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 been 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 an apparently 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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Palmyra

Palmyra

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

Anthropomorphize

Why is it so hard to do the right thing?

As I understand it, there is this thing called the psyche which is composed of everything that we are aware of, plus everything we are not aware of. That makes it a very big collection, and most of it is unknown to us. A metaphor that comes to mind is that the psyche is like the universe, and what we know is like the Earth. So compared to what we don’t know, what we do know is almost nothing.

How that applies to individual human beings is that each of us is conscious of a relatively few things, but what we are unconscious of could be described as pretty much infinitely vast. 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 we capture as best we can mental images of what we are becoming aware of. And it seems to me 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 in 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.

A simple example of this is sailors who 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 as well between sailors and the clusters of images that have coalesced in their minds into personalities corresponding to the wind and sea. 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. And it is here, I think, that we go off the rails and doing the right thing generally goes out the window.

I regard this as the juncture where all hell breaks loose because an especially large area of our gray matter is active during 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.

There once lived a fellow named Ibn Arabi who longed to find God, and his experiences convinced him 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 the challenges 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 THE BIG FORK IN THE ROAD.

At this point a person has a choice between a hard mysterious road that can only be travelled 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 has emerged 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. The individual gains the comfort of lots of co-religionists nodding that there is a plan behind what happens, but she or he must also harden their hearts sufficiently to turn a blind eye to the horrors of human errors magnified to monstrous proportions by the sheer momentum of millions of the faithful following the dictates of ugly and cruel 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 and he traveled the hard road. In solitude he contemplated God with such dedication that the constellation of related images that evolved in his mind became so complex and so 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.

A hundred years later a fellow named Meister Eckhart had similar experiences while walking the hard road and remarked, “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.

I worry. I mean, who among us can put aside our usual affairs and walk the hard road long enough to wrestle past our pettiness and find the heart of everything?

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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 about how things worked. 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 other, self-awareness experiences at least a little like ours have previously occurred and will occur again as the universe eternally munches on its own tail. Perhaps in one or more of those dimensions self-awareness can emerge 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 temporary products of that tinkering.

When I indulge this line of thought I find myself inclined to suspect that what we are experiencing 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 of them,” 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.”

FADE IN

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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Behind the Taj Mahal

Mortier Jaj Mahal

Until 1919 Santa Fe Springs, California, was all farm crops and orchards. But then oil was discovered and within ten years the formerly tranquil agrarian community was producing more petroleum than any other town in the state. A forest of oil derricks sprang up, many on the sprawling Hathaway Ranch, and members of the Hathaway family formed the Hathaway Oil Company.

The family’s cluster of ranch houses on sites across the street from each other on Florence Avenue morphed into Mediterranean style villas. By 1968 when I began working nearby, those stately, high walled and tree shrouded residences were a little puzzling to look upon, surrounded as they were by dreary oil field desolation.

One of the children of the Hathaway oil barons, Julian Terrell, or Terry as he preferred to be called, was my boss. To the best of my knowledge, Terry had little or no interest in the oil business. Though I worked closely with him for almost two years I cannot recall him ever mentioning his family, or that they owned the oil derricks that dominated the view out the back door of the warehouse where Terry was the proprietor of a somewhat unusual business enterprise.

The warehouse included a huge workshop where my colorful mates and I punched our timecards each morning then set about repairing and restoring mechanical musical instruments. This arcane field was Terry’s area of expertise. The machines he had restored himself were magnificent. His understanding of all the arcane aspects of the field was encyclopedic.

It was great fun to watch Terry noodle over a restoration challenge. His eyes would narrow, and after a moment or two of consideration, he would explain the whole thing and give me direction. Every day was a tremendous learning experience. And it was also a marvelous opportunity to work with unusual materials. Fine woods . Exotic leathers. Kangaroo leather was my personal favorite. Shiny black on one side, soft greenish yellow on the other, and extraordinarily pliable. Great for gussets in the bellows of the pumps that pushed air through the tubing that animated the lovely old mechanisms.

The machines themselves were usually very big and very heavy. Most were constructed in Germany and Belgium between 1880 and 1920. Some were band organs, intended to produce raucous music loud enough to be heard over the din of crowds and machinery at amusement parks. Others were orchestrions intended for use in dance halls and salons, subtlety engineered to simulate an orchestra. Occasionally a simple player piano would find its way into the shop, but they were of little interest to Terry. For him if there was not at least a little mystery, or some sort of puzzle to solve, it just wasn’t fun.

Most of the time he exercised his wits figuring out how some strange mechanism was supposed to work, but on one memorable occasion the challenge was to figure out how to get an especially big machine that had been delivered in pieces put back together again within the limited vertical space available.

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Boyo and the Psychic’s Gift of a Wise Man

Boyo At The Door

I have a confession to make. If it happens to be my good fortune to become a cat’s favored pal, something I like to do very much is bite my feline friend. Specifically, I will clamp my choppers firmly…but not too firmly…on the loose flesh of the back of the cat’s neck, then slowly shake my head from side to side. If I have not misread the signs, and the cat is indeed favorably disposed towards me, the delicate beast’s eyes narrow happily and he or she gives forth with thunderous purrs.

I mention this because my sister, Nanno, lives with a cat named Boyo. They have shared a lovely apartment in San Francisco for a number of years. Like most of us, Boyo has issues. But from the beginning, Nanno has been determined to make their relationship work. Her efforts have included engaging, from time to time, the assistance of a cat psychic who lives in Seattle. The way it works is that Nanno calls the psychic who, for a modest fee, acts as a mediator between Nanno and Boyo.

One holiday season Nanno came home to find that Boyo had taken liberties with the Nativity set. The small wooden figures where no longer grouped around the tiny Christ Child. Instead, Mary, Joseph and the wise men were scattered to the four corners of the living room, and one of the wise men was nowhere to be found. So the next time Nanno called the cat psychic to discuss relationship stuff she also asked the psychic to enquire whether Boyo could remember what he had done with the missing wise man.

The psychic asked, “Is there a heating vent in the floor of the hall just outside the door to the living room?” Nanno said there was. The psychic said, “Boyo knocked the wise man down into the heating vent but it did not fall very far. It’s on a ledge just a few inches under the vent grill.” Nanno got a flashlight, looked through the vent, and sure enough, there was the wise man lying on his side on a narrow ledge.

Another time when Nanno and the psychic were talking long distance the psychic asked out of the blue, “Who is the big blond guy?” Now in human terms, I’m not very big, but to a cat of Boyo’s scale I probably seem rather large. And though there is now considerable gray in my hair, the DMV still categorizes me “BLN.” Nanno suggested, “It might be my brother.” The psychic was silent for a moment then asked, “Does your brother bite Boyo?” Nanno acknowledge that I do indeed bite her small friend, and she asked the psychic, “Does Boyo mind?” “Oh no!” the psychic assured her, “He loves it.”

I’d like to think there is a moral in here somewhere. But maybe not. I have nothing more to add except to report that as cats go, Boyo is most savory. Cheers!