Origin by Dan Brown: an audiobook review

After a murder in an art museum, Harvard symbolist, Robert Langdon, and a younger woman find themselves on the run from the police, who consider them persons of interest. They are also pursued by members of a shadowy organization who think they know too much. Langdon and his companion must decipher arcane clues to solve a puzzle which will prove their innocence and reveal important truths to the world.

No, I’m not having a flashback to Brown’s breakout novel, The DaVinci Code (2003), a riveting mystery-thriller that had me up until 2:00am on work nights until it was finished. Brown’s recently published Origin uses the same structure to reasonably good effect, though I never stayed up late to finish it.

Somewhere along the line, probably after The Lost Symbol (2009), I stopped reading Brown, finding his “thrills of the chase” could not overcome such glaring liabilities as two-dimensional villains, interminable data-dumps, and his seeming attempts to fuse the genres of thriller and travel guidebook.

For this venture back into Brown’s work, I chose an audiobook (a good move) which Mary and I listened to on a sojourn to Yosemite. Origin was a good listen while driving and during the cold and sometimes rainy evenings. It also posed intriguing questions about this point in history and emerging trends.

(Spoiler Alert)

Continue reading

What would James Hillman say about all this?

James Hillman (1926-2011)

James Hillman, a genius in the field of psychology, is largely unknown to the general public. Only one of his many books, The Soul’s Code (1997), is widely known, and only because Oprah featured it. Hillman’s long time friend and editor, Thomas Moore, wrote a tribute and summary of his life after his death in October, 2011. Moore said, “Jame’s books and essays, in my view, represent the best and most original thought of our times. I expect that it will take many decades before he is truly discovered and appreciated.”

Hillman, who was, for a time, director of the Jung Institute in Zurich, founded “Archetypal Psychology,” an extension of Jung’s thought, centered on the poetic, imaginal basis of psyche or soul: “Every notion in our minds, each perception of the world and sensation in ourselves must go through a psychic organization in order to ‘happen’ at all. Every single feeling or observation occurs as a psychic event by first forming a fantasy-image.”

He criticized most 20th century psychologies as materialistic and literal, giving no space to soul. With journalist, Michael Ventura, he co-authored We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World Is Getting Worse (1992). He was vehement in his condemnation of the exclusive “inward” bent of most psychotherapies, which deprive the world of our outrage and our energy. He gave the example of a man who works eight or ten hours a day at a meaningless job, at an ugly, uncomfortable desk, under flickering florescent lights. When he goes to a therapist for relief from depression, he’s likely to be asked how he got along with his mother… Continue reading

The Day of the Locust at Walmart

Nathanael West (1903-1940), author of “The Day of the Locust.”

USA Today reported that Friday, in a Detroit area Walmart, a woman with a concealed carry permit pulled a gun after two other women started pulling her 20 year old daughter’s hair in scuffle over the last available notebook in a back-to-school-sale.

The gun brought this to national attention, but after I got the snide comment about “well ordered militias” out of my system, I sat with the underlying question, far more mundane and depressing at the same time: why does violence over a notebook come as no surprise in our nation today?

I thought of Nathanael West , a little known author during his lifetime, who worked as a screenwriter on hack movies in Hollywood, and wrote four novels, filled with biting social satire. His friend, the poet, W.H. Auden coined the phrase, “West’s Disease,” for the angst that comes from realizing the spiritual and economic poverty of much of what passes for “the American Dream.” Continue reading

Happy Fourth of July

The Star Spangled Banner, Currier and Ives, undated.

In a recent NPR/PBS/Marist poll, only 77% of Americans correctly identified Great Britain as the country we declared independence from on July 4. Fewer (70%) knew that we did so in 1776.

Aside from what that says about our “informed electorate,” it’s a shame because history, in all it’s messy complexity, becomes more fascinating to me as time goes on.

I was not that interested in colonial American history until I came upon Benson Bobrick’s superb history of the revolution, Angel In the Whirlwind, 2011. In contrast to the present, Bobrick notes that colonial citizenry was generally well informed on matters of politics.

Lest we grow nostalgic for such “good old days,” when (white) men were men, and nobody else had any rights, we can look at another fascinating history, Drinking in America: Our Secret History, by Susan Cheever. We learn that the “shot heard round the world” in 1775 may have been fired by a farmer who was three sheets to the wind. The “minute men” had gathered at 5:30 that morning, at the tavern on Concord green, and by the time the British arrived more than four hours later, they had downed a fair amount of ale.

In a related tidbit, Bobrick says the original duty of congressional pages was to keep the beer steins of our legislators filled. Since reading that, I’ve wondered how many brewskis John Hancock had downed when he famously said, “I’ll sign my name so large that King George will be able to read it without his spectacles.”

