Category Archives: Leaving Hotel California

Satire, first and foremost, about politics, spirituality, and the things we do for love.

Three Times a Wood Passes for Rain

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That is the line I woke up with a few weeks ago. Three times a wood passes for rain. It gripped me and I rushed to write it down before it vanished. As I wrote, there spilled out from behind it a whole dream that was just as poetic and mysterious. In the final scene, I am sitting on the lawn of my parent’s house, next to my mother’s casket.

I think about the dream a lot, but only now do I have the first idea what that opening line means. And that is because I went to Jenya’s memorial on Sunday.

drive up from seattle to vancouver

Jenya Bohr was an aikido buddy of mine, but our deeper bond came from his role as high school teacher to my son Bowen and nephew Alex. Jenya helped Bowen graduate when he only wanted to take junior college classes. And he helped Alex graduate by putting up with way more than he should have. But being an effective teacher to Alex meant propping him up, being in turns cajoling and reassuring, overlooking his massive academic failures, and constantly believing in the good he had inside him. Jenya excelled at that.

This Samhain was the third anniversary of Alex’s death, and I managed to get through it without too much extra heartache. But on Sunday I found myself crying with several of Alex’s old teachers at the memorial, not just for Jenya but for Alex. One teacher told me she’d had a dream the night before Jenya died that she went to visit and he was dead, smiling with his eyes wide open. Her immediate thought was, “I have to tell Alex!” which woke her up, because she remembered Alex is already dead and therefore Jenya must be, too.

Alex’s death flipped a switch in me. I grew up with a highly developed instinct for managing unpredictable behavior. Being the family harmonizer, the “responsible one,” became second nature to me, so I recreated my starring role early on by marrying a borderline personality and having kids young. I had enough energy for all of that, then Alex joined us and it all got turned up to eleven, all the time.

While raising three children, then four with Alex, then five the next year as his sister Rose came to live with us too, I clung to aikido like a mast in a storm. It was what I did to find my center, and to breathe and move from there in relation to others, even multiple attackers. Aikido absolutely got me through those years, re-patterning me so that I no longer tolerated anyone who kept trying to knock me off-center, unless it was an actual teenager under my care. And once the teenagers started moving out there was no more organizing principle for the marriage, so it too went away.

There is the normal pace of healing when we change the habits of a lifetime, and then there is the turbo-charged version. Alex’s death brought me to an unbearable rawness, as I faced once and for all the limits of my power and responsibility. I began setting new standards for relationships of all kinds, and held to them no matter the consequences. Internally, I ruthlessly weeded out old emotional patterns that kept me off-center, losing 35 pounds in the process. As a result, I am happier and healthier now than I have ever been. 

In my dream, there is an implication that after the third time something changes. The woods do not pass for rain. What is seen is fully revealed. There is also a vein of premonition through the dream, as my mother’s advancing Alzheimer’s registers in that stark final image. May her current quality of life continue for a long time.

Three years have passed since Alex’s death, since the turbo-charged period of change began that led me to this place. Yet it is never a far walk back to the grief, despair and loneliness that his death also ushered in. Jenya’s memorial reminded me of this fact. I walked through those woods again, and came out the other side. And today it is raining for the first time all season.

The Obligatory Grateful Dead Post

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After eight years of blogging I am finally correcting a major oversight. I can’t very well be a late-Boomer Bay Area native and not write at least once about the Grateful Dead; it just isn’t done. So here goes.

The Grateful Dead were once as ubiquitous as tie-dye on Telegraph Ave. They played constantly, both locally and on tour, and their New Years Eve shows at the Oakland Auditorium were legendary. As a teenager I was too much of a musical snob to pay them much attention. Their music seemed rambling, disjointed, and not very interesting. But once in college I thought maybe I was missing out on something big—if not musically then at least culturally.

Dropping acid and seeing the Dead is what passed for a rite of passage in some circles. I had lost track of the number of friends who returned wide-eyed from what they termed a transformative experience at a Dead show. So in spite of the fact that I didn’t particularly like the Dead or want to try acid, I figured I should go to a show while I was still young and impressionable enough to “get it.”

