The Immortality Key

The Immortality Key is an important book. I had only read the Forward and half of the Introduction when I was convinced of the book’s essential thesis:

  • The human psyche has an innate capacity for a common experience of “transcendence,” which in our cultural terms might be called “seeing or knowing God.” Transcendence can be found across cultures and time in religious archetypes and practices. But most humans can only obtain the real transcendental experience with the aid of entheogenic (a.k.a. psychedelic) chemicals.
  • Humans going back to prehistoric times have made ritualistic use of natural entheogens. Many have emphasized that the transcendence found through these chemically-enhanced rituals is critical to the well-being not only of individuals but also of human society.
  • It appears that a single powerful entheogenic experience is sufficient to convert a person for life. (For example, Greeks who underwent the entheogenic ritual at Eleusis were given the title epoptēs, or “witness.” And ongoing research with entheogens has found that a single dose of psilocybin can relieve major depression.)
  • Spiritual use of entheogens has perhaps been stigmatized by abuse in the 1960s and 1970s. The hippie movement profaned the use of entheogens that were, and probably should be, sacred.
  • Modern organized religions and governments have nefariously eliminated access to entheogens. For example, it is astonishing that chemicals like psilocybin and LSD have been banned under DEA Schedule 1, which is reserved for substances “that have a high chance of being abused or causing addiction, and no FDA-approved medical use,” whereas scientific research has always found them to be non-addictive, with low potential for abuse.

How do you “see God?” As with all human traits, there is a spectrum of capacity. Some people are gifted (or afflicted) with transcendental vision – most likely many of those called prophets. For many more people, transcendent vision can be obtained through devoted fasting, prayer, scourging, or meditation. But it appears that anyone can transcend with the use of entheogenic chemicals. The Immortality Key impresses the notion that Christianity is (in my words) a relatively dead religion: Christian doctrine correctly describes transcendence, but Christian rituals are hollow versions of those that humans have relied on for tens of thousands of years to actually experience transcendence. Yes, these hollow rituals are sufficient for some. For others, like me, they at best offer one fleeting glimpses of transcendence.

The Immortality Key has its shortcomings. After the first few chapters the author bogs down flogging the Pagan Continuity Hypothesis and exulting over his discovery of small scraps of evidence he found in a decade of research. Jerry Brown wrote a good review that should be read to put the book in its proper place.

The book does expound upon a few other worthwhile points. The author is an academic classicist, and along the way he (like all classicists) impresses on the reader how little our culture has evolved from that developed by the Greeks in the first millennium BC. Then he details the shocking efforts by early Christians to try to erase that culture. They nearly did, most unconscionably by burning the library at Alexandria. Today we have only 1% of classical texts known to have existed.

The last chapter is an interesting read: It shows how the concept of “witches” was developed by the middle Catholic Church and used to destroy whatever western folk knowledge of entheogens may have otherwise survived. Then, Christian missionaries in the Americas largely succeeded (often through the force of government) to suppress entheogenic use among indigenous Americans. Hopefully we are now at the end of the war on entheogens and the revival of mainstream acceptance of and access to transcendental experience.

Why We Make Things

I recently listened to Peter Korn’s book Why We Make Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman. (Like most books, the substance is concentrated in the beginning; and roughly a third of the way in the book becomes relatively unimportant; and the last third often seems like filler to make it long enough to bind and sell as a traditional book.) It is a good exploration of man’s search for meaning, and how man finds meaning in craftsmanship. And I think this is a particularly male struggle: The female psyche finds meaning in the people around her, and particularly in that most powerful and consummate of bonds: between a mother and her children. But the maturing male psyche detaches, leaving him adrift in abject existential loneliness. To become a man he has to discover or build his purpose. He may find meaning in social spheres, but he can also find meaning in the creation or nurturing of things – i.e., he can find meaning as a craftsman.

Korn beautifully describes the nature of craftsmanship – how an artisan develops intuition and connection with materials and processes; the state of “flow” a master can attain practicing his art. And Korn repeats lamentations about how the industrial revolution turned craftsmen into automata, destroying the opportunity for so many working men to find essential meaning in their labor.

Resuming Violin – Part 1

The peak of my violin study was about age 14, before I went to boarding high school. I took my violin to and from school, but I didn’t tackle any new pieces and I played it with decreasing frequency. In my twenties and thirties there were periods as long as five years where I never took it out of its case. It was always easier to sit down at a piano than to open the violin case, attach the shoulder rest, tighten the bow, tune the strings, warm up the muscle memory….

A few years ago a friend who plays in a local church orchestra noted that they could use more violinists. It was a low-key affair – rehearsals once a week, performance in Sunday services once a month, and missing either was not a big problem. I joined a second violin section that varied from 2-4 other violinists. It was fun. And I bumped in to a few very good violinists who inspired me to dust off my skills.

