The eight books I’d like to describe here represent a common theme. The first three are non-fiction and delineate my basic take on life. The rest are novels that show how that take might translate into “real life.”
Daytona Beach Reflections. This was written in 1980 from a camper parked on the beach for two months—I slept there, too. You might say I saw just about everything there was to see, and recorded much of it—this is non-fiction, remember—with accompanying commentary. I chose this prototypical beach town because the people traveling there to stay a week or two have left convention behind for the moment and act with a certain amount of hedonism. By looking at the content of that expanded freedom—how it plays out—one can more easily see the deeper person, I think, unencumbered by the society back home and its strictures and expectations.
The book goes from the basic—the various people (and types of people) I met there—to a more general discussion of the modern American identity, not in the abstract but in vignettes about the things I saw and heard on the beach. The people I talked to. The people who sought me out. Thus it doesn’t read like a book of philosophy but one of simple observations of individual behavior and how this connects to the larger picture of America. See the whole by examining some of the parts, so to speak. From that I draw certain conclusions about the track we’re on and how we might fashion a future for ourselves. A truly fascinating book, though of course I’d be inclined to say that, wouldn’t I.
A second non-fiction book, The Meanings of Love, finished in 1990, was a deeper exploration of the theme begun in Daytona—what are the forces that shape our lives, make us who we are? Here I focus on the biological as much as the cultural, and I chose love to illustrate my theme. I tried to separate love from romance and show it for what it really is—love is caritas.
Meanings is divided into three parts. The first shows that what we generally think of as love is really romance and is inspired fundamentally by the genes and is therefore selfish at heart. Jealousy is the great unmasker of this kind of “love.” Part Two discusses how we’ve become diminished as a people because we’ve mistaken romance for love, become disillusioned with it (there’s a selection process at work, so everyone gets hurt) and lose confidence in love as a central force in our lives, though we still give it plenty of lip service (“All You Need Is Love,” etc). Part Three is about what love really is. As I said above, true love is caritas (or altruism—which is selflessness), and it maybe more than anything else has the potential to free us from this soul-sapping materialism we live with every day and show us a path to a life far more satisfying. A passionate and well-reasoned book (the bibliography runs to almost twenty pages). As with Daytona (and the rest of the books described here), no publisher had the slightest interest in it.
The third, The Three Buddhas of Skiing, also non-fiction, was written in 1995 when I spent five months at Steamboat Springs, Colorado (with forays to Aspen and Vail), skiing and observing people doing much the same thing as I witnessed in Daytona. I thought I’d turn my attention to sport, to bring the ideas of the first two books to something simple and practical. And do it more briefly. I’m not a Buddhist, by the way, but I’ve always felt that the Buddhist teaching of “non-attachment” was incredibly useful for freeing oneself from things detrimental to one’s well-being and deeper enjoyment of life.
Again, I watched people in action; I saw much posturing and abandon and “trying to have fun” but the specter of loneliness and frustration was never far away for so many. My essential conclusion? Though it sounds simple, I saw precious few doing it: learning to be oneself, leaving one’s ego behind and immersing oneself in the environment. Ski for beauty and fulfillment, not for fun (though fun is the accompanying byproduct). I end each chapter with a brief Buddhist story (which I make up) highlighting the main idea of the chapter. The chapters themselves consist of short paragraphs—insights, anecdotes, epigrams, all woven together to illustrate the theme of that particular chapter. Maybe my simplest and most entertaining work.
The fourth book, Three Days at Albemarle, finished in Japan in 2006, is a novel where I created a community in Montana that rejects many of the trappings of contemporary American culture and tries to live more by the ideals I advanced in the first three (non-fiction) works above. A hopefully intriguing outline of one notion of utopia. The premise is simple: a skeptical journalist goes to “Albemarle” to draw back the curtain and show the place for what it is—a fraud—and after three days, decides to stay there. It’s self-sustaining, gives technology a human face, integrates youth into the adult society (there’s no rebellious “teenage angst” there), makes both art and sport a part of daily life, and heads off trouble by having a corps of ombudsmen who work among the inhabitants and mediate differences before they degenerate into conflict.
Some of the characters: Camille, a beautiful young seductress who was one of the founding members of Albemarle; Sammy, a 19-year-old Down’s syndrome kid who amazes with his work ethic and sense of justice—and dies a hero’s death at the end; the Advocate, the cancer-ridden former IT mogul and founder of Albemarle who reveres Jefferson and believes his ideals must not perish (as they have in the larger culture); Barger, a crusty old engineer and Bechtel Corporation escapee who makes technology work for people and never against them; Donna, a single mother with a black belt in tae kwon do who finds happiness through work rather than a man for the first time; and her 14-year-old son Benjamin, who latches onto the visiting journalist, Stefan, and looks to him for guidance.
