Monday, May 13, 2019

The Land of Sixty Million Saints

St Nicholas II, Tsar


(guest post by John Lakehurst)

I was driving up Geary Boulevard the other day with my nineteen-year-old daughter Sarah on our way to the art museum. We were chatting idly when the huge gold onion dome of the Holy Virgin Cathedral came into view on the right. We both remarked on it. I wondered aloud whether the dome was plated with real gold.

As we drove past the corner of 26th Avenue where the cathedral is, Sarah noted that there was a bookstore inside: A blank wooden door at the corner of the building by a sign that read The Holy Virgin Cathedral Bookstore.

I like obscure little bookshops. But in this case, there was likely to be something inside that that I was curious to see. “Hey, if there’s a place to park, let’s go in,” I said.

It was fine with Sarah. She enjoys shops like that too.

As chance would have it, a vacant diagonal parking spot appeared a few yards past the street corner, so I pulled in. We fed quarters to the meter, walked back to the corner and opened the bookstore’s door.

Inside was a small dim lobby, with a hallway off to the right. A sign directed us to the bookstore at the top of a short flight of stairs. We walked up to it.

The door was open, and the place was illuminated with light streaming in through the windows. It was a tiny place, barely twelve feet by twelve. Shelves ran along the walls, with two shelves in the middle of the room breaking the interior space into a pair of short corridors. The counter was in front of the windows, and a man was standing behind it by the cash register. He greeted us affably as we came in. I told him we just wanted to look around. Sarah and I were the only customers there.

Sarah and I split up. There seemed to be only two kinds of books: children’s books about Russia, and adult books printed in the Cyrillic alphabet. There were also some framed icons on the walls, and icons were the reason I had come into the store.

I walked over to the shelf on the wall at the back of the shop, opposite the counter. There were a number of icons on display: of the Holy Mother, of Christ, and several depicting various saints, all presented in that medieval fashion: flat images, elaborate halos; golden borders framed the images, many with Cyrillic writing worked into the design. There was a timeless calm about these icons that conveyed certainty and faith.

I went up to the counterman. He was small man of about sixty with black framed glasses and a white ponytail. He was wearing a monk’s robe. I hadn’t seen an actual monk since I’d been to Italy, and I was a bit intrigued.

I asked him, “Do you have any icons of Nicholas?”

“You mean St. Nicholas?” he asked.

“No. Nicholas II, the last Tsar. I understand he was canonized.”

He nodded. “Yes, he was, in 1981. Along with his family. They’re all saints now.”

“Really? All of them? Alexis, Anastasia?”

“Yes, they were canonized as martyrs of Russia. As were all sixty million victims of the Bolsheviks,” he added. “They were canonized too.”

“Sixty million saints?” I asked.

He nodded again. “Oh, yes.”

“I wonder if they know they’re saints,” I mused.

“Oh, I think they know,” he said with a tight smile.

He walked over to the back shelf and showed me the icons of Nicholas and his family. The icons were in various sizes. They were printed on wood with some kind of glossy plastic finish. There was a postcard-sized one that depicted the Tsar with his family, all holding crosses, all dressed in stylized medieval garb, the women in robes, Nicholas and his son in cloaks and tunics. They looked sorrowful, almost distressed, and all had golden halos behind their heads. But the icon was too small to detail their faces. In the end I chose an 8-1/2 by 11 inch icon of the Tsar alone that appealed to me.

It’s a nice image. There’s a filigreed silver and gold border with a silver background. The Tsar looks out calmly with sad brown eyes. The face is stylized, but the mustache and beard are familiar from his photos. He wears a Russian fur-lined pointed gold cap studded with jewels; a silver and gold filigreed halo frames his head, little gold rays radiate from Nicholas’s head to the halo’s border. A red cloak is draped over his left shoulder; beneath it he’s wearing a forest green tunic bordered in gold. The Tsar holds an Orthodox cross in his right hand. In his left is an open parchment scroll with some Cyrillic words on it.

The icon cost twelve dollars. I bought it, wondering why I was doing so, because I have no place to display it, and because the symbology is completely alien to my own cultural traditions. I suspect the major reason for my purchase was because I had pestered the counterman with my questions, and the least I could do was to purchase something from his shop.

