Spiral Dynamics®’ co-creator Chris Cowan succumbed to a virulent cancer so quickly a few days ago that almost no one knew he was seriously ill. One day Chris’s personal and business partner, Natasha Todovoric, was notifying those of us who knew Chris well of that fact, and the very next day, she was telling us Chris was gone. At Brain Technologies, we were thunderstruck at the news—and profoundly saddened. It is an irreplaceable loss for so many.

I met Chris in the late 1970s. He was not widely known in people assessment and maturation theory circles at that time, and neither was I. Sherry and I were living in Richardson, Texas. Chris lived a few miles up in the road in a mobile home at the edge of Denton, Texas, not far from his birthplace in McKinney.

Chris Cowan (photo courtesy of Spiral Dynamics®)

Chris Cowan (photo courtesy of Spiral Dynamics®)

He’d discovered the late Dr. Clare W. Graves’ work while teaching communications courses at The University of North Texas. I’d also found many of Graves’ ideas appealing, and this shared interest led to more than a few lengthy Friday night conversations together around our mutual dining tables and to a friendship that endured.

I’ve had several requests in the past few days to write about my most impactful memories of Chris Cowan and, to now, have generally demurred from responding to them. Not because I had no wish to, but because I haven’t been sure how to do justice to this unique and talented person’s memory.

But then I began reading through the several hundred emails Chris and I exchanged over more than a decade-and-a-half, and an idea occurred to me. There might be a way to remind those of us who knew Chris how gifted his powers of observation were. How much fun his repartee could be. And how generous was his spirit. And that was to let Chris speak for himself.

Here, then, are snippets from our exchanges over the years. Some are serious, some mischievous and all of them, in my opinion, indicative of a personality it was a privilege to know. There’s no real rhyme or reason for the order of what follows. My purpose is simply to expose anyone who never had the joy of having a conversation, written or verbal, with Chris Cowan to experience what it could be like.

He called eating my wife Sherry’s celebrated enchiladas “worshipping at the shrine of Our Lady of Great Guacamole.” In one email, that thought led him to this one: “Have you ever visited Windthorst on the way to Wichita Falls? Near the out-of-scale Catholic church is ‘The Shrine of Our Lady of Highway 287,’ built after W.W.II when all the lads of the town got home safe.” His thoughts were often like that. Unpredictable. Disjointed. But almost always interesting, entertaining and often enlightening.

I once asked him to recommend a restaurant or two in Santa Barbara, CA, where he and Natasha had lived for the past two decades or more. This was his response: “I can tell you where to get the best sushi (Piranha for quality, Something’s Fishy for quantity, Edomasa for authenticity) and where to do killer Argentine red chili rellenos (Cafe Buenos Aires) and where to get the best tacos if you can order in Spanish (El Sitio), the best for gringos (Left at Albuquerque).” With Chris, it was always ask and you shall receive, usually in abundance.

I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Natasha, but I had this tongue-in-cheek description from Chris: “Natasha is pretty cute for a Serbian anarchist-in-training.”

Nor did I ever have an opportunity to visit them in what Chris called their Santa Barbara bungalow. He offered these insights:

We’re in Montecito just across from Westmont College right on Montecito Creek, just off the 192. I have to confess that we’re probably the socioeconomic bottom extreme of Montecito – the little house is a former gazebo and guest cottage – one room with a nice porch built on top of a small hill – slopes STEEPLY to the creek on three sides. Anyway, what with the weather, the beach 5 minutes away, the waterfront 7 minutes away, and the national forest 20 min. away it’s hard to beat the lifestyle. Went to a lecture by the head of the Council for Secular Humanism last Thursday, saw 17 films at the festival the week before that (including one where that actor’s actor Stevan Segal talked about Buddhism – recommend Amores Perros from Mex.), and watched a documentary about a Swiss doctor/cellist in Cambodia with Julia Child (who winters here) – only in Santa B.

Few things irritated Chris more than adherents to Dr. Graves’ model who used it to explain their own supposed growth-in-maturity achievements and superior personal values and thinking skills. If you brought the subject up, you were often treated to a Cowan “teaching moment” like this one:

[They] all think they operate at the 8th and beyond levels, so of course they project spiritual enlightenment – little Lamas, each and every one. The mistake is to assume that we move from level to level rather than add layers. They’re caught up in the sophomore notion of distinct levels, as if that’s what really matters. I’m also in disagreement in that there are versions of spirituality throughout the model – it’s how spirituality is expressed and thought about that shifts, not that it exists. They’re amazingly arrogant – what CG [Clare Graves] called ‘the delusion of ER [Graves’ Level 5]’ that it’s [this Graves system is] always at the top of a theory and approaching transcendence.

Chris loved to tweak politicians. In their day, he regularly referred to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney as “the Shrub and Drill-stem Dick.” He included jokes and stories about public figures frequently in his emails. One happened to be about an upcoming premiere at the Met of a new grand opera, sung in Italian, based on the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Here’s how Chris described Act I:

As the curtain rises, the House Republicans are meeting with Ken Starr with the object of trying to find a way to remove Clinton from the Presidency. The opening chorale, “We Must Find a Way” (Creato grandissimo floozy scandala), is sung as a sextet. In an impressive recitative, Tom DeLay sings “Where Will We Find a Helper?” (Dredgi uppulia una Granda Bimba). The House Republicans exit.”

But Chris didn’t spare even those he admired most from his honest appraisals. Not even Dr. Graves. He once addressed the good doctor’s reality-processing limits in terms of his own theory:

I don’t think he stretched much beyond DQ/ER himself – that’s what he said, anyway. He understood the other systems conceptually, but he lived 4/5. He was agnostic/atheist and didn’t have much patience for the consciousness domain except as it became a topic to observe people thinking about. Of course, he was thirty years ahead of the chic spirituality of the last few years.

