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What is a Writer?

Ever wonder what a writer’s really like? His deepest thoughts, his desires, his hopes for the future? What’s the point of his existence? Does he actually have a purpose to exist, and if so, what is it? Is he prophet, evil genius, or just handy with words? Welcome to my blog.

Some essential points about me: American, of the masculine persuasion, ex-pat for the past thirty years, old enough to be your father, both lover and chastiser of the world as we know it, and Caucasian—please don’t hold that against me til you’ve heard me out. Finally, I’m a serious writer—artist, not craftsman—and I’ve never tried to entertain you but rather show you a path you may not have been aware of. A good writer is a guide, although I’m a guide without followers. But I do know where I’m going.

Here’s my proposal. I’ve written all my life (you’ll hear all about it) but I’ve had just one book published (and half a dozen newspaper articles), and one play produced. Not much for a lifetime’s work. I want to tell you about the work. This isn’t about selling books—none of the works I’ll describe here have been published so you can’t buy them. Yet obviously I think enough of them to leave a record of them so that when I’m just a wisp of smoke in someone’s imagination, the work survives. Thus this blog is archival and not commercial. Believe me when I say that.

I want to start by describing my later books, as I consider them my major works, then the ideas behind them. That’ll give you some indication of what my concerns have been. Don’t give up if the “philosophy” of it isn’t to your liking, because then you’ll hear all the personal stuff I’ve never told anyone—it could make quite a story, I think. You’ll hear things you’ve maybe never heard before. The good, the bad, possibly even the shocking. If you’ve ever wanted to look inside a person—not just the guy down the street but someone whose life has been a mission, a quest for the truth of human existence—then you may have come to the right place. If you’re not interested in such things, thanks for dropping in and I truly wish you all the best.


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What the Books Are All About

A Quick Look at the Themes

Some Philosophical Considerations

On to the Future or Return to the Past?

Hey Rain, What Kind of American Are You?

Thoughts on My Legacy as a Writer

My Method of Writing

How I Started

My Female Protagonists

Why I Don’t Write Movies

Form vs Content

Am I An Intellectual?

Humor in My Writing

What It’s Like to be Unknown

The Minor Works

Other Writings

Why I Stopped Writing Poetry

Having a Mentor

What’s With All the Journals?

Am I a Loner?

Why Do I Write?

Is My Writing Autobiographical?

Realist or Idealist?

Realist or Idealist Part II

I Put My Money Where My Mouth Is

Writers Are Selfish Bastards

The Question of Religion

Life of the Body

Rage Against the Machine

I’m Not a Promoter

My One Publication

The Cult of Celebrity

The Simple Life—Is It Boring?

The Key to Happiness

Good and Evil

The Myth of Return to Paradise

The End of the Road

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What the Books Are All About

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.

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A Quick Look at the Themes

I’d like to talk for a moment about the major themes that underpin my work—if it’s not already clear from the description I’ve just given of the books. These themes may at first seem unrelated, but are actually integral parts of the future I envision for America, much like food, water and air are “unrelated” but are integral components of human sustenance.

Fundamental to my understanding of human possibility is my belief that caritas (altruism) is the only real love, and without it we’re reduced to a more or less animal existence. We’re enthralled by romance and certainly need it to survive (it helps to reduce loneliness and provides the motivation for pair-bonding), but it’s fundamentally the result of chemical action in the body (pheromones, serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins) and the ideation this ultimately produces in the brain. Romance is essentially sexual—and thus selfish—and this kind of “love,” while exciting and adding much to our enjoyment of life, can be less than productive when considering how to create a more just and fulfilling society.

I think I made this case pretty thoroughly in The Meanings of Love, and it’s a theme I try to reinforce in my later novels, though always through the story. Right now sex and romance rule the roost in America, and we’re so much the poorer for it. It’s part of our literature, our entertainment, our advertising, our music, and in fact it’s become a necessary (and profitable) component of our economic system. Caritas—selfless love—cries in the corner.

A subtheme of the above is that we do need to respect and satisfy the animal in us, all the while remembering its place. Sex is not evil and we don’t need to wring our hands like St Augustine and try to overcome our urges. We simply need to manage them and see if we can’t have them reflect more a sharing of true intimacy than just self-gratification. I grew up learning that sex was all about “getting some,” and this is what I’m talking about. If sex did include love, well, that was icing on the cake, and then my lover was “mine” and others better back off! “Love” as we’ve conceived it is fundamentally self-serving—jealousy proves this beyond all doubt. Isn’t a rethink in order? Could intimacy and giving play a larger role? Thus it’s possible that sex and romance might become more a part of caritas than one might have believed.