Back in the car Sarah gave me the same college-kid-to-dad look that I used to use on my own father and asked, “What did you buy that for? Didn’t you once tell me that the Tsar ran your grandparents out of Russia?”

“Yeah, that’s true,” I admitted as I started the car and backed cautiously out onto Geary Boulevard.

“And didn’t he hate the Jews?”

I nodded. “So I’ve read. But then again, pretty much all Russians back then hated the Jews. There was nothing remarkable about him in that respect.”

“Then why do you like him so much?” asked Sarah, looking annoyed. “You’ve talked about him before. You’ve got a real thing for the Tsar.”

I slipped the car into the stream of traffic. “I dunno. I know my grandparents hated him; my mother always said bad things about him when I was growing up. She said he instigated pogroms. But…my friend Nick’s mother Anastasia reveres him. She’s from minor Russian nobility and when she was a kid in England she knew the Tsar’s sister Xenia. Xenia was a kind of mentor aunt to her or something. Anastasia insisted that Nicholas was a good man, “a family man,” as she called him, a man who meant well, but who was in over his head. She told me I should read Nicholas and Alexandra, this sympathetic biography of them by Robert Massie. I saw the movie when it came out, and in 1975 I read Massie’s book, and ever since then I’ve been partial to the guy. I kind of relate to him in a way. Like Anastasia said, he was in over his head—-just like me.”

Sarah chuckled.

When I got home I reprimanded myself for making the dumbest kind of impulse purchase.

There was no place to put my icon without removing something that I liked better. I put it away and decided that I’d give it to Anastasia the next time I saw her. She’s in her mid-nineties, but she’s sharp as a tack. She might appreciate the gift.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about those “sixty million saints.” Did the Russian Orthodox Church really conduct a ceremony canonizing sixty million people? I could find no reference to it online. It seemed sort of strange, and I wondered who would have been included. Just Russian victims of the Bolsheviks, or other nationalities as well? Ukrainians? Lithuanians? Jews? And what miracles did these people do to warrant sainthood, or was simply being a martyr of the Bolsheviks sufficient?

And finally, as I asked the monk, do those sixty million dead know that they’re saints? I suppose that would depend on your conception of the afterlife. One thing’s for sure: if they’re saints they can’t be in hell, which most Christian sects concur is the destination of the vast majority of mankind. Most of those martyrs were probably not particularly saintly in life. But somehow by having the luck to die at the right time in the right place, they got a free pass into heaven. A pretty good deal, if you ask me.

“Oh, I think they know.”

John Lakehurst is a retired teacher with a deep interest in history. He's been writing historical or historically-minded fiction for twenty years, and is the author of The Gift of Sleep trilogy, set in a fictional Balkan nation during World War II, and of Tritium, an espionage novel involving stolen nuclear fuel, set partly in China during the Cultural Revolution, and partly in San Francisco during the Summer of Love. John has also written many short stories, mostly with a historical setting. He lives in the East Bay with his wife and daughter.

Canonized Romanov Family

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Heisenberg, Buddha and the Mind-Body Connection

Nick Herbert: Physics-saving hippie, feadog player

Matter for Heisenberg means pure possibility
That turns into Something whenever one looks
How promise comes true is the Measurement Problem:
The subject of dozens of lectures and books.

Buddha with a smile rejects your word-play conjectures
The Consciousness Problem stokes His Holy Fire
Simply freshly experiencing This Moment wide open
Feel impermanence, emptiness, spiced with desire.

For wide-eyed acolytes of the Orthodox Materialism creed
The Mind-Body Problem remains their toughest knot.
How can mere atoms possibly feel pain or pleasure?
And what conceivable motion of matter
Might make these inner feelings start and stop?

Tonight let's set aside all talk of fundamental questions
Be unaware we're heirs to their complicated histories
But right now as I bend to touch my mouth to yours
Let's just pretend we kiss them somehow too --
Both of us enjoying (is this possible?)
Deep kissing three of this life's basic mysteries.

"Can a kiss ever be just a kiss with you, Nick?" 
asks August
"Or do kisses gotta be metaphysical?"