With my violin regularly coming out of its case, I began to spend time working on my technique, instead of just blasting through the canon of pieces I had maintained from my teenage years (e.g., Vivaldi’s Four Seasons). Now in my forties I had a level of patience for technical exercises and practice that was sorely lacking in earlier decades. It was time to tackle something new.

One rehearsal I was talking to the best violinist in the orchestra, who had let his violin practice go fallow for some years as he worked on his legal career, and who said he was also renewing his study. “With what?” I asked. He replied, “I decided to go back to the beginning, so I started with the Bach Sonatas.” Of course!

There are some movements in the Bach Sonatas for solo violin that I have always loved. The fugue in the second sonata (BWV 1001) in particular called to me. In my late teens I obtained the sheet music but I didn’t get more than two lines into it before I gave up. But now … I have patience!

My Verbal Degeneration

As something of both a thinker and an archivist, I have always felt compelled to commit my thoughts to writing. I began journaling as a pre-teen and accumulated almost half a million words by age 30, at which point I took a friend’s advice and began blogging instead. When I had an idea I usually found it easy to expound it to my satisfaction in short order. But over the last decade this ability has degenerated. Today I have dozens of notes and drafts that have not made it to a finished post. I struggle to organize, articulate, and elaborate my thoughts. They’re stuck in my head in a state somewhere between jumbled notions and coherent exposition. The posts that do make it onto my blogs are usually the less-than-satisfying product of a long struggle at wordsmithing. I imagine that this is what it feels like to have a debilitating stroke: I remember being able to do something with facility that I can now only do with halting effort. I can see that I have become dumb.

When it comes to things like math and computer programming I have always been considered “smart.” When I interact with people who struggle with those activities I have often wondered how much of what we call “smarts” is the presence of intelligence as opposed to the absence of impairment. My skill in those arts often seems like clarity in comparison to the clouds and confusion that seem to beset those who struggle. From that perspective I do not feel intelligent so much as I feel unimpaired.

Looking at the state of my verbal skills I feel impaired. My awareness of this impairment has been piqued as I have begun reading Scott Alexander’s blog: That is a guy who can draw and weave every thread on a topic into a crisp expositional tapestry. Where my thoughts are a jumble of fraying twine he writes with supreme clarity. Another blogger explained better than I could just how brilliant a writer Alexander is:

At his best, he hits some strange triple point, previously undiscovered by bloggers, where data, theory, and emotion can coexist in equilibrium. Most writing on topics as abstract and technical as his struggles just not to be dry; it takes effort to focus, and I need energy to read them. Scott’s writing flows so well that it somehow generates its own energy, like some sort of perpetual motion machine.

Fighting Violin

In an earlier post I described beginning to learn to play violin. The difficulty of that process was compounded by my disposition as young boy: Give a boy a stick and his instinct is to grab it and wield it like a sword to whack things into submission. But the fragile wooden bow must be held gingerly. The violin is a singing instrument, and the bow is its breath. The foundation of playing a violin is delicacy and finesse. Everything about an energetic boy is bold and tense. I was given what felt like a weapon and told to, “Relax!” (Even now this is a Sisyphean struggle.)

All I wanted to do was to play loud and fast. At age 12 we went shopping for the full-size instrument I play to this day. I picked a violin with a relatively “bright” and unsophisticated timbre. Then I spent an afternoon in a luthier’s shop looking for a bow, which is the component that determines a player’s range of technical expression. For reference I played some bows priced in the $50,000 range and I could not imagine why professionals would want to use such flimsy sticks. I chose a bow that was so exceptionally rigid that, the luthier joked, it must have been made of titanium. (It’s actually Pernambuco wood, like most fine bows.)

Strength and size offer no advantage on the violin. Search for “violin prodigy” and you will find an endless parade of pre-teen Korean girls who can perform the most difficult violin pieces with robotic precision. Skilled musicians do not wrestle with their instruments no matter how loud or fast the music. Contrast that with this video of me muscling through a “warm-up” exercise at age 17:

Pokemon Go Level 40!

In August 2020 my boys started playing Pokemon Go, so I created my own account to join them. I’ve found the game to be a convenient diversion when stuck waiting for people or lines … and also somewhat addictive … so I have been playing almost daily for the last year. Just last week I hit Level 40. (When I started that was the highest level, but as large numbers of players reached it the game’s developer added another 10 levels.)

It’s somewhat bewildering to see that over this period I have caught almost 20,000 Pokemon….

Book Review: Life at the Bottom, by Theodore Dalrymple

In April, National Review published an entire issue of essays on California exploring the dismal results of the state’s increasingly progressive political experiments. The punchline is that dysfunctional government has managed to make that otherwise attractive geographic region so unlivable that people with the means to leave for other states are doing so in droves.

