23 and me (and thee)

Warning: after you read this, you’re going to start seeing the numbers 23 and 5 everywhere. Sorry.

When I was 23 years old, I first encountered and read the very trippy book The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. I’ve mentioned the latter several times here, and probably will again. Along with several others, he became one of my major writing influences early on.

Now, the thing about me coming to read the book for the first time when I was 23 is that it seemed to come about completely by happenstance. I mentioned to a coworker, who was a Wiccan, that I’d just turned 23, and she said, “Oh, you need to read this book.” I did a little research into it, thought it looked interesting, and headed down to the Bodhi Tree, the now-defunct Melrose Avenue bookshop that specialized in all things new age and esoteric.

The thing is massive — something like 800 pages, I think, and was published in trade paperback format, which is the bigger size in comparison to mass-market paperback. Trade paperbacks are close to the dimensions of standard hardcover books.

Anyway, I started to read it, and the book hooked me immediately. Why not? I was 23, and it was full of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It also affectionately mimicked and imitated the styles and structures of things like Joyce’s Ulysses and the cut-up technique preferred by William S. Burroughs. Threads of the story weave in and out of each other in constant interruptions, the identity of narrator keeps changing by passing among omniscient third person to first-person from the characters — some of whom seem aware that they are characters in a novel, maybe — and the whole thing plays out as a neo noir detective mystery wrapped around a psychedelic conflation of every far right and far left conspiracy theory of the time, with a healthy dose of science fiction, fantasy, and eldritch horror.

Besides Joyce and Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft and his universe receive various nods, and one of the protagonists (?) travels about in a golden submarine that evokes both the Beatles and Captain Nemo at the same time.

One of the running ideas in the book is the mystical importance of the number 23, which pops up constantly in the narrative. This also implies the importance of the number 5, which is the sum of 2 and 3. This is also why, in later years, it was tradition for Wilson to always publish his newest book on May 23rd.

There are some very interesting facts about the number, actually — and it shouldn’t escape notice that Wilson’s last initial, W, is the 23rd letter of the Latin alphabet. Those facts do go on and on, too. Here’s another list that has surprisingly little overlap with the first.

William S. Burroughs was obsessed with the number 23, which is mentioned in the novel, and many works created post-Illuminatus! capitalize on the concept by using it. You’ll find 23s in things like the TV show Lost, various films including Star Wars Episode IV, and two films that specifically deal with it, the American film The Number 23 and the German film 23, although the latter would be more properly called Dreiundzwanzig.

There are, of course, also plenty of examples of the number 5 doing interesting things as well.

So here I was, reading this amazing brain-bender of a book at the young age of 23, and I started to wonder whether there was any truth to this idea. You know what happened? I started seeing the number 23 everywhere. It would be on the side of taxis and buses — bonus points, sometimes I’d see 523, 235, 2355 or similar combinations. It would show up on receipts — “You’re order number 23!” It would be one of the winning numbers or the mega number for the current lottery winner. The total when shopping would end in 23 cents, or else 67 cents, meaning that I’d get 23 cents in change.

Wilson eventually gives up the secret to the secret, although not in this book. He does offer another interesting exercise that worked for me at the time, although probably not so much anymore since people don’t tend to carry change around any longer. He referred to it as The Quarter Experiment, although I think of it as “Find the Quarter,” and it’s exactly what it sounds like. When you’re out and about walking around, visualize a quarter (or local coin in your currency of similar size, about 25mm) and then look for one that’s been dropped on the ground.

Back in the day, Wilson claimed success with this and, sure enough, so did I. It’s worth it to click the link above and read the explanation, as well as the several ways to interpret it. (It’s also worthwhile to check out and do the other exercises listed, but especially number four. Too bad the list didn’t make it to five.)

But, again, people just aren’t as likely to drop quarters because they probably only trot them out to do laundry, especially with most parking meters accepting debit and credit cards now. A lot of public washers and driers are also doing the same, so we may be swiftly approaching a day where the only likely place someone might drop some coins is in front of one of those grocery store change converter machines.

Still, you can probably do this experiment fnord with any other object likely to be dropped, like a pen, or a receipt, or keys.

