March 18, 1995
My first thought was: What in the world am I doing here and how am I going to last the week?
I got off the plane in the early evening darkness, walked through the automatic doors and there I was in the Charlottesville airport, finally. Up the escalator, through the empty second-floor lounge, and down the escalator to the main floor, wondering if my van ride to the institute had waited the extra hour, and if not, how I was going to get out there. I suppose if the rental car agencies are closed, I’ll have to call a cab, I thought. A 40-mile taxi ride will make an impressive addition to the tab.
Wasted anticipation, because as soon as I came out of the secured area through the revolving door, a guy came up and said, “You must be Angelo. I’m Mick. I’m your transportation to the institute, and I’ve got two of your fellow participants over here,” pointing behind him. He was maybe 50, a youngish 50, pretty average looking.
“Yes, I’m Angelo. How did you know?” I wasn’t the only man from the plane coming through the door.
Mick smiled. “I can generally tell. Let’s get your baggage and get on the road so we can get you some supper.” He led the way to the airport’s only baggage carousel. “You guys can introduce yourselves. You’re going to know each other a little better by the time I bring you back here next week, you might as well start now.”
They were Bobby Durant and Roberta Harrison Sellers. Durant was in his 30s probably, and said he was from Shawnee, Kansas. Sellers I figured to be a little older than myself, in her 60s somewhere. She said she was from Kentucky, and immediately described herself as an artist. She said that she and Durant had come in on the same connecting flight from Cincinnati, about an hour earlier.
“I would’ve gotten here at about the same time you did,” I said, “but the airplane driver thought otherwise. Sorry you had to wait.”
“Oh, it wasn’t a problem,” Roberta Harrison Sellers said. “No doubt the universe had a good reason.”
Oh my! Here we go.
“Either the universe or USAirways,” Mick said. “I keep getting the two confused.”
They asked what brought me to the Open Door program, and I was not about to tell them that I was on assignment. “Extraordinary Potential,” I said, and tried to leave it at that.
“Me too,” Bobby Durant said enthusiastically. “The minute I read that book, I knew I’d be coming here.”
Yeah? The minute I read that book, I thought, “Boy, it’s true, there’s one born every minute.” The book was a bestseller, it was still selling in paperback, and the clerk said it was a classic in its field: I figured there had to be a lot more than one being born every minute.
The drive from the airport to the institute took about an hour and seemed longer. It wasn’t just that we were driving in the dark, or that we were driving to a destination I hadn’t been to before, both of which always make a drive seem longer. It wasn’t even that it was at the end of a long day which came at the end of a somewhat hectic week as I cleared my desk for this. Mostly, it was Bobby Durant and Roberta Harrison Sellers, talking most of the way. I didn’t at all mind them talking, but the content of their talk seemed so ungrounded, so impractical, so New Age starry-eyed, that I began to dread the long week to come. They’d already been an hour at the airport together, and hadn’t run out of topics. Lucid dreaming and out-of-body experiences and Entry State and Wider Vision, and comparing notes on every book they’d ever read and every workshop they’d ever done. I felt distinctly left out, and very glad of it. And we hadn’t even gotten there yet!
“Merriman Hall,” Mick said, turning off the engine. “In short, we’re here. Welcome to the training center.”
The training center, as the introductory material had made clear, consisted of two buildings. Merriman Hall contained participants’ rooms on the upper floor, with kitchen, dining room, and conference room beneath. Edwin Carter Hall housed the institute’s offices on its upper floor and an assembly room on the lower floor. (A third building they called “the lab” was not officially a part of the facilities as far as program participants were concerned.)
We climbed down from the van, and Mick opened the back doors and handed us our bags. We trooped into Merriman Hall, and were greeted at the door by a middle aged woman with a big smile and a pleasant voice. “You made it,” she said, beaming. “I’m Rebecca, and I’ve talked to you all on the phone I’m sure.” So she had. As registrar, it was her job to answer questions and help people jump through whatever logistical hoops the world put in their way. I noted with amusement that Roberta Harrison Sellers and Bobby Durant greeted her like lifelong friends, hugging warmly. If Bobby had a tail, he’d be wagging it.
“Let’s get your bags into your rooms, so you can get some supper,” Rebecca said. “Everybody else has finished, but the kitchen staff has made up a plate for each of you, and David and Annette are going to hold off tonight’s program for a few minutes so that you can actually sit down and eat without having to wolf it down. Mick, would you like to join us?”
“Actually, I will, thanks.”
“Then, Angelo and Bobby, if you’ll just wait while I show Roberta to her room, I’ll be right back to show you yours, and you all can drop off your bags and get some supper, and you can unpack later. Roberta, if you’ll just come this way?” They went down the hall, just two or three doors down, Roberta pulling her wheeled luggage behind her.
“You and I are roomies, I see,” Bobby Durant said. Oh swell! He was reading a room-assignment chart on the bulletin board by the door, a diagram of the physical layout that showed each room, and each bed in each room. Each bed had a participant’s name on it. “You’ve got the bed by the window.”
