August 27, 2023

A Threnody for a World That Was

The world I grew up in is passing away, and soon enough, I will be passing away with it. My vision, never good, is starting to deteriorate rather alarmingly, and of course you know that I can barely walk anymore. Indeed, as a sign of the times, I just received a walker today, something that I swore I would never want to resort to since those were for old people. But I have no wish to recount here the litany of all of my bodily woes. Nothing is more tedious, even to me, than the complaints of old men nattering on about their troubles. Suffice it to say my body also has had its day, and the sun is beginning to set on it.

The real subject of this blog, however, is not me, but the world I grew up in whose days are also numbered. I am in anticipatory mourning for a vanishing world which I had loved.

Take classical music, for example. Probably most of you know that classical music has been one of my passions ever since I was a teen-ager. But now, with my bad hearing, when I listen to it, the sound is distorted. I sometimes can’t even recognize works I know very well until they are identified afterward. But, then, as I’ve said, I don’t really mean to write about my own losses in this regard, but the waning of interest in classical music itself.

Case in point: The Mostly Mozart summer festivals in New York. I remember going to one of those concerts with my then girlfriend in the mid-1980s. In those days, the motto was “Mostly Mozart, barely Bach, and neckties never.” 

Well, as of next year, the Mostly Mozart concerts will be no more. And, generally speaking, after a good run of more than two centuries, interest in classical music is not only ebbing, but its audiences have long been primarily made up of old fogies like me, members of the walking walker brigade. Other music forms are now in ascendant. Hell, even Hip-hop is fifty years old now. Roll over Beethoven before somebody steps on you.

Of course, classical music will continue, but its glory days, which probably reached their zenith in the first half of the 20th century, are clearly the things of nostalgic memories for people of my taste and vintage.

But of course there are many far more worrisome things in this troubled world of ours and surely the greatest of these are the mind-paralyzing effects of climate change. Just consider what has been going on in the last week at the time of my writing, which is the second half of August.

Perhaps the worst of these recent events was the terrible devastation that was visited on Maui (and also the Big Island) as a result of the fires that ravaged the island and utterly destroyed Lahaina. I don’t think it is possible for those of us who could only witness that inferno on television to imagine the horror suffered not only by those who perished, including the birds and other animals, but that of the survivors. We didn’t smell what they did, didn’t see up close what they did; we didn’t lose our homes and everything in them, or our loved ones or our animals.  

And yet this is the world we are now living in, isn’t it? At the moment, Los Angeles and other parts of the west in the United States are still recovering from the floods unleashed by Hurricane Hilary while up north in Washington, the state has been plagued by widespread fires that have ravaged towns and wildlife and likewise for parts of British Columbia. And of course there are still hundreds of fires burning away throughout the rest of Canada whose smoky air eventually drifts down to pollute and darken our own skies.

And I need hardly remind you of this summer’s prolonged scorching temperatures throughout the southwest and other parts of the country, the frequent destructive tornadoes that have been spawned, and the fears of a catastrophic series of hurricanes later this summer.

And of course, the damage hasn’t wreaked only the Western hemisphere. It’s been global with many countries in Europe burning up this summer (so much for the pleasures of the summer tourist season – you can kiss those goodbye, too, baby), and China and India as well (it’s not the time to visit Beijing or Delhi either).

And, surely you all know that this July was the hottest on record, and there’s little doubt that the year will end that way, too, with another record smashed. And not just on earth, but in the oceans, too, with the waters in the Gulf or around Florida reaching and even exceeding 100ºF.

You think it’s gonna get better? Dream on, friends, though what we are experiencing is more like a nightmare from which we only wish we could awaken. 

I have a cartoon in mind, which I wish I had the skill to draw, but maybe you can picture it. On the left side of the panel, we see a bunch of teen-agers glued to their iPhones while on the right side, we see a towering fire of which the teen-agers remain, at least for now, unaware. The caption reads: “Kids fiddling with their phones while the earth burns.”  

Unfortunately, I need to continue with this song of lamentation, which is what a threnody means, of course, by taking at least a few minutes to mention one of the most painful aspects of our present condition, which is the calamitous erosion of the natural world. As I’ve mentioned in some of my previous blogs, in recent years there have been sharp and worrisome declines in population of the birds and bees of our world, of the insects generally, and on the other end of the size scale, in our megafauna, all of which are doomed and will probably disappear by the end of the century. You can also mourn the loss of the iconic polar bears, as the Arctic glaciers melt. They will eventually be replaced by the grizzlies as long as they can last.  

According to the environmental journalist, Elizabeth Kolbert, we are currently witnessing the sixth extinction, another great die-off of many of the species of the planet like that which happened to the dinosaurs sixty-six million years ago. This is life in what has been called the Anthropocene, the geologic era in which we humans now find ourselves. This is the age when destructive human activity has become the dominant determinant of life on the planet. There are many wonderful and good people on earth, but as a species we have been ruinous to our only home. Instead, we have become the alpha-predator on the planet as we continue to destroy the habitats of other creatures, if we haven’t already killed them outright. We are guilty of ecocide, and we will be paying a heavy price for our sins.

It didn’t used to be this way when I was growing up. Nobody had heard of “global warming” then. We were innocent, most of us having no idea of the harm we were doing to the earth even then. It was the age before computers, mobile phones and social media. Kids like me used typewriters, slide rules, and paper and pencils, and when we were old enough to drive, gas was cheap (29 cents a gallon) and the open road called. Nature, too, was abundant and animal life flourished. That was then.  

I recently saw a commercial on TV that advised us consumers that “we have only one body,” and urged us to take care of it (by using the right lotion on our skin). Likewise, we have only one earth, and how have we taken care of it? A rhetorical question, obviously. Nothing more need be said. We can only weep. It is too late to repent.

But let me turn, finally, just to what is happening in our own country, the good old U. S. of A.

Certainly, one of the most disturbing developments in recent years has been the increasing incidence of mass murders, which for a while earlier this year seemed to be almost daily occurrences. Commentators were quick to point out that these mass murders were being committed so often that they exceeded the number of days in the year. In other words, on average, more than one a day! What was happening to America?

