Deron Blake’s Cosmic Contraption
Up to a certain point in his life, Deron Blake was living proof that self-starters can still play the Game of America on their own terms. Fueled by renewable energies like curiosity, passions too sweet to abandon, and boatloads of persistence, these pathfinders sometimes cross the 100-year milestone still releasing fountain-of-youth elixirs. Good genes, sure, but it’s also about a lifelong desire to be here.
On the other hand, sometimes even champions get bowled over like tenpins. (Nobody’s exempt from the wrath of randomness.) Until his wife Karen had gotten sick and ultimately died a few years earlier, Deron was on track for the century club. He was a no-worries guy, you could see it in his face, his skin, in the way he carried himself. Even as this story begins he would have ranked high on a gladness-to-be-alive scale, except for a recent, horrifying diagnosis. He’d gone in for a routine physical exam and been told a week later that he probably wouldn’t be alive in a year. What!? The data set his chances at less than 5 percent. So… sorry Dr. Blake, but still, have a nice day…
A popular, often-interviewed professor of anthropology at the University of Denver, Deron processed this news with both head and heart. Part of him was actually intrigued by unexplored insights and feelings. For one, he felt less responsible to co-design an eleventh-hour strategy for an overpopulated species (now that’s a load off). He knew he’d done a decent job in this many-legged human race, invariably the crafty tortoise rather than the compulsive hare; but maybe it was time now to pass the torch; that’s just the way we do it.
In lighter, post-diagnosis moments, he could imagine a flock of messenger pigeons scattering his lifetime of hesitations and home runs to the winds like cosmic confetti; and in his head, he was okay with this ritualistic sort of finale. He also embraced the observation that life seems to provide a cushion near the end, a sweet holiday beyond both embarrassment and delight. When you’re dying, you’re offered a free pass: no more scolding, high-pitched parrot voices nagging, “What’s your password, what’s your password? (Squawk) Why didn’t you try harder?” The fact is, you did your best and now time’s up, so go with it.
Whenever he felt spooked by the monstrous bridge that loomed ahead – the one he’d cross when he came to it – he took refuge in his expanded feelings of humility and generosity. Assuming he didn’t make it, wouldn’t friends and family benefit far more from whatever grace he could muster than from a pitiful, whimpering meltdown?
As Deron evaluated these abrupt script changes with his head, he was fairly successful. After all, death happens to everyone, blah, blah… But in his heart and gut, he was rattled, as never before. (Stravinsky violins: Is life stuck in fast-forward? Stop!) It felt like dying would involve poignant good-byes; busted promises and burning regrets; last-minute, last-chance money decisions; and not least, the spirit-numbing aches and pains. Damn, he thought, dying would be even more grueling than being born! (We scream in the beginning and we scream at the end, in each case swaddled in blankets so we’ll just shut up). But in between, oh my god: these colors, these gypsy dances, these emotional epiphanies…! From his stark, new vantage point, Deron now understood that life is undeniably a buffet of exotic offerings, whether or not we choose to indulge. What bugged him most of all was the belief that he still had music in him; insights and discoveries that might be useful for humanity’s long journey ahead. He wished he could pass this hard-won wisdom along, in person, not just leave it at the exit like a bundle of dirty laundry.
As an anthropologist, he’d seen much evidence that humans do have an instinct about what follows life, but he just couldn’t imagine the physics of it. If afterlife, or some amorphous spiritual realm, is more than just a sucker’s fable, it’s made of real wavelengths; real molecular patterns or… ethereal genetic templates, right? Something measurable with the right instruments; hell, maybe it’s even hackable. (HEAVEN HACKED BY WIKILEAKS). But how does this cosmic contraption actually work and why don’t we know more about it? (He guessed that our brains just don’t have the capacity yet to understand it.)
Professor Blake had researched the field of human potential and achievement in great depth, immersing himself in it like a jazz lover in playful, profound rhythms and melodies. Ever since he was a lanky Ohio kid playing all-star baseball for his high school and college teams, he’d been fascinated by the question, How will the next pages and chapters of the human diary play out? He truly wished he could come back and have a look after he was gone; maybe take a spiritual sabbatical back in what was then the future.
After an extensive education at Colorado State University, then Antioch, then the mind-bending Berkeley for a doctorate, he’d grabbed an enviable teaching assignment at University of Denver, where for nearly four decades he’d built the Futures Studies department brick by brick, exploring the innovations and poetic longings of cultures all over the world. The customs stamps on his passport filled half a dozen booklets and by now, his understanding of human behavior was just short of encyclopedic. But in these past few innings of the game, he’d been running low on hustle. In fact, at age 63, he sometimes felt guilty, exposing students to the world-weariness that can pop up in….ultra-slow…. motion…. like an arthritic, sometimes cranky, Jack-in-the-Box.
