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On Meeting An Icon
A Tale of Dragon Con, Jul. 17-19, 1992
This essay was written mere months after my very first acid trip, and months after I accidentally helped launch an Internet drug cult; I was 21 years old. At the time, the Internet was not the wonderful resource it is today for information on how to assess and integrate heavy psychedelic experiences. Our first major influences as we were coming to grips with these intense experiences we were having were the works of Timothy Leary. At the time I wrote this essay, I had yet to appreciate the vilification of Leary. I saw only the wildly optimistic, extremely creative approach he took to describing states of consciousness, and was deeply influenced and impressed. Searching the campus library on the topic of psychedelics turned up only books by Leary, and in retrospect, it seems I was lucky to find even those works. Years later, although I now understand the extent to which Leary helped engender the current catastrophe of American drug policy, I still find a soft spot in my heart for him. Perhaps I identify a bit too much with the way his intelligence just couldn't keep a hold on his arrogance, the way his creativity was leashed to such self-serving motives. Nevertheless, a brush with fame is a brush with fame, and here's my greatest brush to date. It should also be noted, for those keeping score at home, that this event also saw my very first viewing of the pivotal film Head, described within. I was barely twenty years old when I wrote this; I hardly recognize that voice at all any more...
It's 4:12 AM Sunday, and Dragon Con is still in full swing. In front of me, a man is being informed by a mixed group that his butt has been voted most likely to be grabbed. Among this mixed group is one of the more beautiful women at the convention, although the persistent rumor is that "she" is not a she at all. Upstairs, a splatter movie festival is underway in the Video Room, and rap music from a hopping dance down the hall echoes throughout the hotel.I'm sitting at a table, watching a steady stream of misfits wander past: knights in shining armor, Klingons, a Discordian Pope, vampires, monks, leather freaks, etc. and so on, and I'm mildly frustrated because I can't quite figure out how to start this article. This is that strange turning point you sometimes hit, when suddenly you feel the need to sum up the meaning of everything, and you know the only reason you're feeling this way is because you haven't quite returned to your "normal" state of consciousness. I came to this convention because two of my heroes were scheduled to appear. I've been a fan of Robert Anton Wilson for a long time now, so that seemed exciting. And Dr. Timothy Leary -- this is the person that Gravity-L was inspired by, the person whose work was, perhaps more so than any other's, a key factor in revolutionizing thinking in general. You expect someone like Leary to just vibrate with cosmic energy or some such nonsense. So the plan was relatively simple. I figured, there will have to be an opportunity at some point during the weekend to approach Leary and see for myself what his energy is like. And so begins our story...
Dragon Con is a giant science-fiction/fantasy/role playing game/comic book convention, drawing well over 7000 people to the Atlanta Hilton and Towers in downtown Atlanta. It's a nice hotel -- big, spacy, lots of balconies. A couple of vampires threw a potted plant off a high balcony a while ago, and when it hit the tile ten floors down, it sounded like an explosion, and hundreds of people lined the balconies, looking for blood. I leaned over and shouted, "Oh my God! She's dead!" and got a kick out of the crowd's reaction. It's been that kind of weekend. Friday afternoon, I'm in the audience for a panel discussion on whether or not science fiction is obsolete, a panel featuring comic writer Chris Claremont and novelist Raymond E. Feist, both of whom spend inordinate amounts of time bashing publishers rather than discussing science fiction. But the only reason I'm here is because immediately after the science fiction seminar is a cyberspace seminar featuring both Leary and Wilson, and when the SF people clear out, I stake my claim on the front row. Now let's talk about Timothy Leary for a moment. One of the founding fathers of the psychedelic movement in the sixties, Leary is that most elite of cultural figure, a revolutionary turned martyr for the cause. Now he's designing software and pushing the boundaries of virtual reality, as an alternative to the psychedelic research that made him infamous. Leary was in prison when I was born; the first time I ever remember hearing about him was in a rumor that he was dead. Obviously he was not; dropping out of sight for so long must have seemed the natural thing to do after the adventures he'd had. Because of my unfortunate temporal perspective (i.e. "damn I missed the sixties"), it's been easy to filter and create a vision of what Leary must be like, untainted by so-called reality. This never quite reached "idol-worship," mind you; during my own "research," I found that I disagreed quite vehemently with some of his premises. However, I've also discovered during my "research" that I have a tendency to be violently wrong about these things. And considering the lack of, shall we say, mystical mentors in Cedar Falls, Iowa (where higher education is always an adventure), I'm left with Leary's work to guide me. And as he walks into the room, a large smile spreads across my face. This is the man indirectly responsible for my current quest, and I'm thrilled to see him at last. He's incredibly thin, and he wears a tweed jacket over a purple sweater, with old blue jeans and sneakers. He looks every bit of his 72 years, but he bounds up to the stage with a surprising enthusiasm. Wilson is not far behind, a portly sort of Santa Claus with a twist. The third member of the panel is SF writer Steven Barnes, co-author with Larry Niven of the Dream Park novels. Wilson introduces himself first. He is witty and soft-spoken, and his accent is a bizarre mix of Brooklyner and Dubliner. He talks a bit about the binary coding of the rate of information increase, and cracks jokes about which conspiracy faction forced Perot to drop out of the presidential race. Barnes is next; he is concise and articulate, emphatic and impressive. His Dream Park novels missed the boat, he says, when it comes to virtual reality, but his ideas for the future seem to make up for that. Then it's Leary's turn. During the above he has played enthusiastic cheerleader, giving forceful thumbs-up, raising fists of approval, starting rounds of applause, always with his patented grin locked in place. Now he takes the microphone, and for the next several minutes, the audience is respectfully bemused. Leary wanders around the subject, but never actually lands there. He spends more time, in fact, talking about Wilson's accomplishments than about virtual reality. In the seminar that follows, Barnes emerges as the intellectual center of the panel, with Wilson throwing in appropriate bits of New Age stand-up comedy on occasion. But the consensus on Leary is that, for whatever reasons, he seems a bit...flaky.
