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.