I shrugged. “Makes no difference to me. You can have it if you want.”
“Better not,” Mick said humorously. “You’ll mess up their system.” He shook his head, forestalling questions. “You’ll see.”
The dining room turned out to be a big corner room containing five six-person tables. The two outside walls were mostly windows. One interior wall was set up as a salad bar and a service bar with cereals, fruits, and a machine dispensing juices. I sure hope this isn’t going to be a vegetarian week! The other interior wall featured a big steam table, stacks of plates, and a door leading to the kitchen, through which, presently, came a member of the kitchen staff carrying two plates covered in foil. She set them on one of the tables. “Thanks, Jeannie,” Rebecca said. The woman nodded, went back through the door, and returned with two more. Against the same wall that held the steam table, I was glad to see a stack of mugs and a coffee maker, with a pot ready brewed.
I walked over and poured myself a mugful and set it down at one of the places at the table.
“And it’s after dark,” Mick said. “So which is it? Computer programmer, engineer, or Navy?”
“Reporter. You can’t be a reporter if you don’t drink coffee.”
“They teach you that in journalism school, I suppose.”
I took off the foil: chicken breast and gravy, with mashed potatoes and overcooked green beans. Could be worse. Not tofu, anyway. “I wouldn’t know. I never went to J-school. I’m just a displaced liberal arts major.”
Bobby Durant said, “I’m sorry, I forgot your name already.”
“Angelo. Bobby Durant. What kind of reporter are you, Angelo?”
“About fair to middling.”
“No, I mean, television, newspapers, magazines, what?”
“Oh yeah? Which one?”
“Philadelphia Inquirer. Mick, how much time are they going to give us to eat, do you think?”
“Not a whole lot. In fact, here’s one of the zookeepers now.” He nodded toward the tall, smiling man, maybe in his forties, coming through the outside door.
“Hi,” the man said, “I’m David Taylor, and I’m one of your trainers. I’m here to harass you into gulping it all down and not looking around for dessert.” He pulled out a chair and sat.
“He’ll do it, too,” Mick said. “You can see from the look of him that he’s a tyrant.”
Tyrant or not, I was glad of his timing.
“So David,” Roberta Harrison Sellers said, “how much have we missed?”
He smiled at her. “Well, you missed your intake interviews, but we’ll work around that. Mainly what you missed was a long, awkward Saturday afternoon.”
“Oh, did something happen?”
His shook his head, still smiling. “Only the same thing that happens in every Open Door program. A whole bunch of people from all over the country come together and sit around and make small talk and feel uncomfortable. The usual.”
“Small talk!” Bobby Durant apparently put a lot of energy into everything he did. “You mean people come to C.T. Merriman’s home turf and they sit around and make small talk?”
Mick raised his head innocently. “Yeah, wouldn’t you think they could do that at home, instead of coming all that way here?”
David looked like he was enjoying himself. “It doesn’t last long. You’ll see. In fact, you’ll see real soon, if you’ll just eat a little faster.”
Mick went home and we walked over to the next building, and so there I was, sitting with 25 strangers (counting the two trainers) in the assembly room that was the bottom floor of Edwin Carter Hall. The wood-paneled room was filled with two dozen comfortable rolling armchairs set at a dozen wooden tables arrayed in ranks like schoolroom desks.
A woman was sitting at the front of the hall, facing the rows of participants. David Taylor went up and sat in the chair next to her. When we three newcomers had found seats, she smiled and said, “So now we’re all here. Welcome, everybody, to the first night of the Merriman Institute’s Open Door program. For the three who just arrived, I am Annette Jones and this is David Taylor, and we are going to be your trainers this week.
“Tonight we’re going to give you an overview of the week to come. First, the basic practical information you need to function together, like where are the bathrooms and when is it too early in the morning to shower, and so on. Then we will give you a sense of how the days will be structured, just a taste, to orient you. You don’t have to remember it all, and you certainly don’t have to take notes! Mostly, we want you to relax and let us handle all the details. Your job, for these next few days, is to explore your own potential. We will do everything we can to support you in that. The whole program is designed with just that in mind.”
David, coming in smoothly, said, “And since we do have a lot of ground to cover in the next few days, that means we don’t have a lot of time to waste in getting to know each other, so we’re going to start right now. I know that many of you met this afternoon, and the rest of you met at least a few people at the supper table. Even our latecomers have at least met each other. But now we’re going to go right to the next level. We want everybody to pick a partner, and we’re going to give you five minutes each to interview each other, and then you’re going to introduce each other to the group.”
Oh God! I thought. An encounter group! I’ll bet we wind up with group hugs.