I don’t need to tell you that when I was growing up, it wasn’t this way. Life was not perfect – I am not idealizing it – but no parents worried then that their children might be killed in another senseless rampage at their school. There was no need for “safely drills” (only for fires, not firearms) or to have armed policemen guarding their schools. So different from these days when so many parents must have these niggling fears in the back of their minds when they send their kids off to school in the morning.

I think particularly of the fears that Black mothers must have when they say goodbye to their kids, especially if they have boys. It’s just not safe, and probably never was, really, to be a Black kid in America, and now, never more so. And when that boy becomes a teen-ager, does he have to be especially vigilant when on the streets of his neighborhood? Or when he grows up and happens to be caught speeding, what then? When a white cop pulls him over and says, menacingly, “Please step out of your car, sir.” Such a man would be expected to have a level of fear that few white men would.

I’m lucky. I’m a white guy. When I could drive, I never worried about such things. But I have a Black grandchild. It’s fortunate both for her and me (and her parents) that she’s a girl. But, still, despite the views of a certain Southern governor, who seems to believe that slavery was a benign form of vocational training, this country, born in violence and still permeated by racism, is now even more perilous for Black people. It’s sickening.

Of course, the easy availability of guns, and the fact that our country has far more guns per capita than any other country – and some of the laxest laws permitting their use – makes America a particularly dangerous place for all of us to live, regardless of our race or ethnicity. I don’t need to tell you that it didn’t used to be this way despite our history of racial violence and “race riots,” as they used to be called. But they were occasional, if shocking, eruptions of racial tensions; they didn’t suffuse our culture the way they do now. Now, we live in a climate of violence and mayhem and sometimes seem to be on the brink of another civil war.

I usually try to avoid political subjects, but now that I’m very old and likely not to be around much longer, perhaps you’ll indulge me this one time. (Trump partisans would be best advised to skip this next section.) This is just my personal opinion, but ever since the advent of the Trumpian age in America, our ex-president (and would-be next president) has stoked violence and inflamed his followers with his poisonous rhetoric. He has made it legitimate to hate and to mock non-white people and immigrants. He even mocks and disparages his opponents by calling them insulting names like a five-year-old bully on a schoolyard. One well-known socialite who knew Trump well during his New York days, said “he was always a horse’s ass.”  Touché.

As odious and hateful as I find Trump to be, and as dangerous as I know he is, I still find him essentially a buffoon, a kind of cartoon figure. Even his name and title: President Trump. It makes me smile. He reminds me of that English cartoon character, Colonel Blimp. I can’t help laughing when I see his plane with its big sign on top, TRUMP. Just to prevent someone from stealing it, I suppose. You may have noticed that his umbrellas are also emblazoned with his name. I suspect the same is the case with his underwear and hankies.

What a laughable narcissist, albeit a thuggish one. To me he is an absurd figure, incapable of telling the truth and with a serious character disorder that prevents him from ever acknowledging what everyone else knows – that he lost the last election. Trump can never admit that he’s lost anything, even his keys, because that would make him “a loser,” like all those competitors for president he is so quick to malign.

I remember reading years ago that by the time a man lives to be fifty, he will have the face he deserves. You look at Trump’s face, his jutting jaw, his Mussolini-like swagger, and what do you see? Trump is a man who can easily “lash out” and leer, though he can also smile. But have you ever seen this man laugh or tell a joke? How anyone can take him seriously, much less vote for him, is beyond me.

Still, he has fomented an atmosphere of violence in this country unlike any other president. And we saw what all that led to on January 6th of 2021. Of course, we have had venal presidents before, and we have had outright crooks and other unhinged presidents, too (does anyone remember Nixon?) But we have never had a president who was twice impeached and is currently facing four indictments for alleged criminal behavior in both federal and state courts. 

And worse, he has now captured and taken over the Republican party, has cowed his craven Republicans into slavish fealty, and convinced his “base” of committed Trumpists that he has never done anything wrong, never lost the last election, and that Biden is not our legitimate president. He has become the deranged leader of a personality cult that used to be the Republican party. Trump uber alles.

Am I the only one who thinks we are all now living a nut house where people have just gone berserk? Am I the only one who doesn’t recognize this country anymore? We seem to be living in an era when “alternative facts” parade as truth and civility is a virtue to be sneered at. The wild west has returned, and lawlessness and insanity reign. Shoot ‘em up, cowboy! And if you see someone who is dumb enough to post a gay pride flag outside her store, kill her.  

No, it didn’t used to be like this when I was growing up. And though I know the world wouldn’t be perfect if everyone had a near-death experience, I only wish that were possible because then love and kindness would rule and compassion would be an everyday virtue. That at least is the kind of world I would like to live in, not this doomed madhouse, and with any luck, that’s where I’ll be heading soon.

August 1, 2023

The Day I Turned a Thousand – Months – Old

Some of you who read my book, Waiting to Die, or my blogs from a few years ago may remember that I spent a lot of time writing about how I was hoping to reach the age of a thousand – months. Indeed, that was the very conceit of my book and gave it what little suspense I could instill in it. The question, which I left open until the very end, was whether I would reach my goal, and if I did, what would happen then.

Well, obviously, I made it and survived, but none of you knows what happened to me that day. You are about to find out, and I think you will be shocked to learn what actually took place on that fateful day.

I don’t know just when this somewhat whimsical notion occurred to me. Of course, I regarded it as a joke, just a larkish bit of folderol meant to amuse. But all the same, the idea did appeal to me and my proclivities both for numerical games and death dates. For example, I’ve always had a fascination with prime numbers as well as the death dates of various famous people, particularly composers. You name a well-known composer, for example, and I can probably tell you the year of his death. And since if I were to die at the age of 1000 months, I would have been 83 years old. I remember writing about this in one of my blogs and mentioned a long list of illustrious men who ha d died at that age. I would never belong in such company of course, but I could still aspire to join them in my longevity at least. I also remember thinking that 83 would actually a good age to die – I’d be old then, but not ancient, and what, really, would be the point of living longer, anyway? As it was, and as I remarked more than once, by the time I had reached my early 8Os, I already thought I was living in my afterlife. The story of my life had by then played out; I was merely coasting through my epilogue, waiting to die. So my story – and me – would finally come to an end if I managed to kick the bucket when I reached my goal of a thousand months of age. 

