This is my second post, another story from my life. This one comes from my days as a graduate student at UT Austin. (The first post was from childhood, so I guess I’m going to skip around.) This was one of the most wonderful moments of my life.
The phone on the desk in the corner of the laboratory rang and rang. I took another minute to finish measuring reagents and get the reaction started. When I finally answered, the well-known basso-profundo voice of John Aielli reached me through the wire. As host of Austin’s favorite morning radio show, Eklektikos, John was famous for his voice and for his excellent taste in music.
“Rob, you’ve got to help me.”
“Hi, John. Nice to hear your voice.”
“No, seriously, I can’t handle this.”
“What can’t you handle, John?”
“Timothy Leary. That’s what I can’t handle. You’re the smartest person I know. You’ve got to help me.”
I pricked up my ears. “What about Timothy Leary?”
“In two weeks, he’s holding a seminar here in Austin. His promoter called the station and arranged for him to do an hour interview.” his voice began to rise, “On my show. Next Tuesday. Oh, my God. You’ve got to help me.”
John knew Leary’s reputation for brilliance and was having an anxiety attack. His fears were unfounded; John was one of the brightest people I knew, but he was really stressed out. I agreed to help him with the interview.
I went to the library and looked up Timothy Leary. Professor of Psychology at Harvard, he began studying therapeutic effects of Magic Mushrooms and LSD in a variety of disturbed people. After being fired, he became a cheeleader for drugs in the 60s and one of the founders of the hippie movement. With the conservative backlash of the 70s, Leary was portrayed as a clown by the media and, in fact, played the clown. His books are filled with both profound insights and extreme ideas. He advocated, for example, colonization of outer space; he thought we should be actively seeking other planets to live on — an extreme but ultimately rationale response to the over-crowding and environmental degradation here on earth.
Of course, it was his stand on drug use that got him into trouble. He was framed several times with family members, especially his children, and the authorities finally put him in jail in California. He escaped. After 18 months, he was betrayed and ended up in custody in France where Albert Hoffman, the chemist who invented LSD, visited Leary in his cell.
After serving more time back in California, he was released on probation and promptly entered the Democratic Primary for Governor of California. In the first poll, he ranked tops among Democratic candidates. Leary had some brilliant, crazy ideas in his platform. For example, he had a plan to eliminate the California deficit of $1 billion. He suggested that the State should issue licenses for people to be able to buy recreational drugs.
Anyone wishing to obtain a license would pay a non-refundable application fee of $500. The applicant would then undergo a battery of tests — screening of personality, maturity, employment, etc. — to ensure that that the person was stable and productive. If rejected, one could re-apply as often as wanted, but the fee remained $500 for each application.
If approved, license holders could buy whatever substance they wished at a state-owned “Drugstore.” Everything would be manufactured properly and would be of high quality, pure. Prices would be high with heavy taxes. Purchases could be tracked to follow patterns of consumption and to pinpoint problems. There would be very strict rules against buying for ineligibles. Licenses could be renewed every year for $100. But, you reply, this system is easy to circumvent. How would you enforce this? Easy. With any infraction of the rules, the license is revoked for life. .
Needless to say, with a platform like this, Leary’s candidacy didn’t last very long. He was told to step down or have his parole revoked. He stepped down, and I was anxious to meet him. Tuesday, 10:00 AM.
We waited in a small studio by the doorway. Leary carried an entourage of three men. When they arrived, the room filled. A nearly disembodied hand pushed through the crowd which I dutifully shook. He stood tall, and when I glanced up, his hair was a shock of white. Bright, bright blue eyes glowed down at me out from under the hair. A stunning man. We all moved down the corridor to the main studio.
