Written under the influence of Michael Pollan
To be more creative, to expand our connections with the people in our lives, to free ourselves from self-defeating thoughts, to be happier. Can psychedelics play a role in our personal well-being? Michael Pollan, a self-described “square,” separates truth from myth, becoming a chronicler and participant in the exploration of this question. How to Change Your Mind documents the suppression and potential therapeutic future of psychedelics. And here, as in his previous two best-sellers, The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan combines history with politics and personal reflection on the healing potential of the plant world, specifically magic mushrooms.
The book points to some of the damage done by Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary and other counterculture leaders, who successfully branded psychedelic science as part of the hippie movement. Within the moral backlash toward that era, this association partly ensured the drug’s criminalization. But not before scientists discovered an amazing potential to treat addiction, alcoholism, anxiety, depression and the distress facing patients with a terminal diagnosis.
Over the last two decades, medical centers along with the U.S. government, are allowing new research into the study of psilocybin, the active ingredient in LSD, to treat these conditions. Pollan also reports that “the practice of microdosing — taking a tiny, ‘subperceptual’ regular dose of LSD as a kind of mental tonic — is all the rage in the tech community.”
Modern technology, specifically fMRI scanners, confirm a similar brain activity between people meditating and those taking psilocybin. LSD molecules resemble serotonin and can breach the neurotransmitter’s receptors. Not everyone’s reaction is the same, and Leary’s major contribution was an emphasis on the effects of personal expectation or “set” and guided circumstance or “setting,” which some argue should include a trained therapist.
However, almost all reports of psilocybin-induced experience share what Pollan calls a “plane of consciousness,” that was new to him and felt truer than everyday reality. Why should this experience prove so helpful? As Pollan explains it, disorders that are the result of mental and emotional “grooves” in our thinking have become “default.” Experiences with psilocybin have the ability to create new cerebral connections that release us from “rigidity in our thinking that is psychologically destructive.” He provides intriguing examples, such as a study involving terminal cancer patients who felt lasting relief from their anxieties around death.
While Pollan does not argue for the arbitrary legalization nor for the recreational use of psychedelics, he does argue that our anxieties around them lack merit. He also expresses hope that the drugs will be more widely available, not only those suffering from addiction and trauma, but also for the middle aged, whose “habitual thinking…is nearly absolute.” What Pollan personally sought was an opportunity to “renovate my everyday mental life,” and found that his experience gave him a greater and lasting sense of openness and appreciation of life.
As always, Pollan’s work is highly readable. And to my mind, the author once again suggests (to quote Botany) the plant’s ability to restore “a kind of innocence to our perceptions of the world.'' Here he creates another provocative opportunity to wonder at the unique power of nature and its relationship with the human condition.
Originally published September 6, 2018 in the Aspen Daily News
Successful French hip-hop artist Gaël Faye was born in 1982 to a French father and Rwandan mother who lived as expatriates in Burundi, a country in the Great Lakes area of Eastern Africa.
Faye describes the bulk of his creative work in music, screenplays and fiction as rooted in poetry. He began writing poems at an early age, anchoring himself to their composition throughout his abruptly uprooted adolescence, and then expanding his small works into song and prose.
He has recently emerged as a dexterous talent, winning numerous literary prizes, including the prestigious Prix Goncourt des lycéens for Petit Pays, published 2016 in France and selling over 700,000 copies. Sarah Ardizzone translated Faye’s novel into Small Country, now published in over thirty countries worldwide.
The book opens just before the first democratic election in 1993 of Melchior Ndadaye in Burundi, bordered by Rwanda, Tanzania and the Congo. There, life is fairly carefree for ten-year-old Gabrial, living with his expatriate French father, Rwandan mother and little sister Ana in the capital of Bujumbura.
Ten year old Gabriel (Gaby) and his pack of mischief making friends sneak beers, gossip about girls, avoid Francis the bully, sell stolen mangoes and sneak Supermatch cigarettes. Faye’s inspiration for these characters comes from a lyric he wrote days before the civil war. Pili Pili sur un Croissant au Beurre; it’s a song of privilege and boredom and from a child who does not yet understand what the future holds.
The 1993 assassination of Melchior Ndadaye will come just three months after his election in a military coup that begins a ten-year civil war, killing over a million Hutus and Tutsis in mutual prosecution of physical difference. The violence will monstrously spread, propelling Rwanda into genocide rooted on an accepted colonial concept of ethnicity. Faye writes, “A glowing, uninvited ghost is showing up at regular intervals to remind us that peace is merely a brief interlude between two wars...we didn’t know it yet, but the hour of the inferno had come, and the night was about to unleash it’s cackles of hyenas and wild dogs.”