August O'Connor: Graphic artist, bodhran virtuoso

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

And Every Dog

Plant stomata


All the bees
To your lips go
Seeking sweets
I can't know.

And every dog
Every dog along the street
Knows immediately
You're in heat.


If it's true
what wise men say:
free will's a thing
that's quite passe'

Then I can't help
desiring you
and all the deeds
we two might do.

Our human view of Nature
seems to say
we must eschew this.
But the rigid truth
of no free will
demands we have to do this. 

So let's just both ignore
the so-called laws of physics
And simply learn to wallow in
this lucky Cosmic Jizzicks.


There was a young maid from Anheuser
Who claimed no man could surprise her
But a chap from Drake's Bay
Simply swept her away
Which left her sadder Budweiser

A senorita named Donna von Take Ease
Was the cause of many heartbreakies
But to help them recover
She'd leave each jilted lover
With a case or two of Dos Equis.

There was a young lass from Loch Ness
Whose sex earned high marks for finesse
She could without rush
Do a true royal flush
Then serve everyone a Guinness.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Some Lines For Henry Stapp

Henry Pierce Stapp
(celebrating his 91th birthday)

The essence of quantum entanglement 
is correlated readiness to respond.
--  H. P. Stapp

Consciousness is our reward 
for collapsing the wavefunction.
--  H. P. Stapp

Light glistening thru the glassy air
Undulates like waves you float on
Until light strikes some open eye
Which turns it into actual photon.

This is the world of the Quantum Mechanic
Not the Butcher nor Baker nor Cook:
It's possibility waves when unregarded
It's an actual particle whenever you look. 

In utter darkness safe from leerers
Huge Waves of Maybe surged and swam
But when I turned to look at them
They turned to little Bits of Am.

But what means "looking"? Where to go?
You'll have to ask Professor Joe
And Joe asks Sue and Sue asks Dick
And he asks Ruth and she asks Nick
Who gives them all a dirty look
And recommends they buy his book.

Though looking any kid can do
Dumb physicists don't have a clue
How using your bare sense of sightness
You wrench real matter out of mightness.

In the land of Merely Possible
Every living thing would die
My cat must feast
On actual meat
And so must thee and she and I.

I cite Stapp, my Muse, Saint John and Wigner
We all assume what "looking" means:
That particles emerge from waveness
To satisfy some sentient creature's needs.

At whatever level life awakens
It lurks there feeling waves go by
Consults its belly, reaches out --
Then waves turn into apple pie.

Henry Stapp at Esalen Seminar on the Nature of Reality

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Three Quantum Tantric Limericks

Erwin Schrödinger


Erwin Schrödinger was a hit with the babes
His girl friends all gave him top grades
His studies of quanta
Taught him what women wanta
So he had them all coming in waves.


Said the famous quantum physician
You don't need to be a musician
To know that these ruby lips
And the ones in her hips
Enjoy an unbreakable superposition.


The hottest erotic newfanglement
Is the practice of quantum entanglement
Which coheres -- Mama mia! --
Her soft Schrödinger labia
With his Heisenberg-hardened endanglement.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Three Spring Haiku 2019



Rexroth, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti
Without these
Frisco's just spaghetti.


Fresh morning coffee
Birds singing in the trees
Taste of sperm on my lips.


Nick's whole life has been
One long out-of-body experience.
Now this.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Touching the New Science

Holy Fire by Bill Tavis

that the way I experience my own body
could be a new way of knowing the world.

Widen the area of contact
Says Linda
Aikido guru
Practice irimi, the entering art
That's what you most need to do.

Could I feel my way into physical Nature
And enter the world of the wordless?
Use sense of touch to palpate
Her lovely quantum absurdness?

Now that I've chosen
My mode of flirtation
The next biggest question is How:
How can studious Nick
Learn a Heisenberg trick
And sink up to his elbows in Tao?

What skill do I most need to master
To sense Mother Nature as Frau?
Show me what I lack much
To do real quantum touch.
Sweet Muse, don't fail me now.

Whoa by Bill Tavis

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Philippa Meyering (1930 - 2019)


My life and Philippa's life intersected only briefly. We were married for two years (1967-1969). But those few years were exciting times and she was an exciting woman. So with a few stories of our brief times together I will try to sketch a necessarily partial picture of this remarkable lady.

