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Recently I came across an interesting article on the reemergence of psychedelic treatment for terminally ill patients. The treatment involves administration of controlled doses of psilocybin, the active chemical in psychedelic mushrooms and other hallucinogens of the 1960’s and ‘70’s, to help those facing their end of life to live their last months with a renewed sense of peace and well-being.

The drug provides patients with several hours of an “experience”, as Jimi Hendrix called it, or of a good trip, as everyone else referred to it back in the day. Through this hallucinatory journey, the patient is able to give up the sense of self, and to connect to the rest of the world, to other people, to God. Most of the patients who undergo the treatment come to consider the experience as one of the top most powerful and significant in their lives: it gives them new perspective, a new sense of connection, and an ability to let go.

As this Lenten season comes into full swing, I cannot help but envy the people who get to try this new treatment, just a little. We talk about giving things up for Lent, but how sublime would it be to give up the self?.. The elderly in our church have been able to do so: they look at you and listen, they are not afraid for their fragile egos, they do not perceive everything through the prism of their own selfish ends, but, more and more, through God’s eyes. Oh, to be freed of the ego that gives birth to pride, insecurities, ambition, jealously. To lose inhibitions that arise from a heightened awareness of self, and to meld into the rest of humanity…

The article quotes Katherine MacLean, a former Johns Hopkins psychologist, who says that during a “trip”, “you’re losing everything you know to be real, letting go of your ego and your body, and the process can feel like dying…” Perhaps that’s why the elderly are better at letting their egos go: they are closer to having to let go of everything, and many things have already been taken from them… But also, they have had more time to ponder Paul’s letter to the Romans, which urges us to be dead to ourselves, and alive in Christ.

The crux of the neurology of the life-altering trip lies in the brain’s default-mode network. This is a region of the brain which plays the role of the overseer of the entire system, responsible for monitoring the informational input from various centers, funneling and limiting and controling. It is the physical place where the ego lives. The default-mode network, as the source of self-awareness and the corporate executive which controls all lower impulses, is thought to be evolution’s greatest achievement in molding the human brain. When psilocybin is administered, this is the portion of the brain that it targets, and, once found, successfully puts to sleep.

Now, when the boss is on hiatus, great things can happen. Other portions of the brain are freer. The visual cortex connects with the memory and voila! Hallucinations. Those who are, in daily life, crippled by an excessively authoritarian default-mode network, become released from their obsessions, compulsions, addictions. A mind intensely turned in on itself, as one plagued by depression, is able to losen its grip and turn outwards, once again connecting to others and noticing the world around it. A mind unable to think outside the lines taps into its silenced stores of creativity and imagination.

Curiously, the pinnacle of millions of years of evolution, a consciousness, is perceived by the church as the result of original sin. Once Eve and Adam ate the apple, “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked” (Genesis 3:7a). Until that moment, they were not aware of themselves. They were also probably closer to God and less prone to depression and self-flagellation.

And so I return back to Lent. And for Lent, I would like to give up my default-mode network. Just for a little while, just until Easter. It is highly effective and well trained. Who wants it?


All photographs in this post are by Liza of JuniperSpring Photography.

In interest of historical accuracy I must admit that I missed a day in my San Diego chronicle. And also, I have not written about Days 4 and 5 and here I am already leaving again for San Diego, to spend 11 days there (no chronicling there) with my family and now both kids in tow, and to go back to Houston also with both kids. So let’s call this :The Other Days, and let that be good ‘nuff.

We arrived Wednesday night, Friday we went to Palomar but Thursday we did another monumental thing: we went to my brother Alyosha’s high school graduation. It was monumental because it was the last graduation in a prolonged series of three (mine ten years ago, Liza’s eight years ago, and now – his), but also because it marked the beginning of a new phase of our family life: a family with three grown children. The graduation was moving for me personally because I had played such a big role in caring for Alyosha in the first ten years of his life, and then was literally MIA for the next eight. Seeing him so big – an adult, reminded me that I was an adult and have been for quite some time (which still comes as a surprise to me), that, heck, my own kids were staring school soon, that life moved and that, yet again, I was looking at all of this surprised and shell-shocked. How did it happen? What happened? When? When was it all going at a steady pace, and when did it suddenly, violently shift into third gear and left me groping in the dust for my proverbial glasses?

