A Novel

      Starting Out
      I spent a lot of my early years pretty much dumb as a box of rocks. A lot of folks, though, were convinced I was right clever and had all the cylinders operating in more or less a synchronized fashion. They would say, “That Paul Bradley--he sure has his act together” or something similarly laudatory. Creating that image requires serious effort and a practiced been-there-done-that attitude. Simulated humility is also sometimes helpful here.
      Back to the dumb part. Have you ever looked around one day and asked, “What’s really the point of all this?” Then, reaching down for some sagacious response, all that comes back is “huh?” These are questions like, “What’s actually behind the curtain?” and “Is this all there is?” They’re not easy questions, sure, but it’s sort of disconcerting to realize you’re pushing forty and had never more than half-heartedly sought any of the answers. This may not be wholly unexpected since like most of the folks I knew, I got your very basic, western cultural, Judeo-Christian upbringing, like: go-to-church-on-Sunday-and-hope-you-get-enough-of-the-good-stuff-to-go-to-heaven-as-opposed-to-the-other-place. Not complicated, but just about all the late twentieth century, sound-bite marketing perspective gave us, spirituality-wise.
      I was at the time busy pursuing the American, then yuppie dream, writing computer software and making more money than I had any reason to expect--not knowing that we were making the country safe for electronic and other kinds of commerce everywhere. This was the late 1970s when men were men and bits were bits and computer programming was as close to magic as it got (before we outsourced all that stuff to third world countries for $2.50 an hour).
      My wife, Belinda and I and our two boys, Matt and Sean had just moved from the burbs of Los Angeles to near Portland, Oregon. We were looking for a little more space, a nicer place to raise offspring and the ability to drive over seven miles an hour on the freeway. As you might guess, the transition north seemed somehow better than a sharp stick in the eye. And, for a while there, life seemed pretty good--at least for those of us in dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks mode.
            Belinda and I were reasonably pleasant to each other, though we had become a little emotionally distant after twelve years of marriage. But in our first year in Oregon, we managed to propagate a new daughter, Samantha (perhaps the cutest small being ever manufactured). Looking back on it, this seems to have been truly remarkable, since our lovemaking frequency and affection in general had been steadily decreasing for some time.
            A little bit about Belinda. We met in school at the University of California. She had two wondrous qualities: she was pretty enough to knock your socks off, and she owned a Corvette convertible--a gift from her parents.
            Scintillating personality deficiencies notwithstanding, these were sufficiently compelling attractors to a poor country boy making his way through college life. (If you prefer accuracy here, substitute lonely and horny for poor and country). We were married in our senior year--with her parents providing a wedding and reception that if converted to shekels, would match the yearly GNP of several African nations.
            While we’re at it, I’m a fairly regular looking guy--in the right light after a couple of glasses of wine you might say verging on good-looking. I’m about six feet tall and two hundred pounds with most of my own hair remaining. My mother would say that’s ten pounds overweight, but she thinks skinny is too fat. I suspect if you drew a continuum between a couch potato and Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’d fall physically somewhere in the middle--without an accent or any political ambitions.
            It wasn’t long into this state of marital affiliation that it became clear that Belinda expected her role in this arrangement would be to produce and subsequently look after urchins, exclusively. The origins of this role were part cultural and part familial but not overly subject to debate even if I were so inclined. In the words of someone famous, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”
            I think her involvement with spiritual matters hit a high point during our last two years in Los Angeles when she became a card-carrying member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. She joined these folks primarily because of a very pushy neighbor with the promise of some really swell social interaction. It ultimately resulted in her doing a lot of door-to-door proselytizing and espousing fundamentalist behaviors to which I could never really relate. I did spend about a year dutifully studying with a couple of these JW folks and unfortunately found many of their major premises unreasonable and based on the flimsiest of biblical references--like earth having existed for only 7,000 years (period, end-of-discussion).
            Because of my unredeemable nonbeliever perspective and the fact that I used to smoke cigarettes in those days, the elders of the group (hereafter referred to as the Supreme Keepers of the Faith) paid me a visit one Saturday morning. They suggested that my attendance at any of their gatherings was thereafter seriously discouraged, ye even prohibited. As a kind of afterthought, the fellow I had studied with most recently said that since I didn’t look at the world like they did, I was obviously “Of The Devil.” As they left, besides wanting to flip them off with enthusiasm, I honestly felt relieved that I no longer had to try to contort my metaphysical views of things (primitive though they were) to the one in the JW handbook. In hindsight, this should have perhaps been a clue about possible future spiritual compatibility issues between Belinda and me.
