Responding to Life

During my apprenticeship to the science fiction writer Keith Laumer, I learned my mentor’s numerous likes and dislikes. The dislikes were especially difficult, because Keith’s stroke had weakened that part of his brain that tamped down his anger. He could go from calm and compassionate to blistering rage in seconds.

My “job” when living with him was to do what a man whose left side was paralyzed, could not. That wasn’t so simple, because Keith had been living on his own for a while before he said I could spend some college winter terms and summer vacations with him. Like many people with confounding disabilities, he had learned to adapt: a knob affixed to the steering wheel of his Cadillac helped him drive one-handed. With a brace on his left leg and a cane in his right hand he could walk. He would open envelopes by putting one corner in his mouth and tearing the flap with his right thumb and forefinger.

And, like many people who had lived alone most of his life (I found out later he had alienated his ex-wife and children), he had was almost fiercely set in his ways. He’d wake with the sun (which rose beautifully over the lake that surrounded the island on which he lived), make a breakfast of bacon, par-boiled eggs and, if he were hungry, a cubed-steak fried in bacon grease. Then he’d do a drive to the Brooksville, Florida post office to collect his mail.

On the way, he’d frequently leave the roadway to drive on two-trails that would frequently cross private property (Keith insisted to me that the two-trails were county or state roads open to anyone), or go deep into the Florida pine forest. He did this, he said, to make the morning trip more interesting, and to experience what he called “the beautiful thing.”

Keith explained the that this “beautiful thing” saved his life. Before the stroke hit him in his early 40s, he was a popular science fiction writer who wrote a book every three months. His work was published in hardcover and paperback. He lived in a house he designed himself. He made a decent living from writing and had been an occasional guest-of-honor at science fiction conventions.

The stroke brought him so low, he told me, he was in excruciating pain much of the time, and darkly depressed. He found “the beautiful thing” when hearing music (Sibelius and Puccini were his favorite composers) and looking at landscapes that included his lake, wilderness two-trails and boat ramps on the Gulf of Mexico, where he would drive sometimes to watch the sunset.

The beautiful thing gave him his central theory about life, that being alive consisted of responding as honestly and vigorously as possible. The opposite, he said, was death, or worse. Indifference was not permitted.

His response wasn’t limited to an appreciation of the sublime in nature or art. It also included people, political issues, books (Keith didn’t own a television set and hated most movies after one of his books, The Monitors, was filmed), food (he discovered a German restaurant that he adored) and imported beer. Way back before the internet, any beer that wasn’t made in America had to be imported. Keith’s favorites were Lowenbrau, St. Pauli Girl, Ballantine India Pale Ale (my first taste of an IPA) Urkwell Pilsner and Heinekin.

Keith’s beering exacerbated his temper. I found that if I did not reply immediately to a question he had asked–even if that question was rhetorical–he’d bubble over in rage. This rage wasn’t merely red-faced anger. Keith would curse, sputter, spit on the ground, while his paralyzed left arm would tighten into a shuddering claw.

I grew to dread going to town with him to get the mail or buy groceries and tools, because clerks, sales people, and, sadly, people who wanted to help him, would not respond in time, or in the way he anticipated. When I tried to quell the situation (my experiences with Keith were among the many reasons that aikido’s ethic of “restoring harmony” appealed to me in later years) or pull Keith away from people who, quite understandably, resented this angry old man, Keith would turn on me. To limit another’s response for any reason, he believed, was to subscribe to tyranny.

Keith wasn’t this way all the time. He could be tactful, dignified and debonair. But then, something would set him off and I had yet another reason that one of my early literary heroes (I had read almost everything he had written) was not all that his work implied. I began to think that art wasn’t just a great thing to make that other people would enjoy. Perhaps it was a way of understanding ourselves, and why, more often than not, things didn’t work out, outcomes were unacceptable and so many wishes did not come true. Thus, art is more than a thing to be “experienced,” bought and sold. It is not a reason that some people can make money. It is something we do stay alive. It is a necessity–especially when the work is difficult to appreciate and understand.

To my surprise, later in life, I discovered that in the same way that tragedy and loss can be inexplicable and without apparent cause or reason, some wishes DO come true, a few miracles can happen and responding to life–with joyful enthusiasm, get-out-of-your-chair anger, or with what the I Ching calls “tactful reserve”–is a powerful way of contributing who and what you are at the moment, and, also, finding out that who and what you think you are at the moment, may not be that different from how others understand themselves.

This said, I ask those who have responded to these writings to bear with me. I have not mastered the complexities of blogging. I appreciate all the favorable remarks. No, I don’t have a brother who played football (he played the baritone sax, which is not quite the same thing). Sooner or later I’ll figure out how to include some comments here.

Until then, we have more than enough things in our lives worth a response. I am grateful for yours.



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