Breakfast of Champions

I’m a book reviewing machine.

I’ve been programmed to write about “Breakfast of Champions” by The Creator of the Universe.

Here’s another possibility: I am a character in a Kurt Vonnegut novel. Kilgore Trout can’t be the only one to suspect he’s in a fictional universe, which on some days, seems far too absurd to even be a cheap imitation of reality.

But you, dear reader, are neither a character nor a biological machine. Beyond your clothes and hair, flesh and blood and organs, you are much more than a robotized thing.

You are an unwavering band of light.

***

Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions” and Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” share some similarities. Although they’re set in different time periods, both authors are criticizing a deep-rooted ugliness in American society. Both authors are commenting on the division of communities, and the alienation of individuals, through the evils of racism and sexism and classism.

Both authors are asking what it means to be free in a country that so often treats its human beings terribly. Many human beings, for generations and generations, were not even considered to be human beings.

Many are still not.

Vonnegut does not ignore how cruel people can be toward each other. He nauseatingly forces his readers to look at what happens when, instead of everyone treating each other with the dignity that they deserve, they categorize each other instead.

In “Breakfast of Champions,” he shows what it is like to live in a decaying America. Unregulated companies use up the natural resources of the land with barely any legal consequences. The rich exploit the poor while blaming them for being poor. Politicians order young soldiers to commit atrocities in unnecessary wars. Neighborhoods are separated by class and race. Organized crime is the undercurrent of many businesses. Communities repeat the same violent patterns that they learned from their ancestors, patterns as old as centuries of slavery and genocide. They pass down their ghosts to their descendants, pretending that the worst parts of themselves are over.

Yet in such a systemically unjust world, people still have a choice. They can still use their “free will” to be compassionate to one another. They can show small kindnesses to strangers. They don’t have to hate just because they were taught to hate. They don’t have to become unthinking, unfeeling machines.

People are not mere robots programmed by their environments, their genes, or even “The Creator of the Universe” to be a specific way or to follow one set path. They aren’t predestined to meet a certain fate.

Many people can choose to behave humanely, even in an unjust country. But if the same force of societal ignorance continues as it had in the past, there may not be enough time left to prevent a nuclear or environmental catastrophe. Homo sapiens may become another extinct species, unable to adapt to the chaos of their natures.

If humans are to ever survive together, they must acknowledge each other. They have to see that other beings suffer just like them, want just like them, cry just like them, and love just like them. They deserve to be respected, not because of their status or wealth, but because they are human.

Man’s Search For Meaning

“This book does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences, experiences which millions of prisoners have suffered time and again. It is the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors. This tale is not concerned with the great horrors, which have already been described often enough (though less often believed), but with the multitude of small torments. In other words, it will try to answer this question: How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?” (Frankl, Viktor)

The life of the average concentration camp prisoner, who had no special status or distinguishing marks on their sleeves, was a daily struggle for existence.

They were tattooed on their flesh. Most of their possessions were stolen. Even their identity was taken away as they were reduced to a number among other numbers. To live, if only barely, if only briefly, was to know of another’s death.

“Every man was controlled by one thought only: to keep himself alive for the family waiting for him at home, and to save his friends. With no hesitation, therefore, he would arrange for another prisoner, another ‘number,’ to take his place in the transport.” (Frankl, Viktor)

Viktor Frankl was Number 119, 104. His job in camp was digging and laying tracks for railway lines. Eventually, he tended to the sick, injured, and dying.

For the Capos, who still got their regular rations, they earned cigarettes as well as other perks. For ordinary prisoners, cigarettes were luxury items, traded for soup to prevent their starvation. Then there were the cigarettes left for those who had lost themselves in despair.

“The only exceptions to this were those who had lost the will to live and wanted to ‘enjoy’ their last days. Thus, when we saw a comrade smoking his own cigarettes, we knew he had given up faith in his strength to carry on, and, once lost, the will to live seldom returned.” (Frankl, Viktor)

When a prisoner first entered camp, they were shocked. Unable to grasp the brutal reality of their situation. Barbed wire and spotlights. Shrill commands in German. Ragged humans slumped in a gray dawn. As the days passed from the train to the camp, prisoners dulled into a nightmarish world.

“In psychiatry there is a certain condition known as ‘delusion of reprieve.’ The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute. We, too, clung to shreds of hope and believed to the last moment that it would not be so bad.” (Frankl, Viktor)

Prisoners who first arrived at camp were starved and cooped together in the cold. Guards would walk over and inspect each person, deciding on whether they would be sent to work or die. With one finger pointing to the right or left, there was existence or non-existence, life or execution.

“‘Was he sent to the left side?’

‘Yes,’ I replied.

‘Then you can see him there,’ I was told.

‘Where?’

‘A hand pointed to the chimney a few hundred yards off, which was sending a column of flame up into the grey sky of Poland. It dissolved into a sinister cloud of smoke.

‘That’s where your friend is, floating up to Heaven,’ was the answer. But I still did not understand until the truth was explained to me in plain words.” (Frankl, Viktor)

Prisoners had their most precious items stolen, which included wedding rings, writings, jewels, and photographs; anything that resembled their former identities. They were stripped until they were trembling and naked, whipped and beaten, washed of lice, shaven until completely hairless.

“Thus the illusions some of us still held were destroyed one by one, and then, quite unexpectedly, most of us were overcome by a grim sense of humor. We knew that we had nothing to lose except our so ridiculously naked lives. When the showers started to run, we all tried very hard to make fun, both about ourselves and about each other. After all, real water did flow from the sprays! Apart from that strange kind of humor, another sensation seized us: curiosity. I have experienced this kind of curiosity before, as a fundamental reaction toward certain strange circumstances. When my life was once endangered by a climbing accident, I felt only one sensation at the critical moment: curiosity, curiosity as to whether I should come out of it alive or with a fractured skull or some other injuries. Cold curiosity predominated even in Auschwitz, somehow detaching the mind from its surroundings, which came to be regarded with a kind of objectivity. At that time one cultivated this state of mind as a means of protection. We were anxious to know what would happen next; and what would be the consequence, for example, of our standing in the open air, in the chill of late autumn, stark naked, and still wet from the showers. In the next few days our curiosity evolved into surprise; surprise that we did not catch cold.” (Frankl, Viktor)

In Auschwitz, a prisoner had to adapt to the most horrendous conditions imaginable. Cold, unclean, sleeping huddled together after eternities of hard labor, shirt weathered, feet cracked in the mud.

