Utopia, New Jersey

helicon2
Nightly discussions occurred around the Helicon Hall fireplace

I remember being introduced to the idea of a utopia back in junior high school and becoming fascinated with the idea of creating a society of perfection. It was the same social studies class that introduced me to the idea of a sharing community where all were equal and work and the rewards were shared. Then our clever teacher told us this was called Socialism and Communism. Of course, we were taught that those were bad things, but they sounded pretty good to us.

But the idea that Sir Thomas More had back in 1516 in his book, Utopia, stayed with me. I particularly liked More setting his utopia on an island because I have always had a thing for islands.

Utopia has been used to describe “intentional communities” that attempt to create an ideal society,  I wrote here earlier about Henry Ford’s failed attempt at a utopian community in the Amazon which he called Fordlandia.

New Jersey would not be the first place that comes to mind when you bring up utopian communities, but one example is an experiment by the writer Upton Sinclair. Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” He was no fan of commercial society.

Upton was born in 1878. When he was 15 years old, he started supporting himself by writing “dime” novels. He continued to write pulp fiction to get himself through Columbia University and he wrote a novelette a week all through college.

When he got an assignment from a socialist weekly to investigate working conditions in the meatpacking industry of Chicago, he was shocked at what he saw. He used his research to write The Jungle. The manuscript was rejected a number of times, so Sinclair published it himself in 1906. He had already published five novels, but The Jungle was his first real success. It motivated people to demand reforms in the meatpacking industry. It was said that President Roosevelt received a hundred letters a day demanding reforms.

The success of The Jungle allowed Sinclair to start a utopian experiment in New Jersey.

Upton Sinclair and son, David, 1904
Upton Sinclair and son, David, 1904

As unlikely as that may sound, there have been other utopian experiments in the state, as documented in Utopia, New Jersey: Travels in the Nearest Eden. The cooperative colony in Englewood, NJ was founded by Upton Sinclair in 1906.

A fire would end the experiment after only six months, but the dream remained with Sinclair for the rest of his life.

It was called Helicon Home Colony. It was hardly perfect. There were sex scandals that were written about in the press right from the beginning. They had a policy that specifically excluded non-whites. But Sinclair really believed his experiment was the future of American living.

Matt Novak wrote a good piece on Helicon that goes deeper into this story.

Sinclair considered his Helicon Home Colony (AKA Helicon Hall) as living based on reason and science. His ideas came from his reading of other 19th century socialist utopians.

Meta
Meta

My reading about the experiment makes me think that Sinclair wanted to get away from an unhappy family life.  He was not getting along with his first wife, Meta. He didn’t like being a father. He had just spent  three years secluded with them on an isolated farm in order to finish The Jungle.

He wanted freedom to write and a private community would allow him to write while others kept his wife occupied and the community raised his son.

He did have some progressive feminist beliefs and wanted the community to have things like cooking, cleaning and child-rearing done by those who could do it best without regard to gender. Creative pursuits could be followed by anyone who desired them.

Sinclair wrote some articles, including one in the New York Times, to set out his principles and solicit people who might want to join the experiment.

The plan was more ambitious than what he had the time to actuallycreate. He wanted to have as many electrical conveniences as possible and their own power plant, plus their own food-producing farm.

Although Sinclair was a self-avowed socialist, he didn’t call the community a socialist experiment and he didn’t want political beliefs to be part of the experiment.

As I said up front, it was hardly utopian in who was welcome to join.  Race, religion and profession were to be considerations. Writers, musicians, academics, artists  and creative types were invited to live there.  There was a board of directors and members owned shares in Helicon. Sinclair controlled about 70% of the board’s vote and could have overruled anyone.

One of the rumors that immediately started being said about the community was that the 46 adults (along with 15 children)  were just a sex cult of free love.

Helicon
Helicon Hall in Englewood

Sinclair didn’t want to employ traditional domestic servants and preferred using local students as interns. Interestingly, one of those interns was Sinclair Lewis who was then a budding author himself and who is often confused with Upton Sinclair. Sinclair Lewis would go on to write Babbitt, Main Street, Arrowsmith and other books and became the first writer from the United States to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. The interns did not work out and they ended up hiring servants which sounds less than utopian.