A second major theme of my work is our estrangement from Nature. We’ve made a Faustian bargain with technology in creating a more totally controlled environment and much of the alienation we experience today can be directly attributed to this. We really don’t have a “home” anymore like people in the past—we’re a nation of wanderers looking for one. (45 million Americans change their address every year, according to Postal Service statistics.) We like to put a positive spin on this by calling it “mobility” but what’s wrong with the grass on this side of the fence? What does it lack? What exactly are we looking for, and can it ever really be found? Will we magically satisfy that endless craving “over there”?

All of my later novels have this theme running through them, and the characters are only able to think clearly and “groundedly” when they place themselves in a more natural environment. Three Days at Albemarle and Land of Fleurs take place almost entirely in Nature, while the protagonist Jennifer Knox in The Pearl Necklace and St Jen is only able to see herself and her future with any certainty while holing up with her artist aunt in Big Sur. Benjamin from Three Days and Refugees From Albemarle is only fully sane when he’s living with his Indian wife in Taos, New Mexico. The tradeoff: what we as Americans have gained in comfort and money, we’ve lost in peace of mind.

The last major theme is the pernicious direction Western civilization is taking. In short, modernity is killing us. Our estrangement from Nature is only one part of this. Also wearing us down is the rampant materialism of our age, the sexualization of nearly every aspect of our culture, our daily interface with the machine in all its variety, and the loneliness and anxiety that these things can cause.

We laud Aristotle and Plato, da Vinci and Michelangelo, Mozart, John Locke, Darwin, Einstein—and nowadays pop figures probably more so—but are our inner lives any better today than tribal peoples’, past and present? Why have we not built upon the ideas of the crowned heads of our civilization to create the kind of deeply satisfying society we deserve and have been waiting for these last two or three thousand years? Why is everything about making a buck, getting laid and finding one’s own place in the sun for so many? Why do our young people shoot up schools, steal cars, take drugs? Why are we almost to a person so restless? I spend a lot of time talking about the world we’ve inherited in The Meanings of Love, and the characters of the novels are going through their own sometimes agonizing searches for heaven among the byways and shiny but sometimes insidious artifacts of our culture.

I suppose I should add as a footnote that I’m a great believer in the ideals of the American Revolution and I really take our government to task for falling so far short. Thus the threat to the community I created at Albemarle is an intolerant FBI—they ultimately burn the place down—and Homeland Security’s narrow view of what it means to be a patriotic American sends the lawyer in Jennifer Knox into a passion of activity against the Patriot Act. I’ve had my share of unpleasant experiences with the government over the years (none serious, though nevertheless revealing), so this only makes the abuses I see perpetrated against others (at home and abroad) seem all the more acute.

So these are the principal issues I’m contending with—all crucial to our present happiness and future survival, and it can be frustrating when no one cares to hear about it. How do I deal with that—to be a writer with no readers? That’s my koan, the Zen question with no answer. If I were a Zen master I’d simply yield to the absurdity of it or better yet, break a stick in two and walk out the door. As the master would say on the way out, there’s my answer! But alas, that detachment seems beyond me at this point.

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Some Philosophical Considerations

You can probably tell by now that I’m seriously concerned with ethics; that is, my writing is prescriptive rather than simply descriptive. I have no desire to just “tell a story” but rather to let certain truths unfold as the story itself unfolds. Thus I’ve sometimes wondered if I could properly be called a novelist at all; maybe “philosopher” is the better word, though both connote a certain expansiveness and clarity of mind that I hesitate to claim and would rather let others judge.

In addition, I can’t help wondering if this focus on diagnosis and prescription is one of the reasons I’ve had only one book published and one play produced in a lifetime of writing—is it that we Americans are still enamored of our Dream and aren’t yet prepared to move on to a more considered vision of the possible fulfillment of our aspirations? The fact that my writing isn’t commercial enough to warrant publication—publishers think no one wants to read it—does seem to indicate that. Add to this the fact that I excoriate current cultural beliefs and practices, the very beliefs that literary agents and editors live by and presumably hold dear, and one can be sure that this doesn’t help my case much.