Chris loved to play with words and glommed onto any illustration of others doing the same. He tried not to miss the results of the yearly contest of the Style section of The Washington Post. Readers were asked to take any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing one letter and supply a new definition. One year in the early 2000s, here were his favorites among the winners:

Reintarnation: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.
Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it.
Hipatitis: Terminal coolness.
Karmageddon: It’s like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? and then, like, the Earth explodes and it’s like, a serious bummer.

He was fascinated by Australia and did wonderful imitations of the place both in person and in print. Here’s how he described a discussion with Australian friends after one trip:

We enjoyed Oz. Took a small bottle of locally made dessert riesling (“Rancho Sisquoc”) to our wine-loving friends. They, like most Aussies, it seems, consider themselves connoisseurs of the grape and looked at it with a decided nasal tilt upward . . . hmmmm . . . Santa Barbara county . . . hmmmm . . . [swirl] . . . really . . . rieslings are generally rather heavy and thick . . . this looks a little thin . . . interesting nose . . . [Then the chef from the fish & chips shop where we were dining comes over to see how the seafood had been and to deliver his experiment of the day, a passion fruit souffle) . . . hmmmm . . . a little thin for a dessert riesling... [sip, sip] . . . well. . . my goodness . . . quite light . . . not so heavy and sweet as ours . . . do you know this wine, [addressing Chris and Natasha’s dinner companion]? . . . interesting after-taste on the palate . . . complex . . . what winery is that?… in Santa Barbara county. . . I wonder if we can get that here . . . etc.

To which Chris adds; “Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk – better than coals to Newcastle.”

Sometimes, he foreswore the joking and parody-making and stayed with straight reporting. But even that was a treat because of his penetrating asides and observations. Here’s how he reported on the Ukraine after a trip:

Ukraine is a fear-driven place with lots of quasi-superstitions and a very obedience-oriented mindset that’s accompanied by a tolerance for oligarchs and mafiosi. Don’t know if you’ve been there, but lots of churches and change ringing of bells, monks, etc. Very Orthodox mixed with LCD billboards selling Japanese electronics. The Chernobyl museum was more of a memorial for the heroes who died than an exposition of the technical flaws that led to the disaster, and a gentle attack on state authorities who kept secrets and allowed the May Day parade in Kiev while the reactor was still burning and spewing radiation a few miles away.

And this about the British:

[Most] of them are good folks – the YOBs of the younger generation excepted. They’ve gone so far overboard with DQ [Level 4] enforcement of rigidified “Green” [Level 6] values that they’ve bred a batch of pretty hopeless young folks. It’s like Dickens meets MTV in the hands of a gutless Mary Poppins where Super Nanny would be congruent. When [we were] in Marlborough last year there were two mob fights on the street – 2am and again at 3:30am – by local punks and the upper-crust lads and lassies of Marlborough College. Five cop cars showed up, and the outcome was merely a ‘tsk, tsk.’ The UK is a scary place after dark. In Swindon a cabbie told us he could not take us downtown because there was football on and we’d probably be attacked when the pubs let out after the game, regardless of which side won. We went to the rail museum instead.

And Brazil:

Brasil is really great, but there’s an underlying ickiness they can’t seem to get beyond. South America is definitely a different world. All our experience in Brasil suggests that the ’sleeping giant’ got bit by a social tzetze fly and still suffers from South American trypanosomiasis – until carnival, but then it goes back to sleep. . . .There’s a lot of magical thinking in Brasil, and that has translated to massive personal growth events and a fascination with gurus who promise eternal life couched as spiritual enlightenment and transcendental business. E.g., D-Q/E-R [Level 4/Level 5].

All this reflecting prompted Chris to sign that email off this way: “Brains are remarkable things. I keep wondering why they bother with consciousness rather than just keeping the mechanism running for enough years to repopulate. But then, what’s the point of repopulating? I’d better go watch a re-run of Cosmos.”

My final email from Chris arrived a few months ago after I’d chided him for not following through on a commitment to me to offer comments on a mystery novel I’ve written about a West Texas sheriff. He replied:

Mea culpa. It’s still sitting on my laptop. I’ll have a look. It’s been an interesting few weeks. I found that my health wasn’t good (usual high BP + pre-diabetes) so we went with a program with our doctor that entails some pretty major lifestyle and especially dietary changes. Two weeks of nothing but bone broth, then four weeks of ‘cleanse and detox’ with a very restricted diet and supplements, now a more Paleo approach to see if that will get my blood sugar where it belongs. One of the effects has been the loss of 45 pounds – meaning I have one pair of new Costco jeans that fits – everything else is shelved. (Meanwhile, Natasha is doing her yoga classes, getting back to her weight of 20 years ago, and feeling good.) That’s no excuse for not reading, only a reason. The absence of all grains, root vegetables, and dairy makes for grumpy campers. Back with ‘ya soon.

But it is now obvious that his health problems were far more serious than high blood pressure. He won’t be getting back again, and I’ll going to be one of those who sorely misses him. I just hope St. Peter likes political jokes. I’m sure Chris has already told him about the one where the U.S. politician was expecting to be greeted at the Pearly Gates by 72 virgins and wound up swarmed by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and a host of other Southerners. 72 Virginians.

Assuming that heaven can stand more than one American politician, the next one to arrive is going to be greeted by 72 Virginians and one delightfully ornery Santa Barbarian. Like I say, those of us who knew Chris Cowan realize that we’ll not likely be finding another.

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