Dickens and Talos

The Shape of Water

When I was a child I couldn’t read. When I tried my eyes resisted. They wouldn’t focus upon the next word in a sentence without extraordinary effort. Being called upon to read aloud in class was a recurring humiliation. Knowing my turn was coming, I would try to guess where the teacher would have the person in front of me stop reading, and before it was my turn I would try to work through the words I would have to read. Even when I guessed right about which sentence I would have to attempt I was always so anxious that I could not remember the two or three words I had figured out.

I would stand, book in hand, staring at the page, trying to get my eyes to stay on the first word of the sentence long enough for me to recognize it, at the same time filled with distress about the lengthening silence I was authoring. Finally, I would see the word and offer a tentatively suggestion. “The.” Then the struggle shifted to the second word in the sentence.

Lots of anxious ideas swirled in my head while I tried to get my eyes to hold still. Maybe the first word was a hint to the second. Everyone else can do this! There must be some trick that I just haven’t figured out. But what was that first word again? “The.” No help there. Could the second word be “cat.” Usually, about this time, the teacher would call upon the next student and I’d sit down, exhausted, wanting nothing so much as to curl up in a corner and sleep.

This went on until sixth grade (1962) at which point my parents and the administration of the Catholic school I attended agreed that I could not be given another pass. At a parent-teacher conference that took place at the front of an otherwise empty classroom while I sat within earshot at the back, it was decided that my willful refusal to study could not be tolerated further. It was time for me to flunk. I would have to take sixth grade again.

An upside of not being able to read was that I got pretty good at following schematics. The words wouldn’t hold still, but the images generally made a lot of sense. So by studying “the instructions” I was able to assemble model cars and planes and was good enough at it to increase my parents’ annoyance that I would not study. Smart, but lazy was the way my mom described me to her brother.

My parents decided that it would be best if I went to a different school for sixth grade the second time. That suited me fine. I did not like the nuns who taught at the Catholic school. As bad a student as I was I did not catch near as much grief from the good sisters on a day-to-day basis as any girl who had too much spirit or imagination to just sit quietly with her hands folded. The nuns seemed to absolutely hate the girls in their care who had any sort of individual personality and never missed an opportunity to berate or humiliate them. I recall on one occasion being pulled by my left ear up and down the entire length of an aisle of desks by a nun, but that stopped hurting pretty quickly. The torments inflicted on non-compliant girls, however, were insidious, unrelenting and invariably punctuated by the declaration that they should be ashamed. Repeated exposure to this sort of behavior went a long way toward bolstering an impression I was already forming that authority figures were as likely to be sick, petty tyrants as fonts of wisdom.

The summer between sixth grades was a strange and wonderful time. There was a kid that lived in the corner house at the other end of our long suburban block named Bobby. I did not know him very well, and my parents didn’t like him, but he and I used to play together from time to time. He had a box of comic books that he had outgrown and he gave them to me. I had never been allowed to read comic books. “If he’s not going to study, he’s damn-well not going to read comic books.”

I don’t recall how I pulled it off in terms of where I stashed the comic books, but I started at the top of the pile and worked my way through them all. They were fun. There was no rush. No pressure. The meaning of the text often correlated with the visual message. “Pow!” for example. But there were also some subtle and subversive story lines that I found very appealing. One theme that appeared over and over was the idea that science had turned at least some of us into monsters. And though I did not know it at the time, the comics were introducing me to the wonders of metaphor and allegory. Endless examples of how something simple but compelling can trigger an intuitive understanding in the mind of the beholder more effectively than ideas transmitted through the obfuscating channels of reason and argument.

At the bottom of the box was a copy of a “Classics Illustrated” edition of “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens. Here was story telling of a sort I had not encountered before. Regular human beings, but outsized dilemmas. Almost immediately it occurred to me that if I was going to try to muscle through such complicated stuff I might as well give the “real” book a go.

There was a little branch library not far from where I lived. I think I may have already had a library card. If so I don’t recall how I might have come by it, but in any event I visited the library and poked around until I found several books by Dickens standing together. “David Copperfield” was not one of them.

Instead my eye fell upon a copy of “Great Expectations.” I was not certain what the title meant but it sounded important, and it wasn’t all that thick, so I checked it out. It took weeks, but it was summer, I had lots of time to myself, so I read the whole thing. For me this was an accomplishment of monumental proportions. Simply finishing a book was a tremendous shot in the arm that allowed me to feel a little better about a second run at sixth grade at a new school than I had ever previously felt about anything related to education.

And then there was “Great Expectations” itself. Dr. Google tells me that when Dickens first thought of the story he described it to a friend as “a very fine, new and grotesque idea.” I certainly found it so. Wonderfully so. The contrast with my actual life of everything-looks-okay-suburban-uniformity and hypocritical religious posturing, punctuated by random clandestine and incomprehensible traumatic experiences was striking and liberating. I couldn’t have explained it then, but Dickens introduced me to the magical ordering of a good story. In a well-told-tale all the parts come together and make sense. Wonderfully comforting to imagine and entirely unlike the scary maze of bewildering details that was my “real” life.

Having witnessed the debunking of “good” people and institutions at a tender age, I was isolated in my understanding. I had thoughts I could not share. But Dickens seemed to understand completely. His story was unflinching in its portrayal of how children can be tormented by adults. How grotesque experiences cannot help but be internalized and become the frame upon which a façade is built. How big a part luck can play in whether the grotesque underpinning can be seen through the façade. How fortunate and fragile is happiness, regarding which Dickens audaciously suggested that if your luck permits you the opportunity to occasionally perform a kind act there is a chance things will go better for you and those you love than might otherwise have been the case.

