Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Dreaming up Google

When a great dream shows up, grab it!

That was the advice offered by Larry Page, the co-founder of Google, at his commencement address at the University of Michigan. He explained how a dream that made him get up in the middle of the night put him on the track of what became Google, the pioneer search engine that grew into one of the world's most powerful and innovative corporations. Here's the story as he told it in Ann Arbor:

"I have a story about following dreams. Or maybe more accurately, it's a story about finding a path to make those dreams real.

"You know what it's like to wake up in the middle of the night with a vivid dream? And you know how, if you don't have a pencil and pad by the bed to write it down, it will be completely gone the next morning?

"Well, I had one of those dreams when I was 23. When I suddenly woke up, I was thinking: what if we could download the whole web, and just keep the links and... I grabbed a pen and started writing! Sometimes it is important to wake up and stop dreaming. I spent the middle of that night scribbling out the details and convincing myself it would work. Soon after, I told my advisor, Terry Winograd, it would take a couple of weeks to download the web -- he nodded knowingly, fully aware it would take much longer but wise enough to not tell me. The optimism of youth is often underrated! Amazingly, I had no thought of building a search engine. The idea wasn't even on the radar. But, much later we happened upon a better way of ranking webpages to make a really great search engine, and Google was born. When a really great dream shows up, grab it!..

"I think it is often easier to make progress on mega-ambitious dreams. I know that sounds completely nuts. But, since no one else is crazy enough to do it, you have little competition."
So we can add the co-founder of Google to the long list of creators and world-changers who have discovered in their many fields the truth of John Lennon's observation that "the best songs are the ones that come to you in the middle of the night and you have to get up and write them down, so you can go back to sleep."
The full text of Larry Page's May 2 commencement address isn't hard to find by googling.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Fishing with Joseph Campbell

I spent the middle of last night in the company of Joseph Campbell, that great fisher in the oceans of the world's mythologies, through his books and a fine biography (Joseph Campbell: A Fire in the Mind) by Stephen and Robin Larsen. The Larsens knew Joe Campbell well, and had access to his private papers, including his unpublished fiction and the journals in which he recorded and studied his dreams in the period of the gestation and delivery of The Hero with A Thousand Faces, the seminal work in which Campbell first succeeded in binding his protean mind into the form of a single great and neverending story.

In 1944, Campbell was struggling to find that form. The pressure was on, because an editor at Simon and Schuster was interested in publishing a book by him on mythology, and wanted to see a sample chapter. Campbell dreamed that he was fishing, and having trouble baiting his hook. The worm broke in two. He tried to stitch it together to make a plausible impression of a fine live juicy worm, but as he tried to get it back on the hook the bait turned into a large fish. He felt the pain of the hooked fish, all the way up his backbone.

It seems that this dream mobilized Campbell. He now moved beyond the idea of writing a book on "reading myth" that would range over many themes (and many libraries of material) towards the book defining a single mythic theme that became The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It's not clear what he made of the cautionary elements in the dream. Simon and Schuster rejected his book proposal, and so did a second publisher, and it took five somewhat bumpy years before the Hero was brought to the world in the Bollingen series. (It was recently republished in a handsome new edition by New World Library.) Looking back at the dream, it may appear to have previewed this literary odyssey. Campbell's bait failed to hook the publisher, but his restitching brought up a big fish from the deep, at the cost of some real pain.

I was thinking about this as I walked my dog round the lake in the city park in the mid-morning sunshine. Several people were fishing in the lake. Among them was an old African-American man in suspenders, with his grandson. The boy was becoming impatient, and started running back and forth along the bank, casting his line then reeling it back in almost at once. "Patience," his grandfather counseled. "You have to stay in one place until something bites." Listening to this sage advice, I recalled how often a black man figured in Joseph Campbell's dreams - as a mentor, ally and intimate friend - in the period of the 1940s when he was journaling most industriously.

On the far side of the lake, a group of carpenters and builders were taking a break. "Measure," one of them said. "You gotta have measure." He spoke of other workers, clearly not present, who "just shoot in screws anywhere, without measuring." "That's what I was taught," one of his freinds chimed in. "Whatever the job, you have to get the right measure."