Friday night the hotel is filled with partiers. There is so much wild, Dionysian, underage drinking going on that my friend Mike and I can't find a safe place to begin our much more appropriate research. We end up finally in a parking garage, and, as is so typical of these experiences, the need to wax philosophic comes up rather quickly. Today has been a disappointment, I decide. After the seminar, Dragon Con staffers are on hand to issue the panelists away to their autograph signing sessions. Wilson lingers behind, and I decide to approach him before he leaves. When I catch up with him, he's harassing a hapless staffer. "I don't understand," Wilson says rather forcefully. "He's supposed to be here. Where is he?" "Well, I know he exists," the staffer replies. "I mean, I saw him last week--" "Can't you page him or something? I don't understand. Where is he?"
A woman in front of me thrusts a book at him, ending the interrogation. Then it's my turn. I hand him my copy of Cosmic Trigger and a pen. "What's your name?" he asks. "Scott," I reply. (A long time ago, I gave up introducing myself as Scotto; there seems to be a neurological block in most people that prevents them from hearing the second syllable the first time my name is pronounced. It seems "o" is not an appropriate suffix for "Scott.") I remember reading in the Dragon Con promo book that Wilson was going to be running a live action role playing game called Cosmic Conspiracy, and I ask him if this is still the case. "No," he replies tersely, handing back the book. And that's that. Fifteen minutes later, I'm in line to meet Dr. Leary. I'm last in line, due to my encounter with Wilson (which turned out to be a rather fortunate encounter, actually, because he subsequently skipped his autograph session), and I'm running through the possible things I could say to him. Finally I decide, however naively, that I'll give him a collective greeting from Gravity-L. I'll say something like, "There's a hundred or so people who'd like to say hello and keep up the good work," or something cheesy like that. As I wait, a staffer announces, "Please have your books opened and ready for Dr. Leary to sign." This is not a good omen, I realize. Finally, I arrive at the table and hand him "Flashbacks" to sign. I wince involuntarily as he bends the front cover back farther than necessary in order to sign the title page. He too asks me my name, and I tell him, and then I start to say my little piece, "There's a hundred or so people who'd like to say blah blah blah..." "That's great, thanks a lot, that's wonderful," he says with a thumbs-up, but he's already reaching for the book behind me, and I'm smiling despite myself as I wander away. I mean, really -- what the hell did I expect, anyway?
That night in the Grand Ballroom, we attend a Betty Page look alike contest. The winners are a duo who enacted a lesbian spanking scene, to the vast delight of the predominantly male RPGer audience. One of the runners-up is that mystery "she-male," resplendent in a sparkling gold bikini. We spend the rest of the night wandering the hotel, and in my somewhat altered state, I keep repeating how disappointed I am. Wilson certainly didn't seem to be living in an exceptionally happy reality tunnel when I ran into him. And Leary seemed distracted and tired, although he never stopped smiling throughout the whole affair. Finally Mike says, "It's good that you feel this way about your heroes. Now they'll seem more human to you." And for the time being, I'm satisfied. We head over to the hospitality suite for chips and sodas. I end up lighting Cheetos on fire with three strangers, and then smoking these Cheetos. It's hard to describe the peculiar joy of having a cheesy resin in your lungs, but there it is nonetheless. The next day, the sign at the door says "No smoking Cheetos or burning the food." A ha, I think. I've found a niche after all...