Small Country explores the grief that accompanies a boy plunged from the familiar into the horrific. Gaby first steadies himself by writing poetic letters to his French pen pal Laure. He befriends an elderly widow with large bookshelves, immerses himself in reading instead of following friends into guerilla warfare. Eventually he must make the worst of choices. It’s an ambitious character development, and at times Faye loses a little authenticity, attempting to balance seasoned expository with the naïve perspective of a boy.
Faye’s own boyhood was lost to war, and he followed his mother to France where he describes being so filled with injustice and the shock of a new culture that he didn’t unpack his suitcase for months. Like Gaby, he was a child traumatized by the evil that passed though and transformed Africa. He writes, "Genocide is an oil slick: those who don't drown in it are polluted for life."
Within that darkness, Gaby loses not only freedom but identity, abandoning his former self in order to survive. Faye illuminates the brutal struggle of refugee experience through what at times can feel like disjointed memoir. Yet, he delivers a perspective not often shared about the Rwandan genocide. The story is slow building and deeply moving, told in simple beautiful language, and a worthy eye-opening read.
Originally published July 26, 2018 in the Aspen Daily News
Movies are like little shared multi-million dollar dreams that we get to experience on demand. While they aren't reality, they reflect little slices of the real world like a kaleidoscope or a fun house mirror. What these movies say about the real world is distorted, more fun and a little larger than life. With this in mind there are a whole bunch of famous (maybe infamous) films which take place in part or in whole in our little valley which can give us a little glimpse into how people around the world think about what’s goin on here. Of course everyone knows that Colorado is where the secret world government consisting of the five richest people in the world including The Queen, Colonel Sanders and the Pope meet every year, but did you know that there is much, much more to see here than just our beloved shadow government?
Of course the most realistic of all the films ever made about Aspen Colorado is Battlefield Earth. L. Ron Hubbard's saga of the year 3000 is also the greatest science fiction film ever made. Forget Star Wars. Battlefield Earth realistically portrays Aspen in one thousand glorious years, after the earth has been stripped entirely of its shiny gold and turned over to a race of 8 foot tall John Travoltas. Aspen is depicted as it is in the year 3000, a luxury resort ravine full of feral humans on the run from a giant Vinnie Barbarino. As the most historically accurate movie about the future ever made watching Battlefield Earth is quite shocking, but to quote James Joyce "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake."
For people just getting to the valley this summer there are two films which will give you a little taste of what Aspen is supposed to be and what it really is. Both of these films are set in the early 90's or late 1980's and have virtually identical plots. Two friends take off from their small towns looking for the good life where someone can plug them into the social pipeline. Eeking their way through life these characters are sick and tired of being nobodies, but most of all they are tired of having nobody. These blue collar characters leave their worm farms behind and move to Aspen only to lose everything, becoming bodies crushed in the gears of this luxury resort. And that's just Aspen Extreme.
Aspen Extreme is probably the greatest 1980's Ski Movie ever made and the only movie filmed entirely in Aspen, about Aspen for Aspen. I had never heard of this film before coming here, but it is extremely important- a cultural linchpin that holds this valley together. Aspen Extreme is the story of Dexter and some other guy who come to Aspen as ski instructors and live in what looks like a derelict box car in a river. They live their dreams skiing, writing, and dating Finola Hughes the star of the 1983 sequel to Saturday Night Fever, "Staying Alive," (who is sort of on the run from Vinnie Barbarino if you think about it). They get addicted to drugs and one of them dies while skiing in the yearly Powder 8 Competition. This competition seems to be kind of "Rite of Spring" held annually to thin out the ski instructor ranks and ensure that the gods of ski and powder are sated with fresh blood. The lesson of Aspen Extreme is that while half of the people who just up and move here will die because of avalanches or drugs, the other half will certainly fall in love with a soap opera star and become celebrated writers like local heroes Hunter S. Thompson, Walter Issacson, and Emzy Veazy III.
Dumb and Dumber is a far more famous film which depicts two working class heroes on an adventure which would make Joseph Campbell blush with joy. Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne live hum drum lives in New Jersey, where they have no food, no jobs and their pet's heads are falling off. One day they find a briefcase, owned by a beautiful woman named Samsonite who is on her way to Aspen- where the beer flows like wine. Driven by a sense of duty and love of which troubadours will one day sing- Lloyd and Harry set out on an odyssey to return the briefcase, which happens to be full of cash. Once in Aspen they find out that their quest for love entails spending all of that cash on cars, fancy hotels and saving endangered wildlife in pastel tuxedos. Once they are exposed as blue collar idiots, Lloyd and Harry are expelled from Aspen thrown into the wilderness, presumably walking back to New Jersey.
