Learning from Mr. Darwin

Charles Darwin did not want to be the most controversial scientist of the 19th century.  How the author of The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man handled his unique celebrity offers writers a lessons that have nothing to do with paradigm shattering ideas Darwin brought to the world.

  1. You don’t have to be a selfish, excessive lout in order to write important things.
  2. If “everyone’s a critic” you can be something else.
  3. It’s okay to live quietly and behave modestly: let others toot their horns for you.
  4. Being wrong requires the same determination as being right. Both points of view can be vital for those that follow.

Before Darwin became interested in botany and zoology, he expected to enter the Anglican clergy. He maintained friendly relationships with many religious people throughout his life (his wife Emma Wedgwood, related to the pottery family, was among them) and insisted that his conclusions were based on his personal observations, and, therefore, open to debate, independent verification and revision,  and not intended to challenge anyone’s faith.

Privately he confessed that he had lost his faith in the accuracy of the Biblical story of Genesis, as well as the deity of the Bible.  Among his objections was how such a deity described as loving, merciful and all-knowing would doom human souls to eternal torment for a committing a sin based on ignorance.

He kept those, and other potentially divisive opinions, to himself, practicing that distinctly English form of civility all his life–even when those elsewhere did not.  Born into an affluent middle class family, he spent most of his life in Downe, a small village southwest of London where his house still stands. There he raised a family, conducted most of his research, and apparently never said anything unkind of anyone, even when he acted as a local magistrate.

Whether he caught a parasite during his ’round-the-world adventure on the H.M.S. Beagle,  or suffered from colitis, Darwin’s ill health made him a homebody. He took walks through the countryside, rode his horse and encouraged his children to help him with his studies. Instead of attending a meeting of the scientific societies of which he was a most prestigious member, he would move his family to places offering a “water cure” for his digestive blues. He happily accepted visitors, all of whom described him as a simple but convivial host who would tire easily.

Though Darwin is rarely mentioned with the other writers of the time, two of his half-dozen books, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, made him the most famous British author of the century after Charles Dickens. Unlike Dickens, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Dante Gabrielle Rossetti and too many other British poets and writers of that period, Darwin’s happy life was free of scandal or intrigue.  Discounting the vilification, ridicule and vituperative condemnation aimed at him by those ignorant of his science, his worst moments were coping with the grief when three of his ten offspring died in childhood.

So the trope of the artist as “sacred monster”–a indulgent, offensive, selfish lout who must give into his passions at the expense of the comfort and dignity of others–does not apply to Darwin. His public and private amiability never faltered, when the captain of the H.M.S. Beagle, with whom Darwin spent five years sailing around the world, wrote a book claiming that Darwin’s ideas were wrong and that the reason so many fossilized remains abound was that the animals did not board, or could not fit, on to Noah’s Ark, Darwin never made a mocking, or otherwise negative remark about the man’s work.

This remains a good idea nowadays, when the slightest slight sets off torrents of hostile invective on the Internet.

Darwin did not seek fame and, whether it was ill health, shyness or a genuine desire to pursue his research, he avoided most opportunities to advance his name, letting his friends, the biologist T.H. Huxley among them, promote and defend his ideas. This may offer some solace to those writers who are told that, in order to sell their work, they must hire a publicist, make noise on the Internet, and become someone else’s idea of a brand-name. If you work is good enough or important enough, the right people may find you, and help you.

As much as Darwin was right about natural selection as a factor in the survival of a species, he was wrong about how cells pass on inherited characteristics. After years of research and documentation, he came up with a theory called pangenisis that claimed that cells put out small bits of themselves, like seeds, that find places within an organism to grow.

Darwin respected his theories because they were derived from his personal observations filtered through methodical, painstaking research. He would have taken even more than twenty-three years between the end of the H.M.S. Beagle’s voyage and the publication of The Origin of Species if others were not coming forward with ideas and theories that seemed to support his.

Though parenthesis was incorrect, it inspired further generations of scientists to identify chromosomes, genes, RNA and DNA.

Of course, it helps if you’re independently wealthy, as Darwin was, and sufficiently capable of building a world where you, your family and your work can thrive.

But it helps even more if you honor the patience, dedication and persistence that, more than anything else, makes up the DNA of great achievement.

In my life I have found that patience, dedication and persistence is not in short supply. Most people have it to some degree. Others are quite good at encouraging it.

Maybe we have all that we need, right now.