I have been told to “write for the market”—and dozens of agencies’ websites reiterate this commercial plea—yet I’ve been unwilling to do so and thus find myself in a no-man’s-land of the unknown, unread, and fundamentally invisible. What can I say? I write what I have to. In this, I’m not so different from writers and countless other artists, past and present, beating a different drum and hoping someone will hear. And in the spirit of maintaining some dignity (and even sanity) in life, I nurture the dream that if the people of today aren’t receptive to what I’m trying to say, hopefully the people of tomorrow will be. The Van Gogh scenario, one might say.

I also speak emphatically about the formidable power of money and technology at the very time that they seem to be at their peak, which clearly works against me in getting published. How can I compete against their promises (though I’ve been trying to for a lifetime)? In taking the stand that I do, let’s face it—I’m dancing to entirely different music and because of that I’ve been marginalized. By not participating in the American money-go-round, for example, it’s been easy for me to be characterized as a failure—as I think even my family may have believed—or worse, a bum. The fact that I have a Ph.D. and have produced a large body of coherent and interesting work notwithstanding, I’m really a “nobody” in America and this perhaps explains in part why I’ve lived much of my adult life abroad. You go where food for the soul is.

The other god I’ve continually challenged—technology—makes it easy for me to be written off as a Luddite. God knows I’ve heard it enough times if not in so many words. In my writing, I certainly take on the machine (though hopefully with due subtlety and a sense of proportion) and try to show that a reconnection with each other and with Nature offers perhaps the best hope for our spiritual salvation. Is it true, then, that I’m a Luddite?

My case regarding technology has several parts. Please hold onto your hat, because this may be a challenging ride for some. First of all, the claim for technology is that it enlarges human agency, but in far too many cases it actually diminishes it. I speak from long experience. I can’t count how many times I’ve been told subtle variations of “the computer’s right and you’re wrong” or was compelled to do something a certain way because that’s how the technology operates. Sometimes entire ways of doing one’s work are dictated by the computer system in place—such systems are set up and it seems we have no choice but to acquiesce (or be labeled a technophobe). If you like it, fine, but what if you don’t? Yes, you’re “free” all right—perfectly free to quit your job.

It’s the little things, too, that can add up. Let me bring up just a few. I once registered my dissatisfaction with the obtuseness of the card catalog system on the computer at a well-known library and was told “it’s not the computer” (the librarian made quite sure I got the message that I was the one that was obtuse). Or consider this: being denied a credit card and finding myself unable to appeal because “the computer makes those decisions,” as I was politely told. Or being instructed by a university administration to change the way I evaluated students because a new data entry system had been installed and standardization was necessary. Yet we live in a “free” country. Do you see any inconsistency here? Or do you write these things off as the price we pay for living in the modern world?

If the Enlightenment was a movement to liberate the mind, to expand human potentiality through expression of this freedom, in fact we’re increasingly subject to the incessant demands of the machine. I want to decide how to do something, not be told that hoops have already been designed for me to jump through. Some people seem quite happy to live with these shackles all around us—I’m not. It’s like they don’t really see them as being shackles at all. Call me the canary in the coal mine, then.

Okay, let’s take another tack. I’m not too fond of the amount of person/machine interaction—laptop, cell phone, iPod/iPad, computer games, etc. These devices encourage essentially private rather than face-to-face experience, and in an age where alienation and loneliness are more than just minor irritations, this can’t be healthy. And I really don’t want to compete with a laptop or a cell phone or an iPod for someone’s attention. Does it bother you not at all that so many people are busy with these things so much of the time? I’d like to be able to communicate more freely and not always be asking, “Excuse me, do you mind if I interrupt?” (Yet how many times have I had a conversation interrupted by someone’s cell phone, for example? Interrupting someone was once considered boorish—now it’s a daily occurrence. Another long-held value bites the dust.) We’ve all been there, and apparently many of us have accepted this person/machine dance. Hey, lots of us are having great fun with all these toys.

Another undeniable result of embracing technology too lovingly is that in reducing manual labor—mostly by computerizing or robotizing so many workplaces—an entire underclass has been created which lacks the skills (and quite possibly the inclination) to participate in the hi-tech environment we’ve built. Now one practically has to be an engineer to work on the engine of a car, for example. What’s to become of these disenfranchised people in the richest society on earth? How are they to express their “freedom”? Do we even care? If I’m too often treated as an underachiever (or worse!) in America, how must they feel?

