Maine Writer

Its about people and issues I care about.

My Photo
Location: Topsham, MAINE, United States

My blogs are dedicated to the issues I care about. Thank you to all who take the time to read something I've written.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

A Christian view on Republican tax cuts for the rich

This "echo" is a re-blogged letter to the editor, published in the Cincinatti Enquirer opinion section. Honestly, I'm glad to read a Christian point of view about the Republican "tax cuts for the rich", whereby the widening economic disparities between rich and poor are finally exposed. (From my cruising through the nation's newspapers' opinion pages.)

Submitted to the Cincinnati Enquirer by Rev. Alan Dicken (@AlanDicken1). He is the senior pastor at Carthage Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Earlier this month, Senator Rob Portman took to the pages of this paper to extol the virtues of so-called “tax reform.” Since then, more details have emerged about the Republican tax plan, and it’s clear “reform” isn’t quite the right word for it. 

Rather, it seems like an exclusive invitation to a small table with a large feast.

Like the House bill, the Senate bill puts more money in the pockets of super wealthy on the false promise that somehow average Americans will benefit. The bill cuts the corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent with more than one-third of the benefit going to the top 1 percent. It also makes deep cuts to the estate tax that will benefit the heirs of the richest 0.2 percent of estates, who would get a tax cut of $4.4 million. The bill lowers the tax rate for business income and individual rates, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That’s a large helping of tax relief for those who seem to have more than enough.

Even the provision GOP senators tout as a break for working families – an expansion of the Child Tax Credit – tilts towards the most fortunate. Under the bill, a married couple with two kids earning $500,000 would receive a $4,000 credit. Meanwhile, a single mother with two kids making $14,500 would get $75, according to CBPP. Another healthy dose of assistance to those with plenty.

The Senate bill eliminates Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, which keeps health care premiums down and stabilizes the market. Republican senators are banking on people dropping out of the subsidized marketplace to help pay for their tax cuts. When younger, healthier people leave, premiums will go up, and sick people who need care could find themselves unable to afford insurance. An abundance of servings of care to those who have sufficient care already.

I’m not concerned about this bill as an economist, policymaker or politician. I am a faith leader. My faith tells me a lot of things about how the poor and oppressed should be treated. They are to be lifted up, cared for, clothed, fed, and treated with dignity and respect that is deserving of all of God’s children.

Unfortunately, we have many in our community who are poor and oppressed. Cincinnati’s overall child poverty rate for children under 6 is 52 percent – one of the highest in the nation. For black children, it is 74 percent. The bill will widen the gulf between the haves and the have-nots and strip away at programs that lift up our neighbors.

This bill doesn’t feed the hungry, it stuffs those who are already full. This bill doesn’t clothe the naked, it adorns the opulent. It doesn’t treat the poor with dignity and respect, instead, this bill would add $1.5 trillion to the deficit over 10 years. Which means likely budget cuts to programs like federal food aid, Medicaid, Pell Grants, job training programs and more.

Portman has spoken openly about his Christian faith. In our Christian tradition, there is a scripture in Luke 14:12-14 in which Jesus tells us, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” Who is really getting invited to the bountiful banquet provided by this bill? As far as I can tell, the most vulnerable don’t have a seat at the table.

I applaud Portman’s efforts to combat human trafficking, to stem the drug epidemic, and when he expanded the table to advocate for LGBTQ equality. If this tax bill passes, we might not have the resources needed to give a struggling addict treatment through Medicaid. Or help a victim of human trafficking get the job training she needs to start a new life. Portman, think about your neighbors in Cincinnati. Expand your table. Invite more of God’s children to the banquet.

Labels: , ,

Speaker Paul Ryan is walking on political eggs in Wisconsin

Although Speaker Paul Ryan has political leadership influence with Republican Congressional colleagues, the fact is, he is just one elected official in a legislative body.  In other words, Ryan is among 435 other elected representatives who represent 50 United States.  It's Wisconsin's voters that decide whether or not Speaker Ryan remains in Congress
Speaker of the House of Representative Republican Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin

Constituents more polarized over Paul Ryan than ever, reflecting Trump effect in Wisconsin~ by Craig Gilbert

Milwaukee WI- Ryan's Wisconsin constituents are polarized about him. His speakership and his support for Trump have eroded the likability he long enjoyed among voters outside the Republican base, including many Democrats, liberals and moderates. Ryan has carried Democratic cities such as Kenosha and Janesville (his hometown) in many of his campaigns. That is very unlikely to happen next year.

The Ryan 2018 Wisconsin race is a test of the speaker’s ability to withstand what could be powerful national headwinds: the unpopularity of Trump, the poor image of Congress, the frictions in his party and public skepticism toward GOP plans on health care (which failed to pass) and taxes (which Republicans hope to enact in the coming weeks).

It is also a unique window into the Trump effect in Wisconsin, a state Trump narrowly won last year, but where Republican leaders and voters have sent mixed signals about him.

Assessing the “Trump effect” on Ryan is especially complicated because their relationship — and public perceptions of it — have shifted back and forth.  (Speaker Ryan is unsure about his relationship with Donald Trump and the voters see this. Clearly, Trump/Ryan relationship is not like the Reagan/O'Neil relationship.) “I know that Ryan is in a tough place,” said Ann Heide of Mount Pleasant, WI, but “Paul Ryan is never getting my vote, ever again.” Some take it as a given that Ryan disapproves of Trump — “He clearly does not like the guy,” said one — but consistently supports him now because his party demands it and he’s got to 'play the game'.”

MaineWriter's advice to Speaker Ryan: My take away from the Craig Gilbert article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is this:  Your political relationship with Donald Trump defines who you are and the constituents interviewed by the journalist Gilbert are not totally secure about voting for you again.

In fact, Speaker Paul Ryan is about to get Trump eggs on his face by walking on "thin political eggs".

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Chief Executive Officer talks truth to Republicans

An echo from the Detroit Free Press- Republican tax plan alert!
Letter to the editor by Todd Carmichael~ re-blog of opinions randomly selected from various newspapers.

