I Read the Book, I Saw the Movie, I Paid my Dues: Why am I Not a Psychic?

My wife and I recently sat through two and a half hours of the new-and-improved Dune Part 1, and, having seen all the other Dunes (and having read a few of the books in the series), we found it really good visually, and nowhere as campy, gross or unnervingly strange as David Lynch’s 1984 film, which we watched again because it was free on our streaming service.

The new Dune’s Baron is not as ludicrously disgusting as Lynch’s–when he emerges from a tub of black goo (referencing Marlon Brando’s debauched Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now) he’s just big, fat and dismissively mean. His spaceships look like vast turds, while the nice-folk, waterworldly Atriedies ships could be badly wrapped upright pianos.

The ornithopters–Frank Herbert’s vehicular cross between helicopters and birds–are beautifully articulated and convincingly real, unlike Lynch’s winged golden milk cartons. And  there’s none of the icky homophobia that was in Herbert’s book. It’s easy to see the source of George Lucas’s Star Wars desert landscape, Jedi mind tricks and “chosen one” plot. The early box office reports look pretty good for a theatrically released film in a world still in the grip of a pandemic, so we can probably expect a second part in a few years.

With two nights of science fiction “chosen one” plots, as well as the monotonous, occasionally campy and deathlessly dialogued but visually nifty Foundation, I, again, wondered why I have never really felt anything psychic. Hey, I’ve tried and I even had one or two moments when I thought but–

No spoiler alert necessary. I have read so many writers, and have seen so many films and TV shows, that paranormal mental abilities are almost normal. So many I read as a teenager–many of whom inspired me to write–wrote about psychic talents as if they were inevitable aspects of the human condition. Part of this had to do with John Campbell, an influencial science fiction editor who believed that human beings would have to evolve so we won’t destroy ourselves with nuclear weapons. Many of the writers he nurtured–including Isaac Asimov (Foundation), Herbert and Robert Heinlein wrote novels and stories on this theme.

But the idea that some people were more sensitive to the supernatural is much, much older. In classical times famous Oracle of Delphi inhaled noxious gas seeping from a crack in a cave and delivered enigmatic answers to important questions whose ironic consequences impressed many fantasy writers, including William Shakespeare, whose witches in MacBeth (created to please the Scottish King James I, who had written a book about darkly enchanting females) predict what sounds like success for the title character, but are really about his doom.

And who can forget the creepy soothsayer who plucks at the robe of Julius Caesar and warns him to “Beware the Ides of March”?

The possibility that some may know the future remains compelling. Newspapers that are supposed to be nothing but the facts contain horoscopes. If you happen to consult yours daily, or before a big purchase, a date, a job interview or any other potential life changing event, you should know that I once saw the editor in charge of putting the horoscopes in each issue do something careless on a computer keyboard and screw up their order completely. For at least three weeks, the horoscopes the newspaper ran were out of whatever order the ‘scoper had put them in.

Not one reader wrote, or contacted the newspaper, to complain.

As an enterprising journalist, I decided to take my palm to three different psychic palm readers, and compare their stories. I did not identify myself as a journalist. I just showed up, paid the fee and listened.

I was told by one that dark presences hovered around me, and that I could only rid myself of them if I paid for more sessions involving encantations and special candles.

I was told by another that something very good was about to happen, but that it would only reveal itself if I paid for more sessions.

I was told by the third that I had been hurt a long time ago by someone I loved.

They only agreed on one thing: that I was overworked and underpaid. Heck, I was a journalist! I could have told them that!

Dune posits the existence of a substance called “spice” that alters human genetics to develop special powers. Among those is the use of your voice to blow stuff up or make people do stupid things. I don’t have to tell you that the first never worked. As for making people do stupid things, I assure you I covered politics and I am still amazed at those who won some elections.

How about ghosts?

I did so many profiles of houses for the newspaper’s real estate section and I never failed to ask the owners of any home that was more than 25 years old if they had a ghost. Most said they didn’t. One resident of a house that had sections dating back to back to the Sixteenth Century confessed of seven ghosts, and gave me the telephone number of a psychic who had seen them all.

Before I called the psychic I visited every part of the house that was supposed to be haunted. I waited for windows and doors to move, or open and shut by themselves. They didn’t. I tried to find areas of cold, or sections where the air was thick and oppressive.

I found none. What about a vague shadow in my peripheral vision? No again. A sheet fluttering in a breeze? A tapping, rapping at the chamber door? No, no and more no’s.

The psychic assured me that not only did she find ghosts, but they were among the most obvious she had ever encountered. She would be visiting the house, she promised me, during the week before Halloween, where she would be giving ghost tours. I could come along, if wanted.

I told her my Halloween week schedule had been filled.

Among the most sensational of the Star Wars Jedi mind tricks is telekinesis–moving objects with your mind. This has always appealed to me because I own a very comfortable chair and one of the characteristics of a very comfortable chair is not wanting to leave it. Oh, how I’ve wanted to point at that glass of wine, loaf of bread, slice of cheese–or be able to levitate the remote when it’s fallen the couch.

A mere unevolved mortal, I had to leave my comfortable chair.

That leaves telepathy: reading minds, sending and receiving thoughts, inspecting another’s dreams, remote viewing (getting images of what is happening hundreds of miles away), sifting the answers on the pop quiz your high school teacher inflicts in order to punish those who didn’t do the homework and, most insidious of all, discovering what a person is really thinking about you when they seem so interested in everything you say.

Once or twice I could guess another person’s thoughts, but that happened while in a conversation with that person. So the range of possible subjects that person may be thinking about was relatively narrow.

Paul Atredies, Luke Skywalker and too many fantasy heroes get some kind of training in the martial arts. I’ve had many decades of it. I can’t walk up walls, fly over rooftops, break a stack of boards or kick out the windshielf of the bad guy’s SUV

What I have learned is to trust the “vibes”–the quick, immanent, frequently inexplicable notions you get about a person, place or thing, so I can theoretically sense agression coming toward me, and act accordingly.

Upon examination, vibes (and “gut” feelings) can be explained by decision science: we notice far too many things than what our consciousness processes. Much of what affects our snap judgements is emotional and risk-averse. Some of it has to do with an inability to understand math. And most of it is literally prejudice. About the best I can say about the first impressions I’ve had is that they’re not as meaningful, truthful or fair as the second, third or fourth.

Before I close, I want to remind those who are still fans of pyschic behavior that the United States Department of Defense actually spent a portion of its vast budget to study psychic phenomena with the hope of using it against real and imagined enemies. The results, satirized in the film The Men Who Stare at Goats, were profoundly negative.

So why is it that so much pop culture melodrama speaks to our hope, and fear of psychic power? Is the truth “out there” waiting for the right person to discover? Or is it “in here,” where we admit that, as much as we are raised to consider ourselves no better or worse than anyone else, we ocassionally wish we were blessed with a special talent, characteristic, ability or comfy chair that might distinguish us from the rest?

I’m still waiting for an answer.


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