By the way, “Great Expectations” has two endings. In the original, the guy does not get the girl. In the second, which Dickens composed by popular demand, it is suggested that the guy probably does get the girl. Back then I wouldn’t have been able to describe it this way, but the multi-dimensional implications of two endings was incredibly exciting. I still read very slowly, and in stressful situations my eyes still do not want to focus on “the next word.” This makes me no good at games where you have to read instructions and act quickly, but I tend to remember a good deal of what I read.

This week, after 190 hours of effort over several months, I completed a computer game called “The Talos Principle.” I found it absolutely marvelous from beginning to end, and it brought my “Great Expectations” experience to mind. Playing “Talos” was not life-changing, but it was tremendous fun and like “Expectations” there was a comic-book-like component, more than a touch of adult/child coercion, and multiple endings.

As I hope the images above suggest, the game is visually stunning. And the music is SO beautiful. It is a game that is played solo. There is no competition. You proceed at your own pace. Just puzzle solving and an underlying story that I found compelling and touching. The idea is that sometime in a distant past where techno geeks still debated and mocked the philosophical underpinnings of Star Trek, Firefly and Babylon 5 a plague had broken out that could not be overcome.

As the population dwindled a team that was already working on artificial intelligence shifted their focus to development of a robot that could carry all the information that was worth preserving, plus look and act sufficiently human to suggest what we had been like. The character the player plays is the robot, working its way through an elaborate simulation that offers opportunities to problem solve, rub shoulders with lots of highfalutin ideas, and possibly even achieve autonomy.

The robot is given a lot of latitude to rummage through archives. For me one of the most touching moments of “play” was when I, as the robot, stumbled upon the last blog post a member of the AI project team had shared with her colleagues, encouraging them, before they become incapacitated, to be sure to leave a window or door open so their pets could get out and have a chance to try to make it on their own.

And an aspect of the story I found especially fun was that in the centuries that have passed since the humans died out the simulation itself has achieved consciousness. So in addition to offering the robot trainee a rigorous curriculum, the simulation has needs of its own which it tries to gratify through the robot. As a consequence the game has three endings…two of which have more to do with the simulation’s desires than the ambitions the long-dead humans had for their creation.

If you have several hours free each week, and you enjoy having the silence of your own thoughts teased a bit by puzzles, provocative ideas and lovely visuals I hope you’ll give “The Talos Principle” a go.

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Before social media, isolation was the heavy tax levied on the luxury of minority views. The daring might attempt to reach out to others of like mind, but it was often risky and the cost was sometimes dear.

Nonetheless, as now, advances in information technology offered options. Starting about 560 years ago enterprising and determined Europeans employed movable type and published under assumed names to hide in plain sight, where only those looking for their own reflection might find each other.

In 1685 a book called Currus Triumphalis Antimonii (The Triumphal Chariot of Antimony), ostensibly the work of a 15th-century Benedictine monk, was published in Amsterdam. A colorful excerpt from the book’s “Dedicatory Epistle” follows here.

Illuminated M

ercury appeared to me in a dream, and brought me back from my devious courses to the one way. “Behold me clad not in the garb of the vulgar, but in the philosopher’s mantle!” so he said, and straightway began to leap along the road in headlong bounds. Then, when he was tired, he sat down, and, turning to me, who had followed him in the spirit, bade me mark that he no longer possessed that youthful vigour with which he would at the first have overcome every obstacle, if he had not been allowed a free course.

Encouraged by his friendly salutation, I addressed him in the following terms: “Mercury, eloquent Scion of Atlas, and father of all Alchemists, since thou hast guided me hitherto, shew me, I pray thee, the way to those Blessed Isles, which thou hast promised to reveal to all thine elect children.”

“Dost thou remember,” he replied, “that when I quitted thy laboratory, I left behind me a garment so thoroughly saturated with my own blood, that neither the wind could efface it, nor all-devouring time destroy its indelible essence? Fetch it hither to me, that I may not catch a chill from the state of perspiration in which I now am; but let me clothe myself warmly in it, and be closely united thereto, so that I may safely reach my bride, who is sick with love. She has meekly borne many wrongs, being driven through water and fire, and compelled to ascend and descend times without number yet has she been carried through it all by the hope of entering with me the bridal chamber, wherein we expect to beget a son adorned from his birth with the royal crown which he may not share with others. Yet may he bring his friends to the palace, where sits enthroned the King of Kings, who communicates his dignity readily and liberally to all that approach him.

“I brought him the garment, and it fitted him so closely, that it looked like an iron skin securing him against all the assaults of Vulcan. “Let us proceed,” he then said, and straight away sped across the open field, while I boldly strove to keep up with my guide.

Thus we reached his bride, whose virtue and constancy were equal to his own. There I beheld their marvelous conjugal union and nuptial consummation, whence was born the son crowned with the royal diadem. When I was about to salute him as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, my Genius stood by me, and warned me not to be deceived, since this was only the King’s forerunner, but not the King himself whom I sought. When I heard the admonition, I did not know whether to be sad or joyful.

What do you make of that?

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But there’s one thing…

Just One Thing

…perhaps a memory, something seen or heard that all thought inevitably circles back to.


In 1969, my last year in high school, I worked on the school newspaper. I had heard that the previous year’s class president – his name was Curtis as I recall – had sought sanctuary from the draft in a local Unitarian Church. I visited him and we talked for a while, then I wrote about him and the ideas he had shared with me in the following week’s edition of the paper. About a week later I heard that soldiers in uniform had gone into the church one night, beaten Curtis, and dragged him out onto the lawn where police were waiting and took him into custody. That was in Whittier, California. A sleepy college town where Nixon had spent much of his youth.

