Who Is In Control Here?

    I am reminded of the classic sci-fi novel Mindswap by Robert Sheckley where the main character, Marvin Flynn mind travels to alien worlds and ends up in a body of a giant beetle like creature who has a snout ring with a bomb in it. “On Celsus V, the giving and receiving of gifts is a cultural imperative.” Marvin our hero can not refuse the gift, which explains why the former owner of the body elected to mindswap. Marvin Flynn’s adventures in this hilarious novel illustrate life without control. We like to believe our lives are controlable, and that we are in the driver’s seat of our bodies, looking out the windows of our eyes, driving through life. What throws us is when we crash into a situation where we have no control.

    From an early age we learn to live with a lack of control. At first we just cry until we get what we want. Eventually we develop drives, skills, ambitions and we get pretty good at getting what we want. However, life sometimes parks us between a rock and a hard place and we can’t do anything about it. The most intense and intimate of these places of no control is failing health. My heart arrhythmia reminds me of that ticking snout ring. For the most part we go about our lives ignoring the obviousness of death. It’s not until some vital component in our body starts telling us knock-knock jokes that we have to whisper, “Who’s there?” to Mr. Death.

    The weird thing about health is how easy it lets you forget about disease. My heart can act nuts for several days taking me on a roller coaster ride of thrills, and then settle down for a day and I can forget all the scary lessons almost immediately. Feeling good makes the future seem bright, even if it’s just for a moment. When Mr. Death starts thumping one of your vital organs you have these amazing revelations. For instance, “Oh, that’s why we’re supposed to exercise and eat healthy,” comes to you in a Zen like clap of enlightenment. Your mind swears you’ll never eat another french fry again. But as soon as the thumping stops for a moment and you have a brief instance of feeling good, it’s “Hey, guys, let’s go to McDonald’s.”

    Who is in control here? I’d like to think I was, but I’m learning what a silly notion that is. If I was in control I should have become a health fanatic the first time I over ate and puked up as a kid. Or at least the first time I drank too much and puked up. Or, one of the other zillion times I got sick or hurt. But I didn’t. When my heart dances like I’m jogging when I’m reclining in my La-Z-Boy I know I should have lost that extra fifty pounds decades ago, but that doesn’t put me in control. I can pop a beta-blocker my doctor gave me and get my heart to beat to the time I want, but is that being in control? I can pretend I’m healthy, but inside my heart is like a cartoon character, boinking around. I know it wants to get out of its chemical straight-jacket so it can sing and dance again to its own tune.

    What I learned from conversing with my body parts is there’s a vast divide between body and mind, and the trouble is, the body is in control, not me. In fact, you end up pleading and begging with your organs to behave by swearing you’ll do anything they want if they’ll just be nice for a little while longer. This does open up a whole can of philosophical worms. In this bag of flesh there are countless components with their own drives and desires, so which one is the one who wants to eat Ben & Jerry’s every night with Oreos? Egotistically, I’d like to say it’s me, the mind, that makes all the choices, but I know there is some chemical process that I can’t name working with cells I can’t identify that talk to other cells and organs that shanghai me, the mind, to buy and eat the B&J.

    I do have some control. The more I know how the body works the more I can consciously try to influence it. I’ve read studies that say only 1 person in 20 can lose weight and keep it off. Does that mean five percent of the population has will power or that five percent have a body with a variable set point for weight? I know I can make my heart happier if I lose weight, eat right and exercise every day, but do I have the control to do that? I consider myself trying to do all that for thirty years and I’m still fifty pounds overweight. Who is in control here?

    

What Happened to My Future?

    In 1965, at the age of thirteen, I was confident that long before the 21st century rolled around I’d be living on Mars. It wasn’t a fantasy, but faith in the future. At twelve I had given up Christianity and God, exchanging that belief system for science and the acceptance in my heart of hearts that the manifest destiny of humankind was in traveling to the stars. During my junior high school years I acquired a sense of existentialism that told me there was absolutely no meaning in the universe. Our job was to go forth make our own meaning – with the silly understanding that we’d find it light-years away. It wasn’t a bleak nihilistic headspace, but one freeing me from the past burden of superstition and theological brain washing. I was a skinny geek who discovered science fiction.

