On Bringing Open Philosophical Discourse Back to the Dinner Table

I wasn’t a particularly happy undergraduate philosophy student – at least while attending a year-and-a-half’s worth of the classes in what turned out to be my major and ultimate B.A. degree program way up north, more than a decade ago.

There were no igloos, as it turned out – but it was still further north than much of our nation’s Canadian-U.S. borders.

I tried to return to music – I did. But the University of Maine’s main state campus in Orono (10 miles north of Bangor – pronounced “bang-gore” by the locals, who included Stephen King and his novelist wife, Tabitha, also two of UMO’s long-ago graduates) wouldn’t accept me there unless I revoked my utterly valid associates’ degree in music education (music theory principal), and started out all over again as a freshman(!) – an A.A. degree I’d long-since received earlier in life, but UMO refused to accept.

Why? I was actually told this: Because really big Broward Community College in greater (never mind pretty damned large itself) Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was a “southern school” (quote-unquote – UMO-ese for not being up to snuff), BCC’s associate of arts degrees weren’t viewed as valid in north-central Maine – where, oh-by-the-way, there’s conceivably as many moose as there are people.

(I suspected there were even more coon cats and landlocked salmon in that region than there were people back then – just to mention two more official and indigenous Maine state animals, along with the moose, to be found in those parts.)

Can any university get more pompous or arrogant? The population of Broward County, where BCC still flourishes – 1.3 million human beings – roughly equaled the entire population of the State of Maine in the early 1990s. For me, it was like – well, kiss my ass, UMO music program! – which, alas, is later what I came to feel about its philosophy program.

Stephen King has nothing to do with this tale, by the way – even though I resided in an apartment a block and a half away from his multi-storied Bangor home (the one with the steel spiders and such on his family’s front fence, and whose gate was mostly open much of the time back then – before a fake bomb, anyway, was dumped on the family’s front doorstep and had to be dismantled).

My ex-wife, who attended nearby Bangor Theological Seminary at the time, and I used to walk by the Kings’ family residence during our two autumns there, as we scooped up and mailed off some of the Kings’ fallen tree leaves back to friends in South Florida, which immediately went into keepsake folders sometimes labeled, “Stephen King’s leaves.”

How cool was that?

In any event – a little background history is in order here – before I get around to explaining why I do what I do (when scribing these essays/speculations/critiques) and what I hope to accomplish, somewhere down the road, by having done so.

* * * * *

Back in the late 1970s/very early 1980s, I was a featured columnist for a now long-since defunct Scripps-Howard daily newspaper in Hollywood, Florida – which landed in third-place when it came to readership numbers, well behind both The Miami Herald and The Fort Lauderdale News/Sun-Sentinel (now South Florida Sun-Sentinel).

My columns ran three or four times a week on the front page of The Hollywood Sun-Tattler, and my physically bloated image even appeared on newsstands along my favorite beaches. This was the newspaper best known for breaking the Adam Walsh kidnapping stories, I should add, which took place during my final year at the paper. I even wrote a forgettable column or two about what, some months later, proved to be the absolutely worst possible (and truly horrifying, never mind heartbreaking) end result: the discovery of the 8-year-old’s dead body.

But I was personally miserable during this time, and I had no idea why. I was lost, lonely, self-destructive in a mindless way, and drinking way, way too much – and that led me into a month’s worth of rehab followed thereafter by 10 solid and true (and psychologically deeply introspective) years in various 12 step, adult children and co-dependency programs, which became prominent and influential in the 1980s. I came to emphatically embrace the 12 steps themselves, from which I was first introduced to – and doggedly absorbed by – spiritual growth (albeit a rigorously non-religious spiritual growth, which it remains to this day).

Then, after several far happier years (which were highlighted by being a summer day camp counselor in Hollywood), the New Age landed in South Florida, as well as throughout the rest of the country – and so I jumped right into it, feet first. Only I never bought into its tenets full-bore. I just wanted to write about the movement’s peculiar and mostly innocent doings and, you know, get well paid for having done so.