As I completed my circuit of the lake, I noticed half a dozen weekend artists with their easels set up. They were painting the lake house and trying the capture the light and shadow in the olive water around it. Their instructor leaned over one canvas and said, "You have to lose the copyist. You can't just copy things the way you see them. That doesn't work." He embarked upon a mini-dissertation on the mastery of light by Vermeer, and of contrast by Caravaggio.

I walked on, delighted by the gift of three unsought messages from the world, all delivered in plain English:

Patience. Stay in one place until something bites.

Measure. Get the right measure.

Lose the copyist.

I suspect Joe Campbell would have enjoyed these hermeions too. Hermeion? Oh, I'm sure he knew that word very well. A hermeion is something striking or unexpected that pops up in the midst of life and feels like a personal message from the deeper world. In the Hellenic world, such incidents were attributed to Hermes, the divine messenger and the "friendliest of the gods to men", who speaks through the play of coincidence.
My mind returns to Campbell's dream of the big fish that hooked itself, after the bait fell apart. I dreamed once that in a larger universe, very big fish are casting their lines to catch humans. Truly, fishers of men (and of women)! As we fish in the stream of life, the powers of the deeper world are angling for us.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

In laughing guise

"Ridentum dicere verum quid vestat. Yet may not truth in laughing guise be dressed?" Shane Hardacre closes the first volume of his memoirs, quoting Horace. Shane, an eloquent Anglo-Irish rake and fictional kinsman of Sir William Johnson, is the narrator and protagonist of my historical novel Fire Along the Sky.
     I spent today writing a new description of the book to help launch the beautiful new edition to be published by Excelsior Editions, the trade imprint of State University of New York Press, early in 2010. I noted that Shane's “phallocratic assumptions" are countered by the voice of a gifted and knowing woman, a lover from his later life, in the correspondence interpolated between the chapters of his narrative. I wasn't sure whether I had coined the word "phallocratic". It may sound over the top, but then so is Shane.

     At the time when I wrote Fire Along the Sky, I was planning to publish a further volume
of Shane's supposed memoirs titled The American Mutiny (his offensive name for the American Revolution) in which he claims to have played a key role in various underhand affairs of state and adventures in boudoirs and battlefields, including (as I recall) the "turning" of Benedict Arnold as well as numberless duchesses and contessas. I put that project on hold many years ago, yet included this line from the glowing Publishers Weekly review of the first edition of Fire Along the Sky in the new blurb: "This splendid piece of storytelling offers the added delight of a likely sequel set during the American Revolution".
    Now it seems that a jesting spirit is at play, in relation to the possible resurrection of another volume of his memoirs. Late last night the mood took me to go looking for material on the Chevalier d'Eon, an amazing original I discovered when I was researching the American Revolution and the international intrigues of that era. D'Eon spent the first half of his public life as a man and the second half as a woman. Bets were placed on his true gender at the London exchange, but he refused to allow doctors to inspect him. He was a key player in the diplomacy and espionage of his day - ambassador to the Court of St James and a member of Louis XV's cabal of secret agents known as Le Secret du Roi - and ensured his survival and his royal pension by hiding away some very hot letters in the French king's own hand. The chevalier volunteered to join the French regiments in America in the Revolutionary War, swapping his petticoat and corset for a uniform.
    I could not immediately locate my sources on the chevalier. So I went on line and discovered and ordered juicy material that has come out since I last looked into his ambiguous affairs: a recent biography, a translation of his own memoirs (first published in 2001) and - how likely is this? - a Japanese anime series titled Le Chevalier d'Eon - that appears to be based rather closely on his life and was a hit in Japan!
    Still in an 18th century (salon rather than longhouse) mood, I pulled down a thick volume of Claude Manceron's narrative of the interweaving fortunes of France and America between 1776 and 1789, The Wind from America. This is the kind of history Shane might enjoy, patched together from lots of lively biographical sketches, highly embarrassing to the noble and powerful. Manceron writes of a blueblood whose only experience of sailing, prior to being placed in command of a battle fleet, was of floating toy boats in an estate pond; and of a man elevated to Minister of Marine - charged with the fortunes of France on the Setting and Rising Seas (ie, the Atlantic and Mediterranean) - because he was highly proficient in supplying the king with salacious details of the sexual performance and preferences of junior royals.
    I was gripped by one of the epigraphs. Manceron, a man of the left, doesn't scruple to quote Marx - but what a quote!