Suicide loomed in every prisoner’s mind — from the ever present danger that took those around them, threatening at every moment, to the utter hopelessness of the future. While some did kill themselves, most commonly by electrocution when touching a barbed wire fence, others, despite their small chance of living on, bared through those grueling days of survival, aware that they would still be sent to the gas chamber.

As time grinded on under ever harsher conditions, prisoners were desensitized to emotions such as disgust and pity and compassion. From being around so much trauma, they had become apathetic, blunted of caring, having only the instinct to survive. After so many days, their physical punishment didn’t matter nearly as much as the agony of injustice. They felt a complete helplessness to do anything about the terrible conditions that had spread through the camp.

Guards regularly punished prisoners for the smallest of infractions. If somebody stepped out of line, talked back, helped another person who was struggling, or couldn’t do their work, they would be murdered, if not beaten. They were treated with the same respect as livestock.

Prisoners, who had once lived as husbands and wives and students and doctors and professors and musicians and teachers and shopkeepers, were barely afforded the dignity of their humanity.

After being reduced to such a blunted state, prisoners became primitive in their need to live each day for one more day. Just for a little longer. They dreamed more than they lived. Imagining that they had their simplest desires fulfilled from cake to cookies, from warm baths to a deep sleep, they craved the illusion of peace while bearing a terrible reality.

“When the last layers of subcutaneous fat had vanished, and we looked like skeletons disguised with skin and rags, we could watch our bodies beginning to devour themselves. The organism digested its own protein, and the muscles disappeared. Then the body had no powers of resistance left. One after another the members of the little community in our hut died. Each of us could calculate with fair accuracy whose turn would be next, and when his own would come. After many observations we knew the symptoms well, which made the correctness of our prognoses quite certain. ‘He won’t last long,’ or, ‘This is the next one,’ we whispered to each other, and when, during our daily search for lice, we saw our own naked bodies in the evening, we thought alike: This body here, my body, is really a corpse already. What has become of me? I am but a small portion of a great mass of human flesh … of a mass behind barbed wire, crowded into a few earthen huts; a mass of which daily a certain portion begins to rot because it has become lifeless.” (Viktor, Frankl)

Once they were woken out of their longing and dreams, the prisoners huddled together to work. They moved from a shrill whine of sirens. They barely fit their swollen feet into wet shoes before another day of labor began. If their feet could not fit inside those shoes, they would have to trudge through the snow, barefoot and frostbitten. While undernourished and starving, prisoners generally lost the ability to care about sex or anything except for a fulfillment of basic needs. Even feelings of sentiment, of caring, numbed into apathy from repeated daily trauma.

“There were fifty of us in the prison car, which had two small, barred peepholes. There was only enough room for one group to squat on the floor, while the others, who had to stand up for hours, crowded round the peepholes. Standing on tiptoe and looking past the others’ heads through the bars of the window, I caught an eerie glimpse of my native town. We all felt more dead than alive, since we thought that our transport was heading for the camp at Mauthausen and that we had only one or two weeks to live. I had a distinct feeling that I saw the streets, the squares and the houses of my childhood with the eyes of a dead man who had come back from another world and was looking down on a ghostly city. After hours of delay the train left the station. And there was the street — my street! The young lads who had a number of years of camp life behind them and for whom such a journey was a great event stared attentively through the peephole. I began to beg them, to entreat them, to let me stand in front for one moment only. I tried to explain how much a look through that window meant to me just then. My request was refused with rudeness and cynicism: ‘You lived here all those years? Well, then you have seen quite enough already!’” (Frankl, Viktor)

As prisoners struggled to endure, sometimes their only salvation came through reflection, religious rituals, debate, or the recollection of a loved one. Frankl imagined his wife while marching on his sore feet, touching her with his memories, with his imagination of where she was, how she was, and how deeply he loved her.

“This intensification of inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of his existence, by letting him escape into the past.” (Frankl, Viktor)

By creating such a rich inner life for themselves, prisoners developed an intense appreciation for nature and art. In contrast with their suffering, they found glory in the simplest miracles of existence.

“Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, ‘How beautiful the world could be!’” (Frankl, Viktor)

“Another time we were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces. I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious ‘Yes’ in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. ‘Et lux in tenebris lucet’ — and the light shineth in the darkness. For hours I stood hacking at the icy ground. The guard passed by, insulting me, and once again I communed with my beloved. More and more I felt that she was present, that she was with me; I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch out my hand and grasp hers. The feeling was very strong: she was there. Then, at that very moment, a bird flew down silently and perched just in front of me, on the heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch, and looked steadily at me.” (Frankl, Viktor)

Most of camp life, however, wore on the very existence of each prisoner. They had to suffer ongoing turmoil, which threatened their values, beliefs, and high purpose, “throwing them into doubt.” (Frankl, Viktor) The brutality of their world ground their dignity down to its barest form, where they sensed that at the end of all their struggle was death. They were used up until their bodies failed them, until their will to go on, to persevere, had faded. After so many nights of relentless abuse, their spirits were like the lights of candles, dwindling into enveloping darkness.

Camp inmates often were tormented when they had to make decisions or take an initiative, believing that their lives were subject to fate. Small decisions could lead to life or death, whether in the moment or in the future.

On Frankl’s last days at camp before he was rescued, when he thought about escaping, he wrote: “We found out just how uncertain human decisions are, especially in matters of life and death. I was confronted with photographs which had been taken in a small camp not far from ours. Our friends who had thought they were traveling to freedom that night had been taken in the trucks to this camp, and there they were locked in the huts and burned to death. Their partially charred bodies were recognizable on the photograph.” (Frankl, Viktor)

Trusting in fate, at times of almost certain death, was an acceptance of what was to come. In other ways, it was only one defense against the evil of the camp. Apathy was another way of survival, of psychological defense. In conditions of starvation and death, of malnutrition and poor hygiene, of regular slaughter and grueling work, of being treated as livestock instead of as humans, prisoners had to find a way to endure.

Despite the apathy, exhaustion, and irritability of the prisoners, they were never completely lost, never completely forsaken to the hells of their conditions. They still had a choice, a chance within every moment, to act humanely. There were many who, under extreme duress, acted heroically.

“Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

‘We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” (Frankl, Viktor)

Everything could be taken from an inmate but their inner freedom. Some prisoners, despite the most terrible conditions, still maintained their human dignity. Among the greatest suffering and injustice, they still had to choose and not choose.

Even though they were surrounded by the most extreme external restrictions, prisoners had the choice to reflect on what had meaning for their lives. They could still hold onto their higher purpose or discover a new meaning. Their attitude of spiritual freedom was a crucial element in the ongoing struggle for their existence.

