Swiss life: Ode to a toilet bowl

In The Falcon Flies Alone, Peppa seeks out a stranger in the Swiss city of Basel. Desperation sends her to the Mission in search of a man she only knows by name, Christian Engler. As she approaches the grand building, she narrates: My eyes were drawn to the roof with its clock tower, crowned by a bell, and guarded by the Evangelical cross on each side.  Two obsessions of the sober Swiss Protestant: God and clocks. All it needed was a bucket of scalding, soapy water to symbolize cleanliness, and the trinity would be complete.

Although these days, the Swiss are not known for church attendance, in the fifties religion played an important part. It wasn’t so much that there was a deep, mystical and fervent custom of worship, but that religion informed the notions of decency and obedience that were thought appropriate for young women. In that sense, Switzerland was similar to Ireland and most of the United States.

The obsession with punctuality and cleanliness though, is noteworthy. Swiss people still arrive on time; if they are early they will generally withdraw somewhere, in order not to be a nuisance, until the appointed minute has arrived. The desire for cleanliness is carried to extremes. For instance, cleaning your apartment yourself before you move out is not recommended. The agency your landlord hires will be checking places you never thought of. A covering of dust behind the wall radiator, or a lime build-up on the inside of your faucet will disqualify you from getting your full deposit.

Even more surreal is the—ahem—toilet situation. Restaurants and hotels feel it’s appropriate to post signs in the stall. This doesn’t just include obvious instructions, such as notifying the staff if there’s an unhygienic situation. Sometimes there are poems, or instructions about using a toilet brush, that I assume are meant to be funny. I’ve included an example from our community garden, which explains the correct usage of the brush. Scratching your head with it is completely wrong, brushing your private parts with it is somewhat incorrect, while crouching at the side of the bowl and assiduously scrubbing, is laudable.

A community garden is one thing, but when I see these types of signs posted in a nice restaurant, I’m actually left scratching my head (though not with the toilet brush.)

Go figure.


Botanicals and Altered Consciousness

It was the nineties. We listened to Aphex Twin, Portishead, and The Cure, and painted the walls of the bedroom dark blue. I ordered exotic plants from various mail-order sources: sassafras and avocados, also khat trees and San Pedro cactus. With the latter plants I hoped to alter my #consciousness without supporting the netherworld of drug dealing. I had come to dislike and distrust street drugs and the addictions of various friends saddened me. Yet I still yearned for a personal transcendent experience.
That meant I was simultaneously someone who judged those who couldn’t wait to toke up, and yet, I was someone who was fascinated by those botanical miracles that made us see things in a new way. I just didn’t want those experiences coupled to dependence, and the drudgery of waiting around for a dealer’s call.
Around this time my friend occasionally worked for The American Botanical Council, a non-profit based in Austin, Texas, where we also lived in our colorfully painted house. Under the auspices of the American Botanical Council, we attended the October 1996 conference on Entheogens at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. (where else). An entheogen refers to a hallucinogenic plant used in a sacred ceremony. Many so-called primitive cultures, especially in the Americas, have long-standing traditions involving hallucinogenic plants and shamans.
I attended lectures from anthropologists like Christian Ratsch and chemists Kary Mullis, Alexander Shulgin, and Dennis McKenna. For the first time it became clear to me that people could pursue a serious study of plants without becoming ensnared in the dead end of addiction. While many use conscious-altering botanicals to numb and deaden themselves to the impact of their actions, in the shamanistic tradition, botanical allies are used to confront our demons. This was my understanding of it anyway. Being newcomers to the San Francisco scene, we never partook of anything stronger than margaritas, though the whole affair vibrated with secret rendezvous, and we glimpsed a sacramental altar in one of the other hotel rooms.
It awoke my interest in the works of pioneering ethnobotanists though. I read Wade Davis’ account of Richard Evan Schultes’ discoveries in South America, and felt honored to interview him in San Francisco. I’d also hoped to meet Albert Hofmann, the Swiss discoverer of LSD at the conference, but when knee surgery prevented his attendance, I contented myself with the signed photo he sent.
Even as my self-experimentation dwindled, and then stopped, I retained a fondness for the counter-cultural icons, and a fascination for the anthropologists that spent years of their lives investigating shamanistic traditions. I honor all methods that lead to an awakening to our unique selves. Sometimes its Eastern mysticism or a shamanistic experience; more often wisdom comes quietly, without fanfare, in bits and pieces.
Entheogen Fest