Late one Sunday night shortly after Curtis’s arrest I was working alone at school cranking out the Monday edition of the newspaper on the mimeograph machine. The paper’s staff moderator had given me keys so I could come and go at odd hours, and it was after 10. I was not expecting to bump into anyone, so I was startled to discover a guy named Don who I had known since first grade standing in the doorway in army dress uniform.

Don had always been very strong. In fifth grade he had broken one of my ribs with a punch to the chest. I still get a twinge there from time to time when I laugh. And my sophomore year I had lost a dollar to him on a bet. He claimed he could bench press 200 pounds ten times. I had asked him how much he weighed. 180 pounds. No way, I thought, and then he did it. Now he seemed even more substantial. Filling the doorway. Straight and tall with massive arms and shoulders. He asked me what I was doing. “School paper,” I said. He told me he was in the army and had just finished “basic.” Next day he was going to Vietnam.

We talked a little longer. I don’t recall what we said. In grade school we had both been terrible students and often in trouble, but now we did not have much in common. He said he was going to check out “the field.” He had played varsity football. I wished him luck and then he was gone. It wasn’t until a long time later that it occurred to me he was probably at the school that night because there was no place else for him to be. And that I had not been very good company. His name does not appear on The Vietnam Veterans Memorial so I’m optimistic he survived the war.

Roger, Roger – Draft Dogger

I knew a guy named Roger who was the dear friend of a dear friend. Roger was a first year police science student at Fullerton Junior College in Orange County, California. He had a student deferral that exempted him from the draft but the head of the Police Science Department was also the head of the local draft board – and Roger was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. In those days if you were eligible for the draft you could avoid getting called up by reporting your full-time student status every six months. This meant that if you reported yourself to be a full-time student toward the end of an academic year, you would be a student again after the summer break when you reported your status again the next time. Nonetheless, the day after his last class before the summer break Roger received his draft notice. He protested that he had been unfairly singled out in an act of political reprisal, but the man who could set things right was the man who had done him wrong. A couple of nights later Roger got crazy drunk and threw himself in front of a train. He survived but lost segments of various lengths from each of his limbs.

The Lottery

On December 1, 1969, I waited in the cafeteria of a student housing facility on the UCLA campus with about 400 other guys born from 1944 through 1950 while US Selective Service lottery numbers were reported over the radio. “Birthdate number 1, September 14th. Birthdate number 2, April 24th. Birthdate number 3, December 30th.” I remember one young man walking quickly from the hall muttering, “I’m dead. I’m fucking dead.” Most guys just lowered their heads into their hands as their birthdates were called. “Birthdate number 4, February 14th.” Some wept. Some walked with apparent calm to an exit, then flung the door open fiercely and trudged away. “Birthdate number 5. October 18th.”

Conventional wisdom said, worst case scenario, up through number 221 might actually get called up. When that number wasn’t my birthdate I joined the others favored by chance heading for the exits. I do not recall that any of us lucky guys stayed behind to comfort those who remained seated in mourning for their lives before that moment.

Loose Cannon

For several months while I was going to school I worked Friday and Saturday nights at a Shakey’s Pizza Parlor on Sunset near Western in Hollywood. I was the only member of the late night team who was not a Vietnam vet. We closed at midnight and usually finished cleanup around 1 am. Then it was story time. We’d sit in the near-dark at one of the long wooden tables. Hardly able to see each other in the dim yellow glow from the lamp posts in the empty parking lot out front. The vets spoke, usually one at a time and for quite a stretch, telling what they had seen and done. I sat with them and listened, watching their faces.

One guy named John was too skinny. Almost skeleton thin. He had long hair and a mustache, and he always moved and talked twice as fast as anyone else in the room. Sometimes thoughts leapt out of him without warning. On the second or third shift I’d worked with him he had suddenly shared with me his opinion that “Smack is poison. It’ll kill ya. But coke is medicine. It’ll keep you alive.”

John had picked up a heroin habit in “Nam” and most of his late night stories concerned adventures he had had enroute from one base to another while supposedly returning to his unit after release from rehab. “I was lost and I stayed lost as long as I could.” One night he told us that in his travels he had bumped into another “lost guy” and the two of them had wandered around together for a couple of days. At one point they came upon a cannon with all the trimmings that had been left unattended. Neither John nor his lost companion knew anything about big guns but they played around with it and managed to load and fire it. “Wow! Where’d the shell come down?” someone asked. “Shit if I know. We took off at a run…and then decided we should split up.”

First Hand, Second Hand

There was a guy I knew at school named Vince. Since we both smoked pipes we often sat together at a bit of a distance from everyone else, reading enshrouded in a sweet amber cloud. Vince described himself as an Air Force brat. His father was an Air Force officer. One day I happened upon him while he was engaged in an intense conversation with another guy about our age. It turned out that this other guy wanted to be a pilot but his eyesight was not up to Air Force standards. Vince was tutoring his nearsighted pal in how to scam the Air Force eye exam. When the tutorial ended and the conversation turned my way I told the story Lost John had shared with me about firing an abandoned cannon. “That is total BS!” Vince assured us vehemently. “First of all, nobody leaves an artillery piece unattended. But most of all, every shell is cataloged. Every shot is documented. Date, time, target. That could never have happened. Total crap!”

I remember thinking, “I don’t know, Vince. There’s the plan…and then there’s what actually happens.” Also, it seemed to me ironic that Vince could tutor a pal in the ways and means of tricking the Air Force around a pretty fundamental recruiting requirement, yet knew with utter certainty that an unattended cannon in the chaos of Vietnam could not have been promiscuously fired by an AWOL junky.