Philippa (Phyl) was born and raised in southern California, became a member of Alpha Chi Omega sorority at UC Berkeley, where she met and married R. Meyering, a Theater Arts major, and birthed two daughters, Marcia and Cathy. Later, in Los Trancos Woods (LTW), CA, she married A. Mixon, a former Navy SEAL, and birthed her third daughter Diana.

During the late sixties, I was a physics graduate student at Stanford, living in a house in Los Trancos Woods with a Stanford medical student, Bill Ross. In those days, Los Trancos Woods was a haphazard rural area in the hills behind Stanford, populated with a mix of eccentric characters. Philippa was our close neighbor and Bill and I often socialized with her and her three daughters.

Phyl was associated with the Stanford Genetics Department and presided over a salon at her home which featured Stanford professors and others sharing their thoughts about human potential, parapsychology and psychedelics -- topics that still fascinate people today.

Phyl drank beer and wine in moderation, smoked menthol cigarettes, attended Native American pow-wows, liked to read biographies and enjoyed a wide variety of friends. Her favorite charities were Amnesty International and ASPCA.

Her oldest daughter, Marcia, writing from Kimberley, British Columbia, reminds me that her mother drew comfort and inspiration from water: from creeks, rivers, lakes and especially the ocean. Phyl's house in LTW, was perched on the edge of Los Trancos Creek and during California's rainy winters, this watercourse echoed like a bowling alley as boulders bounced down stream just a few feet from her bedroom window. She loved camping outdoors, near the frog pond in upper LTW, or nights on the beach near Pescadero. Her favorite part of the San Francisco zoo was the otter pool. When we were living in Monmouth, Illinois, we often visited the Mississippi River, just a few miles west, observing the shipping barges, the fishermen at their work, and conversing with people at the bait shops.

On my thirtieth birthday I decided to spend the night meditating in the hills behind my house in Los Trancos Woods, but before I could reach my destination I encountered a large dead deer on the road that had been recently hit by a car.  I returned home, dropped my pack, drove back to the spot and loaded the still warm body into my station wagon. Bill Ross and I hung the deer from our basement ceiling and immediately phoned Philippa. Using kitchen cleavers and Bill's medical scalpels the three of us carefully dissected the animal, wrapped its parts in tin foil, and stored the meat in Phyl's freezer. So instead of solitary meditation, I spent that night slaughtering a large animal with my roommate and my wife-to-be.

One of the highlights of the West Coast hippie scene was the Trips Festival, January 22, 1966, at the Longshoreman's Hall on San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf. Organized by Ken Kesey and Stewart Brand, it was the largest gathering of "acid test graduates" to date. Thousands of colorfully-costumed freaks in colorful states of consciousness showed up to experience the light shows, the strobe lights and trampolines, and the chaotic music and performance art. Phyl and I decided to go as "squares". by dressing as if we were going to the opera: from the outside we looked like two flamboyantly ordinary beings mingling with a circus of freaks. After digging the scene, we wandered over to the corner where cups of Kool-Aid were being served out of big garbage cans, Our hosts seemed a bit reluctant to serve us but eventually relented. We both figured that in such a large public gathering, they would never dare to put LSD in the Kool-Aid. On this matter we were mistaken. But the dose seemed fairly weak so this square couple played in the shallow end of the pool and did not go back for seconds.

When I got my PhD, I married Phyl and took my first job, as a physics professor at Monmouth College in Illinois, just a few miles west of Peoria, legendarily the most typical of typical Midwest towns. (Will it play in Peoria?). In its unapologetic ordinariness, Peoria did not disappoint. We enrolled the kids in the local schools and assumed our roles as "that crazy couple from California", lionized by some, disliked by others, and tried to fit into an environment (it was only going to last one academic year) that in its own way was as bizarre for Phyl and me as the Trips Festival. I became one faculty member with whom students shared their drug stories, and Phyl collected her own circle of admirers, including (ha, ha!) becoming the confidant of the college president's wife.

Besides driving to the Mississippi River and going to estate auctions (which featured the classic tobacco-style auctioneer/showman) we sometimes amused ourselves and the girls by going to Monmouth's pizza parlor and reading to each other from the National Enquirer.