But of course my life didn’t end on the day I turned 1000 months old, on exactly April 13, 2019. Nevertheless, something extremely significant and uncanny did take place on that day, and I am, at last, about to tell you what that was. But first I will have to set the scene.


In late spring of 1985, I spent several weeks at Esalen Institute during which time I was initiated into the heady and erotically-tinged culture of Esalen, which for me also included the beginning of my usage of MDMA, later popularly known as “Ecstasy.” It was during that same period that I was also introduced to a town that would soon become my very favorite place in all the world. It was called Pacific Grove, but to locals of whom I was shortly to aspire to become one, it was just “PG.”

Since most of readers of this blog don’t live in California, I need to say something about this town and the distinctive atmosphere that one finds there.  

To begin with, PG is located near Monterey, but is really off the proverbial “beaten track.” To get there, you actually have to get off the freeway and descend a long grade of about four or five miles until you hit the beginning of the town. But on a clear day, what you see ahead of you is not just the stores and gas stations in that part of town, which is charmless, but the sparkling waters of the blue Pacific. In later years, I would always experience a frisson of excitement at that wondrous view. And the “real” part of PG that I was to know so well and love so deeply was that which was located on the shores of the Pacific.

What struck me immediately when I first arrived in PG was that it was such an old-timey sort of town, not only quiet and appealing, but as if it were stuck in time, say, around 1950. The main part of town along Lighthouse Avenue consists of only about eight blocks or so. They are festooned with cafes and other eateries, a marvelous bakery, small shops, galleries, a little bookstore, etc., but life is slow there. PG is not crowded with tourists; most the people you see on the streets are locals. No one is in a hurry. People don’t stride purposively through town; they amble.  

And nothing really goes on there. There are no night clubs, very few bars, and only a somewhat dilapidated movie house. The town seems to close down early at night. After nine o’clock or so, there’s hardly anyone on the streets. Everyone has seemingly gone home to one or another of the charming brightly colored wooden houses, some old Victorians, that PG is famous for.

For me, and I know this has been true for some other first-time visitors, it was love at first sight. I immediately knew this was the town for me.

Over the many years since my serendipitous discovery of PG, I’ve been there many times with various girlfriends and even with one wife I acquired along the way whom I took there on our honeymoon. I loved being there so much that on one visit, I thought I might well want to retire there. I figured I could join the library board or something and otherwise enjoy the pleasant easygoing life there, wandering in the morning along the bike path that borders the ocean which affords spectacular views of the Pacific and the abundant sea creatures who cavort there. And occasionally feasting at my favorite restaurant, Peppers, with its sumptuous Mexican fare and always lively and joyous atmosphere. 

The possibility of that kind of life stuck with me so strongly that on one visit, I shocked my then current girlfriend, a woman named Harrie, by telling her that I had unilaterally decided to spend a month there with her. She was certainly nonplussed at the time, but since Harrie loved PG as much as I did, including the perfect house we had been able to rent there on 16th Street, she quickly expressed enthusiasm for the prospect.

So the following summer when I had time off from teaching, we drove there for the month. Harrie was an artist and loved visiting the galleries and shops and eating with me at Peppers and PG’s other fine restaurants. I spent most of my time walking along the ocean, reading at Lover’s Point or inside our house, or going for ice cream (Harrie did not eat sweets), but she was a delightful and frolicsome companion. And of course, we also enjoyed our time together at night in our king-size bed.

Here are a few photos of us mostly from our month-long stay that summer. First, there’s one of a fat Ken standing outside the house we loved, which was just a block away from the ocean and Lover’s Point and few blocks from town.

Then one of me engrossed in a book inside the house:

And finally one of Harrie and me on an earlier visit to PG:

Now, let me fast forward a dozen or so years to the time when my thousandth day birthday (or deathday) was fast approaching. By the sheerest synchronicity, there was going to be a transpersonal psychology conference in PG at that very time. Not only that, but I was to be one of the honorees at the conference for my work on NDEs, and I was now slated to be there on the very day that I would turn a thousand. How perfect, I thought! Clearly, an act of providence. So, naturally, I told my present and surely my last girlfriend, Lauren, that we were going to PG for the occasion.

But things didn’t quite work out the way I had imagined. I had felt fine the night before, but when I woke up, after a troubled night’s sleep, on the morning of the 19th, I found that I was so wretchedly sick, I couldn’t even get out of bed!

Now, here’s one thing you should know about me. Since I’m old, I suffer the usual fate of the elderly: Nothing works and everything hurts. But I hardly ever actually get sick and I virtually never have to stay abed on those rare occasions when I don’t feel well. But this time, I was feeling so terrible, I could scarcely take myself to the toilet. As a result, I had to stay in bed all day and never was able to make it to the conference. Needless to say, I was bitterly disappointed, and at a loss to explain what had happened to me.

But the worst was yet to come. By the next day, I had somewhat recovered, though I still felt weak. But to compensate for my disaster, Lauren and I decided we should at least console ourselves by walking up to Peppers in the late afternoon for an early dinner.

I still remember what happened when I stepped off the porch.

I couldn’t walk.  

Well, I could, but only with difficulty. At first, I thought and hoped it was only because I had been so violently ill the previous day. But I still figured I could make it up to Peppers. PG is a hilly town and we only had to walk two blocks to the restaurant, and just the second hill was fairly steep. Nevertheless, I had to stop several times on the way there before making it up to the restaurant.

I was really puzzled at my sudden infirmity. It was like waking up and finding that one had contracted polio.

In fact, the sad news is, it never got better. It’s from that very day when I turned 1000 that, although I didn’t die, my legs did. And not only did they never recover, but in the more than four years since, things have only got worse. Now my legs are weaker than ever, so I am a virtual cripple these days.

Strange, eh? I mean, that I should suffer this calamity on the very day I turned a thousand months old. Makes one wonder about the power of thought and the mischievous ways of the Lord.