How do I know what CEO’s are thinking? I’m one of them.

A little bit about me: I’ve grown a small business into a business with cafés and industrial facilities in six states and the District of Columbia. My company, La Colombe, owns and operates a canned latte manufacturing plant in Western Michigan that produces 140,000 draft latte cans a day (using Michigan dairy) that are shipped to market shelves in every corner of the country. 

And I employ scores of people in almost every income tax bracket. Along the way, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to grow a profitable business that values the people at its core and the communities where we do business.

And I can tell you what no other CEO wants to tell you: the half a trillion dollars of corporate tax giveaways proposed by the GOP aren’t going to do a damn thing for the middle class, nor create a single job.

Because what every CEO knows, but still won’t tell you is this: a tax break for their company simply means a fatter bottom line.

Not jobs. Not investment. Not bringing back the 1950s Norman Rockwell America. Just more money in the pockets of the folks like me.

That’s bad policy, and it’s time to set the record straight.

Hyper Stimulus

The House and Senate have introduced two very similar bills with the goal of “tax reform” and “stimulating the economy,” with the half trillion dollars in corporate tax giveaways, most of which is shouldered on the middle class whose taxes will go up. The wealthy and corporations that will benefit most from this “reform” neither need nor require it.

This “stimulus” clearly falls within the sort of cuts one might expect when the economy needs to be goosed – typically when investment cash supply is low, when interest rates are high or the stock market is slumping or even tumbling.

But what every CEO knows, but will not tell you, is that the reverse conditions are actually true – this is not an economy to goose. If anything, the present business landscape is red hot and over stimulated. Cash and capital is flowing heavy with unprecedented amounts of money looking for a home for investment, interest rates are extraordinary low, and the stock market is at top-row, nosebleed heights.

Corporate Fiduciary Duty

A CEO has a powerful fiduciary duty to return all profits to their shareholders - not to the employees, not the suppliers, not the community and certainly not the unemployed or left behind. Let me say that again: profit goes to shareholders (and the CEO) and not to the employees. When the tax code designed increases corporate profits a single group benefits — their investors. 

The result for the employees, the small business supplier, or any other member of the working and middle class will be the same flat-line growth that they have seen for decades. By increasing the wealth at the top and ignoring the rest of America, Congress will further increase the cavernous gap between the wealthy and the working class.

And finally, what every CEO should tell you, but won’t, is that if your business is teetering on the edge of solvency and the only thing that is holding you together is the rewriting of the tax code, you’re probably going to go out of business anyway. Sure, we all believe in the American Dream, but you’ve got to have a quality product, quality employees and a business system that works to succeed. Don’t wait on Congress to destroy the middle class in tax cuts burden the middle class with higher taxes to give another fat-cat executive a bigger bottom line. I’m a CEO who knows firsthand that this won’t work.

Don’t give corporations a tax break, we don’t need it. Invest where the good investments are, our people.

Todd Carmichael is the co-founder and CEO of La Colombe Coffee Roaster

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Pope Francis - where angels may fear to tread in Myanmar

Pope Francis is bravely visiting the former nation of Burma, now named Myanmar. (Rangoon's named was changed to "Yangon".)
Myanmar was formerly the nation of Burma

The Pontiff delivered the Christian message of peace to the Buddhist nation. In so doing, he avoided the dangerous subject of mentioning Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority
It's a visit to a nation where many angels might fear to tread, because of the volatility of the political situation and the ethnic suspicion of Christians, in the Buddhist nation.  

During his first speech, the Pope didn't mention Rohingya, the nation's Muslim minority religion. (Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingya as citizens or as members of a distinct ethnic group with their own identity, and it rejects the term “Rohingya” and its use- reported in The Guardian).

Instead, the Pontiff called for unity and tolerance.

MaineWriter- when my husband and I visited East Asia, China and Japan a few years ago, we were struck with how our English speaking guides made a point of telling us about some of the religious traditions of the people.  Ironically, just telling us about the religious traditions was a statement, at least in my opinion, about the importance of spirituality among the people. Here are a few of my "top of mind" observations:

1.  Singapore- standing room only at Mass celebrated at the St Joseph Church, Upper Bukit Timah- It's been decades since we've seen Sunday Mass celebrated with so many parishioners assembled.

2.  Vietnam- crowds lined up to enter Notre Dame Cathedral or Basilica of Saigon, in Ho Chi Minh, to celebrate daily Mass, even though the guides informed us that no religion was supported by the government.
Richard and Juliana L'Heureux at the Shrine of the Vietnam Martyrs, inside the Cathedral Basilica of Notre Dame in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) Vietnam

3.  Bejing China- guides informed us about Christian houses where people worship outside of traditional churches. China "House 
Churches" or family churches are Protestant assemblies in the People's Republic of China.

4.  Kyoto, Japan- again, guides informed us that there was no state religion in the nation, but one of the most beautiful buildings in Kyoto was the St. Angnes International Episcopal Church.

As a matter of fact, the only nation on our Asian journey where religion was not discussed was in Cambodia. Therefore, we asked about the Christian traditions in Cambodia, a nation still recovering from the genocide perpetrated by the evil Khmer Rouge, beginning in the 1970's by the now dead leader Po Pot.  We received absolutely no response to our question.  (The Khmer Rouge was the name of the Cambodian communists and later the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea in Cambodia, that infamously carried out the Cambodian genocide.) In fact, the Khmer Rouge destroyed the Notre Dame Cathedral in Phnom Penh in 1975, a terrorist move to completely squelch Christianity. The only existing feature of the cathedral to survive the Khmer Rouge regime is a set of bells that were previously hung in the church's bell towers. They are now situated on the entrance steps of the National Museum of Cambodia

Pope Francis is a brave missionary to travel to Myanmar and on to the Muslim nation of Bangladesh.  

This is what Pope Francis said in Myanmar: 

“The future of Myanmar must be peace, a peace based on respect of the dignity and rights of each member of society, respect for each ethnic group and its identity.”

“Religious differences need not be a source of division and distrust, but rather a force for unity, forgiveness, tolerance and wise nation-building.” 