When They Don’t Pay You Enough

If you should reach that writing career peak when people pay you ridiculously little money for your work, you may imagine that, someday, different people will give you good money, and that, unlike those past-their-prime hacks who so obviously ran out of anything worth writing about, you will create great stuff.

Here’s the problem in writing for money: what you’re paid has more to do with the people who buy your stuff than when you actually write. When you focus more on finding and pleasing those people, you avoid two great blessings inherent in hard work for low pay.

Read enough interviews with seemingly successful writers, digest enough simplistic explanations of how they “made it,” and you’ll believe that you, too, can figure it all out.

No matter how precisely you try to map that path to the higher pay grade, you’ll have moments when you wish you were off that map, especially when you discover that the people who are in high places will do their absolute best to pay you the lowest they can, no matter how well your writing works for them.

Just like those who don’t pay you at all, these people have limited amounts they can spend to acquire works to publish, and if they can save money on you, then they have a little more saved to buy stuff by writers who are famous, who have annoying agents or are the kind they personally want to cultivate.

As an example of the kind editors liked cultivating, I summon forth the ghost of Truman Capote. Capote certainly was a talented writer who wrote best-sellers, which, in itself, is not enough to become the toast of the New York publishing world. He was worshiped and adored because of his personal charm. Though he was short, effeminate and spoke with a squeaky, high-pitched lisp, he could be downright charming. He was like the perfect dinner party guest: perfectly dressed for every occasion, with an assortment of delightfully gossipy stories. Most important of all—Capote could became your confidant. When Capote listened, you thought he understood you, sympathized with you and admired things about you that you did not see in yourself.

It’s a toss-up if Capote ever lived up to his expectations. His novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s is better known for Audrey Hepburn’s performance, and her wardrobe, in the film. In Cold Blood, thought to be the first “true crime non-fiction novel,”  is terrifically scary and weirdly sympathetic toward one of the criminals. Capote took an awful killing of a mid-western family and crafted a harrowing American tragedy.

It has since emerged that Capote’s sympathy for one of the perpetrators came from an unrequited infatuation. Capote also changed the order of events, and invented dialogue and entire scenes.  Can In Cold Blood meet the strict definition of non-fiction, which is supposed to be “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”? Maybe not.

I never met Capote. But I have known other writers who were more fun in person than on the page. The editors who became their patrons can be forgiven because the swagger, gossip, insider insights and spirited anecdotes was easy to enjoy.

I wanted people to enjoy what I wrote. I hoped, and frequently prayed, that if I wrote stuff that skillfully met the needs of editors and publishers, and I wasn’t greedy, I’d reach that point where what I really wanted to write would be published, and I’d be compensated such that I could devote all my time and energy to writing even better stuff.

That didn’t quite happen, and it made for some tough times. What really brought me to the next step was the emotional and financial support of others in my life who cared more about me, than what I wrote, or what I dreamed of writing.

But too much bad pay for great work forces you to learn two important skills. The first is, how to produce.

Harper Lee (a childhood friend of Capote’s) made her reputation on To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the greatest novels ever written, and did not publish anything else. Her posthumously published prequel has only shown her readers that her decision not to have Go Set a Watchman appear in her lifetime was a good one. Sometimes what is called a first novel is actually a second, third or fourth. A difficult truth of the novelist’s art is that some of us have to write a few that will never be published, so we can write those that should be published. Only later can we look back and congratulate ourselves that no one saw our sophomore efforts.

This said, I wanted every novel I began to be published. Those that saw print are not, in my opinion, my best work. The best is yet to come.

The second skill that low pay delivers is finding satisfaction with the second draft, not because it is perfect, or even the ringing statement that you anticipated, but that it, like its author, is good enough for now.

The best is yet to come.



Writing as an Act of Kindness

I get some of my best ideas while running, even if what I call a run is barely faster (sometimes slower!) than another’s brisk walk.

I don’t know how the ideas come to me. Perhaps it’s that endorphin rush that blows away the cobwebs, or the fact that a higher heart rate pumps more oxygen to my brain.

Or they could be a summons from the divine, which, when I hear about so many others who get ideas while in the shower, or in less sacred locales, can be problematic.

Or, maybe, as so many others insist, the ideas are a gift, a seed that we may plant, or ignore, and the less we examine how ideas find us, the better.