Among wealthy democratic nations, Great Britain has taken the lead in boldly implementing progressive ideology in both government and culture. Theodore Dalrymple has been documenting the dismal results for years. His cautionary essays are essential reading for anyone who traffics in political ideas. Life at the Bottom is a collection of those essays.

Learning Violin

While learning to play violin I benefited from a good ear. For example, when I finally acquired sheet music for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons I was able to make my way through them in their entirety on first reading because I knew them so well by ear. But my ability to rely on playing by ear that left me practically incapable of sight-reading.  Like embarrassingly abysmal: If I don’t know how a piece is supposed to sound I could be mistaken for not knowing how to read music. I might have reinforced that when I started studying piano at age 10 and immediately attacked difficult pieces where the technical difficulty made sight-reading impossible anyway and by the time a passage was mastered it had also been memorized. So after two years of piano I could smash through Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in c#, but I have never been able to sight-read a even a simple church hymn.

I didn’t realize that I had a skill of any note until I was 9 and I agreed to someone’s request to play a violin piece in Sunday School.  I performed Fiocci’s Allegro and thought nothing of it until my parents heard that afterwards bunch of kids had asked their parents if they could learn violin.

When I was 11 I got to play at my church’s Handel’s Messiah sing-in, which was funny because the minimum age for attendance was 12. I was playing second-violin, which is very difficult to practice alone – or play by ear – because it’s an accompaniment and doesn’t have the melody. The orchestra, which was otherwise mostly professional musicians, only had two rehearsals, so in performance I only played along to the half dozen pieces I had practiced. I was amazed when the second string of the violinist to my right snapped in the middle of one of the movements and he was able to keep playing by shifting on the third string. At the end of the movement I assumed we would stop so he could change his string, but no: we kept right on going.

I can only find one recording of me performing before I went to high school: Here’s me playing a Mozart violin concerto (accompanied by a piano arrangement) at age 13:


It’s huckleberry season! Huckleberries ripen beginning in late July. And since huckleberries resist cultivation, they have to be picked in the wild from bushes that grow on mountain slopes.

In Idaho and Montana, huckleberry foraging locations are traditionally family secrets. I was permitted to accompany one expedition to a patch just off a dirt road deep in Forest Service land at 6,600 feet elevation.

Wild Huckleberries in late July at 6,600 feet ASL

Picking huckleberries is not easy: The bushes are low to the ground, the sparse berries tend to form under the leaves, and even when fully ripe the small berries do not easily detach. An hour of concerted picking yields dark purple fingertips and only about three cups of huckleberries (which reduce to just two cups when crushed).

It took an hour to pick these three cups of huckleberries

What’s the attraction? Huckleberries have a taste along the same axis as blueberries, and blackberries, but the flavor is far more intense than that of similar fruit.

Blueberries and Huckleberries

Huckleberries are often canned as jam and syrup. I helped can a traditional jam recipe that cooks equal parts berries and sugar, plus some pectin. The result was a precious product that we canned in 4-ounce jars. Given the strength of the huckleberry’s flavor I thought that recipe was excessively concentrated. So for a second batch I added crushed cultivated (i.e., large and relatively flavorless) blueberries in equal part to huckleberries; reduced the sugar by 20%, and canned the jam in 8-ounce jars. Informal blind taste tests concluded that my modification did not diminish the product.

Canned Huckleberry Jam


Fifteen years ago I was on a Mediterranean pleasure cruise that stopped at the major tourist destinations of Italy and Greece. It was a transformational experience. Not because of the landmark tourist attractions – seeing them in person offered nothing of substance that I hadn’t already learned or seen in documentaries. The thing that changed me forever was experiencing the other tourists. Vast crowds. Throngs. Hoards of international travelers queuing to the same locations to tread, ogle, and photograph the same things.

A recreational traveler who claims to be an environmentalist or conservationist is selfishly delusional. The environmental costs of intercontinental travel and infrastructure – of seasonally transporting and hosting masses of spectators – are enormous. And to what end? What is the benefit?

Do you feel an itch to travel to popular destinations? First ask yourself: What do you bring to the experience besides money?

Tourism is a ridiculous enterprise. I sampled global tourism for a few years because my wife worked in the industry and our travel was subsidized. I can say, from firsthand experience, that it is not worth the time and money, especially given the alternatives.

Do you want to immerse yourself in history or culture? Stay home and read or watch documentaries – written by world-class scholars and narrators; shot by professional photographers with the best equipment and unlimited access. Do you value the landmarks? Stay home and patronize conservationists. Do you need to escape or get out for recreation? Explore the attractions of the region in which you live.

Tourists are indulging in a vicious cycle of peer rivalry or bland FOMO. Somebody boasts of visits to the Pantheon or the Colosseum, and now a dozen acquaintances feel the need for their own first-person collection of passport stamps and photos of … the same thing? Are they all exceptional writers or documentarians?