An integral part of Albemarle is the temple, a place for reflection that also has temple maidens and swain to minister physically to the residents if they so desire—though this type of visit is limited to once a week. Why did I include this? Because a society dedicated to human fulfillment must take into account those who aren’t successful in the sexual selection process and help them experience a sense of intimacy that others perhaps take for granted. The maidens and swain are trained at Albemarle to guide their supplicants toward gaining this intimacy—the experience thus focusing on the spiritual as much as the physical, perhaps even more so.
In the end, the FBI, long investigating Albemarle and finding it (to their way of thinking) un-American, decides to torch the place (à la Waco) and all perish except Stefan the journalist and Benjamin, Donna’s boy, who Stef manages to save. (They’re the focus of the next book.) Theme of Three Days: there’s a better life for all, even though at present the world rejects it—and may even destroy it.
The fifth, Refugees from Albemarle, 2009, is the follow-up novel to Three Days (above), written in Cambodia and New Zealand, expanding on the ideas of the previous book. But where Three Days focused on life in Albemarle, Refugees takes place in the mainstream culture outside Albemarle, in order to highlight the many contrasts between that utopia and the current American one. Stef and Ben find themselves in Santa Fe, New Mexico on Sue’s front porch (a bright though uneducated cowgirl of a woman and formerly Stef’s brief lover the month before he went to Albemarle). She asks them to move in. Ben must attend the local high school, where most of the things that he was originally taught were undesirable seemed just the opposite there —and vice versa! He makes three good friends, though, (a musically-inclined athlete, a goth girl and a Mexican), and in the company of these eccentric yet loyal friends manages to survive.
Stef, the journalist, writes a book about what really happened at Albemarle (his book is in fact Three Days at Albemarle) and he is suddenly and suspiciously killed by a hit-and-run driver. Sue takes to drinking, Ben goes to up Taos in anger and despair and apprentices himself to a British artist. He tries to fashion a life there near to the one he knew at Albemarle. The FBI keeps an eye on him lest he know too much and decides to tell. Soon he meets a Native American girl—Meelahnee, whose values are surprisingly close to his own—and when she finishes high school he marries her.
In the meantime his three friends periodically hitchhike up to visit him and he later moves back to Santa Fe with Meelahnee to be near them. Their stories develop and intertwine over the next twelve years. Ben, on the basis of his newspaper articles on rejuvenating American culture, gets a job with an ambitious state senator. For the next several years he struggles with what he considers the oppressive life of the society he finds himself in—it’s not Albemarle! He fights with Meelahnee after being caught in a compromising position with Mindee, her younger sister (he was in drunken despair). Meelahnee kicks him out, and he goes to L.A. to live, where one of his three friends has a computer game business. Mindee soon follows him and they live together, though he still loves Meelahnee.
Mindee seems the perfect “child with a woman’s body” and he tries to lose himself in her charms to escape the alienation he’s feeling. It’s really not enough, and finally he goes back to Meelahnee and ends up working with her tribe, the Taos, building a center for promoting Native American values to the larger society. He accomplishes a lot but in the end their confidence increases enough to run the center themselves, so he’s out. Nearing thirty now, he finds he just can’t live in the mainstream society and moves to a cabin in the desert. Meelahnee doesn’t follow because they have a daughter now and she doesn’t want to take her away from the tribe. Meelahnee does understand Ben, though, (she suspects it’s his version of a “vision quest”) and supports him in his move.
Meanwhile, Camille, the seductress from Three Days at Albemarle, had apparently managed to escape the fire too, and finds Ben and tells him of her plan to build another Albemarle. Shockingly, she’s working as a hooker and wooing rich businessmen to bankroll the thing. He doesn’t trust her—he thinks she only wants to build another temple like the one at Albemarle and install herself as “the goddess Ishtar”—from the Babylonian myth—and declines. Finally, she shows up unexpectedly at his cabin in the desert—it was Meelahnee who sent her there! Ben and Camille are the only refugees from Albemarle, and together they think (in the end) that maybe they can make a life in the desert (!) with some meaning closer to the heart.
My themes for this two-book series: Three Days—America as it could be; Refugees—America as it is.
The sixth book, The Pearl Necklace, is a novel completed in early 2011. It’s the story of a prominent Chicago attorney, Jennifer Knox, who faces a crisis in the battle between ideals and romance. It amplifies some of the ideas of the two previous novels but owes its greatest debt to The Meanings of Love (discussed above). Simply put, a divorced mother of a teen daughter falls in love with a powerful man/suspected criminal and is torn between her feelings for him and her lifelong dream to reform the law. Romance vs altruism, played out inside the head of a successful woman.
Complicating matters is her work with a U.S. Senator to take on the Patriot Act (part of her plan to reform the law) and the fact that her lover is indicted for being an accessory to murder—the stakes are higher now. To help clarify her thinking, she goes to stay for a time with her artist aunt in Big Sur, California, the aunt and her black poet/activist boyfriend reflecting many of the values of Albemarle (though the place is never mentioned). Here they spend much time naked in natural hot pools and a home-made Indian sweat lodge, talking about what love really is and whether sex and love can ever really go together.