            Meanwhile back here in Oregon, for those who haven’t seen this movie, life on a small farm without independent means is way more work than you can imagine--especially if you have to work a 50-60 hour a week job just to make your nut. And, did I also mention that we purchased along with the farm, some exceptional pre-WWII farm equipment, including a tractor that you started up by a hand-crank and that owed much of its integrity to extensive bailing wire enhancements. Adding to this my genuine agricultural expertise (I grew a watermelon plant once as a kid--no watermelons, just the plant) you could suspect my farm-quarterback rating was pretty far from stellar. Suffice it to say, at least for a while, there was plenty to keep us occupied just getting through life intact without asking any of the aforementioned big questions.
            As part of the recommended install-yourself-in-the-community strategy, we looked around for a church to join (recall previous Judeo-Christian tendencies). We selected the Methodists for several profound reasons: they were closest, the cars in the parking lot looked pretty upscale, and (most importantly) the preacher didn’t seem overly longwinded. As you might have guessed, our approach to God-hunting was still a smidgen shallow at this point.
            After a few months though, the first of a series of major events occurred that were to modify my orientation entirely. We were asked to join a metaphysics group that met semi-socially every few weeks, ostensibly to delve into biblical and spiritual matters. Actually, it was at least in part a chance to taste a few nice wines and feel new-agedly good about ourselves. I really believe that the primary reason we were asked to attend was that one of the founders of the group, a guy named Barney, had the hots for Belinda (later confirmed).
            The ten or twelve couples belonging to this group were between 35 and 50 and all of a Caucasian and upper middle-class persuasion--basically nice folks with mostly positive outlooks on life, the universe and small puppies. I think they had already weeded out the axe murderers, pedophiles and Green Party activists.
            And, the guys in this group comprised the majority of the crack Methodist Church softball team (2 wins and 11 losses last season), which Barney, the manager, suggested I join. This is where I was to meteorically rise to mediocrity on the playing field for several years. I had played a lot of softball before during college and with company teams and could usually hit the hell out of the ball but was so slow of foot that I could turn a triple into a single in any league. So, I didn’t lead off a lot and my fielding generally sucked.
            Anyway, at about the second or third group meeting we attended, someone (it might even have been I) suggested that at each subsequent get together, one of us research some kind of spiritual topic and present information on it. This suggestion was met with slightly more positive apathy than negative apathy and was adopted. Since I was one of the major proponents and this was winter in Oregon (farm projects postponed due to unrelenting, eternal, incessant drizzle), I went first.
            I had read something recently (or more probably saw it on TV) about near-death experiences, so that sounded like a pretty cogent topic for this kind of group. It seemed relatively benign as topics went and there probably wasn’t that much to study--or so I thought. Off to the bookstore to gather data.
            An aside: Portland, Oregon has lots of redeeming qualities--roses, anything goes attitude, more green around than can be believed, but the hands down best feature of this town is Powell’s Book Store. This is a city block square, three-story bookstore of new and used books on everything. It continues to be one of my favorite spots on the planet.
            I was surprised to discover that there were a gaggle of books on near-death encounters-- about twenty available then. Surprised, because I suspected deep down that only a fringe-like person would take any of that stuff seriously. Anyway, I bought a half dozen including some by such authors as Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Raymond Moody and Maurice Rawlings. On the surface, these folks didn’t appear to be fringe-like--all MDs, PhDs and other kinds of Ds.
            Knock me over with a feather--they all said basically the same thing. The near-death experiences recorded and studied by these good researchers/doctors were astoundingly similar. Each record had most or all of the following components in roughly the same order:
      •       Severe trauma or death-like state
      •       Observing one’s own physical body from some distance away--usually above
      •       Traveling down a long tunnel at rapid speed
      •       Seeing a very bright light at the end of the tunnel
      •       An encounter with a radiant and loving being, usually perceived as a deity
      •       An instantaneous, completely non-judgmental review of the life just lived
      •       Seeing former friends/loved ones (all previously deceased)
      •       Some kind of radiantly beautiful city or place
      •       A reluctant understanding that there was more to do in the current life
      •       A nearly instant return to the body with sudden awareness of it
      •       No subsequent fear of death at all thereafter
      •       In many cases, an urge to be a bit more beneficent to other earthly beings
            I presented these findings at the next gathering. The information was received about as enthusiastically as a fourth grade report on South American exports. I was shocked--this data had blown me away. How could all of the independent people surveyed by a variety of different researchers have reported nearly the same stylized account of their near-demise without there being some kind of substance to it? I found it absolutely remarkable and worthy of more exploration. It also seemed to spawn more of the really big questions that I had been heretofore skillfully avoiding.
