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Saturday, July 18th, 2009

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2:15a
There's no place like home, there's no place like home ...
I have to admit upfront on this, that there is no way that I can write an "unbiased" review of Love, Sex, Fear, Death: The Inside Story of The Process Church of the Final Judgment by Timothy Wyllie (and others). The Process/Foundation was a key element in my development as person, and it's almost like having to write a review about a book about one's parents ... how does one take that step back?

When I was a lad, we lived one block away from the Process center in Chicago, and, following "the Schism", the Foundation's HQ was a scant few blocks from my highschool. Over the years, I came to know many of the folks out "donating" (selling magazines to raise money) on the streets, and came very, very close to "joining the cult" rather than going to college. I could go into a whole array of stories here (I stayed in on-going communication with them all through college, and in intermittent contact beyond), but that would only be digressing from the book.

In many ways, Love, Sex, Fear, Death seems to have been seeded by Genesis P-Orridge who put together Wyllie with the Feral House publishing folks. GPO has had a long-time fascination with the Process Church, which has expressed itself in various forms (and collaborations) over the years.

Frankly, I rather expect that this book will be followed by a raft of others. The Process and Foundation had been very tightly controlled (or, at least the upper parts of their hierarchies) by Mary Ann DeGrimston (nee MacLean), the one-time wife of the titular head and "Teacher" of the Process, Robert DeGrimston (Moore) ... "the Matriarch" died a few years back, and this has evidently changed the nature of "the game". To some extent, this has freed up people to be more open about the organization and its history, although I'm not certain on what level that freeing has come.

Timothy Wyllie had been one of the "inner core" from the very beginning, going back to when Robert and Mary Ann left the structure of early Scientology (due to a philosophical disagreement over the work of Adler) and started their own group called Compulsions Analysis. In fact, Wyllie reports that he'd volunteered to be a "test subject" for them from the get-go, so there are few with as "deep roots" in the organization. In the church he was called Father Micah, and was the person behind the "look and feel" of the classic Process magazines (the title of the book appears to be a bit of a joke spun from the subjects of the last 4 "themed" issues of The Process, which actually came out in the order: Sex, Fear, Death, Love), elements of which are reproduced in a section of color plates here.

I actually became involved with the group soon after "The Schism" (when Robert was removed as Teacher, the theology and symbology changed, and about 2/3rds of the group continued on as The Foundation) and their previous incarnation as The Process was very much something Not To Be Discussed. Being the inquisitive (and obsessive-compulsive) lad that I am, I kept digging, and eventually had both a pretty good picture of the general outlines of the history, but also quite a respectable collection old magazines, books, and pamphlets. Of course, I was still just "peeking through holes in the fence" and had very little idea of the non-mythologized history of the group ... Love, Sex, Fear, Death finally fills in a lot of the gaps.

The key thing about the Process/Foundation was that, to a very great extent, the people involved were all very much like me ... highly intelligent misfits who were out of step with society (aka "the grey forces") in general. I never felt more at home than the times I was out in New York, and hanging around the big HQ on 1st Avenue (some summers I'd go out there three times). This part of the story comes rather late in Wyllie's section of the book (which includes remembrances from a handful of other members, as well as an essay by GPO), but it was fascinating to be able to read an "insider's view" of that time.

In many ways, the book was a somewhat depressing read for me, having had an inner mythology of the Process/Foundation that ran in parallel with the official mythology, neither of which came particularly close to the realities outlined by Wyllie. The "real" Process/Foundation sounds like a very difficult place to have been, and in some ways I came away from this book feeling a certain level of relief that I had never taken the step to "go in". I also had a few revelations regarding certain aspects of things which, in context, do not reflect well upon some people for whom I've always held the highest regard.

Of course, this is a book by somebody who left. Fr. Micah (Wyllie) did not continue with the group after New York (when they sold the HQ to buy the Kanab Movie Ranch). This was a huge change for the group, and I have one story that I think I will tell. If you've ever seen the (wonderful) movie Where The Buffalo Roam with Bill Murray playing Hunter S. Thompson, there's a scene where Lazlo (his lawyer) talks his way onto the press plane and corners HST with a briefcase full of 8x10 B&W photos of desert, trying to convince him that this would be some sort of paradise. Two of my closest connections with the group made a regular "funding" trip out to Chicago every year, and I was sitting in somebody's living room when one of them cornered me with 8x10 B&W photos of desert, and proceeded to explain how this was going to be some sort of paradise ... it was a deeply weird moment for me. Some years later, I actually found myself "in the neighborhood" (Flagstaff, AZ) with a couple of days to kill, and drove up to visit. The area is very beautiful, but it was very strange to be seeing adult people who I had last seen as young kids, and once-edgy young people now well into middle age or beyond!