After our nine-month stint in the Midwest, Phyl and I returned to California, got divorced, connected only sporadically, then more often, and then kept in contact by phone when she moved to Happy Camp, CA, an isolated town on the Klamath River near the Oregon border.

I last talked to Phyl in late December; when only a few days later Marcia informed me that Philippa had perished on the morning of January 4, while her house in Happy Camp burned to the ground.

Philippa is survived by 3 daughters, 11 grandchildren, and 7 great-grandchildren.

Hail and farewell, loving mom, intimate companion, dear first mate.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Baby Steps Towards a Brand New Physics

99 Nick Chakras


Quantum theory is mankind's most successful mathematical connection with Nature. But after more than one hundred years of immense conceptual and technological success, it seems to possess at least one fundamental flaw. Despite the fact that we know that the world works by purely quantum rules, our only access to this world (so far) is via completely classical measurements. The goal of quantum tantra is to open up new doorways into Nature, new connections that are intrinsically quantum not classical, that are deep, direct and intimate and that probably have more to do with consciousness than with unconscious measuring instruments.

Nature's hinting there's new ways to meet Her
More intense, more engaging -- and sweeter
But like shy maiden aunts
We say "O dear me, no!" to Her Dance
"We'd rather be reading our meters."

 One possible realization of quantum tantra is that I learn to experience the physical world in a manner analogous to the way that I experience my own body. A new kind of mind-merge with matter made possible by our radical understanding of how things really work. I envision this new learning to be augmented by some sort of quantum-inspired technology which I have called a Convivium. Or sometimes an Octoscope.

Since physics is a more fundamental science then chemistry for exploring deep reality, with all honor and respect, I consider psychedelic drugs as mere training wheels compared to quantum tantra. But as a pragmatic explorer I realize you gotta use what you got.

While waiting for my Physics Muse to deliver me a Convivium or Octoscope, my most immediate way to prepare for direct entry into the quantum world appears to be expanding my awareness of this physical body that daily carries me about in the world.

So for many years, I have been carrying out a Chakra Project to expand the number of body centers into which I could place my awareness -- the main hypothesis being that a body part to which I direct my attention is in some way essentially different (in a quantum way?) from a body part that I leave unattended. I began with the Seven Classical Hindu Chakras, extended this number to Twenty-Four, then Twenty-Seven, then Eighty-Four. Then finally to the Ninety-Nine Nick Chakras illustrated above. I have used this new chakra system in various ways, from systematically expanding my bodily awareness, to reciting a kind of bodily Rosary, to preparing my body for massage, to falling asleep at night by counting chakras instead of sheep.

For exploring a new territory, it's useful to have a good map. But once you're there you can toss the maps away. Follow your own interests and curiosity.

Besides the chakras, I've found many other good maps for exploring the body's wonders based on your particular training and interest.

Being mainly a bookish person, I'm not much interested in sports, but loved ocean swimming and had been a fairly good tennis player at the City Park level. For more than twenty years I have been working with weights under the direction of a world-class power lifter, ex-Marine and ex-police officer. So far, all without books.

But then I discovered Frederic Delavier's Strength Training Anatomy. 
Delavier's muscle maps for power lifters

Delavier is both a trained artist (five years at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris) and a champion power lifter (best in France 1988). His book spends a few pages on every classic lift, and illustrates with simple color-coded drawings exactly which muscles you are utilizing for that lift. (You can confirm Delavier's insights by what parts hurt the next day.) He also includes sections on stretches for relaxing parts of the body that have been tightened by serious exercise and illustrates which muscles are involved in each stretch. Here is a video review of Delavier's wonderful book by an admiring body builder.

For the last couple of years I have been enjoying monthly massages from a lovely Buddhist masseuse who lives at Vajrapani Institute, our local Tibetan Buddhist retreat center. Her body work combines sensitive attention plus exercises in visualizing each moment as Empty, Impermanent, yet paradoxically infused with Compassion. These massage sessions got me interested in yet another book (another set of body maps).