Ten minutes later, more or less, we proceeded to introduce each other, giving the name first and again at the end, as instructed. I had been a journalist a long time, and I was on assignment. I listened closely to see what kind of people were doing this program. (And if you find the following list a bit overwhelming, think how it was for us! On the one hand, we had faces and general impressions that I can’t convey to you, but on the other hand, it seemed impossible that we could immediately get and keep so many people straight in our minds. Nor did we, at first.)
Elizabeth Tyrone, in her thirties somewhere, from, of all places, Elizabeth, New Jersey. I thought, I think if I were in her fix, I’d move. Dee West from Laurel, Maryland. Roommates, about the same age, neither one giving much of a clue. Office workers, they each said. New Age searchers, I thought. Seminar hoppers.
Bobby Durant stood up and gestured toward the man next to him, who looked to be in his seventies, and said, “My partner is John Ellis Sinclair, who is a retired chemical engineer. He’s from New Hampshire, and says he’s down here mostly to get warm for a week. He’s a grandfather six times over and he likes taking pictures of nature and wildlife. He’s here because he read C.T.’s book Extraordinary Potential, of course. John Sinclair.” Well, I’ve already got Bobby pegged: tail-wagging true believer. Doesn’t have another life and never will have one.
John Ellis Sinclair stood up. “My friend here likes to be called Bobby. Bobby Durant lives in Shawnee, Kansas, and he’s a graduate of Indiana University, where he majored in the environmental sciences. He is self-employed, which is the next best thing to retired, he is unmarried, and he’s here because C.T. Merriman’s book sparked his curiosity, as I expect it did for most of us. Bobby Durant.” I hesitated, trying to sum up Sinclair, not immediately finding a category to put him into. Old man looking for something he missed along the way, I finally decided.
Next to stand, somewhat hesitantly, was an attractive young girl-easily the youngest, probably not older than her late twenties. “This is Klaus Bishof,” she said of the man sitting beside her. “He is a student of the work of Rudolf Steiner, by profession a reflexologist.” I wonder what that is. She spoke English musically and well, with accents sometimes slightly misplaced. “Klaus is from Köln, Germany, and he says he is a student and hopes to be a student his whole life, in whatever way he makes his living. And he read the German translation of Mr. Merriman’s book. Klaus Bishof.” She’s from Spain probably, or somewhere in Latin American. Pretty. This one, we’ll have to wait and see.
Klaus Bishof stood up, dark complected, open and relaxed. “That was Marta Verdura y Rielo, from Lima, Peru. You have already heard that her English is better than my own. She is-” He fired a question in German at a man sitting behind him. “Pursuing,” the man said. “She is pursuing her professional degree-her Ph.D.-in psychology. Maria Verdura y Rielo.” He sat down and stood up again. “She read the book, but also she has a friend who did Open Door.” Funny, he looks too solid for this kind of thing. I’ll have to remember to ask him what a reflexologist does.
An attractive young woman-in her 40s, maybe, or late 30s-stood up and gestured to the man who was sitting next to her, a man perhaps in his vigorous fifties. With a slight French accent, she said, “This is Francois Arouet, and like me he is French Canadian. He is from Quebec City and he is a priest.” A priest?! “He is here because he read Mr. Merriman’s book. In the French edition. Francois Arouet.” A priest?
She sat down and Arouet stood up, a big man, of average height but solid with a big smile. His English was fluent with occasional pauses. A priest. What in the world is he doing here? “You have just heard from my compatriot, Regina Marie du Plessis. She is from Montreal, where she works as a translator of books. She as well is here because she read Mr. Merriman’s book, also in the French. However, she also speaks and reads English and Spanish. Miss du Plessis is unmarried, which seems to me an improbability.” He smiled. “Regina Marie du Plessis.” Hard to figure her. She looks pretty solid-stern, even. A professional, clearly. Can’t see her and Bobby having much of a conversation. But on the other hand-she’s here. Of course, so am I! But I at least have an excuse: I was pushed.
A young woman stood up. “Selena Juras is undoubtedly known to at least some of you. She lives in Hollywood and is a professional psychic.” Oh God! (But then, I’d figured they’d all be professional psychics!) The woman went on to list some of Selena Juras’ better-known clients, and, I noticed, completely forgot to mention why she was at Open Door. I mean, what could she expect to learn? She’s a psychic, right?
Selena Juras stood up, all shoulder-length blond hair and expensive clothes and careful grooming. Just looking at her, from years of experience interviewing celebrities and newsmakers, I had the sense that she had the potential to be a queen-sized pain in the posterior. Hollywood psychic! “This is Toni Shaw, an artist from Vancouver, Canada. She is married and the mother of two. Toni Shaw.” She isn’t used to talking much about someone else, and doesn’t have much interest in doing so. I made a mental note to find out more about Toni Shaw sometime during the week.
A man in his forties stood up. “This is Claire Clarke, and she is a psychotherapist from Platt, Texas.” First a priest, then a psychotherapist! What the hell? “She tells me that she read Extraordinary Potential more than ten years ago and never dreamed that she would get to meet C.T. Merriman, let alone do Open Door, and she can’t quite believe she’s here. I feel a little the same way myself, and I expect we’re not the only ones. Claire Clarke.”