This Fourth of July finds most us, I suspect, without the stomach for the usual flag waving piety. Piety is a siren song that traps us into believing our own PR and turning away from difficult questions, and nothing else will serve in times like these. For individuals, tribes, political parties, and nations, there are times when things fall apart. Such crossroad periods end with movement, either toward renewal or destruction, and a key determining factor seems to be a willingness to search for and accept the truth.

This is a time to ponder the words of truth-tellers. I’ve been thinking about this week’s buzzword, “civility,” and realizing that it’s much more than being “nice” or “polite” or “politically correct.” It’s nothing less than a pre-requisite for hearing the truth.

Buried in the paper on September 12, 2001, was a statement by Zen master, Thich Nhat Hahn, a champion of peace and the truth in the world for more than five decades. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, he said, “We will not have peace with the people who did this until we are willing to sit down and ask them why they hate us so much.” After nearly 16 years of constant warfare, with no victory or exit strategy in sight, it is worth remembering his words. As none of our leaders show an inclination to do so, guess what the future holds in store?

Seeds for the divisions that are tearing our nation apart were planted even before our current middle eastern wars, though I think they’re related. Another truth teller, Jimmy Carter told us in 1979 where American Greatness lies and what can destroy it:

“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God…too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.  Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.  But we’ve…learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

Unless we as individuals and as a nation, including our elected leaders and their moneyed overlords, are willing to sit down and really listen to each other, things will get more and more dysfunctional. It feels like a worldwide transition is underway, and an unsustainable way of life is ending. Historically, such endings and new beginnings occur at times of disaster, war, pestilence. Are such hard landings inevitable?

I like to think not. I like to think that if enough of our leaders had the wisdom and genuine faith of Jimmy Carter and Thich Nhat Hahn, we as people of America and earth, could steer toward a new course, healthier for the the planet and all its creatures.

I’m not optimistic. With our opportunistic leaders, in a nation where a quarter of us don’t know who we fought in our revolution, I’m afraid it will take more disasters to chasten us enough for any kind of concerted, positive action.

So Happy Fourth of July!  Enjoy the day and your family. Have another hotdog or slice of apple pie. I fear that before long we may look back on these as the “good old days,” and remember how good we had it on July 4, 2017…

No Is Not Enough

Klein’s new book, “No is Not Enough,” will be released on June 13. http://www.naomiklein.org/main

James Hillman (1926-2011), who I regard as a mentor, always sought the fantasy, the imagination that underlies the literalism of what we take as facts. Quoting Jung, he said, “The psyche creates reality,” (Revisioning Psychology).

The Buddhist teachers I’ve met would agree. Here is an important discussion of some of the fantasies which underlie our current climate crisis, from an interview with Naomi Klein called “Capitalism versus Climate,” which appeared in the Fall, 2015 issue of Tricycle, The Buddhist Review.

Klein (b. 1970) is a Canadian author, climate activist, and critic of global capitalism who looks underneath the current climate debate. She was invited to the Vatican to give input during the formulation of the Pope’s encyclical on climate change.

In the Tricycle interview, Klein traced our current crisis to the western view of nature as an inert resource to be exploited for human convenience and profit, an outlook that emerged from the confluence of the Age of Reason and the first wave of industrialism. Climate change ultimately results from a false narrative, says Klein:

“It turns out that all this time that we were telling ourselves we were in charge, we were burning fossil fuels and greenhouse gases that were accumulating in the atmosphere. So now comes the earth’s response of climate change, which is a delayed response but a ferocious one that, frankly, puts us in our place. The response is this: ‘You’re just a guest here, and you never were in charge.’”

The vicious cycle that results from our sense of separation creates an insatiable hunger that can never be filled. We see it daily in our headlines. “Part of what fuels manic consumption is the desire to fill gaps in our lives that emerge because of severed connections of various kinds—with community, with one another, and also with the natural world.”

What can turn things around? Only a major shift in values and worldview, says Klein. Climate change is “already a moral catastrophe. We’re already writing off island nations because their GDP isn’t big enough. We’re already basically saying, Sub-Saharan Africa can burn.

Within that sacrifice zone mentality, it’s really easy to imagine the fortressing of our borders. Easy to imagine how our nations will seal themselves off from climate refugees. Climate change is not just about being afraid of sea levels rising. It’s not just about the weather. It’s about how an economic system that glorifies individualism—and one that is based on an often unstated but very real hierarchy of humanity—will respond to heavy weather. And it’s that cocktail that scares me.”

At the same time Klein says she’s hopeful:  “What powerful forces fear most is not what we do as individuals, like changing our lightbulbs or going vegan. They fear what we do when we act together as organized and mobilized groups. As groups we can go after the legitimacy of their profits. This is what the student-led fossil fuel divestment movement is doing, and it has these companies pretty panicked. They care when we come together to block their pipelines. They care when we demand that our governments build the infrastructure that will get us to 100 percent renewable energy.”