            As far as the rest of the evening was concerned, I’m happy to report that we tasted several good Russian River chardonnays that night and the group consensus was that we were clearly onto something there.
            To me, this new information was a big deal. I mean, here I was supposedly a well-educated, smart guy and suddenly aware that there was a whole dimension of quasi-spiritual stuff of which I had no bloomin’ idea. Needless to say, if Paul, the sage-like person, was to maintain his sage-like qualities in the eyes of his fellow humans, there was data to gather--and fast.
            You and I might ask, “Where did the necessity to be omniscient and sage-like come from?” I think because when we were young, it felt like everyone in my family, especially the children, had to know the answer to any question ever posed. I never found out whether this was an official position or a learned neurosis, but the net effect was the same. Looking back on it, this was one heavy load for young beings under construction who at times didn’t know diddley-squat about diddley-squat. It did, however, give each of us the sometimes useful ability to fake it very convincingly.
            Growing up, I had an identical twin brother, a younger sister and younger brother, all of us born within twenty-nine months of each other. Both parents were primarily aimed at making the smartest, best educated progeny that money and seriously focused attention could provide--as in, “You vill line up und get smart und you vill like it.” For example, when I was ten we got our first encyclopedia and from then on, all four children had to read about a topic from it every day and then give an extemporaneous oral report on that topic at dinner. We became experts at finding the shortest entries--usually some little known, rarely navigated river in Africa or South America. Some of these got faked as well--don’t tell my dad. It must have paid off to some degree because today all four of us are doctors of one kind or another (and everyone knows how well they fake it).
            Above complaints aside, we were reared in pretty much Leave-It-To-Beaver-mode--nice houses, nice neighborhoods, no felony convictions. We moved every few years because of my dad’s job--he claims to have been an oil company executive, but when we were little we were convinced this was probably just a front for some three-letter-abbreviated organization to remain unnamed. Anyway, my twin brother Tim and I got fairly used to picking up roots every so often and dropping the current attachments. (Be advised, the notion of attachments comes up again.) But, it’s a lot easier to move somewhere else if you know there’s always someone around who you can go chuck a ball with whenever it’s an emergency.
            Meanwhile, I was still without data. So, approaching this problem like a good engineer, I started asking around about books to read.
            The first place I began was fortunately, my chardonnay-swilling, new-age, Methodist brethren. I say fortunately because all of these fine beings had dabbled in different new-age disciplines along the way, though pretty cursorily. In speaking to each of them, it became clear that their individual concepts of spirituality were a lot like an elephant being perceived by blind men. The one that touches the leg thinks the elephant is much like a tree while another that feels only the tail thinks it to be like a snake, etc.
            This was great since I’ve come to believe that anyone without a foundation in metaphysics is best served by looking at a smattering of different perspectives from which to form a model of how things work. Confusing contradictions notwithstanding, this presupposes that truth is truth, no matter how it is flavored--an idea I still hold. However, in the words of carmakers everywhere, your mileage may vary.
            One of the books that got high marks from several of these folks was Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. This is the same eastern gentleman that started the Self Realization Fellowship. He gave me my initial view into the primarily Hindu-based perspective of how and why we are. This book also tried to relate many of the eastern ideas to Bible thoughts and quotations. I think it was originally written to convince western audiences that eastern philosophies were not as farfetched as the mid-1900s Christian way of looking at things would suppose.
            The autobiography also chronicled Yogananda’s search for enlightened beings that could teach him the best strategy for getting closer to God. In his case, he was far enough along on the path of spiritual evolution that this also meant searching for his guru or primary teacher that, by association, would elevate his consciousness. On the way, there were some pretty strange, powerful beings that came and went. I genuinely liked the feeling that came to me when reading about this man--he’s gone now but would have been welcome to hang out at my house and watch a ballgame any time.
            It was in this book that I was first exposed to the ideas of reincarnation, karma and astrological influences. First, reincarnation. Put simply, this is the notion that you are an evolving being using each lifetime as the means to evolve. That is, you come from somewhere else (specifics to be ruminated on later), are born here as a human, accumulate understanding and karma, die and then head off to somewhere else--repeat often, as necessary, kind of like dandruff shampoo. At some point a level of enlightenment occurs (with a lot of help) and further trips here are no longer required.