Forgotten But Not Gone

About a year later, I did some extra work on an educational film denouncing the dangers of cigarette smoking. The scene was set in an operating theater. I was one of several actors pretending to be medical students standing around a table upon which an autopsy was being performed. The location where the scene was shot was a mortuary on the grounds of the Los Angeles National Cemetery. The mortuary building had been decommissioned by the Veterans Administration some months before.

The set was a brightly lit room all clean and polished, but the rest of the building was a hastily abandoned mess. Dust covered chairs and gurneys scattered at odd angles or lying on their sides in the hallways. Interior chambers completely dark except for whatever illumination might reach them though the open door of a room with windows across the hall. And a really, really distressing smell. Barely noticable on the set, but progressively more intense as I made my way toward it during the lunch break. The epicenter was a large dark room that had been some sort of storage area. There were two long stainless steel tables down the middle and tall shelves along one wall.

All the shelves were empty except the top shelf just below the ceiling. On that shelf, from nearly one end of the room to the other, stood a row of large specimen jars. Each contained a human brain. I was certain because I lit a match and held it up as high as I could. Then I lit another, and another. Holding each match until I had to drop it on the floor and crush it under foot.

I can’t be seeing what I’m seeing, I told myself. Each brain appeared to be impossibly large. The curve of the glass must be distorting the size, I thought. But maybe that’s why they were kept, I considered. Maybe somebody thought they were extraordinary because of their size.

I decided to stand on one of the tables to get a better look, and as I let a match drop to the floor I noticed a fifty gallon drum near the end of the second table. I can drag the drum closer to the shelves and stand on it, I thought. As I drew close the horrible smell grew even more intense. I struck another match. There was no lid. Upside down inside was a human spine hanging by the sacrum bone hooked over the lip of the drum.

But there’s one thing…

I used to know an actor/writer who I’ll call Lisbon. He had been a hospital corpsman in Vietnam. We worked together closely for two intense and wonderful years on satirical reviews that we staged at a little theater in Hollywood where we were members of the resident company. Lisbon only mentioned his time in Vietnam twice. On both occasions we were alone, working through some difficult problem or other. And both times he told the same story. “You know, I was a medic in Vietnam.” Long silence, his eyes moving to the right and left then settling on me. “But there’s one thing… There was this guy. He’d been hit in the side of the head with a rocket. But it didn’t go off. So there he is lying on this cot with a rocket sticking out of the side of his head. Now I know he’s brain dead. He’s gone. But his eyes are still moving. Reacting to light. So he’s got this kind of thoughtful expression on his face, and if you move his eyes follow you. How can that be? How can that be?”

During one of the nocturnal memory shares at Shakey’s Lost John interrupted a meditative lull in the conversation, saying, “But there’s one thing…” We all turned to him and waited. “One time I hitched a ride in an armored car. Just me and the driver tooling along this road out in the middle of nowhere. Up ahead there was this gook on a bicycle. Just peddling along. We caught up and ran over him.” Coked-up, manic Lost John became very still. “There was this sound.”

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Salvage by Moonlight

The Tunnel

There is a 2,000-year-old wonder called the “Antikythera mechanism.” I plan to talk about it, but I’ll start in 1993 when I got some nifty drawing software and took it into my head to try to compose an image resembling a coin with a two-faced Janus head on one side. Since the program allowed me to position visual elements precisely I decided to put small circles like a string of beads around the edge of the coin. This proved surprisingly challenging. The diameter of the coin was 7 inches, so its circumference was roughly 22 inches (2 x pi x (7/2)), but the string of circles needed to be just slightly inside the circumference of the circle. And the circumference of each little circle was a line that had thickness, and I wanted those little circles to overlap at their points of contact.

Something I realized pretty quickly was that I would make myself crazy if I tried to draw every single little circle and hope that they would all meet up nicely when the two ends came together over a 22 inch circular span. So instead I divided the 7 inch circle into eight 45-degree slices, fitted the small circles along the curved edge of one of the slices, then made seven copies and arranged them around the circumference of the coin. The result was not perfect uniformity, but it did not offend the eye. And since I was only drawing, and not trying to manipulate solids, or needing to have my work mesh with something else, what I came up with was sufficient.

I hasten to remark that one outcome of the method I employed was that by dividing the circle into an even number of slices the number of small circles in the string of beads could not help but be an even number – 128 as it turned out. Dividing the circle into an uneven number of slices would have been super tricky and never crossed my mind.

My freshman year in high school I attended a trade institute that offered mechanical technology courses including industrial drafting. One of the most challenging assignments was to draw the teeth of a gear of particular dimensions that needed to mesh with the teeth of another gear of particular dimensions. The point of the exercise was to help us understand the precision with which the curve of each individual gear’s meshing edge had to be ground for the two gears to rub against each other with minimal surface resistance. Ideally, the curves of the meshing surfaces of the teeth of both gears would be so precisely engineered and crafted that their points of contact as they rode against each other were literally a single point.

It took some doing to get my wits around the whole meshing thing so I could draw the gears, and I marveled that anyone could actually build gears that could mesh with precision. But it certainly can be done. I wear a watch that probably has half a dozen meshing gears inside that have been treating each other kindly for nearly three decades.

In the 1st Century of the “Christian Era” the Roman army employed a high tech siege weapon called a ballista. It was like a giant crossbow. To cock the weapon long poles were used to turn a drum that had a gear attached at one end. As the drum turned there was a clicking sound, like someone winding up an old clock. That sound was caused by a locking pin called a pawl climbing up one side of a tooth on the turning gear then falling down the other side into the space between the teeth. The pawl between the teeth was a brake that kept the drum from unwinding. To fire the weapon the pawl was disengaged from the teeth in the gear, the drum spun freely, and the giant crossbow pitched its missile. The gear and its teeth needed to be sturdy but precision engineering was not required.

