sweet demotion

oceans of eleven – chapter two

“What is that, yoga?” – Dude, The Big Lebowski

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung ventured beyond the sexual teachings of his elder colleague Sigmund Freud and made a life’s work out of the exploring the sacred self. He pioneered psychological concepts that included the Archetype, the Collective Unconscious, the Complex,, and the big enchilada that became my favorite word soon into the cosmic bitch slapping—Synchronicity, which postulates that there are no accidents or coincidences. The situations that make up our lives from moment to moment are all, in some way or another, connected. If, and it’s a huge If, we have reached a level of awareness to see things that way. Old Carl was also a leader in the field of dream analysis so you can see why this floating Friend became a Jungian.

Adopting the synchronous premise, random events appear as perfectly timed occurrences, interwoven by an ethereal fabric that the two dimensional mind doesn’t fully comprehend but can trip out the brain just the same. Like when you’re thinking about someone from off the grid and, ding, the phone rings and it’s them! As the post Clive Davis professional pause lengthened and life started to sputter, the reality was this: I had no gig, no income, no place to go but in.

In the 11th month of ’98, I wandered into a yoga studio on Robertson Boulevard I’d heard about from Joyce’s best friend, Holly. They went to Chico State together, voted by Playboy Magazine as the Number One Party College in America several times running. Both ladies curbed their enthusiastic recreational behavior considerably since graduating from the northern California campus in early ‘80s. Joyce never got into yoga but Holly did. “You should try Yoga West, Lonn,” she said to me in passing one day. “They’re Sikhs, you know, white clothes and turbans. One of the teachers there is a real trip, like a living legend. His name is Guru Singh. Check it out.”

It was a dark day and I was in a dark way and having never taken a yoga class in my life, I had no idea what to expect when I walked into the small studio ten minutes from home. “It’s $12 per class but if this is your first time, you can just make a small donation,” offered the flower girl at the counter. “Mats and blankets are on the wall. Sat Nam.” She handed me an instruction sheet that explained the two-word Kundalini greeting she’d just uttered as well as other facts about this strange new world I’d entered. Students were arriving for the Tuesday morning session. Some looked peaceful and calm; others appeared almost giddy with anticipation. Laying my mat down on the carpeted floor, I noticed a large gong resting on the elevated platform. “Well, that’s cool,” I whispered to myself. Then I crossed my legs and waited, feeling displaced and utterly alone.

At ten minutes past nine, a tall, thin man with long, grey whiskers toting a guitar case entered the room. Like Holly said, all white and turbaned. He fiddled for a few moments, wiring himself up to evidently record the session, and then popped a cassette into the tape deck on the platform. A soothing chant emanated from the large speakers hanging from the ceiling behind the stage. I scanned the room of forty faces, the majority of whom were female. Unlike me, they seemed to know what was coming next. “Inhale,” instructed the Guru. A collective breath taken, the first step on the thousand-mile journey. “Exhale.” Pause. “Excellent.”

For the next 45 minutes, Guru Singh spoke and everyone listened quietly. I can’t recall the specific topic of that virgin class; I just remember that every word that came out of his bearded mouth hit home, as if the entire dissertation had been magically scripted just for me. This was my debut dose of Synchronicity, nothing short of a life-altering moment. When the lecture and challenging Kriya session (Kundalini poses or exercises) was over, I remained flat on my back, an emotional puddle on borrowed sheepskin. Students of disparate shape and size stood in line for their after-class hug from the alien in white. I waited my turn and upon meeting his gaze, fumbled for an introductory sentence.

“I have no idea why I’m here,” I said, dabbing a tear from my right eye. “You’re here because you’re supposed to be here,” he replied with a comforting smile that passed through me like a warm desert breeze. On that winter day in ’98, the student met his shaman and life would never be the same again. Three times a week in the beginning, I was there at Yoga West embracing the metaphorical knowledge of the Vedic’s. I learned Breath of Fire the rapid abdominal inhale/exhale that charged the heart and circulatory system while mysteriously feeding the soul. And when the private sessions started, the Guru schooled me in mantra and meditation, and the meaning of the reflection—that the outside world is the inside world, reflected back. They are us, and we are them. It was yogic Pink Floyd.