Claire Clarke stood up. After her, we’re next. “That was Tony Giordano, who is from Santa Cruz, California.” Huh. Toni and Tony. “He is an executive in a Silicon Valley start-up, he is married with three children, he likes skiing and parachute diving and he says he has always wanted to go to Antarctica. He read the book, of course, and he tells me that just a few weeks ago he was having one of those conversations where out of the blue somebody started talking about Extraordinary Potential and they told him about Open Door, and here he is. Tony Giordano.” Huh! Well, California, it figures, but a computer guy? And what did she mean “one of those conversations”? People laughed like, “oh yeah!”
Helene Porter stood up. “This is Angelo Chiari, who is a newspaper reporter. He lives in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, he’s married with two children, he likes writing-of course-and reading and canoeing and spending time at the ocean. Like most of us, he’s here because he read Extraordinary Potential.” Not to mention Charlie strong-arming me. “Angelo Chiari.”
I stood up. “This is Helene Porter. She is a psychiatrist from Falls Church, Virginia. She tells me she heard C.T. Merriman speak several years ago, and bought the book at that time, and only recently learned about the Open Door program. She is the mother of two and grandmother of three. Helene Porter.” “I’m here to see what the universe wants me to do next,” she had said. And she’s a psychiatrist! Maybe Goldwyn was right, anybody who goes to see a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined.
A man in his fifties stood up, gesturing toward a woman who looked to be in her mid-forties. “This is Edith Fontaine, she’s a massage therapist from Santa Barbara, California, describes herself as an average mom and I guess she is, if most moms have had near-death experiences of their own. Like pretty much all of us, I suspect, she read C.T.’s book and then it was just a matter of time until she wound up here. In her case, her own NDE was an incentive, she says, to sort of compare notes. She is the mother of two boys and has two cats. Oh yeah, there’s a husband in there too. Edith Fontaine.” I suppose massage therapist is different from what comes to mind. Well, this just keeps getting crazier. I’d have said she was a solid citizen for sure.
Edith Fontaine stood up. “And that was Jeff Richards, who is a computer analyst from Casper, Wyoming. He likes photography and flying airplanes when he has time and money for them. He describes himself as a searcher, possibly not the only one in the room, and says he hopes to learn more about what’s possible and what isn’t. Naturally, he’s read the book. He is unmarried and says he is wholly owned by his cat, named Jonathan Livingston Seacat. Jeff Richards.” He looks solid, just like she does, but what kind of guy describes himself as a searcher? But then, computer guys are crazy anyway.
A woman stood up, in her fifties probably, comfortably stout. In a Texas accent she said, “This is Lou Hardin, a security consultant from Big Knob, South Carolina, and he read the book and wanted to learn more. He’s married, he has three children, and the way he put it, he has other bad habits as well. Lou Hardin.” Is everybody here a comedian? I used to think that a sense of humor was a sign of mental balance. May have to reconsider that one.
Hardin stood up, slim, intense, in his forties somewhere. Lean and hungry look, this guy. “As you can hear, Dottie Blunt speaks right, not like you Yankees and foreigners. She’s from Texas and calls herself an ordinary wife and mother and grandmother, but she’s been interested in this kind of thing all her life. C.T.’s book is just one of a long string of books, apparently-I don’t see how she had time enough to be a wife and mother, reading all the books she mentioned, but anyway there she is. Dottie Blunt.”
Roberta Harrison Sellers stood up and indicated a woman probably in her fifties or early sixties. “This is Jane Mullen, she’s from Santa Rosa, California, and she says she’s an ordinary wife and mother, and grandmother of three. She has had a lifelong interest in metaphysics, she’s been a Rosicrucian all her adult life, and she’s a member of the Association for Research and Enlightenment, that’s the Edgar Cayce group. She read C.T.’s book years ago and only found out about Open Door recently. Jane Mullen.” Another searcher. All that sincere searching in this room. What is it they’re looking for? What’s wrong with their lives that they’re trying to fix?
Jane Mullen introduced Roberta Harrison Sellers as being from Lexington, Kentucky, an artist. “She and I are roommates, and so I know that she has a portfolio with her that has some of her drawings, and they really are extraordinary.” And, for sale if anyone is interested. “Roberta, too, is here because she’s had a life-long interest in these things, and of course she read C.T.’s book. Roberta Harrison Sellers.”
“This is Katie van Osten, she’s from Boulder, Colorado, a mother of two and grandmother of five.” This guy that’s introducing her-something different about this one. “She tells me that after her husband died a few years ago, after a long illness, she found herself with more time to read and think about things that had long interested her, and that led her to C.T.’s book and other things like it. Katie van Osten.” Katie van Osten looks like she’s in her seventies or thereabouts. Can’t make much more of her at this point.