1996 Entheobotany Conference
Back row: Second from left, Alexaner Shulgin, fourth from left, Kary Mullins, on the right Dennis McKenna
Frpnt row: Fifth from the left: Christian Rätsch

#Swiss life and language

My series had a hard time finding a publishing home because it’s set in Switzerland. Americans don’t know about Switzerland, I was told. But perhaps you’re one of the Americans (or Aussies, or Indians) who like to find out about things you don’t know.
So let’s talk about Switzerland.
While in a remote alpine village, Peppa mentions longing for the urban atmosphere of her hometown, Basel. In the cozy cafes there one hears German and French, as well as Swiss.
Swiss? What’s that?
Because if you look on Wikipedia, you will see four official languages, none of them Swiss. They are German, French, Italian, and Romansh, which is a left-over language from the Roman conquest.
This all in a country about twice the size of Massachusetts.
Those are just official languages though.
The five largest cities in Switzerland are Zurich, Geneva, Basel, Lausanne, and Bern. Three of those have German as their official language. That means the written language is German. However, the spoken language is Swiss-German, also known as Dialekt, or Mundart. (literally mouthmethod). As a Swiss person myself, I can assure you Swiss-German is not German. Peppa describes it like this: “Even our dialect, singsong and sprinkled with diminutives, was a twittering echo of their menacing, guttural speech.”
After several years of living in Switzerland, Germans understand Swiss-German. Except for rare instances, they never speak Swiss-German, though their regional accent may migrate to more a sing-song intonation.
How does that translate into cultural attitudes? Well, for example, Switzerland didn’t join the European Union, along with Norway.
The Swiss-Germans travel everywhere. But they remain very Swiss.
They like to learn English and other languages, and often try to make signs in English as well. Here’s an example below. The expat community calls this Swinglish.

Mad women. Furious girls.

Feminism photoMulti-tasking. Nowadays, for a woman that might mean checking your phone for messages while changing your toddler’s diapers, while scheduling your bikram yoga class, so you can work on your dissertation afterwards. Women (at least in the West) have many choices these days.

As the old postcard shows, in Peppa Mueller’s day, women had a lot to do as well. Think of Betty, Don Draper’s wife in Mad Men. She had to cook steaks, fend off the amorous attentions of Don’s boss, make a mean cocktail, and grind her groin against the Maytag washing machine for some satisfaction. (Don was busy with other ladies).

In order to understand Peppa’s eccentric choice to collaborate with Ludwig Unruh, gentleman poisoner and dapper anthropologist, we have to understand what life was like in the fifties for girls.

Here’s Ludwig talking, trying to convince Peppa to work with him.

“You think a scrap of paper from Radcliffe will earn you respect? You’ve been out in the world now. You’ve seen a woman’s place. You can expect at best, a life of refined confinement, treated as a mix between a domestic servant and a concubine. And at worst, imprisonment, perhaps a spell in a mental institution, till they’ve broken you.”

He does kind of have a point, doesn’t he?

Stranger Things and #Eleven

I like the show Stranger Things. It’s a mash-up of eighties movies like E.T. and Poltergeist, but that’s not why I watch it. Eleven, a girl with psychokinetic powers, is a delight to watch.

My Peppa Mueller trilogy is already written, so Eleven is not an inspiration, but rather an affirmation: viewers and readers want vulnerable, yet strong, female heroes.

Eleven is ravenous, but polite.  The cool exterior, the laconic and precise voice, bely a terrifying power. There is something so controlled about her exterior, until all control is abandoned, and she unleashes her power. We enjoy watching someone so young and so fragile suddenly take control of a situation.

Like my character, Peppa Mueller, she has a father who can only relate to her as someone to aid his experiments, though in Eleven’s case, the man she calls Papa is no blood relation. Like Peppa, Eleven isn’t sure how to act like a girl. El traipses around in a borrowed pink dress, looking faintly ridiculous. Only her lack of self-consciousness saves her from humiliation.

That, and her superpowers.