Meanwhile, the Senator dies, Jennifer’s lover confesses his guilt to her, and her aunt’s boyfriend is picked up and spirited away for violating the Patriot Act because of his blogging against the war. The world has truly fallen apart. Final scene: she and her aunt in a hot pool in the woods; Jennifer wonders if one can ever love purely and faithfully. The aunt says yes, as long as one doesn’t get overpowered and blinded by romance. Jennifer dedicates herself to trying to learn how to accomplish that. But for how long? (This sets up the next novel.)
The seventh, St Jen (finished in 2012), follows Jennifer’s story from The Pearl Necklace, where she vows to help find and free her aunt’s partner from the clutches of Homeland Security (and succeeds, with the encouragement of the Governor of Illinois and information from her former lover, now in prison). She writes a book about the law and goes on tour with it, but audiences are almost uniformly skeptical of her idea that the law is as yet imperfect in America. She returns to Chicago exhausted.
The Governor had wanted to appoint her to the Senate seat vacated by the late Senator, which she declined (in The Pearl Necklace), and now he wants her to run for mayor of Chicago. She’s trying to decide between that and a law school teaching appointment at the University of Chicago when she runs into Camille (from the two Albemarle books) in a hotel bar after a speech Jennifer has just made. Camille talks about Albemarle (this is several months before the fire destroyed that community) and especially the temple, and Jennifer wonders if such a place might help her solve her conflict about the true meaning of love. Camille invites her to go together with her to Montana for a while, which she does. She takes an immediate interest in the temple, and decides to go through the training in order to become a temple maiden. In this way she learns how to give and receive love, even under the pressure of sharing the intensity of sex. She finds that love is truly selfless, but only if one demands it of oneself.
In the end her lover escapes from prison and shows up at Albemarle with gun in hand, asking her in front of a room full of people to go away with him. She refuses, though she realizes she still loves him and he surely loves her. In any case she wants to stay at Albemarle longer to see if she can really reconcile being a carnal creature and still love selflessly. Spiritual training, that! While doing so, she is also writing another book about the law, a pursuit she has never given up. Thus St Jen and the novel before it get woven back into the Albemarle theme, all the while reflecting the great dichotomy between romance and altruism explored in The Meanings of Love.
The eighth, Land of Fleurs (late 2012) is a short moral tale of an injured soldier dreaming he is a woman and discovering for the first time the beauty of life. The theme is that people need to embrace both parts of themselves—animus and anima, in Jungian terms—and also, in the parlance of pop psychology, their inner child—in order to be whole. Thus the book doesn’t carry on the ideas of the previous books so much as add another dimension that I felt may not have been suggested clearly enough in them: we need beauty to live, and true beauty is to be found in Nature, from which we have become estranged.
The story: a dreaming man floats through a portal in his garden—he finds he’s a woman now—and she finds herself in an enchanted land. She meets a twelve-year-old boy, Denny, who becomes her guide. She doesn’t know her name, so he gives her the name Robin, after the bird. Together they have incredible adventures, meet a rampaging bear, a provocative oracle, a tribe of wild boys, a duck who predicts the future, a town where everyone says exactly the opposite of what they mean, all the while the boy teaching her to appreciate the beauty and essential justice of Nature.
They’re captured by the wild boys and their leader, a handsome but brutish eighteen-year- old, tries to seduce her into staying, telling her she can live wild and free like an animal and have every desire satisfied at the very moment she desires it. Isn’t it tempting! Finally Robin agrees to stay but it’s a ruse and she and Denny escape and have yet more unexpected and thought-provoking adventures. Ultimately she knows she must return to “her” world, though she’s unsure why or even what it is. (She and the reader both have little idea she’s a man and a soldier.)
Anyway, they’re captured again by the wild boys and again she’s faced with a choice of whether to give in to her desires or go back home and face her responsibilities, though she doesn’t know what they are. Again they escape—miraculously this time, using the power she’s learned from her guide Denny (who has long since relinquished the guiding to her). She tells him that she must return to her world, though she dreads it. He convinces her to take him with her. They sleep, believing that when they awaken, they’ll be there.
She wakes up in a military hospital in Germany, the name “Captain Robin Denny, U.S. Army” affixed to a chart at the foot of the bed. She’s a man. His legs were blown off by an IED in Iraq. He’s in the recovery room now after surgery to cleanly remove the remaining flesh. The doctor asks him to open his eyes and when he does so, he sees the doctor and behind him his wife. She’s crying. He tells her not to weep for him because he’s taken a journey and discovered what true beauty is—and for the first time in his life, he feels complete!
While these eight works aren’t the total of my output, to me they represent what I most wanted to say. While much of my other writing (which I’m sure I’ll discuss later) has a similar flavor, these eight, it seems to me, are closest to my purpose as a writer.