Smile Politely

The coyote effect

Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

Chuang-tse (369-286 BC) is popularly known for the dream he had of being a butterfly. When he awoke, he was never again sure he was really himself or merely the dream of a butterfly being a man.

Two weeks ago, I decided to stop reading the local newspaper, except to check the obituaries and Friday’s restaurant review. I finally had enough of the perspective promulgated by the editors, the spin given through headlines, and the obsessively virulent Tweedledum and Tweedledee name-calling that constitutes the letters column.

The last straw had been a Sunday op-ed piece by one Robert Weissberg, who I later learned is affiliated with the white nationalist movement and is the mega-wealthy owner of the famed Chelsea Hotel in New York City. His thesis, which the local newspaper decided was worthy of promoting, was that the United States “has been occupied by a foreign power” in the presidency of Barack Obama, that the country has been taken over by an “alien power,” “a coterie of politically and culturally non-indigenous leaders whose rule contravenes local values rooted in our national tradition.” Non-indigenous? Is Weissberg an Apache or something?

What is alien to me is not the President of the United States but the extreme contrast between the perceptions of reality held by myself and the local newspaper. So, I have decided to stop believing in and chomping into that particular buffet of snarling.

The conflict in realities reminds me of the Patton Oswalt story about how religion began with the promise of “sky cake” to the people who lived good lives, until they met other people who believed in “sky baklava” after death. “It’s CAKE,” the sky cake people insisted. And then the wars began.

Anyway, so far the experiment of leaving the daily flogging behind has been both liberating and good for my blood pressure. I can get my dose of news from the local NPR station and the New York Times, and so I do.


After a lifetime of cinematic indulgence and popcorn, I don’t go to the movies much any more, but I am anticipating the movie Inception which opens this coming weekend. Directed by Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Dark Knight), it has been described as “an intricate mind heist that leads through layers of dreams within dreams.” My kind of movie.

When I first saw The Matrix, it seemed to describe the ground of reality that none of us acknowledges. The part about the machines turning people into batteries was just plot mechanism; the heart of the movie is the premise that we live unaware of our selves or the actual stuff of reality.

Last year, while driving in the pre-dawn countryside, I was listening to an audio book, Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City. It is a strange magical realism dreamscape set in New York, a city in future cultural decline. As I approached a bridge over the Salt Fork river north of Homer, I happened to drive up behind a coyote. I see coyotes occasionally darting through fields in the countryside, but generally they disappear into the corn before they can be studied. This time, the coyote was trapped by the bridge, unable to escape to either side of the road. I slowed down and followed the panicked animal until it reached an exit into the woods. Less than a minute later, just after I crossed the bridge, the narrator of Chronic City explained how coyotes came to inhabit Central Park by crossing over the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey.

This was nothing more than a strange (and yet jarring) coincidence, to be sure, but a very specific one, much like the deja vu moment in The Matrix when Neo spots the same cat appearing twice in the hallway. Had I just experienced a similar glitch in my own reality matrix?


I will always believe in the New York City of the late 1970s: punk rock, the Mudd Club, graffiti subways that smolder in the summer, nude sunbathers on rotting piers, mobs outside Studio 54, the 24-hour parade of strangeness at Times Square, a vibrancy “something like a circus and a sewer,” as Lou Reed described it in his first solo album. Today, the hippest restaurant, Florent, is gone; the WTC towers are but a sad absence on the skyline; the Lower East Side has been gentrified for the artistes; the meatpacking district is stomping grounds for Eurotrash pushing $2,000 baby buggies.

Actually, the new New York is still OK, but the truth of the matter is that you can’t go home again. Everything changes. You can’t write letters to the editor demanding that we return to the good old days of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company or 4 a.m. drag shows at the Anvil. And the pre-civil rights era America of white picket fences and Ozzie and Harriet isn’t coming back either.

But I don’t believe in hiding in dreams of the past or burying one’s head in the sand, even if I have withdrawn from the debate society. I am not going to claim that austerity is going to pull us out of the recession or that deficit spending is the only way to stimulate the economy. I’m leaving that to Paul Krugman. I don’t care if you prefer sky cake or sky pizza. If you’re hungry, have some of mine. No need to show me your documents.

The point, if there is one to be found, is that you can squint until you are blue in the face trying to perceive the real reality, but you are never going to stay there longer than a fleeting moment. Perhaps that moment comes in a transcendent suspension of time, gone before you realize it. Perhaps it comes in that rare interstitial gap between wakefulness and sleep, also known as hypnagogic phenomena.

It is kind of a place, or a moment, when your drowsy ego recognizes the vividness of your alternate reality. You may be flying. You may be lounging on the beach in Fiji drinking absinthe with Edgar Allen Poe. You may be on Broadway performing the lead in “Hello, Dolly.” You may be an Apache. You may be a butterfly dreaming you are a man. In other words, you may be at this very moment at a Grateful Dead concert at the Fillmore Auditorium in 1969.


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