    This was a couple years before Star Trek when there were few science fiction fans. 1965 was a transitional period between the fading out of the Happy Days 1950s and the Psychedelic 1960s. The Vietnam War had begun in earnest, the Great Society was the political keyword of the day, battles for civil rights were in full swing and the race for the Moon was well underway with the Gemini rockets taking men into space for two week trips. Science books of 1965 painted a panoramic future unfolding step-by-step that would take men to the planets. Was I so wrong to believe I could be walking on Mars by the 1990s?

    What went wrong? I’m not the only person who took up these beliefs. There were millions like myself. In 1965 the Earth had three billion commuters riding around the sun. One percent would have been thirty million people. I doubt the hard-core believers in science fiction ever numbered more than three million. One tenth of one percent of the population doesn’t make critical mass to change the future. Today, I would guess there are far more people calling themselves science fiction fans in the United States, but all that means is they like Star Wars and Spielberg movies. I don’t think the percentage of science fiction fans that are true believers of space exploration ever grew greater than it was back in 1965.

    In 1965 science fiction meant you believed in space travel. All the other tropes of the genre were just gee-whiz sense of wonder roller coaster riding. No true fan believed in time travel, psychic powers, supermen or immortality – those ideas were just repackaged myths. Serious speculation was spent on robotics and artificial intelligence but no one even dreamed of the Internet. All the hard core believers thought about two things: traveling to the stars and meeting intelligent aliens.

    Space travel never took off and for all our efforts to find little green men we find ourselves alone in this universe. Forty years later science fiction has woven a baroque wealth of fantasies but we’re still all living on Earth and the future seems no more than waiting for next fall’s TV season or maybe the next generation iPod.

    Would my life have been that much better if I was living on Mars? Is the failure of a childhood fantasy all that tragic? If I had made it to Mars, the reality of such a life would be harsh beyond anything I can comprehend. Was it the challenge that I miss? Living on Mars would have meant living underground, struggling with limited resources to survive in an enviornment of rusty rocks and little to breathe. And even if mankind had gone to Mars, it’s doubtful that I had the right stuff required to get there. I think why I’m really disappointed is because no one lives on Mars! In the future of my thirteen year old self, people were heading to the stars – whatever that meant. My life has been one of work and watching humans destroy their environment and kill each other in endless petty wars. Maybe I’m disappointed in the human race.

    The other transcending fantasies of my sixties upbringing was sex, drugs and rock and roll. I still listen to the old music, but drugs and free sex never panned out because of their cousins: death and disease. Stranger in a Strange Land, the epic wish-fulfilling sci-fi novel of the hippie sixties, is a pathetic story advocating nudity, wife swapping and an endless supply of subserviant nubile young women for old men. Sure it promised life after death, pantheism and the unlimited power of thought, but so has a bunch of other religions. I remember being kids in the sixties waiting for the school bus and discussing the coming revolution – so many of us expected to grow up in a brave new world. At least I got computers and the Internet.

Strangely enough, many of the young Internet billionaires are putting their money into space travel. The dream doesn’t die. However, there is still no critical mass that wants humans to colonize space. President Bush advocated returning to the Moon in his plans for NASA two years ago, but the new Congress is already planning to remove that money from the budget. Most young people seem content with science fiction movies, books and video games – preferring fantasy over reality. I doubt if I wait another forty years if the future will ever catch up with my childhood dreams.

 

    

The Religion that Failed to Achieve Orbit

    For seventy-five years during the 20th century there flourished a minor religion called science fiction. Most religions speculate about life in the heavens after death – this radical religion promoted life in the heavens during life – a startling proposition for its prophets. By advocating the power of mankind over the power of God it attracted millions of believers. Sadly, this unique religion was short lived because the miracles promised by science fiction were undermined by gritty details of reality. The priests of science fiction failed to observe that any religion that makes promises about the here and now fail quickly.

    Science fiction held that applied science would lead to transcending everyday life on Earth. This was science fiction’s major appeal because most of the 20th century aptly demonstrated the success of applied technology. Science fiction suffered its ironic collapse due to the success of space travel. Six manned trips to the Moon quashed all desire for further explorations of the heavens by the general public. It was rocks, more rocks and icy rocks all the way to the stars. Mars the most romantic of science fiction’s destinations turned out to be paradise that only geologists could love.