The summer I turned 18 provided a fantastic opportunity. I was living in Berkeley, and saw on a telephone pole (a.k.a. the “internet”) a notice for a Green Tortoise bus trip to Alaska. The Tortoise was infamous, a company that converted old buses into funky touring vehicles. Outfitted with two drivers, a few seats in the front and a giant platform bed in the back, the Green Tortoise drove big, wild groups of people up and down the coast, across the country, and on other special trips.

This particular summer of 1980 they’d decided to go to Alaska for one reason only: the Dead were playing Anchorage on the Summer Solstice! How great would it be to drive a random bunch of freaks through Canada and the Yukon and descend on Anchorage for the show, while the sun never sets? Add to that visits to the Kenai Peninsula, Fairbanks and the majestic Denali, and it was hardly an adventure I could let pass me by. I spent the rest of my scholarship money on a bus ticket and a backpack, and I was in.

Anne on the Green Tortoise, June 1980I didn’t know anyone else going on the trip, but that did not deter me in the least. I have never had a problem striking off on my own into unfamiliar places, making friends along the way. Unfortunately, it proved harder to do on this trip than I had imagined.

Three girls my age from Texas were my first disappointment. They wore makeup every day, didn’t read, and clearly were only interested in male companionship. A 33-year-old French Canadian playboy dealer who listened to Bruce Cockburn hooked up with one of the girls, causing a couple nights of great embarrassment for a grandmother traveling with her cute 9-year-old grandson. There were also a few older single men and women on the bus, an ex-felon or two, and a couple certifiable nuts.

I did make some friends, but there was no real easy bonding on this trip. When a guy wearing a poncho and cowboy hat and nothing else comes to breakfast with his bullwhip and starts yelling at people for no apparent reason, it sets up a tension within the group that is hard to overcome.

We stayed one night near Mt. St. Helens, where every surface in the campground was covered with a layer of ash from its recent eruption. Crossing the border into Canada took a while because of someone’s arrest record. But eventually they let us all through and we were off to the Yukon, where the road was still dirt in some places. I never imagined getting tired of seeing beautiful forests dotted with occasional deep blue lakes, but on this trip I learned that it was possible. The beauty and the distances were astonishing.

When we got to Anchorage, our first order of business was to find tickets to the show. Outside the auditorium was the usual phalanx of Deadheads from all over, sitting in line or playing frisbee on the lawns. As we went into the show our resident dealer doled out the acid, and I was on my way. It was now or never. I would either “get” this band or be doomed to the sidelines forever.

What I remember most about the concert was the bad sound. It was like a high school PA system cranked up past the boiling point. Relax, I told myself, just let the music wash over you. I knew how to do this, it wasn’t like I’d never been to a rock concert before. But the tinny treble, mushy bass and incoherent lyrics just went on and on, and didn’t do the band’s sloppy playing any favors. If there was a transformation going on here, it wasn’t into anything good.

My second strongest memory was the people. Beautiful people my age with wide-open faces who stared at total strangers like me as if we were newly discovered best friends. They danced up to me smiling, then whirled away when I didn’t meet their gaze with the same intensity of surrender. My big revelation that night was that this was not my tribe, though at the time it just felt like sadness and possibly failure.

I kept my revelation to myself and let loneliness wash over me. If I were back home I would have somewhere to go. Here in Anchorage I waited out the rest of the show on the sidelines, and walked back to the bus with the rest of the Tortoise travelers in the night’s continuous dawn.

The trip was life-changing for other reasons. I met a woman who studied herbalism with Rosemary Gladstar in Sebastopol. This was the first time I’d heard about Sebastopol, then a ranching town with a small enclave of hippies and herbalists. Eight years later I told my mother-in-law about the town, and shortly afterward moved there with my young family.

One Tortoise friend I stayed in touch with for a few years was Louie X. Heinrich. We were driving in his car across the Bay Bridge when John Lennon was shot, and shared our grief as his music played on the radio. Louie gave me a place to stay when I left Big Sur and settled in Santa Cruz, and our friendship included a funny ongoing game about being aliens and the general strangeness of humanity.

Louie died way too young, at 39, a fact I just learned while writing this piece. He never quite found his tribe, while I was lucky enough to fall into a great one in Santa Cruz by the time I turned 21.