That, of course, never happened.

The New Age not only died within five years (as a social movement, such as it was, in the end it had nothing to blame but itself) – prompting my return to my undergraduate education in Maine. The New Age ended up on the butt end of virtually every written and televised story in mainstream journalism, the ever-increasingly fundamentalistic Christianities (a movement itself rarely widely covered at that time, either) – and in all, but all, of America’s secular universities, whose faculties could never be bothered to acknowledge the briefly vital movement, and its casually cast-aside (and mostly well-meaning) participants.

So, as I say – I returned to college as a philosophy major (I had a lifelong interest in one of formal philosophy’s subset “disciplines,” metaphysics, and beneath that, straight-faced ontology (the nature of consciousness in relation to greater reality). But what I encountered acutely stunned and very quickly thereafter sickened me:

Some of the more visible New Age speakers made much more sense to me, and sounded a whole lot more convincing (based on a lot of my pronounced spiritual experiences), than what I was reading – book after book, article after article – in formal secular philosophy – with its emphasis on “secular,” which for me remains formal philosophy’s greatest bias, and most severe and yet-undiagnosed failing.

Not only that – but I attended a free one-evening quantum physics seminar conducted by UMO’s (otherwise pretty conservative) physics department, which not only unintentionally possibly supported countless New Age suspicions about the nature of reality – but, as I was dismayed to discover, I was the only attendee there from UMO’s philosophy program – be they students, or faculty members.

How on earth could philosophy embrace heavily intellectualized existentialism, for example, but still blow off major discoveries in quantum physics (which, as it turned out, was not limited to UMO’s fairly representative campus)? So I began to rebel in several of my philosophy classes. If my professors were insisting on erudition – citing source material in support of our theses – then I would bloody well give it to them. I quoted Jane Roberts’ “Seth” and Jach Pursel’s “Lazaris” – easily my two favorite trance channeled “entities” out of the New Age movement – to support my arguments, which were only intended to be theoretical in nature, in the first place. We’re talking philosophy here, after all – not empirical science.

I figured the truth was the truth. It didn’t matter who spoke it – hell, it just might pop out of the mouth of some ax murdererâÂ?¦ (Well? It could happen.)

Who cared if anyone in heavily biased and ignorant secular education agreed with me or not, anyway, I decided? Spirituality was off-limits in formal philosophy.

I did this, in part, too, because I was pretty sure none of my professors would know the first thing about such sources, because they’d uniformly ignored them – and there was very little widespread source material as yet on the Internet of that era. I was just playing their “game,” too – so they just couldn’t up and fail me.

My grades sucked – surprise, surprise – but they were good enough to pass.

But by the time I got my degree in May, 1992, neither I nor UMO’s philosophy department faculty wanted anything more to do with one another.

That I spent my next year attending seminary classes part-time at the planet’s only Quaker seminary – just to see if their efforts at “centering down” to receive God’s purported guidances actually demonstrated substance (for me, they didn’t) – proved to be more of the same for me, experientially. Predictably, none of that seminary’s faculty knew doodle squat about contemporary trance channelers or psychics, either. Forget about alien abductions. LOL.

I was not only not allowed back there for another semester, but one of my faculty references actually wrote a scathing “letter of support” to a theological school out in California, which immediately turned down my application. Later, he suggested to me (however wimpishly) that he was sparing Christianity from a serial heathen.

Thereafter, I decided to hell with formal education when it came to metaphysics – I was going to go out to grad school in creative writing/screenwriting in Orange, California (which I did the next year), where I wrote my first-ever philosophically oriented screenplay (dreadful though it was), “Planet of Drunks.” But by then, no one seemed to have a clue about what I was attempting to put forth in my work, or why – nor was I up to explaining it when, I then quickly realized, offered any of those rare opportunities to actually do that. I hadn’t yet put much of it all together.

Anyway: there remains no defense in secular (or religious) education for reading the likes of a Jane Roberts – never mind citing her as erudition.