    The tenets of science fiction were often similar to older religions, and it eventually parried the promise of everlasting life after death with immortal life on Earth. Science fiction told its adherents not to seek to be the children of God, but instead told them to bury God and become the creators of their own destiny. Science fiction even named its rockets after gods – Mercury, Atlas, Saturn and Apollo.

    Why did this remarkable religion fail? Did it promise miracles it could not deliver? Could it be resurrected with a new testament? Is it possible to satisfy humans with a transcendental experience based in the physical world? Why do the majority of humans prefer the promises of the next world over the reality of this world?

    Science fiction like many failed religions before it has become the providence of fanciful mythic tales. Years from now, such as the distance in time from the ancient Greeks to our times, humans will marvel at the fantastic beliefs of the people from the twentieth century.     

Time Travel

Looking at photos is time traveling. They say a picture is worth a thousand words – I think that’s underestimating the value of a photo. I’m the kid in the cowboy hat and my sister is dressed as a cowgirl. I had just turned seven. Before looking at this photo I could not have told you anything about Christmas 1958. Seeing this photo is triggering all kinds of memories. However, this photo has more details than any of my memories. I don’t know about people with photographic/mnemonic memories, but my memories are vague hazy affairs – more words than images. For example, I vaguely remember getting those cowboy outfits for Christmas. I remember playing quickdraw with my sister. I remember one time she invented a move that blew me away. We went to draw and she dropped to the floor and shot looking up. I thought at the time what a brilliant move for a girl. What a brilliant move for anyone thinking about it now. On TV cowboys always stood up to shoot at each other. What a radical idea to make yourself small and hard to shoot. Maybe it was a bit cowardly looking in terms of gunfighting ethics, but who cares, you’re trying to kill the other guy and stay alive.

See, that memory is really all words. I remember the gunfight took place across the street where a girlfriend of my sister lived. I can’t remember her name or what she looked like – I didn’t remember her at all until I recalled this memory. And I just remembered something else. The doors on our houses opened out, and that girl taught us how to break in by sliding a thin blade between the door and jam and forcing the curved end lock bolt to spring back. Pretty cool for little kids – and we went around the neighborhood trying it on on different doors. I don’t think we met any grown-ups. They might have been around but they obviously fear not from our gang of five to seven year olds.

That memory is also words – and words inspired by a photograph. If I wanted to I could study the photo above and conjure up even more details and incidents – all adding up to a lot more than a thousand words.

What I’m fascinated by is the clarity of the photo in terms of representing reality. Memories are dark cloudy things compared to this photo. Recording reality is one of my favorite topics. High definition video is the ultimate tool for recreating reality. Imagine if we were all given tiny HD cameras that we wore our whole life. Then anytime we wanted we could check back on any event in time. How would that change the world? Video has sound and that really adds more than one dimension to capturing reality. If only that photo above was a video and the camera man had taken time to interview us four kids. I have no memory of who took that photo. I have no memory of what I was thinking at that moment. This was before I read books, magazines or newspapers, so my sense of the world was rather limited. I watched a lot of TV, especially cartoons and kid shows.

If I had had a blog back then I’d probably be comparing Zorro and Paladin, from Have Gun Will Travel, or philosophising about which show had the cooler parents, Donna Reed, Ozzie and Harriet, Danny Thomas or Leave it to Beaver by comparing which kids got to have the most fun. I didn’t watch the news so my blog wouldn’t have had any comments about politics, world affairs or even the beginning of the space race which captured my attention in 1961.

TV was my life at age seven – I mean I don’t remember much about second grade, other than I had a crush on my teacher, Miss Huling. I even pretended to not print my letters correctly so she’d keep me after class for extra lessons. For the most part I lived in kidland. My father was in the Air Force and spent most of his time away from home. I don’t remember what my mother did. Sometimes she worked and we had baby sitters. I have very few memories of either parents from that time – most of my memories deal with the kids in the photo above – from kidland. That house and neighborhood was the key site of my childhood.