Whether or not Upton Sinclair’s idea of utopia would have succeeded will never be known.  A fire, on March 16, 1907, burned Helicon to the ground.  A carpenter died in the fire so there was an inquest. The hearings were a local sensation and exposed the “free-love nest” story back into the newspapers, but no charges against Sinclair or anyone else were made. Members of the community got back their investments from the insurance money, but Sinclair was broke.

Sinclair considered starting over again in California, and Fairhope, Alabama and in Arden, Delaware, but nothing ever came of those plans.

Upton Sinclair was prolific throughout his life and went on to write almost 100 books. In his 1919 book, The Brass Check, he wrote:

“I look back on Helicon Hall to-day, and this is the way I feel about it. I have lived in the future; I have known those wider freedoms and opportunities that the future will grant to all men and women. Now, by harsh fate I have been seized and dragged back into a lower order of existence and commanded to spend the balance of my days therein.”

He may have idealized Helicon more because he never got to see it fail and so he always believed that it could have worked.

Soylent Green 2022

Soylent Green is a movie, and in that film, it is also a processed food that keeps the 40 million inhabitants of New York City and much of the world alive. It is set in the year 2022.

It was the worst of times. Scarcity. 50% unemployment. People living in cars. Women are completely oppressed. The younger and prettier ones become “furniture girls” – mistresses to rich men.

The film Soylent Green was released in 1973. It is an ecological, sci-fi,  dystopian thriller. It was directed by Richard Fleischer, and stars Charlton Heston, Leigh Taylor-Young and Edward G. Robinson in his last film.

The 2022 setting of the film is a world of dying oceans, the greenhouse effect (a term less used today) but the changing climate results in pollution, poverty, overpopulation, and depleted resources. Sound familiar?

Soylent green.jpg
Fair use, Link

It is also partly police procedural about the murder of a wealthy businessman. The wealthy elite citizens live in elegant fortresses with private security, bodyguards and their “furniture. NYPD detective Frank Thorn (Heston) and his aged friend Sol Roth (Robinson) are on the case. Roth, AKA “Book, “is a very intelligent former college professor and police analyst who remembers the world when it had animals and real food.

The murder victim was William R. Simonson, a board member of the Soylent Corporation which makes the food supply for half of the world. Their cookie/wafers include “Soylent Red” and “Soylent Yellow” but their new product is “Soylent Green” which is a more nutritious version and it is in demand and in short supply. It is advertised as being made from ocean plankton. There are supply chain and distribution problems and that causes riots when supplies run out. Rioters are violently removed from the streets by garbage-truck-type vehicles called “Scoops” that shovel up people and haul them away.

Simonson’s “furniture” Shirl begins a relationship with Thorn and helps him. He is told to end his investigation but continues anyway and finds himself being stalked.

It has been a long time since the film was released, so can I give a spoiler about the plot? The dying oceans can’t produce enough plankton to make Soylent Green. The company needs a new source of protein. I won’t say what that source is – though you might guess – and Simonson’s murder was ordered by his own company because he was troubled by the direction of the company.

Roth is disturbed by what they discover that he decides to end his life using one of the assisted suicide government clinics. Euthanasia is an accepted practice in this version of 2022.

The screenplay was based on the novel Make Room! Make Room! which was published in 1966). In the novel, the setting was 1999.

I won’t say it’s a great film but it did win the Nebula Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and the Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film at the time. Is it a prescient film? Is it accurate in its prediction of 2022? Thankfully, we are not living in the film’s 2022 world, but there are aspects of the film’s future that are true to today.

I was surprised some years ago when I saw that Soylent (meal replacement), became a brand of meal replacement products. I was surprised because what happens in the book and film is a horrible thing.

In the book and 2012  film Cloud Atlas and in another dystopian novel, Tender is the Flesh, food shortages are solved in a similar way to Soylent Green.

Science and Buddhism

Buddhist monks of Tibet10
I was able to get away with my family last week despite the madness of COVID and Omicron. I tried to stay off my phone other than to take photos of my little granddaughter.