As I write this in a Mendocino café, “Ship of Fools” just came on the radio. How fitting. The Dead as a phenomenon deeply affected an entire generation. But the shadow of all that openness and saucer-eyed belonging was an alienation and self-destructive urge that caused so many to lose their way.

I did not have the language and discernment at 18 to verbalize what I felt, but at least some innate stubbornness held me back from the lure of that experience. And I discovered Bruce Cockburn at the same time, which overall was a very good outcome. I wish I could say that Louie had the same good outcome, after suffering so much hardship early in life. I don’t know how he died, but wherever he is I’ll bet it’s a much better place.

Louie X Heinrich

The Art of Community

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It was a running joke in the old Reclaiming Collective that “The Future of the Collective” would always be an item on our meeting agenda, and we would always run out of time before addressing it. The joke lasted for years, and provided a refreshing bit of honesty about our ambivalence toward maturing as an organization and community. 

We were an action-oriented group, always organizing the next ritual or set of classes, and many of us worked together in other direct action groups as well. So there was some measure of pride in saying that we were too busy doing things to sit back and wonder why we were doing them, or where it all might lead. That was fine for slower-moving, less radical organizations, but not for us. It just wasn’t in our DNA.

Living in the moment, moving by the tides and dealing with only what is immediate and unavoidable is a great way to test yourself, learn new things, and form bonds of kinship. But while some of those bonds may stand the test of time, most dissolve as quickly as the moments that produced them. Reclaiming proved to be far better at creating moments than building anything meaningful or lasting, but it did teach me a whole lot about what community really means.

Community is who shows up. If you are going through a tough time and have been brought to your knees, who calls to check in? Who comes over to help? Who can you count on through thick and thin? That’s your community, like it or not.

When I went through my own hell realm a few years ago, what made it all the more painful was noticing who responded to my calls for help. Many people I assumed were my close-in community were nowhere to be found, while others I hadn’t considered inner circle ended up there because they wanted me to count on them, no matter what.

I took the lesson, and completely re-arranged my notion of who my community really was. The process has also made me acutely aware of where I put my energy. Where does my heart lie? Who is family to me? That is who I show up for.

My friend (and former neighbor) Peter Laufer wrote of our town:

A town’s character is influenced by its physical location and its architecture. But its mythology and sense of self develops as events occur.

The art of community is building that mythology through the repetition of physical actions that improve the group’s overall health and goodwill. It turns out that community has very little to do with a shared worldview, the number of meetings attended, or the intention with which it formed in the first place.

Moments are fun, and can be meaningful, but showing up is the sinew that makes a community somewhere you want to stay for the long term, maybe a lifetime. There is an art to that, yes, but it is also a practice. And for that, you don’t need an agenda item.

Office Supplies and the End of the World

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Last weekend my friend Claude told me a great story from the recent Bioneers Conference, where R. Carlos Nakai spoke about his recent trip to meet with Mayan elders.

Carlos Nakai asked these Mayan elders about the end of their calendar, and just what the heck it all meant. Was it really true that their ancient calendar was coming to an end next month?

They answered yes, that was true.

“Well,” he asked, “what happens then?”

To which the Mayan elders replied, “We make a new one.”

In that moment it all became clear to me. Maybe you see where I am going with this already. If not, just think of all the months and years we have had to endure the endless 2012 prophecies, the New Age screeds with terrible graphics, the Christian fundamentalist cults, the incessant Facebook posts about paradigm shifts, eclipses, stone tablets, and ominous political movements.

It has all been completely unbearable, but after hearing Claude’s story I felt instantly better. Because it turns out the solution to all this doom-mongering is not global social upheaval at all—far from it.

In the end, the only thing that can restore balance to our tattered world is something we really should have thought of sooner: office supplies.

When you think about it, office supplies have been at the root of so many world civilizations meeting their demise. Either they’re writing down things they shouldn’t, or hiding them somewhere then forgetting where they put them, or in some cases neglecting to record the most important things, and suddenly all is lost.

No one seriously considers paper clips, until it is too late. But now we are presented with a golden opportunity to reverse the trend and end this profound clerical error. All it will take is for each of us to go to our nearest office supply store, buy an adequate amount of paper (all sizes), pens (let’s get different widths and colors just in case), scissors and push pins, and send them to the Mayan elders, c/o Guatemala.