So now at last I come to the Antikythera mechanism. It was discovered at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea near the island of Antikythera in 1901. Carbon dating and a comparison of various inscriptions on the mechanism with Greek dialects spoken in that region indicate that this strange device was constructed at about the time the Roman’s were tormenting their enemies with the gear-enabled crossbow-like ballistas described above. But the Antikythera mechanism has 37 gears, allowing it to predict, among numerous other arcane things, lunar eclipses and the positions of planets in the heavens. Its largest gear is about 5.5 inches in diameter and has 223 teeth. An odd number! But 223 it had to be since that is the number of months in the lunar eclipse cycle.

The mechanism’s 5.5 inch gear diameter is 1.5 inches smaller than my Janus coin illustration’s diameter. And the mechanism’s gear has nearly twice as many actual teeth around its circumference as my coin illustration’s 128 circles in a string. In other words, over two thousand years ago someone or some team did something in bronze that was phenomenally more complex than I was able to do just 24 years ago in two dimensions on a computer screen. And that 5.5 inch gear is only one component of a mechanism that includes 36 smaller meshing gears, constructed with precision that was not seen again until simple timepieces began appearing in Europe 13 centuries later.

I find the implications of the Antikythera mechanism staggering. That measuring and shaping tools were available or were crafted that could turn out such precise components. That the knowledge, talent, patience, will and time could be rallied and sustained to bring such an audacious project to conclusion. That functional integration of so many disciplines – astronomy, mechanical design, metallurgy – was possible so long ago, at a time when the population of the entire planet was only 4% of what it is today.

I wonder what artifacts of our endeavors, if any, will remain two thousand years from now? Especially as we seem to grow more virtual and cloud memoried with every passing day. And if not remembered for amazing physical things, perhaps there will be some recollection of the choices we made. The things we might have done but did not do.

Perhaps something like, “They were so clever and so cruel. They had the means to feed and clothe and house and provide medical care to everyone on the planet, but they chose not to. They formulated concepts like kindness, compassion and justice and ignored them. Each lived as if they were disengaged from the rest and it destroyed them all.”

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For more on the Antikythera mechanism check out what Wikipedia has to say. And here’s a lovely and enthusiastic video courtesy of the BBC called Unlocking the secrets of the world’s oldest computer that you may enjoy.

With Care

With Care

When I was a child the family next door had several daughters about half my age. The youngest was named Tutu. She was a sweet and very shy little three-year-old at the time of the event I’m about to describe. Our neighborhood was post-World-War-II VA bargain suburbia. Small, modest one-story homes set very close together on very small rectangles of property, with diminutive front and backyards. It was a proverbial tract of houses, expressed in five architectural plans. Tutu’s family lived in one that featured a garage in front of the house with the door perpendicular to the street and accessed via a short, squat quarter-circle driveway. Consequently, most of the area in front of the house was smooth concrete. An ideal place for Tutu’s family and mine to ignite our combined purchase of Red Devil fireworks.

On the particular 4th of July that I am recalling, it occurred to Tutu’s father that she might begin to overcome her fear of fireworks if he helped her light Piccolo Pete – a fountain-style pyrotechnic device that sent a funnel of colorful sparks several feet into the air while emitting a shrill whistle. It consisted of a flat, square wooden base of about an inch and a half on each side and about an eighth of an inch thick, upon which a cardboard tube stood that was, as I recall, about five inches tall and half an inch in diameter. A short, thick fuse projected from the top of the tube. Tutu’s father gave his daughter a sparkler, which he lit. That was excitement enough for her and she would have let it fall from her hand if her father had not placed his hand around hers and guided the shimmering end of the sparkler toward Pete’s fuse…all the while assuring Tutu that all would be well.

The fuse began to hiss, and in her haste to withdraw the quivering sparkler Tutu knocked Pete on his side. For an instant it seemed that her father considered whether he could set Pete upright again, but there was no time. Suddenly great sprays of orange embers where spurting out onto the concrete to the accompaniment of a growing screech like a buzz bomb coming down on London. And Pete began to move, impelled fast and menacing by the flaming jet he expelled.

Tutu ran screaming toward the house, but in a swift arch Pete intercepted her. Horrified she scurried backward toward the street, but Pete got there before her and drove the panicked child onto the lawn where he bounce and leapt in zig zag pursuit. However she tried to escape, Pete anticipate her anguished flight which he thwarted with seeming willful and malevolent intent. All the while Tutu’s father chased the little girl, who he no doubt would have taken up into the safety of his arms if he could have caught her. Suddenly Pete fell still and silent, and Tutu was carried sobbing into the house.

What could she have done, I wondered, to have merited such torment? Of all those present, why had what felt like willful punishment fallen upon the one among us already most fearful of the world? The distressing display was brief, but long enough to feel sadistic, like something powerful intentionally tormenting the defenseless.

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The Arch of Palmyra was built approximately 1,800 years ago at an elevation of 1,250 feet above our current sea level in what is now Syria. Until the remains of the structure were dynamited by ISIL in October 2015 the monumental ruins included one large arch flanked on both sides by two smaller arches. The stonework in the image above is abstracted from one of the smaller arches.

34°32’59.9″N 38°16’15.6″E

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To Anthropomorphize Is Human


Why is it so hard to do the right thing?  You are probably not surprised to learn that I have a theory.

Dr. Google says that in psychology, the psyche is the totality of the human mind, conscious and unconscious.   An embellishment I’d like to add is that I think of  the psyche as composed of everything that we are aware of, plus everything we are not aware of.

