Whirled Musings

Across the Universe with Cosmic Connie, aka Connie L. Schmidt...or maybe just through the dung-filled streets and murky swamps of pop culture -- more specifically, the New-Age/New-Wage crowd, pop spirituality & religion, pop psychology, self(ish)-help, business babble, media silliness, & related (or occasionally unrelated) matters of consequence. Hope you're wearing boots. (By the way, the "Cosmic" bit in my moniker is IRONIC.)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Bat sh-t crazy?

I'm working on a real blog post – yet another follow-up to a wacko promiscuous-sex cult I've written about before
but meanwhile, here's something batty from the world's most respected news source, The Onion:

http://www.theonion.com/content/video/breaking_news_bat_loose_in

And speaking of bats, a well-known New-Wage guru may have hit upon a new discovery (or, rather, the discovery hit upon him): an organic way to expand one's vision, as it were, via bat poop:

http://twitter.com/mrfire/status/4458557210

Who knows what miraculous health-supplement product ideas that incident might have inspired?

And now that we're on the subject of poop, Ron and I found an unfamiliar-looking piece of dark, crumbly, and very interestingly textured poop in our garage the other day. We probably should have shot a few pics of it (would that be considered a "crap shoot"?), but alas, we didn't. We do know that it wasn't the product of one of our domestic quadrupeds, and it wasn't from a possum. After doing several minutes of intensive research on the Net, I found a picture that closely resembled the turd that was in our garage, and the bad news is that it appears to be the work of a skunk (though alternatively, it might be from a raccoon). I am reasonably certain, however, that it wasn't from a bat.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

The REAL secret to happiness and peace

My pal Mojo, whose Craptacular blog never fails to delight, sent me a link to a Zippy the Pinhead comic that, although not specifically a commentary on New-Wage culture, elegantly portrays the ignore-the-mainstream media trend embraced by so many New-Wagers and hustledorks in recent months.

But enough babbling. Here's the link to the Zippy strip.


You're welcome.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Russian to judgment?

Note: I've made some changes and additions to the "Anastasia" segment since I first published this post.
~CC, 24 September 2009

I've been doing a lot of soul-searching lately, and I have to own up to my tendency to be entirely too judgmental at times, in the sense that when I read about New-Wagers, I am entirely too willing to judge them for being a bit mental. I know I really need to be more open-minded about this stuff, especially since we're about to enter a new era of humankind and so forth, and some of the nutjobs visionaries I've snarked about could very well be the wayshowers who will lead us into the new era. I've been thinking more deeply* about these issues since I wrote my Russia-themed post the other day. Say what you will about Russia, in recent years there have been tons of remarkable things happening there, spirituality-wise. I mentioned some of these in passing in my previous post, and I've written about one of them extensively in a couple of other posts, but I think they all deserve a closer and more reverent look.**

"I smell dead people..."
Consider, for instance,
Pyotr Kuznetzov, a former engineer who until fairly recently was the head of a dynamic though smallish underground movement, and when I say "underground," I mean it literally. Pyotr was able to persuade a group of about thirty-five souls, mostly women and a few children, to abandon their homes and most of their material possessions and, in November of 2007, to move into an underground cave about 600 kilometers (375 miles) southeast of Moscow. Actually it was a tunnel, complete with bedrooms and a ventilation system, that Pyotr designed and constructed under the roots of a tree.

Why would he do such a thing? It was that menacing Apocalypse, you see, which Pyotr informed his disciples was set to occur in May of 2008, at which time the Devil would finally get his due. The alarming thing, according to Pyotr, was that in the months leading up to the big event, the human race was going to be overtaken by waves of cannibalism and a desire to have frequent sex, though he didn't say how or if these two phenomena would intersect. Pyotr told his followers that they'd better get themselves underground to avoid those horrors. And so they did, proclaiming themselves to be the True Russian Orthodox Church. They apparently lived mainly on honey and jam, and were forbidden to watch TV, which probably didn't matter so much, considering that the reception down there might not be so great anyway. They were also forbidden to listen to the radio or handle money, and plastic was verboten as well; Church members believed, as did their leader, that credit cards and the bar codes on food packaging were Satanic. (In regard to credit cards, I have to say that I can almost see their point.)

Interestingly enough, Pyotr, or Father Pyotr, as he was known to his followers, did not join them underground. My first thought when I read this was that he stayed on the surface so he could minister to some of those sex-mad women who would be swarming the streets on their way to the Apocalypse – a ministry that was certainly a noble calling, and someone had to have the courage to do it. But that is just wild speculation on my part, and you know how unreliable I can be. Others have speculated that, being a structural engineer by training, Father Pyotr was aware that a cave built under the roots of a tree might not be the most structurally sound place to be. But Pyotr merely said that God had given him "different tasks." At any rate, the Russian authorities, as well as friends and relatives of the cave dwellers, and even a Russian priest who specialized in the Apocalypse, repeatedly tried to get Pyotr's disciples to come out of the cave. But their efforts were met with gunshots, and the cave people threatened to blow themselves up. Now, we know how that would have ended if this had happened in the United States, but the Russian authorities chose to just let them be, more or less, though they didn't give up in their efforts to persuade them to resurface or, lacking that, at least to let the little children go. For their part, and despite being called "cult members," the cave dwellers considered themselves to be Orthodox Christians who were simply saving themselves from the evils that were to come to all who remained on the surface.

The weather grew colder, but the hardy followers braved the bitter winter. The following spring, however, as the snows began to melt, the roof of the True Russian Orthodox Church people's underground world started to cave in, as local geologists had been warning it would probably do. This frightened some of the cave dwellers enough to convince them to emerge from their shelter. Pyotr was apparently upset that his Church was falling apart (literally) and his vision sullied, and, more importantly, that the Apocalypse was not coming to pass as he had predicted it would. Even the boldest leaders sometimes have moments of agonizing self-doubt and true dark nights of the soul, and Father Pyotr was no exception. It seems he attempted suicide by repeatedly hitting himself on the head with a log after his followers began coming to the surface. Other reports said he was attacked by some female cult members who hit him with a log. What seems clear is that he had an unfortunate run-in with a log, and ended up in the hospital as a result. No one ever said that being a visionary spiritual leader is easy.

The Russian authorities and numerous friends and relatives of the cave people continued in their efforts to get them all to come out. Finally, in mid-May of 2008, the authorities, friends, and relatives got their wish as the remaining members of the True Russian Orthodox Church returned to the surface. Apparently, however, it wasn't because the Church members were disillusioned by the realization that May was halfway over and there were indications that their leader had, after all, been wrong. No, they left because the stench of two of their cave mates who had died a while back – one from severe fasting for Lent, and the other from cancer – finally became unbearable. So bad was the smell that it was even noticeable above ground, so you can imagine how it must have been to the cave dwellers. And so, six months after they had descended, the last keepers of Pyotr's bold vision broke the faith and came out of their hiding place.

As for poor Father Pyotr, he was declared to be suffering from schizophrenia and was held in a psychiatric hospital for treatment. Isn't that often the case with visionary leaders? Sigh...the secular world just does not understand.

Rus' Resurrecting: Putin a new face on worship
While it seems that the era of Father Pyotr's True Russian Orthodox Church has passed (although I don't think we should take anything for granted, given the general spiritual milieu in Mother Russia), other mystical movements are alive and well in that strange and vast land of ice and fire. For one group, Russia's former president and current Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, is The Chosen One. The Putin worshipers perform daily devotions to a "Presidential icon" (or would it now be a "Prime Ministerial icon?") that mysteriously appeared to them one day. They believe that Putin is the reincarnation of both the Apostle Paul and King Solomon.

The "Mother Superior" of the sect is Svetlana Frolova, aka "Mother Photinia," who says that she and her followers didn't choose Putin; God did. When Boris Yeltsin named Putin as his successor, Mother Photinia's soul just exploded with joy. And the rest is history, or heresy, depending upon your point of view.

As for Mother Photinia, she apparently did some prison time for fraud back in the 1990s. But that was then, and this is now. I'm sure that serial scammer health and nutrition crusader Kevin Trudeau could tell you that a little bit of time in the pen is utterly irrelevant when it comes to spreading The Truth.

In the Year of Our Lord, 49...
Though my Jewish friends currently observing Rosh Hashanah
are welcoming in the year 5770, and it is 2009 according to the Gregorian calendar, for a growing group of devotees in Russia it is only the year 49. That is because their leader, an ex-cop named Sergei Torop, now known as Vissarion, has convinced thousands of people that he is Jesus H. Christ Himself. And for followers of this Jesus of Siberia, this Messiah of the Steppes, time is measured by the life of Vissarion.

