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?

The Beautiful #Botanical Nightshade

Her beauty is enticing, but this Brugmansia is a dangerous member of the Nightshade family.
poison pixaabay-1316016__180
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“.

How Peppa is like Carrie Mathison


I wrote the character of Peppa Mueller before I started watching Homeland. Do I like Homeland because Carrie reminds me of Peppa? Yes.
Has Peppa been influenced by Carrie? No doubt.

• Intense, skinny blondes with a wild side.
• Career women who put their passion into their work
• On the other hand, they’re not averse to a roll in the hay
• Daughters who fear having inherited their fathers’ psychological problems
• They look intently. They see the truth.
• Uneasy relationship with their older male mentors, who occasionally try to restrain them
• Just when you get used to them being in one country, they’re someplace else.


Why go to all that trouble for a dog?

Some initial readers for The Girl who was a Falcon questioned the idea of a IMG_2257girl going into danger just to rescue her pet dog. In subsequent drafts, I played up Peppa’s fascination with Unruh’s experiments, and her susceptibility to the right kind of flattery.

But she does love her dog.

The Falcon series explores the place animals and plants have in the lives of humans, and how they enrich our experience. Flora and fauna form the body of Gaia, the living biosphere that includes humans. While we choose to interact increasingly with machines of our own manufacture, our brains are hardwired to respond to natural surroundings—the shift of day into night—the movement of the seasons—the sounds of the sea that echo the pulsing of our own salty fluid, our blood. Plants and animals, even when placed in our homes and gardens, evoke the natural state humans inhabited for so many centuries. We still bring the outside in, and cherish it.

Most of us have heard of companion animals, animals that help ground and stabilize emotionally or mentally fragile people. But really, almost anyone can benefit from companionship of a loving, trusting furry friend. Different species bring various gifts. Since adopting my first dog, Ellie, pictured above, I’ve learned to think of many dogs as psychic sponges. They’re adept at absorbing their owner’s emotions, and perhaps, neutralizing them, in certain instances. I’ve even had friends ask if they could take Ellie for a walk in the woods on days they’re feeling particularly anxious. With her warm, sturdy body, and innocent acceptance, she comforts people.

It seemed logical then, that Peppa, a girl who feels alone, would risk her safety and sanity to get Simone back.

Maybe my Falcon series will even inspire you to visit a shelter and adopt your own dog. If you live in the USA, you’ll find a lot of pit bull mixes in the shelter. Let me assure you that pit bulls are maligned unnecessarily. Don’t tease your pit bull puppy, be firm, but show love, and given time your pup will reward you.

If you end up adopting, send me your story.


The intersection of fantasy and reality.
A fairy tale—
Once upon a time, in a far way place, there was a girl.
You could be that girl.
That time is the recent past.
The place is foreign, but not unreachable.

Above a RainbowThis photograph was taken in the Canton (state) of St. Gallen, Switzerland, close to where Peppa has her first psychoactive trip. You can get there by taking a train to a place called Wasserauen. No poison potion needed.