Psychic Powers: Diary 1/4 – 1/13/22

Work cures depression; novel ideas and questions; W.W. Atkinson; reading Neuroscience; Patricia Highsmith’s diaries; movie reviews incl. the best Jane Austen movie; looking at 2021; John Cleese; so much more!

Copyright 2022 (text only) by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

{1/4/22}

In thinking about what fiction I want to write, I came up with another idea, which I might have mentioned last year, and which I wrote in my 100+ Ideas notebook, thus:  “144.  Person teaches himself psychic powers to gain mastery over others.  Trouble follows.”

The idea likely comes from the book I had as a teenager (sixty years ago), by one “Swami Panchadasi.”  A little research revealed that this author was one of several pseudonyms for William Walker Atkinson, and the book was almost certainly Clairvoyance and Occult Powers, published in 1916 according to Wikipedia.  This troublesome idiot published hundreds of books and edited numerous magazines, doubtless causing thousands, if not millions, to squander their money and waste countless hours trying—as I tried—to develop occult powers.  Freedom of the press has its downside, of course.

It seems that Atkinson was a true believer—he was a successful and prosperous lawyer who fell on hard times and was saved by discovering “New Thought.”  I got these bits from the Wikipedia article on Atkinson.

Well, the experiments I tried, following the instructions in the book, all failed.  I suppose this disappointment helped me to become a skeptic, though my skepticism has often failed to divert me from other similar trash, like Velikovsky and, in my twenties, a book I heard touted on the radio that, again, promised to deliver psychic powers to the sincere purchaser.  My results with that book were equally disappointing.

I have talked here previously about my experiences that were more equivocal.  The most relevant right now goes like this.  I took ten pip cards from a deck, nine black and one red, shuffled these until I was persuaded that they were thoroughly mixed, then dealt them out in two rows, face down.  I then passed my hand up and down the rows, trying to guess the location of the red card.  To my surprise, one of the cards seemed to be radiating warmth.  I moved my hand away and continued scanning, and again that one card seemed to be warm (I was not touching the cards).  I turned it over, and it was the one red card.  I tried the experiment again, being more diligent about shuffling the cards and making sure that I couldn’t possibly know which was the red one.  But this time, no card seemed warm; I turned one over and it was black.  A second repeat was also a failure.

My conclusion at the time, and since, was that my first attempt had been insufficiently diligent in mixing the cards—though my conscious mind was convinced.  My unconscious mind had been paying closer attention, thus I theorize, and was unable to present its knowledge directly (i.e., in words); it had to communicate via a false sense impression because “other channels” were denied it for unknown reasons.

I suppose if I had been “luckier” on my second or third attempt, I’d have been convinced, at least for a while, that I had some psychic talent.

In response to Atkinson’s book I tried crystal gazing and “psychic influence”—these I remember specifically.  There likely were attempts at clairvoyance, though I don’t remember any specific incident.  And that’s about it.  Clairvoyance and Occult Powers is available at Gutenberg.

My reading of Cell Biology has hit a snag.  Yesterday I read and highlighted, “Every student of cell biology should know the chemical structures of the amino acids used in proteins [ref. omitted]. Without these structures in mind, reading the literature and this book is like spelling without knowledge of the alphabet.”  Thomas D. Pollard, et al., Cell Biology, 2e, Saunders Elsevier, Philadelphia, PA, 2008, p. 36.

To memorize the structures of the twenty specified amino acids would be a huge burden, and it would be quite unnecessary for the understanding I’m seeking.  I figure that it’s enough that I learned that amino acids all share a N-C-C-O backbone (everything else being hydrogens), and they differ, with one exception, in whatever else is attached to the leftmost carbon atom.  I have no confidence that I’ll even manage to retain this minimal information about amino acids.

Given that my purpose in reading CB was for background to my reading of D. Purves, Neuroscience, I have returned to the latter book.  I’m quite aware that molecular biology is something both unmanageably huge and completely peripheral to my interests, which, as far as neuroscience goes, is limited only to understanding myself and others.

This morning, I read this in Purves:  “We now know that neurotransmitter receptors are proteins that are embedded in the plasma membrane of postsynaptic cells and have an extracellular neurotransmitter binding site that detects the presence of neurotransmitters in the synaptic cleft.”  I thought this over, and I checked the definition of “protein,” and, knowing that they are folded polysaccharides, looked up “polysaccharide,” and “saccharide,” and “carbohydrate” and “sugar” and so on, until I was sure that I was “getting it.”  I don’t need to know, really, that polysaccharides can have all one saccharide, or more than one—and so on.  As for the “plasma membrane,” I’m content to know that it’s mostly lipids with embedded proteins, and my idea that “a lipid is a fat that’s liquid at room temperature” is all the detail I care about right now.