Both Aspen Extreme and Dumb and Dumber have valuable lessons interspersed throughout. We find out that you can't trust John Denver, that the Monkeys were a huge influence on the Beatles and that in life skiing is the easy part. There are some fantastic and unbelievable moments in both. Dumb and Dumber is clearly filmed at the Estes Park Hotel, 200 miles away and is totally devoid of local landmarks. Equally as ridiculous Aspen Extreme has a number of scenes that take place in a regular old greasy spoon diner, nary a Michelin star to be seen. If they were eating at the Gucci Store it would be more accurate. If you just moved here or have lived here for years any of these films are absolutely worth watching. These films offer us a glimpse into our near past and the far future and are a reflection of this place, however distorted.
I was born a fool, don't want to stay that way.
Irish writer Sebastian Barry won the 2017 Costa Book of the Year Award for "Days Without End," a novel judges described as “one of the most wonderful depictions of love in the whole of fiction.” Barry is the first novelist to win the prestigious award for a second time, after winning in 2008 for "The Second Scripture," another of Barry’s four novels that feature a member of the McNulty clan. Barry’s seven novels imagine the people in his ancestral family that were never discussed.
As a child he discovered there had been a great-uncle who had fought in the Indian Wars. At age 8, he equated that story with the cowboy films he watched in Dun Laoghaire. But the story grew in his mind, as he contemplated for 50 years, imagining the sorrow of a person having to leave Ireland and consequentially fight for the removal and erasure of another native people from their own home.
I’ve been hungry for the style and lyricism of which Barry appears to be a master. I found the author and the title from a list of notable reads assembled by the American Library Association. The subject matter of the novel intrigued me; its narrator Thomas McNulty, a teenage crack shot, has fled the Great Famine of Ireland and been swiftly conscripted into the U.S. Army, shuttled off to the great plains of Wyoming to fight in a blue uniform against the Sioux and the Yurok. Thomas traverses the states to Tennessee to later enter the Civil War.
“Everything bad gets shot at in America ... and everything good too.”
I marveled at how directly and colloquially Barry describes the famine and brutality of his circumstances while also finding heartbreaking beauty in the nature and companionship that accompanies his journey.
“The mules treading along so mulish graceful and only their choosy footfall sounding. Otherwise the usual full sounds of night. Something cracking through the wood, bear or elk maybe. Maybe the wolves come hungrily through the brush. The sky is just beaten silver now too and the moon alters his light a shade to make sure he seen … We been through many slaughters, John Cole and me. But I am as peaceful and easy now as I ever been. Fear flies off and my box of thoughts feels light. I’m thinking, John Cole looks big for the mule … like the mule and him ain’t in the same world exactly. Then he pulls his hat down tight. Ain’t nothing in it. He pulls his hatbrim down, under the moon. With the dark trees around. And the owls. Don’t mean nothing. Be hard to be in the world without him. I’m thinking that. That part of the country you see two or three shooting stars a minute. Must be time of year for shooting stars. Looking for each other, like everything is.”
These capacious architectural passages left me heartstruck. And Barry’s visceral storytelling had me completely hooked, well before I realized this was more than a retelling of our nation’s fateful beginnings or its violence past, but rather a book of steadfast love.
Thomas McNulty finds a friend and lover with brother in arms, “handsome John Cole.” These men are complicit in the horrors that shape American history and yet also form a devoted family, defending and caretaking a young Sioux girl and reaching out for one another with unyielding tenderness. Their bond to one another and to their makeshift family requires the kind of courage and tenacity that defines integrity. Thomas claims “there is a seam in men called justice that nothing burns off complete.”
The author’s own son Toby came out to him a few years ago, and Barry describes how capable and delicate is the love between Toby and his boyfriend that it served as inspiration for the love between Thomas and Cole. Barry deftly and convincingly captures the development of their relationship as it persists through great hardship and the complexities of war.
“How come we lying here and guarded and inside four walls and the camp lying within this wooded land and the dogs of winter biting and scraping at our limbs? … Got to say it is a marvel how the mortal bones stand out. I can see his hip bones and his leg bones where they thicken at the knees. His arms just whittled branches from a dried-out tree. Long hours we lie close and John Cole lays his hand on my head and leaves it there. John Cole, my beau.”
Actor Aidan Kelly brogues the audio book narration of this novel, earnestly and wittily delivering the wonder of Barry’s prose. Definitively worth a listen.