 Peppa’s falcon totem superpowers are not nearly so cinematically impressive, but then I’m aiming more for Lisbeth Salander than Stephen King’s Carrie. With limited superpowers, Peppa has to rely on deductive reasoning and some cunning, as well as some good friends.

Even with those differences, in the universe of female superheroes, there are less than six degrees of separation between Peppa and El.


The Beautiful #Botanical Nightshade

Her beauty is enticing, but this Brugmansia is a dangerous member of the Nightshade family.
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Nightshade. Something so dark, it’s blacker than night. As Peppa and her godfather, renowned chemist Alex Kaufmann, find out in the first book, the hallucinogenic Compound T is made from a nightshade. Its creator, a devious scientist, calls it a Compound, but it’s only a simple extract. A bit of deceptive advertisement.
The existence of a Compound T is a bit of creative fiction, but nightshades are firmly established in occult tradition. Nightshades, in Latin, the genus Solanaceae includes plants we eat, like tomatoes (though they were formerly believed to be poisonous.) Henbane, Belladonna, and various Angel Trumpets (Brugmansia) are examples of the more dangerous nightshades, ones that induce delirium. Pharmacological chemist and expert on psychoactive plants, Dr. Dennis McKenna explains the difference between hallucinations and delirium. During a hallucination you see and hear things that aren’t ordinarily present, but still are somewhat grounded in every-day life. During a delirium, the bond with consensual reality breaks, which makes a delirium a type of psychotic break.
McKenna admits to an unfortunate experience with Jimson weed, during which he was incapacitated. Jimson weed, a type of Datura, is a close relative of the Angel Trumpet, species Brugmansia. I had already finished my novel when I read McKenna’s reflections on the two closely allied plants. He writes “I believe that accidental or deliberate encounters with the shadowy Datura spaces are the basis for the belief, in many cultures, in a land of the dead.”
Interesting corroboration to the decision to feature the beautiful Brugmansia as a toxic hallucinogen.

#Consciousness and Being

Generally, in our culture of physical objects, when we speak of self, we mean something connected with our bodies, or something that belongs to us, something that we possess.
On the immaterial plane, this gets harder to judge.
We could frame it differently: what constitutes identity?
Identity is developed as we proceed through our lives, considering, reacting, gathering experiences and drawing conclusions. We experience identity while conscious, but in dreams, another us may come forth. Our disturbing and unacceptable impulses are projected onto our dream selves, who do what we do not dare. Sometimes our aspirational selves are also projected into reveries. For instance, I’ve had dreams where I’ve sung to an audience in a thrilling and profound voice, though in “real life” I can’t carry a tune.
Are those other selves, those partners that exist in a surreal dimension, part of our identity as well? It depends on how permeable our boundaries are, and how flexible our understanding of consciousness is.
My novel is not a book about shape-shifting. Cora, the falcon totem, exists in another dimension, but yet, paradoxically, she exists deep within the human, Peppa Mueller. If I had to localize her within Peppa, I would place her in the limbic system. Her reactions have almost instantaneous results. One could say Cora has more command of Peppa’s nervous system than she does herself, since Cora is nearer to the driver’s seat.
Peppa, as a human with nineteen years of life experience, during which she’s developed analytical skills, soon realizes the peregrine is an integral part of herself. When she realizes the totem protects her, she names the entity. We name that which we seek to understand, and Peppa, being an analytical woman, wants to come to terms with this new creature.
The naming however, also transforms the peregrine totem, who until then has reacted out of basic instinct to protect the human body, which she refers to as her host. Cora states “I cognate. Therefore I am.” From there, it’s just one step to ordering the relationships in her world. Babies recognize their mother, the being that appears most often in their surroundings. Cora, the falcon, recognizes Peppa, the human who has named her.
We are Cora. We are Peppa.
I think discovering who we are is an interior journey that is the counterpart to our exterior one. With grace, these experiences run parallel, reinforcing each other.

Beautiful Falcon contemplating sunset. The power of nature.
Beautiful Falcon contemplating sunset. The power of nature.

The Falcon in Nature

Cora, who appears on the cover of my Falcon series, is a peregrine. She’s also a literary symbol of our limbic system, the ancient part of our brain that processes emotions. But for now, let’s concentrate on the falcon aspect.