Back home this week, I was cleaning out some files and came across an article I had clipped out of an issue of Wired magazine years ago about a study that showed that some Tibetan Buddhist practices have been “proven valid” now that the world of science finally had some technology that could “test” them. I’m sure Tibetans were thrilled.

In one experiment, subjects were asked to watch a video of two teams passing a ball. One team wore white shirts, the other team wore black, and the subjects were asked simply to focus on how many times players in white shirts passed the ball to each other. The little trick of the experiment was that there was also a man in a gorilla suit who walked on screen, waved at the audience, and walked off again. The subjects didn’t notice him.

I remember seeing a video of this at an education conference in 2000 (see video below). Buddhism was never mentioned. What’s the connection? The point of the experiment was to show that humans see what they are looking for, not what’s there. That is selective attention. It is also a very old Buddhist teaching.

In the article, they talk with some participants at a Science and the Mind conference in Australia where participants explored areas of connected interest between Tibetan Buddhism and modern science.

For example, a scientist using magnetic pulses tried to access the creativity of the non-conscious mind and altered states of consciousness. Tibetan meditation seems to do the same thing.

I love science but this is something scientists have been trying to do for a long time – prove, disprove or replicate ancient practices.

I wrote earlier about a technique for pain control called Thong Len that scientists can’t prove but that they admit seems to work. What science is unable to prove gets little attention.

Drug-based treatments for depression have not developed as far as we might hope and some scientists think Tibetans may provide a path to the solution.

“If you go to Dharamsala (in India, home of the Tibetan government in exile), you go up through the fog in midwinter and you come out in the bright sunshine, it’s like going to heaven. What strikes you immediately is the happy, smiling faces of the Tibetans, who don’t have much, have been terribly deprived, and yet they are happy. Well, why are they happy? “They work at it! They don’t take their Prozac in the left hand and pop the pill. Monks have been studied by Richard Davidson, they are very positive, they’ve got no material possessions, it’s a grind, it’s cold, they don’t have much food. But they are happy. They work at it.”

The Dalai Lama embraces science and has said that Buddhists can abandon scripture that has been reliably disproved by science. The Dalai Lama has even opened a school of science at his monastery in India saying that “…the Buddhist tradition [is] to try to see reality. Science has a different method of investigation. One relies on mathematics; Buddhists work mainly through meditation. So different approaches and different methods, but both science and Buddhism are trying to see reality.”

 

The Magic of Monarchs

Butterflies
Migrating monarchs – via Flickr

This past week I saw on the news footage of millions of monarch butterflies arriving in California and into the forests of Michoacán, Mexico.

It is wonderful in the true meaning of the word – something filled with wonder. I am filled with wonder and awe whenever I look up at the night sky and consider the universe. I get that same sense sometimes when I am walking through a forest, watching a river or at the ocean, or standing on a mountaintop looking at a faraway horizon.

Those butterflies swarming like a swirling paint palette of orange and black also seem magical.

Cooler temperatures make the monarchs cluster together until it warms and they can fly again. 

Their migration began in the northern U.S. or Canada and they have traveled as far as 3,000 miles to reach more temperate winter homes.

Migration is pretty amazing. We know some things about how species make the journey. We describe it in human terms sometimes – they have built-in “GPS.” They have the knowledge from parents who passed along the knowledge. With monarchs, it is not parental knowledge. Their short lifespans preclude that. Only about one out of every five generations of monarchs migrate. Birds do back and forth migrations, but monarchs are the only butterfly species known to make a two-way migration.

The Sun has played a role in human navigation and also for monarchs. We don’t understand exactly how it works for these butterflies. I kind of like that it is still a mystery, but scientists do want to know. After all, the Sun moves, and to use it to navigate you also need to know what time of day it is when you are looking at it. How do monarch butterflies keep track of time?

Researchers have discovered that most monarchs take to the skies when the Sun is 57° to 48°. That is their window of opportunity whether they are leaving Canada or Kansas. They don’t seem to have some built-in clock but their antennae do seem to play that role in some way.

But all the science takes some of the wonder out of this. As much as I love science, the idea of researchers putting microchips on butterflies and painting or clipping antennae to study how their brain reacts in captivity to a false Sun seems cruel.