So the conclusion this morning is that I can keep reading Purves for whatever I can get from it (him?  them?).  Indeed, the biochemical reactions inside a neuron after “detection” of a neurotransmitter are quite overwhelming enough in complexity.

Is this better than rereading Swami Panchadasi?  That depends on what I want, doesn’t it.

I had arranged with Nog to do a reduced Hemlock Club on Sunday, but he was unable to make it to Panera, so I went over to Barnes & Noble to get the new World Almanac.  I spent a long time looking at a new book of Patricia Highsmith:  Her Diaries and Notebooks, Anna von Planta, ed., Liveright Publishing Corporation, A Division of W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2021.  It’s enormous (over 900 pages) and priced $40.  I decided it get it, no doubt being persuaded, finally, by the seriously attractive photo of Highsmith on the front of the dust jacket.  The author is noted almost exclusively as a mystery writer, Strangers on a Train being her most famous work (of course because of the Hitchcock film), and I’ve never read anything of hers.  At the register I discovered that the book is discounted 50%, being a new bestseller, it seems.  Stupid B&N didn’t even publicize this sufficiently so that, even having seen the book in two locations in their store, I was unaware of the discount.  So in a sense, this paid for the almanac, which I buy every year for dubious reasons.  I started reading the Highsmith, up to page 39.

And yesterday I went to the Beale Library and bought a number of used DVDs cheap, as well as picking up Thich Nhat Hanh:  At Home in the World, a Gramsci anthology, and Jack Finney:  Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  I started the Finney, am about a third into it, but I’m dubious—the story is rather familiar from the two movie versions I’ve seen.

Since this is my first entry of the new year, and I didn’t review last year last year, I suppose it would be appropriate to do that now.

The main accomplishment was to “finally finish” Kick Me: A Memoir of Blunders, Humiliations, and Crimes.  It sits in my files awaiting its fate.  Last year’s diary comes to 236 pages, 126,000 words, almost all of it published on the blog.  Since I pronounced the book finished, I have been spinning my wheels, seeking a new project and not being satisfied with anything.  I suppose I’ll submit Hap the Crystalwright to the critique group unless I get enough started on a “psychic power” novel—which I’ll abbreviate PPN in future until I change it.  I think I wrote a paragraph in first person already.

Other highlights of the year, or lowlights:  “stable angina” feeling like a heart attack; gastritis, now under control; increasing erectile dysfunction, which I may go into here at some length.

All of which is personal; the year in the news was unbearable:  Biden not the president we need right now, though better than anticipated; Manchin reveals himself as a corporate stooge who will kill your grandma and your little dog for money; the former guy refuses to go away, and the GQP brown-noses him with abandon; and we’re all doomed because the people who need to act on the climate catastrophe are more inclined to sell their souls for a few bucks.  A new bright spot for me is RT, the Russian television channel, because they have room for Chris Hedges and Mike Papantonio. 

Best book I read last year?  Probably Will Durant:  The Life of Greece, volume 2 of his Story of Civilization, a set that’s been a nearly constant companion since my teen years, though I’ve read little of it.  Other highlights include Noam Chomsky:  The Responsibility of Intellectuals; Abraham Maslow’s Motivation and Personality, which I started late last year; I read Nietzsche’s The Gay Science but don’t think that much of it, and Hermann Hesse:  Steppenwolf which I had read before and didn’t like either time.  Since I don’t keep an active list of books read (though I’ll do that this year, I hope), it’s not unlikely I’ve missed something better than these last two.

If I bought half as many, and read twice as many, I’d be healthier, wealthier, and wiser.

Best movie [that I saw] last year?  It might be the Sybil miniseries starring Sally Field and Joanne Woodward.  The Marvel movies aren’t in the running, given the letdown after the wrapping up of the Avengers epic; I saw Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and Spider-Man:  No Way HomeShang-Chi was the disappointment.  Hailee Steinfeld was delightful in Edge of Seventeen, as was Tatum O’Neal in Circle of Two—I am not objective about these, you understand.  The BBC version of Pollyanna replaces the Hayley Mills version in my heart, just barely, though The Trouble with Angels was surprisingly entertaining, so I remain a Mills fan.  The Romola Garai Emma reviewed on 12/1/21 was very good.  And I conclude, lamely, with the Saw franchise and the finally-seen A Nightmare on Elm Street, providing more creativity and wit than some dozens of cheap gorefests put together.