Like any significantly older sibling, I felt proud for Alyosha – he turned out alright. As I watched him rise, and get his diploma, as we stood up and shouted, YEAH!!! You GO Alyosha!!!, as he smiled and waved at us, it was heartwarming to see him as a young man. He then went and hugged or shook hands with many of his teachers, and at this point I felt tremendous regret: these were people that have impacted his life, and I didn’t know any of them. And the hundreds of students graduating with him – he’s spent the better part of his childhood and teenage-hood with them, and I hardly knew any of them either. It was strange to think that I had no insight into such a chunk of his life. Almost none at all. The school halls and library, the gym and the cafeteria that he’ll remember for the rest of his life because he’s spent so much time there – I don’t even know how any of that looks. The biggest surprise of all – so naturally he shook the hands of his male teachers. How did he know how to do that? Who taught him? He shook hands as if he’s been practicing hand-shaking for many years.

It was a curious moment, a joyous occasion. And yes – I teared up when they sang the anthem. I am not ashamed to admit it.

Joy and jubilation!

Post graduation I think we must have gathered at the parents’ house and eaten. Yes. Liza took some pictures to prove it. Good times. Then at night we played Settlers with Dad, Mom, Liza, Sean and the Alyosha/Taylor team. Naturally Liza and Sean won first, and I think we battled it out for a while but eventually everyone won and/or headed off to sleep.

I also loved on the cat at some point...

Classic - after the graduation we had lunch. Family style.

Friday was Palomar.

Saturday my good friend Ryan came over for brunch, and we ended up having brunch, and then tea, and then lunching on the brunch left-overs, and then some more tea, all while engrossed in conversation. The whole thing lasted for a good four hours, and then he had to go, and then at some point we went to the beach and I gathered seashells while the ladies hid from the nippy wind, and then we went downtown with Mom and Dad and Vierra and I was just thrilled to not be parenting, and we walked around and stopped by an old, Hispanic-looking train station, had coffee, I was extremely bouncy and could not sit still and eventually we packed into the car and headed home.

I think actually we went to the beach on Sunday morning, and then we went to the grandparents’ house for lunch before I had to get dropped off at the airport. The lunch was unfortunately very stressful for me, because grandma was very intent only on feeding us, grandpa was very intent only on talking about war, and we were intent on having some “quality time” which we didn’t get to have because of the other competing agendas. Well, I stand corrected, grandma was intent not only on feeding us, but also on keeping grandpa from talking too much about the war. I felt irritated because of the noise, because I wanted grandma to sit and not to bustle so much, because I was afraid she might hurt herself, and because it seemed that everything revolved around food and stuffing as much of it into us as possible.

It was sad to think that our communication had boiled down to caviar on toast and Borscht. Grandpa talked about the war, Liza and I got into an argument because I mentioned the Great Patriotic War vs. WWII, and was snobby about terminology, and then we started asking grandpa about the different fronts and about how the European Front differed from the Great Patriotic War, and THAT was interesting except that he was yelling and didn’t hear us, which was upsetting.

Finally, Alyosha took me to the airport, I flew “home”, and at last, late at night, crashed into bed. Overall, it was a terrific short trip and now I am gearing up for a longer stay there. On the agenda: plans to meet with more friends, do adventurous things, visit the Getty Museum and the From El Greco to Dali exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Art, paint something, build something, eat lots of Brie and drink lots of tea.

Day 2 arrived, and herein we experienced some of the quintessential issues that our family (and, I imagine, many others) struggle with. We also shared a glorious hike through the picturesque Palomar Mountain valley. Pictures will follow but first, a few words.