The point I was getting to (before the seemingly inevitable digression above) is that I will be very interested to see if folks who did venture out west and transform into Best Friends Animal Sanctuary will now be able (or even inclined) to write their own histories. There have been losses among the inner core (one of my closer friends from that group died tragically a few years back), but quite a number of those who came together in the early 60's are still around, and it would be fascinating if they collectively, or individually, would produce clear-eyed histories from their perspectives.

Of course, Love, Sex, Fear, Death is not "for everyone" ... I can well imagine that many people could not care less about a small, if notorious, religious group from the 60's and 70's (despite their rather broad, if subtle, influence on popular culture over the past forty years), but for me this is a blockbuster book, full of insights and revelations about people I knew, places I'd been, and, heck, (if I'm not grossly mistaken) I just missed being "name checked" in GPO's essay! So, while I'd really love to have all and sundry run out and buy a copy, I'll understand if your enthusiasm for this is not quite up to mine. As this is a brand-new release (it officially came out on June 1st), you can no doubt find it anywhere, but Amazon has it at 34% off of cover, which is a pretty good deal.

I think on some level I'm feeling that "the more people read this book, the more people will understand me", which is somewhat pitiful, but the whole Process/Foundation "thing" is something that I've had to explain and explain and explain over the years, and it's nice to have something out there that's shedding some light on the subject while not "sensationalizing" it!


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6:46p
Ah ... Feynman ...
One is tempted to say that "in the world of physics" there are very few figures like Richard P. Feynman, but when you think about it, in general there are very few like him. Both brilliant and irreverent, Feynman cut a swath through his environment, often exasperating his more-staid colleagues (as when he made a hobby of "cracking" top-secret safes while working on the Manhattan Project), but also charming the public (how many other theoretical physicists promulgated guides for picking up Vegas showgirls?).

QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter is a collection of four lectures where he seeks to explain, to a non-specialist audience, the theory of Quantum Electrodynamics (for which he'd been given the Nobel Prize). The circumstances of these lectures are worth noting, as Feynman had a wide circle of friends, one couple (of means) had funded a series of lectures and invited Feynman to launch the series with the four in this book (which came five years before his death in 1988).

The four lectures here are titled "Introduction” (which faked me out, as I was expecting a few pages of intro, but this runs a quarter of the book!), “Photons: Particles of Light”, “Electrons and Their Interactions”, and “Loose Ends”, and in them Feynman takes the reader through an increasingly challenging information curve (I admit, he did manage to “lose me” at a couple of points towards the end). Feynman warns the listener/reader early on, saying “What I am going to tell you about is what we teach our physics students in the third or fourth year of graduate school – and you think I'm going to explain it to you so you can understand it?”. Of course, despite my passing familiarity with the topic, I had issues with parts of it (albeit not the concept of the “absurdity of Nature”), but I also had some of those much-treasured “AHA!” moments where he clarifies something that I knew of, but did not fully “get”.

Prime among these revelations was the “inner workings” of the basic Feynman Diagrams. I had encountered these in various contexts over the years, and understood that they represented visualizations of how particles can exchange, emit, and absorb other particles as they move through space/time (even, arguably, backwards in time). I had never known, however, the ways these were specifically drawn out. One of the first things that Feynman deals with here is how those lines are developed, with a “clock hand” that spins at different rates depending on the particle and its vibration (i.e., pure blue light's dial “spins” faster than pure red light). Each of these produces a reading which involves length and direction, and all possible states for an event are calculated, and a resulting arrow created. Needless to say, this can become very complicated!

Of course, one of the most endearing aspects to Dr. Feynman was his wry humor … which helps to sugar-coat many difficult concepts here. I thought I'd share at least one, and had found this particularly amusing as I was reading through the book:

There was also the problem of what holds the neutrons and protons together inside the nucleus. It was realized right away that it could not be the exchange of photons, because the forces holding the nucleus together were much stronger – the energy required to break up a nucleus is much greater that that required to knock an electron away from an atom in the same proportion that an atomic bomb is more destructive than dynamite: exploding dynamite is a rearrangement of the electron patterns, while an exploding atomic bomb is a rearrangement of the proton-neutron patterns.
… doesn't it sound so simple when put that way?