“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.” (Frankl, Viktor)

While many prisoners fell into despair or conformity because of the brutal injustice perpetrated against them, there were still some who remained compassionate, courageous and loving, giving of themselves when they had no obligation to give, accepting their fate when others denied it, selflessly helping others when everything was stolen from them, up until the time of their extermination. They died with no names, no families or friends, but they never forgot their humanity.

To give their last bite of bread to a child, to stand up to a guard, to offer a kind word before walking into the gas chamber, despite never being known or praised for their innumerable small sacrifices, was to act with freedom.

“This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. ‘I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,’ she told me. ‘In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.’ Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, ‘This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.’ Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. ‘I often talk to this tree,’ she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. ‘Yes.’ What did it say to her? She answered, ‘It said to me, ‘I am here — I am here — I am life, eternal life.’” (Frankl, Viktor)

While inside the camp, there was no time, no sense of a future anymore. Outside the barbed wire fence, prisoners felt an unreality, an alien world to their own. They had to struggle to grasp the meaning of life and to not lose themselves in their past, in their apathy, in giving up any future possibilities. Some strengthened their inner lives, maturing under the horrors of their experiences, while others resigned themselves to a previous way of life that was no more.

“Naturally only a few people were capable of reaching great spiritual heights. But a few were given the chance to attain human greatness even through their apparent worldly failure and death, an accomplishment which in ordinary circumstances they would never have achieved. To the others of us, the mediocre and the half-hearted, the words of Bismarck could be applied: ‘Life is like being at the dentist. You always think that the worst is still to come, and yet it is over already.’ Varying this, we could say that most men in a concentration camp believed that the real opportunities of life had passed. Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.” (Frankl, Viktor)

Prisoners who could imagine a reason to survive, a “why” for their existence, in the moment or in the future, could endure the most unbearable circumstances.

“We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

‘These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. ‘Life’ does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand. When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.” (Frankl, Viktor)

Inside the camp, there were those who could endure daily atrocities and those who could not. Even among those who could, they survived not only from hope, not only from having a genuine purpose in a world that was against them, but from chance.

For the guards themselves, there were those who took a sadistic pleasure in making the prisoners suffer and die. Then there were those who were sympathetic but remained silent to the abuse, to the tortures, hardening themselves after many years. Finally, there were those who secretly helped and cared for the prisoners, despite negative consequences from their superior officers.

Some prisoners, who had been promoted to the most marginal powers in the camp, became as sadistic as the worst guards. Other guards, moved by compassion, could bring a prisoner to tears from the smallest act of kindness. No one in either group was entirely good or entirely bad. Life asked each of them a question, in every circumstance, which was this: “What type of person would they be?”

“From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the ‘race’ of the decent man and the ‘race’ of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of ‘pure race’ — and therefore one occasionally found a decent fellow among the camp guards.

‘Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. Is it surprising that in those depths we again found only human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil? The rift dividing good from evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths and becomes apparent even on the bottom of the abyss which is laid open by the concentration camp.” (Frankl, Viktor)

When the prisoners were finally released from camp after so many years of hard suffering, returning to the world was an ordeal for them. They drifted on as if lost in a dream, unable to feel, unable to be human for a long time. It was so difficult for the prisoners, after being routinely abused, to recover from the endless torment of the camp, where death was their companion.

Prisoners often ate an enormous amount once they were liberated, compensating for years of watery soup and stale bread.

Pressure had been building inside every one of them for years because they had to repress so much trauma. Eventually, this pressure erupted into talk, into a discussion of what had been too taboo to speak about in camp, into screams and nightmares and long cries about all those who were murdered before them, into a readjustment back into the unfamiliar world of the living.

One day, a few days after the liberation, I walked through the country past flowering meadows, for miles and miles, toward the market town near the camp. Larks rose to the sky and I could hear their joyous song. There was no one to be seen for miles around; there was nothing but the wide earth and sky and the larks’ jubilation and the freedom of space. I stopped, looked around, and up to the sky — and then I went down on my knees. At that moment there was very little I knew of myself or of the world — I had but one sentence in mind — always the same: ‘I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of space.’ How long I knelt there and repeated this sentence memory can no longer recall. But I know that on that day, in that hour, my new life started. Step for step I progressed, until I again became a human being.” (Frankl, Viktor)

Some of those who were freed returned to where they once had lived. Many of them could not find their families anymore. Others traveled to their hometowns, but their community could not truly empathize with them or know the magnitude of their suffering.

Some of the survivors still held onto hope. They hoped for a wife, husband and child, for a future, for a meaning that lingered beyond those barbed wire fences and spotlighted towers. They found purpose in their suffering, but not through what the Nazis desired for them to be. They endured the utter depravity of their conditions, for years and years, seeking what would transcend them, returning to their humanity again.

REVIEW: Johnny Got His Gun


“I do not say that children at war do not die like men, if they have to die. To their everlasting honor and our everlasting shame, they do die like men, thus making possible the manly jubilation of patriotic holidays. But they are murdered children all the same.”

― Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.”

― Erich Maria Remarque

“The master class has always declared the war; the subject class has always fought the battles; the master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, and the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose — including their lives.”

― Eugene V. Debs

“Nationalism of one kind or another was the cause of most of the genocide of the twentieth century. Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s minds and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.”

― Arundhati Roy

“The atmosphere of war brutalizes everyone involved, begets a fanaticism in which the original moral factor is buried at the bottom of a heap of atrocities committed by all sides.”

― Howard Zinn


War is profitable for the ruling class but not for the dead.

But what if the dead could talk back?

Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted in Hollywood during the Red Scare. He continued to write for major pictures under a variety of pseudonyms, eventually winning two Academy awards for his uncredited work. Before his successes with movies such as Spartacus and The Brave One, Trumbo had written a blistering antiwar novel.

Johnny Got His Gun sticks to readers like gauze dressings on third-degree burns. It is as brutally honest as it is gruesome. It is an ugly book because war is ugly, because violence is ugly, because the systemic exploitation of human beings is ugly.

Behind all those patriotic slogans about fighting for honor and democracy and freedom, behind all those militaristic ideals about duty and glory, behind all that jingoistic propaganda crammed into the minds of the young and ignorant, there is an ugly greed for more power. There is mutilation and death and rot.

Joe Bonham served in WWI but he could’ve been a soldier in any war. He woke up in a hospital bed after an artillery shell exploded, disfiguring him. The war took his arms, his legs, his face, his nose, his mouth, his eyes, his ears, his flesh, his organs, his almost everything. It had turned him into a mucus dripping meat. A burned torso, gurgling out of a throat. A bandaged wound, trapped forever inside of himself.