Originally posted in the Aspen Daily News, May 24, 2018
Folk, a bewitching debut novel from Zoe Gilbert, 2014 winner of the UK’s revered Costa Short Story Award.
When I was twelve, I sought out the kind of fiction that led me down magical paths, places where powerful incantations held sway in mysterious other-worldly planes. In recent years, I’ve gravitated toward the kind of writing that teaches me something new or challenges my sense of what literature should be. Fantasy fiction hasn’t been my go-to. Yet, I was easily caught in the dark net cast by Zoe Gilbert, a PhD student of mentor Alison MacLeod in South-East London, and 2014 winner of UK’s revered Costa Short Story Award.
This unique award is judged anonymously, with the names of the competing authors withheld throughout the process. Gilbert’s short story Fishskin, Hareskin received the highest number of public votes and is now one of the separate yet interconnected stories contained in her bewitching debut novel, Folk.
Zoe Gilbert has conjured an eerily beautiful world, an un-happily ever after place, drawn from old tales from the Isle of Man, where “moonlight reaches down between branches” and kites strain and wood quivers. The briny air is rich with the scent of sodden thatch, salt sea-fog and cobnut shells. A fiddle mourns for lost loves where wild enchanted characters inhabit a land tethered to sub-pagan ritual.
At times this book languishes in a way that detracts from its narrative. However, Gilbert triumphs with some simply infatuating prose. She spins ancient myth like a true Solomon, recounting a world, unreal yet more real than our own.
And while the pursuit of supernatural storytelling is to create a universe far far away, these constructed worlds cannot help but reflect a kind of hyper-reality, shining light on our own existence, how are we the same, what are we missing? Take the story of Verlyn, a character born with a wing for an arm and sadly defined by that peculiarity. Verlyn’s tale illustrates our misunderstanding of difference and the resultant fear that blinds our ability both to understand and to love.
In Prick Song, ancient ritual prescribes village girls to fire ribboned arrows into a thick gorse maze which young suitors compete to retrieve. Bloody scratch marks earn the boys kisses on their stinging lips, but the proceedings turn grim when a battle ravaged victor is burned alive.
In Water Bull Bride, Gilbert conceives a water bull as Minotaur, who disguises himself as a man so to capture and seduce a bride. Underwater he elicits a sexual appetite in her that cannot be quenched by mortals.
A new mother who is preoccupied by hares wraps her strange offspring in the skins of childhood pets. A young boy named Hark lives behind a waterfall and uses his ox-voice to answer villager’s questions. Each of their stories can stand alone; together they hint at the passage of time, culminating in a deep and strangely beautiful sense of place.
When I finished Folk, I found myself sadly staring at the cover, then out the window, wishing I could return to Gilbert’s mythical land called Neverness, that my bare feet touched a verdant forest floor or that I might shake hands with a less (more?) human being. There’s something incredibly appealing about erasing the sharp angles of contemporary existence, and there’s a sense of loss in the return to hard boiled reality.
This is not a title that will be to everyone’s taste, but lovers of fantasy fiction will admire Gilbert’s work, and I imagine that some soon to be fans will like it too.
This review originally appeared in the Aspen Daily News on April 12, 2018
The Hainish Cycle series by Ursula K. Le Guin
Burning Your Boats: the collected short stories by Angela Carter
A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel
Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan
Who am I? Who has the Keys to my beemer?
The philosopher Beenie Man first wrestled with these questions on his 1997 dance hall classic "Who Am I" and ever since modern humans have stared into the black spaces between stars, clawing at their skin, mouths agape and drooling while wondering "Who Am I?"
Self-awareness is unfortunately a quality which many of us lack. Some of the lesser sages such as Socrates have insisted that the un-examined life is not worth living yet it seems like some of us are full on blundering through existence like a blind person wearing oven mitts. While there are many books written about attempts at self-help and reinventing our lives most people don't make any kind of concerted effort to really develop a sense of self that doesn't include colors or cola preferences.
There are a few different ways that people have tried to rate, grade and discover themselves most of these fall short of really uncovering our true selves.
The library has recently started to host games of Dungeons & Dragons for middle schoolers and this reminded me of a quote by American moralist Kurt Vonnegut:
"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be"
This got me thinking, what exactly are people pretending to be? D&D gives people a chance to pretend in a creative story telling setting. Many modern people mostly pretend that they aren't crying at work or that things are going to 'be ok' while the oceans die and bacteria gets stronger, better, faster. Because we are finite almost chimps with a will to power the reality of somatic life brings us into constant conflict with others as we jostle for position and prestige. As a remedy to this situation there are a couple of common tools of "industrial psychology" as well as folksy astronomy which have been utilized to tell people where they fit into this human zoo that we call civilization.