It is also sad how climate change and deforestation are negatively affecting monarchs and their migration. A recent report from the Mexican government and the World Wildlife Fund states that the amount of forest occupied by hibernating monarchs in Mexico went from nearly 15 acres in the winter of 2018 to 7 acres in 2019 to only 5 acres in 2020.

Doing Some Dreamwork

giraffe dream

If you hear that someone is doing “dreamwork” it can mean they are working on interpreting their dreams. Today, this differs from the classical dream interpretation that we associate with people like Sigmund Freud.

Freud and others explored the images and emotions that a dream presents and also evokes in order to come up with a meaning for this kind of dream or dream symbols that could apply to other people too.

When I wrote earlier about a dream I had and the symbolism that is associated with it, I relied on some “classical” interpretations, but modern dreamwork is more individualized.

A book on dream interpretation may tell you that dream of a pregnancy (yours or someone else’s) usually has nothing to do with pregnancy and is a symbol of something new being “birthed” in your life. It certainly could be about a new project but it could be literally about someone being pregnant. Dreamwork now is more about discovering each person’s own dream language. That pregnancy could be about an inner transformation or connecting to your inner child.

A book of dream symbols might suggest some interpretations and they might seem relevant but you need to write your own dream dictionary. A child dreaming of feeding a giant giraffe is not the same dream if I dream about a child giving some food to a giant giraffe. Maybe the child is feeling different from everyone. Maybe I am dreaming about exaggerated, oversized desires.

I have been keeping dream journals for many years and I now know that certain things reappear. After decades of teaching, classrooms are often the setting for my dreams. If you read common interpretations of classrooms in dreams, you won’t find what they mean to me.

A friend once compared dreamwork to doing horoscopes. She said that you can read horoscope websites or books about your sign and sometimes what’s there will make sense for you. But to those who believe in astrology, only a horoscope done specifically for you will make sense.

I think interpreting a dream is like interpreting a poem.  If you read a poem about a child exploring a basement, the basement of the poet may be quite different from any basement associations you have in mind. I looked up “basement” in several dream books and they say that it represents a deep level of your subconscious mind – your deepest darkest thoughts, emotions, and memories. But maybe your basement was where your recreation or play room was as a child. I had my workshop for building models and my little chemistry lab in the basement. There was nothing deep, dark or secretive about it.

Many years ago, I gave a poetry reading and afterward a woman came to me and said that she enjoyed the reading and particularly my poem “Weekend with Dad.”I really identified with it because I am a divorced parent too.” I thanked her, but I am not a divorced parent and the poem is not about a custody weekend with my son. Or is it? For her, it was definitely about that kind of weekend, and looking back at the poem I realized she was right. That interpretation is valid. For her.

Any place, person, or object can differ in its meaning for different dreamers. The meaning can even change throughout your life. The classroom in my dreams when I was 11 is not the same one I saw when I was in college or is it the classroom I occupied as a teacher. Dreamworkers consider a dream to be alive after it ends and that it can have a variety of meanings and that those meanings may change.

Can’t a dream “just be a dream?” I have many dreams I have recorded that I cannot interpret. They seem to be just brief stories that are unconnected to my life – at least at the time I had dreamt them.

Freud’s theories are frequently dismissed today by modern science and psychology, but what he wrote about dreams is still influential. He didn’t know anything about REM and the NREM sleep cycles. His theory that dreams are wish-fulfillment partially came from his time spent analyzing children’s dreams. Freud also believed that dreams are very much about sexual or aggressive nature and that is why we repress them in our waking life.

When I started my first dream journal t age 13, I bought Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. It was way beyond my comprehension but it got me thinking about what my dreams might be telling me about myself.

Freud’s student, Carl Jung, became a successful and famous psychiatrist too. Building on Freud’s ideas about the unconscious, he took different views about the meanings of dreams. He believed dreams express aspects of our personality that we haven’t developed in our waking life. Jung believed dreams were the way to see into our unconscious mind and provide us with guidance for our conscious life.

There are those now that dreams are not encrypted and don’t require interpretation because they have no other meaning. But they’re not useless because they are the way the brain attempts to convey information to its conscious self.