Forward to this year, 2006. The New Age appears to have arrived – only it’s dressed in somewhat different clothing than most individuals expected – except maybe for the likes of “Lazaris,” to cite one New Age carryover, who had this to say in the late 1980s – which (and I’ll paraphrase the quote) made no sense to anyone at the time, including me:

“The problem is not that your world is coming to an end. The (real) problem is that it isn’t,” I recall Jach Pursel’s “entity” (more or less) stating back then. “And (so),” Lazaris concluded, “you’re going to end up being left with all these major problems that you’re finally going to have to deal with.”

That insight made little sense then – but it does now, and it still packs a wallop.

To this day, that quote alone trumps almost every quote I heard come out of the mouths of history’s better-known existentialists – many of whom, I thought, likely drank too damned much when they were writing. (Alcohol was the existentialists’ primary source of erudition, as near as I could tell.)

For those who embrace The Rapture – there’s going to be hell to pay, figuratively and literally, by the way, if IT doesn’t come off as Scripturally “predicted,” as well.
Where will the guiding quotations come from then?

There are few if any consistent answers out there to be gleaned at present. And it is that which drives my writing efforts. It’s time to begin formulating some.

We need to talk – all of us who are the least bit inclined to do it. And really soon.

When I wrote about speculative and critique topics this year, I was representing no one’s (uniform) viewpoint but my own. Honestly, I’d be tickled at this stage if any reader would simply post what they really feel about this (but haven’t as yet expressed): as in, “Brickner, you’re full of crap – and here’s why.” Dot-dot-dot.

But no one’s done that to date, and I find it a little scary – for I’m beginning to believe I really might end up like M. Night Shyamalan’s philosopher character in his latest movie, “Lady in the Water.” In that storyline, this gentle character has written an epistle he calls “The Cookbook” – which is predicted (by the film’s title character) to inspire one key future leader down the road who, as an orator later in his adult life, inspires long-overdue overhauls in society, largely as a result of having read “The Cookbook” when he was a boy. Thing is, though: Shyamalan’s character ends up getting murdered first before his published but little-read critiques are ever taken seriously – or, for that matter, he even gets to meet the Midwestern future orator he will one day so powerfully influence.

He was murdered solely because he wrote the published book that he did. It had made a lot of people uncomfortable and angry, as it was explained in the movie.

Yes, of course – this was a work of fiction. I get that.

But call me grandiose and heavily deluded – I stepped out of the theater shaken, I had identified so strongly with that character.

My life has been difficult and unfulfilling enough without having to get whacked because of my viewpoints. I also believed it would all come to a happy ending.

Now I’m not so sure.

* * * * *

Sometime during the mid-to-late 1990s I’d decided that the road I had chosen to walk down in this life – pushing these actions as my agenda, whether they’re well received, understood, or not – was what I was going to do.

I strongly believed at the time that I was up to it. Now I only desperately hope that I am. Not so cocky, am I, at this fading stage of my life.

Regardless, I no longer appear to even have much of a choice. With a splintered employment record and a predictable separation from far too many friends and loved ones out of my past due to differences in our world views (and who mostly remain clueless as to what continues to drive me in this non-paying avocation), I’m vulnerable to becoming the type of individual who, likely not coincidentally, approached me very recently – goodness knows why – while I was quietly eating a Whopper Junior at a local Burger King one afternoon after work.

I myself couldn’t afford a regular Whopper at the time, as I was awaiting payday, like so many millions of my peer Americans are forced to do nowadays. Call us the Whopper Junior Society. Or better, the Expendable Whopper Junior Society.

“Excuse me sir – but how far away is the Alabama line from here?” the woman, who told me her name was Kathy, asked me. When I told her Alabama – and specifically, greater Mobile – was a pretty long drive away, she quickly added, “Well, I have nowhere to live, I’m real low on money, and I thought heading west might maybe be the best thing for me to do.” She said she’d gotten off the road to Tallahassee from Gainesville, where a local church – whose members had come to see their preachings were falling on deaf and potentially homeless ears – cut her “free” from all further support âÂ?¦ or so Kathy claimed had happened. Still, her fear and bitterness and seemed genuine and substantive.