My experiences from having lived and visited in Asia, is that there is enormous interest in Western Christianity throughout all the nations. Even the complete reticence in response to our query about Christianity in Cambodia displayed a warning that the subject alone created too much attention to be discussed.

God Bless Pope Francis and may his brave missionary journies to Myanmar and Bangladesh be received in the spirit of creating peace.

Pope Francis is traveling where many angels may fear to tread.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, November 27, 2017

Russia can't even be discussed in the White House?


 “(Donald Trump's) options are limited, and his instinct is to come out swinging, which won’t help things,” said a prominent Republican close to the White House.

(In Russian, "paranoia" is паранойя, pronounced paranoyya. Haha, it's not likely coincidental that the Russia pronunciation is nearly the same as in English.)

In my opinion, this Vanity Fair article by Gabriel Sherman, published November 2017, exposes a White House in paranoia melt down.

Although Russians are known for harboring somewhat paranoiac behaviors, it seems like this unpleasant genetic tendency might have infected Donald Trump's administration. In fact, paranoia about the Robert Mueller's special council investigation, about how the Russian's invaded the 2016 presidential election, is now a pandemic White House illness.  Donald Trump has several "strikes" against him as his chaotic administration spirals into paranoia:

1.  Donald Trump lost the 2016 popular vote. "It's Official: Clinton Swamps Trump in Popular Vote"- Hillary Clinton won the election's popular vote by a 2.1 percent margin over Donald Trump.

2.  Donald Trump lies with every Tweet he posts. Every day, there's another Trumpositity posted under his handle @realDonaldTrump.
Most recently, Trump posted a Tweet about how Time Magazine was going to give him the "Person of the Year" award for a second year. @realDonaldTrump: Time Magazine called to say that I was PROBABLY going to be named ‘Man (Person) of the Year’ like last year, but I would have to agree to an interview and a major photo shoot,” Trump tweeted. “I said probably is not good and took a pass. Thanks anyway!” But, shortly thereafter, Time Magazine posted a Tweet in response: “The President is incorrect about how we choose Person of the Year. TIME does not comment on our choice until publication, which is December 6.”  

Yes, even as the American people continue to dissuade Trump for Tweeting, it's of no avail. What's worse, Trump's Tweets are becoming more unhinged, as he posts them early, before White House staffers arrive to work and might be able to prevent his irrational Twitter storms.  

3.  Donald Trump plays golf and Tweets more diligently than he governs. Donald Trump has played golf on one of every four days of his presidency, prompting fresh accusations the President is taking too much time off. An accounting of this tax payer paid diversion is posted on the website Trump Golf Count.

“You Can't go any lower”: Inside the Wes Wing, Trump is apoplectic as allies fear impeachment"~ reports Gabriel Sherman in Vanity Fair.

After Monday’s indictments of Paul Manafort et al, the president blamed Jared Kushner, in a call to Steve Bannon, while others are urging him to take off the gloves with Robert Mueller.

Until now, Robert Mueller has haunted Donald Trump’s White House as a hovering, mostly unseen menace. 

But by securing indictments of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates,and a surprise guilty plea from foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, Mueller announced loudly that the Russia investigation poses an existential threat to the president. 

“Here’s what Manafort’s indictment tells me: Mueller is going to go over every financial dealing of Jared Kushner and the Trump Organization,” said former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg. “Trump is at 33 percent in Gallup. You can’t go any lower. He’s fucked.”

The first charges in the Mueller probe have kindled talk of what the endgame for Trump looks like, according to conversations with a half-dozen advisers and friends of the president. 

For the first time since the investigation began, the prospect of impeachment is being considered as a realistic outcome and not just a liberal fever dream. According to a source, advisers in the West Wing are on edge and doing whatever they can not to be ensnared. One person close to Dina Powell and Gary Cohn said they’re making sure to leave rooms if the subject of Russia comes up.

The consensus among the advisers I spoke to is that Trump faces few good options to thwart Mueller. For one, firing Mueller would cross a red line, analogous to Nixon’s firing of Archibald Cox during Watergate, pushing establishment Republicans to entertain the possibility of impeachment. “His options are limited, and his instinct is to come out swinging, which won’t help things,” said a prominent Republican close to the White House.

Trump, meanwhile, has reacted to the deteriorating situation by lashing out on Twitter and venting in private to friends. He’s frustrated that the investigation seems to have no end in sight. “Trump wants to be critical of Mueller,” one person who’s been briefed on Trump’s thinking says. “He thinks it’s unfair criticism. Clinton hasn’t gotten anything like this. And what about Tony Podesta? Trump is like, When is that going to end?” 

According to two sources, Trump has complained to advisers about his legal team for letting the Mueller probe progress this far. Speaking to Steve Bannon on Tuesday, Trump blamed Jared Kushner for his role in decisions, specifically the firings of Mike Flynn and James Comey, that led to Mueller’s appointment, according to a source briefed on the call. 

When Roger Stone recently told Trump that Kushner was giving him bad political advice, Trump agreed, according to someone familiar with the conversation. “Jared is the worst political adviser in the White House in modern history,” Nunberg said. “I’m only saying publicly what everyone says behind the scenes at Fox News, in conservative media, and the Senate and Congress.” (The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment by deadline.)

As Mueller moves to interview West Wing aides in the coming days, advisers are lobbying for Trump to consider a range of stratagems to neutralize Mueller, from conciliation to a declaration of all-out war. 

One Republican explained Trump’s best chance for survival is to get his poll numbers up. Trump’s lawyer Ty Cobb has been advocating the view that playing ball will lead to a quick resolution (Cobb did not respond to a request for comment). 

But these soft-power approaches are being criticized by Trump allies including Steve Bannon and Roger Stone, who both believe establishment Republicans are waiting for a chance to impeach Trump. “The establishment has proven time and time again they will fuck Trump over,” a Bannon ally told me.

In a series of phone calls with Trump on Monday and Tuesday, Bannon told the president to shake up the legal team by installing an aggressive lawyer above Cobb, according to two sources briefed on the call. 