“This is Emil Hoffman,” she said. “He is 34, and he is a banker, from Geneva, Switzerland.” A banker!? Fluent English. I didn’t hear any accent when he was talking. “He read C.T.’s book in the German edition, and he’s here to learn more. Emil Hoffman.”
Getting near the end, now.
“This is Sam Andover, from Northern Virginia. A few years ago he retired from the military, and he’s been spending his time following his interests, which he says includes screwy stuff like this. He read C.T.’s book, and knows somebody who did an Open Door, and he thought he’d take a look for himself. Sam is unmarried, no family, not even a cat. Sam Andover.” Mid-fifties, you can see he’s naturally closed-mouthed. Let’s see if he opens up any during the week.
“This is Andrew St. George, he’s from Seattle, Washington, and he is an environmental abatement officer for the state, he tells me.” Another one in his forties or fifties. People here are older than I would have thought. I guess I’m not going to be holding up the upper end of the demographic scale after all. “He says that he is going to do Inner Voice next month, so I guess he has some interest in all this. Andrew St. George. Oh, and he is unmarried and I neglected to ask if he has any cats.”
Annette stood up. “Is that everybody? Anybody missed? Good. This is David Taylor, he lives in Portland, Oregon, he has a master’s degree in psychology and works as a humans relations counselor for an insurance company there. He has been a trainer for-what, David, ten years now? Eleven, that’s right. Like many people, he came to his Open Door after reading C.T.’s book and came back for more. Unlike most people, in about three years he became a trainer. He comes out to train a course-usually Open Door-roughly six times a year. You are going to find that he’s a lot of fun and he knows a lot. Oh, David is unmarried and is the full-time servant to two cats named Entry State and Wider Vision. So, meet David Taylor.” She got her laughs, in the right places. She sat down and David stood up again.
“And finally, last and greatest, this is Annette Jones, from Marin County, California. She has been a trainer here for seventeen years. She came originally because a long-time friend did Open Door and wouldn’t stop bugging her about it, the sort of behavior we like to encourage.” Got his laugh. “I’m not positive, but I think that Annette liked her experiences in Open Door. In fact, she never did quite find her way back to her previous life. Like so many of us. Annette’s other job is being a psychotherapist.” Another one! “I’m sure that is not so different from being a full-time trainer. She is the mother of two grown children-as you can see she was married at about age six-and is soon to become a grandmother, impossible though that is for some of us to believe. She is one of our busiest trainers, out here practically every other week, it seems. Annette, how many programs did you train last year? Twenty, I think? Yes, twenty. Like I said, nearly every other week. How would you like to have that schedule and still keep up a psychotherapist practice? Anyway, I don’t know about the patients on the west coast who she is continually abandoning, but the airlines love her and we love her and I know you will love her too. Annette Jones.”
Again, applause. And everybody was ready for this to be the end of preliminaries.
“Okay,” David said, sitting down, “now we’ve all gotten a peek behind the curtain at those other people hiding in there. You might want to keep in mind, these next few days, the possibility that there might just be a reason why just these particular people showed up for your Open Door.” Or maybe it was just coincidence. “They might have come sooner, they might have come later, but instead they’re here right now. Maybe there’s a reason for that. It may be that you will find there is somebody here who is important for you right now. And you might find that you yourself are important to somebody here. It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen it happen.”
“And we’re not necessarily talking about romance,” Annette said with a smile. “We’ve had our share of those, but there are other ways of relating.”
“Meanwhile,” David said, “as promised, here are some ground rules. You will have noticed in the material we sent you, no alcohol, no recreational drugs. What you do in your life isn’t our concern, but for this week, we ask that you refrain from both of these activities.”
Selena Juras said, “Why? You don’t seem to mind if people continue to smoke, or drink caffeine.”
“Two reasons. For one thing, we don’t want anybody doing anything illegal on the premises so that nobody gets in trouble or gets us in trouble. Drugs are illegal, caffeine and nicotine aren’t.”
“If people recognized what they did to their bodies, they would be.”
David waved it aside. “We can argue about it during breaks, if you want to, but this isn’t the time or place for it. Alcohol isn’t illegal, but we prohibit it, too, along with drugs, for one good reason. You are here to learn to experience subtle states of mind so that you can acquire the knack of moving to those states at will. Drinking alcohol and using recreational drugs will only interfere with the process, so what’s the point? And by the same token, this is not the time to try to quit smoking, or quit drinking coffee. You are moving into unknown territory this week. You are going to be experiencing things that are very vague, very nebulous. A lot of the time, you aren’t going to know what you’re experiencing, or even if you’re experiencing anything at all. The last thing you want is to quit using caffeine or nicotine at the same time. You’d never figure out what’s coming from your tape experiences and what’s coming from withdrawal symptoms.”