The other side of the coin is that capable and intelligent people are spending more and more time doing their own secretarial work—from doctors to professors, real estate brokers to you name it—spending hours a week (or day) in front of a computer performing administrative chores that take time away from more important and hopefully satisfying work. You may be experiencing this yourself. I remember well the promises of technology in the early days—it would take away the drudgery of work and provide us with ever more leisure time to express ourselves and find fulfillment. Yet we work longer hours and do more drudge work today than ever!

Why do I go on about all this? Only to begin to show why I take the position I have about the machine (in its many forms). The truth is, it would be unfortunate if my life’s work were cavalierly dismissed as being the lament of a technophobe. I don’t fear technology. Not in the least. Probably a more accurate word than fear would be disappointment. To be promised one set of things—increased freedom, expanded power, more leisure time—and delivered another, I find disappointing. A disappointment that touches right to the soul—I feel it more acutely than I can say. And add to this the fact that technology clearly reduces eye-to-eye human interaction—undermining and even destroying many long-held values in the process—not to mention aiding in the destruction of Nature!—well, I just have to write about it, don’t I?

I believe technology in its current incarnation has done more to undermine the values of the Enlightenment than all the ranting of religious and political fundamentalists combined. I’m not a technophobe—I just want to express what I understand freedom to be! I want the birthright that’s been promised me as an American.

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On to the Future or Return to the Past?

Because my writing supports the values inherent in the American Revolution (and the ideals of Thomas Jefferson in particular), this might leave me open to the charge that I want to return to the past. After all, Jefferson distrusted cities and felt that an agrarian society where all people had a connection to their neighbors and to the land was the best way to fulfill the hopes of our great American experiment. The very fact that I talk about abandoned values and a reintegration with Nature might make it hard for some to see how this is really not about the past but about the future.

Surely if someone is sitting pretty in America, as so many are, reading my work could be discomforting—and how better to make light of its theme than to say it harks back to the past? I have no doubt it’s tempting to say that this Katry Rain character is disillusioned with urban life and wants a return to eighteenth- or nineteenth-century American arcadia. I can only say from the heart and hope that I’m believed that I have no desire to go back to the past. I’ve lived in cities all my life, including New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo and Sydney, and don’t plan to “return to the farm” any time soon. I’m simply taking a cue from Jefferson like he took one from John Locke and Voltaire, like they took from the Renaissance and beyond, like they took from the Greeks—looking for what’s best in the human spirit and trying to keep it alive and translate it for this generation—so that we might bring the best of what humanity has learned about itself into the future.

At the moment we live in a materialistic age where most of the deepest human values and aspirations have been transformed into a superficial hamster wheel of consumption. So how can I not have my eye on the future and ways we might better realize what’s important—in order to construct a more satisfying tomorrow than we have today? Thus I ask not to be written off as a bucolic dreamer yearning for simpler times. My work is all about the future.

If that’s so, then why does so much of it look askance at the conventions of modern urban life? My “utopian” novel, Three Days at Albemarle, is set in a mountain community in Montana. The protagonist of the follow-up novel lives in New Mexico, rides a bike and marries a Native American. My last book is a dream set in a place resembling Elizabethan England. Why? Where’s this so-called future I’m talking about?

The fact is that I chose simple settings because I felt this was the best way to take complex ideas (as I saw them) and strip them down to the bone. Like a classical Chinese mountain painting where half the lines seem to be missing, I thought that if I could reduce the noise of modern life enough, I had a better chance to show what I was getting at. That’s why I didn’t set my characters in the intricate social and psychological milieu of a London or New York—there’s too much noise. (When my characters do turn up for a time in L.A., New York or Washington, it’s often into the maw of the beast, so to speak.)

The problem with this focus on showing what I mean by often erecting my stage in rather more rural settings rather than creating a utopian urban future, of course, is that I then leave it to others to design that future. Yet this is my intention!

My books are meant primarily to lay out a philosophical groundwork. I don’t want to tell others how they should live. Nor do I presume to determine for so-called experts how they should help the future unfold. The doctor knows medicine, the engineer physics, the mayor local politics. They are the ones who will lead us into the future, and I don’t think it’s a cop-out in the least to say that I didn’t set my books in that future I envision because people of initiative and good will are the ones who should imagine that future. I only want to outline the problem more clearly and suggest an alternate interpretation of the American Dream. I want to give ammunition (as well as succor) to the ones who in their own respective fields and in their own lives will bring the America of tomorrow into being.