He was deaf. He was blind. He had no eyes to see, no nose to smell, no tongue to taste, no lips to speak, no ears to hear. His life was darkness and dreams. Sometimes there was no difference. Yet he could still think. He could still remember who he was, even after drifting through years of insanity. He could still breathe through a tube in his throat. He could still tap his head and squirm. He could still feel the sun warmth on his tingling skin. On his last patches of skin. On his forehead slicked with sweat. He was as alive as any dead man could get.

The warmongers had pinned a sickening medal to his body. Those bastards decorated him with false awards and then ignored him. Yet they continued to enact their aggressive policies and propaganda. They continued to throw their annual parades and marches. They continued to sacrifice the lives of more sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, for their goals of endless expansion and domination.

They didn’t care about his suffering. He was useless to them after his body was used. But he was still a man, he was still a man, he was still a… human being. Wasn’t he? If he wasn’t, then there was no point in existing anymore. Maybe he could be a human again if only he could communicate. If the nurses let him outside into the world, he could scream out of his lightless tomb, defying all the swine who had manipulated him, who would manipulate more generations into their deaths.

Joe Bonham deserved his dignity. He deserved to be recognized not only for who he was, but for what they had turned him into. He had to warn all the impressionable children around the world, forcing them to stare at his fate. He had to warn every naïve kid who was so eager to sacrifice themselves for their government, who was so certain that their side was righteous and just and good. He could show them what war could do to a human being. He could show them what was left of a human being after war.

Reflections on Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice


Author: Shunryu Suzuki

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Shunryu Suzuki


When your mind empties, when you are open to what changes in the universe, everything is possible, and nothing is possible. Existence is not separate from non-existence. Existence depends on non-existence to be. They inter-are.

When you have knowledge, you are limited by that knowledge. You are trapped by your ideas of what life should be and not be. A tea cup will overflow unless it is first empty of its contents.

Nothing is ultimately good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant. Yet in your mind, you create categories of good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant, right and wrong, black and white. You’re constantly making finer distinctions about what you like, don’t like, and don’t care about.

The mountain shrouded in mist is nothing special or mysterious to climb. There is no more wisdom on top of that mountain than there is in a shit. It is just as sacred as a nap below the bough of a tree, as washing the dishes, as sunlight fading over a meadow, as belly laughter, as a walk down a narrow path.

Enlightenment is nothing special, nothing you need to strive to acquire. When you are empty, there is no “you” to consider things as empty. There is no “you” apart from everything else, even from non-existence. There is no permanent unchanging self.

You don’t have to capture your Buddha-nature. You are Buddha-nature. There isn’t anything that is separate from Buddha-nature. You don’t need to struggle for years to experience an idealized state that you can brag about. You are alive now, despite your ideas about now. You can wake up to this direct moment.

To awaken is so ordinary, you shouldn’t have to grasp after it. You are already here.

With a sincere intention, you can be present. You can breathe in the clear sky. There is nothing else to attain. Sometimes doing nothing is better than trying to gain something.

There is nothing special about being here either, except that it is so easy to forget.

You spontaneously express your nature when you are empty. There’s no need to put on a show of being spiritual, and important, and all-knowing. To seek out a superior status, or epiphany, or recognition from your peers, is to miss the point.

It is easier for you to empty your mind when you meditate but it is harder to be mindful when you’re out in the world. In the world, if your mind doesn’t wander, then that is ok. If your mind wanders, then that is ok too. Just gently bring your awareness back to your breath.

Everything can be your teacher, even the rain dripping from a rooftop, even yellow flowers growing in a field.

When you look into impermanence deeply enough, you will see the divine in the mundane. There is no essential difference between the divine and the mundane other than in your ideas and opinions, in your need to fit all of life into fixed categories.

From the vibration of an atom, to a leaf shaking off a tree, from the gray hairs on your grandfather’s head to a newborn cuddling in a blanket, the universe is interdependent and changing. To intellectualize about change doesn’t reveal its truth. It will reveal its boundlessness when you are ready.

Reflections on the Horror Genre

“Yet, at the same time, as the Eastern sages also knew, man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways — the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever.”

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

“All those qualities, capacities and tendencies which do not harmonize with the collective values–everything that shuns the light of public opinion, in fact–now come together to form the shadow, that dark region of the personality which is unknown and unrecognized by the ego. The endless series of shadow and doppelgänger figures in mythology, fairy tales and literature ranges from Cain and Edom, by way of Judas and Hagen, to Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde in the ugliest man of Nietzsche; again and again such figures have appeared and made their bow before human consciousness, but the psychological meaning of this archetype of the adversary has not yet dawned upon mankind.”

Erich Neumann, Depth Psychology and a New Ethic

“People think that I must be a very strange person. This is not correct. I have the heart of a small boy. It is in a glass jar on my desk.”

Stephen King


Horror attracts us while it repulses us. We are confronted with our most hidden taboos in sinister forms. We investigate our shadowy dreams and terrors, seeking out the Other, anxious before the strange and unknown. We face forbidden ideas, lurking beneath the sewers and deep in the woods, unspoken, uncomfortable ideas, in the darkness of ourselves.

Our monsters reflect the most terrible aspects of our nature. They are our unconscious rejections, our atrocities against one another, our insatiable greed and consumption and narcissism. They return to haunt us, to torment us, when we foolishly believe that we are gods, when we transgress the laws of all humankind.

Horror sickens and disgusts and nauseates us. Yet our hearts tremble to the pleasure beneath our fear, to the endorphins of our near death, to the tragedies that we cannot help but stare at.

Horror teaches us the consequences of when we take too much and care not enough for others. It shows us what happens when we deceive and murder and destroy our sacred idols.

We must take on the embodiment of evil, whether it afflicts us in the realms of the supernatural or natural, literal or metaphorical. Through our struggles, we may be releasing the ghosts of our past or preventing the apocalypse of the near future.

Even if we pretend that we are going to remain young for eternity, we are flesh, we are bones, we are blood and pus and aging and disease and death. We are part of a cosmos we don’t fully comprehend. We don’t know what our fates will be as individuals in a community, as a species, as organisms on a planet.

We are temporary, vulnerable. We are primates lost in the vastness of space. We struggle for an illusion of control, a sense of familiarity, so that we can feel safe and secure, while knowing that nothing will ever last. We fear the threat of what we don’t know, the possibility of future anguish.

There are dangers inherent in everything we do, existing on different scales, from driving our cars down a highway to walking alone at night, from polluting our atmosphere to declaring war on a neighboring country.