Then when everyone comes down from Mt. Shasta, or Macchu Picchu, or wherever else they’re going this Winter Solstice, they’ll fire up their mobile devices and there, like a modern-day Christmas miracle, will be a deluge of posts and re-tweets of pictures from the sacred council chambers of Central America, where the Mayan elders will have revealed their brand new calendar!

Then maybe our millennial fever will finally play itself out, and we can all get to work cleaning things up and solving tough problems, the stuff that post-its just won’t fix.

On Relationships: Beware the Fig Newton Syndrome

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During a break-up, it is natural to sift through your memories to see if there were early warning signs that the marriage was in trouble. This is an understandable process, as our minds try through hindsight to make logical sense of things. It is a way to deal with the pain of having something so central to your life no longer exist in quite the same way. Of course the relationship still exists, just as a brown dwarf star skulking around the galaxy can still technically be considered a continuation of the once-glorious star that got too hot and exploded all over everything, leaving only a hollowed-out flickering remnant of its former self. Unfortunately we now have to count on the brown dwarf star for financial help with our daughter’s college, though now that he has been exposed as a fading ember of the man he once was, the chances of him being true to his word are fading just as rapidly.

Searching posthumously for the early signs of collapse is tricky, because in any relationship there are difficult spots right from the start, disagreements, misunderstandings, and simple events that in retrospect can seem fraught with meaning. What is more, the defining moments that stand out in one person’s mind as a perfect crystallization of all that was to come are going to be very different from the moments that occur to the other person. But since you are now separate people and don’t have to put up with the other person’s clearly erroneous and narcissistic view of your former marriage, this should not trouble you.

There is a difference, however, between moments which exemplify a particular character trait and moments which warn of impending collapse. Just because a single moment teaches us something profound about our partner doesn’t mean that revelation will lead to the break-up of the marriage. As it happens, I have an example of each of these from the early days of my relationship to share with you now. Continue reading

Does Your Religion Pass the Briefcase Test?

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I am proud to be a citizen of the United States, a country that is a beacon of liberty and religious tolerance for the rest of the world. I am all for freedom of religion too, yet there are some religions that I have a very big problem with. Specifically, religions that hold truck with locked briefcases.

I became aware of this fact while reading a recent article about Scientology. At one point the article describes some secret documents at the core of Scientology—maybe the ones about hydrogen bombs being dropped by aliens into Earth’s volcanoes 75,000,000 years ago, I’m not sure. When you reach an exalted level of Scientology, you bring your own locked briefcase to a desk, someone puts a few sheets of paper into it, you go to a secure room, unlock the briefcase, and then you can read these documents—once—before returning them the same way.

I read this and was repulsed. What deluded Sci Fi fan club would actually believe that reading a short story could cause physical harm to non-believers? And what group of people would be so daft as to accept anything transported by locked briefcase as God’s revealed truth—or even God’s working draft?

My repulsion lasted all of 30 seconds, however, before I realized that the incident was ringing a bell. Yes, I too was once involved with a briefcase-carrying sect, and lived to tell the tale. And not to be outdone by any two-bit space aliens, my story has handcuffs as well. Let me explain.

This particular group is still active, so let’s fictionalize it a little bit: it is hereby the Dairy tradition. In the Dairy tradition, you always leave little saucers of milk outside for the nature spirits and feral cats in your neighborhood. Dairy people are big on leaving offerings, which came naturally to me with so many teenagers in my house at the time. Communing with the spirits was just like doing a huge Costco shop one day, only to find that everything had mysteriously disappeared by the next morning. Practical spirituality like this suited my lifestyle, and I felt I had found my place among kindred souls.

One of the first things I noticed about Dairy lore it was its six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon-esque ability to be secretly connected to everyone else’s mythology. Celtic legends, it turns out, were suffused with ancient Dairy secrets, as were Hawaiian, South African, and Tibetan shamanic practices. Those early Dairy masters really got around!

Dairy people also felt very connected to the stars, and had elaborate means of contacting entities in the Milky Way and beyond, though as Sci Fi-inspired spirituality goes we were much more influenced by Lovecraft than Hubbard or even Heinlein. The smaller the sect, the more important these distinctions are.