Well, I’m still a happy guy most of the time all the same, but my only consolation now that I’m working on my second thousand-year cycle is that I won’t live to complete it!

July 26, 2023

Ecstasy at Esalen

Recently, I read an article in The New Yorker with the title, “The rebranding of MDMA,” which most people these days know as Ecstasy. The article mentions a number of people I knew when I was traveling in those circles, beginning almost four decades ago. So, naturally, it brought back my own memories of when I first experienced MDMA.

In one of my x-rated books, I wrote about my adventures when I first discovered and began to use MDMA, years before it became well known as a drug for raves and recreational uses. Indeed, it was perfectly legal then, though not for long. I was one of the lucky ones because I received my first and subsequent doses from a close friend of the chemist, Sasha Shulgin, who had synthesized it in 1965, so I could be assured that what I was taking was the real deal, pure and unadulterated.  

I thought you might be interested to read what happened to me, and where, when MDMA came into my life, so here’s the story….


In August of 1984, I was out in California on a lecture tour and to see some professional colleagues in connection with my work and my recently published book on near-death experiences, Heading Toward Omega. The last of my talks on that visit was to a medical society in the Bay Area that had been arranged by my cousin Cliff, a cardiologist. That evening, while I was still at Cliff’s house in Orinda before leaving the next day for Los Angeles, I received a phone call from another Orinda resident who was, but would hardly remain, a stranger to me. Her name was Emily.
It turned out that Emily had read my first NDE book, Life at Death, and wanted to talk to me about a professional matter concerned with that book. Since she had serendipitously discovered that I was staying very near her own house in Orinda, she wondered whether I could come over to meet her while I was still in town. I explained that that would not be possible since I had to pack and leave the next morning. Emily countered by asking whether it might be possible for me to take some time on the phone now so she could explain just a bit about what she had in mind.
She had a very pleasant and gracious manner of speaking – there was certainly something very appealing, almost seductive, about her voice – so I readily consented. She then had a bombshell to drop concerning another invitation altogether.
Emily told me that she had been working with an oncologist and that they were both concerned with trying to find ways for terminal patients to die with less fear and with a sense of some kind of transcendental revelation similar to that which near-death experiencers often report. In fact, what they wanted to try to do was to induce something like an NDE, and the means that they proposed to use for this purpose was the anesthetic, ketamine. Because Emily had read my book on NDEs, she said she regarded me as an expert on the subject, so she had suggested to her oncologist colleague that she should ask me whether I would be willing to be a “professional subject” who would take ketamine under supervision in order to see the extent to which this drug would mimic an actual NDE.
In my mind I remember thinking, “Oh, God, wait just a minute.”

I already was familiar with work that had been done with terminal cancer patients along these lines using LSD that Stan Grof and Joan Halifax had described in their book, The Human Encounter with Death. They had indeed shown that LSD employed in this way was sometimes capable of inducing an experience that had many of the same components and aftereffects of an actual NDE, including in most cases a reduction in the fear of death and an increased expectation of some form of life after death.
But ketamine was another story. I knew something about this drug from having read about John Lilly’s experiments with it and from some other sources, and what I had heard had certainly made me wary of it. I definitely had never had any interest to try it – if anything I was averse to doing so, particularly because I knew that it was administered by injection. Thoughts of heroin addiction flickered through my mind.
Besides, my days of using psychoactive drugs were by then long passed. I had experimented with LSD, peyote and psilocybin for a while during the 1970s, but I had taken them only about once a year, and had stopped for good in 1977. I had no desire to try anything new along those lines, and certainly not with anything like ketamine, which for me was a drug associated with real risk and danger.
“Ah, I don’t think this would be for me, Emily."

She had an alternative proposal ready.
“Well, you don’t have to make up your mind now, Ken. Just think about it, and let me send you a little literature on the subject, OK?”
She then happened to mention that the following spring she would be coordinating a major invited conference on psychedelics at Esalen Institute in Big Sur and wondered whether I would have an interest to be there, particularly because John Lilly himself would be attending it. She mentioned that it would be held during the very first half of June, 1985.
Now here’s the kicker.
Emily did not know when she tendered this invitation to me that I would actually be at Esalen at exactly that time. I had first been to Esalen in 1983 when its co-founder, Michael Murphy, had asked me to come out to do a program on NDEs. It was successful and Michael and I hit it off. He had recently been in touch with me again to invite me this time for a much more extensive engagement at the institute. He wanted me to come for three weeks in the late Spring of 1985 as a scholar-in-residence so that I could conduct a workshop on NDEs and so I could attend and present my work in other workshops and seminars that would follow mine, including a month-long workshop that would be conducted by none other than Esalen’s then permanent scholar-in-residence, Stan Grof. I had loved being an Esalen on my first visit, so naturally I jumped at the chance.
So I already knew what Emily didn’t – that I would be there at the same time her conference would be held.
It is a cliché among the people in my world to say “there are no coincidences.” Being contrary, I usually reply “except for accidents and chance events.” But in this case, however, I couldn’t help feeling a little unnerved when she invited me to attend. It already seemed like destiny had decided to take a hand in my affairs.
Naturally, I told her.
Naturally, she was delighted.
“I am so looking forward to meeting you,“ she gushed. But her enthusiasm seemed perfectly sincere. And besides, from talking to her, I really was starting to like this woman.
We agreed to table the whole business about ketamine for now. In due course, however, she would send me some materials pertaining to the conference. And that, for the moment, was that.
About a month later, after I had returned to Connecticut and was again teaching at UCONN, I got a call from Emily. She had just finished reading my latest book, Heading Toward Omega, and could not say enough good things about it. Again, her enthusiasm seemed sincere; I didn’t have the impression it represented only blandishment or an attempt at ingratiation.
Like a number of other women who read that book and subsequently became close friends with me or came to play a significant role in my life, Emily felt that she had really come to have a sense of the kind of person I was from reading that book. And that had made her even more interested to get to know me. “I hope we can really become friends, Ken.” Naturally, I concurred with her sentiment.
A few weeks later she called me again, but this time to tell me that, although she had not been seriously hurt, she had been involved in an automobile accident. She was pretty sure she would be fully recovered by the time of the conference, but she wanted me to know. In the course of our conversation, she also told me of some of her other health concerns – she had been ill as well - and since the same thing I had recently been true for me, we commiserated with each other.
By that time – it was now perhaps February or so in 1985 (I don’t remember exactly when this telephone conversation took place) – I had already broken up with my most recent girlfriend and though I was getting involved with the woman who would eventually become my fourth wife, I was still uncommitted. I felt open to Emily and I was already beginning to feel concerned about her physical problems, something that would persist for all the years I would come to know her. I had the distinct feeling we were getting closer to each other and that in a way, she had come to care for me, too.
In April, by which time Emily had recovered substantially, she sent me a large packet of materials, much of it mimeographed or otherwise unpublished, concerning the particular drugs that would be the focus of her June conference. It was clear that the main drug of interest at this gathering would be something that was abbreviated MDMA, but which the world later would come to call “Ecstasy.”