The idea was to recast a lifetime of learning, teaching and comforting others about their writing, as acts of kindness, that is, a thing we do for ourselves, for others or for that idea itself, which can change rapidly from a warm internal glow to an itch that demands to be scratched.

We scratch that itch, not because we want something (fame, fortune and respect from the jerks who treated us badly in high school!), but because we have something genuine, original and authentic to offer.

As a person who has defined himself, more or less, more AND less, as a writer, I know that there is more to the trade than that. But so many other writers–typically those who are stuck between projects, or underpaid academes who hope to profit by forcing their students to buy their guide,  or, perhaps, celebrity wordsmiths who have achieved enough of that covetable fame and fortune to grow weary of answering how-d’ya-do-it questions from adoring wannabe’s–have written serious tomes those other things.! How many self-help style writing guides have we seen that purport to be the only book we’ll ever need to launch us on our way to artistic apotheosis?

Too many.

Still, a slim collection of short little jottings about how the numerous challenges, annoyances, frustrations, maddening ludicrousities and other obstacles to creative fulfillment may be better understood, if not welcomed, as opportunities to experience kindness, may find a place in the world.

Would anyone like to see this? I know I would have, a long time ago, when I discovered that truly creative work was about getting things wrong more often than right (this happened occasionally with journalism, too, with much more dire consequences!) and taking what you feel is right, or fun, cool, exciting or a LOT better than what you got wrong, and offering that, with no certainty that what I’d done was any good, but the hope that it is at least worth someone’s attention.

The first act of writing as a practice of kindness might be the simple observation that, if you get ideas for things you want to write, even if you have no idea how you would begin, finish, publish, deal with critics, dazzle the multitudes at your book signings, negotiate the movie deal, etc., you are already blessed, because most people DON’T get these ideas. This doesn’t mean there is something wrong with them.

But it might mean that there is something definitely right with you! Acknowledging that, and permitting yourself to feel just a little bit good about it, is a kindness you can give yourself, without firing up the word processor, putting pen to paper, or making coffee.

Let’s be grateful that ideas find us when they do!



How To

When you age, every day brings indications that you are no longer young. Among the most recent of mine was the announcement that I am to be a grandfather.

After I adjusted to the surprise and remembered advice from one older than myself that it is far more fun to be a grandpop than a sleep-deprived, diaper fuddling, spoon feeding parent, a how-to-be-a-grandfather book from our son’s in-laws arrived at my birthday celebration. The birthday was a significant number; the book, more so.

I tend to be an impulsive person, more trusting of my ability to adapt creatively to a situation, than one who researches a problem and plans a response. The disadvantage of this tendency is that endeavors begin with mistakes, faux pas, awkward pauses and a rare but occasional pratfall that will dependably enrage those among the research and planning species.

That, and, for portion of my journalistic career, I wrote how-to articles on a variety of subjects whose intention wasn’t so much to show people how to do something as to create a need that would send them to the publication’s advertisers. I told eager readers how to upgrade their kitchens and bathrooms, buy a luxury vehicle, score well on college admissions tests and get into college (legally), and gamble in a casino. I reached a career peak when I wrote an exhaustive piece about buying a house. This article almost won an award, and I felt quite happy about it until I bought my first house. I was not prepared for the humiliation, frustration, mortgage lender bait-and-switch tactics and other travails, none of which I mentioned in my well researched and carefully planned how-to article.

I have asked myself often if I should open this grandpop how-to, turn a few pages, smile at the breezy generalizations, cautionary warnings and numerous promises of righteous effort leading to certain success. Every how-to writer employs these tropes, not because they are the actual way things happen, but because they organize the information and make a pleasant reading experience.

What stops me from opening the book is another element of grand parenting: the willful, occasionally charming but ultimately peculiar indulgence in superstition. Though my grandparents indulged me, spoiled me and, most importantly, showed me that there was far more to life than not doing things that annoyed my parents, they would become sharp and prickly about bad luck, evil eyes, the colors of clothes, the effect Saturday morning TV cartoons may have on my ability to get into a decent college, and whether or not I should sleep next to an open window on chilly nights. I learned that the path to good intentions had strange detours. One could jinx an outcome by speaking of it, or buying things like baby clothing and nursery furniture before a baby is born. Even the position of a crib could have consequence.