Naomi Klein

I’ve already pre-ordered her new book, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need.

I’ve also added Naomi Klein’s website to the FirstGate blogroll – her’s is a voice we need to hear at a time when the ruling party of the United States offers only a steady diet of lies.

Presidents acting presidential

George Washington, 1797. Public Domain

George Washington, 1797. Public Domain

Our Public Broadcasting System is re-running a series on recent American presidents, first aired in 2013. I missed it then, but caught the second episode of “Kennedy” last night (you can watch the entire program here).

The show was excellent. It outlined several glaring failures of the Kennedy administration: the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion; JFK’s failure to back the emerging civil rights movement; starting us down the slippery slope in Vietnam through mistaking a nationalist revolution for a global communist conspiracy.

Successes included staring down Khrushchev in the high-stakes Cuban missile crisis, and motivating the nation to put a man on the moon, which led directly to the high tech boom, and the laptop or smartphone on which you are reading this post.

Successes and failures aside, the most striking thing I noticed in watching “Kennedy” was that he looked and acted presidential in a way that current presidents do not!  Somewhere along the way, the stature and dignity of the office has been diminished.

It’s not that the presidents of my youth were exemplary human beings: Kennedy and Johnson were notorious philanderers, and Nixon was an angry alcoholic, who sometimes gave orders to “bomb the shit” out of countries that annoyed him (see Drinking in America).  It’s silly to imagine that those who aspire to the office have changed that much in 50 years. It’s rather that the regard we hold for office has diminished.

True, some people exude charisma, or in Johnson’s case, power. It’s also true that an aura often aura celebrities who die young – Kennedy, Marylin, Elvis, Princess Di, and Prince.

I’m tempted to quote what mythologists like Joseph Campbell and Robert Bly have said about the deflation of the archetypes of king and queen, but I think the answer is far simpler, staring us in the face, in our voracious need to pull presidents down to our level, and their willingness to cooperate.

At the start of the primary season, this year’s crop of contenders gathered in mass for the Iowa State Fair, and one reporter detailed which candidates were truly “just folks,” as opposed to wannabe’s, based on whether or not they knew  how to eat ribs.

The cover story on the August 1 issue of Time was, “In Search of Hillary?” What exactly are we searching for?  “Likes poetry, puppies and moonlight walks on the beach?”

I remember Cokie Roberts describing a meeting where Lyndon Johnson got angry and chewed someone out. “It took five years off my life,” she said, while noting that recent presidents, wielding the same power, do not command anywhere near that respect. It’s hard to imagine LBJ on Saturday Night Live or with Stephen Colbert, and during this election year especially, I’m not sure that trade of respect for laughter and buddy vibes has been a good deal for anyone.

Whether the loss of respect moves top-down, or bottom-up, or both, when presidential debates begin to look like the Jerry Springer show, and the rest of us behave accordingly, we’re in a world of trouble!

War reporter, Sebastian Junger, author of, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, outlined one consequence for us in a PBS interview.

A war reporter, Junger was with troops during “hellish deployments,” but noted that some of the soldiers did not want to go home. Junger says that for most of our history, we humans have lived and thrived most in tribes or clans and, “The real an ancient meaning of tribe is the community that you live in that you share resources with that you would risk your life to defend.”

Only at war did many of the young men that Junger met experience this kind of connection. The lack of it, in our culture, is deadly in his opinion. Looking at our current election season, Junger says we look like opposing tribes, that hold each other in contempt.

“No soldier in a trench in a platoon in combat would have contempt for their trench mate. They might not like them. They disagree with them, but you don’t have contempt for someone that your life depends on. And that’s what we’re falling into in the political dialogue in this country. And in my opinion, that is more dangerous to this country than ISIS is, I mean literally like more of a threat to our nation.”

“I wish I had a tribe,” Junger says, “But we don’t. We just don’t. That’s the problem. That’s why our depression rate, our suicide rate, all that stuff is through the roof. That’s the tragedy of modern society.”

I remember watching Kennedy on TV as a kid. I remember walking to grade school in 1962, past a neighbor who was digging a bomb shelter. I remember “duck and cover” hydrogen bomb drills, which we all knew were ludicrous even then. But through all the fear, what I really remember, was growing up in a neighborhood, in “one nation” as we said during the pledge of allegiance.

I don’t know anyone who lives in a neighborhood or one nation anymore. Perhaps that realization is what makes this election so sad – an election like this couldn’t happen if values like “community,” and “nation,” to say nothing of “tribe,” weren’t so completely fractured.

I have some notions of what happened, but that is for another post. And as they say, we cannot even begin to imagine solutions for a problem until we admit that it exists and what it costs.