In effect, I don’t focus on the future so much as the human being. It’s up to others to do with that what they will. I can only hope I’ve been of some service in keeping some ideas and traditions alive—the useful ones, the good ones—and show how they might apply to us today. I may even have introduced a new take on one or two; I can’t say. And with luck and providence—should it exist—my life and my work will not have been in vain. But that’s out of my hands, really. I did what I could. Maybe that’s a fitting (if trite) epitaph: “He did what he could.” And maybe I should add—though there have been times of disappointment, indignation and not a little frustration—I did it out of love. For this world, and for everyone and everything that’s in it. Whatever else people may think of me, please remember that.

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Hey Rain, What Kind of American Are You?

I’ve read a lot of American history over the years, and I marvel at (and sometimes lament) how our people at various times have interpreted the promise of the American Dream. I myself have always gravitated toward Jefferson and Madison, though I’m also a great admirer of Benjamin Franklin. What a mind! In temperament I lean toward Jefferson’s group, mainly because they worked with a truly radical idea—that a human being could actually be free—but they were thoughtful and moderate in imagining (and then designing) how this might be played out. Jefferson’s critics called him a Jacobin—one of those nasty French radicals—when in fact he was actually conservative. Reasonable, honorable, deliberate, tolerant: these are not considered the typical qualities of a radical, yet were some of his attributes—and ones through which he felt free people might best express themselves.

Many think that the Revolution was fought for political and economic freedom; maybe most people in 1776 also felt that way. But Jefferson had a more expansive freedom in his sights: to free the human mind. He considered one of his greatest achievements to be the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Imagine going against the tide of the times and proclaiming that one might believe what one wanted, regardless of the beliefs of others! Even today it boggles the mind. Moreover, along these same lines, he had a long and intimate relationship with a slave woman after his wife died, breaking a taboo few others—if anyone—had dared violate. Sure, many plantation owners slept with their slaves, but how many did it out of a sense of love and sharing, took the woman into the house, educated her children, and provided for their eventual release?

Read Faith Brodie’s biography of Jefferson to see just how free his mind was in this regard (in spite of recent books more critical of him). And yet he was conservative, as I said. He was well aware that you can’t just free everyone to think and say and do what they want—that’s a prescription for chaos. A society, to be stable (and therefore lasting), must temper that freedom with responsibility. Moderation is the key here, as Franklin said, reiterating the old Buddhist dictum. Excess, extremism—these things are symptoms of license. So you might say Jefferson was a radical conservative.

Most of the early years of the Republic were directly or indirectly under his influence. Of the first five presidents, three were Jeffersonian (including Jefferson himself, obviously). John Adams was not but he was turned out after one brief term, and Washington—about whose mind Jefferson said was great but “not of the first order”—most certainly found himself influenced by him. You might conclude, then, based on these facts alone, that the country was set on a course built on Jeffersonian ideals, ideals treasured until this day. Not so!

Interested in a brief history? Let’s take a little stroll, then. Even a cursory reading of the American past will show that as the country grew stronger and the economy flourished, the Eastern banks exerted ever more influence on virtually every aspect of life—agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, trade, and of course, politics. Established businesses thrived and “the little guy” (yeoman farmer, mechanic, artisan, etc) was squeezed out. By the 1830’s the public outcry against this brought Andrew Jackson to the White House with an implicit mandate to take on the banks, which he did—starting with the Second Bank of the United States. And for all practical purposes, he won.

Soon the economy was considerably freed up and increasing numbers of entrepreneurs were able to get in on the action. The Civil War delayed the full flowering of this but when the war was concluded, the entrepreneurial spirit flourished. Jeffersonian ideals seemed to be put aside and “getting rich” was now deemed by many to be a more desirable and attainable goal. And around that time, Darwin’s new theory of “the survival of the fittest” (popularized as “social Darwinism” by Herbert Spenser) seemed to legitimize the acquisition of ever increasing wealth, leading to the excesses of the era of the robber barons, the so-called Gilded Age. Where had “moderation” gone?