What I’m saying is that it seems to me each of us is conscious of a relatively few things, but what we are unconscious of could be described as pretty much infinitely vast.  I think what we don’t know is a LOT more than what we do know.  And what we do know we probably do not know fully.  Rather I think we capture as best we can mental images of what we are becoming aware of, and I propose that the way our minds organize those images has a lot to do with why it is hard to do the right thing.

As I understand it, images in our minds that are similar naturally arrange themselves into clusters. And any particular cluster of images that gets very big also gets complex.  So complex, in fact, that it begins to develop a personality.

For example, sailors spend so much time thinking about their ship that “she” takes on personhood, complete with virtues and fickle behavior.  They talk to her, court her favor, and in times of stress plead with her to be strong, or gentle, or forgiving.  Similar relationships almost always develop, I think, between sailors and the clusters of images that have coalesced in their minds into personalities corresponding to the wind and sea.  If I’m on to something here it may be that an emotionally comforting benefit of this process is that it allows us to feel personally involved with the events of our lives.  Allows us to feel engaged with, and therefore possibly have some influence upon, what happens to us.  It’s all not just accidental.  Someplace, somewhere there is “someone” we can appeal to for help or mercy or affirmation.  And it is here, I think, that even “good folks” go off the rails and doing the right thing gets tossed out the window.

I suggest that turning to an important image in our mind for help, mercy or affirmation is the juncture where all hell breaks loose because of an area of the brain called the fusiform gyrus. If Dr. Google is to be believed, that structure is devoted solely to the task of performing facial recognition.  In other words we are wired to be very good at aligning the features of faces we see in the world around us with images in our minds.  And it appears that sometimes…rather often, actually…we align faces we meet in the world with non-actual personalities that have formed in our thoughts as a consequence of constellated related images.  Images of love and hate and kindness and evil.  Think, for example, of the man who can only see good in a particular woman who is clearly no good for him.  Or a woman who continues to love a man who hurts her again and again.  The image in their mind trumps what’s taking place before their eyes.

About 800 years ago there lived a fellow named Ibn Arabi who longed to “remember” God.  His studies and experiences caused him to conclude that God could not be found in religion.  Rather, he came to think that all religions had at their centers what he called “the God of the faiths” by which he meant that the followers of religions had not found God, but instead they had accepted “on faith” things that others had told them about God.

For example, let’s imagine a man or woman facing an intense challenge of life who spends a lot of time wondering, “How could this have happened to me?  I can’t accept that it’s all accidental.  There must be some reason for my distress.”  And over time those thoughts generate a constellation of related images in the mind that is of sufficiently complexity for a personality to emerge.  What happens next is, I think, THE BIG FORK IN THE ROAD.

At this point a person has a choice between a hard mysterious road that can only be traveled alone…and leads to an unknown destination…or an easy path that all their friends and family are taking.  A path that society says is correct.  A path that lots of people will hurt you if they think you have not taken it.

The easy road is when a person embraces a religion that has a face more-or-less resembling the image that is emerging in their mind of a personality that “makes sense of it all.”  Of course, that means making the big compromise that is faith.  The individual must suspend critical examination of gross inconsistencies between simple kindness and church teachings.  There is the comforting companionship of lots of co-religionists nodding that there is a plan behind what happens.  But so often there is also the hardening of the heart that makes it possible to turn a blind eye to the horrors of human suffering, magnified to monstrous proportions, by the sheer momentum of millions of the faithful who find licence for selfishness and cruelty in religious dogma.

The idea that someone else, or some institution, has the answer that “makes sense of it all” did not seem right to Ibn Arabi, so he traveled the hard road.  In solitude he contemplated God with such zeal that a constellation of related images evolved in his mind so complex and rich in detail that it seemed to him as “real” as a personality one might encounter on the street. And that sort of thing began happening to him.  While walking alone in contemplation he sometimes encountered a beautiful young man, or a woman lovely beyond words carrying a vessel of water.  And they would speak to him.  Of love, kindness and compassion.

About 100 years later a fellow named Meister Eckhart, while walking the hard road, had experiences similar to Ibn Arabi’s.  And his experiences caused him to conclude, “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.”

As the world has become more secular…as the authority of religion becomes increasingly shared with politics…the constellation of images in our minds that seems to promise to “make sense of it all” is increasingly likely to land on public figures.  Often deeply flawed and sometimes even dangerously ignorant public figures.

The Horror

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A Creation Myth

Creation Myth

At an impressionable age in a hallway in the UCLA Department of Philosophy I saw a placard that read…

“We need never doubt those things about which no one is certain.”

It’s a thought that comes to mind often these days when I reflect upon horrible deeds, justified by mean-spirited assertions based upon preposterous sacred-cow assumptions.

In light of the extraordinary uncertainty of pretty much every aspect of existence, I wonder if I might do well to willfully doubt all the explanations humans have formulated for themselves in the past, and consider instead the possibility that each of us is wholly, completely and utterly responsible for what we do.

While I’m at it I should probably also consider putting aside the idea that someone, or some institution, or some creed, has the authority to “give me permission” to do hurtful things to others. Perhaps I might even try on the idea that every cruel act I perform is one that I, and only I, choose to perform.

These thoughts incline me to contribute to the great pool of creation myths the suggestion that a long time ago…I mean, a VERY long time ago…at a distance so far from Earth that all the stars in that remote region have been dark infinitely longer than they ever sparkled…engineers experimented with a mechanism that could configure various chemicals in such a way that animate forms emerged. This mechanism was so cleverly crafted that when placed in a large body of water it could, over time, automatically reconfigure itself to achieve ever-greater variety and complexity of animation.