He looked around and saw acceptance. “Okay, rule number two. We ask you please, no shoes in the conference room, the room at the bottom of the stairs right off the dining room. If any of you have ever tried to get red Virginia clay out of a white carpet, you’ll understand why that rule. In general, you’re free to wear shoes anywhere except in the conference room. No shoes in that room, under penalty of death.”
“What if we want to go barefoot all the time?” That was Bobby Durant.
“Barefoot, socks, we don’t care, indoors and outdoors both if you wish. The only rule is, no shoes in the conference room. But if you’re going to go around barefoot outside, take care that you don’t track clay onto that rug.”
Annette smiled. “And if this group is like the groups that have preceded it, we’ll catch at least two of you in there with your shoes on before tomorrow is out.”
“That’s why I just repeated myself,” David said. “Hopefully you’ll get the idea. No shoes, okay? Now: What room don’t we wear shoes in?”
The big guy from Washington. “Uh-the kitchen?”
David laughed. “Somebody remind me why I do this?”
“Okay,” Annette said. “Next rule. The only other rule there is, actually, but it’s a big one. For this next week, you’re going to give up your dependence on clocks. You’re not going to need them, and you’ll be amazed at how your perception of time changes when you aren’t constantly structuring it by looking at your wrist. David is going to go around with a box. Anybody with a watch, put it in the box.”
I was used to living by my watch. “What if we’d rather keep them?” I asked.
Annette shook her head. “No. Really, this is important. Just trust the process. You can get by for this next week without telling yourself what time it is all the time.”
“But just practically, how do we-?”
“I’m coming to that. We’re going to get you up in the morning by clanging that very loud bell that you may have noticed in the dining room. Believe me, you can hear it all through the building without any trouble.”
David came in. “And in case you happen to be outside, we also ring the cowbell out on the deck-and that you can hear for half a mile or more.”
“We’ll get you up, give you time to shower and dress, and we’ll ring it again when breakfast is ready, and whenever we are ready to assemble in the conference room or in Edwin Carter Hall.”
David again: “Henry Thoreau asked, ‘Can the Valhalla be warmed by steam and go by clock and bell?’ Well, assuming this is Valhalla, the answer is, yes, we can.”
I shook my head. What in the world have I gotten myself into? Or rather, what has Charlie gotten me into?
David stood up, holding a cardboard box, and ostentatiously came first to me and held the box in front of me. “Your watch,” he said firmly. “Now. Or else.” Oh well. I unbuckled the watch and dropped it into the box. “You’ll live,” David said-and proceeded to move around the room, collecting.
“By the way,” Annette said, “those of you with alarm clocks and such, we know that you can use them to defeat the purpose of this little arrangement, but we’d ask you to stop and think, why would you want to defeat the purpose? You have invested good money and a week of your time-why not let us give you your best chance of obtaining what you came for?” She looked over at me. “Okay, Angelo? Give it a good try?”
I shrugged. “He already stole my watch. You’ve got me where you want me.”
David, from the other side of the room, still collecting watches, piped up, “Oh no we don’t, not yet. But we will.”
“Okay,” Annette said, “that takes care of housekeeping. Just to recap: Before each tape, we will meet either here or in the conference room. We’ll talk about what we’re going to do, and you will go up to your units, using the bathroom first. Trust us on this, there is nothing more likely to interrupt a tape experience than a full bladder. It’s so easy to prevent, it would be silly not to: We’ll remind you but in case we ever forget: use the bathroom before each tape.
“Then you go up to your beds, put on your sleep masks, and put on the stereo earphones. You’ll be guided from there. Some of you will find that you get very warm during an exercise. Others will find that you get cold, so be sure to have a blanket nearby to pull over you in case you need it. There’s really no predicting how any one individual is going to react.
“Now, we know that many of you have come a long way today and you are tired, so the first order of business is for you to get a good night’s sleep. From long experience, we know that on the first evening of your first program, few of you are really settled in your bodies. You have had too much to get adjusted to; too many people to meet, and most of you have been too many hours on the road or in the air. The ‘real’ program starts tomorrow morning; Sunday.
“But we also know that you’re curious, and you want to get started. So tonight we will give you just a taste, just one short introductory exercise to get you more or less into the groove, and we won’t meet afterwards to debrief. After the tape is finished, you can just go to bed and get some rest and we’ll see you in the morning, or you are welcome to come back downstairs. We will put out some munchies in the dining room for those who want to snack and socialize. Okay?” They looked around for questions or comments. “Then off we go, by way of the bathrooms.”
By the time I got to the room, Bobby Durant had already gotten into bed, and put on the earphones and sleep mask. He can’t wait. I wonder: Will he let himself be disappointed when nothing happens? I lay down atop my covers. Handy, not to have to worry about shoes. I wondered if I was going to be bored. Probably Bobby won’t let nothing happen. He’s so keyed up, he’ll imagine something. Slowly, reluctantly, I put on earphones and sleep mask. “Whatever they tell you to do,” Charlie had said, “do it and see.” I remembered the ready light, pulled the sleep mask up to uncover one eye, reached over and flipped the switch, then lay back again and readjusted the mask.