The room was carpeted in thick brown. All other surfaces were covered in acoustic tile to deaden echoes except one wall of glass behind which two engineers in headphones fiddled at the console. In the room’s center sat a small folding table with three chairs. We all moved to the table where small microphones lay at each place. We all quickly took our seats — John facing the booth, Leary to his left, me on his right. We attached mikes to the fronts of our shirts and spoke for the engineers and their sound checks. Over the loudspeaker, the engineer said, “Sixty seconds, gentlemen.”
John said something to Leary in a low voice. The engineer said, “Ten seconds.” We just had time to look up, and I caught Leary’s eyes on me, appraising, as if asking, “What is this guy doing here?” He smiled kindly and nodded his head twice. “Three…Two…One.”
“Good Morning, radio listeners, I’m John Aielli, and we’re here to spend an hour talking with two men — Dr. Timothy Leary and Rob Widdowson, doctoral student here at UT.”
We both said Good Morning, and John continued.
“Dr. Leary is here in Austin to conduct a seminar on “How to Increase Your Intelligence.” They did the promotion and talked about Leary’s methods which he discussed beautifully, with wit, charm, sincerity, and hucksterism. But after the third mention of the date, time, place, and cost ($300) of the seminar, John began to falter, wandering off onto a desultory conversation about life on the road. I finally broke in.
“Dr. Leary, are you familiar with Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis?”
The question was irrelevant enough to be rude. John seemed irritated, but Leary looked at me with relief, gratitude, and curiosity. Then he smiled and threw down the gauntlet. He said, very slowly, “Yes, I am, Rob. I’m very interested in the Gaia Hypothesis. Why don’t you take a few minutes and explain it to all those thousands of listeners out there in radio land.” He watched me.
Now I had lectured nearly every day — either formally or informally — for at least four years, and I knew my craft. I knew to think of the explanation or lecture as a story; I knew how to begin at the beginning, go all the way through to the end, and then stop. I knew to get the sequence of ideas correct, to give all the information necessary to understand the next step. I knew to summarize periodically and to use examples. I had a talent for using the right language for the audience.
So I did about four minutes on the Gaia Hypothesis, and, as I went on, Leary became more and more animated, smiling, leaning forward, waiting. When I finished, he started. Off we went. Locked eyeball-to-eyeball across that flimsy table, we soared — cybernetics, life, consciousness, feminism, ecology, spirit. In the first minutes, we both understood that, whatever the topic, we had enough understanding to make the leaps seemed like natural progressions. John watched, mouth agape.
Leary and I worked well with one another, stitching arguments together, weaving them simply and clearly, always tying them back to Gaia. We were alone, captured by the ideas, deep in each other’s minds, leaping from idea to idea, reaching out to discipline after discipline. Ideas blossomed like deranged roses, popping out all over the garden.
John spoke. “I’m sorry. Our time is up. This has been a most interesting discussion. Thank you both. Don’t forget the seminar….”
It was over. But then Leary did one of the most extraordinary things I have ever seen. In that formal, sterile room, he stared into my eyes as John finished speaking. The red light went off, and Leary leaped out of his chair, straight up, with enough force that both feet left the floor, threw high his fist, and screamed a victory shout “Yaaah!” worthy of the noisiest locker room. He landed a little bent over and growled, “We got ’em.” The door opened, and his cohort filled the room. I saw his white hair disappear through the doorway. I sat stunned.
Then, without thinking, I jumped up and pursued them down the long hallway. Cantering, I caught up with the knot of them by the door, and I shouldered my way up next to Leary. I spoke urgently at his ear. “Dr. Leary.” He stopped immediately right across from the little studio where we’d first met about two hours before. I stepped inside and turned to him. Once again we were eyeball-to-eyeball.
“Dr. Leary,” I burst out. “Please take yourself seriously. Don’t let them make you into a clown. It’s too important. You’re too important.”
He stared at me with those amazing blue eyes. Then an acolyte yanked him away from the doorway, and they disappeared.
A few years later, Leary published Flashbacks, an autobiography, a clear and straightforward narrative of his astounding life. I’ve always hoped I had something to do with that book.