Having entered the ranks of the older and wiser, I know where these superstitious responses come from. Among the many things the years teach you is that, no matter how confident you are in your ability to improvise, no matter how much you research and plan, unreasonable things happen far more often than you’d like. As much as we pray our effort will result in the fortunate, serendipitous or just plain lucky, we become even more fearful of the opposite, and worse.  We come to realize that life isn’t about getting and spending, achieving a “level of success,” doing the right thing or even saving for a rainy day, but, rather, surviving the sucker punches, sideswipes and other stuff that you didn’t read about in how-to articles or self-help manuals.

It’s the fear that those odd, “folk” beliefs attempt to remedy. Despite centuries of rational, scientific endeavor, the ends and beginnings of life remain mysterious. Do we really chose the time, place and parents who will give us birth? Is there anything beyond that bright light that some near-death survivors glimpse before they are brought back to life?

Will scattering salt around an empty nursery, positioning the head of the bassinet toward the east and refraining from buying infant clothing until the birth, make any noticeable difference? Perhaps not, but we wish it would, and, as much as rationality has made this world, our irrational expectations, our hopes and dreams, our idle fantasies and active striving, seem to keep the world turning when everything else won’t.

So I’ll wait until the baby comes before I open the book.






I read a Zen-flavored self-help book whose author advised me to watch what happens when I break a habit.

Habits, the author explained, are just one of a number of ways that we distract ourselves from the inexpressible, ineffable reality in which we all fit, whether we know it or not, like it or not, or are ready or not. Stop being habitual, I was told, and experience reality as it really is!

I made a list of my bad habits and immediately realized that making lists is another semi-automatic behavioral motif that kicks in when you don’t expect it.  In seconds, you have a ranked assortment of things you do that you’d rather not, for reasons that you can also list, from top to bottom, A to Z, alpha to omega, here to there and back again.

We have habits of the body. We scratch our heads when we want to show the world we’re thinking. We roll our eyes when we’re disgusted, annoyed, offended or merely contemptuous and we don’t want the world to know what we’re thinking. We do things our parents told us not to do: bite our nails, pick our noses, rub our hands together when we want to imitate a movie villain who is about to explain to Mr. Bond an evil plan that sounds a little bit like the previous villain’s evil plan, but not so much that we question whether the whole idea of making and seeing movie “franchises” based on wounded, socially misconstrued individuals with or without superpowers who never seem to make breakfast or take out the garbage but must, instead, choose between good or evil, might be a kind of habit we could do without.

We have habits when encountering other people, such as asking them how-they-are (“how you doon?” in New Jersey, where I was born and raised) when we really don’t want to know, but we feel a bit miffed if they don’t say, “Fine. How are you?”

And we have habits of the mind, nearly automatic reactions to what we read, see, hear, fear, smell, wish and absolutely will not put up with for another second! These are the infamous “buttons” that are pushed by other people, events or the Devil himself, and we eat a second donut, give the finger to the driver who cut us off, spend a half hour looking for something to watch on the streaming service and become so disgusted by all the junk the aggregator thought you like, buy a branded can of soup instead of the cheaper generic, tell the boss to perform a physically impossible stunt involving his head and one of his many unattractive bodily openings, or–worst of all– tell a joke and nobody laughs.

What about good habits? When I worked in restaurant kitchens, I was given a cloth dish rag with holes worn into it, and told to get in the habit of cleaning whenever I wasn’t washing, peeling, chopping, stirring, turning (one did not flip fried eggs, French toast or ground beef patties in this dining establishment, one turned them), panning (put things on a sheet pan), plating (arranging food on a plate so someone would want to eat it) and opening Number 10 cans of tomato sauce. After about a minute of wiping down counter tops and mopping up spills, the rag became so sodden with goo that…

Let’s say I didn’t get into that habit.

When I learned martial arts, my sensei showed how we all have habitual ways of attacking and defending. Deliver a few fakes, learn your opponent’s habits, wait for your opponent’s to begin his habitual reaching and then pop him where he isn’t expecting it.

What looked so easy for sensei was not easy for me, because I couldn’t get over my habitual aversion to physical violence of any kind. I had been a fat kid for most of my childhood and adolescence–an easy target for the bullying threats and insults. Though I wasn’t fat anymore (I could do 20 pull-ups!), I carried the fat kid’s fears with me and never quite shrugged them off.

One might argue that an aversion to violence in a society that supports the creation and distribution of violent franchise movies might transcend habit and become a survival skill. Not in karate class. I was more popped than not, and the aversion never left. To this day I prefer to end conflicts, with a goal of restoring peace, than popping my way to victory.