The earphones were playing music, pleasant enough. I lay there quietly waiting. I imagined Bobby champing at the bit, impatient for the music to end. I smiled, and waited peacefully, daydreaming.
Annette’s voice, almost a whisper: “We are still waiting for two more ready lights-ah, thank you, Edith. One more and we’ll start.” Edith, so she knew which ready light belongs to whom. Mick said, better not trade beds. I wonder: does that mean they can send different signals to different people? The music continued. “All right, folks, here we go. Relax, have a nice time, and either we’ll see you downstairs afterwards for snacks, or we’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
The music faded out and for the first time I heard the sound I would come to know as pink noise-a sort of snapping, crackling sound, a background continuing hiss, not unpleasant and, after a while, not obtrusive. The pink noise diminished and another sound increased, the sound of rippling water, like a stream over rocks. And over the sound of water, over the pink noise, I heard C.T.’s voice. I would come to know it very well, but this was the first time.
It was a pleasant, soothing voice, easy to listen to, and the message was not what I had expected. “Sink now into a state of pleasant relaxation,” the voice said. “Be sure your body is in a relaxed position, with no stress or strain. Follow my voice as I guide you.” C.T. then proceeded to run down the entire body, from head to toe, suggesting that the listener relax that particular part of the body. I had no particular objection to relaxing, so I lazily followed along as instructed.
“That’s fine,” the voice on the tape said. “Take a moment or two to enjoy this state of enhanced relaxation. I will join you shortly.” I lay there, pleasantly relaxed, listening to the noise. I thought, Sooner or later this is going to go woo-woo. “Let’s all join with the angels as we proclaim the ineffable wonder of creation.” I thought of Bobby Durant, and smiled, not without compassion, at the thought of him waiting impatiently for something that wasn’t going to happen.
After an indeterminate time-I couldn’t decide if it had been a long time or not-the voice returned, and began to methodically bring us to take our first steps into a deliberately altered state, and, although I didn’t begin to suspect it, the adventure began.
For much of the tape, I daydreamed. Not expecting anything to happen, I wasn’t on edge. Besides, I was tired. The program was an assignment I didn’t believe in, and even if I had expected that something might happen, I would not have expected it to happen on the first night, in the first tape. So I listened to C.T.’s instructions, made a halfhearted effort to follow them, and mostly just lay on the bed drowsing.
One thing, they could sell this tape as something people could use to relax.
I came back at one point from wherever I had been, and realized that I had been in a dreamlike state. If I didn’t know I was awake, I’d be sure it was a dream. Not that it was anything dramatic. No characters, no plot, no action, only a very vivid sense of trees beneath me, as though I were flying silently above the hills surrounding the center. Weird. Yet, the experience had been rather pleasant. I tried to drift back into it, to see if I could re-create the picture. But for some reason the very fact that I now had an intent made it harder for me to relax into that same daydreaming state of mind. Then I tried to re-create the picture by brute force, as it were, and found that I couldn’t.
I had no particular reason to want to re-create the picture-or so I told himself. Yet I found myself disappointed that I was unable to do so. And then there was C.T.’s voice saying that it was time to reverse the process and return to normal consciousness. Normal consciousness? Who left normal consciousness? Still, I wanted to return to the feeling of floating above the ground, and would have liked to have had a chance to try again. If I had to guess, I’d say I was heading a little north of east.
“This concludes the first exercise,” I heard Annette say softly. “Please remember to turn off your ready lights. For those of you who wish to socialize downstairs, there will be snacks in the dining room. Those of you who wish to call it a day, have a good night’s sleep and we’ll see you in the morning.” I took off my headphones and sleep mask, and looked over at Bobby Durant across the room, getting off his bed, who shrugged. “Oh well, it was only an intro tape,” Bobby said. “Let’s go get some munchies.”
“I hate my life,” Tony said. I thought, Well, there’s a conversation stopper! But Tony Giordano went on chomping on peanuts from the paper plate in front of him as though he had said he didn’t like Brussels Sprouts.
We were all munching snacks or drinking tea or fruit juice or water, maybe half the class-the half that had come downstairs after the tape. Me, Bobby, Francois the jovial priest from French Canada, and others that I hadn’t yet sorted out. They’d straggled down one or two at a time and had clustered around first one table, then two, forming big irregular circles centered more or less on the overflowing bowl of popcorn and the plastic containers of potato chips, peanuts, and some vegetables and dip. I had expected-with a combination of professional interest and dread-that the conversation would center around people’s experience of the tape, or their supposed psychic attainments in general-particularly after Selena Juras made her appearance. Instead, the talk had quickly settled into “where are you from again, what do you do, what brought you here”-for of course at this point everybody was finding most of the others still little more than a blur despite the earlier introductions.
“You hate your life?” This was the humorous guy from Washington or Oregon or somewhere who was in environmental protection. “Why don’t you change it?”