Anyway, at one point my friends and I reached an exalted level of Dairydom, and were given copies of some short fiction, poetry, and arcane instruction written by early Dairy adherents. We dutifully studied the documents looking for something profound and earth-shattering, but came away scratching our heads wondering what if anything it all meant.

I privately dismissed most of it as the mumblings of drug-enhanced hippies who would never win a writing contest, but my friends were generally more tolerant. Then we got embroiled in an inter-Dairy feud about who should be allowed to read what, and soon we were visited by a Very Important Person who could either vouch for us, or banish us to the outer Dairy darkness.

He entered through the kitchen door and greeted us haltingly, with barely a smile. He couldn’t even shake our hands, because his right hand was still holding a briefcase that was not only locked but shackled to his wrist with handcuffs. All we could do was stare at the briefcase, stare at his graven face, and wonder what either held.

After sweeping his gaze around the room to be sure we were alone, he solemnly produced a key to the handcuffs, released his wrist, laid the case on the kitchen table, turned the combination locks, and opened it. Before us lay a stack of copies from Kinkos, the same papers we had been poring over for weeks. But they were revealed to us now in their proper context: as documents so dangerous and sacred they could harm the uninitiated viewer. Documents that at least one person would die to protect.

I knew right then that I could not be that person. I was prepared to be convinced by Mr. Serious of the value of these pages, but realized instead that this religion relied on a giant game of chicken to keep proving its own importance. Not impressed with the handcuffs? Maybe next time the briefcase would be attached to someone with a giant piercing, just like they did in ancient Sumer.

Our group soon split up, and I quietly backed away from any deeper involvement with Dairy. By all accounts their game of chicken is still going strong, but I have no desire to hear any details. I can be tolerant of other religions, just like our Constitution says we’re supposed to be, but sometimes that is best accomplished through blissful ignorance. Meanwhile, if anyone comes around here proselytizing with a locked briefcase in hand, I do have a home piercing kit right by the front door.

On Relationships: The Importance of Juvenile Fiction

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My favorite books growing up, the ones I happily read over and over, were Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, a five-part mythological mystery adventure series set in post-war Britain and Wales, where a small troupe of plucky kids overcomes an ancient evil with the help of their Merlin-like great uncle. These books no doubt spurred my early interest in genealogy, as I kept secretly wishing I had such a man of mystery in my own family tree.

I would read all five books in order, savoring each one, then after spending a bit of time reading other books (to see if they were anywhere near as great), I would go back and read them again. I also loved Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, among many others, but they did not stand the test of time for me like Susan Cooper’s novels did.

Having favorite books as children is important as we develop adult relationships, too. In college, one of the standard questions I asked new acquaintances was what their favorite books were growing up. If their eyes lit up and they started jabbering wildly about their most beloved books, I knew that we could possibly be friends—though maybe not best friends if they thought My Friend Flicka was the best book they’d ever read. Yet friendship was still possible between us because we shared an essential type of imagination, whereas with those who didn’t love fiction as a child it was not.

Which is why I was mystified by the answer my first love, let’s call him Chester, gave to my all-important reading question. Chester was an imaginative, adventurous fellow, but he said that he didn’t have a favorite book or author growing up.

“Well, I mean, what were some of the titles that you read the most?” I asked on more than one occasion.

“I read the Horatio Hornblower books several times, those were good. I read the Swiss Family Robinson, Treasure Island—I read lots of books,” Chester replied almost defensively, “but I wouldn’t say I had a favorite.” He was certainly well-read, no doubt about it, but where was the gleam in his eyes, the sharp intake of breath as he described a book that had truly inspired him as a boy? I thought it odd, but took him at his word and chalked it up to It Takes All Kinds.

Eventually Chester and I got married and had children, and I thrilled to watch each of them fall in love with their own favorite books once they started reading. I figured that as long as they were arguing passionately about which was the better series, the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, they would probably turn out just fine.

As our children became teenagers, though, things between Chester and me grew more difficult. What had started for me as a vive la différence kind of marriage was degenerating into a “this strange guy and his intolerable habits” scenario. I started reading fiction again, which I’d had no time for while raising young children. Not just any fiction, either—I took up the lengthy, ambitious James Clavell novels set in the Far East. I began with Shōgun and worked my way forward chronologically from the 17th century to the present.

