a year I left them as well, and co-founded a new dream group in which I had input into setting up the intentions and rules. We made it everything I’d ever, um, dreamed of, and I participated in it for twelve years. But then it morphed into something utterly unlike what we had initially set out to do, and I ended up leaving it, too. While it lasted, it was by far the coolest thing I’d ever done in my life, and it changed me on deep levels—something all of my previous attempts had failed to do. But it, too, eventually succumbed to uncoolness.

Now, being currently bereft of a group, I am writing a new novel about communal consciousness. If I can’t actually live in the commune I want, I can at least invent one. And because I’m making it all up, it will always be cool.

Sentience

Twenty years ago, I was living in a 70-year-old small, dingy apartment in the above-ground basement of a mansion in Germany. It was originally a maid’s quarters. And it was depressing as all get-up.

After a couple of years there, I got permission from my landlord to spruce the place up a little. He allowed me to paint the outside-facing wall of the living room, and do some other decorative things. I painted it Sunshine Yellow, since the lone southward-facing window didn’t allow much of the real stuff in, and it really did brighten the place up. I then bought a small plant—an English ivy in a four-inch pot—and placed it on the windowsill. (I had painted the frame Spring Green.) I was happy.

The plant thrived. Within a year or so, it had run tendrils for fifteen feet along the base of the wall, threading their way behind furniture and turning the corner at the adjoining wall. It never sent out anything into the center of the room, though, where it would have been in danger of being trampled. (I wonder how it knew that?)

Eventually I moved out of there and into a huge, brand-new apartment with ten-foot-high full-wall-width windows in the living room, several skylights, and space enough that I never did get the whole place filled up. It had just been built a few blocks down the street. Because I was using my Ford Escort ZX-2 as a truck, I carted boxes of my stuff to the new place over the space of a couple days. I decided to move the ivy last, and by itself, so it would have enough space in the small vehicle. I didn’t want to risk damaging it. After everything else was out, I went to bed, preparing to leave for good the next morning.

But when I got up, the ivy was dead. Completely. Overnight. All of its leaves were either brown or had fallen off. It was a heartbreaking sight; I loved that plant. At the time, and to this day, I felt that, not wanting to be evicted from its home, it had committed suicide.

Much before that episode, when I was a Southern California college student in the 1970s, a classmate invited me to visit his church, a Pentecostal-style assembly several cities away. (I never did learn exactly what denomination it was; they didn’t really have a designation for it, as was common amongst many groups arising from the Counterculture/Jesus Movement of the time.) I was a bit dubious, but out of politeness I accepted.

It was everything you might imagine. Hundreds of people stood, swaying and singing and prophesying and speaking in tongues. I found it all a bit overwhelming, but was actually a little disappointed that I was unable to join in. No matter how much I focused or let myself go, I just couldn’t do the Holy Ghost thing. It simply wouldn’t come.

The last part of the service was a faith healing. People volunteered eagerly to climb up on the stage and have the pastor lay his hands on them. Here I became even more reticent. But my host, eager to let me get a full taste of everything, caught the pastor’s attention and prodded me to get up. With the entire group now watching me expectantly, I had little choice. Before I could think about it too much, I found myself on the stage.

The pastor had me turn to face the congregation, then stepped in front of me and turned his back to them. He placed his right hand on my forehead, moving it in small increments, as if zeroing in on something. Then he tapped a place above my right eye, and, in a hushed tone that only I could hear, accurately described symptoms of a health issue I had there. I had never told anyone about this condition. How did he know about it?

In my opinion, there’s something more to consciousness than what we normally think of it. Of course, for the most part, we don’t think about consciousness; it’s merely a given, background, lived in but basically ignored. When we do happen to search for it (as in meditation, for example) we never manage to find it. How does one search consciousness in order to find consciousness? This was the issue that plagued Jean-Paul Sartre in his opus Being and Nothingness.

Personally, I’m coming to think (not “believe;” that word has too much force behind it) that the entire universe is conscious. This would explain some scientific anomalies—like entanglement—and is actually a consideration among the quantum physicists of the Copenhagen School.

Or perhaps, the universe is consciousness. This was the teaching of several ancient religions, notably Hinduism. In that latter case, the cosmos is the illusion representing the Dream of Brahman, making it—in James Jean’s words—“a great thought.”

Hard to say. But fun to speculate upon.

What Dreams May Come

Everybody dreams. Some people think they don’t, but they are mistaken. Research shows that people who claim not to dream undergo the same REM sleep patterns as everyone else. What is really the case is that they simply do not remember their dreams.