He says he realised that God had sent him to Earth to teach mankind about the evils of war and the havoc we were wreaking on the environment.

With Christmas abolished his followers mark the day of his first sermon on August 18 as their special feast day.

Time in the community is measured by Vissarion’s life and so as he is 48 years old his Church is now living in year 49.

His followers, who have given up their lives to follow him, are strict vegans and are banned from smoking and drinking or handling money.

Around 300 of them live in wooden huts in the village that has grown up around his church and which does not appear on any maps.

Many thousands more have made their homes in the small villages that surround Petropavlovka and survive the vicious Siberian winters so that they can be close to their Messiah.

Hmmm....banned from handling money.... shades of Pater Pyotr?

For Russians to whom Vissarion doesn't appeal, there are many more Jesuses to choose from, as blogger Andy Hume writes on Jewcy.com.

(Is it just me, or does the old woman in the pic above bear a remarkable resemblance to Monty Python's Eric Idle?)

Anastasia: real because thousands say she is
"In general, it is impossible to stop the Ringing Cedars movement, just as it is impossible to stop the sun from rising, as it is impossible to stop the moon from rising. But it's possible to fight the movement, to slander it, to speak badly of it, cast suspicion on it. And perhaps there are some forces that somehow, for some reason, are acting in this way."
~ Vladimir Megré, perpetrator of the Anastasia/Ringing Cedars phenomenon


Finally, when I'm wrong, Dear Ones, I'm not afraid to admit it, and I was wrong, wrong, wrong when I suggested, back in April of 2007, that in order to get the greatest mileage out of his New-Wage scheme, Russian entrepreneur Vladimir Megré should have invented a disembodied or Ascended imaginary friend (a la Abraham-Hicks) rather than a supposedly living one like Anastasia. I speculated that hordes of folks would be traveling to the remote Russian forest where Megré's lovely blonde babe is allegedly holed up, in order to see for themselves if she really exists. I imagined that Vlad might eventually have some serious credibility issues because he gave too many details about Anastasia, details that, in theory, could be subject to intense scrutiny.

Well, I was wrong, at least regarding my speculation that credibility issues would be in any way deleterious to the Anastasia myth. The truth about Anastasia's existence is this: It. Does. Not. Matter. Whether she literally "exists" or not is completely irrelevant, because the Anastasia movement, originally inspired by Megré's series of books on the flaxen-haired recluse, has torn like a wildfire across Russia, some parts of Europe and, more recently, North America as well. Vlad's made-up gal pal has become not only the basis for a growing sustainable-living movement, but also for a bona fide religion, complete with rituals and practices, such as, in some cases, smearing oneself with mud, to symbolize the sanctity of Mother Earth. Part New-Age, part environmentalist, the Ansastasian movement is kind of like the Findhorn movement (which originated in Scotland), but it seems to be growing much more rapidly. It has even made its mark on Russian politics.

Stateside, devotees in Ashland, Oregon and Mt. Shasta, California have been busily engaged for the past couple of years in setting up an Anastasia-inspired eco-village (or Kin's Domain, in Anastasian parlance). The challenges in the beginning were daunting:

Here in Oregon we are working on a plan to create a Kin’s Domain on several hundred acres of land. The logistical challenges around doing this are extraordinary, but by the grace of Anastasia we will succeed! Some of the biggest challenges seems to be dealing with local and state zoning ordinances, urban growth boundries [sic] and money.

"By the grace of Anastasia"?!? See what I mean about the religion bit?

Logistics aside, nothing can stop a movement whose time has come, and in September of 2007, one of the leaders of the project wrote:

The wave has finally hit Ashland. The hundreth monkey has been realized here. After our meeting last night and the inspiration and information that was downloaded I am now confident that everyone in Ashland / Mt. Shasta will know about Anastasia. Our work has shifted to a new gear now and we can start to focus more energy onto implementing her ideas.

On 15 May, 2008, there came this "breaking news" (all-caps theirs):

THE ANASTASIA ECO-SETTLEMENT PROJECT HAS FOUND ITS HOME IN NORTH AMERICA ON SACRED MOTHERLAND!!! MANY GREAT THANKS TO ALL OF YOU WHO CONTRIBUTED TO THIS SUCCESS AND TO MANY WHO HAVE SUPPORTED THIS DREAM AND VISION WITH YOUR LOVE FROM NEAR & FAR. SHAMBHALA-SHASTA COMMUNITY HAS TAKEN BACK 466 ACRES OF PRISTINE MOTHERLAND. FREE AND CLEAR. NO DEBT. NO ENCUMBRANCES. NO LIENS. FREE AND CLEAR!!!

In case you're interested in joining the community, here's their Settler Sign-up Form.

I have to tell you that some things have shifted a bit since I first reported about 'Stasia and Vlad in Spring of 2007. F'rinstance, in my zeal to appeal to the lowest common denominator, I made a big deal out of Anastasia being nude or nearly nude. And, indeed, she was portrayed as a scantily dressed nymphet on the rather cheesy covers of the original English-language editions of the books. Now, however, the nekkid bit is being de-emphasized. And the books have been given more modern-looking, artsy covers, apparently in an effort to appeal to a broader market, make the books look less like either children's books or fantasy novels, and avoid offending the easily offended – although nudity does not seem to be the main offensive factor, judging from the way it was 'splained on the FAQ page of the Ringing Cedars Books web site:

Why did the publisher change the covers?
The first edition covers were not commissioned works. The artist (an entomologist specializing in the study of butterflies) was inspired to produce these images after reading the books in Russian. The publisher—Dr Leonid Sharashkin—selected these images for their authenticity of feeling—especially the artist's obvious reverence for Nature.

Many people judge a book by its cover. Many have judged these to be children's books or fantasy novels. The image of a "white" woman in a short dress was found to be offensive to some nationalities. Major international wholesalers said they would not distribute books with such covers because the "Russian look and feel" suggested a story not necessarily appealing or applicable to Western readers. The list goes on…

In summary, since the books contain such important and valuable information, relevant to readers everywhere in the world, the publisher has released the second revised edition in "new clothes", with the hope that many more people will be able to enjoy these books.

Regarding Ana's alleged nekkidity, even Mt. Shasta Anastasians seem drawn to the more modestly attired "Anastasia in a dress," who looks for all the world like a chaste teenager on her way to the local Renaissance Festival.

But, getting back to the original issue: even though it really doesn't matter (and, many would argue, shouldn't matter) whether or not Anastasia is "real," her existence apparently remains a matter of concern for some. This is so despite the clear implication, in this copy from the Ringing Cedars Press web site, that more than one other person has actually seen her:

She consistently displays the most developed psychic and mental powers including remote viewing and healing, mind reading and seemingly perfect memory. When challenged to solve some of society's most complex social, health and environmental problems, after only a few minutes lying on her back on the ground, with eyes closed and just her fingertips twitching, she has provided answers in such incredible detail, that witnesses have been left flabbergasted.

She says these powers are natural to Mankind and in these books she describes exactly how they may be regained by any one of us.

Granted, the copy doesn't specify exactly who the flabbergasted witnesses are, but I am sure they are very reliable, or they wouldn't be mentioned on the Ringing Cedars Press web site. For those who still might be in doubt, Dr. Leonid Sharaskin, aka "Dr. Leo," Vlad Megré's translator and the founder of Ringing Cedars Press, conducts $300.00 workshops in which, among other things, he discusses the matter of Anastasia's existence:

Session 8. The Return of Anastasia

  • This is Dr. Leonid Sharashkin's awe–instilling one–and–a–half–hour–long answer to the question as to whether Anastasia really exists.
  • Learn from Leonid's years of scrupulous scholarly research of the Anastasia phenomenon and expand your understanding of who she is well beyond anything you can read in the Ringing Cedars books.

You might be wondering why it takes a whole hour and a half for Dr. Leo to answer a simple question. I wondered the same thing. But maybe it's a far more complicated matter than our puny and limited consciousnesses are able to fathom.

In an article published in 2005 (a few years before the Anastasian eco-villages had caught the fancy of some Russian politicos), Megré attempted to 'splain why Anastasia hadn't proven her existence by, for example, appearing on television. "What TV station would be willing to give her air time?" he asks, by way of explanation. And he answers his own question:

Not one, I can assure you. You can try to speak with the television networks yourselves. Another question: Would you want to watch Anastasia's appearances mixed in with commercials for diapers, orbits, and beer?