We are agonizingly aware that we are going to die, that everyone we know will die, even if we distract ourselves with parties and drugs and work and fashion and games and sex and religion and politics. We are filled with an existential dread that we try to alleviate with meanings beyond ourselves. Yet there is always the possibility of nuclear war and environmental catastrophe and societal unrest. There is always the promise of the undertaker.

Horror is a safe place for our fears, our anxieties, to express themselves under the guise of a chainsaw-wielding maniac, a zombie horde roaming through the mall, a cannibal, ghoul, goblin, snake, slasher, demon, or vampire that casts no shadow.

We can look at our inner darkness rather than hide from it. We can grapple with the unknown rather than pretend it doesn’t exist. Only when we are honest, when we burn our light through the chasm of darkness, can we be liberated from our suffering.

Horror disturbs our sanity, shocks us out of our comfort, mocks our hypocrisies, exposes our underlying insecurities. We need horror to awaken us out of our complacency, our smug delusions of perfection, and let go of false certainties.

We must find a way to grieve for our losses, to turn toward the truths that scare us, to participate joyfully among the sorrows of the world. We are human beings, achingly conscious, here for a short time with each other. Our life on this earth is precious and fleeting and uncertain. We can withdraw from the unknown, clinging onto normalcy, wallowing in our most mundane days, or we can free ourselves to the mysterious.

Reflections on Prometheus Rising


“What the Thinker thinks, the Prover proves.”

Robert Anton Wilson

Domesticated primates (humans) think themselves into their relative neurological realities. Within the framework of these “realities,” they make assumptions about what is true and false, right and wrong, essential and inessential, real and fake.

Humans filter the universe through their nervous systems. They don’t perceive what is objectively true (which is not to say that an objective truth does or doesn’t exist), but rather, they interpret a particular aspect of reality. Mediated through their past beliefs, experiences, conditionings, and so on, they may “see” all of their life through the “reality tunnel” of the Marxist, Fascist, Atheist, Christian, Buddhist, feminist, misogynist, Democrat, Republican, protestor, cop, doctor, patient, Caucasian male, African American female, pessimist, optimist, lover, fighter, bad son, good daughter, and so on.

People make endless guesses about their identities and the identities of others, often without realizing they are doing so. While it is easier to see the prejudices and biases in others, it is more difficult to see those same qualities within.

“Every type of bigotry, every type of racism, sexism, prejudice, every dogmatic ideology that allows people to kill other people with a clear conscience, every stupid cult, every superstition, written religion, every kind of ignorance in the world all results from not realizing that our perceptions are gambles.

We believe what we see and then we believe our interpretation of it; we don’t even know we are making an interpretation most of the time. We think that this is reality.” (Wilson, Robert)


People not only don’t know but they don’t know that they don’t know. Their specific “reality” appears to be the true one, while other people’s realities, the more they diverge from their own, seem increasingly bizarre and nonsensical.

Human minds often function as if they were made up of only two parts: the Thinker and the Prover. Whenever the Thinker is convinced of a given reality, the Prover will unconsciously work to organize all “evidence” in favor of it being true. Signals that are consistent with the Thinker’s preferred reality tunnel are incorporated into it while other signals (that are irrelevant, unpleasant, or contradictory) are forgotten, ignored, rejected, resisted, and rationalized.


Human brains are matter in spacetime. They’re wrinkled organs, weighing close to three pounds each. There are roughly 100 billion neurons in one brain. These neurons communicate with each other electro-chemically in vast networks.

Brains generate ideas, influenced by all the signals that they have been exposed to in every moment, from an ancient set of scrolls, to a drama on TV, to a fight with a sibling, to the taste of a strawberry, to the warmth of sunlight, and so on. Nervous systems control a lot of what is taken for reality, such as thought, memory, emotion, touch, vision, breathing, temperature, pain, and so on.

While ideas are not equal to all of reality, they can make up the approximate models of given realities.

Just as brains resemble the hardware on a computer, ideas are its software. Anything, from psychedelic mushrooms, to the organization of a political revolution, to eating a vegetarian diet for three years, can change the consciousness of a person.

Certain programs written onto the hardware of the brain are genetic imperatives, imprinting, conditioning, and learning. The mind is bound to what it imprints at vulnerable stages of its development. Its software turns into hardware over time, further setting the structure for conscious thought.

Out of an infinite number of signals in the universe, the domesticated primate (human) is imprinted with a limited number of those signals during different stages of life, contributing to the development of a sense of self. Learning, conditioning, novel experiences, and so on, add to this structural foundation. As the brain matures from birth to old age, more intricate models of reality may build up over time.


At the level of the oral bio-survival circuit, humans are hardwired from birth onward to seek a sense of security, nourishment, and a womb-like feeling of safety, while avoiding what is harmful, dangerous, and life threatening.

“In summary: the bio-survival circuit is DNA-programmed to seek a comfort-safety zone around a mothering organism. If a mother isn’t present, the closet substitute in the environment will be imprinted.” (Wilson, Robert)

Domesticated primates (humans) are genetically hardwired to look for security in their family, immediate group, and tribe. They may be further conditioned to identify with other symbolic groups such as the university they attended, their profession, the religion they were raised in, a political party that had impacted their adolescence, and so on.

They may even transfer their security-need onto symbols such as money, which in itself is of no value (you cannot eat money) except in the agreed upon value determined by other members of that particular group.

“In traditional society, belonging to the tribe was bio-security; exile was terror, and real threat of death. In modern society, having the tickets (money) is bio-security; having the tickets withdrawn is terror.” (Wilson, Robert)

Those who do not belong to the same group are often categorized as outsiders, or even, enemies. They’re perceived as hostile, aggressive, or challenging to that group’s interests and purpose. Any element, from a dissident citizen’s writings to a protest for systemic change, which could threaten the security of the group, is resisted and rejected.


The emotional-territorial circuit is concerned with power, dominance and submission, superiority and inferiority.

People unconsciously struggle for status in their social group. In a tribe, members fit into various roles, each person assuming different responsibilities and functions. Some members assume top dog roles while other members fall into bottom dog roles.

These roles can be divided into the four quadrants of “I’m ok/you’re ok, I’m ok/you’re not ok, I’m not ok/you’re not ok, I’m not ok/you’re ok,” under the basic terminology of Transactional Analysis.

This model, along with other similar models, which represents the earliest imprinting and subsequent conditioning of one’s ego role in society, will vary based on the strength of early imprinting, the dynamics of the group in relation to the individual, how successfully the individual is conditioned out of robotically following an imprinted role, and so on.

Furthermore, each of these four quadrants, while convenient, can be endlessly divided into ever finer categories. People don’t exist in one of these quadrants completely, but rather, fall on a spectrum in between these extremes, which will shift as their nervous systems change.