Then a funny thing happened. I was reading King Rat, Clavell’s novel about prisoners in a Japanese POW camp during World War II, when Chester’s eyes lit up. “Oh, I loved that book as a kid. I must have read it over a dozen times, and never got tired of it. King Rat, what a brilliant book!”

I was stunned. “Really?” I asked cautiously. “What did you like about it?”

“Well, the main character is just so smart! He outwits all the officers, has a hand in every black market deal on the island, keeps his men alive by being daring and clever, and basically thrives in an intolerable situation.” Chester face was glowing, his hands effortlessly animating his speech. My heart sank.

“But Chester, this book is about a sociopath! It’s like Hogan’s Heroes on steroids, true, but the guy is only out for himself and doesn’t care about anyone or anything. He cruelly manipulates his fellow prisoners, is uniformly hated by everyone, and ends up a lonely, ostracized pariah. Really, that’s the book you loved as a kid?”

I tried not to let my disappointment show, but I’m afraid it was evident. Here, finally, was the answer to a question I had been asking Chester all the years I’d known him. I had never given up searching for that clue to his early psyche, and now that he had revealed it, I was more troubled than ever.

Chester must have realized that he’d said too much, because he shrugged and walked away with a look that said that I would never understand. Later on he tried to backtrack, saying that King Rat was just another of the many books he had read and been influenced by as a kid. I pretended to believe him and let it go, but I never forgot the gleam in his eye I had glimpsed that day.

Inevitably, I guess, our marriage unravelled a few years later. Its demise is a long story—but entertaining!—that I will write about some other time. One of the things it taught me, though, is how right I’d been about what we read as kids. At first I believed Chester when he said he still cared about me even though we were breaking up, but I was deluding myself. I still imagined us as part of the same plucky group of kids who were working together to combat evil, whereas he was involved in a complex psychological thriller where only he would emerge the winner. Too bad he never stopped to consider how his story ends.

At the end of The Dark Is Rising books, the kids prevail in their quest—that is the good news at the end of this particular story. I never would have guessed that children’s fiction would be a lifeline during a long, drawn-out divorce, but it absolutely has been. So here are two essential pieces of relationship advice: first, read a lot of great fiction while you’re growing up. Second, look for partners who shared those early delights and inspirations, but only get involved if you’ve been on the same team from the start.

How Nora Ephron Ruined My Life

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My ruination at the hands of Nora Ephron began in 1978, when as a high school senior in Oakland I was able to take classes at UC Berkeley. This was a tremendous boon not just educationally but recreationally, as there were security guards constantly patrolling our high school parking lot, looking out for rebellious teens such as myself who might try to cut class and leave school early. Now, thanks to my special UCB privilege, I could leave anytime I wanted and they just waved me on. That was a huge improvement in my life thus far, and not anything Ms. Ephron should be faulted for.

I decided to take English 1A first, to get a required class out of the way, and strode into Wheeler Hall one afternoon to look at the print-out of all the TA’s who would be teaching different sections. I chose a cheerful-sounding woman who didn’t list any Shakespeare in her required reading list, because how bad could that be?

Beth, my TA, turned out to be 24 and cute as a button. She was like a 5’2″ Barbie doll, with gorgeous flouncy hair, a great smile, and sparkling blue eyes beneath very long lashes. She held her piece of chalk like it was a cigarette, which I thought tremendously sophisticated, and kept the class jocks in line by sassing them back. Beth was a bonafide liberated woman, as well as being a talented teacher, and she wasn’t going to teach from a standard-issue English text—she assigned us Nora Ephron’s recent book of essays, Crazy Salad.

Suddenly I entered a world in which women could not only sass back in person, but also in print. Ephron wrote about everything from Watergate to breasts, and even dared to title a chapter “Vaginal Politics.” Each week I sat in class, amazed that we were talking about Linda Lovelace and Martha Mitchell in the same breath. Each paper I wrote was a little gutsier, a little more humorous, than the last. Beth was very encouraging.

