Thursday, September 30, 2010

Banana Monkey Boy and Banana Monkey Girl

This happened in 1983. I was at Faywood Hot Springs when I met Banana Monkey Girl and her little brother, Banana Monkey Boy. Earlier that afternoon, I had taken some prime cannabis and a minor dose of magic mushrooms, and soaked in the hot pool until I dissolved into a ball of giggles. This lasted for about half an hour. Later I laughed and laughed for a long time. I felt good.

Then I climbed out of the pool and up into a large mulberry tree next to the pool which was loaded with ripe fruit. I climbed out on various limbs like a monkey and ate wild mulberries. Then I returned to the pool for several more hours. Darkness came, and with the darkness came strange carloads of the kind of people who haunt hot springs at night. One of these carloads contained Banana Monkey Boy and Banana Monkey Girl.

I didn’t really notice them until they were already in the pool beside me. Like mutual magnets, our spheres of interaction wanted to merge. Banana Monkey Boy was eating a banana. "I’m a banana monkey," he said. So that’s how I started calling him Banana Monkey Boy. "I sank down to the bottom of the pool once and they thought I was dead," he said. Banana Monkey Boy was 7 years old and his sister, Banana Monkey Girl, was 9. They were acting sort of strange. "Are you drunk?" I asked. "Yes," said Banana Monkey Girl, "our parents let us get drunk sometimes."

My memory hazes out after that. I fade away. The signal has been lost. All I can remember is that we soaked together in the hot water without saying too much, just sharing a sense of communion. It seemed appropriate somehow -- two drunk kids and a spaced cowboy.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Hawking and Me

Did you know that I’m only one degree of separation from Stephen Hawking? This is indeed a fact. Back in the 70s I was in correspondence with a Sky and Telescope assistant editor, Dennis Overbye, who is now a science writer for the New York Times. I wrote him a letter about an article he had written about black holes in S&T, he liked it, and we wrote back and forth a few times.

He was on his way to interview Hawking, and asked me if I had any message for the great man. So yeah, I had a message. Something about black holes and the Hindu Goddess Kali, the black goddess, the destroyer. (It seemed feasible enough to me, being a frequent marijuana smoker at the time and all. There seemed to be some kind of archetypal correlation there.)

Well, Overbye wrote back in due course, and told me that Hawking called my idea "fashionable nonsense." Wow, Hawking actually shot two words my way, and key words at that! (Although I would argue with the "fashionable" bit.) I’m not surprised that a scientist would respond the way he did, but in my defense I need to mention the fact that there are realms of experience every bit as accurate and relevant as scientific logic, it’s just that we humans haven’t learned to navigate these realms very skillfully yet.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

How I Got Fired, Sued the University, and Went Back to the Land

I worked with New Mexico State University's Planetary Astronomy Group from 1964-69, doing research on the dynamics of Jupiter’s atmosphere. Jupiter has some amazing weather -- one storm is twice as big as the Earth and has lasted for over 300 years. It was my job to track these storms with an unprecedented level of accuracy, using photographs taken at the NMSU Observatory located on top of “A” Mountain.

The Planetary Astronomy Group was headed by Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered the planet Pluto. The group had about 15 employees, and we had a strong sense of mission. This was during the buildup to the first lunar landing, and planetary astronomy was an exciting field to be in.

I served as a student assistant, working half-time during the fall and spring semesters, and full-time during the summer. My main claim to fame was having several scientific papers published in Icarus, Nature, and Planetary and Space Science. Carl Sagan was editor of Icarus at the time. This was heady stuff for an undergraduate.

I graduated with a BS in physics in May 1968, and my day-to-day boss, Brad Smith, gave me a nice raise and a professional title: Junior Astronomer. This is as low as you can get and still be called an Astronomer, but hey, I really appreciated the raise, and was planning to go on to grad school anyhow. Maybe I would become an Assistant Astronomer someday, and so on up the ladder.

However, this was 1968, and my plans were overwhelmed by larger events. Martin Luther King was assassinated, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, ghettoes burned across the country, the police went berserk at the Democratic Convention, the Vietnam war became a bloody nightmare, and student antiwar protests broke out on campuses everywhere. I dived in with both feet and never quite came back.

In the summer of 1968 some of us leftist students started a group, Students for the Improvement of Education. We decided to start a newsletter, the Conscience, and I volunteered to be editor. We bought a mimeograph machine and put out our first issue in September.

The Conscience created a furor. We were totally anonymous, and the administration wanted our scalps. We didn’t like the Vietnam war; we didn’t like mandatory ROTC; we didn’t like the University’s paternalistic “in loco parentis” policy; we thought NMSU was a glorified technical training institute rather than a place of true learning. We felt ripped off. We were idealistic young punks (I was 22 at the time), and we were very insulting and in-your-face about it all. The university administration was apoplectic. They confiscated every copy of the Conscience they could find. They even sent campus cops to check typewriters in campus offices to see if they could catch us that way. This cat-and-mouse game went on all fall.