His career goal had been to inspire, encourage, and energize these young minds. (“You don’t have to think like me, but dammit, you do have to think!” he’d bark at his students from the front of his sloping auditorium-style classroom). But in this brave, oblivious new world – where good people die young and machines don’t work – it felt like humanity’s cultural immune system had crashed; weapons of mass distraction were overpowering reality. Though he’d devoted his career to envisioning positive futures, his cynical side sometimes broke out, like the purplish rash on one leg that now came and went – a symptom of his odious disease.
Deron’s lesson plans had always centered on themes like these: Are we, personally, behaving generously? As a species, are we cleaning up after ourselves? Are we creating legendary moments of cooperative brilliance? It vexed him that many humans had been so battered by social mania that only a wake-up splash in humanity’s face could turn this huge ocean liner around. (Wasn’t it cultural snoozing that had allowed a bully to take possession of the White House?) Deron applauded the individual efforts of selfless super-heroes, but really, only a sweeping, non-violent revolution could save the day. He wondered if humans still had the chutzpah and horse sense for a planetary uprising of civil disobedience, so masterfully demonstrated by super-heroes like Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
Sure, Deron was stunned silly by the roll-out of the digital age – what he playfully called digitopia—but even larger themes had been tossed in this generation like salad in a spinner: equality and human rights as milestones; a continuing zoom into the essential biology and physics of life in the universe; a re-visioning of Earth as a sacred garden with its own self-evident rights. Themes like these are indispensable for any permanent civilization, on any planet—at least in this galaxy.
He’d always felt a responsibility to blow the whistle on cultural indecision and contribute jumper-cable insights from around the world. (For example, how did Sweden and Costa Rica so successfully and profitably unplug from fossil fuels? Why couldn’t the US do the same, quickly?) All his mentors, all the test results concurred: he should be a communicator, a guide, an innovator. Although you wouldn’t call him wildly optimistic, most people who knew Deron acknowledged his dogged sense of hope. The grooves were too deep in the vinyl recording of his life; he’d always be a cheerleader even if his team was two dozen runs behind.
The fact is, he was proud of his generation in spite of its painful sell-outs and detours. This was a championship team overall, armed with the power of convictions, education, and now, time enough to wrap it all together. Deron sensed that something Big was about to happen in humanity’s collective consciousness and that Boomers could still play a role in this shift. There was an inkling of inevitability, like the feeling right before a Category 5 sneeze or an explosive 10.0 orgasm. Deron suspected that our whole civilization was in that hovering space; right before the release.
He thought, wouldn’t it be sweet if in the end the Boomers could help accomplish something really momentous? If, in a madcap bottom-of the-ninth rally, they could alter the course of history with a well-orchestrated change in itinerary? To Deron, the current mainstream mission – must crush living systems to accumulate wealth to control the universe – was a fatal, energy-sapping virus, duping us into believing that we’re not strong enough to survive without Amazon.com; not resourceful enough to grow or cook our own food, entertain ourselves, or even think original thoughts. No longer socially equipped to meet fundamental needs for security, trust, and respect. Deron’s dogged response was “Horseshit!” With a little courage and creativity, we can access these human needs – free – instead of frantically trying to buy them. Why not just change the script; redefine the word “success” to make it independent of money-metrics and dwindling resources? Meet the basic needs of everyone on Earth solidly – but like dogs after a cool, refreshing swim, shake off the collective angst of not having or being enough.
He was convinced that the initial spark for this Cultural Revolution would occur in the the human mind. It wouldn’t require Star Wars weapons and or trillions of dollars; we’d just have to agree to scrap an old-fashioned mindset and send its overpaid champions back to the minors. Why not go down in history as cultural revolutionaries instead of subservient sock puppets? Gandhi was right on: there’s far more to life than increasing its speed—especially when we’re traveling in the wrong direction. Deron’s deepest, purest hope was that we DO know – way down in these crazy, twisted genes—when to change direction. That after all these Ice Ages, mass migrations and tussles with tigers, evolution has equipped us to pull out another upset. He chuckled whenever he recalled Woody Allen’s comically-grim choice: “One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” With regard to his own life choices, Deron had always wondered, “When my time comes and my whole life flashes before me, will it hold my attention?” In these moments of deepest reflection, Deron knew one thing for sure: though he was only one small voice in the human chorus, he wanted to get his part right.
So. Our story – not about death but the life which invariably precedes it—chronicles the activities, convictions, and desires of Deron and his circle of friends and family – all trying to live authentic lives of gusto and grace. It begins in what the professor, in one of his more impish moods, might call a very primitive era of humanity: the present. Smack in the middle of a massive group therapy session with the urgent goal of deciding—like a honking, flapping flock of geese – which way to go.