Synchronicities compounding, perspective altering, I became more invisible to others yet more visible to myself. A few years later, I would leave my hometown, go to Las Vegas. Ocean’s 11 and the Rat Pack, Sinatra—the first rock star, before Little Richard, Elvis and Lennon. Passing craps tables while feeling crappy. The Steven Soderberg-directed Clooney-pack remake (and subsequent 12 and 13 sequels) were awesome, inventive rides and hopefully the billion-dollar franchise put some serious cash in the wallet of the old storytelling warhorse that conceived it, but the 1960 original stands eternal. Stay with me. The meandering madness always leads to thematic method.

Ocean’s 11 was written by George Clayton Johnson and Jack Golden Russell. Johnson had also scripted several of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes including the magical, “Penny for Your Thoughts,” the intense, “A Game of Pool,” the spiritually-evolved, “Nothing in the Dark (starring a baby-faced newcomer named Robert Redford as the disarming Mr. Death), the heart-wrenching, “Ninety Years without Slumbering,” and the winsome “Kick the Can,” about the residents of an old folks home that manifest a miracle and become kids again by believing in the hidden power of a children’s game. This man wove whimsical, human tales. And as fate would have it, we’d soon come to face.

In the eleventh month of 1981, I started my very first magazine gig as publisher’s assistant for Gambling Times, a monthly publication devoted to players – those risk-loving individuals seduced by games of chance. One afternoon, a wild-eyed 50-ish fellow with long, stringy, silver hair and an equally long and stringy silver beard appeared at our offices, housed in the massive, drafty, ancient Television Center building in Hollywood where Woody Woodpecker was born. There’s a Gold’s Gym in the space now where GT publisher Stanley Sludikoff—a Jabba the Hut-like fellow with three necks and five chins—hocked his mail order Winning Blackjack book for a hundred bucks a pop. Sludikoff’s partner – who wore equally shabby, dandruff appointed suits – was an old school, Boston-born editorial artifact named Len Miller. I was pulling in $1500 a month and biding my time, culling a few tricks about how a magazine worked and hooking up with the sexy managing editor who provided both editorial direction and occasional erection.

I was sitting at my desk opening mail one morning when the receptionist rang. “There’s a writer here to drop off a short story,” she barked. “Will you see him please, Lonn?” The lowly assistant didn’t get many visitors. “Sure,” I replied. “What’s his name?” A couple seconds of silence and she murmured, “George Clayton Johnson.” I hung up the receiver, stared at my desk, processed the name, and prepared to have my very first conversation with a real writer.

My favorite childhood TV shows were all thought-expanding, sci-fi, out-there programs. I can still recall watching them as a kid, never mind the countless repeat broadcasts through syndication, DVD or online. Star Trek, The Outer Limits, One Step Beyond, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and my absolute favorite, the most timeless of all, the Twilight Zone. In the three minutes it took him to march from the lobby to my desk, I played back the episodes in my head that I knew the man I was about to meet had authored.

I didn’t even have a guest chair for Mr. Johnson to sit down in so he hovered in front of my desk as we talked. “’Penny for Your Thoughts’ is one of the ten best Zones,” I offered, clumsily. “The premise is genius. Do you believe in psychic powers, Mr. Johnson?” He smiled wide and responded, “Well thank you, but please call me George, Lonn. And to answer your question, yes. I feel the human mind is capable of performing all sorts of miracles.”

Our conversation was brief but thrilling, at least for me. Borrowing the address off the envelope containing his manuscript, I boldly fired off a personal note further articulating my pedigree as a lifelong ‘Zone fan and the fact that I owned a collectible volume containing some of the show’s more memorable yarns, namely “Kick the Can.” I also added that I had seen the author speak at my high school some years before and loved the movie he wrote, Logan’s Run.

A few days later, I received the following letter, hammered out on an old Smith Corona manual typewriter, the same ancient device Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury used to compose their fantastical tomes on. It was dated February 12, 1982…

In Las Vegas during the spring and summer of 2004 while cultivating the literary soil that would eventually become my memoir, Life on Planet Rock, the Johnson letter just fell out of a book one afternoon—I hadn’t seen it in 25 years! Why did it arrive then? Why there? Whatever gives pause, stops you in your tracks to take stock in the moment to properly acknowledge the ineffable and tip your invisible cap to the Obi Wan force that makes this whole cosmic thing rock and roll—that’s synchronicity, or as Johnson put it, “confluential events.” He said perhaps we would meet again. We never did physically but the appearance of this letter was downright paranormal—a small fortune for my thoughts and the tidal break of eh-oh number 11.