“Well, it’s like Woody Allen said, I considered suicide but with my luck it wouldn’t be a permanent solution.”
“No, really. Why don’t you just change it?”
Giordano almost shrugged. “Family, responsibilities. Not so easy to just rip things up and start again.” Like we couldn’t all say that!
The woman from southern California, the massage therapist. “I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name-Tony, right-what is it you hate, particularly?”
Giordano made a throw-away gesture. “Most of it. Earn it, spend it, earn some more. I used to enjoy my work and now it just seems pretty pointless.”
The older man (retired, if I remember right) asked what Giordano did for a living.
“Well, I used to be an engineer, but I don’t get to do engineering any more. I’m one of the owners of a software company, one of your basic Silicon Valley start-ups.”
“Doing pretty well?”
“Yeah, pretty well. We had a couple of good products that sort of dug us in. We’re making money. I suppose I shouldn’t complain. But it’s all getting old, you know? After a while, you think, so what?”
“It sounds like you’re your own boss,” one of the women said quietly. “I’d think that part of it would be nice.” She’s got that strong west-Texas accent. Dottie something.
“Oh-” again the impression of a shrug, if not quite the gesture. “Yeah, I suppose. I mean, I’ve done the cubicle thing, and I’d rather be the squirrel-cage owner than the squirrel, but in a way it’s like they say about the prisoners and the guards: The guards get to go home at night, but they’re both spending their lives in jail. How much difference does it make that you’re the boss if you’re still commuting an hour to work each way?” Oh, that’s right, you’re the guy who daydreams about going to Antarctica!
“It might make a difference in your work-day,” Dottie said, still quietly.
A gesture of impatience, or of despair of conveying his point of view. “Sure, I know that. It’s different, and certainly I have a lot more money to play with than the people who work for me. But the actual work isn’t any more satisfying, it’s just different. I’m always flying to Europe or Japan for meetings. Pretty glamorous, right? But actually, what happens is that I fly somewhere and I talk to grumpy foreign businessmen in some airport hotel meeting room, and I fly back the same day and I still have to drive home from the airport. To somebody who spends all day in his cubicle, my life’s magic. From the inside, it isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.”
Funny. That’s what I’ve been thinking about reporting. Been thinking it a lot, as a matter of fact. You see your byline on a story once, it’s a big deal. You see it several times a week for 20 years, not so big a deal.
Meanwhile at the other table, I was hearing Selena Juras holding forth to her audience-Bobby Durant among others. “So I said, ‘How do you expect me to get to Charlottesville in time to meet my ride if you cancel the flight,’ and she says, ‘I’m sorry, ma’am, but there’s nothing I can do,’ and I say, ‘Of course there’s something you can do, and I expect you to find out what it is, and do it.’ I mean, what is the point in paying for first class if you can’t get service? So then she says-” She’s a celebrity, and she assumes that everyone here thinks she’s as important as she does. I suspect she’s in for a shock when she realizes how few people here have heard of her, or care. Or maybe I’m wrong and she’s a bigger deal than I think.
“So again, Tony, why not quit?” Andrew. Andrew something.
“And do what?”
“Well I don’t know-but something would have to happen!”
Giordano smiled at him. “Yeah, but a lot of the possible somethings, I don’t much like the thought of.” Aye, there’s the rub. How do you change squirrel cages when you’re past 50? And after a certain point you start to think, why bother?
At the other table I could see that the young woman from Maryland who’d described herself as an office worker-Dee something-had taken the girl from Peru under her wing. There couldn’t be that many years between them, but the younger girl was clearly feeling a bit overwhelmed. Of course that gave Dee whatever-her-name-was a comfortable role, too, but still I noted it as a bit of kindness.
The older man again. “I don’t know Tony’s situation, but I can tell you this much: Wherever you go, you take yourself with you. Whatever it is that you hate about your life now won’t change just because you change jobs. If you want something to change, you have to change something inside yourself first, or you’ll keep on attracting what you already have.”
Now there’s some ungrounded opinion! I said, “Mr.-?”
“Sinclair. But call me Ellis, please.”
“Ellis, I think I heard that you’re retired now, right? What did you used to do for a living?”
“I was an engineer, like Tony here, except I was a chemical engineer, not electrical. In my day, you didn’t just go out and start up your own company. I spent my whole career working for the same firm.”
“And you found that true, what you said? That changing your situation didn’t matter?”
“Unless you change yourself, as I said. How else could it be? Unless you believe in coincidence.”
I could feel myself give him a blank look. “Doesn’t everybody? Don’t you?”
“There’s no such thing as coincidence.”
“Not in my experience.” Huh! That’s just the kind of thing I expected to hear this week, but he wouldn’t have been the one I’d have picked to come up with it. Isn’t that weird?
At the other table I heard the older woman-Katie I thought her name was-say she was here hoping to make contact with her dead husband!