Bannon has also discussed ways to pressure Congress to defund Mueller’s investigation or limit its scope. “Mueller shouldn’t be allowed to be a clean shot on goal,” a Bannon confidant told me. “He must be contested and checked. Right now he has unchecked power.” 

Bannon’s sense of urgency is fueled by his belief that Trump’s hold on power is slipping. The collapse of Obamacare repeal, and the dimming chances that tax reform will pass soon—many Trump allies are deeply pessimistic about its prospects—have created the political climate for establishment Republicans to turn on Trump. 

Two weeks ago, according to a source, Bannon did a spitball analysis of the Cabinet to see which members would remain loyal to Trump in the event the 25th Amendment were invoked, thereby triggering a vote to remove the president from office. 

Bannon recently told people he’s not sure if Trump would survive such a vote. “One thing Steve wants Trump to do is take this more seriously,” the Bannon confidant told me. “Stop joking around. Stop tweeting.”

Roger Stone believes defunding Mueller isn’t enough. 

Instead, Stone wants Trump to call for a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton’s role in approving the controversial Uranium One (MaineWriter- "yawn!") deal, that’s been a locus of rightwing hysteria (the transaction involved a Russian state-owned energy firm acquiring a Canadian mining company that controlled a large subset of the uranium in the United States). 

It’s a bit of a bank shot, but as Stone described it, a special prosecutor looking into Uranium One would also have to investigate the F.B.I.’s role in approving the deal, thereby making Mueller—who was in charge of the bureau at the time—a target. Stone’s choice for a special prosecutor: Rudy Giuliani law colleague Marc Mukasey or Fox News pundit Andrew Napolitano. “You would immediately have to inform Mueller, Comey, and [Deputy Attorney General] Rod Rosenstein that they are under federal investigation,” Stone said. “Trump can’t afford to fire Mueller politically. But this pushes him aside.”

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, November 26, 2017

A must read about one hallucinogenic street drug - The Age of Entrails

I've re-blogged this article from The New Yorker, published September 12, 2016, written by Ariel Levy.  The posting in MaineWriter is because this information should be in the public domain.

People who have any inclination towards designer hallucinogenic drugs can simply read what Levy described, particularly the episode experienced at the end of this article.  She made the entry into ayahuasca real, so that anybody inclined to experiment, can just take her word for what it was like.  (Nevertheless, this article's title gives the vegetable "kale" a very bad name.  Ayahuascaobviously is not like kale. Maybe, I'd have titled the article "Age of Entrails", instead. )
Just can't imagine....but ayahuasca, seems to me, like hallucinogenics on steroids- read Ariel Levy's story.

A must read for all addiction counselors.

The Drug of Choice for the Age of Kale

The day after Apollo 14 landed on the moon (April, 1972), Dennis and Terence McKenna began a trek through the Amazon with four friends who considered themselves, as Terence wrote in his book “True Hallucinations,” “refugees from a society that we thought was poisoned by its own self-hatred and inner contradictions.” They had come to South America, the land of yagé, also known as ayahuasca: an intensely hallucinogenic potion made from boiling woody Banisteriopsis caapivines with the glossy leaves of the chacruna bush. The brothers, then in their early twenties, were grieving the recent death of their mother, and they were hungry for answers about the mysteries of the cosmos: “We had sorted through the ideological options, and we had decided to put all of our chips on the psychedelic experience.”

They started hiking near the border of Peru, in South America.

As Dennis wrote, in his memoir “The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss,” they arrived four days later in La Chorrera, Colombia, “in our long hair, beards, bells, and beads,” accompanied by a “menagerie of sickly dogs, cats, monkeys, and birds” accumulated along the way. (The local Witoto people were cautiously amused.) There, on the banks of the Igara Paraná River, the travellers found themselves in a psychedelic paradise. There were cattle pastures dotted with Psilocybe cubensis—magic mushrooms—sprouting on dung piles; there were hammocks to lounge in while you tripped; there were Banisteriopsis caapi vines growing in the jungle. Taken together, the drugs produced hallucinations that the brothers called “vegetable television.” When they watched it, they felt they were receiving important information directly from the plants of the Amazon.

The McKennas were sure they were on to something revelatory, something that would change the course of human history. “I and my companions have been selected to understand and trigger the gestalt wave of understanding that will be the hyperspacial zeitgeist,” Dennis wrote in his journal. Their work was not always easy. During one session, the brothers experienced a flash of mutual telepathy, but then Dennis hurled his glasses and all his clothes into the jungle and, for several days, lost touch with “consensus reality.” 

It was a small price to pay. The “plant teachers” seemed to have given them “access to a vast database,” Dennis wrote, “the mystical library of all human and cosmic knowledge.”

If these sound like the joys and hazards of a bygone era, then you don’t know any ayahuasca users—yet. In the decades since the McKennas’ odyssey, the drug—or “medicine,” as many devotees insist that it be called—has become increasingly popular in the United States, to the point where it’s a “trendy thing right now,” as Marc Maron said recently to Susan Sarandon, on his “WTF” podcast, before they discussed what she’d learned from her latest ayahuasca experience. (“I kind of got, You should just keep your heart open all the time,” she said. “Because the whole point is to be open to the divine in every person in the world.”)

The self-help guru Tim Ferriss told me that the drug is everywhere in San Francisco, where he lives. “Ayahuasca is like having a cup of coffee here,” he said. “I have to avoid people at parties because I don’t want to listen to their latest three-hour saga of kaleidoscopic colors.”

Leanna Standish, a researcher at the University of Washington School of Medicine, estimated that “on any given night in Manhattan, there are a hundred ayahuasca ‘circles’ going on.” The main psychoactive substance in ayahuasca has been illegal since it was listed in the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, but Standish, who is the medical director of the Bastyr Integrative Oncology Research Center, recently applied for permission from the F.D.A. to do a Phase I clinical trial of the drug—which she believes could be used in treatments for cancer and Parkinson’s disease. “I am very interested in bringing this ancient medicine from the Amazon Basin into the light of science,” Standish said. She is convinced that “it’s going to change the face of Western medicine.” 