After the spring semester was over, I flew out to California, first to give a lecture in Los Angeles, and then to head up the coast for my engagement at Esalen and – to resort to the most banal of clichés – “my rendezvous with destiny.” However, as you will soon see, those weeks at Esalen were to change my life in a dramatic way and send me reeling onto a different course altogether. 
Once I had got settled there – they had found an apartment for me, not on the Esalen grounds, but about two miles north along Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway – toward the end of May, I was ready for my first workshop. This was the one I was to conduct on my work on NDEs and was to be held that weekend. Since I didn’t have a car, I would have to walk down to the Institute itself, but that was no problem. The weather was glorious, the views spectacular, and I was feeling great.
There were only six people signed up for my workshop, however, only one of whom I had previously known. But the small size conduced to a certain intimacy, of course, and it came off pretty well, I think.
Aside from the one woman I knew – an NDEr herself who had gone on to found a healing center in northern California – there were two women who came to interest me. One, named Dorothy, came from the Boston area and was quite a delightful and charming person with an antic and playful sense of humor. She was a little on the dumpy side and in her forties, but we connected – and after the workshop, we more than connected. She stayed an extra couple of days, and during that time, we encoupled ourselves in my apartment and otherwise enjoyed the pleasures of Big Sur under the stars as well as under my sheets. Before she left, she gave me a t-shirt with the phrase, “Smiling Broadly,” and we stayed in touch for some years after we both returned to the East Coast.
The other woman, a beautiful and extremely articulate blonde, was named Melanie, and she was indeed the most interesting person at the workshop to me, but not just because of her looks and intelligence. She also had a lively interest in the subject matter of my workshop, had been a psychoanalytically-trained therapist when she lived in New York, and was now living near Esalen and hoping to create a new kind of professional life for herself in California. She, too, was very friendly toward me and offered to give me a ride if I ever need it since it turned out that we were living only about a third of a mile apart up on Route 1.
Meanwhile, I had begun to attend Stan Grof’s month-long workshop where I was able to present some of my work on NDEs. At Esalen, there is a cafeteria with a large outdoor deck so it was natural for me to congregate there and have my lunches with some of the people who were enrolled in Stan’s workshop who came from all over Europe as well as the United States.
At one of these lunches, one of these attendees said something to the effect that, although Grof’s workshop was first-rate, by far the most important thing that had happened to him during his stay was his experience with MDMA, the very drug I had already read quite a bit about on the plane to California in preparation for Emily’s conference. It was and presumably still is illegal to take drugs on the Esalen campus, but this person was not on the grounds at the time he had ingested MDMA.
Here is where this story takes on some “Twilight Zone” qualities, so be prepared.
The next day, sitting with another group of people from the workshop, someone else said essentially the same thing. It seemed as if more than one person was finding MDMA to be some kind of mind-blowing experience the way they raved about it.
The very next day I found myself having lunch with a German woman, also from Grof’s group. We were chatting as usual, and then – I swear I am not making this up – like a broken record, she started enthusing about what she had experienced recently on MDMA!
I remember thinking something to this effect: I feel like I am being set up. This must be some kind of a plot. It seems almost pre-destined that I will have to try this drug myself.
I had certainly become intrigued, first by what I had read in the materials that Emily had sent to me, and now, even more, by these three unsolicited testimonials.
After lunch that day, I headed back to the “Big House,” as it was called, where the afternoon session of Grof’s workshop was to take place. Outside the house, on the porch, there was a bench where people could sit for a moment in order to take off their shoes. As I was removing mine, Melanie happened to saunter by. (I had bumped into her one or twice previously at Esalen; she seemed to be a habituée of the place.)

“Oh, Ken, I’m so glad to run into you.” (Pause.)

“Say, Ken, I was wondering – would you like to MDMA with me?”
In an instant, I seemed to have several rapid-fire thoughts, but since I have more than an instant now to recall them, they seemed to go like this:
Can this possibly be happening?

I feel completely flummoxed!

Clearly, I am poised on the edge of a cliff. I can either remain the somewhat reserved professor and NDE researcher from the East Coast or I can throw off my professor’s robes and take a leap into the unknown. (I had already learned to do without my clothes at Esalen whenever I went to its famous baths and people in those days often paraded naked around the grounds.) 
This was clearly the moment of choice – it’s now or never….
“Er, ah, well….”
Melanie looked at me. She was smiling. She was very pretty.
Oh, what the hell!
“Well, it’s really strange you should ask me to do this with you, Melanie.” And I explained to her why.
We made a date for a couple of days hence. I could just walk up to her place – she told me she lived in a little cottage in a closed compound just up the road from me. All I would have to do is to let myself in by unlatching the wooden gate. I should call her before coming over.
It turned out it wasn’t so simple.
Fate had this time intervened to complicate things. In the meantime, perhaps because of speaking so much at Esalen, or perhaps because of psychogenic factors, or both, I had developed a really bad case of laryngitis. I could barely talk. How could I even call Melanie?
On the morning of the day I was to go to her cottage, I did try to call her. I could barely make myself understood. I told her that under the circumstances, I felt we would have to postpone our date. The problem was that I had some other people to call in order to cancel other engagements in the area (I was to meet some other people for dinner, etc., in the next few days), but Melanie said I should come over, anyway, and she’d be happy to make those calls for me. Even if we couldn’t do MDMA together that day, as long as my ears were working, she would like to tell me about a research project she had in mind to conduct with hospitalized patients.
She was very pretty.
I remember very clearly what I found once I had let myself into her compound. Melanie’s cottage was at the end of a little dirt trail. She was waiting for me, sitting outside on a little grassy promontory, wearing a sleeveless V-necked white dress. Behind her was the glorious Pacific Ocean, shimmering under the brilliant sun on another postcard picture-perfect cloudless day in California.
I hadn’t just entered Melanie’s compound; I was in Paradise.