I know people who worked in retail clothing shops and have a habit of hanging and folding garments so they don’t crease. I put my wrinkle-free shirts and no-iron trousers in the closet and, a day later, they’re wrinkled! I was in the habit of assuming that reading, and adhering to those instructions printed on the labels would deliver the results I desired!

I have never been good at following instructions. I’m more of an intuitive improviser who aspires to learn from mistakes and get the “hang” of a new skill. This has worked with cooking. It hasn’t worked with driving a manual gear shift cars.

And it hasn’t worked with the habit that brings the most disappointment: I trust too much. When I can’t be intuitive, I tend to take people and institutions at their word. I expect them to be what they say they are.

When I’m squeezed into super-ultra economy airline seat, told I have to pay for everything I carry and consume except the air I breathe, and the cabin attendant recites that sing-song “on behalf of” speech that ends with me enjoying my flight, part of me trusts that some deep, inner essence within the collective hive-mind of the dynamic pricing algorithm fueled, nickle-‘n’-diming, profit-squeezing corporation running this airline that has turned the going from Point A to Point B into a series of slights, humiliations and cheap shots about how much money I didn’t spend for the upgrade–wants me to experience ineluctable bliss!

Well, I’m not THAT trusting. When people say, “trust me on this,” a warning light flashes in my brain. When any politician, from any political party, promises a tax cut, my taxes go up. When I call the help line, endure a half an hour of the obnoxiously unlistenable click-track music and am then told that my conversation “may” be recorded, I KNOW it’s recorded, and stored in that dank, virtual vault with every other thing I’ve ever done (and who knows what I’ve THOUGHT about doing but never did) waits to be exploited by an AI aggregator that wants me to put me in the habit of buying more stuff, especially the stuff that promises to never wear out, never grow old, never wrinkle, crease or becoming anything other than what it was when I bought it.

Maybe I should break the habit that makes me scan my clothes for wrinkles and odd spots that the washing machine didn’t remove. Instead of presuming my clothing should appear more-or-less new and unworn before I wear it, I should celebrate the wabi-sabi-ness of my wardrobe and let things age gracefully.

After all, wearing in, wearing out, wearing down–that happens to habits, too. After a while, we learn that something happens when we slow down and look closely at what is actually happening around us. You see things you never saw, that were always right in front of your face. Sometimes what you notice is disturbing, awful, terrifying–like death itself.

Other times, it can be so wonderful that–

you want to make a habit of it.


We Need a Little Infinity

With my jacket zipped and buttoned, my muffler tight around my neck and my hat’s ear flaps pulled low enough to block the wind, my wife and I put our feet on the hard, wet sand and followed the path through over the dunes on to the beach. Our dog–also bundled in a coat and scarf, sniffed the cold briny air, paused and charged ahead.

The path opened out on to a broad, flat stretch of soggy brown sand that, if this had been summer, would have had a pale, almost golden hue.

But, according to the calendar, and the brutal March wind, winter had not left. Aside from some tire tracks, the beach was free of any sign of human contact. The tide had gone out. The water lapped gently near our shoes. My wife picked up some seashells for souvenirs.

The sunlight broke through the clouds and water suddenly glistened. I stared out at that line where the dark blue water meets the lighter gray of the sky. I saw none of the sails that would intrude in summer. No airplane buzzed overhead. I heard nothing but the sound of water racing up, and then retreating, from the land.

The landscape before me was not infinite, but it might as well be. I felt that humbling sense of awe that you get when you’re in the mountains or the desert on a clear night and see all those stars arrayed against the silvery jumble of the Milky Way. I imagine people feel the same way when they confront the Grand Canyon: you forget who you are, the long hours in the car checking the map and hoping you made the right turn, and all the stuff you left back home.

It’s all suddenly wonderful.

A few hours earlier, my wife looked out on to an overcast, drearily cold morning, and said she needed to stand on a beach and look at the ocean. I immediately understood why. We live in suburban sprawl, near an airport. Pull the shades away from the window, and you see the neighbors houses and people in cars and trucks, going places, doing things.

The neighborhood is well landscaped, with paved trails that dip into forested areas where the developers couldn’t build. When I walk our dog I hear airplanes zooming overhead, the rumble of pick-up trucks (our region is the capital of the luxury pick-up truck market), and a barking dog that a guy in a big house lets stay out on his deck for too long. Once my wife and I stood on our deck and saw the flare from an evening rocket launch on distant Wallops Island. I thought I could hear the rocket, too.