Would the networks allow Anastasia to speak if she would say that the products being advertised are harmful to people?

What do you think the reviews of Anastasia's appearance would be like? Judging by the organized persecution that occurs in the press, it is clear what they would be.

Vlad also wrote that after two of the Anastasia books had been written, various female preachers emerged and claimed to be Anastasia. At least one was bad-mouthing him, claiming that Vlad had stolen her thoughts and was now writing books based on her ideas. The nerve of some people. Anyway, if you still harbor doubts of your own about whether or not Anastasia is real, you simply must read Vlad's article, which will erase your doubts entirely.

Or maybe it won't. In fact, I am sorry to tell you that even some passionate fans of the Anastasia books question whether the books are fiction or nonfiction. For example, take a look at this discussion on the Ringing Cedars forum. The person initiating the thread was feeling duped after reading a December 2007 interview in which Megré seemed to be explaining the real inspiration for his Anastasia fantasy.

MEGRE: I used to be a businessman. In general, I'm like that by nature. Then I had the good fortune to meet people like Agafia Lykova, who live in the taiga, far from any cities. Agafia herself was taken by force from her squatter's holding. She became ill. And went back. Where she continues to live peacefully. People like this interested me very much. But I noticed that everyone, including Vasiliy Peskov, wrote about the difficulties of their way of life. I, on the other hand, decided to write about their philosophy. This excited me so much that I gave up my entire business. I sat down for a year and wrote Anastasia.

Another participant had this to say to the disillusioned originator of the thread:

As if she is real or not we will probably never know. Even if it was all made up you need to ask yourself why you would be so upset if it was just a story. Granted no one likes to be told they are reading a true story only to find out later it was all made up. But if for any reason's [sic] it does upset you, you really need to ask yourself why? What was it from the story you needed to be true? Why would you put a story, real or unreal, ahead of yourself?

I would comment on that comment, but I think it pretty much speaks for itself. At any rate, the participants seem to be fairly evenly divided between believing Anastasia is real and thinking she may be a figment of Vlad's imagination. Several, however, say that they don't care either way, because they enjoy the books anyway and believe in the ideals discussed therein.*** It kind of reminds me of the endless arguments among fans of pop singer Clay Aiken before and after he officially came out and admitted he is gay. Before his self-outing, opinions on the fan boards were divided among those who thought he might be gay; those who indignantly insisted he isn't (because he's a good Christian, and besides, on numerous occasions he publicly SAID he's not gay); and those who said they didn't care either way because Clay is such a talented and good person who truly wants to make a difference. After he finally admitted his gayness to People Magazine, fans were divided between those who were outraged and grievously disappointed, and those who said they didn't care either way because Clay is such a talented and good person who truly wants to make a difference. But I digress.

For those who remain curious about Vlad Megré himself, good luck finding anything substantial about his earlier life, of which "little is known," as they say, leading one to wonder if even Vlad himself is ignorant of his past. There are, however, several lengthy "interviews" with Megré in which he expresses his thoughts on the Anastasia phenomenon and on his own troubles with detractors. Actually, these "interviews" are conversations between Megré and one of his admirers, psychotherapist/physical therapist/"Master Executive Coach" Regina Jensen, Ph.D. It appears that all of these exchanges were expressly produced for Ringing Cedars' online publication, The EARTH Newspaper, which means, of course, that they are an unimpeachable source of truth. (If the language sounds a bit stilted and awkward in places, that is no doubt due to the fact that it is a translation; Vlad, we're told, only speaks and reads Russian.)

Among other issues, Vlad and Regina discussed the Big One, Anastasia's existence, in a conversation that took place at a Ringing Cedars conference in Turkey in 2008. You can see how Regina is enabling Vlad's perpetuation of the Anastasia fantasy...er...I mean, how she is helping Vlad clarify his policies regarding Anastasia:

Regina Jensen: Vladimir Nikolayevich, I personally hope that Anastasia does not make herself available to the curious public any more than she already has. Carl Gustav Jung, a celebrated author, analyst and psychologist said a long time ago that "people can die from mass-projection," such as people of great fame who are exposed to the masses of images which others project upon them day and night. While Anastasia, more than anyone on this planet, can protect herself from such onslaughts very well, don't you agree we need not burden her any more than we already have with unnecessary demands?

Vladimir Megre: I don't think she is afraid of these onslaughts, after all, she herself said, "Evil of the world, leave your works, rush to me, try, I am alone before you, conquer for the sake of conquering, everyone fall on me, there will be battles without battles," and so on, and so forth. She is not afraid of this.

As far as "making herself available" goes, I think that it is impossible for her to make herself available to the public more than she already has. Judge for yourself, a person emerges onto the public stage and says, "Look, it's me." He stands before the people, everyone looks at him. "So you've emerged, you're standing here, and now what?" People see some person in front of them, they don't know his thoughts, what his personality is like, what he has on his mind, what he has planned, they see only the body before them! What does this give them? Nothing, of course.

Here in Europe, Canada, America, Russia, the countries of the CIS, the Baltic states, and Israel, so many different people all around the world have begun to understand each other without knowing each other's language only by saying the word "Anastasia." She is not making herself available, she has not become a "goddess" - she has become a friend, simply a friend.

So, how much more can she really make herself available? Come out of the kitchen peeling potatoes? Or emerge in such a way that everything around her is illuminated by her radiant thought? I believe that she has made herself available. And what's more, I believe that she will make herself available to each man, but in the image of the woman he loves. And that will really be a masterful entrance!

One point brought out in another 2008 conversation between Vlad and Dr. Jensen is that in the years since the Anastasia books emerged on the scene and started getting more popular, Vlad has had his share of detractors and people who spread awful rumors about him (including, I suppose, those renegade female preachers mentioned above). As he tells Dr. Jensen:

Negative rumors have been circulating about me for as long as ten years. In all this, the mass media have been exploited in the most active manner. I live in Russia. Once, when I was sitting in my garden beneath an apple tree and working on my next book, a neighbor comes up to me in the garden with a newspaper in his hands and says, "Vladimir, you're sitting here, but the newspaper writes that you live in an Egyptian palace surrounded by Mafia gunmen and that you operate a totalitarian sect, and the readers of your books are going out of their minds."

I didn't have to explain anything to my neighbor, he saw with his own eyes that the newspaper was printing a lie. But after only several days, this same article was reprinted by a number of newspapers, including one Canadian newspaper. The Russian District Court told my lawyers that the newspaper had said nothing insulting, the journalist had simply expressed his opinion, and he had the right to do so. But this journalist had not even met with me. The editor of the Canadian newspaper, after Canadian readers appealed to him, and without the intervention of a court, made public apologies.****

Regarding the sharing of this special material, there seems to be an overt, concerted effort not to permit society to discuss the ideas and suggestions set out in the books regarding modern man's urgent need to improve their way of living. The libelous publications never earnestly discuss the issues raised in the books, but speak in uninformed generalities and degrading terms about me and my readers.

Dr. Jensen and Vlad both go on to say that the criticism is the result of people in power not wanting the rest of us to know the truth. Vlad explains to Dr. Jensen:

... the spreading of all sorts of rumors about me are ultimately futile subterfuges to distract people away from the main issues at hand. Moreover even in the first book I disclosed about myself that I am not a saint, that I drank, smoked, flirted with women, and was involved in business. But now I don't. Yes, the blood of the businessman can still begin to rush, only now it is not like before. I am very proud that, with the help of my daughter and son-in-law, I have been able to set up the production of cedar oil according to Anastasia's technology. And I think there are not many products in the world equal to it.

For a long time I was unable to bring it up to the quality of Anastasia's oil, even though the modern technology of a medicinal compounds plant was used. But it soon became clear that it was impossible to obtain the required quality in the city, and it then became necessary to transfer the production to a village in the taiga 100 km from the city...and it worked out. With regard to Anastasia, she is always with me, in my heart, in my soul.

And for untold numbers of passionate devotees, Anastasia's presence in Vlad's heart and soul, not to mention in the pages of his books, is more than enough. I would say that this is pretty darned impressive for what started out as little more than a middle-aged man's wet dream.