It seems that I must start yet another “mini-Bullet Journal,” to keep track of books read and movies seen.  Of course I could reread last year’s diary, but, eh (even though I have often called my dairy “my best writing, and my best reading”).  I’d rather reread, oh, perhaps 2010 or 2008, when I had more brain cells.

I’ve put on five pounds since 1/1/21.

Closing the book on a mixed bag of a year, 2021.  Posted to the blog; last post was 12/1/21.

{1/5/22}

I haven’t said anything about Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021), which I saw on the new Blu-Ray.  I was disappointed.  It gets an incomprehensible 91% and 98% at Rotten Tomatoes.  I found it uninvolving and pretty underwhelming.  I know that the character story is given high marks because of the protagonist’s love-hate relationship with his father (played by Tony Leung), but I didn’t really believe that part.  The ten rings gimmick seems a combination of Captain Marvel’s power blasts and Thor’s Mjolnir, but I wasn’t going “Wow!”  The dragons at the end were okay, but I recently saw a Korean thing that was all about dragons, and this seemed no better.  I was glad to see Awkwafina in a comedy-relief role, but she didn’t save the movie for me.  Anyone wanna buy a slightly-used Blue-Ray of this movie, cheap?  I’m kidding, alas…  When I think of older Marvel origin stories, like Iron Man, this thing isn’t even on the same meter.  If that makes sense.

More enjoyable for me was the Sense and Sensibility (1995) scripted by and starring Emma Thompson.  I had seen this at least once before.  This time, I was again struck by the remarkably wooden performance of usually reliable Alan Rickman (as Col. Brandon); standing woodenly with glazed eyes and mouth slightly open as a picture of a mature man falling irresistibly in love didn’t do it for me.  Thompson is also very restrained, rightfully, until sister Marianne (Kate Winslet) is at death’s door; then she falls completely apart, convincingly, and hardly gets it together again before the end.  Hugh Grant is perfect in a mostly one-note role as a smitten swain.  Hugh Laurie as a snarky relation gets some of the best of Thompson’s witty script, something that I think is lacking in the novel.  His delivery is excellent, which is no surprise to anyone who’s seen him in House.  I’ll have to read S&S yet again, I suppose.  There are a lot of recycled tropes from this story in the Austen opera which I won’t bother to describe, feeling suddenly lazy about the whole thing.  (Do I really need “opera” there, or is “opus” a better choice?  Meaning her body of work, of course.)  I think I’m finally kind of burnt out on Austen, but I had a chance to get the Blue-Ray really cheap.

It seems that I haven’t expressed my displeasure with Andrew Cockburn:  The Spoils of War, an indictment of the American war machine and its profit motive.  The book (of which I’ve read only two or three chapters) is completely lacking in sources for its claims; I think it’s just a collection of opinion columns from newspapers.  I saw him on On Contact, the Chris Hedges TV show on RT and was impressed and, to a degree, informed, but the book doesn’t provide the kind of solid backup that Chomsky’s earlier books provide in spades.  I’ll probably get around to reading the rest, but, as usual, soooo many books, soooo little fire.

Nick Chater:  The Mind is Flat, which I’m rereading, starts off the same way, but even worse:  just saying repeatedly that we don’t understand our own minds, and that two thousand years of inquiry have been based on a myth, and so on, without providing any solid evidence, is wasting my time.  I know, however, that it gets better; but this time through I’m highlighting and arguing with the text.  We’ll see how it goes.  I think his message is on target, however, and I want to be able to argue for it, if only in my own thinking.

Currently, I’m thinking of yet another idea for a novel:  Misfits.  Because as I wrote, ungrammatically, in my “BB Journal” this morning, “Me and my friends are misfits; this has always been true.”  Regardless of the accuracy of the statement, writing about the lives of society’s misfits seems a good idea, because I’ve lived at least some of it.  It also seems more “important” than my other recent ideas.  But I think I still prefer the Occult Powers novel, which I was going to provisionally call PPN.  Of course, it doesn’t matter what the idea is, if I don’t write the words.