You see, the more time I spend with this photo, the more things I can dredge up from 1958. In the creative non-fiction writing class I took a couple years ago, my teacher Kristen Iversen told me that when you start working with writing memoirs you can train yourself to recover lost memories. They are there, you just have to find the links to snag them. Photos are one key for that. Another is books. I use The Complete Directory To Prime Time Network TV Shows to find clues to my early days. Since television was the dominant source of external information for a seven year old in 1958, it’s a vital tool. To a lesser extent information about current events of the time may trigger a memory. I usually start with Wikipedia’s Year listing. The only 1958 clue here is the reference to the F-104 Starfighter, my favorite jet plane as a kid, however I doubt if I knew about this plane at age seven, the year it was introduced, but it’s possible I had seen it on TV. They used to close out TV at night showing a F-104, if memory serves me correctly, and reading a poem about a pilot touching the face of god. I’d love to see that film clip now. Maybe it would trigger additional memories.

As a kid growing up in the middle of the twentieth century I was obsessed with science fiction. I really wanted to travel in space and time. Most people who dream of time travel dream of jumping to historical times and meeting up with famous people. I think I would rather go back and visit myself and ask, “Why the hell are you wasting so much goddamn time watching TV. Do something to give us better memories for the future.”

 

 

1,001 Photos

I’ve started the daunting task of converting our family photos to digital. My wife and I have boxes of photos – our photos, and the photos we’ve inherited from our parents. Plus my wife was an amateur photographer for awhile and she has hundreds more photos that aren’t related to family history. If I converted them all, I’d have a hobby that would keep me busy for the next couple years. How many photos do you really need to document a life? Since digital cameras came on the scene, I’ve noticed at holidays and parties more people snapping shots to record the events.

Our niece Hillary had a birthday Saturday night with three photographers. I wonder if she will have those photos when she gets old and what she will think about them. The difference between film and digital photos is quantity. The old film photos are rare treasures. Maybe more photos were taken, and all the poor shots were thrown away over the years, but it seems like digital cameras let people take more photos by several magnitudes. Now-a-days, My Photos folder has thousands of shots, and converting the film and slides will only add to the giant digital pile. How many photos are really needed to document a life?

I have damn few photos of my life before thirty. I wish I had more. I didn’t own a camera until I was sixteen, and then I took pictures of other people. My parents had an ancient Kodak from before I was born that was used ocassionally. I often sit and think about people I knew and places I lived and wished I had a photo to help my memory. This has gotten me to think about how I wished I had documented my life. If I had one photo a week of my family and friends for my life I’d have about 3,000 photos. That’s probably too many. I don’t even have one a year of myself, which would be just 55 photos. If I had taken one a month to chronicle my life, I’d have 660 photos. That still might be too many, but I’m not sure. I think I would have liked four photos a year of myself, either alone or with family and friends just to document how we’ve all aged, and show how fashions have changed. That would be 220 photos. That’s not a bad number.

That doesn’t really cover all the people I’d like to have photos of. I’d like a photo of all my teachers, and at least group class shots of all my classesmates. Then there are the non-people photos. I would like to have had a photo of every house I lived in, and a photo of each room, and the yard and surrounding neighborhood. I’d like photos of all my schools, and photos of the classrooms. Things are adding up here. Then there are the vacations, school trips, clubs, weddings, funerals, and other special events.

Chronicling a life is adding up to a lot of photos. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a photo repository we could all share? You login and list when and where you lived and what schools you went to and then it would tell you if it had any photos of those times and places. Take for instance the photo above. That’s Patty on the left, and my sister Becky on the right, and my friend Michael Kevin Ralph from April, 1959. It was taken in the subdivision called Lake Forest, near Hollywood, Florida. Maybe Mike and Patty would like to see that photo now. Maybe their parents took photos with me and my sister in them.

Who knows how many photos are out there that would help my memory. I sure would give a lot to see photos taken of me and my classmates in our classrooms. The twelve years from grade one to grade twelve were the longest twelve years of my life, the most memorable, and the most forgotten. I have no photos of any of my teachers – not a one. I can’t remember what they looked like, except for Mrs. Travis, my twelth grade English teacher. I have a vague memory of her – but that’s because I once had a photograph of her, but it’s long lost. I only have one photograph of all my fellow students – and that’s because we’ve remained friends all these years and I have photos of him taken many years after he left school.