            In some ways you can look on this evolution as analogous to filling in the blanks of a rainbow-like aura--a kind of paint-by-numbers. Whenever you need to color-in a set of blanks in the aura, you design a life for yourself that covers those spots on the canvas. We’ll talk more about auras. They’re interesting.
            This idea of reincarnation used to be in the Bible, by the way. It was finally purged by the Council of Constantinople in 574 AD. The collection of Bible revisionists there and then were commissioned to make a version of the Bible to which everyone could relate and that matched the then-current form of political correctness. The removal of reincarnation was apparently motivated by the speculation that the faithful would try harder if they thought there was only one lifetime to gain heaven rather than many. As I understand it the vote was very close on this.
            The second big idea that came new to me from this book was karma--defined as the effect of ego-based actions. Basically, a person’s karma is the accumulated responsibility for the results caused by anything that person does while under the direction of his or her own self. Think of it as a kind of captured inertia, all the equal and opposite reactions to every action.
            This means that at least part of each life (some would say nearly all) is devoted to balancing out the effects of previous causes. For example, if you hurt someone in this life, then later, perhaps in some subsequent life, you will have that hurt returned to you. Likewise for the beneficial doings as well--your basic reap-what-you-sow stuff.
            The third eye-opener had to do with astrology. I had always been majorly skeptical about astrological influences, being a very scientific kind of guy and all. I mean you couldn’t use any machines to measure the planetary influences on human behavior or emotions and there were certainly no accepted western university curricula on the study of astrology. However, after reading Paramahansa Yogananda (and a bevy of other texts later on), it seemed pretty clear that:
      •       Most cultures besides western ones give astrology a great deal of credence.
      •       Astrology is a really good system for implementing karma, when you think about it. I mean if you need a certain experience to round out your portfolio, what better way than knowing when to be born to get exactly the kind of experience you need
      •       Understanding astrology is a key factor in knowing what is meant by “free will.”
            The other thing that tends to put people off about astrology, I’ve found, is some vague Biblical of-the-devil kind of relationship that shows up in certain interpretations. Never mind that the Star of David is actually a representation of two superimposed grand trines, a very special astrological planetary configuration.
            One very pervasive theme of Autobiography of a Yogi also had to do with meditation. This wasn’t exactly a new concept to me or our group but I had never had the importance of this brought home to this degree. The word was clear, meditation was a key ingredient to any successful seeking after God, but as most people would attest, hard as hell to do. I’ve spent lots of time in attempted meditation since reading that book--still hard as hell, but getting easier.
            Another author who was mentioned several times was Dick Sutphen. His primary interest, at least in his early writings, was in past-life regressions using hypnosis. It’s a good thing this came after some exposure to the notion of reincarnation or this would have been really hard to swallow. The basic premise was that under hypnosis, you could get at the details of the lives you have previously lived--apparently this has been pretty well documented and substantiated beyond any doubt. This would allow you to objectively evaluate past life episodes that were significant to the way you feel in this life--like if you’re afraid of swimming, perhaps you died from drowning in a recent life.
            The first of his books that I located was You Were Born to Be Together Again. It made clear the idea that most all of the really affiliated beings in anyone’s life were probably close in previously lives, though with different relationships and genders. For example, your mother in this life may have been your unruly stepson in a previous life.
            This makes sense from the standpoint of karma since probably those closest to you are the ones whom you most likely affect and are affected by. These are the beings most in need of balancing out the karmic debts incurred in both directions. As in, “You better not do me serious dirt in this life or you might come back next time as my overworked, underpaid and otherwise trod upon systems administrator.”
            Anyway, with these books and a few others having been absorbed as much as my neophyte perspective would permit, I was off and running in sponge-mode. It was like another kind of universe had suddenly appeared that needed exploring before it disappeared again. Noteworthy authors during this period included Ruth Montgomery, Ram Dass, Shakti Gawain, Jane Roberts and Alan Watts.
            Its a good thing that stuff at work was on a low-burner--the software we had just built was in beta-test (meaning let some unsuspecting, almost-paying clients find the bugs that we forgot to take out). It was looking better than we had expected, so I had more time than usual available for such data gathering. Unfortunately, Belinda indicated in a less than subtle way, that she thought reading about this kind of stuff was the biggest waste of time imaginable. I suspect she really missed the simplicity of having the Supreme Keepers of the Faith tell you what to believe and when.