Happy 100th Anniversary to the Schwarzschild Radius

Imagined image of black hole - public domain

Imagined image of black hole – public domain

There aren’t many things to celebrate about 1916, which set a new record as the bloodiest year in the history of human warfare, but an exception to that rule was discussed on a fascinating segment on Science Friday today, Tracing Light to Map the Cosmic Darkness.

German astronomer, Karl Schwarzschild, who was serving in the trenches, used his free time to solve the gravitational field equations of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. He communicated his findings to Einstein on a postcard. The great scientist didn’t like his solution, but recognizing its validity, he presented it to the Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1916. Ever since then, the Schwarzschild radius has defined a black hole.

Karl Schwertschild, 1873-1916, Wikimedia Commons.

Karl Schwertschild, 1873-1916, Wikimedia Commons.

And why is this important to anyone other than diehard Trekies?  Given that dark matter comprises 96% of the total matter in our universe – the stars, our earth, ourselves make up only 4% – it’s a rather interesting topic. Something to contemplate next time you’re under a sky full of stars.

One of Ira Plato’s guests, Sheperd Doeleman, Director of the Event Horizon Telescope project, hopes to soon have photographs of these objects that can’t be photographed. His other guest, Priyamvada Natarajan, Professor of Astrophysics at Yale and author of Mapping the Heavens, creates maps of dark matter, this mysterious background in which we and our universe dance.

This is a fascinating segment, so grab a cup of coffee, put you communicators on vibrate, and tune in for a wonderful glimpse at all we don’t know about our world.

Drinking in America: Our Secret History by Susan Cheever

Drinking in America

The Pilgrims who came to America on the Mayflower were headed toward Virginia, where they had a land grant from King James.  Instead, they landed illegally in Massachusetts because they were running out of beer.  So says historian, Susan Cheever in her just-released Drinking in America: Our Secret History.  Cheever, a sober alcoholic, documents the pendulum swings of our national love-hate relationship with alcohol as she explores an important but little-known aspect of our past.

Alchohol was a factor at critical turning points in American history.  It is likely that the shot heard round the world was fired by one of the seventy militiamen awakened by Paul Revere, who passed the time while waiting three hours for British troops at the Buckman Tavern on Lexington Green.

According to Cheever, for all the volumes written on the civil war, no one has documented the considerable effect of alcohol on this conflict.  General George McClellan wrote, in February, 1862, “No one evil so much obstructs this army…as the degrading vice of drunkenness.”  McClellan, who did not drink, was relieved of command for indecisiveness in battle – or sanity, as Cheever suggests, while “His colleagues who succeeded on the battlefield – Grant, Meager, and Hooker, for example – were drinkers whose performance was often affected by their whiskey intake.” 

Most who have studied the war know about Grant, but not as many realize that because of the riotous condition of his camps, some credited General Hooker for lending his name as an epithet for prostitute.  General Thomas Meager fell off his horse while drunk as he led his troops into action at Antietam.  He drowned in 1867, after drunkenly falling off a riverboat in Montana.

Grant managed to sober up before his election as president, while Richard Nixon is revealed as an angry blackout drinker whom National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, and White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman had to protect from his own drunken rages.  They “danced around the president’s homicidal, drunken orders to bomb the shit out of this or nuke the shit out of that – orders usually not even remembered the next morning.  ‘If the president had his way,’ Kissinger told his aides, ‘there would be a nuclear war each week.‘”

Cheever’s survey not only covers political and military history, for drinking plays a part in our folklore and arts as well. John Chapman, aka, Johnny Appleseed, did not tramp around the countryside planting apples for pies, but for cider, and five of the seven 20th century American writers who won the nobel prize – Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck – were alcoholics. That there is no inherent connection between writing and alchohol is shown by a similar list of 19th century literary greats who did not drink to excess: “Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Longfellow, the Alcotts, and…Whitman.”

This underscores the paradox of the poles in our cultural history:  “temperance and intemperance, drinking and abstinence, liquor and sobriety, addiction and recovery.  Our country has been, at times, the drunkest country in the world; our country has been, at times, one of the least drunk countries in the world.”

As she sums up the “objective” view of modern historical authors, Susan Cheever notes that the “broad, dispassionate view,” often misses the “moments that make up our lives.” One of those things often missed by American historians is the effect of drinking on our history and national character.

“What is history?: a way to sift through the past in an effort to comprehend the world we live in; a way to understand ourselves; a way to make meaning of our lives by finding meaning in the past. How can we do that without acknowledging something many of us do every day, the thing that we use to punctuate our lives in celebrations and in sadness; how can we do it without acknowledging that glass of wine or whiskey neat or dry martini that has been such a powerful and invisible part of our life as a nation?”