* * * * *

Well, Dear Ones, I hope you've enjoyed our Whirledwind tour of Russian mysticism. I know I have, and I know too that I shouldn't have been so snide in writing about Russia the other day, seeing as how the place is so obviously a center of open-minded, openhearted spirituality. Once again I find myself wading in my shallow pool of snark, my tiny voice all but drowned out by the roar of the waves on the deep and endless ocean of outrageous gullibility passionate belief. And in the wake of this stunning realization, I am left, not for the first time, with but one thought: I've gotta find me a scam.

* "Deep" in the sense of my usual profoundly shallow mulling on these matters.
** Okay, so I managed the "closer" look, but you will, I fear, have to search elsewhere for "more reverent." One out of two ain't bad, though.
*** Regarding the fiction v. nonfiction issue, it's also noteworthy that James Redfield's very clumsily written but wildly successful 1993 spiritual novel, The Celestine Prophecy, was marketed from the beginning as fiction. Redfield never claimed it was anything but fiction. Granted, the cover of the trade edition was kind of cagey, bearing the tag line, "An adventure," rather than "A novel." And the blurb above the title was similarly ambiguous. The fact that the story was framed in nine supposedly profound "insights" about life also may have led many readers to treat it as nonfiction. But the cover blurbs were created by the publisher; Redfield himself was pretty straightforward about Celestine being a work of fiction, albeit fiction with a message. In any case, the New-Agey concepts and principles discovered and discussed by the characters in the novel struck a deep and resonant chord in thousands of readers, and The Celestine Prophecy became a major bestseller, spawning a sequel, numerous auxiliary materials, and hundreds of workshops, study groups, meet-ups, and so on (and even, in 2006, a bad movie). A generation before Redfield, Carlos Castaneda captivated spiritual hipsters and even some academicians with his Don Juan wisdom books, which were originally marketed as nonfiction but later revealed to be mostly fiction – not that it mattered to those who believed Castaneda's books contained profound truths. My point is that the categories of "fiction" and "nonfiction" are all but irrelevant when people are so desperately hungry for what they believe to be Greater Truths.
**** Vlad doesn't specify which Canadian newspaper published the original "lies" about him and subsequently made the apologies, nor does he specify how they apologized, and I can't seem to find anything else on the Internet about it. But I'm sure that Vlad wouldn't lie to us. I suppose that like Anastasia's existence, the bit about the Canadian newspaper is just something we'll have to accept on faith.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Parting the rubes from their rubles: a rockstar in Russia

Russia fans keep asking me to sign their ruble notes. They believe it will attract money.
~Joe "Mr. Fire" Vitale on Twitter

NOTE: I've added a few footnotes and links to this post since I first wrote it on September 16. Also see the September 17, October 1, and October 9 addenda.
~CC

Mr. Fire is currently on a Law Of Attraction tour in Russia, and, according to his reports on Twitter, he has been treated like a bona fide celebrity there, with nonstop fans, flowers, and media. He has done press conferences about the Law Of Attraction (LOA) and The Secret, has been on numerous Russian TV shows, and has been filmed for a Russian movie on, as he puts it, "money and spirit." In Moscow he was mobbed at dinner as an "LOA rockstar," and the fans are lining up at his book signings to give him flowers and get him to sign their ruble notes.

But it's not all good, apparently. The killer pace is really getting to him, and he's been having the worst travel experiences of his life, as indicated on some of his recent tweets:

  • Missed flight. Ticket agent fired for it. Stuck in Moscow airport for hours.
  • Made it to Siberia. No palace but in Russia vodka solves all.
  • No wonder celebs turn to booze drugs or death. This pace is nuts. I want to fire all.
  • Interpreter took day off. Tired. What? I'm one doing all work. No day off for me.
  • Race car driver of limo hit bump at warp speed. Sent us into roof. Hurt back.

I know what some of you are saying: "Cry me a river, Josef." Tsk, tsk, you cold-hearted souls. I imagine that numerous others are saying, "Wait just a doggone a minute! Joe Vitale... a rockstar in Russia? You have got to be kidding me." As a matter of fact, more than one friend of mine has remarked on the weirdness of a New-Wage guru being treated like such a celeb anywhere, even in Russia.

To me, however, it doesn't seem all that weird when you consider Russian history and culture. It seems to me that Russia is a market tailor-made for Joe's brand of mystical materialism.

To begin with, Russians have arguably always been more openly accepting of mysticism, the supernatural, and the miraculous than have Westerners. Along with that openness comes, not surprisingly, an extra measure of gullibility, which (to give but one example) goes a long way towards explaining why the profligate and seriously hygiene-impaired faux-monk Rasputin was able to bilk so many people back in the day, including Russia's last Tsaritsa, Alexandra Feodorovna. Even when Russia was under the grip of Communism, and religion and spirituality were officially frowned upon while "scientific Marxism" was officially embraced, the Soviet government was reportedly quite actively engaged in psi/paranormal research, presumably to give them a leg up in the Cold War. Whether this was evidence of open-mindedness and an enlightened attitude, or merely a sign of a secret attraction to woo, is a matter of opinion. (No doubt the US government is/has been involved in the same kind of research, but they’ve never been all that open about it.)

Post-Communism, the willingness to believe just about anything remains steadfast in the Russian collective soul. In fact, Russian belief in the mystical and paranormal seems to have increased in recent years, or at least it is now more openly expressed, according to this report on the first international skeptics' conference in Russia in 2001. And let's not forget that in the years since the Cold War ended, Russia has spawned its share of New-Wage hucksters, most notably, the remarkably inventive Vladimir Megre, who suffered a few failures as an entrepreneur until he found his calling in the imaginary-friends industry. I refer, of course, to Megre's Ringing Cedars series, featuring his woodsy make-believe gal pal Anastasia.*

A few days after initially writing this post, I came across this article on the new Russian mysticism, reprinted from the Globe and Mail (Canada) on the Rick Ross web site. If this doesn't convince you that the Russian market is ripe for a little bit of New-Wage magic, nothing will. Among other things, the author points out that many Russians are quite superstitious, "openly discussing omens and bad luck. It's not uncommon for a Moscow merchant to refuse to handle money after sunset because it is considered bad luck. Customers must instead place their money on the counter." And just wait till you read about some of the wacko "home-grown" cults in Russia, including the apocalyptic cave dwellers, and another group of folks who, believing Prime Minister/ex-President Vladimir Putin to be a reincarnated apostle, perform daily devotions in front of a "presidential icon." The "Anastasians" seem quite sane by comparison. (I'll go into all of this in more detail in my next post.)

What about New-Wage materialism?** Well, even though it has been almost twenty years since the failure of Communism in Russia, many Russians are only now awakening to a new world of possibilities – including, and let's not underestimate this – the possibilities for material wealth. Under Communism, so many had so little, and life was probably pretty grim on a material level for all but the highest government officials, assorted Russian mobsters, and a few other wealthy folk. I imagine that living in such a bleak environment was pretty depressing overall for most people, and not just materially.

Even if this minimalist existence was all they knew, and even if they held to a general belief that the Soviet way was "better" than that of the cravenly capitalist West, surely they had some awareness of the larger world. Surely some must have at least wondered what life was like in a freer society. Chuckle if you will, but I am irresistibly drawn to the video for Elton John’s 1980s hit song “Nikita”; if you can suspend disbelief to the point where you can imagine Elton actually being attracted to a woman (and vice-versa), and if you can get past Elton's silly costumes and the girl's spiky eighties' hairdo and shoulder pads, the song and video can be viewed as a poignant expression of longing for a richer life that once seemed forever beyond the reach of the majority of Soviet citizens. “Oh, Nikita, you will never know/anythin' about my home/I'll never know how good it feels to hold you…"

These days, in theory, "Nikita" would have a much better opportunity to learn about Elton's home, were she so inclined, and to explore the big wide world for herself. She might manage to do it on her own, or she might take the seemingly easy way out and sell herself as a mail-order bride to a wealthy middle-aged American man who's had it with bossy, money-grubbing American gals and wants to make a fresh start with a woman who knows her place. (By the way, the richly informative Moscow Life web site offers some interesting perspectives on the Russian bride phenomenon as well as the gold-digging leggy Russian beauty phenomenon.) In any case, there are now more opportunities for Russians to broaden their horizons than there were in Soviet days. And a whole generation has come of age since the statues of Lenin first began tumbling down.