Probably the most common every day way to classify people's talents and personalities is an ancient one, Astrology. Simply read the back pages of the newspaper, just to the left of Zits and south of Garfield is your day spelled out by what I assume is a wizened old crone hunched over a gnarled word processor. Science cant explain how Astrology works, maybe because it does not. Does gravity or dark matter play some part in determining your personality? Maybe something about seasonal bacteria and its epi-genetic effects? Yea sure. I remain skeptical, although a quick thumb through our book What your birthday reveals about you: 366 days of astonishingly accurate revelations about your future, your secrets, and your strengths is weirdly surprising and somewhat accurate. My own personal zodiac does line up with my personality, probably because of the position of some exploding balls of hydrogen that some Greek dudes thought looked like a fish. Very plausible, very real, watch out Mercury is in retrograde until May.
The personality assessment that most of us have taken in school or in preparation for employment is the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator, which separates people into sixteen categories with four different metrics for each personality type. The big two are the person's affinity towards Introversion or Extroversion; whether or not you like to speak in public or rather hide under a desk for a while. Once again my own personal experience is that the MBTI explains your preferences for proximity to other people, but try introducing yourself as an INFP (4% of the population AKA the human unicorn along with Bjork, Kurt Cobain and Van Gogh- who would have started a hell of a band) or an ESTP (10% of the population like Teddy Roosevelt or Madonna, who would have dated for sure. The Bull Moose & Material Girl together forever) and see if anyone even knows what that means.
Here in the Roaring Fork I was introduced to Dr. William Moulton Marston's DiSC assessment, which is pretty popular if you work for one of the local Aspen institutions, but has a mysterious and strange history. William Marston is best known for the following things, being the creator of "Wonder Woman," being an practitioner of polyamory and inventing the precursor to the polygraph. I would title a book about Marston's life "1920's Shades of Gray". (The actual book about his life is called "The Secret History of Wonder Woman" and the film "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is now available in our new DVD section). If you've been DiSC'd you should read this book.
The most important thing about the DiSC assessment is that you absolutely must score a D for dominant, meaning that you are a boss, like Rick Ross. Anything you do to achieve this result is justified. Lie, cheat, steal, whatever you gotta do must be done because this is your career in the balance. It’s not like you could just get your wife and your girlfriend to do all your work for you like Professor Marston did. And yes, Marston did take credit for much of the work of his partners Olive Byrne and Elizabeth Marston, but that's a totally acceptable D move.
The other thing you should know is that there is a single beer limit (of Colorado Kool Aid no less) at the DiSC after party dinner at a billionaire's house near the river. After your banquet beer you will get a healthy lecture about active listening from someone that makes more money in a week than you will in your entire life. I think i could do much with a few billion. Honestly you should give me a couple of millions of dollars so that I can buy centrifuges for the library and enrich enough uranium to develop nuclear weapons. Then we could declare the Basalt Regional Library a Sovereign Nation and get rid of all late fees. And after this the Library will invade and colonize the Woody Creek Tavern. Maybe launch a sneak attack on Crested Butte too. Or pay a bunch of strangers medical bills. Whatever might make the world a better place.
D&D lets you not only choose what kind of creepy medieval fantasy character you want to be, it asks you how that Orc Shaman gets things done. The how is what's more important. D&D has 9 categories to choose from arranged from good to evil and lawful or chaotic. For character reference the scale goes like this at its extremes
Lawful Good v. Chaotic evil or Luke Skywalker v. The Joker.
This Harry Potter Chart is probably more what you are into, but the character grades remain the same.
All characters fit into that scale somewhere. The character you choose to play as for the next two hours says everything about how you would like your own personal human experience to play out. Unlike the MBTI or DiSC systems which ask you to reveal some hidden aspect of yourself, like spraying Windex on the dark glass of your soul, D&D lets you choose what your ideal self could be. When facing the challenges of living, the Trolls of daily life, Mindflayers and Demogorgons of love or finance we ultimately get to choose how to attack these problems.
Will you return the gold ring you found in the street, sell it and donate the money to the poor, or hold it for ransom? Would I use the threat of Thermonuclear war to get one of our patrons to return our copy of A Cure For Wellness? According to my D&D alignment, probably not. I might wave your fines if you get me a new copy from the Walmarts. That's just the kind of Chaotic Good person I choose to be.
Take the D&D alignment test here and post your results in the comments!
I was born a fool, don't want to stay that way.
Adult News & reviews
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