Anyway, this does appear to be in print (and, judging from the numbers of copies held on LibraryThing, I'm guessing that the “Princeton Science Library” edition is used as a textbook), so, should you have a burning desire to come to a fresh appreciation of the inner workings of nature (at least to the extent that Quantum Electrodynamics describes them), it should be easy enough to find a copy. Amazon has it at a very reasonable 32% discount from (a very reasonable) cover price, which is only slightly bettered by the new/used guys (after shipping, of course). Again, I realize that reading physics for relaxation is not most folks' first choice, so I won't insist that your intellectual development is not complete without this, but do consider picking up some Feynman ("Surely You're Joking..." is probably a much better introduction to the man and his thought anyway) to familiarize yourself with one of the most amazing humans to have graced the planet!


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10:08p
Metaphysics by committee?
I feel that I need to apologize to whatever readers there are out there for these reviews because I'm getting to this book eight months after having finished reading it. Needless to say, with that sort of delay, my impressions are somewhat vague as to the details. I do recall, however, that I was having a very hard time "getting the right angle" to approach this book. The subject, the chapter headings, the concept all sounded great, but there was never any "payoff", and I was finding it difficult to adequately express that. The triumvirate that penned God and the Evolving Universe: The Next Step in Personal Evolution should have been able to produce a fascinating book. Over time I have developed a grudging respect for James Redfield (of the Celestine books), due to the inclusion of rather high-level Incan Shamanic practices (albeit not presented as such) in his books, and one would think that Michael Murphy (co-founder of the Esalen Institute) would bring a lot to the table ... I don't know anything about Sylvia Timbers, but I suspect she's not the factor dragging this down. My #1 "take away" from this was that they never got anywhere in it.

This was very much like a movie where it's all "backstory", pointing towards the place the tale is supposed to go, but never getting there. It was a very frustrating read as one would launch into a chapter thinking "OK, now we're getting somewhere" and it would just be another "backgrounder" about stuff that may or may not be out there. Towards the end there seemed to be some effort to try to steer the book into something that would at least resemble what was "promised" in its title/subtitle, but it felt like a patch job. In retrospect, this seems like it could very well have been three folks with a lot of "dribs and drabs" they'd written on various New Age subjects pulling together their files and trying to justify a book out of that material.

I had bookmarked some sections to use in this, but they'd be more of a tease than anything, as (while there are some worthwhile subjects raised here) nothing gets beyond the "gee, what if THIS happened?" sort of drivel. To give you a sense, however, of what's in here, let me walk you through the "structure". Part One - Awakening: 1) The Mystery of Our Being, 2) A History of Human Awakening; Part Two - The Emerging Human Being: 3) Our Expanding Perception, 4) The Mystery of Movement, 5) Enhancing Communication, 6) Opening to a Greater Energy, 7) Ecstasy, 8) Love, 9) Transcendent Identity, 10) Transcendent Knowing, 11) A Will Beyond Ego, 12) The Experience of Integration and Synchronistic Flow; Part Three - Participating: 13) Transforming Culture, 14) The Afterlife and Angelic Realms, 15) Luminous Embodiment; Part Four - Practices and Readings: 16) Transformative Practice, 17) A Guide to the Literature of Transformation.

Of course, I have an extremely low tolerance for "fluffy bunny" Newagism, so the vast lot of the ooohing and aaahing involved here over rather flimsy bits of wishful thinking does not draw me in at all. As noted, the main reaction I had to this was that "there was no there there".

This is another case where I'm willing to indulge in a bit of Schadenfreude in feeling a certain amount of satisfaction that this is, despite its big name authors, out of print just a few years since its publication! However, their loss could be your, well, "gain" isn't necessarily the best word for it, but if you (for some inexplicable reason) found this to be something that you just had to read, you could find "very good" copies available from the Amazon new/used guys for as little as a penny (plus shipping, of course), and "new" copies for about a buck and a half. Personally, I wouldn't recommend you wasting time on it, but (in the words of the late Johnny Carson) "It takes all types to fill the freeway".


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