So the main issue that inevitably occurs in the morning of a full day where all members of the family are present and ready to do “family time” is: what to do? Everyone makes their proposal, and, following a quick, painless diplomatic process, a decision is made. The said “diplomatic process” involves passive-aggressive behavior, weeping, and gnashing of teeth. After everyone more or less makes up, and two to three hours of elapsed time pass in sandwich making, getting dressed, getting water, assigning and packing into cars, running back OUT of cars to grab forgotten cell phones, sunscreen, and hats, packing in again, jumping out one last time to go to the bathroom (and stop on the way out to check your email), we feel ready to go.

This day we decided to go to Palomar Mountain, then, UN-decided to go there, and then finally settled on going there after all. Dad drove one car, with me in the front and Vierra and Mama in the back. Sean drove the other with Liza and Alyosha scrunched up in the rear seat. The drive was pastoral: the ochre, dust and concrete tones of North county San Diego quickly morphed into rolling hills, ostrich farms, draping foliage and small, gurgling creeks. Sitting in the passenger seat (a rare luxury for me), I hungrily soaked in the views, marveled at the sun, and chatted with the parents. I was gurgling over with thoughts and impressions that I had from the latest set of interpretation assignments that I was sent on, so I chattered and Dad, sincerely interested, listened actively. Mama and Vierra were in a world of their own, full of kitty cats, pink sandals and funny noises.

We wound and serpentined our way up 5,000 from sea level, and when we finally arrived at our destination we were all ready for a picnic (and I was ready to NOT be in the car for the next long time). Here we are, eatin’.


Then we went on the hike through the sun-bathed valley, long grasses caressing our legs, insects buzzing overhead and a fresh breeze blowing peacefully. It was the perfect, idyllic setting. Oh, and of course there were mountains in the backdrop. On our way back we traversed a forested area, with the giant conifers creating a cathedral-like mystical, verdant environment and the ferns and mosses underneath adding a warm, earthly glow.

Ladybug love

The fam under a felled-mamoth-esque tree

Alyosha and I climbing part of the felled mamoth...

Strong one

...and Goofy One taking his picture.

We used to cradle him in our arms...

Serious matters: Lizard explains

Lions and...lions, oh my.

Mama and Seanster discuss

The true photographer

Though we didn’t notice it at the time, the sunlight was extremely intense during our walk, and afterwards both Liza and I felt quite queasy for the remainder of that day and the following day as well. I should say a few more words about the sun, because it is THE defining characteristic of San Diego. When you arrive in this city, in this region – you feel the sun immediately. Even behind the clouds – it is there. Piercing, relentless, unbridled. In other places it can be soft, scattered, or oppressive, or dull. But here it feels like nothing separates the bare, paramecium YOU and the all-engulfing IT. There is no pollution, no mist or rain, no humidity. Even the air feels rarefied. If you are not vigilant, the sun can destroy you. Not because it is malicious, but because you are so small.

On the way home we stopped by a hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint, ate beans, tortilla, grated cheese, sour cream, beef and guacamole – all packaged in different guises of “ enchilada” and “taco”, “burrito” and “chimachanga” (my favorite). At home we tried to watch UP, I passed out and peacefully fell asleep. What a full day.

PS. Liza captured her view of the same walk here, she’s a professional photographer. Enjoy!

San Diego (roses from my parents' garden)

Usually when I go to San Diego, I end up writing about peripheral issues – about anything other than the actual trip. So this time I am doing to try something different, and actually write about the trip. Day by day. What we did and how I liked it.

The trip started when Mitya and the kids picked me up from work to take Vierra and me directly to the airport. For those of you who don’t know, our car doesn’t have air conditioning, and we live in Houston, a full hour (at best) from the airport, and I forgot these factors when I bought the 5pm departure tickets. So off we went, 3pm, 100+ degrees in our car, windows partially down, trying to listen to music and talk and manage disgruntled children all at the same time. There is a special type of euphoria that kicks in about ten minutes into such a driving experience. The sun sizzles merrily on your driving arm, sweat trickles down your back, it is windy, it is bright, and it is loud. Such road-tripping is not recommended for those with a heart condition or pregnant or nursing mothers. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend it to my worst enemy. But here we were, and then we were at the airport. Lyovchik had fallen asleep – I felt both relieved and sorry that I wouldn’t get to say goodbye to him (I imagined how he’d be sad when he would wake up and find us gone), Mitya and I said our goodbyes like in the movies –passionate embraces and all, and off we went.