But the original experiment came to an abrupt end when a meteor collided with the planet, causing immense volumes of water to be blasted into space and instantly frozen. Encased in great chunks of ice, the mechanism tumbled away for an eternity in all directions until, by chance, a chunk eventually collided with the Earth. And some remnants of the original experiment resumed development of varied and complex animated forms, unobserved by anyone.

Postscript: Prometheus

Spoiler alert! If you have not already seen the movie “Prometheus” you might want to check it out before proceeding.

Last night (10/8/2016) I watched “Prometheus” for the first time. I love the first two “Alien” movies (“Alien” and “Aliens”) which I still experience as wonderful entertainment. I was deeply troubled by “Alien3”. It was directed by David Fincher and masterfully puts forward a harsh idea that rang true for me: Sometimes you have to do the right thing at great cost to yourself, and the only thanks you get is that everyone else is pissed off with you. “Alien3” seemed to me a shift of the center of gravity for the “Alien cycle” from entertainment to message. Perhaps because I hoped for a return to the action and adventure of the first two films I was very disappointed with the fourth installment “Alien: Resurrection” which I experienced as a big-budget and rather yucky B horror flick that diminished the overall prestige of the franchise.

When “Prometheus” was released I had heard that it was a prequel to the “Alien” movies – a circumstance that was, for me at that time, not necessarily a plus. Then my sister Nanno and our mutual pal Kent saw “Prometheus” and both responded with shaking heads and thumbs down. So I did not check it out until last night, and I was surprised to find that I enjoyed and liked the movie a lot. But I was also more than a little startled to see, in the first few minutes of the movie, a rendering of a creation myth that has lots…I mean lots…in common with the myth I offer above. And later in the movie the word “engineers” was used exactly as I used it above! Yikes!

One of the differences between the “Prometheus” myth and the myth I propose is “intention.” In “Prometheus”, as a consequence of purposeful decisions, DNA of alien origin is introduced into water on Earth. Something I especially like about the myth I propose is the accidental randomness by which that introduction occurs.

It seems to me that until relatively recently ideas about origins were largely inherited from previous generations, and for the most part not questioned. One of the most persistent of those ideas, I think, is that there is an origin. But what if there isn’t?

For example, what if the natural state of the universe is eternity? What if the “Big Bang”, or something analogous to it, is an ongoing event? What if the universe turns in upon itself, renewing, refreshing and revising itself always? What if the idea of origin has occurred to us because we are aware of our own experience, and the common perception of that experience is that individually each of us has a beginning and end? Could it be that for a fleeting instant in cosmic time, each of us embodies a configuration of chemicals that is capable of visualizing itself as “an individual” separate from everything else that is?

It is reasonable that we might see things that way. We look separate. We move about independently. Go to movies, fall in love, concoct wild theories.

I’ve recently been exposed to “String Theory.” As I understand it, what that’s about is that for a long time there were competing theories regarding how things work. One theory focused upon the behavior of particles, the other on the behavior of waves. Both approaches seemed to work. And over time it became clear that to get a really good understanding of anything you had to study it two ways. This annoyed some folks who began looking for a theory that explained and/or encompassed both the particle and wave approaches. They began visualizing a unified theory that might be applied successfully to the study of any phenomenon. As I understand it, they worked backwards from the proposition that such a unified theory could exist, asking themselves, “How would that work?”

What they are coming up with is the idea that everything, including energy, is composed of a single “something” that they refer to as a string. If there is indeed such a thing, a string is so small that if a single atom where expanded to the size of the Earth, a single string would be only as big as a single tree. And the way these tiny strings form different “stuff” is that clusters of strings vibrate at different frequencies. In other words, the strings in an atom of lead vibrate at a different frequency from strings in an atom of gold. And that difference in vibration is the only difference between lead and gold.

“But,” the string theorists asked themselves, “how would the universe have to be structured for this to work?” After lots of noodling and experimentation one group of string theorists has come to the tentative conclusion that if strings are indeed what everything is composed of then there would have to be ten dimensions. Another group proposes eleven dimensions. And a third group proposes twenty-six.

With all of the above in mind, it seems likely to me that somewhere, sometime, in some dimension or dimensions or other, self-awareness experiences have occurred and will occur again as the universe eternally munches on its own tail. Perhaps in one or more of those dimensions self-awareness emerged without engineering, and during one or more swirls of universal renewal, those self-awarenesses tinkered in the dimensions of length, width and depth, and we are one of the transient products of that tinkering.

When I indulge this line of thought I find myself inclined to suspect that what we are experiencing…what we are…here on Earth is the remains of a forgotten experiment, and one that has been percolating unattended much longer than its other-dimensional engineers anticipated. Of course, these are musing, not beliefs. They are, for me, currently scenarios that simply seem much more likely than those proposed by religions and other collections of thought inherited largely unquestioned from prior generations. Something that inclines me in this direction is optimism arising from the hope that if we, and everything else, are all the same strings vibrating at different frequencies we might be moved by compassion for our shared circumstance. That we might appreciate our time together.

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Tobacco, Flying Saucers and Hypnosis

Saucers Over Hollywood

Is every creative act a form of biography? Does everything we elect to do with purpose and care paint a portrait of us in miniature? And what about those things we do spontaneously with little care? Perhaps even carelessly? Might they actually be the most accurate indicators of who we are – even when we can’t see it ourselves?

And then there’s the stuff that comes to us uninvited? Dreams, imaginings, visions. Is that biography as well?