Of course it was not meant to last—anyone at the registrar’s office could have told me that—but the damage had been done. I had caught a glimpse of a world that didn’t actually exist, except for Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2:30–4:30 pm. In this world Nora Ephron’s writing was something to admire and emulate, which left me completely unprepared for what came next: Robin, the bitter TA who taught English 1B.

Robin’s pathway to a PhD was littered with the trampled dreams of every young woman in her classes who dared imagine that they could write. She threw us into the viper pit of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and stomped on our fingers, laughing, as we tried to climb our way out. I learned two things in that class: one, that I would never be a serious writer, and two, that I couldn’t read worth a darn, either. It took me ten years after that to finally give creative writing another try.

I blame it all on Nora and the way she breezed across the cultural battlefields of the day, tossing jokes out of her bag like some irreverent, feminist, female, neurotic Johnny Appleseed. She made it seem easy, even fun, to be a successful woman writer, at a time when such a thing barely existed outside of small enclaves like New York City.

But that is not the only wrong I have suffered at the hands of Ms. Ephron. Just last week I was reading I Feel Bad About My Neck, and this line jumped right out at me: “Never marry a man you wouldn’t want to be divorced from.” Damn you, Nora Ephron! Why didn’t you tell me that years ago? Couldn’t you have said that back when it might have done me some good, like before I married the guy who was a difficult boyfriend, an even more difficult spouse, and now that we are divorced is completely insufferable?

In Nora’s defense, I was probably too young at the time to have believed her even if she’d said it to my face. That’s just how it is sometimes with young love. Still, even though I was probably not going to take that bit of advice, it wouldn’t have hurt to hear it a few times before marrying someone I now have to be divorced from for the rest of my life.

Ironically, though, reading the divorce comment was also what convinced me to finally let go of my hurt and resentment towards Nora Ephron. She didn’t mean it personally, for one. Second, I figure that if Nora can still manage to be a funny, irreverent, feminist and neurotic writer all these many years later, she must be doing something right. Which means that Beth had it right after all, and Robin merely deserves our pity for ending up as a technical writer instead of poet laureate. She had so much potential, I am sure.

And third, maybe I should write my own relationship advice sooner rather than later, since I now have so very much of it to share. It might help the next woman unable to see clearly due to all the love-bugs squashed on her windshield. It could also prevent me from being attacked for not sharing soon enough. So you will notice a brand new “Relationships” category assigned to this blog post, along with the new “Leaving Hotel California” free-for-all memoir category. I will leave you with my first piece of advice: “Never marry anyone (updated!) you wouldn’t want to be divorced from.” I hope you find it just as useful as I did, and even more timely.

Leaving Hotel California

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One of the themes of this blog over the last couple years has been California Cosmology, a term coined by Alston Chase to describe the curious mixture of Eastern and Western philosophies, speculative science and experimental psychology that has been California’s unique contribution to many modern social, spiritual and literary movements.

I have also coined the term “Hotel California Cosmology” here, meaning how good ideas can become something more worthy of a Christopher Guest parody than anything progressive, relevant or even helpful. One of the striking things about Hotel California Cosmology is how much sense it seems to make when you are in it, but then how jaw-droppingly awful it reveals itself to be once you are well away. In my article, I wrote about how the entry works:

But when you are searching for transformation, you can’t stay safe all the time. Sooner or later you will be sucked in by something and lose your bearings, because that’s the only way to undergo a powerful change. Finding yourself again is the tricky part, of course, but that’s kind of like waking up from a dream. First you have to fall asleep.

Now that we are in a completely new decade I want to approach this topic from a fresh perspective: how we wake up. For that, I have started a whole new category of blog posts here, called Leaving Hotel California. Those of you who are offended by satire should never, ever read these posts. For the rest of you, my people, let it be known that the gauntlet has been thrown. Not only will I talk about social and spiritual movements, but I’ll also veer into the land of relationships, negotiation, and what passes for love.

Of course, I will take pains to fictionalize some of this, because my intention is not really to skewer any person, place or thing. It is to highlight the delusions that pass for truth, and the truth that gets passed over as fiction, so that others do not have to make the same mistakes that I made. Maybe they will wake up more quickly than I did, and that will be good for them. But the one virtue of staying in the fray for as long as I did is this: I have ever so much material to draw from. It’s going to be a fun year.

