Photo of Tiffany Lee Brown by Wiley Wiggins
Robert Anton Wilson was kinda more George Carlin and less Timothy Leary than he sometimes appeared. I didn't know him truly, madly, deeply and we did not eat, pray, and love together. (OK, we did eat together, now that I think of it.) I did get to hang out with him a number of times.
What surprised me most was his practicality. Bob didn't actually strike me as being all that far-out; rather, he seemed a practical guy with a very smart mind and a very wacky sense of humor. Turning on was fun, sure, and led to important and far-reaching discoveries, some directed inward, others outward. Tuning in was essential: homing in on what matters and communicating to the tribe and also, importantly, to the potential tribe, to the yahoos who hadn't gotten all enlightened 'n' shit, the people who might really *need* to have their minds blown.
But he didn't think that dropping out was an option. He was solid in the pre-old-school sense. Solidly built in physicality, solidly convinced of the efficacy of his ideas, and despite his curmudgeonly tendencies, solidly committed to making the world a better place -- or at least showing its denizens some potential for doing it themselves. Sometimes, that's exactly what we need.
As I slither down the steep slope of early middle age toward doom, I take inspiration from the older people I've known. Hyper-idealist, impractical stuff loses it appeal (other than watching adorable youngsters engage in it). Guess I've done too many oh-so-important actions and interventions and protests that simply had no effect on anything. Guess I've seen, in my dotage, how much can get done by cruising along *inside* The System and subverting elements from within, gently influencing minds and systems rather than yelling at them from behind a kerchief mask.
When I met Bob, I was the angsty and eager young gal with the shaved head and the big boots, hoping he'd tell me how to burn the whole fuckin' universe to the ground so we could start over. He was the old dude talking about how you have to be on target with regular ol' reality in order to step up and make change. It's fine to question all the realities you can find, but you still have to eat something and take a piss and sit down on a chair that you have to trust is actually a chair. And I was able to hear him. He was looking at a longer scale and more realistic form of change than I wanted to entertain. I had enough sense to admire and respect that.
At first it might've been a little disappointing, to meet Bob and find out that he wasn't a far-out, wild-haired cross between Timothy Leary, Albert Einstein, Angela Davis, Tom Waits, Philip K. Dick, William Blake, and I dunno, Jimmy Hoffa? Bob seemed more like Trickster Santa.
He'd lived near where I lived in Ireland, both of us temporarily (and at the same time as each other at one point: weird). He talked about this move not as a romantic writerly escape to the ol' homeland but as a strategy for jacking the IRS. I barely even knew anybody who owned a house, like the one where I'd visited him and Arlen, much less talked about taxes. Except maybe my dad.
This is the sort of thing that has a real impact on a young person who will eventually, tardily, morph into a grownup. I needed to see that you could be shrewd about real life and its money bullshit, outspoken about bluntly political issues, and still be the coolest guy on the planet. That stuck with me. It stuck with me even when he approached his deathbed without the financial resources to do the whole thing elegantly and comfortably. He wasn't *that* much of a straight, square, buttoned down, financially stable normie!
But there are different kinds of stability, of solidity. Of solidarity, too. People all over the world and the Internet stepped up to donate thousands of dollars. We loved him and we wanted to help. We wanted to help the guy who turned on and tuned in but never dropped out. We cheered for the man who never quit, never took the easy and glamorous route of hollering for the counterculture's cliched version of revolution. Robert Anton Wilson embodied revolution -- a revolution of mind.