Andrew Biel's body maps for extremely informed palpation
Andrew Biel's Trail Guide to the Body is the premier source for intelligent palpation. Both the author and the illustrator Robin Dorn are licensed massage practitioners. The trail guide metaphor is useful and witty: for example, the trip round the elbow is called "exploring Knob Hill". Dorn's skillful drawings have just enough detail to be useful yet uncluttered. You could spend a lifetime exploring your body or someone else's using this nearly 500-page book as a map. I'm currently involved in trying to confidently palpate the eight carpal bones at the base of my hand. Here's a video interview with the author who among other things describes his favorite muscle. Hint: it's a muscle you've never heard of.

Although I play jigs and reels in an Irish session band, I'm not really much of a dancer. The nearest I got to serious dancing was studying Aikido with Linda Holiday in Santa Cruz. Throwing and being thrown in many different ways by many different kinds of bodies brought me very much in touch with what being embodied actually felt like both in and out of Linda's dojo.

I was also married for more than thirty years to Betsy Rasumny, a talented improv dancer who taught and performed in New York, Montreal, San Francisco and Santa Cruz. For me, one of Betsy's finest teachings was that, for someone who is fully present, every movement can become a dance. My wife was an expert at being fully present. Among the many gifts Betsy left me after her death in 2002 was this book on body maps for dancers.

Andrea Olsen's Guide to Experiential Anatomy

Andrea Olsen's BodyStories: A Guide to Experiential Anatomy is exactly what it claims to be -- a guide to actually feeling what it's like to be present in your own particular body. There are pictures of bones and muscles but accompanied with children's drawings and other art work designed to invoke the strange unspeakable mood of this particular kind of embodiment. In her dedication, Andrea Olsen states that the function of this book is not to demystify the body -- but to help embody the mystery. Designed for dancers, this book contains movement and palpation exercises both alone and with a partner and is peppered with short anecdotes (body stories) from Olsen's long career as a teacher and performer. Here is a video of Andrea Olsen giving a TED talk/performance in Monterey, CA. Is this woman embodied or what?

One version of quantum tantra would be experiential anatomy on quantum steroids. The octoscope (or convivium) would open up our universe to non-classical modes of inquiry, to brand new experiences of the physical body not to mention new experiences of the physical world, providing strange new openings into reality entirely unavailable to our species before the discovery of quantum theory.

When we coat our nipples with europium oxide
When we touch our tongues to crystalline tin
When we hold in our hands these obsidian palm stones
Nature unlocks Her darkness and welcomes us in.

Nick discovers a convivium

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Christmas in Mexico 1963

Three Kings: Mexico City Christmas


1963 was a big year for me. I had passed all my exams at Stanford and was beginning my thesis work under Walter Meyerhof using a small particle accelerator in the basement of the Physics building. With some lady friends from the Psychology department, I had just experienced my first acid trip which opened up for me new worlds of possibility. In this excitable mood I decided to spend my Christmas in Mexico, packed my gear into a big duffel bag and hopped a bus down to Guadalajara.

Where I met a fellow American named Dave Whitaker, who was married to an anthropologist in Wisconsin, and was, like myself, looking for adventure. Both of us were bearded and scruffy and attracted a lot of attention. Since 1963 predated the hippies, we were called "existentialistas" or sometimes "Fidelistas". In Mexico City we met several young men from the University who were eager to practice their English and wanted to show us the hot spots. Dave & I lived in a hotel a few blocks from the Paseo Reforma park right in the center of the city, within walking distance of the Metropolitan Cathedral and several other famous landmarks. We had been warned not to drink the water so we subsisted on beer and food we bought from the ubiquitous street vendors. At one of these stands, I was served slices of goat cut right off the animal and stuffed into a big tortilla.

Mexico City taco stand.

One day Dave and I decided to see the ocean and took a bus to Mazatlan where for the first time I was able to swim in ocean water as warm as a bathtub. The Mazatlan beach is crowded with expensive hotels, but behind the hotels sits a typical Mexican village. We stopped in a cantina and immediately became the center of attention. At a table inside, four Mexicans invited us gringos to play a drinking game. They produced a "shock box" made of a lantern battery, an automotive spark coil and a rheostat for controlling the voltage. I had played with such devices in my physics class in high school and knew how they worked. In this cantina game, you would hold a tin can in each hand and see how much voltage you could endure. The loser buys beer for everyone. This game was a nice way to interact with good-hearted guys who didn't speak your language. And after buying three or four rounds of beer for the Mexicans, we gringos shook hands with the winners, happily took our leave and traveled back home to Mexico City.