When I breathe in on a winter day I occasionally smell the aroma of logs burning in a fireplace. When the wind is coming from the north, I can catch the aroma of sizzling beef from the McDonalds about a quarter mile away. When the wind shifts, the fumes from the chicken fryers at the Royal Farms tumble by.  My dog pulls on the leash, then turns to me, her brown eyes begging: I’d really like a hamburger or some of that chicken. Follow me. The nose knows.

Most people who live here like it because the school system is good, crime is low, and you’re within a short drive of a dozen supermarkets, four Costcos, four Wal-Marts, four Targets, two Home Depots, three hospitals, ten gyms, a big mall where the anchor stores are closing, an outlet mall where smaller stores have already closed, a “town center” whose owner decided to charge for parking and thus reduced so much business that three major retail chains have left, ten movie theaters, and roads that will take you take you east to Washington, DC; north to Baltimore; south to Richmond and west to open areas where you can find wineries, farms, horse stables and other places that haven’t been torn down yet.

An extension of the Washington DC subway that was supposed to arrive four years ago is planned to open about two miles from where we live–soon. Until then, construction cranes tower above multi-story parking garages near the subway stops.

Our home owners association enforces covenants intended to make the place appear unchanging. But if you talk about changes, just about everyone has a story about how different things are since they moved here.  My wife remembers times when there were dirt roads, narrow highways and fewer traffic lights, more stars and planets visible at night. I recall large areas of open woodland that have been chopped down for houses, schools, shopping areas, office buildings and low, long, windowless buildings where something mysterious goes on that has to do with computers.

Don’t get me wrong: we live in an easily enjoyable sprawl. The property values remain high. We are thrilled when a highway improvement project finishes and we drive our cars over wide, multi-lane black asphalt with sharply painted lines where previously potholes and backed-up traffic slowed progress. There’s always something new opening up that’s worth a visit. We know two places that make pizza that is close to how it tasted when we were kids in New Jersey. When we shop, we have choices.

But sometimes, you want more than a choice. Or less. You want to touch the infinite, or what might as well be.

Ocean City, Maryland was the closest beach town with a decent pet-friendly hotel. The rate for an overnight stay was a fraction of what it would cost in the summer. We’d never been there. We booked a room, packed our bags, grabbed the dog, gassed up the car, and went. For me, it was like going home.

When you’re born and raised in New Jersey, the shore is “a different place entirely.” I’d As an journalist and novelist, I learned more about the 110 mile stretch of barrier islands than just about anywhere else.

Though the Jersey shore was an hour and fifteen-minute car ride away, my parents favored Europe, Canada and Miami Beach (Florida, not Miami Beach, NJ, on the Delaware Bay) for family vacations. One reason was that my father didn’t wasting time stuck in weekend shore traffic. He’d fuss and fume at a single traffic light in some small town on the one road down. But I remember a few magic moments.

Such as an overnight in an old Lakewood hotel followed by a morning getting grit all over my clothes on Bradley Beach. Or a day trip to Atlantic City, where I spent the money I earned mowing the lawn on Matchbox cars purchased at Rappaport’s, a toy shop located right off the Boardwalk in the lobby of the magnificent Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel. My father bought a bag of roasted peanuts for the ride back.

Or a trip to Cape May with my girlfriend (now my wife). The brightly painted American Victorian hotels and bed-and-breakfasts along Beach Drive became a dignified backdrop to an adventure that showed us that we traveled well together.

Or a nervous drive down the Atlantic City Expressway. Two casino hotels had just opened. I was to see shows at each, then drive back and write a review for a southern New Jersey newspaper.

The city that had once seemed filled with toys and the aroma of peanuts, arose against the night sky like a tumbled down ruin. Construction cranes sprouted from what had been the Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel, soon to become Bally’s Park Place Hotel and Casino. I found a place to park. I hadn’t brought enough money to afford a meal in any restaurant, but one casino had an oyster bar that sold an inexpensive bowl of turtle soup. I had the soup, saw the shows, came back, wrote the review and never wanted to go to Atlantic City again.

But I did a pretty good job on the review, and, unlike journalists other newspapers had sent, I had no urge to gamble. I found the gambling culture imported from Las Vegas repellent, obnoxious, cruel and crass. This, and the fact that every time I went to the city (and many more, after I lived near it), I stopped to look out at the ocean and feel that sense of wonder, made it possible for me to spend 25 years of my life writing about Atlantic City and the New Jersey shore.