Yet in the nearly two decades since the Iron Curtain fell, Russia’s economy has been on a roller coaster, and consequently so has Russian society. As a result, in many ways much of Russia’s vast population remains out in the cold, figuratively as well as literally. While there is an intense interest in all things Western – the music, the fashions, the fads, the material dreams – the good life remains elusive for all too many Russians. Now comes Mr. LOA (that would be Joe) to tell ordinary Russians that they too can have the luxury cars and the big mansions and the vacations in a tropical paradise, and perhaps the sublime romance with the perfect soul mate as well – all this, and the ability to bend the Universe to their will. And, luckily for them, he has the books and other products to show them how.

Is it any wonder he's a rockstar in Russia?

I’m sure he has also played on the theme that if a “regular guy” like him could achieve such astounding wealth and success, so can they. No doubt he has shared his tale of former homelessness with them, and no doubt they are duly impressed. My guess is that few if any will stop to consider the possibility that being “homeless” for a few months on the streets of Dallas, Texas (or was it Houston? He has told it both ways) – while retaining the option of going back home to a materially comfortable if emotionally dysfunctional middle-class existence in Ohio – is not at all the same thing as chronic poverty on the harsh tundra, where it often must seem that the only thing between you and the abyss is a half-empty bottle of vodka.***

Nor will many of his new Russian followers pause to really think about the fact that even Joe has often said he struggled for years and years and years. (Following the bout with homelessness, there were ten or so years in poverty, and many more after that with a hit-and-miss approach as both a seller and consumer of endless selfish-help/New-Wage/McSpirituality gimmicks, till he finally hit pay dirt.) He was far from an overnight success, but somehow one has the feeling that in Russia, this fact will get lost in translation. Most importantly, I'm guessing that few of the giddy, flower-bearing Russians, envisioning their own happily-ever-after scenarios, will be even remotely aware of the extent to which Joe and other New-Wage gurus still work their buns off, their continued success depending heavily upon aggressive, relentless, and sometimes desperate-seeming marketing.

When it comes to selling ops, Joe in particular leaves no stone unturned, sending out email blasts nearly every day for one or another of his or his cronies' products. At the beginning of this month, f'rinstance, just before embarking upon the Russia trip, he sent yet another email promoting the ludicrous "Psychic Demand" gimmick that he's been marketing for a couple of years with his buddy Pat O'Bryan. If you haven't read about this scheme yet, do follow the link below to "the most shocking web site of all time," and read all about the "new method" (well, I suppose it's new if you consider something dating from circa 1910 to be new). The whole thing is so classically schlocky that even now I find it hard to believe it is serious, but it must be selling, or Joe wouldn't keep sending emails like this:

I found a technique that's far more powerful than the power of intention.
In fact, intention is for wimps.
I wish I had known this new method when I wrote my book, "The Attractor Factor."
At least I know it now. You can, too.
Go see --
http://www.PsychicDemand.com
If you're ready to achieve results so big that all your friends and family will scratch their head in wonder, then go to that site right now.
You'll love it.
Love,
Joe
PS -- What's more powerful than intention? Go see the most shocking website of all time:
http://www.PsychicDemand.com

And so on. As I said, the selling is nonstop. "So what's your point, CosCon?" you're asking. "There's nothing wrong with marketing and selling, and if you were better at marketing yourself, maybe you'd be more successful too." Point well taken. But my point is that Joe's success story isn't nearly as fantastic in reality as it is in the telling – not that this seems to matter, either in the U.S. or in Russia. And it's easy to understand why Joe's Russian fans, already steeped in a culture rich with folklore and fairy tales, might accept his modern-day fairy tale as absolute truth. It's easy to see how that tale might ignite in them a desire for a life as fun and carefree as the one Joe claims to enjoy (notwithstanding those moments when he is being hurled about in a Russian limo, or stranded at a Moscow airport for hours, or abandoned by his interpreter). Indeed, from a marketing standpoint his choice to go to Russia was a brilliant one; the only puzzle is that more of the New-Wage gurus haven't exploited this deep, rich mine (though apparently numerous other foreigners of the spiritual-huckster persuasion have, in the years since the Soviet Union collapsed). Heck, even you and I could probably be rockstars in the Land of the Firebird if we only had a good mystical shtick, and/or a way to convince large numbers of desperate or discontented Russians that we possess some great secret to make them as rich as the Russian mafiosi.

I’m not saying it is entirely a bad thing to introduce people to new ideas that will, perhaps, give them hope. The question, as always, is, how realistic is that hope? And the greater question is, does the world really need a whole nation of Russian hustledorks?

I'd say the answer to question number two is a big nyet.

As for the nightmarish travel experiences in Russia that Joe has repeatedly tweeted about (and that he even asked his Twitter followers to “clean” on (presumably with Ho'oponopono)), I wonder if he believes that he “attracted” all of that trouble, and if so, if he has asked himself why he might have “attracted” it. Alternatively, I wonder if he might be willing to consider that in a huge country where the past and the future sometimes collide in bizarre ways, where everything is in a state of flux and the infrastructure in many areas is dysfunctional at best, sometimes s--t just happens – despite all the “cleaning” and chanting and other rituals a New-Wage rockstar and his fawning fans can perform.

PS ~ I know I provided these links above, but here it is again for your convenience: For additional offerings from Russia with love, you must, if you've not done so already, read about the remarkable naked blonde wild woman, Anastasia, who first showed up on my Whirled in March and April of 2007.
PPS added later ~ For still more Musings about Anastasia, see my next post (final item).

*****
Addendum, 17 September 2009: My first commenter to this post, named "Anon" as so many of them are, made me think about my tendency to jump to conclusions and make generalizations. Although of course I do this to make a point, and I think most of my regular readers (dare I say "fans"?) will probably understand this, perhaps a few disclaimers are in order nevertheless. First, although I have long been fascinated with Russian history and culture, in part because I have Russian roots of my own (as does my partner Ron), and in part because an ex-boyfriend of mine got me interested in Russia long ago, I am not even remotely an expert on anything Russian. My opinions and observations, expressed through admittedly sweeping statements about Russia's past and present, are those of an outsider making what I nonetheless think are some educated guesses. That's why I welcome insights from those who are experts, or at least who have firsthand experience with any of what I've written about in this post.

Secondly, for those who think I may have been singling out the Russian people for special insults, particularly by pointing out what I see as a singularly Russian propensity for belief and acceptance of the mystical, that was not my intention either. I know as well as anyone that Russians have no monopoly on gullibility, and I am sure that not everyone in Russia is into woo; moreover, I realize that there is a great deal of serious scientific research going on in Russia. In fact, anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows that I look upon the U.S. as Ground Zero for New-Wage gullibility and selfish-help schemes.

Further, notwithstanding my Anon commenter's remark, my post was not an expression of "post-Cold-War smugness." I'm not even sure the Cold War is indeed over, and I know that Communism/Marxism are not dead on this planet, perhaps not even moribund. (I keep remembering Leonard Cohen's song, "The Future," which imagines a longing for the return of the Cold War, when the major powers thought they knew who "the enemy" was.)

Nor, despite the imagery in my paragraph discussing homelessness and poverty, do I believe that the vast majority of Russians are living in bleak circumstances on the tundra, wasting their lives away with a bottle of vodka. It seems obvious that there is a vibrant life in the cities, particularly Moscow and St. Petersburg, and there is a growing middle class in Russia – a consumer class, which really only enforces some of the other points I've made in this post.

Finally, as someone else pointed out to me privately, there is always the chance that Joe Vitale may have been exaggerating some of the stuff about the "rockstar treatment" and being "mobbed" at dinner (not that he's ever been known to exaggerate before, mind you)****, which would render my entire post somewhat less relevant. I'll just have to wait and see what else, if anything, I hear. As I noted in my response to my first Anon, I'm open to hearing from all.

Addendum, 1 October 2009: On a blog post entitled "Russia Questions," written after he got home and was somewhat recovered from his travels (and travails), Mr. Fire revealed some of the tough questions he was asked by Russian audiences and press. One of these questions almost certainly reflects the post-Cold War ambivalence many Russians have regarding Western-style consumerism, but never fear: Joe has the perfect rejoinder.

Q. Are you creating a culture of consumerism?
A. Consumerism is a negative word for a positive trend. When people buy something to enrich their lives, they are showing they respect themselves. But you can poison that positive by calling it something negative, like consumerism.

'Nuff said. Joe wraps up his post with a cliffhanger:

I was fascinated by Russia (the little I saw of it), but I had to leave it unexpectedly and in great danger. Soon I’ll post an account of my harrowing escape.

Stay tuned.

