The trickery of understanding

What taxi drivers, dreams and Terence McKenna can teach us about the world

I sometimes talk to taxi drivers. Their worldview is sometimes unusual.

Last week, one tried to convince me that:

  1. St. Petersburg is five, maybe seven thousand years old—not three hundred with change, as the authorities (ultimately, the Vatican) would like us to think.

  2. Vladimir Putin isn’t a human. (“Tell me this: if you were a human, would you behave the way he does?” “How do you mean, if I were?..”)

  3. At least one of the people we saw in the streets was a robot made of metal (this made me suspect Putin is a robot too—not an ancient lizard, which is what I’d assumed at first).

  4. Our maps are wrong: in reality, neither of the Americas exist, Africa is connected to India, Australia is at a different angle, and Antarctica surrounds us from all sides.

I asked, “How do you know this?”

He said, “Some people get their facts from their grandma. Some, from their granddad. Some people get their facts from their heads.”


Terence McKenna once said:

The shaman told the people where the reindeer had moved. He was a futurist, a forecaster, a planner. And this is what we need—this kind of intuition with integrity that isn’t depending on statistical models, which are always wrong…

I mean, you must have noticed—everybody here who reads the Time magazine, or The New York Times, or The London Times—you must have noticed this weird paradox, which is: You know more than most of the experts. You’re better at predicting the price of gold, the movement of the stock market, the political situation in Argentina…

Have you noticed, on NPR, when they pull together three of these guys—so-and-so, Georgetown University Sovietologist—and you say, “Well, these guys, they’re alright. They seem… tolerable.”

Well, they’ve given their lives to understanding this stuff, and what do you care? And you’re a fully empowered player when you sit down with them! In many cases, you know more than they do!

It’s because their intuition is totally dead. They can’t make sense out of the situation because their way of analyzing it is flawed.

Well, somehow, the grassroots, good sense, the common sense of ordinary people needs to be reflected.

I agree with this, but so, probably, would my driver. And I only agree with my driver in a very broad and somewhat slippery sense.


A couple of years ago I went to sleep on somebody’s couch contemplating whether I should or shouldn’t smoke DMT the following day.

I dreamt I was at a party in that same apartment. My indecision carried over into the dream, and I shared it with a long-haired character who seemed knowledgeable.

He made a face:

— I really don’t understand why anybody would want to do DMT, ever.

— Really? I’ve done it a few times and feel I’ve gotten some questions answered.

He continued to make a face.

— What kind of questions can DMT answer? I suppose, if you’re concerned with some goofiness like the nature of time…

I raised my eyebrows:

— Now that you mention…

So then he paused, and sighed, and explained to me what time was.

Time, he said, is a name of a comedian. He’s best known for a prank that’s now considered a classic. It consists of the notion that the present comes out of the past, and the future out of the present. Before this—“How is there a before?”, I wondered—nobody looked at things this way. Past, present and future existed on the same level and changed simultaneously.

The tone of his voice was exactly what you’d expect from somebody explaining a joke that was funny at first and has gotten old since. It was an attempt at mercy.

I felt awkward, but I also felt a relief—like you do when the prank is over and you finally “get it”. The truth is I can’t really say that I do.


In a different dream, I saw a news report about Trump breaking a folding chair over the back of his long-time political rival. Their conflict had been taken seriously for years, but this fight was obviously choreographed—very WWE.

I watched the footage and thought, there are two ways this can develop. Either the people will conclude that all politics is a farce and then stop paying attention; or political wrestling will become a new norm.

The latter seemed plausible. I anticipated the reasoning: Yes, individual fights are staged, but the final results of the championship might be not; they are very important symbolically and may depend on the levels of public support different players enjoy. So, it is your duty as a citizen to root, and root visibly. Ignoring the game is, at best, irresponsible—and at worst, evil.

I couldn’t tell which way it would go.