After I finished my first read of Illuminatus!, I went on to read almost all of the rest of Wilson’s oeuvre, both fiction and non. He wrote a number of books outlining his philosophy, like Prometheus Rising and Right Where You Are Sitting Now, as well as his Cosmic Trigger series, which is a cross between autobiography and philosophy, and the amazing novel Masks of the Illuminati, in which James Joyce, Albert Einstein, and Aleister Crowley walk into a bar in Geneva and things get trippy. I’ve always wanted to adapt this one into a play or film and, in fact, it was influential in the creation of my own play Three Lions, which involved Crowley, Ian Fleming, and Hermann Hesse. (Available for production, if you’re interested — here’s the first scene.)

Okay, Wilson has got too many works to cite individually, so just go check out his website for the full list. Meanwhile, this is where we’re going to go meta and full circle.

I’ve re-read Illuminatus! multiple times, and in fact started another read-through about (d’oh!) five weeks ago. Every time through it, it’s a completely different work and I get different things out of it. When I was 23, it was one story. Each of three times after that, it was another. Now, it’s yet again completely different and I just realized that this is, in fact, my fifth pass through the text.

So it was weirdly appropriate when I found out that a friend of mine from our improv company was going to turn 23 on April 30. That date itself is significant because a large part of the present story of the book takes place in April and May, but on top of that I suddenly had the chance to return the favor that my coworker had done for me oh so long ago, so I gifted my young friend a dead-tree copy of the anthology version.

Hey, I survived that journey and I think it made me a better person. Might as well share the love, right? My only hope is that somewhere down the line, after he’s read it a bunch of times, he’s in the position to pass the torch to another 23-year-old.

Pictured: My photo of the covers of my original U.S. paperback versions of the books, which I was lucky enough to find in a used bookstore for cheap a few years back. Interestingly enough, that bookstore is called Iliad Books, and it used to be next door to a video rental place called Odyssey. Both of those also figure into the fnord book. Yes, it’s quite the rabbit hole.

Not pictured: my autographed by RAW himself original edition and my later “checkerboard” cover version from the 90s.

Across the multiverse

It can be daunting, sometimes, to think about the precarious pathways that led to each of our lives, and then led to the lives we have led. In my case, answering a want ad in Variety two years out of college led to an office job that changed everything — not because of the job, but because of the people I met, and connections that led directly to me pursuing a career as a playwright with some success and also to working in television and eventually doing improv.

But I never would have wound up there if my parents hadn’t met and married, and that only happened because my mother had one bad first marriage that led to her moving across the country and winding up working as a waitress in a restaurant across from the office where my father, who was also ending his bad first marriage, worked. He wound up there because he had taken advantage of the G.I. Bill to study architecture and so was a structural engineer for one of the more prestigious firms in Los Angeles. In another case of amazing coincidence, I wound up working about a block from where his office and her restaurant had been when I went into the TV biz twenty-ish years after he worked there.

So my father wound up doing the G.I. Bill thing because he was a veteran and that happened because there had been a war. But he was only in America to fight on our side because his grandfather had come here in the first place, and my father’s own father and mother wound up in California. That happened because my grandfather worked for the railroads. I also think it was because my grandmother got knocked up with my dad’s older brother at about eighteen and before they married, but that’s beside the point. Or maybe not.

If my mother had stayed where she’d been born, she never would have met my father. If my great grandfather had never left Germany, than one of my ancestors may have died on the wrong side of WW II. And if that had happened and my mother came to Los Angeles anyway, there’s no telling whom she might have met and married. It could have been a big power player in Hollywood. It could have been a dishwasher in the restaurant. The unanswered question, really, is whether who I am came only from her egg or from dad’s sperm, or whether I would have never existed had the two never met. Impossible to say.

What’s really fascinating are the long-term effects of random choices. I do improv now because of one particular actor I met about six years ago. I met him because he was involved with a play of mine that was produced in 2014. That play happened because an actor who had done a reading of it when I first wrote it, twenty years previously, remembered it when he was at a point to play the lead and bring it to a company. That reading happened because it was set up by a woman who produced my second full-length play — and who is still one of my best friends — and that happened because of all the attention received by my first produced full-length play, which happened because of a woman I met at that first office job out of college I mentioned before. She was in a writing group, heard I was interested in being a writer and invited me to join. Ta-da… a link in a damn long chain of consequence happened.

And that third play, about William S. Burroughs, only happened because I somehow heard about his works when I was probably in middle school, and only because the title “Naked Lunch” made a bunch of twelve-year-olds giggle. But reading that book when I was about fourteen, and realizing it was about so much more, and then discovering the rest of his works along with Vonnegut and Joyce and Robert Anton Wilson and so many others set my sails for being a writer, and out of all of them, Burroughs had the most fascinating life story, as well as the personal struggle I most related to, since he was a gay man, after all.