After welcoming me, Melanie was kind enough to make a few phone calls on my behalf, explaining my vocal indisposition. Then we sat outside opposite each other while she told me about her proposed project, which had to do with using hypnosis to help accelerate the healing of surgical patients. By then, I could manage to eke out some occasional brief verbal responses, but mostly I just listened.
After a time, the question came up again about whether I should consider taking MDMA with her that day. I wanted to – but I was afraid it might result in causing more problems with my larynx about which I was already preoccupied. Could I really focus on the experience with MDMA under these conditions? Although the day certainly seemed favorable, even propitious, I was very unsure about the wisdom of preceding.
Melanie essentially left it up to me, but was reassuring and tried to give me a sense of what would be involved and where we would “do it.” It turned out that it would not be where we were now or inside her cottage since we might not have privacy there. Instead, she indicated that there was a cabaña at the base of the cliff on which we were now sitting (so I could be going over a cliff – literally – after all; it wasn’t just a metaphor!). Melanie advised that we could take a steep trail down there and then sit on some chairs on the deck of the cabaña, facing the ocean, where we would have complete privacy and an unimpeded view of the ocean.
Melanie was not only very pretty, she was beguiling, too.
For the second time within a few days, I said farewell to caution.
I followed her down the trail, watching my footing carefully. All I needed now was to sprain my ankle or have some other mishap. How would I ever be rescued then? I had a worried mind, but at the same time I was still eager to have this experience with Melanie as my guide.
After we had arrived safely, Melanie explained the procedure. It was apparently her custom, and maybe that of others, that before taking MDMA (it was in the form a capsule to be swallowed with a glass of water) one go through a kind of ritual – a ceremonial statement of intent in which one expressed what one hoped to learn through the experience and essentially asking for the blessings of whatever the gods might be invoked to watch over us. Melanie spoke hers aloud – she was unusually eloquent, I thought. I hadn’t had a chance to give my statement any forethought, but I remember asking for clarity for my relationships since at that time in my life that problem had been very fraught.
With those preliminaries now dispatched, we each swallowed our capsule of MDMA and then sat mostly quietly, although with some occasional brief desultory conversation, until the drug began to take effect. Even after all I had read and recently heard about MDMA, I really had no idea about what I might experience.
After a little more than a half hour had passed, I began to feel it – a kind a tingle, an inner buzzing in my head, combined with a certain sensation of coldness. Melanie herself became restless and started pacing around the cabaña. I got up from my chair and went to lie down on the warm platform of the cabaña, gazing raptly at the ocean in front of me.
It had been eight years since I had used any drugs, and maybe for that reason, this one, once it really took effect, hit me hard and soon had catapulted me into a mystical experience of such beauty, purity and power that I was completely overwhelmed by it. I remembered and re-experienced what LSD and the other psychoactive drugs I had taken had taught me – the complete unity of all things, and I was not separate from any of it. The ocean, the blue sky, the trees I could see in the distance, the fly that had alighted on my arm, the planks of the platform I was resting on, the great earth itself – all was one. And all was beauty beyond words. Everything was perfect, and I was an indissoluble part of that perfection. Wave after wave of bliss poured through me. This truly was paradise, or maybe this was just the real world as it really is but which we never can perceive until we are it.
I had, however, lost almost all awareness of Melanie, who must have been behind me, sitting again, after her brief perambulation.
I don’t know how long I remained in this state, but probably it lasted at its most intense for a couple of hours as I continued to stare at the ocean. (I have a permanent but now insignificant bit of skin damage near the bridge of my nose as a result of facing the sun for so long.) 
After I came back to myself, Melanie and I must have talked some – I’m sure we did – but I have no memory of that conversation. I was just blitzed – and full of love. And gratitude for Melanie. I don’t think I thought about my voice, or lack of it, at all. It was probably neither better nor worse for the experience; it just didn’t matter anymore.
We stayed there about six hours, as I recall. I know it was late afternoon by the time we had finally hiked back up the cliff. But we didn’t go back to Melanie’s cottage.
On my way into the compound that morning, I had noticed a large and handsome house, surrounded by a stunning stone wall, down below the hill before reaching the trail that led to Melanie’s cottage. It was a Saturday that day, and Melanie happened to mention as we approached that house on the way up that the woman who lived there and her sister who was visiting were also doing MDMA. (I remember thinking to the effect: Is this the usual weekend recreational activity for people in Big Sur? Of course, my actual thought was not that coherent at the time, but that was the nub of it.)
Melanie suggested we look in on them. 
“But what about my voice?” I mentioned to croak, suddenly remembering it.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Melanie, as I followed her into the spacious and elegantly appointed house in which I was soon to spend another very memorable time.
The two sisters were also just coming down from their trip. They both appeared to be in their forties. The sister who was living there was the wife of a doctor from whom she was separated. The sister who had come to visit was a gardener who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. Both were very mellow and friendly.
Melanie explained about my voice. 
These are some of the memories I have of our time when the four of us were together.
Melanie and the women talked. I massaged the hair of one of the sisters.
Melanie went out to dance on the patio overlooking the ocean. She was exceptionally graceful. She looked like an angel.
At one point, we were all sitting at a wooden table on benches – it was rather like a picnic table. The sisters were drinking some wine. (I don’t remember whether I was or not.) A few edibles had been put out.
Melanie came in after having danced.
At one point, she placed her forefinger into the top of the wine bottle.
I knew immediately that she either was or had been suicidal.
I whispered, “I’d give anything if you’d take your finger out of that bottle.” 
She looked at me strangely, but I had meant it. I even offered to pay her ten dollars to remove it (and days later, I actually did).
Of course she removed it; I was relieved.
When you are under the influence of MDMA – and all of us still were (we constituted a field of sorts) – you can tune into people and know things intuitively about them. To some degree, you are them. I was finally tuning into Melanie, and I know I had begun to care for her as of then, if not before.
We stayed there a very long time and didn’t leave until close to 3 in the morning. I was still in a daze. 
As we were headed back to Melanie’s cottage, I didn’t think I could manage to walk home at that hour in the morning along a dark highway, and I certainly couldn’t ask Melanie to drive me.
Her housemate happened to be away that day, and I knew there was a loft where her roommate normally slept. I asked if I could possibly sleep there until the morning.
“Of course, honey,” Melanie said. She was from the South, you know. “Of course, honey, of course.”
By 3 a.m. or so, I lay down but I couldn’t sleep for long. By 6, with Melanie still sleeping, I tiptoed out of her cottage and made my way home in the early morning light, the sun still hidden by the towering Santa Lucia Mountains to the east, which rose up from the highway in steep cliffs.
I thought: “So this is life in Big Sur. This truly is Paradise.”
For most of the rest of my time there, I rarely slept more than three hours a night.
I had taken and experienced Ecstasy at Esalen, and my life would never again be the same.