While his fans breathlessly await the rest of the story, let me offer another one of my wild guesses. Would that "great danger" be a simple matter of a tourist visa about to expire? I'm just going by what he wrote in a September 22 Twitter entry: "Scrambling to leave Russia. Visa expires tonite. Headed to Finland. Send love."

Now, according to information I read on the Moscow Life web site, an expired Russian visa is a monstrous inconvenience and extra expense, but hardly a "great danger"...

Getting a visa to enter Russia may be one of the most difficult processes, next to getting one to exit Russia if your visa expires...

...First, you can stay in Russia on a tourist visa for up to 30 days, so when applying be sure to fill in the maximum time possible, regardless of what a Russian consulate tells you. Second, you cannot renew a tourist visa! Which brings us to our most important point (and hard-earned lesson): never overstay your Russian visa!

...Against all logic, if you've overstayed your Russian visa, you're actually NOT allowed to leave the country. That's right, even though you're no longer there legally, and any other country would just kick you right out, in Russia you actually have to stay in the country longer to get an exit visa so that you can leave...

...We hate to say 'we told you so', but if you overstayed your visa, it will cost you. The price of an exit visa has been known to vary from 300 to 3000 roubles [under current exchange rates, approx. $9.95 to $99.50 USD] or more, depending largely on the whim of the immigration officer handling your case. In addition to having to stand in queues for hours to even hand in your documents, there's the amount of time you'll lose being stuck in Russia (which we normally wouldn't complain about, but it's not a pleasant experience when you have plans to be somewhere else at the time)...

But I have to admit that "great danger" makes for a much better story, whether framed as a true suspense tale or told with a wink and a nod to Joe's heroes, the nineteenth-century impresarios and twentieth-century ad men who were such marvelous storytellers. And I doubt that anyone has ever accused Joe of not being a good storyteller.

Addendum, 9 October 2009: Here at last is a link to Joe's blog post about what happened in Russia (and didn't stay in Russia). And here's a link to my comments about the story. One point I've picked up was that travel in Russia can be pretty dicey, particularly for Americans, it seems, if every detail isn't handled correctly. This page from the U.S. State Department paints a somewhat grimmer picture than the Moscow Life page I cited earlier. So...was I a bit off-base after all with some of my speculations that Joe's claims of "danger" were exaggerated? Maybe. I really want to be fair here. In any case, you can read his post and draw your own conclusions. If nothing else, Joe does provide a good cautionary tale for Americans planning on traveling to Russia.

* As it happens, Vladimir Megre's imaginary Russian babe Anastasia (or, rather, Megre's enterprising "ringing-cedar" products company, which is milking the Anastasia fairy tale for all it's worth) sells a sea-buckthorn berry oil extract, for only $45.80 (US) for a 3.5-oz (100 g) bottle. The berry extract is combined with the magic "ringing cedar" oil that forms the basis of Vlad's international mail-order business. I really shouldn't call Vlad a failed businessman at all, since he has obviously found a great gimmick, what with the Anastasia books, which just happen to mention the marvelous benefits of products derived from the "ringing cedars" (actually a species of Siberian pine). With those titillating visions of the mysterious nude nature girl, I imagine the products practically sell themselves.

By remarkable coincidence, Mr. Fire, according to one of his Twitter entries, told a Russian audience that "the cleaning tool for Russia" is Siberian sea-buckthorn berry. In his October 1 blog post, which he wrote after returning from Russia, he elaborates. According to him, his recommendation was a response to a question he was asked:

Q. Are there any new clearing tools since writing Zero Limits?
Yes. I’m inspired to say Russians are to eat or drink the Siberian berry, Sea-Buckthorn.

Uh-huh. Would "inspired to say" be code for, "I'm in an MLM scheme to sell products made from this magical berry, and I'll be glad to sell a bunch of 'em to you?"

** Re materialism: I understand that some Russians are turning to spirituality and mysticism in an attempt to escape from what they view as the crass materialism of modern life, but, as in the U.S., many others have no problem combining spirituality and materiality. In other words, they're New-Wagers in training.

*** Lest you think I'm stereotyping about Russians and vodka, well, even Russia's newest rockstar wrote, "In Russia, vodka solves all." And consider this, from the Nomad Journal Trips web site:

A quick word of warning for those intending to travel to Russia. Everything you have heard about the amount of vodka consumed in Russia is wrong. The simple truth is Russians drink much more then you’ve been told. You will be expected to join in the toasting to love, mom, vodka, fill in your favorite sports team, etc. Refusal to join in will be considered rude and an insult. It is strongly recommended that you practice drinking shots before going in for Russia travel. I’m very serious.

**** That was sarcasm.

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Friday, September 11, 2009

On arrogance, atonement, and ambivalence

This paradox lies at the heart of so much of public life: individuals of dubious character and cruel deeds may redeem themselves in selfless actions. Fidelity to a personal code of morality would seem to fade in significance as the public sphere, like an enormous sun, blinds us to all else.
~Joyce Carol Oates, in an essay penned after Teddy Kennedy's death


This isn't normally a political blog, but a few politicky matters have been on my mind in recent weeks, most notably, the death last month of Senator Edward Kennedy. I know this topic has already been blogged within an inch of its life, so I hope you'll bear with me for weighing in with still more. In any case, this isn't really about politics. In fact, I'm not sure exactly what all this post is about, or even exactly what points I am trying to make, and I'd better warn you right off the bat that I will probably be all over the place with this one. I just felt a need to start writing and see where it goes. So here it goes...

As I noted on a recent discussion on Steve Salerno's SHAMblog, I neither canonize nor demonize Ted Kennedy, but, like many Americans, I have at times bought into the sheer romance of the Kennedy myth. How could I not? Apart from their public lives as progressives, idealists, altruists, and torchbearers of compassion, the private lives of this perfectly lovely and deeply haunted family have constantly been on parade as well, for much of the past century and all of this one so far. While detractors almost gleefully focus on the royal screw-ups, the drunkenness, and the perceived depravity, the more lasting Kennedy images, for many, have been more wholesome and so thoroughly American: the sun-kissed skin and tousled hair and radiant toothy smiles, the touch football games on the sprawling lawn of the huge family compound, the sailing jaunts on Nantucket Sound. (Non-fans might point out that even the loveliness is transitory, for as they age, Kennedy women tend to get sun-baked and leathery, while the men just get red and bloated.)

Even for Kennedy lovers the picture is bittersweet, because, of course, there are the tragedies as well. This only makes the Kennedy family saga all the more compelling to some romanticists who can't get away from the Camelot metaphor. Well, I say Camelot, Schmamelot; I know the real story. Many years ago, a mystical-minded artist friend of mine – the very same person who got me into New-Age stuff in the first place – told me that he had it on good authority, from another mystic he knew, that the Kennedy family is in fact a reincarnation of some branch or other of the great Hapsburg (alternative spelling: Habsburg) dynasty of Europe. This, he said, explains the thread of tragedy woven throughout the Kennedy family story, as well as their amazing penchant for do-goodism; these are all karmic phenomena to balance out the cruelty and decadance of that old dynasty. Some would argue that some of the Kennedy men have done their part to keep the tradition of decadence alive and well, though apparently not in the incestuous way of the Spanish Hapsburgs. And some would contend that the tragedies suffered by the Kennedy family were karma for their own misdeeds in this life. Joe Kennedy Senior alone apparently racked up enough bad karma to last for generations, including arranging to have his own daughter Rosemary lobotomized in the crude way that it was done in the early 1940s, and then hiding her away forever. But that's another story...

All mythology, metaphor, and mysticism aside, even many conservatives agree that despite his private failings, Ted Kennedy did an enormous amount of good in his decades of public life. And for the benefit of those who scoff at the notion that a member of the plutocracy can truly identify with the less fortunate, I think that it is indeed possible for a person to be extraordinarily wealthy and still have genuine compassion for those who are not. I think of one of our late local (Texas) heroes, Marvin Zindler who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth as well, but never forgot that "it's hell to be poor." Throughout his long life, Marvin never stopped working on behalf of the downtrodden. The same can truthfully be said of Ted Kennedy. Despite his wealth and access to the best that life had to offer (including, of course, the very best health care), he did seem to have the ability to truly empathize with the majority who weren't so fortunate. As President Obama said in his September 9 speech to Congress, regarding Kennedy's passion for health care reform*...