I immediately felt deep empathy for her. It took me no time to tell her, “You don’t want to head west from here, particularly toward the Gulf coast. They still haven’t gotten back on their feet from Hurricane Katrina, and you’ll get no help there.”

“Well, then – can you recommend where else I might go?” Kathy asked, seating herself at a booth next to me after introducing herself and shaking hands.

There’s no need to go into further detail about my chat with Kathy (I was in no position to put her up, by the way, as I was myself renting a room in someone’s home) – other than to realize like so many of America’s homeless, there was just no place left for Kathy to go, because they have no one in their lives who’ll place a roof over the heads long enough for them to get back on their feet – which, besides, is simply not easily accomplished any more, anyway. The cost of living, the simple cost of breathing air, has very nearly become prohibitive in the U.S. now for what I’m guessing is as much as a third of the population. Maybe more.

I certainly run into enough of such individuals at the retail store where I work.

When she first approached me, I ought to note, I was thinking about my writings, and how they were going (they didn’t appear to be accomplishing nearly as much as I’d hoped) – but at least my survival wasn’t being threatened as Kathy’s was.

Fact was – I was getting by pretty damned well compared to her.

After chatting for a half hour – I have no idea if my suggestions were any good, much less if they were followed – we parted ways. The last I saw of her, she was headed toward the women’s restroom. She sincerely thanked me first for taking the time to listen, though, and to exchange game plan ideas with her.

Me, I got on the expressway, headed back toward where I’m now gratefully living – and I began to cry.

Even though my intellect doesn’t believe God ever intervenes, I prayed while I was driving, asking that maybe He’d make an exception this one time on Kathy’s behalf.

But I doubted very strongly that He would. I was both aching and terrified for her.

All of this hit way too close to home for me, too – no pun intended.

Anyway� Back to this determined avocation business of mine:

I can see when I “run Googles” (and other search engines) under my full and published name, that there appear to a substantial number of people out there who want to know who-the-hell I am. I have no idea who these readers are – but there’s at least a bare minimum of a thousand of them to date this year so far, based on my math applied to presentation upgrades at two or more sites where my essays run. Regardless, only a mere handful have yet have provided me with any clear feedback, although what I’ve heard has been fairly complimentary. Still, I’m left feeling suspicious. There’s been very little “glow” in any of the responses.

* * * * *

Close to closing, this: there is no handbook to guide my writings, and so I wing it, almost entirely by instinct, every time I strive to get published. Thus, I’ve made a lot of calculation mistakes – as in realizing too late that most readers will read from the most recent essay first, then backwards toward the oldest – when the better order with which to get a better handle on my often stumblebum effort would probably be reading the “oldies” first.

And there’s been other mistakes – as in repeating explanations and such, which I’ve even committed in this article. The assumption, again, has been that each new article is likely to be read by readers unacquainted with my previous essays âÂ?¦ a journalistically-taught action that might not prove correct in this instance.

I try to adjust as the months sail by, in any event.

In a rare (and highly valued) chat with a co-worker last night over my writing – which he certainly appears unexpectedly and flatteringly to have read a lot of – I came away with this: no one seems to fully understand what I’m writing, or why I bother to writing it. And I sense a consistent discomfort from their end in even talking about it.

Ultimately, I want to induce/inspire philosophical discourse, and lure it out of the universities, where none of its proponents ever, ever, ever have to answer to the outside world (you know, the one that appears headed down the spillway) – or as to why classical philosophy has been so impotent and ignored outside of college.

One doesn’t have to agree with these expressed ideas – and I know better than to even hope for such an outcome.

It would just be terrific if a few more readers would simply step out of the silence, though, and respond.

And, listen – getting good and pissed, works for me.

When I’m just plain incorrect – please illuminate me. Please.

This late middle-aged man would very nearly be thrilled.

# # #

Donald Croft Brickner may be reached for questions, comments and reactions at: dcroftbrickner@aol.com.

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