July 13, 2023

The Discovery of Phosphorus – and How to Outwit the King of Morocco

[Advisory:  Although this blog treats a serious subject, I’m afraid it also contains some feeble attempts at bathroom humor. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.]

In 1669 in Hamburg, Germany, a thirty-nine-year-old alchemist named Hennig Brandt was messing around in his laboratory chasing the alchemist dream of turning base metals into gold. But his approach was very different from that of his fellow alchemists. That night he had cooked up a concoction of ingredients including his own excrement, and after heating it up, he found that he had produced some waxy white nuggets that gave off a whiff of garlic while emanating a mysterious radiant glow.

According to a report of this historic incident, which was later immortalized by a painter, Brandt dropped to his knees, looked toward the heavens, and then warned his two assistants to stand back “as a terrifying shaft of blue vapor shot up from a glass globe.”

Brandt named his discovery after the Greek word for the planet Venus – phosphorus, which means something like “bringer of light.” But, significantly, the Latin word for Venus translates as “Lucifer.” As Dan Egan whose account of this discovery is described in his book, The Devil’s Element, comments with a literary flourish:

That actually would have been a better name for the alchemist’s discovery because he soon learned that his curious nuggets had a propensity to spontaneously combust and burn as ferociously as anything that dropped from the nib of Dante’s quill. 

It wasn’t long, in fact, before people started referring to phosphorus as the Devil’s Element, and not only because it happens to be the thirteenth element discovered. The name stuck because of its dastardly toxicity and explosiveness.  

Egan goes on to remark that even to this day its explosive properties are reportedly being made use of in bombs Russians are using in Ukraine. And, historically, we know for certain of even more devastating uses of phosphorus in wartime. 

By one of the greatest of wartime ironies, several centuries after the discovery of phosphorus in Hamburg, that city suffered one of the worst fire bombings of World War II when the allied forces unleashed wave after wave day after day of these incendiary phosphorus-filled bombs on the citizens Hamburg. Egan spends several pages recounting these unspeakable horrors.

I will spare you the horrifying details of his account except to cite two brief passages. In the first, one of most vile of war criminals, known to history as England’s “Bomber Harris,” reportedly said, quoting the Bible in referring to the Germans: “They sowed the wind and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.”  (You can read more about Bomber Harris in Nicholson Baker’s book about World War II called Human Smoke.)

And what did the whirlwind feel like to those who were caught in its fiery maelstrom?

The thousands of fires lit on that unusually hot dry night merged in a matter of minutes into something war planners had never seen – a two-mile-wide whirlwind firestorm that burned as hot as a furnace. The winds that were sucked into the cyclone to feed the oxygen-starved flames were powerful enough to topple trees three feet in diameter, ferocious enough to tear children from their mothers’ arms.


But quite apart from the uses of phosphorus in wartime explosives, these phosphorus nuggets, if you should be unfortunate enough to come across one in your beachcombing forays, are also extremely dangerous.  Egan relates one such story of an elderly man who found a quarter-sized orange stone as he was walking along a beach near the Baltic Sea. He innocently dropped it into his pocket but ten minutes later, he heard a “pop.” The nugget had burst into flames and then began to sear into the man’s thigh like a molten knife. Fortunately, he was rescued and his life was saved, but he had to spend two months in a hospital and still suffers chronic debilitating pain and requires pills to sleep.

You definitely don’t want to fool with this stuff. All it takes is a little heat, such as was provided by this man’s pocket against his warm skin, to cause it to erupt into flame.  

So now you know a little about how phosphorous was discovered and some of its incendiary properties. But our interest in it in these blogs is of course mainly about how it has been used to fertilize crops and then, when it leaks into our waters, the damage it can wreak by causing noxious blue-green algae blooms to form. 

But where my first blog left off was with another alarming problem with phosphorus altogether. Since we now know how crucial phosphorus is for life on this planet, the prospect of its supplies running out, possibly within our lifetime, is obviously a threat even more dire than that of climate change. So now we have to confront that menace and find out if there is any way to avoid having to depend on the good will and generosity of the King of Morocco who is the sovereign over most of the world’s now known phosphorus reserves.  

The rest of this blog will consider recent efforts to find other means to provide abundant sources of phosphorus, but before we begin to consider this topic, I have a question for you.

What happens when you pee?

Well, I know what happens when I do once I get up at night to urinate. Because of my prostatic hypertrophy, I have a very weak stream, so half of it often dribbles down my thigh instead of landing in my toilet bowl. But I am not talking about that. I’m asking you what your pee actually consists of, chemically speaking. Any guesses?