...Ted Kennedy's passion was born not of some rigid ideology, but of his own experience. It was the experience of having two children stricken with cancer. He never forgot the sheer terror and helplessness that any parent feels when a child is badly sick. And he was able to imagine what it must be like for those without insurance, what it would be like to have to say to a wife or a child or an aging parent, there is something that could make you better, but I just can't afford it.

For me, it really isn't so difficult to believe that someone born to wealth and privilege can actually care about those who weren't.

Oh, black water...
Without vilifying Kennedy or his legacy in any way, however, I still cannot get
Mary Jo Kopechne out of my mind. I'm looking again, as I have so many times over the past couple of weeks, at the cover of the August 1, 1969 issue of Time magazine, which I rescued years ago from the chaos of my mother's house. There we see a gritty black-and-white photo of Teddy, still in a neck brace, looking grim after Mary Jo's funeral. A diagonal banner on the upper right-hand corner reads, "The Kennedy Debacle: A Girl Dead, A Career In Jeopardy." Yes, even though she was eight days shy of her twenty-ninth birthday at the time she died, Time referred to Mary Jo as "a girl," probably because she was unmarried. That was simply one of the conventions of journalese in those last days before the new wave of feminism hit.

In the decades since Teddy's black 1967 Oldsmobile plunged into the cold waters of Poucha Pond, countless magazine and newspaper articles have been written about the incident, as well as more than fifteen books, including a fictionalized treatment, Black Water, by the prolific novelist Joyce Carol Oates. (Here is the link to the essay quoted above, which Oates wrote after Kennedy's death.)

Today many folks are saying, "Enough already; it's ancient history." But I wonder, as so many others have, what Mary Jo's family (if any are left) and her friends have been thinking these past few weeks, what with all of the accolades and tributes and such. They have, it seems, been silent on the matter, even as they've kept mostly silent for the past several decades. But surely they have opinions, and I wonder if they believe that Teddy's decades of good works in any way atoned for what happened that night at Chappaquiddick.

As might be expected, the consensus among Kennedy's fans and admirers is yes, while his detractors indignantly say no. Not surprisingly, most people's opinions about the matter – at least in the U.S. – seem tied to their own political and/or religious leanings. As columnist Kathleen Parker wrote recently, regarding those who tend to vilify Kennedy (particularly on moral/religious grounds):

One can’t help wondering, nonetheless, how those same Old Testament celebrants would have treated Kennedy had he, as recompense for his sins, embarked on a crusade against abortion and same-sex marriage instead of [for] universal health care. My modest guess is that they would have found a way to forgive him and insisted that a man’s worst moment is not the sum of his life.

Conversely, I have no doubt that if Teddy had spent the rest of his life crusading against abortion and gay marriage and for the Christian conservative vision of "family values," liberals would have the ones been carrying the "Remember Mary Jo" banner.

In any case, as Cathleen Falsani wrote in a recent Religion News Service piece, "Ted Kennedy refused to be defined by his worst moments. None of us wants to be reduced to the sum of our mistakes, deadly or otherwise." She added that it's uncommon to be able to rise above terrible mistakes without becoming paralyzed by guilt or regret. (Now, that last bit may be true in politics or even in the lives of ordinary folk, but I'm thinking that Cathleen must not be familiar with the New-Wage guru biz, which is riddled with masters of self-reinvention who regularly sweep their sordid misdeeds under the carpet, often leaving all manner of "collateral damage" on their road to success. But I'll get to that later.) Naturally, Kennedy-haters see his "refusal to be defined by his mistakes" as a mark of arrogance or even sociopathy.

So who's right? Damned if I know. But I do agree with Kathleen Parker that much of it comes down to partisan politics. And as we all know, when politics come in the door, rationality flies out the window. Just ask Emory University psychologist Drew Westen, author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding The Fate of our Nation.

Of course I too have my biases and irrationalities, as may be abundantly clear in any of my blog posts. In regard to the question of atonement, however, specifically Ted Kennedy's, I am hopelessly undecided, despite the fact that I hold generally liberal views on social issues (pro-choice, etc.). I can't bring myself to side with either the Kennedy detractors or his admirers, though I lean more towards the latter. At the risk of sounding simplistic, though, one point that sticks with me is this: Although Chappaquiddick may have privately tormented Ted Kennedy for the rest of his life, and there's no doubt that it permanently ruined his chance at the presidency, he still, in a sense, "got away with it." At the very least he never thoroughly answered the questions about what happened. And at the time it happened, he did not have to deal with scrutiny from the press or the public in a way that he would have if the incident had happened today.

A close friend of his, author and editor Ed Klein, said in an interview following Kennedy's death that eventually Kennedy was even able to make jokes about Chappaquiddick, and it was one of his favorite topics of humor. (And I hope you will forgive me for bringing this matter up; I know it has been a pet topic of Kennedy-haters everywhere, but I am not one of them.) "It’s not that he didn’t feel remorse about the death of Mary Jo Kopechne," explained Klein, in an interview on The Diane Rehm Show), "but that he still always saw the other side of everything and the ridiculous side of things, too."

Ridiculous...hmm. Well, yes, many of us tend to turn to dark humor at times to deal with the darkness in our lives. Still, the quotation above does come across as a tad callous. Or maybe it's just me.

Or maybe not.

When the rich are (in)different...
I have no doubt that my own personal experiences, rather than my politics, are an influence on my unwillingness to simply dismiss Mary Jo's sad story as ancient history. Whatever else it might be, to me the Chappaquiddick incident is a reminder that the rich and powerful – no matter what their political leanings or religious preferences – do manage to get away with things that would land ordinary people in prison for years, perhaps even for life. And all too often, those without nearly so much money and influence, caught up in tragedy or trauma, are easily manipulated into being accomplices in what could be viewed as a miscarriage of justice.

Many years ago, in the wee hours of a bleak November morning, my father was killed in an auto-pedestrian accident. He had apparently had car trouble and was walking alongside a road near our home to find assistance. Either that, or he was simply trying to walk home, with the idea that he would deal with the car later that day when the gas stations were open. (This was before the days of cell phones and 24-hour gas stations.) I imagine the car that hit him seemed to come out of nowhere; we were told there were skid marks for more than eighty feet. His skull was fractured, his neck was broken, and there were numerous other injuries. He may have lived for a short while after he was hit; there was some confusion on that matter. My mom said she was told that for some reason the police on the scene wouldn't let the ambulance driver through to attend my dad. In any case, he died at the scene, and within a short time the cops were ringing our doorbell.

And life was never the same after that.

The young man who plowed my dad down was intoxicated, and apparently had a history of speeding and drunk-driving incidents, although he had never killed anyone up until then. The incident did not make the front page of the local paper or the top story on the local news, as it might have today. It was just a little paragraph hidden somewhere in the Metro section. This was before the days of M.A.D.D., and drunk driving carried neither the potential legal ramifications nor the social stigma it does today. In those days it was often a far more grievous crime to possess a single marijuana cigarette than it was to get sloshed and get behind the wheel. (In Texas, once upon a time, a second offense for possession of even small amounts of marijuana could result in life imprisonment.) Sure, my dad's death was tragic, but it was just one of those things.

Even so, the crime of vehicular manslaughter existed, as well as lesser offenses related to drinking and driving, and my mother very well could have pressed charges, even if only on civil grounds. You might think she would have had a pretty solid case. But she was strongly advised against taking any legal action. Among those advising her was her own attorney, whom she had retained to help her sort through the quagmire of paperwork following my father's death. It seems that the man who had killed my dad was the scion of a wealthy and privileged family; not only were his folks rich, but he had an uncle who, we were told, was a very influential judge. The family would have enormous resources at their disposal to fight any charges, and it could be a long and expensive battle for us, with no guarantee of victory.

Moreover, my mom was told, my father's own alcoholism – and the fact that he himself was probably a bit impaired at the time he was killed – would surely be brought out during the proceedings. With all of the other nearly overwhelming problems she was now dealing with as a suddenly widowed stay-at-home mom with three minor children, did my mother really want the additional pain of seeing her husband's name dragged through the mud, which the defense team would almost certainly do? After all, if my father hadn't been stumbling down that road at one o'clock in the morning, when decent folk are home in bed, he never would have been hit. (I'm sure those were not the exact words that were used, but that was the gist of the message.)