For now, though, she describes ayahuasca use as a “vast, unregulated global experiment.”

Most people who take ayahuasca in the United States do so in small “ceremonies,” led by an individual who may call himself a shaman, an ayahuasquero, a curandero, a vegetalista, or just a healer. This person may have come from generations of Shipibo or Quechua shamans in Peru, or he may just be someone with access to ayahuasca. (Under-qualified shamans are referred to as “yogahuascas.”) Ayahuasca was used for centuries by indigenous Amazonians, who believed that it enabled their holy men to treat physical and mental ailments and to receive messages from ancestors and gods. Jesse Jarnow, the author of “Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America,” told me, “It’s a bit less of a to-do in many of its traditional uses—more about healing specific maladies and illnesses than about addressing spiritual crises.” Now, though, ayahuasca is used as a sacrament in syncretic churches like the Santo Daime and the União do Vegetal (“union of the plant”), both of which have developed a presence in the United States. The entire flock partakes, and the group trip is a kind of congregational service.

Harvard biologist Richard Evans Schultes was the first American to study ayahuasca. In fact, he pioneered the field of ethnobotany (and co-authored “Plants of the Gods,” with Albert Hofmann, the Swiss scientist who discovered LSD). 

In 1976, a graduate student of Schultes’s brought a collection of the plants back from his field research to a greenhouse at the University of Hawaii—where Dennis McKenna happened to be pursuing a master’s degree. Thanks to McKenna, some B. caapi cuttings “escaped captivity,” he told me. “I took them over to the Big Island, where my brother and his wife had purchased some land. They planted it in the forest, and it happened to like the forest—a lot. So now it’s all over the place.”

Terence McKenna died in 2000, after becoming a psychedelic folk hero for popularizing magic mushrooms in books, lectures, and instructional cassette tapes. Dennis McKenna went on to get a doctorate in botany and is now a professor at the University of Minnesota. When we spoke, he was on a book tour in Hawaii. He had been hearing about ayahuasca use in a town on the Big Island called Puna, where people call themselves “punatics.” “Everybody is making ayahuasca, taking ayahuasca,” he said. “It’s like the Wild West.”

If cocaine expressed and amplified the speedy, greedy ethos of the nineteen-eighties, ayahuasca reflects our present moment—what we might call the Age of Kale. It is a time characterized by wellness cravings, when many Americans are eager for things like mindfulness, detoxification, and organic produce, and we are willing to suffer for our soulfulness.

Ayahuasca, like kale, is no joy ride. The majority of users vomit—or, as they prefer to say, “purge.” And that’s the easy part. “Ayahuasca takes you to the swampland of your soul,” my friend Tony, a photographer in his late fifties, told me. Then he said that he wanted to do it again.

“I came home reeking of vomit and sage and looking like I’d come from hell,” Vaughn Bergen, a twenty-seven-year-old who works at an art gallery in Chelsea, said of one ayahuasca trip. “Everyone was trying to talk me out of doing it again. My girlfriend at the time was, like, ‘Is this some kind of sick game?’ I was, like, ‘No. I’m growing.’ ” His next experience was blissful: “I got transported to a higher dimension, where I lived the whole ceremony as my higher self. Anything I thought came to be.” Bergen allows that, of the nine ceremonies he’s attended, eight have been “unpleasant experiences.” But he intends to continue using ayahuasca for the rest of his life. He believes that it will heal not only him but civilization at large.

The process of making ayahuasca is beyond artisanal: it is nearly Druidical. “We pick the chacruna leaf at sunrise in this very specific way: you say a prayer and just pick the lower ones from each tree,” a lithe ayahuasquera in her early forties—British accent, long blond hair, a background in Reiki—told me about her harvests, in Hawaii. “You clean the vine with wooden spoons, meticulously, all the mulch away from the roots—they look so beautiful, like a human heart—and you pound these beautiful pieces of vine with wooden mallets until it’s fibre,” she said. “Then it’s this amazing, sophisticated process of one pot here and one pot there, and you’re stirring and you’re singing songs.”

She and her boyfriend serve the ayahuasca—“divine consciousness in liquid form”—at ceremonies in New York, Cape Town, Las Vegas, Bali. They showed me pictures of themselves harvesting plants in a verdant Hawaiian jungle, looking radiantly happy. I asked if they made a living this way. “We manifest abundance wherever we go,” she told me. Her boyfriend added, “Consciousness is its own economy.”

Like juicing—another Kale Age method of expedient renewal—ayahuasca is appreciated for its efficiency. Enthusiasts often say that each trip is like ten years of therapy or meditation. Ferriss, the author of such “life-hacking” manuals as “The 4-Hour Workweek” and “The 4-Hour Body,” told me, “It’s mind-boggling how much it can do in one or two nights.” He uses ayahuasca regularly, despite a harrowing early trip that he described as “the most painful experience I’ve ever had by a factor of a thousand. I felt like I was being torn apart and killed a thousand times a second for two hours.” This was followed by hours of grand-mal seizures; Ferriss had rug burns on his face the next day. “I thought I had completely fried my motherboard,” he continued. “I remember saying, ‘I will never do this again.’ ” But in the next few months he realized that something astounding had happened to him. “Ninety per cent of the anger I had held on to for decades, since I was a kid, was just gone. Absent.”

Ayahuasca enthusiasts frequently use the language of technology, which may have entered the plant-medicine lexicon because so many people in Silicon Valley are devotees. “Indigenous prophesies point to an imminent polar reversal that will wipe our hard drives clean,” Daniel Pinchbeck wrote in his exploration of ayahuasca, technology, and Mayan millennialism, “2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl.” 

In an industry devoted to synthetic products, people are drawn to this natural drug, with its ancient lineage and ritualized use: traditionally, shamans purify the setting by smoking tobacco, playing ceremonial instruments, and chanting icaros—songs that they say come to them from the plants, the way Pentecostals are moved by the Holy Spirit to speak in tongues. “In Silicon Valley, where everyone suffers from neo-mania,” Ferriss continued, “having interactions with songs and rituals that have remained, in some cases, unchanged for hundreds or thousands of years is very appealing.”