And, I suppose, I can attribute my interest in the salacious and interesting to the fact that my mother had such an aversion to them. She could watch people on cable TV get their heads blown off for days, but show one tit or one ass — or god forbid a dick — and she would lose it. It was good-old Catholic body shame, and I never understood it, mainly since I’ve been a naturist since, like, forever. Of course, the extent of my exposure to that church was to be baptized as a preemie “just in case,” and then not a lot else beyond the scary crucifix that always hung in my bedroom and the scarier icons and statues I’d see when we visited my mom’s mom.

Ironically, I’ve actually come to relate to Catholicism, although not so much as a religion, but more as a cultural touchstone and anchor for my Irish roots. Yeah, we bog-cutters love the ceremony, but piss on the bullshit, so that’s probably why it works. Give me the theater, spare me the crap. Sing all you want, you middle-aged men in dresses, but touch the kids, and we will end you.

But I do digress… because if we’re going to go down the Irish rabbit hole, that is an entirely different path by which I could have not wound up here today. At any point, one of my direct ancestors on my mother’s side could have taken vows, and then boom. No more descendants to lead to me.

Or any of my grandparents or parents or I could have walked in front of a speeding bus before their descendants were born or before I had my first play produced, and game over. History changed. I could have signed up with a temp agency on a different day and never wound up having met my best friend.

Then again… I have no idea who I would be if any of these different paths had been taken at any point in history all the way back to the beginning. It’s really daunting to consider how many ancestors actually had to come together to lead to the genetic knot that is you or me. But you and I exist as who we are. Rather than worry about how easily that could not have happened, I suppose, the better approach is to just revel in the miracle that it did. Here we are. It happened because other things happened. And thinking too hard about why those other things happened might actually be a bad thing to do.

Tribute must be paid

This is going to be a little different than my other entries because this is more personal than educational, but I think it’s worth sharing. I found out from a former co-worker today that our boss died suddenly yesterday evening. He’d been out riding his bicycle, a favorite pastime, and then was found by paramedics, unconscious and on the ground next to the bike, with no heartbeat. They took him to the hospital, managed to get his heart started briefly, but then it stopped and he was gone.

The reason he was no longer our boss was because the company fell apart piece by piece due to forces outside of our department, but we had all promised each other that we’d have a reunion one day, then it kept getting put off, and now it will never happen with all of us.

His name was Dave R., and beyond being just a boss, he was a friend and a mentor to all of us, as well as a fierce protector. If anyone outside of our group, the Digital Team, tried to mess with us, he would have none of it, and was always there to go to bat for us. He supported us without question, and if somebody needed time off for personal reasons or just needed to telecommute for a while, he would okay it without question.

He was a huge fan of Seth Grodin and gifted us several of his books. We even once did a sort of book club thing with Linchpin, reading a chapter on our own and then meeting to discuss it. He also organized a work-day field trip for all of us to the L.A. County Museum of Art to see the Stanley Kubrick exhibit, which was amazing — and he paid for all of our tickets and bought us lunch.

I had been with that company for over a decade, but I can truly say that the best years were the last ones, once Dave came aboard. He provided leadership and direction in the midst of an organization that could often be chaotic, with ever-changing goals — this is what happens when the company is owned by a celebrity who likes to come up with ideas but then forgets to follow through. He never got stern with any of us on his team. He reserved that for putting the other execs in their places when they tried to overstep.

He’d had a long career, a lot of it involved in corporate training and education, and used to regale us with stories of his days at the ice cream company Baskin-Robbins, or working with the toy company Mattel. He was an avid fan of Disneyland and collected memorabilia from there. He didn’t have a lot of decorations in his office, but there was a huge framed print behind his desk, maybe 3 by 5 feet, of a hand-drawn map of Disneyland in Anaheim in its early days after it opened in 1955.

He liked to listen to music on his computer while he worked, and his tastes were very eclectic, ranging from jazz classics of yesteryear to modern indie bands. He also had a thing for coffee, buying imported beans from around the world, then roasting and grinding them himself. It was an office tradition that every day around 3 p.m. he would use a French press to make a pot of some exotic caffeinated brew, and then bring out the carafe, for our department only. Generally, it would be gone in a minute as people jockeyed to get their cup. I often felt sorry for our video editor, Peter, who worked in an office converted into an editing bay, often with headphones on, because he would frequently miss out on coffee time whenever I forgot to remind him because I didn’t notice myself that the pot was out.