Stopping on a Paradigm

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Yesterday in a Sebastopol parking lot I ran into an old acquaintance who, like me, drives an aging car. I joked with him about the fact that we were still keeping our jalopies going, when he came over to me with a conspiratorial smile.

“I don’t know what you believe, but there’s this website…” Oh no, I thought. Please don’t start talking about 9-11 conspiracies. Please, please, please. “…where a lot of people are finally coming out with their UFO experiences.” Okay, UFOs. Are we going into crop circle territory? Or chemtrails? Please no, please no.

My friend continued, “Anyway, they say that any day now there could be a huge electromagnetic blast from the sun, and if that happens all of these,” he gestured with his arm at the late-model cars surrounding us, “will get their electronics fried. And the only cars that will still work will be ours!” Trump card in hand and still wearing a satisfied smile, he strode off on his errands.

It strikes me as highly unlikely that our old cars, increasingly held together by rust and duct tape, will save us in some post-apocalyptic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang scenario. Sure, they get better mileage than most cars on the road, but will there be gas to put in them if a rogue solar flare eats up the world’s electronics? Even in a perfect, pre-doomsday world, just how much longer can we keep them running?

One is hard-pressed to know where to start in refuting some of the claims overheard in Northern California towns these days. I am rather proud of the fact that I manage to stay friends with good people who hold what I consider to be lunatic fringe ideas. Yet I am frankly alarmed at what passes for reason among intelligent, well-educated people who ought to know better.

I saw another eco-activist friend in town recently, while the bailout bill was being debated in Congress. Her greeting to me was an enthusiastic, “The Empire is falling!” This is a woman who lives so close to the margins of solvency that all I could see was the great gray bricks of the Tower falling right on her head. And she was elated, obviously unconcerned with just how she was going to survive if her sidewalk stand ran out of paying customers.

Tracking world events while having almost daily exchanges of this nature has caused me no small amount of cognitive dissonance. I am struck by how easy it is to lapse into belief when thinking is just too complicated. Marx may have considered religion the opiate of the masses, but had he been alive today he would have quickly revised his notion: around here, “paradigm shifts” are definitely the opiate du jour. And things have only gotten worse with the spread in recent years of the leftist version of Christian Endtime predictions: the 2012 prophecies.

I recently met an accomplished businesswoman some years my senior who told me in all seriousness that “these times” demanded a new way of thinking. She was convinced that the “old way,” defined by competition-based, hierarchical, either/or thinking, was on its way out. In order to survive in the years ahead we all had to embrace the new paradigm, which emphasized supportive social networks, enlightened cooperation, and “both/and” thinking. Again, she had that conspiratorial tone to her voice, but it was overlaid with the lustre of knowing that she was somehow sent here to help shepherd people from one bank to the other, across the ruinous tide of “these times.”

I have heard versions of this scenario so many times now that I really must ask the question: if the new paradigm is about both/and thinking, why does it hinge on throwing the old paradigm out? Shouldn’t a both/and paradigm have room for the old paradigm, too? In fact, by its own definition it must have. Therefore the internal logic of the idea doesn’t even make sense, and only proves that anyone who embraces it either never learned to reason, or is desperate for a way to believe in doomsday while not being a Christian. And because this is now a both/and world, I assume that both my conclusions are correct.

There is no doubt that huge, unprecedented change is taking place on our planet. Climate change and the spectre of global economic collapse are ample reason for us all to be running for whatever safe haven we can find. Yet having lived through the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, the Harmonic Convergence, the Oral Roberts Death Watch, Y2K and Bush v. Gore without having any major appliances explode or noticing any Rapture-like behavior, I simply cannot believe this is anything more than a very difficult period that we will live through somehow.

If people need a new laudanum to get by, then fine. The marketing of 2012 fantasies is, after all, the Mother’s Little Helper of the aughts. Yet it should never be mistaken for more than that. In fact, my personal preference for doomsday scenarios is the Rapture, for one reason only: at least in the fundamentalist Christian world view, they are all raised up to heaven while the rest of us get to keep the planet. In the New Age version nobody gets teleported, and we are stuck listening to crap about new paradigms until we die. This is not intelligent design!