Ayahuasca isn’t the only time-honored method of ritual self-mortification, of course; pilgrims seeking an encounter with the divine have a long history of fasting, hair shirts, and flagellation. But in the United States most ayahuasca users are seeking a post-religious kind of spiritualism—or, perhaps, pre-religious, a pagan worship of nature. The Scottish writer and ayahuasca devotee Graham Hancock told me that people from all over the world report similar encounters with the “spirit of the plant”: “She sometimes appears as a jungle cat, sometimes as a huge serpent.” Many speak about ayahuasca as though it were an actual female being: Grandmother.

“Grandmother may not always give you what you want, but she’ll give you what you need,” an ayahuasquera who calls herself Little Owl said, a few months ago, at an informational meeting in a loft in Chinatown. Two dozen people of diverse ages and ethnicities sat on yoga mats eating a potluck vegetarian meal and watching a blurry documentary about ayahuasca. On the screen, a young man recounted a miserable stomach ailment that no Western doctor could heal. After years of torment, he took ayahuasca during a trip to Peru and visualized himself journeying into his own body and removing a terrifying squid from his intestines. The next day, his pain was gone, and it never came back.

After the movie, Little Owl, a fifty-two-year-old of Taiwanese descent with black bangs nearly to her eyebrows, answered questions. “Do your conscious and subconscious work on different frequencies?” a young woman in a tank top wanted to know. “And, if so, which one will Grandmother tap in to?” Little Owl said that Grandmother would address your entire being. A friend of hers, a young African-American man in a knit orange cap who said that he taught mindfulness for a living, was standing by, and Little Owl asked if he had anything to add. “The medicine is like shining a light on whatever conflict needs to be resolved,” he said.

A Caucasian guy in his late twenties asked if there was anyone who shouldn’t take the medicine; he was deciding which friends he should bring to the next ceremony. Little Owl, who has a background in acupuncture, replied that every participant would fill out a detailed health form, and that people who have such conditions as high blood pressure or who are on antidepressants should not take ayahuasca.

An older man with silver hair and a booming voice spoke next: “Do you have doctors or anyone on hand who understands what’s happening on a pharmacological level if something goes wrong?”

There was a tense silence, and then Little Owl replied, “We are healing on a vibrational level.”

A plant is constantly interacting with its ecosystem: attracting insects it needs for pollination, discouraging hungry herbivores, warning other plants that it competes with for nutrients in the soil. It communicates using “messenger molecules,” which allow for semiosis (signalling) and symbiosis (interspecies coöperation), helping the species to improve its circumstances as the process of evolution unfolds. Some of the most important messenger molecules in the plant kingdom are called amines, and are typically derived from amino acids.

The human brain, too, is a kind of complex ecosystem, coördinated by messenger molecules of its own: neurotransmitters, which govern everything from the simple mechanism of pupils dilating in dim light to the unfathomable complexity of consciousness. The neurotransmitters that mediate emotion, awareness, and the creation of meaning are amines—such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine—which evolved from the same molecular antecedents as many plant-messenger molecules.

The main psychoactive substance in ayahuasca—N, N-dimethyltryptamine, or DMT—is an amine found in chacruna leaves. Ingested on its own, it has no effect on humans, because it is rapidly degraded by an enzyme in the gut, monoamine oxidase. B. caapi vines, however, happen to contain potent monoamine-oxidase inhibitors (MAOI). Some ayahuasca enthusiasts maintain that the synergy was discovered thousands of years ago, when the spirit of the plants led indigenous people to brew the two together; others think that one day someone happened to drop a chacruna leaf into his B. caapi tea, a psychedelic version of “There’s chocolate in my peanut butter.” However the combination came about, it allows DMT access to the human brain: when a person drinks ayahuasca, a plant-messenger molecule targets the neurons that mediate consciousness, facilitating what devotees describe as a kind of interspecies communication.

If the plant really is talking to the person, many people hear the same thing: we are all one. Some believe that the plants delivering this message are serving their own interests, because if humans think we are one with everything we might be less prone to trash the natural world. In this interpretation, B. caapiand chacruna are the spokesplants for the entire vegetable kingdom.

But this sensation of harmony and interconnection with the universe—what Freud described as the “oceanic feeling”—is also a desirable high, as well as a goal of many spiritual practices. Since 2014, Draulio de Araujo, a researcher at the Brain Institute, in Natal, Brazil, has been investigating the effects of ayahuasca on a group of eighty people, half of whom suffer from severe depression. “If one word comes up, it is ‘tranquillity,’ ” he said. “A lot of our individuals, whether they are depressed or not, have a sense of peace after the experience.”

Having studied fMRIs and EEGs of subjects on ayahuasca, Araujo thinks that the brain’s “default-mode network”—the system that burbles with thought, mulling the past and the future, while your mind isn’t focussed on a task—is temporarily relieved of its duties. Meanwhile, the thalamus, which is involved in awareness, is activated. The change in the brain, he notes, is similar to the one that results from years of meditation.

Dennis McKenna told me, “In shamanism, the classic theme is death and rebirth—you are reborn in a new configuration. The neuroscientific interpretation is exactly the same: the default-mode network is disrupted, and maybe things that were mucking up the works are left behind when everything comes back together.”

In the early nineties, McKenna, Charles Grob, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Harbor-U.C.L.A. Medical Center, and James Callaway, a pharmaceutical chemist, conducted a study in Manaus, Brazil, that investigated the effects of ayahuasca on long-term users. Fifteen men who had taken part in bimonthly ceremonies for at least a decade were compared with a control group of people with similar backgrounds. The researchers drew blood from the subjects and assessed the white blood cells, which are powerful indicators of the condition of the central nervous system. (McKenna told me, “In psychopharmacology, we say, ‘If it’s going on in the platelets, it’s probably going on in the brain.’ ”) They found that the serotonin reuptake transporters—the targets that many contemporary antidepressants work on—were elevated among habitual ayahuasca drinkers. “We thought, What does this mean?” McKenna said. They couldn’t find any research on people with abnormally high levels of the transporters, but there was an extensive body of literature on lowlevels: the condition is common among those with intractable depression, and in people who suffer from Type 2 alcoholism, which is associated with bouts of violent behavior. 