The flight was mercifully uneventful. Vierra slept, I stared at the ceiling and regretted not taking out my book from the suitcase before getting packed in between a sleeping munchkin and a very kind older lady who gave us her earphones and pretzels. Since my day consisted of sitting at the office, then…sitting in the car, then…sitting at the terminal and finally, sitting in the airplane, by the time we arrived in San Diego I was ready to burst.

The best part about the San Diego airport is that you usually arrive on the second floor, and everyone arriving funnels into two large escalators (and stairs in between) that lead down to where the baggage and excited (bored, antsy) folks greeting the arrivals congregate. As you ride down you feel like a celebrity descending down onto your adoring fans. At least, that is always the feeling I get because down there is usually Mama, beaming and gleaming, searching for her daughter and granddaughter, impatient to set eyes on two of her most beloved people.

I don’t even mind that the first (and second, and third) hug goes to Vierra. As long as I get one in there at some point, I am good.

Mom and Dad picked us up, and since I was bursting and it was still light out, I proposed that we go stroll on the boardwalk lining San Diego Bay and framing downtown in its sunset glow. And so Vierra and the parents strolled while I proceeded to bounce down the boardwalk, up sidewalks and down various cement protrusions, snapping photos with my SuperCamera, feeling happy and giddy. I am sometimes concerned that this mood may come off as playful/mocking, like I am poking fun and vaunting my own great mood and dissing everyone else’s somberness. In this case though I knew all was perfectly understood.

At home there was lots of good food, and then long and restful sleep.

The boarwalk has an ever-changing, 3D sculpture park..and in the water there is the Star of India

In all her glory

Dad showing something to Verusha as Mama watches on...

Two of my favorite ladies


Denver at dusk...

Over the weekend I flew to San Diego to pick up Vierra, who’s been staying with my parents for the last few weeks. I got there Saturday evening, and was back in Houston late Monday night. So it was a short trip, only about 48 hours, but quite productive.

In these 48 hours I got to:

– Have dinner with the grandparents
– Go out for coffee with the siblings
– Learn about ISO and exposure and lenses and depth of field (it’s starting to sink in, slowly. Still, there are so many variables and so many ways in which they interact, and it’s tricky learning theory and practice at the same time…)
– Take lots of pictures
– Get a good start on Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Revised and Expanded Edition
– Make apple and raisin strudel for Dad’s birthday
– Eat it
– Celebrate Dad’s birthday with most of the immediate family present (except for youngest sibling Alyosha, who went to a friend’s b-day party instead, loser…)
– Play baseball indoors, sort of
– Read more Lolita – Mom won’t let me take it with me, so I read a bit every time I visit…
– Find, peruse and steal this great book on Brueghel, colored prints, commentary, and everything (Mom hesitantly allowed me to take this one…)
– Stroll with the Lizard and Vierra along the beach in La Jolla
– Meet up with an old college friend for tacos
– Talk about Important Things with my sister (Liza)
– Talk about Other Important Things with my Other old friend from college
– Pick blood oranges and tangerines from the parents’ citrus trees
– Watch Whose Line Is It Anyway with both siblings, laugh a lot
– Eat lasagna
– Deliver the rough draft of Grandpa’s compilation of poetry that I have been sluggishly working on / typing / compiling for the last two years
– SLEEP! Yes! And sleep some more. Like through an entire night, without anyone waking me up. Ah, bliss…
– Talk tilapia and watercress with Dad

Here are some of the better pics from those 48 hours, all done by me except for the one of me and of Alyosha, and the black and white “Laugh…” done by Liza of Juniper Spring Photography.

The true photographer

This is I, after the flight and the dinner, feigning wakefulness in the coffee shop

Alyosha - feigning curiosity

Camera play

Laugh - it's good for you.


Girlie run

Sand piper


Flight of the bumblebee


Orange blossom


Oh…and on our way to the airport, learn how to crochet (compliments of the Lizard)

and I crocheted Vierra a hat on the airplane flight back...

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