In December 1968 the University of New Mexico Lobo editor (who was also a radical) offered to print us a tabloid version of the Conscience, and, emboldened by our new format, we decided to print our names. This issue came out right before Christmas.

As soon as I returned from Christmas break, the Vice President for Research summoned me to his office and fired me, effective Jan. 31, 1969. Brad Smith spoke out in my defense. The Faculty Senate passed a resolution supporting me. But to no avail -- I was to become NMSU’s sacrificial lamb. So in January 1969 I entered the world of the unemployed, without having the vaguest idea of how to support myself. (Jovian atmospheric dynamics is not a highly marketable field.)

My wife at the time, Judy, and I continued putting out the Conscience twice a month as a 16-page tabloid. We sold it for 15¢ a copy (75¢ in today’s money). We sold several hundred copies of each issue, along with a few ads, and somehow we managed to scrape out a living, eating lots of beans and rice, and smoking a little hash whenever we could afford it.

The Conscience was a typical underground paper of its day. We were antiwar, of course, and had lots of leftist politics, but also printed underground comix (R. Crumb and Furry Freak Brothers), and articles about our favorite fun trinity of “sex, drugs, and rock & roll.” Our infamous “Essay on Shit” was a humorous taboo-breaker that caused the expected furor. We also printed some environmental articles, and I am glad we spoke out on behalf of the Home Planet at such an early date. We were trying to be a total consciousness-raising package. We really thought we were on to something -- and we were -- but unfortunately most of our fellow students opted for the straight and narrow, where they remain to this day.

In the spring of 1969, Judy and I opened up a little rock and roll emporium on North Main, in an old mortuary where the Pizza Hut is now located. It was a trippy place, with an embalming room with stained slab, 3-hearse garage, etc. We rented out a few of the rooms to hippie entrepreneurs and presented folk music in the chapel on weekdays and rock music on weekends. After this venture inevitably folded after about six months, we became managers of the house band, moved in with them, and played gigs across New Mexico, driving (you guessed it) an old hearse.

Throughout all this the ACLU, bless them, sued NMSU on my behalf. My First Amendment rights had been trampled, after all. A couple of hip young lawyers from Albuquerque took my case, and they came down to Las Cruces a few times to interview me, take depositions, etc. In May 1970 the University offered an out-of-court settlement -- about $40,000 in today’s money.

By then, Judy and I were spoiled. We had never been free before. Like most Americans, our childhoods had been totally programmed -- school, church, TV -- and now here we were, self-actualizing. What a marvelous feeling it was. We didn’t want to go back to the old workaday grind. So we took the money and ran… straight to our first homestead in the Ozarks. We were heavily influenced by The Whole Earth Catalog and Mother Earth News. Going “back to the land” sounded very appealing to us.

And there, traditionally, the story has always ended. “NMSU radical fired, sues university, settles out-of-court, end of story.” But I’ll add a couple more paragraphs for closure, because in many ways my life didn’t really begin until I moved to the country and started to grok Nature in fullness.

So. We bought a little piece of land in the Ozarks in July 1970, put a trailer on it, planted a garden, raised rabbits and goats for meat and milk, and ran out of money long before we had planned to. There were no job opportunities in the Ozarks. Fortuitously, the Lunar and Planetary Lab at the University of Arizona in Tucson wanted to set up a Jupiter program, and offered me a job. Being broke, I took it. We moved to Tucson in August 1971, and lasted exactly 5 months. I was really spoiled by then. After self-actualizing out in the country all that time, I had become permanently unsuited for office work.  I was miserable in my new job, and left as soon as we had saved up a little money. 

So we left Tucson, moved back to the Ozarks, started to miss New Mexico, and moved to Radium Springs in October 1973. I have lived here on the bank of the Rio Grande ever since, supporting myself as a beekeeper. I appreciate being close to Nature. Nature can be a merciless taskmaster, but unlike human reality, there’s no bullshit. This has strongly colored my perception of reality.

I have maintained an outsider’s perspective all these years. Despite my alternative lifestyle, I remain a planetary astronomer at heart, and view the ongoing human drama at a planetary level. I have watched mainstream SUV-drivin’, junk food eatin’, TV watchin’ American culture -- and the political system that goes with it -- with intense skepticism my entire adult life. The thought that these people are somehow going to “wake up” and change their ways beggars belief. America’s devolution to corporate fascism is nothing new -- I’ve been watching it develop for the past 30 years. It’s been worst-case scenario every inch of the way. We hippie radicals may have been young and na├»ve back then, but we weren’t blind. If I could have emigrated to another planet 35 years ago, I surely would have. Because there will be no place on this planet safe from Gaia’s wrath. When the polar ice caps melt, and the last of the rainforest is destroyed, and the Gulf Stream shuts down, a hard rain’s a-gonna fall, sorry about that. I honestly wish I could offer a more hopeful perspective here. I would love to be wrong about this, but I haven’t been so far. But there’s always a first time. I sure hope so.

-- April 28, 2003