Freud called the dreamwork “the essence of dreaming.” They are “a particular form of thinking.” Dreams are very much about images created from abstract thoughts. In dreamwork, you reverse the process and turn the images into language.  Freud compared dreams to picture puzzles like rebuses.

One thing I have not found to be true in my dreams – though I wanted it to be true at times – is that they predict the future. They are all about the past. Oneiromancy (Greek oneiros = dream, manteia = prophecy) is the practice of using dreams to predict the future. I think it is a superstition, but it might only take one or a few coincidental dreams that accurately seem to predict the future to make you a believer. Dreams foretelling the future appear in the Bible, Homer’s Odyssey, and in Shakespeare’s plays.

journalBefore you go to sleep tonight, consider keeping a dream journal near your bedside and immediately recording any dream you recall upon awakening. Dreams dissolve quickly.

There are plenty of websites and books about interpreting dreams and even dream journals with suggestions about what you should try to record. But all you really need is a pen and notebook and to develop the practice of recording dreams and then considering the people, places, and objects that appear in them in the context of your own life experiences.

Love At First Glance

woman with parasol
Woman With a Parasol, Claude Monet

The idea of “love at first sight” originates in Greek and Roman literature. Images of love arrows from the God’s Eros and Cupid causing someone to fall in love with someone upon meeting them for the first time have survived over the centuries. The Greeks used the expression theia mania, meaning madness from the Gods.

It seems that the expression “love at first sight” makes its first appearance in 1598 in English literature with Christopher Marlowe’s poem “Hero and Leander.”  Marlowe, a friend and rival of Shakespeare, is concerned in one section of the poem with how Fate influences our life choices.

It lies not in our power to love, or hate,
For will in us is over-rulde by fate.
When two are stript long ere the course begin,
We wish that one should lose, the other win.
And one especially doo we affect,
Of two gold Ingots like in each respect,
The reason no man knowes, let it suffise,
What we behold is censur’d by our eyes.
Where both deliberat, the love is slight,
Who ever lov’d, that lov’d not at first sight?

hero and leander
Hero and Leander, 1801, William Hamilton, PD

Although you have certainly heard tales of people who had an instantaneous attraction to someone, most people dismiss such things as not being true “Love.” In modern times, you might even hear someone say about a house or a car that it was love at first sight.

When I saw the film Citizen Kane at age 16, I had already experienced not only love at first sight but also what I call love at first glance. I identified immediately with a scene in the film in which old Mr. Bernstein tells a story. Here’s the dialogue (clip at the bottom)

“A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it, there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.”

That kind of phenomena is what I call love at first glimpse because the sighting is probably one-sided, brief, and with no possibility of any further interaction. It is a phenomenon because it is a situation that though it happened, its cause or explanation is in question.

I can think of many examples in my life. It is the woman I see pass my sidewalk cafe table and continue down the street. The waitress who I saw and immediately was attracted to and see occasionally and who seems flirtatious beyond trying to get a good tip is not love at first glance (though she might be at first sight).

In Milan Kundera’s novel (also a good film) The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he writes about how love heightens all of our senses and how the novel’s protagonist, Tomáš, finds himself in love with someone he barely knows.

He had come to feel an inexplicable love for this all but complete stranger… But was it love?… Was it simply the hysteria of a man who, aware deep down of his inaptitude for love, felt the self-deluding need to simulate it?… Looking out over the courtyard at the dirty walls, he realized he had no idea whether it was hysteria or love.

When I first confessed to my mother at age 13 that I was in love with a girl from my class who I had never even spoken to, she dismissed it as “puppy love.” She said you can’t fall in love just by seeing someone.

My mother was not a believer in love at first sight or first glance. Hero and Leander’s love story didn’t have a happy ending. But Tomáš’s object of love does become his wife.

Science and love don’t usually mix very well, but decades of research have led psychologists to suggest that the notion of love at first sight is a myth. True love, as my unscientific mother told me,  takes some time to develop. One study described love at first sight as a “positive illusion.”

Love at first sight suggests a possibility – a possibility that that might not really be possible. Love at first glance offers no possibility – and therefore no chance of failure. I’m with Mr. Bernstein.

Mr. Bernstein