On Saturday, Dr. Leary is scheduled to give his own lecture, entitled "Creating the 21st Century." He actually spends most of the time discussing the past, regaling us with stories of Aldous Huxley, Ken Kesey, his prison escape, and so on. This lecture is a bit more impressive than the previous day's, and Leary acknowledges some of his weak spots. He admits he has a tendency to ramble, and says that his short term memory is failing him. He also says that senility is a better high than marijuana, and that perhaps Alzheimer's Disease is underappreciated. This draws an uneasy laugh; no one knows where exactly Leary sits on this supposed slide into old age. "You have to go out of your mind to use your mind," he exclaims at one point, and a number of us cheer hopefully, wondering just how much "experimenting" he allows himself these days. He sees virtual reality as a key breakthrough in consciousness expansion and human communication, and he predicts than within two or three years, no one will simply give lectures, which appeal only to the so-called "left brain;" they will give full-blown multi-media presentations that will appeal to both the logical and the creative functions of the brain. Everyone will do this, he says; it will be the way to give seminars. Leary's penchant for prediction has always fascinated me. I'm reminded of one of his earlier predictions, that reliable life extension techniques would be available during his lifetime. These predictions haven't got much time to be fulfilled. And then it's over. Mike suggests that we approach him, maybe invite him to partake with us that evening. But as soon as Leary is finished speaking, he is surrounded by a huge throng, and we realize our chances of speaking to him are basically non-existent. That night in the Video Room, we watch Head, the 1969 psychedelic film starring the Monkees and written by Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson. I'm suddenly reinterpreting it as an amazingly intricate Buddhist tale of samsara and reincarnation. "For where there is clarity there is no choice," Peter Tork intones on screen, "and where there is choice, there is misery." And finally, I think I understand what that sentence actually means. [Ed. note: even though I was seeing the movie for the first time that night, I was intimately familiar with the movie's soundtrack, which includes many collages of dialogue from the film.]
Late Saturday night, I again alter my consciousness, and wander the hotel alone. Two SF writers, John Skipp and Craig Spector, are giving a rock concert, and the bizarre synth music draws me in instantly. There are dancing skeletons onstage, and the spectre of death, and groovy psychedelic video screens, and then, moments after I sit down, Dr. Leary is invited onstage for a poetry reading. Leary is a frequent topic of conversation around the Con; the Con Daily Bulletin printed a "rumor" that Leary was not actually appearing at Dragon Con, but rather a virtual version of Leary was appearing instead. And so Leary appears, and reads a brief poem about Gaia, the overmind of the planet. I strain to see where he goes as he leaves the stage. Turns out he's heading down my aisle on his way out of the ballroom. As he passes, I join the stream of admirers who follow him out into the foyer, where he sits at a table and steels himself for a late-night autograph session. I stand on the edge of the crowd, once more rehearsing the upcoming scene in my mind, and at the same time trying to place this weekend in perspective. If Leary seems burned out, can anyone blame him? I imagine it's an awesome responsibility, being a cultural icon and all. I'm determined to be last in line this time, so that maybe I'll be able to share more than a few words with him. But, needless to say, he is a magnet of attention, and the stream of people never quite ceases. I force my way finally to Leary's side. I am at last ready, I'm literally next in line, when a staffer comes up to the table and says, "Tim, come on, give yourself a break." Leary agrees instantly, stands, turns to go. I become slightly flustered; I hadn't rehearsed this part. He needs to get past me to leave, and he takes my arm as he passes, and I take his arm, and we look at each other ever so briefly. I realize I'm at a loss for words. When Leary realizes this as well, he breaks eye contact and wanders off. I'm left smiling ruefully, realizing I've blown it again. And then the altered state proves useful, and I decide to follow him to the elevator. The word "harassment" does not enter my mind. There are always huge lines at the elevators, and Leary must wait like the rest of us. He's speaking to two people when I catch up to him, and when at last they leave him, I charge up to him. The apocryphal moment is finally upon me. I take his hand, say something like, "Everything you've done means so much to me. Thank you so much..." To which Leary replies, "Thank you, thank you, it's great to hear that..." And I'm instantly aware that no communication has transpired here. The entire episode is swimming in foolish expectations. What have I got, really, to tell him, that he hasn't heard twenty-three million times already? I give up on words. Instead, I lean forward and embrace him. He's very frail, but he responds in kind, and is not the least bit surprised. "I love all of you," he had said over and over again during the past couple days. I wander away, meet up with Mike again. "Did you get to tell him what you wanted to?" Mike asks. "Yeah," I reply, once more smiling the atypical rueful smile. "I told him."
It's now 6:20 AM Sunday. A man named Rick just tried to pick me up; I was too busy writing this to pay much attention. It's time to summarize the event, determine its meaning in the Grand Scheme of Things. Both Leary and Wilson have produced a vastly impressive body of work that will always deserve consideration; and yet, both of them have temporarily disappointed me on a personal, emotional level; and yet again, both of them are just people, and who do I think I am anyway? And again, both of them are just people, and belief is still the death of intelligence, as Wilson says, and maybe it's time to watch the model advance. There's small satisfaction, then, in that awareness, and I'm finally at ease. I'm young, after all; I can write this whole thing off as a necessary phase in my development, look back on it as one of the bittersweet joys of youth. I'm at least momentarily "experiencing the now" as the Swami from Head suggested, and while the Grand Scheme of Things is no clearer than it was before, I'm at least momentarily happier with my place in this Scheme. It's time to go to sleep...
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