The experience of looking at the ocean and feeling the tug of the infinite, is a reference point, a place to return to a sense of wonder that, for all its commonality, and universality, is exceedingly rare.

We all need a little bit of infinity in our lives. More than that, we must know when we need it, and permit ourselves the time, energy, and discounted room rate, to pursue it.







Power Music

You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again, and when you hear it, you feel you can do anything.

Like most mystical experiences, the cause and effect are not related. We may not remember the music. We may forget how it feels. But, when the music finds us and, without effort or intention, the power fills us, a hopeless world shines with possibility.

1. I hadn’t planned on sitting in Bath Abbey and hearing an organ concert when I was sixteen and backpacking through Great Britain. My friend and I had wandered through the Pump Room, a sacred site for Jane Austen readers, and I wasn’t impressed because I had been forced to read Emma in high school and didn’t “get” it the way I thrilled to stories about space ships zooming through the future. I sipped some of the water that was sacred to the Romans and earlier folk. I got a mouthful of more water when we swam in an indoor pool.

The organ recital was something else to do. For a tourist on a limited budget, the interiors of religious buildings were usually free to explore (we didn’t see Westminster Abbey in London because of the admission fee). They also offered a change in atmosphere from the busy, sensory stimulation of the street.

Until someone cranks up the organ. I did not know any of the music played that night, but I felt the low notes reverberating in my gut and I GOT it. The organ music was a metaphor for the unseen divine spirit.  The organist took a bow at the beginning and the end of the recital, but, because I couldn’t see him performing, this wasn’t so much a concert as it was a feeling of the presence of the sacred.

I never forgot it (and, yes, dear reader, I “got” Jane Austen eventually).

2. I came back from a college class to the seedy off-campus house I shared with several conservatory-of-music students and followed the sounds of a beeping and bouncing into the room of a composition major. I sat down on a broken chair and smiled. No one can stop themselves from grinning when you hear Terry Riley’s “A Rainbow in Curved Air” for the first time.

About two-thirds of the way into the piece you hear an electric snake rattling its tail from one speaker to the next. The piece builds to a climax but continues for several more merry minutes.

If the creative power is the most important manifestation of the divine, then this music was God laughing, playing (without making a mess!) and having fun.

3. Dexter Gordon stood tall in the club and played his horn with a calmly assured magnificence.  As a music critic, I had plugged Gordon’s club date. One of the perks of the job is free admission to the event you plug. I had been told Gordon was a legend but what you read about a performer leaves too much out, until you attend the performance. I had no doubt: I was in the presence of greatness. When Gordon finished a tune, he held the saxophone high overhead, as if to say, when I have this, I have everything.

4. I was angry at Frank Zappa again. I grew up appreciating his wonderfully hilarious blend of brilliant musical complexity, grotesque humor and witty satire until this recording, where it seemed that the humor and satire fused into a nasty desire to offend.  The intricate sense of beauty I heard in his earlier work had been set aside for what the music industry calls novelty songs with implicitly obscene lyrics.

And then I heard the live recording on Zappa in New York of the Black Page 1 & 2, a percussion piece Zappa wrote for his drummer Terry Bozzio that is then put to a disco beat with melodies for the band. The tune is hard to follow when you hear it on the drums, but when the band comes in, you feel immediately how uproariously ingenious–and joyous–it is. This piece did not justify the disgusting, offensive stuff on that record, and subsequent recordings (even if it Zappa’s intention was to lampoon social hypocrisy, pretension, racial and ethnic stereotypes and the barely hidden perversions of those who claim to be holier than us), but it gleamed with the exuberance of a composer who was absolutely free (pun intended, Zappa fans) to write what he precisely what he wanted, with the assurance that it would be performed by musicians who respected him, recorded to his standards, packaged in accord with his wishes, and thereby preserved so many, many more may “get” it, and even enjoy it.

5. Pete Seeger singing simple songs with an honesty, warmth and intensity that made you believe that music could change the world, for the better.

The world has changed though the idealism that enthralled my generation died years ago.

But we still have those moments when music finds us, or, in the words of guitarist Robert Fripp, “takes us into its confidence,” and we feel a great rush that of a power that, if it isn’t purely divine, should be.

In music things are possible that are actually impossible.  –Alfred Brendel, pianist