The past few years, I’ve been able to see the fabric, the extraterrestrial stitching, the link between the breaded chicken wing on my plate and the chattering sparrow on the wire. In my life, 11 has come to define synchronicity. Whether it’s license plates, addresses or birthdays, the numerology has become a mantra. My birthday, the combinations, for instance…29th day. 2 and 9 equals 11. 56th year. 5 and 6, yeah. Hotel rooms during disparate road trips. “You’re in room 236, Mr. Friend.” Do the math. Oh and the exact moment I emerged from Barbara Friend’s womb was 11:18 am. The addition perdition. And don’t get me started on 9/11.

One Tuesday morning in the summer of ‘99, Guru Singh explained the significance of 11. To put it simply, 11 represents the state of being where man and the Creator are reflecting one another. Make a one and one with your two index and then turn ‘em on their side. It’s the equal sign. If you see 11s, you’re blessed. I’ve met many 11 folks over the past few years. We’re like a tribe of freaks, galvanized by something we can’t explain but recognize is absolutely real. Yoga West was becoming the focus of my life. It felt safe in Guru Singh’s class. I also was motivated by several of the female students, most notable, a young, blond actress with a perfect posterior named Amy Smart. At the time we met in class, she’d just starred in a film called, Road Trip, but to me, her downward dog (known in Kundalini as triangle pose) was worthy of Oscar consideration. Amy brought Counting Crows singer, Adam Duritz, to one session. His portly frame didn’t really jibe with all the bending and breathing. She moved with the gentle ease of an enchanted caterpillar and rarely broke a sweat.

But the most bizarre and wonderful butterfly-on-the-wall tale during the early yoga years took place on 11/11/99. I was having a private session at Guru Singh’s house and arrived shortly after 9 am. The backyard of his Wilshire district home thrived with garden growth, frog-shaped fountains, laughing Buddhas and two guest houses – one where he’d sit in conversation with his students like a shamanic therapist; the other in which he housed his electronic equipment and day bed where the sound meditation took place. He called it the “oven” because when you’re wrapped in blankets with warm stones in your hand, patches on your eyes and psychedelic soundscapes dancing between your earlobes through headphones, it could get pretty toasty.

For months, I’d been having weekly sessions where for the first half of the hang, we’d talk about my life, the changes, the falling apart. He’d help me make sense of the stupid and the sublime by altering my perspective. “The world and everyone in it are your reflection,” he’d lecture. “The fault you see in others is merely a reflection of what’s inside you. Unresolved issues.” No matter how much I complained about the people or circumstances in my life, the Guru would never judge or fix blame. “Look at yourself, go inside, and you’ll discover the source of the discontent,” he’d say. “You’re in the belly of the big fish, like the Biblical Jonah. You get out by waking up and living a conscious life. Or you splash around in the bile and die. It’s a matter of choice.”

I entered the “oven” for 45 minutes of Sahaj Shabd Therapy, also known as the therapy of sacred sound. Pretty soon, my headphones were full of electronic rhythms and softly worded instructions. “Relax your shoulders, your arms, your hands…” wafted the Guru’s voice amongst the soothing audio. “Relax the bones in your head and the bones in your face.” I breathed deeply and drifted away, losing track of time. “Your goal is to achieve what is known as shun-ya – the state of complete nothing,” said the Guru. “That’s where the answers lie.” When he’d return to the oven to unwrap me, he’d always say the same thing. “That was a good one,” before dabbing a tissue with lavender oil and offering me a glass of water with Emergen-C powder.

On this particular November day, however, I emerged from my meditation a little before 11 am feeling unusually peaceful and clear. That was when my tall, skinny, white-clad, guitar-strumming, mantra-chanting teacher asked a most unusual question. “Would you like to stay for a wedding?” His face creased with a mischievous grin.