Humans (domesticated primates) use symbols and are used by symbols. Those who control the symbols have the power to control other people. These symbols include, but are not limited to: art, music, mathematics, maps, and words.

Symbols often rule the lives of people without their awareness of them. Certain ideas have been passed down from generation to generation, transferring between nervous systems from thousands of years ago to this very moment. Over a long enough span of time, some of these ideas have begun to no longer seem like representations of certain realities, but as unquestioned truths, such as with the State, the wheel, the plow, the alphabet, agriculture, Roman road systems, etc.

Symbols, such as words, do not exist in isolation. Words carry around underlying assumptions about psychological states, emotional tones, explanations of the physical universe, and references to innumerable aspects of what makes up existence and meaning and purpose.

“Since words contain both denotations (referents in the sensory-existential world) and connotations (emotional tones and poetic or rhetorical hooks), humans can be moved to action even by words which have no real meaning or reference in actuality. This is the mechanism of demagoguery, advertising and much of organized religion.” (Wilson, Robert)

The semantic time-binding circuit makes distinctions out of raw experiences. It puts labels on the ineffability of life. Its purpose is to endlessly divide and sub-divide, categorizing all the universe into predictable patterns, which make sense.

Every new generation adds information to former generations, re-classifying the outdated information of the past. Novel connections arise between what once existed and what currently exists, leading to discovery, insight, and progression.

While entropy shows a gradual decline into disorder, information is negative entropy, coherence and order, where understandings birth out of chaos. When information increases exponentially, new patterns are recognized from a randomness of events. Over ever shorter periods of time, more advancements develop in music, art, technology, science, and so on.

Despite all this informational “progress” over the centuries, the majority of domesticated primates (humans) are still trapped in their lower, more primitive circuits. They have evolved with reptilian and mammalian brains from earlier epochs in time.

Lower circuits can often be manipulated through a fear of outsiders, threats to safety, challenges to trusted authorities, appeals to tribal loyalty, and a distrust in those who are perceived as different, alien, or hostile.

While the first two circuits establish homeostasis in a civilization, the third (semantic, time-binding) circuit seeks out higher states. The third circuit has always been controlled, partially or totally, through the creation and enforcement of rules, taboos, prohibitions, laws, traditions, rituals, and cultural games — most of which are unconscious, unstated, and seen as “common sense.”

Those who are in power want to control third-circuit insights, and establish order, because ideas that are unknown and new and radical often challenge the power structures already in place. There have always been fluctuations between progressive ideas and traditions, but as time passes in civilization, so does the informational content.

Informational content may act to support all of life such as with movements for equality and rights, medicines that treat infectious diseases, scientific revolutions that upend the fundamental understanding of spacetime, and so on. On the other side, informational content can destroy all of life, such as with nuclear bombs, drone strikes, oil spills, assault rifles, child labor, book burnings, etc.

Everything that has manifested in civilization — from planes to trains, skyscrapers to highways, napalm to baby clothes, microwaves to toe rings — has birthed because of ideas, connecting symbolically through imaginations, developing, changing, self-correcting, evolving over time.

Through imagination, people exist with a potential for generating unknown amounts of growth and destruction. In a world of limited resources, overpopulation, and institutions that seek to maintain their primate order with warheads, lower-circuit manipulations, and ink excretions on paper to establish their power, there is another force that is still accelerating: information. Through information lies the possibility for high knowledge, liberation, and awareness.


The socio-sexual circuit awakens during adolescence — at the onset of puberty. During this vulnerable stage in human development, sexual preferences, taboos, dysfunctions, and fetishes have the highest chance of being imprinted. These imprints may be due to chance, trauma, genetics, and environmental influences.

People generally mimic what’s deemed as acceptable by their culture while hiding what is not, keeping certain parts of their sexual profiles secret. Every tribe has its own rules about what is considered sexually moral and immoral.

There are, in every society, controls over sexual self-identification and related behaviors. Whether these controls are ignorant or enlightened, biased or liberated, is one matter. Nevertheless, the innate purpose behind these measures is to influence the survival, variability, and evolution of the gene pool. Those who make and enforce these rules often want power over what people can and can’t do, which in turn, gives them more control over their choices, values, identities, and meanings.

Despite these attempts at domination, there will always be unknown variables in sexual attraction, reproduction, mating, and future evolution.

“Taboo and morality are tribal attempts to govern the random element — to select the desired future.” (Wilson, Robert)

Those who act as authorities in select groups within their societies, such as monks, nuns, priests, shamans, teachers, philosophers, parents, politicians, scientists, journalists, celebrities, and so on, decide what symbols are acceptable and unacceptable, moral and immoral, right and wrong. Those who control these symbols can control the limits of information.

The socio-sexual circuit keeps a check on the semantic time-binding circuit. Frequent checks are necessary to prevent an unrestrained rise of innovation and to keep order.

Children are generally taught to follow the rules of their given society, to accept those rules as normal. They are not commonly taught to question their leaders, criticize those in authority, or develop into critical independent thinkers.

Tribal guides, such as parents, teachers, priests, and police officers, desire for children to think/act semi-robotically, mimicking agreed upon values, following the traditions of the past, so they’ll be accepted into the preferred roles of their groups.

Most people are programmed to be just smart enough to do their roles properly, but not smart enough to question the roles they are placed under. They are trained to follow certain unspoken rules within their groups (of gender, class, race, age, etc.) but not to question them too much.

They will vote for leaders who appeal to their primitive circuits, such as charismatic politicians who claim to be patriots, who denounce outsiders that threaten their traditional values. To stir up the emotions of the population based on outside threats, to speak eloquently about hope and change, is a way for those in power to manipulate ordinary people. Politicians prey on vulnerabilities, reinforcing a desire for security and a fear of the unknown.


Groups often apply similar tactics to re-imprint the nervous systems of individuals. Many cults, militaries, religions, and terrorists, who have re-imprinted (brainwashed) those who were initially outside their groups, used methods of isolation (removal of contradicting realities), harsh punishments for unacceptable behavior, rewards for acceptable behavior, the reinforcement of group superiority over individual inferiority, mind-altering drugs, initiations to earn special statuses, the normalization of security inside the group (protective mother/father figure) alongside a fear of the unknown (outside perspectives), etc.