{1/7/22}  I have decided not to see the Matrix:  Resurrections in the theater—I’ll get the DVD when it comes out.  Why wait?  Two reasons:  going to the movies on the bus kills a whole day, almost, and the difference in picture size and such doesn’t really excite me, and the previews make it look like a remake of the original Matrix (one of my favorite movies).  Also, going solo is inevitably less fun.

I haven’t reviewed Spider-Man:  No Way Home.  [Spoiler alert!]  It was fun, but suffered from the same villain overload of Spider-Man 3.  There’s a big battle in which all the villains from previous incarnations of Spidey put in their appearances, as well as multiple Spideys, making it impossible for me to follow the action in that scene.  Overall it was kind of a meh, but I was glad to see Doctor Strange getting some screen time, even though the character makes a fool of himself, blaming Spidey for his own stupidity.  In addition, some of his actions were too reminiscent of his movie, i.e., lacked freshness.  I suppose I should be glad that they didn’t drag in The Ancient One.  I apologize if I’ve acted the spoiler here…I’ll put in an alert.

Got a decent start on the PPN, three pages handwritten.  I know it doesn’t sound like much, and in fact it’s very little, but it’s a good deal more than I’ve been able to produce lately otherwise, not counting the diary, of course.  I got stopped when I wanted to refer to the Swami’s book but couldn’t remember the title—Clairvoyance and Occult Powers.  I printed it out (127 pages) after editing it to remove much of the crap that Gutenberg puts in (cutting it down from something over 200 pages).  This was quite profligate of me, given that I don’t anticipate reading very much of it, but I suppose either Nog or Pablo will want the hardcopy when I’m done with it.

{1/11/22}

Faced with the prospect of beginning a new novel, my mind tends to hang up on questions which might seem rather trivial but in fact have profound consequences for the story:  where and when?  That is, where is my protagonist, and when is the story to take place?

The easiest answer, seemingly, would be to take a particular time and place from my life, like, 2022 in Bakersfield.  Or 1957 in South Gate.  But either of these choices, or any other “real world” setting, seemingly would require me to address historical or current events, or “real world problems”:  in 2022, climate catastrophe, political chaos centered around the former guy, the vile repugliKKKans, endless wars, and the like.  Such considerations could overwhelm the story I want to tell.  Or in 1957 the Eisenhower presidency, the atomic bomb, Ozzie and Harriet, writing with a pencil and reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, and breaking my front tooth (assuming I’m taking my autobiography as a baseline); which might make the writing easier, but suddenly I have a “period piece” which will not address current “real world problems.”  These foundations, while making some things easy, would seem to require research that doesn’t interest me (for which I have stockpiled the last three World Almanacs).  To Kill a Mockingbird is set in Alabama in the early 1930s.  Lonesome Dove is set in Texas of “the Old West.”

Alternatives would be, to simply ignore time and place, saying as little as possible about either; or to take a time of “something like the present” and a place of “something like where I am”—in other words, like my stories based on the fictional California town of Ising, which is sort of Tehachapi by another name but without any real details (I’ve spent almost no time in Tehachapi).  I ignore all events that take place outside of Ising and don’t specify a year, though a character might travel casually to Bakersfield.  My last major attempt was set in Bakersfield of no particular current date.

Another alternative is to do as Octavia Butler does:  make stuff up.  I’m currently reading her Wild Seed, which I read and loved many decades ago, which is set in Africa some time between 1492 and 1860, I think (no date specified so far, but America exists).

Now, what to do for the Psychic Powers novel (“PPN”)?  This morning (6:00 am) I like taking the easy way out:  Ising, ignoring current events and popular culture.  I think a lot of novels do this.  But I think also that the greatest novels do not:  Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert…  Jane Austen uses real places but is coy about dates; Thomas Hardy uses his version of Ising but occasionally mentions current events.  Great novels can be done by taking any option.

As for the critique group, I’m likely to use Hap as my next submission, and for the “foreseeable” future, until the PPN is up and running.  I’m putting my study of neuroscience on hold for now, and likely for a long time to come if I have anything to say about it!  Writing needs to be my top priority—as usual!—I sense the Grim Reaper gaining on me.  I envision spending today transcribing the handwritten Hap pages.

Starting a new file:  “PPN Notes.”  So I can talk freely about the story without needing to delete text from the diary for posting on the blog.

Little dog barking next door (i.e., next apartment in my building).  It did this yesterday, early, also.  Luckily, so far, it hasn’t interrupted my sleep.