“We thought, Holy shit! Is it possible that the ayahuasca actually reverses these deficits over the long term?” McKenna pointed out that no other known drug has this effect. “There’s only one other instance of a factor that affects this upregulation—and that’s aging.” He wondered if ayahuasca is imparting something to its drinkers that we associate with maturity: wisdom.

Charles Grob told me, “Some of these guys were leading disreputable lives and they became radically transformed—responsible pillars of their community.” But, he noted, the men were taking ayahuasca as part of a religious ceremony: their church, União do Vegetal, is centered on integrating the ayahuasca experience into everyday life. Grob cautioned, “You have to take it with a facilitator who has some knowledge, experience, and ethics.” 

In unregulated ceremonies, several women have been molested, and at times people have turned violent. Last year, during a ceremony at an ayahuasca center in Iquitos, Peru, a young British man started brandishing a kitchen knife and yelling; a Canadian man who was also on ayahuasca wrestled it from him and stabbed him to death.

Grob speculated that the shaman in that case had spiked the ayahuasca. Often, when things go wrong, it is after a plant called datura is added to the pharmacological mix. “Maybe facilitators think, Oh, Americans will get more bang for their buck,” Grob said. He also wondered if the knife-wielding British man had been suffering a psychotic break: like many hallucinogens, ayahuasca is thought to have the potential to trigger initial episodes in people who are predisposed to them.
Problems can also arise if someone takes ayahuasca—with its potent MAOI—on top of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a common class of antidepressants. The simultaneous blocking of serotonin uptake and serotonin degradation encourages enormous amounts of the neurotransmitter to flood the synapses. The outcome can be disastrous: a condition called serotonin syndrome, which starts with shivering, diarrhea, hyperthermia, and palpitations and can progress to muscular rigidity, convulsions, and even death. “I get calls from family members or friends of people who seem to be in a persistent state of confusion,” Grob said. He had just received a desperate e-mail from the mother of a young woman who had become disoriented in the midst of a ceremony. “She ran off from where she was, and when she was found she was having breathing difficulties and is now having what appears to be a P.T.S.D. reaction.”

These cases are rare, but profoundly upsetting trips are common. People on ayahuasca regularly report experiencing their own death; one man told Araujo that he had a terrifying visualization of being trapped in a coffin. “There are some people who are getting damaged from it because they’re not using it the right way,” Dennis McKenna warned. “It’s a psychotherapeutic process: if they don’t integrate the stuff that comes up, it can be very traumatic. That’s the whole thing with ayahuasca—or any psychedelic, really. Set and setting is all-important: they’ve been telling us this since Leary! It’s not to be treated lightly.”

Williamsburg was throbbing with sound on the warm June evening when I went to an ayahuasca ceremony led by Little Owl. It was held in a windowless yoga studio next to a thumping dance club, and in the antechamber—a makeshift gym where we were told to leave our bags, amid worn wrestling mats and free weights—you could hear the sounds of drunk people in nearby McCarren Park, mixing with techno beats from next door. The studio’s bathroom shared a locked door with the club, and patrons kept hurling themselves against it, trying to get in.

But inside the studio it was surprisingly quiet. There were trees and vines painted on the walls, and about twenty women had set themselves up on yoga mats in a tight circle, some of them with significant piles of pillows and sleeping bags. Everyone was wearing white, which is what you’re supposed to do at an ayahuasca ceremony, except for a young woman who had on wild jungle-printed pants. My grooviest friend, Siobhan, a British painter, had agreed to come—“Is it crazy I’m spending money on white pants right now?” she had texted me, earlier that day—and we grinned at each other from across the room. We had carefully followed the dieta that Little Owl, like most ayahuasqueros, recommends for the week before a ceremony: no meat, no salt or sugar, no coffee, no booze. Siobhan and I were both pleased that at the very least this experience would be slimming.

The woman to my right, a twenty-five-year-old African-American I’ll call Molly, had put a little grouping of crystals on the edge of her mat. It was her first ceremony, she said, and she had chosen this one because it was exclusively female. The young woman next to Molly told us that she had done ayahuasca in Peru. “With men around, the energy gets really erratic,” she said. “This will be much more peaceful, vibrationally.”

Little Owl had set up a perch for herself at the back wall, surrounded by bird feathers, crystals, flutes, drums, and wooden rattles, bottles of potions, and a pack of baby wipes. She explained that her helper, a young Asian-American woman she referred to as “our helper angel,” would collect our cell phones and distribute buckets for the purge: smiling orange plastic jack-o’-lanterns, like the ones that kids use for trick-or-treating. One at a time, we went into the front room to be smudged with sage on the wrestling mats by a woman in her sixties with the silver hair and beatific smile of a Latina Mrs. Claus. When she finished waving her smoking sage at me and said, “I hope you have a beautiful journey,” I was so moved by her radiant good will that I nearly burst into tears.

Once we were all smudged and back in our circle, Little Owl dimmed the lights. “You are the real shaman,” she said. “I am just your servant.”

When it was my turn to drink the little Dixie cup of muck she presented, I was stunned that divine consciousness—or really anything—could smell quite so foul: as if it had already been vomited up, by someone who’d been on a steady dieta of tar, bile, and fermented wood pulp. But I forced it down, and I was stoked. I was going to visit the swampland of my soul, make peace with death, and become one with the universe.
Soon thereafter, the woman on my left began to moan. To my right, the woman next to Molly had started retching, and the woman beyond her was crying—softly at first, and then in full-throated, passionate sobs. Little Owl, meanwhile, was chanting and sometimes playing her instruments.

I felt a tingling in my hands not unlike the early-morning symptoms of my carpal-tunnel syndrome. I focussed on my breath, as everyone I’d interviewed had said to do, and then, for fun, I started thinking about the people I love, arranging them first alphabetically and then hierarchically, as the people around me puked and wailed in the dark and Little Owl sang and played her little flute.