Another war (WWI) slowed the momentum—though there had been periodic recessions before then—and after that war, this growing materialism really took off. This has usually been ascribed to the burgeoning urban population (throwing off traditional ways) and the hedonistic backlash to the war (“The Roaring Twenties”). But it can also be attributed to the discovery by a member of Woodrow Wilson’s WWI peace delegation that people could be influenced through advertising to buy and continue to buy, whether they needed something or not. I think few people understand the significance of this last point.

You don’t know who I’m talking about? The person in question is Edward Bernays (who was, significantly, a nephew and admirer of Sigmund Freud). He discovered in Wilson’s lionization by the masses of Europe that people can be moved to great passion if the message touches subconscious desires. (Bernays was a member of Wilson’s “propaganda team,” as it was called, which helped to orchestrate that lionization.)

Impressed by what he’d seen, Bernays returned to New York in 1919 and opened an advertising agency! By applying this Freudian idea (that people are not, in fact, rational beings but are driven by countless irrational desires), he devised ad campaigns to connect products to those desires. He was wildly successful (today he’s considered “the father of American advertising”) and soon other agencies, rather than simply talking about the good points of the product, as was the custom, copied Bernays’ methods. Soon the American psychic landscape became a veritable beehive of fanned desires and the era of “conspicuous consumption” truly began—and continues to this day.

If you’ll permit me one brief example, I think I can demonstrate the workings of Bernays’ method and what we’re up against when we talk about living in a “free country.” His most famous client in those early days was the American Tobacco Company. He was asked to find a way to get women to smoke, since they made up an untapped half of the market. At that time, men generally forbade it—they considered it “unladylike.” Bernays consulted a prominent New York psychoanalyst about it, who agreed with him that the cigarette represented the penis—symbol of male power—and that’s why men guarded it so jealously. Don’t make a face! This story’s true, every word of it. So this was the social fabric Bernays would have to rip apart if he was to fashion a new garment for women that would pour big bucks into American Tobacco.

He decided on a deceptive little publicity stunt. He gathered a bevy of models and debutantes for the annual Easter Parade. They would march along Fifth Avenue with everyone else in the parade but, on his signal, were to light up cigarettes and smoke them! And he’d already tipped off journalists and photographers, claiming there’d be a newsworthy demonstration by attractive suffragettes! And on cue the babes lit up—the shock of the event guaranteeing not only nationwide coverage, but a story that traveled around the world.

According to “unnamed sources” quoted in the news articles—think Bernays here—these bold women had ignited their torches of freedom!  Seeing such a “brave” display, women everywhere were emboldened to do the same, as “an assertion of independence.” This, of course, also tapped right into the pioneer consciousness—escape from oppression—and the ball started rolling! Sales skyrocketed. It was an advertisement that didn’t have any factual information about the product—that could be a little touchy with cigarettes—but instead connected the product to a subconscious desire unrelated to the product but attached to it in their minds by the skill of the advertiser—Bernays!

Even more insidious, if one can bear facing it, is that over time (especially since the 50s) people have come to believe that they actually need these various things we now call consumer goods—not only to feel somehow satisfied, but to feel like complete, full-fledged members of society. Why? Because Bernays’ technique was so effective over the years—soon used by everyone in business—that it engendered an entirely new social ethic. You don’t have a cell phone? A hairstylist? A microwave? A late-model car? An iPod? Some designer clothes? That’s dereliction of duty! You’ve failed as an American!

This is how the culture of “stuff” began and took on a life of its own. We’re immersed in it like goldfish in a bowl and many don’t even know we’re swimming in it—because it’s nearly all subconscious. It seems normal, even natural.

Let me return to the title of this entry: Hey Rain, what kind of American are you? Well, I hope it’s a little clearer now that I do care about America. Just because I live abroad and castigate much of our modern culture in my writing, this doesn’t mean I’m not committed to my country. On the contrary—I think that America still offers the best hope for liberating the human mind, and I’ve spent a lifetime trying to describe how that might best be done. If I didn’t have faith in my country, why would I even bother? But as it’s no doubt clear, today’s America is far from the land hospitable to the mind that Jefferson envisioned more than two centuries ago. We’re still waiting for that America to emerge. I think it can, and that’s why I write about it. Far from turning my back on my country, I believe I’m working to bring it to its fuller glory. There, take it or leave it. I’ve said my piece.

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