"Coincidence plays a great part in the history of the world. The acceleration or delay of events depends to a large degree upon such accidents, which also include the personalities of those at the head of the movement." - Karl Marx, in a letter to Kugelmann, 1871.

As I turn the pages, I notice that I purchased The Wind from America at the Strand bookstore in Manhattan for $9, twenty years ago. I only got through the first couple of dozen pages, since the vagaries and perceived necessities of life took me off in other directions. I am fairly sure I never got to page 40, where the French historian describes Mirabeau (the "Friend of Man") as a "thoroughgoing phallocrat." Whoooo! Even if my usage of the descriptor "phallocratic" earlier that day was cryptamnesia, the surfacing of a buried memory, what is the likelihood of my coming out with that word and then coming up with its twin in a book I had not opened in two decades - on the same day?

Yes, a puckish shelf elf is in play…

Graphic: Given the nature of the rhyming word that featured in Tuesday's bookish adventures, I could not resist using an image that came in via email the same day. The items in the photograph are a Mohawk mortar and pestle recently returned to Johnson Hall, Sir William's last home and the setting for some important scenes in Fire Along the Sky. They were originally discovered by a child playing at the site in 1910 and may have belonged to Molly Brant, Johnson's Mohawk consort and the only woman who ever came close to taming him. Archeologists judge that these tools were "antique" even in Johnson's day and would not have been used for grinding corn. Their exact use is open to speculation. Given Shane Hardacre's "phallocratic assumptions", he would probably have had some risque notions of what they were meant to evoke.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Bottomless Tribe

We dream future events, but often don't recognize what is going on in a dream until the waking event it anticipates catches up with it. Here's a small and amusing example involving my recent trip to the Cincinnati area.

On May 30, I recorded a dream report that contained the following information: "I am getting ready for new presentations and performances, some focused on the 18th century. I study various 'savage tribes' that are unfamiliar to me. One of these nations is called the 'Bottomless' tribe; I speculate that this is because its members run around bare-bottomed in summer. I track an extraordinary character who has dyed his full head of hair bright red; he looks almost like a clown."

Waking, I associated the dream content with the new lectures I will be giving on Sir William Johnson - the 18th century character who is central to my novel The Firekeeper - and his neighbors. Research inspired by the dream led me to look again at documents relating to the lives of two prominent Iroquois Indians of his time, an Onondaga speaker and his warrior son who were both called "Red Head" - even though it was clear that the "savage tribes" in my dream were not Iroquois.

Events started to catch up with the dream on my ride from Cincinnati airport to Blue Ash on June 4th. Robin O'Neal, the volunteer coordinator for my workshop, picked me up in her van. During the ride, her kids in the back started talking about food. "I'm a bottomless pit!" one boy declared. "I'm bottomless too! Let's go to Wendy's!" "Do you mean bottomlesss, or buttless?" "Bottomless! Let's go to Burger King!" This went on for quite a while. I realized I had found the Bottomless Tribe, as Robin dropped her kids off for an early dinner.

My lecture that night was at the New Church in Glendale. On the plane to Cincinnati, I had been rereading Emanuel Swedenborg's Journal of Dreams from 1743-1744, a most remarkable document, in which we can study how dreams and visions called one of the foremost scientists of his day to research the realms of spiritual knowledge and supra-physical reality by the only appropriate scientific method: first-hand experience. In a watershed experience in this period, Swedenborg found himself ejected from his body and encountered a radiant being he identified as Christ who asked him if he had an up-to-date bill of health. (A bill of health, in those days, was a necessity for survival; if you disembarked at an English port in time of an epidemic, you were liable to be put to death if you did not have one). That question, in a sense, propelled and directed Swedenborg's subsequent inquiries, which led him to fill the many volumes of his Spiritual Diary and the Arcana Coelestiae with his observations of heavens and hells and his dialogues with angels and spirits, many of which took place in the liminal space of hypnagogia. My lecture in the Swendenborgian church became, in no small part, a meditation on "Dreaming with Swedenborg" and what we can learn, as practice, from his mastery of the hypngagogic state. So there I was - as in the dream - pursuing an 18th century theme.