I hate it when I don’t remember my dreams. I especially hate it when I wake up with a dream on my mind, only to have it slip away while I’m in the act of recalling it. I feel cheated, because I believe my dreams have significance and meaning. I need to remember them.

I’ve been keeping a dream journal for 17 years. At present I have 664 records of detailed dream memories. I also spent 12 years participating in a dream exploration group. These activities have allowed me to discover patterns in my dreams. Things like places, objects, events and themes that recur over and over again.

These patterns are the principle reason why I think my dreams are meaningful. Frequently a dream reflects a spiritual state I’m currently experiencing, some set of inner changes I’m undergoing, allowing me to explore what psychologist Carl Jung called archetypes, myth-like symbols reflecting subliminal states of consciousness common to all of humanity. Studying these dreams allows me to recognize a path I may currently be following (and otherwise might miss), and to respond more directly to that path. Such dreams allow me to more fully incorporate the changes the path requires.

Dreaming may actually be necessary to our health and well-being. This is definitely true of sleep itself, the container of our dreams. We can sleep for long periods of time without experiencing detrimental effects. In some cases—such as serious illness—that elongated sleep is just what we need in order to heal. But the contrary is not true: If we go too long without sleep, we are subject to many mental and physical aberrations, including muscle fatigue, irregular organ functioning, diminished mental capacity and hallucinations. Eventually our bodies will shut down and fall asleep—even if it’s against our will. Simply put, we do not have to be awake, but we must sleep.

I suggest that one reason for this is that we must dream.

But why? Here’s a thought:

What if dreaming is actually our real lives, and our waking existence is mere invention, an illusion created by a meaningless and pseudorandom physical functioning of a conscious organ? It has been demonstrated that human decision making—what we call “free will”—is actually accomplished by the subconscious mind without our awareness. Only after the decision to do something is completed does the conscious mind become involved, and that involvement is largely just a story we concoct in order to justify that decision. This makes me wonder if maybe, as many ancient religions teach, we are just dreaming our conscious lives.

Or, perhaps, having them dreamt for us.

Paranoia Runs Deep

Apparently, 80% of Americans are worried about the possibility of an imminent nuclear war (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2017/08/11/8-10-americans-fear-nuclear-war-trump-says-us-locked-and-loaded). Are they right to be?

I’ve always enjoyed Apocalyptic movies such as Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove, which depict nuclear catastrophes that occur due to the failure of programs in place to prevent accidental nuclear war. Both films end with the bomb being dropped, despite desperate efforts to forestall the act. The first film was a serious drama; the second, a satirical farce. But both were meant to deliver a dire warning.

It was a warning I’ve always ignored.

I’ve never feared nuclear war. I never believed it would ever happen. Nor did I believe nukes were the worst aspect of war. War itself is bad, regardless of the weapons used. And plenty of cities have been levelled by far weaker instruments. So why live in fear?

Even at the age of 12, I felt the frequent air raid drills we were subjected to—which called for us to cower under our flimsy wooden desks with our arms wrapped around our heads—were ludicrous in the extreme. I knew entire cities had been destroyed by those bombs, and in no way did I believe that a thin plywood veneer was somehow going to protect me. I felt the whole thing was an exercise in futility, a laughable attempt to reassure us that the people in charge were valiantly defending us. (Yeah, I was anti-establishment even at that tender age. After all, it was the Summer of Love.)

In 1956, Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev infamously said, “We will bury you!” Some leaders in the United States took this as a nuclear threat, and used it to scare the people even further. But it was not. He merely meant that Communism would outlast Capitalism. He said so in a subsequent interview. But such was the prevalent fear of the time that even relatively benign remarks were represented as deadly pronouncements.

None of the leaders of the nine nuclear powers during the Cold War had any intention of starting a nuclear war. This was amply demonstrated, over and over again. All sides had plenty of opportunities, and not one of them took advantage of them. Ever.

But what about the possibility of a terrorist group either building or somehow getting hold of a nuclear bomb, and using it against Western society? This has been the prevalent scare running through America since 1993. While the possibility is definitely there, it’s nowhere near as great as people think it is. Attaining an existing bomb, or building one from scratch, is not easily done. And even if the terrorists acquired such a weapon, their success is not guaranteed. “The Damascus incident,” says Mattias Eken, referring to an accidental nuclear missile explosion in 1980, “proved how incredibly hard it is to set off a nuclear bomb and the limited effect that would have come from just one warhead detonating.” http://theconversation.com/the-understandable-fear-of-nuclear-weapons-doesnt-match-reality-73563

After a very lengthy and dire description of the death, devastation, and economic upheaval resulting from a theoretical terrorist nuclear attack on a major U.S. city, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists were forced to admit: “To date, there is no evidence that nuclear weapons or the materials needed to make them have ever fallen into the hands of a terrorist group….” https://thebulletin.org/2017/09/the-effects-of-a-single-terrorist-nuclear-bomb/

(It’s worth noting that this is the same group who devised and maintain the Doomsday Clock, a speculative measure of how close we are to a world-ending catastrophe. It was originally created in 1947 to track the nuclear threat. For the past two years, the clock has stood at two minutes to midnight, primarily because of the dangers of climate change.)