“The easiest way to get brainwashed is to be born. All of the above principles then immediately go into action, a process which social psychologists euphemistically call socialization. The bio-survival circuit automatically hooks onto or bonds to the most appropriate mother or mothering object; the emotional-territorial circuit looks for a ‘role’ or ego-identification in the family or tribe; the semantic circuit learns to imitate and then use the local reality-grids (symbol systems); the socio-sexual circuit is imprinted by whatever mating experiences are initially available at puberty.” (Wilson, Robert)

Domesticated primates (humans) are born with nervous systems. These nervous systems can adapt to a wide range of different reality-tunnels. Whereas in the past, groups may have existed separately from other groups, while still maintaining a sense of stable reality, in modern times, in this interconnected world, groups bump up against each other constantly, clashing over what reality is.

The symbol systems that some groups hold to be true and logical and moral, to other groups, are seen as false and nonsensical and immoral. Many groups confuse their symbol systems (maps of reality) with reality itself. To the most dogmatic believers, their reality is the only true reality. Anyone who opposes them is deluded, immoral, or heretical.

In modern times, through a constant exposure to different reality-tunnels, group identities are being challenged more often than before. The more dogmatic the group, the more dangerous it is for that group to be around outsiders with dissimilar views.


Beyond the first four circuits (oral bio-survival, anal territorial, semantic time-binding, socio-sexual) is the neurosomatic circuit.

Pranayama breathing, meditation, visualization of white light, prolonged sexual play without having an orgasm, psychedelic/cannabis consumption, among other techniques, can trigger highly pleasant and unpleasant sensory states, depending on the level of the practitioner.

Yogis, gurus, mystics, and heretics have described this circuit as an orgasmic experience, union with all/God/the infinite/the divine, crossing the abyss, and so on. Some have entered this state through a terrible internal struggle while others seem to naturally flow there without much suffering.

The fifth circuit is intuitive and non-linear. Whereas the third circuit hyper-thinking rationalist will build linear models of reality, and the second circuit alpha will behave differently based on who is dominant in the social hierarchy, the fifth-circuit mystic will sense the gestalt, the organic whole, between data points in infinity.


The neurogenetic circuit moves beyond all lower circuits. This is the circuit of genetic memory, the collective unconscious, the Tao, non-duality. Coincidences become significant and paradoxes are solved with wordless understanding. There is no true distinction between what exists out there and what exists within.

On the level of this circuit, infinity fits within a flicker of sunlight. All of the cosmos, from the quarks inside of atoms to the planets of distant galaxies, from the birth of the Big Bang to a child’s sigh on an Argentinian beach, interconnects with each other, rising and falling, being and not being. Life and death are like the root systems of expanding trees.


The mind becomes what it focuses on. A mind that thinks about thinking is meta-thinking. To think about thinking about thinking, ad infinitum, to reflect all of life like a mirror, to be totally absorbed in an idea, a feeling, a moment, without any mental separation, is to use the meta-programming circuit.

This circuit can program all the lower circuits, switching between them like channels on a television set. Similar to non-action in Taoism, the meta-programmer adapts to each circumstance, engaging life fully, while not holding on.

The human brain may be physically small compared to the universe, while inside the brain, the entire universe operates. As the mind encounters certain reality-tunnels, the mind can inhabit the logic of those reality-tunnels, while knowing that there is more out there.


The nervous system takes in a limited number of “existential” information, or data points, from the infinite possibilities of the universe.

Then the nervous system creates models of reality from this changing data — editing, combining, classifying, removing, adding — mostly below the level of conscious awareness.

So many thoughts, feelings, perceptions, sensations, and so on, are processed every millisecond. While at the same time, most of people’s lives are forgotten. Irrelevant/contradictory information is constantly being ignored, resisted, rejected, and rationalized.

Only fragments of experience are selected to fit into one’s conscious beliefs.

Even those experiences are constantly interpreted. They’re being analyzed, misremembered, revised, and forgotten.

People narrow their perceptions even more by filtering their identities through the different symbol systems of race, class, gender, politics, religion, height, fitness, personal hobbies, sexuality, ad infinitum, creating ever more distinct reality-tunnels for themselves.

Domesticated primates (humans) are a lot more creative than they will ever realize. They are the artists of their own existence, capable of, but not always aware of, neurologically programming their relationship with the universe. They inter-are with all that is. Every person creates his or her own universe while the universe is creating every person.


All human systems have degrees of order and chaos within them. As this balance shifts, so does the system and those who are in it. The more complex the system becomes informationally, the more unstable it will become as well.

As information increases exponentially, major transformations will take place in the system, which will radically change the realities of future people — sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.

Look at the difference in perception between a hunter-gatherer and an industrialist, an astrologer in ancient Egypt and a quantum physicist in the 20th century, a child factory worker in 1890 and a computer software engineer in 2019.

The breakdown of an old system may be the sign of a breakthrough into another model of reality, another visionary step, another way of seeing.

From death, life springs, but from life, death returns. Just like a caterpillar bursting through the hold of its cocoon, exposed to the wind, stretching out to flap its colorful wings, for only a moment, before eventually meeting its end.

Systems are not isolated information organisms, destined to evolve or self-destruct, while unable to affect anything outside of themselves. They are interconnected with the energies of other systems, gleaming with promise like the beads of Indra’s Net.

As entropy is a measure of the increasing disorder in a closed system, there is still the quantum probability of energy underlying the fabric of every event non-locally. As information increases in an uncertain but probabilistic state of coherence to chaos, order to disorder, systems will change and neurological realities will adapt to their interplay, until there is another transformation in consciousness.

11/22/63 (review)

“We never know which lives we influence, or when, or why. Not until the future eats the present, anyway. We know when it’s too late.”

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Stephen King wrote an epic time travel book after extensive research.

In 11/22/63, a humble high school teacher is sent back to the ’50s to prevent the assassination of JFK. What he doesn’t know is the significance of the butterfly effect. Every small action ripples out, affecting everything and everyone, in an interconnected web of spacetime. In Indra’s net.

King explores the responsibility of using freewill (is it really that free?) in a probabilistic multiverse, where the obdurate past harmonizes itself. As Alan Watts once said, “You never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune; or, you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.”

For our main character, Jake Epping (George Amberson), the consequences matter. Friends will die, lovers will suffer, and whole futures will be annihilated in a plume of radioactive dust.

11/22/63 is not merely a story about time, but about the significance of our actions, and whether those actions matter metaphysically. It is a tragic timeline of love experienced in another life, strangers intertwined, synchronicities, and cosmic patterns that cannot be seen from limited human perspectives.

From generation to generation, we will pass on our ghosts. We may have been born with different faces and have come from different places and eras, but we will often repeat the same traumas that have scarred us from our past.

We will still build and destroy.

We will still love and hate.

We will still be born and grow old and die.

Like an ouroboros swallowing its tail in an infinite cycle, we’re in a process of integration and disintegration. We cannot escape our future.