It seemed as though hardly any time had passed when she announced that anyone who wasn’t feeling the medicine yet should drink again. My second Dixie cup was even worse than the first, because I knew what to expect: I barely made it back to my jack-o’-lantern in time to throw up. As I was wiping my mouth on a tissue, the girl across the room whose wild printed pants I had noticed started hollering, “I love you!” Some of us giggled a little. She kept at it, with growing intensity: “I love you so much! It feels so good!” The helper angel went over to calm her, and those of us who still had our wits about us said “Sh-h,” soothingly and then, as the screaming got louder, resentfully. All of a sudden, she was on her feet, flailing. “I’ve eaten so many animals!” she screamed. “And I loved them all!”

It was the flailing that got to me. I thought of the girl whose parents had called Charles Grob and the Canadian kid who stabbed his associate in Iquitos. Any second now, I would be descending into the pit of my being, seeing serpents, experiencing my own death or birth—or something—and I did not necessarily want that to happen in a windowless vomitorium while a millennial in crazy pants had her first psychotic episode. Her yelling was getting weirder: “I want to eat sex!” I got up and went into the front room with the wrestling mats, where I tried to think peaceful thoughts and take deep, cleansing breaths.

Siobhan came out a minute later. “Bloody hell!” she said. She did not look entirely O.K.

“All the animals!” Crazypants yelled in the other room.

“Let’s focus on our breath,” I told Siobhan, as the club music pounded next door.
“We’re supposed to be doing this in the flipping jungle,” she said, sitting down next to me on the wrestling mat. I thought about mosquitoes and Iquitos and felt that, actually, it was probably for the best that we weren’t.

Another woman came out of the ceremony. “I’m not fucking feeling anything!” she said. She had pink hair and a nose ring and looked like a ratty Uma Thurman. “This is fucked!”

“I want to feel the animals!” the girl screamed.

“Those are some bad vibes in there,” Pink Uma said. “I’m very sensitive to vibrations.”

“You don’t exactly have to be a tuning fork,” I told her.

“Sex and meat and love are one!”

I demanded that we get in a positive space—quickly. We all sat cross-legged on the mats, trying to focus on our breath.

But more women came out of the ceremony. “I miss my sister; I don’t like this,” said one, who had clearly been crying, a lot. An older woman with long gray hair seemed panicked, but soon started laughing uncontrollably. “I used to live on the houseboats in San Francisco in the sixties,” she told us. “But all we did was grass.”

“Maybe not so much talking,” Siobhan said.

“Let’s all sit down,” I said, in an aggressively serene voice that I realized I was borrowing from my mother, who is a shiatsu masseuse. “Let’s all have a nice trip now.”

Then the helper angel came out and asked us not to talk. “She’s shushing us?” Siobhan whispered, as Crazypants kept yelling and the club music hammered away.
“Listen,” I said, in my peaceful, bossy voice. “I think that girl is having a psychotic episode and it’s time to call 911.”

“Not necessarily,” Helper Angel said. This happened from time to time, she explained: the young woman with the pants was just having a “strong reaction to the medicine.” I asked how she could tell it wasn’t something requiring immediate medical intervention, and the angel replied, “Intuition.”

And what did I know? I’d never done ayahuasca, or even seen anyone else who was on it. She did this all the time! It was getting very crowded on the wrestling mats and the music was so loud next door and the woman who’d lived on the houseboats was talking about Haight-Ashbury and cackling. Siobhan and I went back to our spots in the ceremony.

The smell inside the yoga studio was not great. But Pants Girl was yelling only intermittently now, and Little Owl was strumming a guitar and singing her version of “Let It Be”: “When I find myself in times of trouble / Mother Aya comes to me.”
It occurred to me that this wasn’t working—that nothing was working, and now I would have to find another hippie to give me this disgusting drug all over again. And then maybe my default-mode network shut down for a second, or maybe I had a surge of serotonin, but for whatever reason the whole thing abruptly seemed hilarious, fascinating, perfect. I thought of my grandmother—Tanya Levin, not ayahuasca—who had recently done some hallucinating herself when she took too much heart medication and saw bugs everywhere laughing at her, and it didn’t seem like such a tragedy that I wasn’t having any visions. Maybe the ayahuasca was working: maybe this was the experience I was meant to have.

“Help,” I heard Molly, the young woman to my right, squeak.

“You need help getting to the bathroom?” I whispered. Some people had been stumbling when they tried to get up and walk.

“No, I just need . . . some assistance,” she said, her voice shaking with barely contained desperation. Helper Angel was still busy with Pants on the other side of the room. So I held Molly’s hand. I told her that she wasn’t going crazy, that we were just on drugs, and that everything was going to be fine. “Please don’t leave me,” she said, and started to sob. I told her to sit up and focus on her breath. 

Little Owl was drumming now, and chanting, “You are the shaman in your life,” in a vaguely Native American way.

“Please say more words,” Molly whispered.

I did, and Molly seemed to calm down, and pretty soon I was thinking that I was indeed the shaman in my life, and a downright decent one at that. It was at that moment that Molly leaned forward and let loose the Victoria Falls of vomit. She missed her jack-o’-lantern entirely and made our little corner of the room into a puke lagoon.

Just as when you stub your toe and there is an anticipatory moment before you actually feel the pain, I waited to feel the rage and disgust that experience told me would be my natural response to another person barfing all over me. But it never came. I thought of something Dennis McKenna wrote in his diary in 1967, about the effect that DMT was having on him. “I have tried to be more aware of beauty,” he wrote. “I have enjoyed the world more and hated myself less.” 

I sat there in Molly’s upchuck, listening to Little Owl’s singing, punctuated by the occasional shriek of “No more animals!” And I felt content and vaguely delighted and temporarily free. ♦

This article appears in the print edition of the September 12, 2016, issue, with the headline “The Secret Life of Plants.”

Ariel Levy joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2008. She won a 2014 National Magazine Award for essays and criticism, and guest-edited “The Best American Essays 2015.” She is the author of “Female Chauvinist Pigs.”

Labels: , , ,