“A wedding? Here?” I replied. “Yes,” he responded. “In just a few minutes, at exactly 11:11 am. I am going to perform a marriage ceremony on the patio. You can be a witness. It’s just me, my wife, Guru Pirkama, and the bride and groom.” I thought for a millisecond and chirped, “Why not? Who’s getting married?” Guru Singh had held Kundalini court at Yoga West in Los Angeles since 1970. His alumni were eclectic and eccentric. Nevertheless, what came out of his mouth next completely blew my mind. “Did you see The Matrix?” he asked. The question was rhetorical. Everyone had seen The Matrix. I didn’t think the Guru even went to movies. His teachings combined a universe of disciplines.

“Carrie-Anne Moss, she played Trinity,” he said softly. “She’s been my student a long time.” There were obviously more tinsel town goddesses at Yoga West than Amy. “The Matrix is a very important film possessing a powerful spiritual message. Mastery of our incarnation depends on the lessons contained within the matrix…the entire collection of kingdoms. This information lives within each gene pool; it affects every other life on the planet. She and her fiancé will be here shortly. I will commence the brief ceremony at precisely 11:11. Uniting them at that moment, on this day, will add tremendous strength to their union. And you’ll be part of it, Lonn.” That last line raced through me like a breath of fire. I thought I’d heard the master wrong.

“Wait a minute,” I interrupted. “Carrie-Anne Moss is getting married here, on your patio, in, uh, eight minutes, and I’m going to be part of the ceremony?” His grin was wider than Adam’s waistline. “You’ll be a witness. Come on, let’s go outside. They’ll be arriving momentarily.” I glanced down at my dirty sweat pants and wrinkled tee shirt. “But I’m not dressed for a wedding.”

An instant later, through his back gate, past the thriving tomatoes, lavender and rose bushes floated Trinity and her real life, Neo, actor/musician, Steven Roy. They resembled a pair of San Francisco earth children from the summer of love, slightly spacey and catatonic with happiness. “Carrie, Steven — this is Lonn,” said the Guru. “He’s going to be a witness.”

“Hi Lonn, we’re so glad that you’re here,” beamed Carrie-Anne. “Forgive me for not bringing a gift,” I joked. The atmosphere was devoid of entitlement or judgment. It was all love. She was radiant, intoxicatingly beautiful. He looked like the dude who’d won the lottery. Well, he had. We moved over to the covered patio, the sacred moment came, words were spoken, and the moment passed. It was the shortest, sweetest, most perfect and uncomplicated wedding I’d ever attended.

How many players on a soccer team take the field at once? 11. How about a football team? 11. What number studio album was the ephemeral Pet Sounds for the Beach Boys? 11. What was the mandatory limit of cosmetic procedures performed on Janet Tyler in the classic Twilight Zone, “The Eye of the Beholder?” 11. What was the original air-date of said episode? 11/11/62. How many planets were there in the Talos Star System from the Captain Christopher Pike Star Trek pilot, “The Menagerie?” 11. How many survivors did Pike’s landing party find alive on Talos IV? 11. Not to mention that both Cheers and M*A*S*H ran for 11 seasons…both with 11 main characters and it was Apollo 11 that made the first lunar landing. Oh, and World War I ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month and there are 11 parables that Jesus told on his way to his Crucifixion. Natasha Shneider from the ‘90s rock band, Eleven, passed away from cancer on July 2, 2008 at exactly 11:11 am. “There’s heaven ahead in number 11,” sang Peter Gabriel in “Counting Out Time” on Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Might mean nothing. Might be the key to absolutely everything. But it has to make you wonder.

Life on Planet Rock went on sale 7/11/06. I didn’t set the date and my publisher, Random House, wasn’t aware of the numerical significance. Just worked out that way. Numbers. You want more? Let’s return to George Clayton Johnson. Born 7/10/29, 2 and 9, 11. My dad was born 7/3/29. They’re 7 days apart. 7-11. I moved to Las Vegas when I was 47 years old and my dad was 74. The only time in our lives that reflective alignment will ever happen. Add ‘em up…11/11.

Back in time, returning to the rhyme, I wish I had a dime for every time the ones appeared since this whole thing started. But maybe it didn’t start that November of ’98 when the yogi entered my life. A slight shift in perspective and we might concur that it ended that day. One of my most beloved songs is The The’s “This is the Day.” Post-modern poet Matt Johnson sings, “This is the day, your live will surely change/This is the day, when things fall into place.” Anecdotal flashbacks to reinforce a theory that I still to this day don’t fully understand. I’m hopeful, however, that at the 11th hour, I’ll finally figure this shit out.

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