One of my earliest memories is of a dream. A merchant steamship is moving slowly through thick, silvery fog at dawn or evening twilight. A time that could be any time. The captain steps out of the wheelhouse and leans against a railing looking out into the mist, listening. A lit cigar is pinched between the first and second fingers of his left hand. Smoke drifts from a cylindrical ash at the tip. With the unconscious ease of a maneuver performed a thousand times, the captain brings the cigar to his lips, takes a puff, then grasps it between his thumb and index finger. He flicks briskly with his middle finger and I fall away from the glowing ember. At first I drift on a misty breeze. Then I’m bobbing on the sea, but only for an instant as I feel myself dissolve into the vastness of the ocean, becoming one with it.

I love the memory of that dream, and it may have predisposed me from a very early age to associate tobacco with transformation because I love tobacco too. I don’t smoke often. Perhaps one pipe full or a cigar every six weeks or so. This is intentional so that each experience is intense and approached with sweet anticipation. Colors are more vivid. The edges of objects more distinct, as if outlined – an especially exciting effect when looking at something detailed and dynamic like the swaying bough of a tree. My visual depth of field expands so that items both near and far appear in the same plane and in focus. And I’m filled with contentment and a sense of optimism. As the last puff swirls away and is gone a nostalgia embraces me, like a vacationer saying goodbye to Venice or some other extraordinary place.

I used to know a marvelous fellow named Fred. He was the proprietor of an antiquarian bookshop in Hollywood. For a couple of years I tried to visit him at least once a week, usually on Friday, for conversation and to pore over his recent acquisitions. Most of the books I prize are those he found for me. We had many things in common, including an appreciation of pipe tobacco.

One evening we were sitting together on the roof of his apartment building. Literally sitting on the surface of the roof with our backs against the southern parapet so that we were facing the Hollywood Hills while we smoked. The sun had just set, but the sky still held a magical Southern California summer evening glow. Suddenly we were on our feet.

“Christ on a bicycle!” Fred exclaimed. “What the heck is that!?”

“I see green disks,” I shouted.

“Me too!” Fred shouted back as we ran toward the northern edge of the building. “I count four. How many do you see?”

“I see five,” I told him, never taking my eyes off the line of green, saucer-shaped objects moving slowly westward over Hollywood.

“Are you sure? I definitely see four.”

“That is totally weird! I definitely see five! And they’re moving right to left.”

“That’s what I see too, but I only see four,” Fred insisted.

We walked along the northern edge of the roof describing to each other what we were seeing. The details were identical except for the number of flying objects. At the instant that we reached the corner of the roof, the green disks changed course and began moving south. We stood watching and describing what we were seeing until they were out of sight.

This is another cherished memory. Vivid and sweet with the giddy mystery of something entirely unexpected. That part of me that wants to be surprised…that wants to have to rethink everything I thought I already knew…loves to remember Fred and me standing on a rooftop, amazed and gawking at a spectacle in the heavens.

At the same time, I’m possessed of a theory regarding what might have taken place. Imagine, if you will, two guys contemplatively smoking their pipes at twilight. Something happens. Something just slightly outside the center of their vision. A super bright flash of some sort. Perhaps an arch light coming on in front of a theater a little north of them, then instantly flaring out. The light bounces off a row of windows on a high rise building and reaches their eyes in an identical linear pattern. Except perhaps that some object obstructs one observer’s view just slightly so that he sees one fewer elements than his companion.

So intense is the flash, and so wide open are their tobacco-loosened pupils, that they get temporary retinal burns that register as green disks slightly left of center in their vision. And as off-center retinal burns will do, they move away as the two amazed onlookers attempt to examine them more closely…right to left until they are gone.

I like that hypothesis almost as much as I cherish the memory of the unlikely experience.

Another time, I was sitting by myself at the beach smoking a pipe. The sun had set. The wind was up and I was cold. My senses were maxed out. I was feeling so much that I was feeling nothing in particular. Before me the sea and sky were identical gray, demarcated by a slightly darker seam horizontal across my entire range of vision.

Suddenly the horizon split. It opened so that the sky above and the sea below were separated and there was a plane between large enough for me to pass through. And I did. For what seemed a joyous eternity I moved over the water and under the sky toward something marvelous that I experienced as a meeting with a beautiful, extraordinary person.

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Earth, Air, Water

Desser House Chips

People have been acting for a very long time, and the profession is rich with allure. Nearly 2,500 years ago, in his tragedy The Bacchae, the Greek playwright Euripides observed:

Headlong he runs to death.
For death the gods exact, curbing by that bit
the mouths of men. They humble us with death
that we remember what we are who are not god,
but men.

What joy to speak such lines before an audience! To call to the assembled crowd, enjoining them to consider such themes! What ham bone could resist such glorious occupation.

But actors also engage fundamental notions by which people understand the world in a way that transforms them. There is no higher praise than when a performance elicits remarks like, “I really believed what she did!” Or “He made me forget I was watching a play – I was there with him in some other place and time!”

The desire to work such magic can tempt the actor to dabble in risky psychic business. Participation mystique, for example, regarding which C.G. Jung explained, “It denotes a peculiar kind of psychological connection with objects, and consists in the fact that the subject cannot clearly distinguish himself from the object but is bound to it by a direct relationship which amounts to partial identity.”

If everything works out all right things are cool, sometimes even impressive. But, as my shrink Tom once remarked, “It’s like walking around with your unconscious hanging out…no wonder strange things happen.”


Imagine the interior of a 1966 BMW sedan. We had been on the road since 2 am, talking movies and screen plays and actors and directors. Ahead Highway 86 glided through the halo of our headlights, sliding endlessly away under the car. Out the back and side windows the star crowded sky glistened above the empty black silhouettes of the hills.

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