He was a physically slight man, average height, very slim, and although his hair was completely white, it had style, standing straight up. If they’d ever made a Fido Dido movie, he would have been the person to cast.

And all of that, gone, in an instant. At least he was doing something he loved at the time. He survived a heart attack not long after my own adventure with heart failure, but seemed to have bounced back and was doing well, so in that regard it’s a grim reminder to me. But where it gets really personal and where it hits home is that he’s the second inspirational friend that I’ve lost in two months.

Her name was Cynthia S., and she was a neighbor who lived in a bungalow on the other side of the garden apartment complex where I live. I met her while walking my dog because she often sat out on her front porch, and had a smile and a friendly word for everyone, and treats for all of the dogs. She became a gathering point for neighbors and this was how a lot of us actually got to meet each other. This might not seem unusual if you’re from a smaller town, but there’s a running gag in Los Angeles: The only time neighbors in L.A. ever meet each other is right after a big earthquake.

I stopped to chat with her many a time, and that’s how we became friends. I always felt comfortable sharing things with her, and she did likewise. I’d often told her that she would have been perfect for doing voiceover, and if she’d been cast in a film or play it would have been as the archetypal Earth mother. She was one of the few people that my dog Sheeba ever decided to trust, and had the extremely rare “top of head” privileges. That is, she could pet my dog’s head without her trying to duck or move away. She was also one of two people I ever trusted to take care of Sheeba when I was away, and it was via one of the times that Sheeba stayed with Cynthia while I was out of town for the weekend that I learned the awful truth: My dog likes cats.

Shocking, I know, right?

And then, not long before Halloween last year, I was walking Sheeba past Cynthia’s place and she was on the porch, but did not seem to be in her usual ebullient mood. I stopped to talk, although something seemed off, and then she finally said the three words that no human being with a heart or soul ever wants to hear from another person they care about.

“I have cancer.”

She had just been diagnosed but didn’t have a prognosis yet, but it was like the world fell out from under my feet. To be honest, over the years I’d known her, she had begun to feel like the mother I hadn’t had long enough because my own mother died when I was way too young. It was like being stabbed in the heart by some dark malicious demon who hated any hint of goodness or light in the world. It was, honestly, devastating to me.

And then my walks with Sheeba became more difficult because I would still pass by her porch twice a day, but she was on it less often. And then came the days when I’d walk by and there’d be some hospice van parked out front, maybe an RN sitting on the porch filling out forms, Sometime after that revelation and the end, I did run into her one more time, but the buoyant energy was gone, the spark had left her eyes, and she had lost so much weight that it was frightening.

A week before Christmas last year, I was walking my dog past her place and ran into one of the many neighbors I’d met only because of Cynthia, and she smiled and waved at me and said, “Did you hear?” And I hadn’t heard, but those three words told me all that I needed to know. On December 18, 2018, Cynthia passed away at home, and the Bitch Demon Hellhound called Cancer claimed another good and gentle soul.

I’m not a religious person at all. I don’t believe in an afterlife. But if one did exist, I’d like to think that Cynthia is sitting on a rocking chair next to the rainbow bridge, greeting all of the arriving dogs and looking out for them until their humans arrive.

And typing that made me cry like a baby.

Here’s the point, though. At the end of the day — or the end of your life — what matters isn’t what you’ve done, what you own, what you’ve said, or created, or any of that. What matters are the people you have loved and the people who have loved you. What we can so easily lose sight of is the simple but nasty fact that any of us or any of them could be gone in an instant. Strangely enough, this truth is hidden in the climax of Avengers: Infinity War, when a finger snap kills half of all living things. In case you didn’t know, the character doing the snapping, Thanos, has a name derived from the Greek word for death.

Anyway… I needed to make sure that I memorialized these two amazing people, but also wanted to remind all of my readers of this: There is no guarantee that any of us will ever see tomorrow, so take the time today to remind someone you care about that you love them, because in 24 hours they might not be around for you to say it, or you might not be here to say it yourself.

No longer mourn for me when I am dead

Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell

Give warning to the world that I am fled

From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell:

Nay, if you read this line, remember not

The hand that writ it, for I love you so,

That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,

If thinking on me then should make you woe.

O! if, I say, you look upon this verse,

When I perhaps compounded am with clay,

Do not so much as my poor name rehearse;

But let your love e’en with my life decay;

   Lest the wise world should look int’ your moan,

   And mock you with me after I am gone.

— Shakespeare, Sonnet 71