Pulque is a peculiar Mexican beer brewed from the agave cactus and sold only in special bars called pulquerias. Pulque is the color of milk and is known as the drink of the working class. As luck would have it, there was a pulqueria right across the street from our hotel. Each of us dared the other to try this exotic brew and I would taunt Dave by calling him Señor Pulque in hopes that he would try it first. That never happened. And I am still ignorant of the taste of this working-class brew, a situation I very much regret.

Dave did introduce me to another exotic substance -- not pulque but "speed". As that time you could go to any pharmacia and buy Dexadrine in various forms without a prescription. (Even though every bottle was clearly labeled "Not for sale without a prescription".) I loved speed. It made me feel as super smart and as fearless as I knew I really was. And I could stay up and party all night. "This is a drug I could get addicted to," I said. But unlike acid, which seems to give you insights into the nature of consciousness, the speed high is completely empty, a mere revving of the engine of ordinary awareness. And when the drug wears off, the downside is horrible -- like somebody has been using your body for weeks. After this brief experience in the streets of Mexico City, I said goodbye to amphetamines as a future drug of abuse.

Tenochtitlan, the Temple of the Sun

While Dave was busy with something else, I decided to take a trip to one of Mexico's most famous archeological sites -- Tenochtitlan, the Temple of the Sun, which is located a few miles north-east of Mexico city. I rode a bus, complete with people carrying live chickens, to the site, ignored the little kids trying to sell me "authentic" clay figurines, wandered around the various buildings and then decided to climb to the top of the Sun Temple.

I was almost to the top and flanked by two women, when one of them turned to me and asked me one of the strangest questions I have ever heard. "Did you know," she asked, "that this temple was built by Jews?"

Actually I didn't know that. But I was informed by the two women, who happened to be Mormon archeologists, of their belief that one of the Lost Tribes of Israel had sailed to the New World and founded new civilizations of which the Temple of the Sun was one part. Since I was a mere physicist I could come up with no facts to refute their claim so I listened intently to their story. And eventually after reaching the top of the Temple, the women led me down, across the yellow tape, to meet their Mormon colleagues who were busy excavating some new walls covered with paintings of jaguars and other exotic ancient Jewish iconography.

Another taco stand

Later, after my trip to Tenochtitlan, Dave and I were walking in Mexico City with a bunch of locals who were testing out their English (which was much better than our Spanish) when we ran across a guy in a vacant lot who was selling marijuana. I was curious because I had never tried this substance but one of the Mexicans warned us: "Don't try that stuff. It make you crazy. Let's go get drunk instead." Ignoring his warning I bought a bag of it to take back to our hotel. Most of the Mexicans left but two followed us back.

Our room was on the third floor with a window facing the main street. And to make the scene complete, a neon sign outside our window was flashing lurid colors across the bed.

We rolled the stash up into a big cigar using a page from a Mexican newspaper and passed it around. The two Mexicans were lying on the bed and Dave and I were sitting on the floor. The neon light was flashing off and on. It looked like a typical sordid drug scene you might see in the movies. It was my very first time smoking marijuana.

Dave and I both saw spiders. Big spiders crawling all over the ceiling and across the walls. But they were comical spiders like something from a Disney cartoon. We burst into laughter at this shared hallucination. There were spiders running all over our room. And they were really very very funny.

Meanwhile the Mexicans on the bed seemed to be having a bad trip. They had stopped speaking English and were screaming in their own language about Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Perhaps they were having a religious experience but it seemed not to be a pleasant one. Perhaps they had "gone crazy" as their comrade had suggested might happen with this loco weed we bought in the street. We had no chance to assess their condition because as soon as they calmed down sufficiently, they ran out the door and we never saw them again.

These days, most people interested in experimenting with drugs start out with marijuana and graduate to the "harder stuff" but for me it was just the opposite, For Nick Herbert, on Christmas Eve 1963, in Mexico City, for better or for worse, LSD became a gateway drug to marijuana.

El gringo existentialista