If you are young and reading this, my advice is to take your digital camera with you and take photos of all these things because one day you’ll become old like me and wish you had images to prompt your memory. I don’t know why, but school days are very memorable and very forgetable. Try as I might, I can’t remember any whole day. I can’t even remember a portion of a day, from my school days. All I remember are tiny events. I don’t know how people write memoirs.

I’ve taken classes in creative non-fiction that deal with writing memoirs and I’m amazed at what some people claim to remember. It’s not practical to remember everything, but I’d love to remember a few whole days – days that told a good story. I wish they had had blogs when I was growing up and I wish that on a few special days I would have chronicled with words and photographs what I did for twenty-four hours.

For instance, my dad took me and my friends Connell and George to see the Apollo 8 launch. That would have been a good day to have documented. I think when I get really old I’d like a book with 1,001 photos of my life. Too many to look at in one sitting, but enough that I could grasp the big picture of it all.

Beautiful Bassett Hound and Really Big Lobster

In my dream I was outside, in a public place. There were no buildings. I saw a few trees in planters. A man stood talking to a group of people. I was one of them. We sat on rock benches and I felt I was in a class. The man talking was a teacher, a Socrates like character. I see the last page of a book. The teacher asks us about the last scene of a book. I’m only vaguely aware of the title of the book, but throughout the dream I struggle to grasp the title. Eventually my confused mind labels it The Great Gatsby. I turn to the back of the book and read the last scene.

“Hey, I don’t remember this scene, and I’ve read this book three times!” I exclaim without hearing my voice. There are only a handful of students around the teacher and we’re all quiet. The teacher pushes us for an answer again. I make a suggestion that I know is wrong and stupid as soon as I say it and the teacher gives some wise reply that shoots me down. In the dream it almost feels like I’m saying real words, or even reading real words, but really it’s only vague concepts and squiggles that look like words. Communicating in dreams is like telepathy.

I can tell there are two characters in the scene. I reread the scene again. For some reason an image of a giant lobster interrupts the dream and I flash on this idea. “One of the characters in the scene is God.” The teacher agrees and the other students start talking excitedly. I study and study the scene but can’t figure out what’s happening. Has a character died and gone to heaven and is talking to God? Or has God come down into the world to tell him something?

Then I have an image of a beautiful bassett hound running, with its huge floppy ears flying around its head. I don’t connect any meaning and all I feel is the desire to buy a bassett hound – could this be a form of subliminal advertising? Then I return to the outdoor classroom and struggle to make something out of the last scene again. We all make suggestions but the teacher isn’t happy but I feel somewhat pleased that I discovered that the mysterious character was God. The dream fades away and I awake.

It’s fascinating to play amateur scientist and try to discover how dreams work. I think there is a mind that experiences dreams that is different from the mind of the waking me. I call it the narrator. This narrator may be a mechanism that the waking me also uses, but I see “the me” of dreams separate from “the me” who is writing this. When you are in a semi-wakeful state you can observe this narrator in action. Random images will appear and bits of meaning will pop into your mind. Dreams appear to be built on a series of still images or crude moving images that the narrator comments on. The narrator makes up meaning for the images. The dream me acts on those suggested meanings.

Take for instance the dream above. I saw a man standing and with a handful of people sitting around him. The narrator informs me without words, “a teacher and his students.” That image could have been anything. The narrator sees the last page of a book and supplies, “the teacher wants to know the meaning of the last scene in the book.” The sleeping me, that is the mechanism of self-awareness, is very dormant but I relate to one of the students. The “me” in the dream isn’t aware of the narrator – it experiences the series of images and thoughts the narrator provides as a whole story.

On rare ocassions I’ve had vivid dreams where the waking “me” is the dream “me.” However, it’s an illusion. If the waking “me” tries to guide the dream it will destroy the dream. The sleeping “me” is passive and must watch the dream like a movie. If the “waking me” tries to think and override the narrator, the dream will fall apart and I’ll awake.