I’ll save you the suspense. What you are depositing into your toilet bowl, if you are luckier than I am, is nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. Does this give you any ideas?

If you know your chemistry better than I do (which should be a snap since I’ve forgotten most of my high school chem taught to me by an elderly woman named “Miss Newton” -- I am not making this up), you will remember the abbreviations of these elements: N (for nitrogen), P (for phosphorus), and K (for potassium).  And what are the ingredients in the bag of fertilizer that you can pick up at your local Ace Hardware store: N-P-K.

Bingo! (You can also imagine a light bulb.)

Not long ago, Elizabeth Kolbert loaded up a jug of her and her husband’s pee and drove it up to Brattleboro Vermont in order to check out an enterprise called the Rich Earth Institute. The institute’s stated goal is “a world with clean water and fertile soil achieved by reclaiming the nutrients from our bodies.” Its principal aim is to promote a practice known as urine diversion, or, to use the lingo of the trade, peecycling.

The institute’s director of its Urine Nutrient Reclamation Program, Arthur Davis, showed Kolbert the four kinds of urine-diverting toilets it has for that purpose, which allows it to collect and then treat urine so that it can be used to fertilize the crops of local farmers. Otherwise, this valuable resource would otherwise just be flushed down the drain, or, that is, a regular toilet.

As Kolbert explains:

The Rich Earth Institute has enlisted a network of volunteers around Brattleboro, who drop off their donations at specially designated depots or, in some cases, pay to have their pee picked up. After it has been pasteurized, the urine is distributed to local farmers. Peecycling can cut down on the amount of conventional fertilizer that the farmers purchase. At the same time, it keeps nutrients out of the sewage system and, by extension, it is hoped, out of Vermont’s waterways.

Of course, the amount of urine collected and treated in this way is – sorry, for the tired trope – “just a drop in the bucket,” as Kolbert acknowledges: “In an average year, New York City residents piss out about a billion gallons; Shanghai residents, three billion,” whereas the institute’s annual haul is a paltry twelve thousand.  Davis is frank to acknowledge this, but just as a journey begins with a single step, according to the ancient Chinese proverb, so these urine-reclamation centers are just the beginning of what Davis and others hope will be a revolutionary movement to harvest the fertilizing potential of urine instead of just pissing it away, as one might say.

In any case, the key is to reduce our dependence on rock-based phosphorus. Toward that end, Egan has some much more promising suggestions to offer. These not only conserve phosphorus, but follow and adapt traditional Asian methods of fertilization that also draw on animal and human production of what we still regard as “waste,” whereas we are actually wasting another valuable resource. After all, how do you think Asians have managed for thousands of years to feed their enormous populations, so much larger than ours?

I’m talking about shit.

Egan is on to this, and the last chapter of his book is full of information about various projects around the world that are now underway to use and process this invaluable resource. We need to start thinking in a new way, he urges, about human and animal excreta. It is not waste -- anything but. It’s not too late to follow the Asian way, buttressed by today’s waste removal technologies. We need, in short, to begin to practice the art of what I have lately come to call fecal fecundity.  

As Egan notes, “What Europe had come to view as noxious waste had, since antiquity, been recognized in many cities across the East as precious commodity.”

I say it is a novel way to think about the value of harvesting shit, but, in fact, it is not that new. Furthermore, there were some farsighted Europeans who centuries ago were already aware of the treasures contained in manure. Egan quotes an interesting passage from the great 19th century writer, Victor Hugo, who advocated this course in his book, Les Misérables:

All the human and animal manure that the world wastes, if put back into the land instead of being thrown into the sea, would suffice to feed the world. Those heaps of excrement at boundary-posts, those cartloads of muck jolted through the streets at night, those frightful vats at the municipal dumps, those fetid seepings of subterrain sludge that pavements hide from you—do you know what they are? They are the meadow in flower, green grass … thyme and sage, they are game, they are cattle … they are fragrant hay, golden wheat, they are the bread on your table, they are the warm blood in your veins, they are health, they are you, they are life.

James Elser is a University of Montana ecologist and the director of Arizona State University’s Sustainable Phosphorus Alliance. He, too, sees the fertilizing gold in what we have been accustomed to deposit into our toilets and flush away into our sewage systems: “If all manures were recycled and returned for [agricultural] production, I think you could displace halt of the mined fertilizer.”

Egan concurs and adds his own comment: “In other words, if we aggressively refined manure for fertilizer, we might essentially double the life of existing phosphorus reserves.”

As I’ve indicated, such efforts are already well underway at various universities and companies around the world, and Egan reviews some of them in his last chapter but here, for illustrative purposes, I will mention just one such revolutionary undertaking. By one of those charming accidents of history, it is taking place in phosphorus’s hometown – Hamburg. And today’s alchemical wizard, so to speak, is a man named Martin Lebek, a civil engineer with a Ph.D. Lebek’s charge for the company he works for, which has thirty thousand employees, is, effectively, to transmute the base sludge of crap into the gold of factory-grade fertilizer. 

I won’t pretend to understand the intricacies of the process involved – indeed, Lebek said he was not at liberty to disclose that information to Egan because other companies are also pursuing their own similar efforts to recycle waste products – but apparently it involves working with sewage sludge ash to release phosphoric acid used to make chemical fertilizer.  

According to Egan, Lebek believes that his plant will be fully operational by the end of the year and is confident that “this recycling technology, applied nationally, could dramatically reduce Germany’s reliance on phosphorus imports.” In short, the objective is to become phosphorus independent so that one can just tell the King of Morocco to blow smoke up his sorry shit-filled ass. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

I will let Egan have the final more sedate word, which ends his book as well as this blog:

Lebek knows the story started when phosphorus’ elemental powers were unleashed just across the Elbe River more than three centuries ago. Now, less than a century after the city was burned to the ground by Allied bombers dropping phosphorus from the heavens, Hamburg is coaxing from its own ashes a more sustainable food system, and future.

“It is,” Lebek said of the phosphorus recovery plant rising along the west bank of the Elbe River, “phosphorus coming home.”