Falcons, owls, hawks and vultures are all raptors, birds of prey. Peregrines belong to the order “Falconiformes”, hawk like birds, so you can see it’s hard for a neophyte to tell a hawk from a falcon.

In #nature, falcons have few predators, although the Eurasian eagle owl, bubo bubo, occasionally preys on them. Despite having few natural enemies, falcons and hawks are aggressive and basically loners. To defend their territory, they may use their talons for “passing strikes”, as they fly. Raptors also “foot” attackers, kicking out with their feet. As hunters, they must strike without hesitation, or face starvation or injury from their prey. Some hawks, such as Goshawks, may even kill and eat their mate.

Despite their speed, strength, and aggression, fledgling mortality can be as high as 90%. Many raptors die the first year; however, a medium sized raptor can live 10 to 15 years. (Cora, being from the spirit world, is eternal).

Peregrine falcons are known for both speed and endurance. Peregrines that breed in the tundras of Alaska and Canada migrate to the tip of South America for the winter months. That’s a journey of 56 to 72 days, which covers between 7000 and 9400 miles. When they hunt, they soar thousands of feet above their prey, before swooping down at a speed of 200 miles/hr.

Here for your amusement is a short video of my encounter with a hawk at Ireland’s School of Falconry, near Galway. He’s a Parabuteo Unicinctus, commonly known as a Harris Hawk. He bolted for the forest and it took a bit of coaxing to get him back.

Information for this blog post came from “How Fast Can a Falcon Dive“.

Playlist for Altering Your Consciousness

As a novelist, you need to open your mind and alter your consciousness. That’s especially true if you write fantasy with a shimmer of spiritual reverence.  Putting on my music acts as a cue to my psyche that we’re going to journey into that internal dream-like space where ideas and impressions assemble themselves into stories.

I’ve come across some artists whose evocative and trippy music is very special to me. They’ve given me permission to share their songs with you. Like most artists, they do it for the love, not the money, but if you like a song, you might consider buying an album.

Artist                Album                  Song

01. Govinda      Sound Sutras      There’s no one there

02. Digitonal    Save Your Light for Darker Days

Nothing Left to Say

03. Ikarus             Touch the Sun      Touch the Sun

04. Robert Carty    Garunda Valley   Serotonin Ashram

05. Magic Sound Fabric  Freedom Star    Perfect Light

Nightmare on Myrtle Street


The robot nation puts you in a barbed-wire pen. The snarling beast chews your arm to pieces. The masked man steals into your apartment, knife ready to slash your throat. And then the more plebian ones: you’re out in public, with no clothes on, or taking a final exam for a subject you’re unfamiliar with.

By now you know what I’m talking about. Not just altered consciousness. Nightmares. But when I lived on Myrtle Street as a young woman, I didn’t have just run of the mill nightmares. I had detailed vivid dreams, during which I even felt pain, or smelled strange smells. My lifestyle, hanging out with musicians and experimenting with various substances, fed the tendency of my nighttime psychic wanderings.

Once I became lucid in my dream-state, and realized I wouldn’t actually die, I enjoyed the challenge of finding ways to survive. I would wake to ponder the meaning of my latest sleep excursion. The nightmare about the poisonous hallucinogen, disguised as drink and served at a remote mountain inn while we waited for our meals, especially intrigued me. I got a glimpse of a sinister doctor lurking by the barrel which held the viscous dark liquid. The doctor and his associates were cannibals, who had waited for the full moon before unleashing their hellish concoction on the unsuspecting diners.

I experienced this dream as one of the poisoned subjects, a young woman on her own. I wondered at her predicament. How did she come to be in that isolated and dangerous situation? Why did she have to break a man’s neck? What was the meaning of the skull castle that she saw when she turned into a falcon and flew into the sky?

Once I started writing, I christened her Peppa Mueller, and her acerbic skeptical personality came into sharp focus. I took the journey with Peppa, and learned more about myself. I also discovered a hero in the story that wasn’t in my nightmare: Tenzin, a Bhutanese man of deep insights and compassion.

Now I’m ready to share the journey with my readers. The three books in the Falcon series have gone far beyond the original nightmare, evolving into a metaphysical exploration of the body/mind split.