I think the narrator mechanism works in waking life too. If you are at a restaurant and see a young couple sit down nearby, the narrator might tell you, “See that couple, they are on their first date. See how they act nervous…” The narrator can be very convincing, even to the point where you believe it and think what you are seeing is real. This is why cops say they saw a gun when they didn’t. The narrator can see something and tell the cop it’s a gun. The narrator can be very powerful. The narrator thinks much faster than normal self-aware thinking.

Usually dreams relate to the previous days events, but the above dream doesn’t remind me of anything that happened yesterday. I was an English major in college, so the dream does make sense to me. I’m used to trying to figure out what books mean. I’m used to the anxiety of having a professor put pressure on a class to supply an answer. The Great Gatsby is a book that is taught a lot, and last week I read an article suggesting it was the great American novel. I have no idea why the lobster and bassett hound popped into the dream, but the narrator quickly used the one image and made it fit into the story. Maybe if the bassett hound would have stayed long enough the narrator would have made up a new story for the dreamer, a new dream.

Fiction and story telling seem to be at the heart of our minds. We look out at the world and see trees and mountains. It doesn’t take long before we’re making up stories about fairies living the in the trees and gods living on the mountains. Zen masters try to break their students of this habit – to see the world as it is without the stories, but that’s a very hard habit to break. Think of the war in Iraq. Imagine all the stories created by all sides of the conflict. Just think, the Sunnis and the Shiites are killing each other over stories made up thirteen centuries ago. It’s no wonder that some people believe that even our waking real world is a dream, a nightmare.

And finally, at a meta-level, notice how I can take tiny events in my life and turn them into a narrative structure. Observe the narrator.

Heaven, Hell, and the Other Places

I died in my dreams last night. No biggie, I’ve died in my dreams several times over the years. Dying in dreamland is intense. Yesterday I was having some minor heart trouble and last night I dreamed my heart stopped. I felt myself falling. My last thought was, “Here I go” with a sense of complete acceptance, and I let go. All details around me fell away, and the final thing I was aware of was a dull gray light. Everything stopped. That’s when I woke up. It was quite a relief to wake up and be alive. I love being alive.

Dreamland is such a strange place. I’ve died before, and once came to, floating up towards heaven before waking up. My cousins and I had been riding in the back of a station wagon and we were hit by another car with a tremendous bang. Then blackness. Going to heaven was the scariest dream I ever had. I think it was my first time to die in a dream. I’ve since died a few times from endlessly falling into hell. It’s easier to die the atheist’s death where I collapse into black nothingness. It’s always a trauma to survive death and come to in again, and still be in dreamland. Sometimes the shift is to a pleasant new life but the transition is scary. Other times its overhelming and I wake up in a sweat and panic. Then there are times when I come to and I’m living again on another world or in another life. I don’t believe any of these events have real relationship with reality, but I can see how lots of wild ideas got started in the real world over the centuries.

On these other worlds I’ve been flying creatures, swimming creatures and tree swinging creatures. I’ve always assume my brain created these roles for me because I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy. I remember one time dying and ending up in bed with an attractive matronly woman in her sixties, whom I eventually realized was God. Now that was unnerving. What would Freud have made of that? I was over fifty at the time, but I still wonder if God had any age of consent laws to deal with. She had been jolly, warm and caring and when I woke up, I was reminded of when I was a kid and how I felt about big soft grandmotherly women with ample bosoms.

I wonder how many concepts have come into the world from dreams. Reincarnation feels like an idea generated by dreamland. Did people think of talking animals before they dreamed of them? I remember a beautiful dream of being a part of a troop of monkeys, and being in love with a girl monkey. I never knew if we were Earthly monkeys, or monkey-like creatures living on another world. Did we imagine aliens living on other worlds or did our dreams paint those sense of wonder creatures in our mind. I tend to believe that all mysticism comes from dreams or hallicinations, which to me are dreams that leak out into the waking world. Primative people talk much of dreamtime.

I am reminded of a title of a book about Philip K. Dick – “What If Our World Is Their Heaven.” I’ve been to many heavens and hells, to many alien worlds, in my dreams, and I’ve never visited a world that could top our world no matter how wild my imagination got. If there is a heaven, it is this world.