Quote(s) from John Cleese:  So, Anyway…, Three Rivers Press, Penguin Random House, New York, 2014, pb:

“So if I may give a word of advice to any young writer who, despite the odds, wants to take a shot at being funny, it is this:

“Steal.”  p. 130.

“I used to think that the world was basically sane with patches of madness here and there which would recede as rationality and good jokes pushed their boundaries ever inwards. Now I have the opposite view entirely.”  p. 134.

“I felt rather sad that my father couldn’t accept my growing up, and our moving to a relationship of equals, because it stymied any kind of deeper communication. Of course, being English, it never occurred to us to talk about it.”  p. 232.

“Where was I? Oh, yes. Films.”  p. 235.

“I apologise for the offensive remark I am about to make.

“The audience was to blame.”  p. 243.

“Writing and performing in these six shows taught me an important creative principle: the more anxious you feel, the less creative you are. Your mind ceases to play and to be expansive.Fear causes your thinking to contract, to play safe, and this forces you into stereotypical thinking. And in comedy you must have innovation because an old joke isn’t funny. I therefore came up with Cleese’s Two Rules of Writing Comedy.

“First Rule: Get your panic in early. Fear gives you energy, so make sure you have plenty of time to use that energy.  (The same rule applies to exams.)

“Second Rule: Your thoughts follow your mood. Anxiety produces anxious thoughts; sadness begets sad thoughts; anger, angry thoughts; so aim to be in a relaxed, playful mood when you try to be funny.”  p. 294-295.

This is the funniest book I’ve ever read; Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up, a much shorter book, is probably a close second.  It turns out that Cleese is just who I thought he was IRL (funny and dear), unless he’s a clever chameleon—which I wouldn’t put past him.

I have to start getting rid of books I’ve already read.  It may be that I even need to get rid of books which I “might want to read again someday.”  A harder thought is to get rid of books that I haven’t read but “might want to read someday.”  I’ve already done some of the latter.  Surely I don’t need two copies of Russell’s Problems of Philosophy?  Do I need the Montaigne?

I was looking for Dahlberg’s books but couldn’t find them; today I see them on the shelf…it seems that I need to be a bit more systematic about the shelving.  Or just more diligent about the searching.

{1/13/22}

Did considerable work today on Hap, and learned that to beat my depression, the best cure is work.  I don’t mean housework, but that might also do in a pinch.

Watched a BBC miniseries version of Martin Chuzzlewit, almost six hours, which was good but marred by a personally distressing horde of cockroaches over the opening credits in each of the six episodes.  I get that it’s symbolic.  Some very good, unrepentant villains and some thoroughly Dickensian character names:  one Pecksniff (actually, several); an undertaker named Mould, a minor villain Sludge, and a too-good-guy, Pinch.  Mrs. Gamp so unintelligible and tedious that I couldn’t help fast forwarding through her last couple of scenes.

Vastly better, the best version of any Jane Austen I’ve seen (among about a dozen), was Mansfield Park (1999).  This was based not only on the novel, but also Austen’s diaries and letters, though the story mostly sticks pretty close to the book.  It had a harder edge than other Austen renditions, with a quite delicious (evil) Miss Crawford.  More attention to the evils of slavery than I’ve seen before.  It’s been a couple of days since I watched it on cable.

Surprisingly good was Barely Lethal, latest in my review of the work of Hailee Steinfeld, and she shines here as a trained assassin who chucks it all to try to gain a normal life in high school.  I suppose this would have to be rated a guilty pleasure, given the silliness of the script, but it’s clear that Steinfeld and Disney star Dove Cameron are having a great time, irresistibly sweeping along the disbelief-suspending dotards in the audience (me).  I haven’t seen Steinfeld in her Marvel TV show, but based on this “teen comedy,” she can handle the Black-Widow-like ass kicking quite well, and look gorgeous doing it.

I overcame my reluctance to see the Matrix:  Resurrections, currently in theaters, and sort of regretted it.  It’s confusing and not up to the standards of the trilogy, especially in the fighting (lots of jerking the camera around, suggestive of poor technical support).  There are good things in it, but nobody needs my recommendation…

Also saw Spider-Man:  No Way Home, which I enjoyed a bit more, but overall it’s a big meh.

Reading Patricia Highsmith’s diaries and journals in the new bestseller.  It’s entertaining so far (about 150 pages into the 900-page depths), mostly in the form of lesbian love stories; the rest is not terribly interesting compared to Anaïs Nin’s diaries, so far, but it’s easy, light reading which mostly neglects the WWII background.

Copyright 2022 (text only) by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

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