A Man Without A Country (Kurt Vonnegut review)

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Whenever I read a Kurt Vonnegut book, I imagine a fun uncle sitting next to me at a family reunion, telling me a story of his life.

He sips from a glass of beer and foam drips down his mustache. Then he sighs and pats his belly and wanders through old stories, stories I have heard before, but never tire of.

I tell him a joke I overheard on the radio.

Uncle Kurt smiles and wrinkles crease on his forehead. His cheeks flush from hours of drinking and joking and chitchatting and meeting cousins.

In his watery eyes, I sense something else, however. Sadness maybe. Disappointment in us as a species. We could have been so much more.


I’ve read this book about thirty times. Once I pulled it off a shelf at a house party, once I read it on a road trip to Indiana, once I flipped through it in a school library.

Why do I keep returning to it?

Maybe because it’s funny. Not so much in a slap-my-knee, wheeze with shocks of laughter, kind of funny. His books are funny in a raw and naked way. In an absurd, endearingly hopeless way.

He reminds us that we’re all humans and we’re all silly. And sometimes we do cruel things to each other when we should’ve been loving and kind.

Life would be so much simpler if we weren’t complicating it all the time.

Laughter can be a healthy defense mechanism to fear and anxiety and trauma.

Vonnegut used humor to deal with the tragedies of his life. He understood the shadow-side of humanity so well that he revered ordinary people who were saints. He wanted a world where humans treated each other with kindness, a world of love for the simple joys of each day.

In our short, fleeting existences, where we often feel so confused and lost and alone, we can respond to tragedies with dignity. We can decide to be humane as we are pulled along by circumstances we can’t control.

We take ourselves so seriously. We blind ourselves in our greed lust, in our desire for more (resources, power, money, and status), that we forget our interwoven humanity.

We forget to care for our communities, for ourselves, for the plants and animals and water and air.

We ignore our planet, our beautiful planet, because we are addicts to fossil fuel. We drop devastating bombs instead of being compassionate toward each other. We murder each other for resources and poison our environment.

One day, we will lose everything because we were too power hungry and stupid and greedy, when we should have been kind.

Dharma Bums

Jack Kerouac idealized Gary Snyder in “Dharma Bums,” similar to his idealization of Neal Cassady in “On The Road.” Both figures, although so different from each other, were made into glorious saints of the beat movement through Kerouac’s vision.

Snyder was a humble poet living in a shack lit with wax candles. He bought working class clothes only from thrift stores, meditated, drank wine in the Chinese restaurants of San Francisco, read, studied, and translated many ancient Buddhist texts, and hiked up mountain peaks with a high, echoing yodel.

Kerouac carried a lot of assumptions about what Buddhism is or could be — looking for a kind of “absolute truth” by climbing to the top of a mountain. Awake briefly in awe only to forget again.

At his most lyrically beautiful, he reminded me of a mystic filled with insight about the infinite grace of the cosmos.

Then at other times, he made Buddhism into a chore of daily understanding, a ritualized act of acquiring more and more knowledge just to show off, a literary dabbling into primary sources.

Sometimes he wrote with boyish fantasy, with naive hope, that after years of seeking, he had finally found an ultimate experience, one that would give him full understanding and end all his suffering.

Then there were moments when he was too arrogant with what he had learned about Buddhism (that others didn’t or couldn’t ever know). At those times, he basked in a false spiritual wisdom — like the main narrator in Fight Club — perceiving his role in the universe as a Chosen Bodhisattva, which seemed more like he was putting on a mask of spiritual vanity to compensate for insecurity.

Throughout “The Dharma Bums,” there was a confusion between his ideas about non-duality and what he was really like as a person, as a man who desired to fuck and eat and love and do drugs and shit and travel and be understood, as a lost bum poet who cared too much and felt too strongly and wandered through all of America with a great self-consciousness.

He always seemed to almost get the point of zen, before losing himself in a tangle of symbols. His Catholic background might have conditioned him to seek some fixed idea of Buddhism. Some odd merging of God and Jesus and Nirvana and Heaven and Hell and Buddha and so on. There was so much struggle in his search, in thinking over and again that he had finally got what It was about, that he often missed what was in front of him all along. Being a Buddha is to be nothing special, just here, now. Awake in the moment, not grasping. Not stuck.

As Lin-Chi once said, “Just be ordinary and nothing special. Eat your food, move your bowels, pass water, and when you’re tired go and lie down. The ignorant will laugh at me, but the wise will understand.”

There is no out there to get to, no special place, no person to give all the answers. But ironically enough, even in Kerouac’s search, whether it’s judged as right or wrong, it is still as much zen as anything else, in the same way that right implies wrong, outside an inside, and in form, there is emptiness.

Only minds make distinctions and get lost in those distinctions without looking at the passing moment. To walk round with a head full of ideas about anything, even Buddhism, is to hold an overflowing cup.

As Dogen Zenji wrote, “Before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after a first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters.”

Kerouac, in his need for truth (more in finding his own subjective truth even when filtered through a particular person or philosophy) still came across as beautiful because of his talent, because of his earnestness, because he wanted harmony and peace and spontaneous joy, folding evermore inward on himself.

He romanticized a bohemian lifestyle, one in which artists move round the country, hitching in cars and on freight trains, meeting up briefly, smoking joints together under a roof as rain falls, pitter-patter, reading haiku to each other in coffee houses, having orgies with each other, loose and free and open to what comes.

By having an authentic lifestyle in such conflict with the conformist notions of his time, there were drawbacks. There was the uncertainty of where to eat and sleep, poverty, judgement, a threat of prison, relationships that came in moments of ecstasy only to go. There were those abused by life on the road, rootless to anyone and everything, who became victims to fear, alcoholism, paranoia, loneliness, and starvation.

Kerouac, in a sense, became a victim of his own life — dying under the pressures of fame and alcoholism and unsatisfied yearning.

The sensitivity that made his writing great brought him intense joys and sorrows. He had such perceptiveness into others but also could rationalize his own delusions, such as with “Ray’s” unfeeling talk with a paranoid Rosie before her suicide, where he never truly cared about her well-being. He spouted Buddhist philosophy only for his own ego, not out of compassion or love. Such compartmentalization shows, as the Tao Te Ching said, “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.”

Despite Kerouac sometimes being possessed with delusions of grandeur, and his inability to get his family to understand his disconnected insights, he was not hard to like. His affinity for all of life and reveling in its ecstasies, made him a wanderer, a loner, a rebel, spiritual in his longing and despairing in his fall. He inspired countless generations of hippies and hipsters and seekers and artists and found himself a guide for those who want meaning outside of a conventional world.