It was true that my father had a drinking problem, and it had steadily been getting worse. Over the years my mom and several of my dad's colleagues had tried to persuade him to get help, but to no avail. This was before intervention became fashionable. Despite the severity of the problem, he still managed to be a good dad, a dutiful son to his parents, and a very good provider. He was a handsome, friendly guy whom everyone liked; he never knew a stranger, as the saying goes. A brainy man with two master's degrees (yes, real degrees from real universities), he had a respectable job as a geophysicist for a major oil company. He never got noticeably drunk at home, nor did he engage in any kind of violent behavior that I ever saw. In fact, I never even knew he was an alcoholic till I was about eleven. He did his drinking away from home, in neighborhood bars or ice houses after work, and increasingly stayed out all night, coming home in the pre-dawn hours to sober up so he could get up and drag himself to the office the next day. As the all-nighters grew more frequent, I think we all lived in silent dread that one of my father's binges would result in his being injured or killed, or injuring or killing someone else. So when the doorbell rang on that November morning, my mother knew before she answered why it was ringing. And when she came up to my room and said, "Wake up, Connie...", I knew before she said another word what had happened.

One night, while we were all still numb from shock, the parents of the young man who had killed my dad showed up on our front porch to plead their son's case to my mom. The father, as I remember, was rather dour and silent through the whole exchange, and looked very much as if he would rather be anywhere else; it was the mother who did most of the talking. She explained to my mom that their son had never done anything like this before, and that he, and they, were more sorry than we would ever know that it had happened. "He really is such a good boy," she explained, tears pouring down her face. I do not recall my mom's exact response, only that she listened politely. It could have been that she was just stunned into silence.

Not long after that, my mother found out that the young man had suffered some sort of emotional breakdown and had to be institutionalized. Although still grieving, she was genuinely concerned about him. She had said to us kids that, as terrible as it sounded, if anyone had to die as a result of my father's drinking, it was better that it was my dad. She knew that if he had killed someone else, he would never be able to forgive himself and might not be able to live with what he had done. Her heart went out to the young man, who, she imagined, was being tormented by his own guilt. So she called his parents' home to ask about him and offer whatever moral support she could.

When the family's maid answered the phone, my mother asked to speak to one of the parents, but was told they weren't available. She tried again a few days later, and this time the maid was able to get the dad to come to the phone. "I don't know if you got my message," she told him, "but I called the other day when you were out." To which the man replied gruffly, "I was home, but I was watching a ball game." He was very perfunctory, and my mom, more than a little taken aback, asked him how his son was doing. "He's doing all right," was the terse reply, but he offered no details, and he didn't ask my mom how we were all doing. It was clear that he did not want to prolong the conversation any longer than absolutely necessary. So that was pretty much that.

And life went on. We grew up. I never found out what ultimately happened to the young man. Did he emerge from his breakdown, and go on to lead something resembling a normal life? Did he ever feel that he had to atone for what he did, and did he feel he was successful in doing so? Has he contributed to the world in a good way? Although nothing he could ever do would bring my father back, I share my mom's compassion and would like to think that he eventually found peace. I simply couldn't hold it against him personally that his dad was so arrogant and rude, or that "the system" has always provided the rich with a buffer against their own misdeeds.

I also sometimes think about the fact that the man who killed my father has the same last name as a Texas judge-turned-Congressman who, in his judge days, had a reputation for imposing creative sentences on drunk drivers and other wrongdoers. He really seemed to have it out for drunk drivers in particular, and designed his sentences to make offenders realize the impact of their deeds on the victims. His last name is not a terribly uncommon one, however, and in truth I have no idea if he is related to the man who killed my dad; every Internet search leads to a dead end, so to speak. Still, I wonder. Although I am no fan of the Congressman's politics, I did admire him for his hard-line stance on driving under the influence.

So back to the original question...
As for whether or not Ted Kennedy atoned for Mary Jo Kopechne's death, here's what I think: It's not up to any one of us to decide this issue, no matter how strong our opinions may be, no matter how righteously conservative or virtuously liberal we are, no matter in which direction we twirl our cognitive kaleidoscopes (as The Political Brain author Drew Westen might put it). While many may agree that there was no real legal justice for Mary Jo's death, it is also true that her family did not pursue action against Kennedy, their stated reason being that they did not want to be perceived as going after "blood money." (Can you imagine such a possibility stopping anyone from litigation these days?) The Kopechnes did, however, receive a payment of nearly $91,000.00 from Kennedy personally, and a check for $50,000.00 from his insurance company.

Heeding the warnings of her advisers, and no doubt also influenced by the visit from the parents of the boy who killed my dad, my mother chose not to pursue legal action either. My family did, however, receive a settlement from the young man's family for my father's death: a grand total of $2,000.00 – $500.00 for each surviving family member. No, I did not inadvertently leave out any zeroes. You read it right. So in that sense, even though the man who killed my father may have been privately angst-ridden by what he did, it's also true that he – or at least his family – got off pretty easily, all things considered. And that kind of sticks in my craw as well.

Which, irrational as it may be, is probably one reason I just can't let go of Mary Jo Kopechne's story entirely.

Bringing it back to my Whirled...
I would even go so far as to speculate that my family's story also sheds some light on why I am so reluctant to cut any slack to the New-Wage luminaries who seemingly "get away with" things too – the self-help stars who dump their spouses for newer models and either gloss over the situation entirely, or exploit it by making themselves seem like the wronged party or the wise hero; the self-styled financial wizards who cheerfully take hundreds of thousands of dollars of other people's money to fund their own lavish lifestyles, while providing very little of value in return; the gurus who molest their students in the guise of furthering the students' spiritual development; the venerable motivational leaders who dally with the under-aged daughters of their friends or business partners and get away scot-free. You can talk all you want about karma, judgment, or poetic justice, and you may very well be right, but sometimes, justice on a more mundane and obvious level would seem so satisfying.

Is it possible that in some way, at least some of these New-Wage rapscallions** have atoned for their own misdeeds? Even if they have behaved in less than honorable ways in their personal lives, could it be that by giving hope to others they have contributed to the world in a meaningful way? Should we give them the benefit of the doubt, even as so many have given Ted Kennedy that benefit? Or is any willingness to overlook their transgressions merely a symptom of blindness, as Joyce Carol Oates put it?

I just don't know. (In case you haven't guessed yet, I'm not nearly as certain about things as I may appear to be on some of my posts.) I do find it difficult to give the benefit of the doubt to hucksters who, though they may acknowledge and even be marginally contrite about "past mistakes," continue with their scamming and bad behavior. I still think it's important to call them on their crap – someone needs to, and not that many people do – and this, I suppose, is the main reason this blog still exists. I also realize that some people will think I am insulting Ted Kennedy's memory, or trivializing his accomplishments, by seeming to lump him into the same category as New-Wage hucksters whose main contribution to the world is nonstop self-aggrandizement. That's not my intention at all; I simply see the parallels between people's often irrational attitudes towards political figures and their equally irrational attitudes towards the dubious heroes of the selfish-help industry.

Here's what I do know: we all have our stories, which in their own way are, like the Kennedys, at once perfectly lovely and deeply haunted. "Who would you be without your story?" asks sweetly smiling New-Wage guru-ette Byron Katie of The Work fame, whose entire oeuvre, and much of her appeal, seem to center around her own "story." And her fans, including other successful New-Wage gurus, smile and nod and preach about ridding yourself of your story, or "cleaning" yourself of your memories, or purging yourself of your past. (Some, as noted earlier, would prefer that you purge yourself of stories of their notorious pasts.) Even so, I have a feeling that Katie's question is one that few of us can really answer, because, for better or worse, we all cling to our stories in one way or another. Sometimes those stories serve us well, sometimes they don't. But most of us, if we're honest, will admit that when all of the blogging and tweeting and commenting and punditry and snarking and sniping and marketing and myth-making are done, when we drag ourselves away from our laptops and TVs and satellite radio and iPhones (assuming that some of us still do that), there really is no single or simple way of interpreting our own stories, to say nothing of anyone else's.

Not that this will ever keep any one of us from trying.

* * * * *

PS ~ Despite all of my going on and on about myself, I haven't forgotten that this is the eighth anniversary of the infamous 9/11 attacks on the US, as the above-mentioned Steve Salerno made note of on SHAMblog. There's an interesting discussion going on there, with some well-written contributions from my own Rev Ron.

* For some entertaining, decidedly partisan blogging on the U.S. health-care crisis, check out my friend Elizabeth Mika's witty and acerbic Middle of Nowhere blog ("Where dogs rule, reality bites, and irony has a liberal bias"). Start with this post.
** I just love the word "rapscallion" and have been waiting for a chance to use it in a sentence. There, I just did it again.

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