Beyond teasing Robin about the Bottomless Tribe, I forgot the dream until another of its elements burst through in the weekend workshop. We were playing a version of my Coincidence Card Game (explained in The Three "Only" Things) designed to spark the imagination and provide fresh materials for making up stories and scripts. We all wrote down part of a story on one side of an index card, made a deck from the cards, mixed them up and then each drew a card at random. We took turns to read the card we had drawn aloud. The game required each person to take off from what was written on the card and make up the rest of the story - or bring others from the group into a spontaneous mini-theatre to act out that story. The results were wildly entertaining and creative.

One of the stories summarized on the back of an index card involved a clown handing out coupons on the corner of a donut shop. This was play-acted brilliantly, but after, the author of the card said she would like to tell her own fuller story - and enthralled us with her account of a year in her early life when she was literally employed by the manager of a donut shop to dress up as a clown and hand out coupons at the corner. She produced a photograph from that time of herself in work clothes. I was stunned by the photo. It was a head shot, so you could not see the clown costume, just the mass of vivid red hair, which made the face androgynous. I was looking at the "Red Head" from my dream of the Bottomless Tribe.
Throughout that weekend workshop, we were hunting stories - or rather, allowing the BIG stories to hunt and find us. Among the stories that jumped out, in our journeys to the Dream Library and other locales in the imaginal realm, were some that have already been written but have the power to animate and inspire.
One of our dreamers was guided to go looking for a children's story by the wonderful naturalist writer Barry Lopez, and found this wisdom in the voice of Badger: "Remember only this one thing," said Badger. "The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away when they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other's memory. This is how people care for themselves."-Barry Lopez, Crow and Weasel.
Graphic: The Flying Pig greets travelers on the concourse at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport.
Listen to Robert's interview with Mark Perzel on WVXU, the Cincinnati NPR station, at http://www.wvxu.org/schedule/cincinnatiedition_archiveview.asp?ID=6/7/2009

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Angel That Troubles the Waters

I have seen you as a purple bruise in a yellow sky,
as a Scottish soldier with drawn sword
at the edge of the tame land and the wild wood,
as a snowy owl with fierce talons and fiercer eyes
as a Hindu death-lord traveling abroad
in a Johnny Cash outfit, swinging a lasso.

I have felt you enter as a gentle breeze
stirring the curtains in a hospital room,
and in the raw, thrusting horse-power
of the dark lord bursting into the maiden meadow.

You are a sexy devil.
I love you better than your brother Sleep.
Through aching nights of absence
I have longed for your embrace.

I have run your errands,
speaking in your voice to the old golfer on the plane,
negotiating with your razor-sharp precision
the terms for a possible life extension.
I have taken ailing humans by the hand
to your deep pools, to find you – if they dare –
in the troubling of the waters.

Few can look into your black sun
but those who do are different.
To know you, to walk with you,
to feel you always at the left shoulder
brings courage and October light.

You love to dress for occasions.
I have encountered you as a dandy in evening dress,
as a red Irish big-bellied god, and an Indian flame,
and a white lady whose footsteps are frost.
Your image is rarely in public places
though the medieval mind, like the mind of Mexico,
puts skeletal reminders of you at every turning,
mocking the vanities of the world.

On our wedding day
I want you to reach down from the sky in your robe of stars
and catch me in your voluptuous embrace
as we leave my old garment in the blanket of earth.
But if you choose not to come in your goddess form
I want you to be wearing my face.
Note: The graphic is a rare image of Serapis, a lord of death and of healing. In The Secret History of Dreaming I explore the evidence that Serapis was the original "Angel That Troubles the Waters" at the healing pool of Bethesda.
On this theme: I am leading "Making Death Your Ally" one of my most powerful workshops, at Mystic, Connecticut on October 24-25.