This is why 9-11, arguably the most intricately planned and perpetrated terrorist act in world history, was not accomplished using atomic bombs. Instead, the terrorists used airplanes. And while about 6.5% of the American populace is afraid of flying, most of these aren’t worried about being hijacked or dying in a plane crash. “The most common person who’s afraid of flying is someone who’s claustrophobic,” says psychologist Martin Seif, who studies phobias. Perceived dangers do not necessarily have to be rational.

All this being said: Today, after 51 years of nonproliferation and the reduction of nuclear arsenals to 14,000 worldwide—0.25% of what they were at the height of the Cold War—the American president is making noises about using them. This is a mistake on a gargantuan order. He needs to be persuaded to change his intentions (even if he won’t change his opinion).

Still, I’m not that worried. Calmer heads have prevailed so far, and I feel confident that they will continue to do so. I’m not diving for my desk yet.

MAGA

This will be the only political blog entry I will ever make. And it really isn’t so much political as it is sociological. I’m not going to stand on one side of the Party dichotomy here, or rail against policies I don’t like, or push an ideology. Rather, I desire to simply ask a question:

What about America in 2016 was not great?

I’m in the middle of reading a long and admittedly rather pedantic book called Enlightenment Now, by Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychology professor. In it, he extols the advances of modern civilization from the 1700s (the era of the Enlightenment) to the present, supporting his optimistic outlook with a myriad of studies that have been done in the last century on a large number of underlying factors. (Although he applies his data to the entire world, I’m only going to focus on America here.) Halfway through this work, it is obvious to me what his ultimate conclusion is going to be: We have never been richer, healthier, freer, safer, longer lived or happier than we are now.

Think about it: The economy was booming. Women and minorities had achieved unprecedented levels of equality and opportunity. Civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights were at an all-time high. People worked far fewer hours, had much more leisure time, and were monetarily well off enough to be able to afford material possessions, travel, and recreation. Even poor people could buy cars, flat screen TVs, computers and smart phones. We could not only talk to, but could see, people from all over the world. Education levels were phenomenal, and as a result, overall IQ had risen dramatically. The Internet provided us with limitless opportunities for research, social interaction, consumerism, and entertainment. Instances of drug abuse were plummeting; so was violent crime.

What about all of this was so wrong? Why did it call for a radical political movement to fix what wasn’t broken?

I’m not going to give my opinion on this. I just wanted to lay out a few facts.

Easy Riders

In 1969, when I was 14, the Hell’s Angels descended on the quiet little mountain village of Big Bear, California, over Labor Day weekend. The San Bernardino-based group had announced their impending visit in advance, and all the townsfolk were in a tizzy over it. After all, 200 of the outlaw bikers, rampaging on Harley-Davidsons, were due to invade a town whose population at that time was only around 2000. And they had a well-deserved nasty reputation.

Heavy metal thunder.

Fear and rumors ran rampant. It was all anyone could talk about. Dire warnings emanated from the local hick radio station on an almost hourly basis, along with pleas for everyone to remain calm, and advice on how to avoid confrontations.

For my friend and I, on the other hand, it was an exciting prospect. Kids, amiright?

My family, who owned a cabin on Sugarloaf Mountain a few miles east of the village, were not daunted. We always spent holidays there, and we weren’t going to stop now. We would just be careful, is all.

Alas, I never got to see any of the gang. My friend did, though. One of them pulled alongside him as he was riding his minibike, grinned down at him and said, “Got your own little chopper, eh?” I was jealous.

As it turned out, nothing untoward happened. The bikers took over the bars and blocked the sidewalks, but basically made no more mark than the regular vacation crowds were wont to do. No one was hurt, nothing was damaged, nothing was stolen. A couple of unoccupied cabins were broken into, but only for food and a place to spend the night. By Monday afternoon, the outlaws were gone, nothing amiss.

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief, and the tranquil mountain life went on.

As Chuck Berry noted, it goes to show you never can tell.

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