Follow Your Bliss

I recently saw a fan documentary about Joseph Campbell, the great, if somewhat faded cultural syncretist whose book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, with subsequent writings about ancient myths as enigmatic answers to life’s big questions, inspired George Lucas’s first Star Wars film, and encouraged thousands of disaffected mostly middle class teenagers to reject mainstream American social norms so they could follow their “bliss” a more personal, authentic sense of spiritual fulfillment.

I call this a fan documentary because it approached hagiography. In addition to photos from his youth (I loved the a precious image of the future sage as a Catholic altar boy in New Rochelle, New York) and his wanderings throughout the world, we saw the elder Campbell as a casually dressed lord-of-the-manor on the grounds of his Hawaiian house, perspiring before the camera as he told of his rejection of Catholicism and his youthful, Razor’s Edgy quest for spiritual meaning, and then his revelation that ancient myths contained insights into the “great mystery” of life that you encounter when you notice that, not only will everything that lives die eventually, but that, in order to live, you must kill, or you must enable others to kill for you.

The documentary also included scenes of Campbell pontificating before a throng of visually attractive young people with blow-dried haircuts and earth-tone clothes, ending with Campbell in a tuxedo getting an award that, while it is obviously not the Nobel prize, is sufficiently important to have George Lucas himself give a speech of thanks.

Does it get any better? A house in Hawaii. A distinguished academic career. A loving wife who is also a dancer (the narrator mentions she was his former student at Sarah Lawrence–nowadays liaisons between professor and student, even if they lead to marriage, are verboten on most college campuses and punished by a loss of tenure, and worse). The gratitude of a pop-culture icon. The admiration of young, good-looking people.

This documentary is a warm up to the best video portrait of Campbell. Search the Internet for the four-part Power of Myth, a conversation with the eminently cordial Bill Moyers, filmed at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch and broadcast on PBS in 1987, about a year after Campbell died. The transcript from the documentary, published as a book, became a best seller that reminded aging hippies and smarmy Yuppies (Young Upwardly Mobile Professionals) that the quest for personal fulfillment that they may have abandoned for jobs, family and other concerns may not be over, that they may still find a cave in which what they fear may be their greatest treasure, mentors wait to guide them to “follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls.”

As one who has slammed into more than enough walls in his lifetimes, hoping that a door would appear when it most definitely did not, I confess that Campbell’s ideal–that our live changes when we choose to see ourselves mythic heroes on an epic journey–is wonderfully compelling. We may not have a lightsaber, or a ring that makes us invisible, or a latent talent or ability that our mentor will help us develop, but we’ve read the book, seen the movie and know what happens next. Or what should happen.

Though many hippies believed following their bliss condoned hedonistic indulgence, or, for the Yuppies, oversized clothing in power colors worn to power breakfasts, Campbell emphasized that our bliss was an deep expression of our being, a something you found on your quest that gave your life a purpose and value. Again, it’s a great ideal that moved many artists and creative types. I tried to follow my bliss as best I could, but some other things I learned in college held me back.

Campbell’s quest was inspired by a youthful fascination with American Indians. His failure to equate the spiritual world of the Indians to what he had learned as a well-meaning Irish Catholic led him to texts in cultures both ancient and contemporary, from the fragmented Gilgamesh to the unbearably long Upandishads. For him, the myths performed a function of relating a metaphorical truths that tended to be inexpressible in ordinary language. Where we come from, why we’re here and where we’re going are not just slogans. They are questions that can never be answered adequately but myths can point us toward an understanding of ourselves and how we fit in to our physical and social environment.

My English professors acknowledged that Campbell’s emphasis on myth as a humanistic cultural backbone could explain many literary works, most obviously James Joyce’s Ulysses, some works by Shakespeare, some of the magical realist stories coming out of South America, and some genres, such as the bildungsroman, a story of how a young person grows to maturity. But most literature looks at ancient and cultural myths ironically: we may want to be Perseus using our wits to slay the minotaur, or Odysseus descending to the underworld to get good advice, or even Dante progressing through the afterlife in search of spiritual understanding, but life is too messy, foolish, cruel, horrible, stupid and unfair to deliver the happy ending of classical comedy, or the final epiphany in tragedy.

My religion professors (I majored in English and Religion) were wary of Campbell, and not merely because their students brought his books to class. The myths on which Campbell based his ideas were translations, and even if you teach yourself the original language and translate the texts yourself, you can never be sure what the myth meant to those who first transcribed it.  Anyone with an historical insight into a culture–ancient or contemporary–knows that the meanings of myths change over time (post-modern thinkers would take this further, suggesting that every time you read a text, be it a myth or a laundry list, its meaning changes).

They also argued that, as much as we would like to believe that myths and religions are the same and function within societies and civilizations in similar ways, the dissimilarities are far more obvious, and cannot be ignored. Campbell’s attempt to find core or unifying myths is more a matter of what he chooses not to see, or to leave out. The hero who trusts the Force and blows up the Death Star also kills thousands of human beings working on that space station who needed a job.

I didn’t take any psychology courses, but I read widely in the field later and got to know some who practiced psychotherapy and psychiatry. I also read Kurt Vonnegut’s and Hannah Arendt’s efforts to understand how basically decent, well educated European people could abandon their sense of decency and moral rectitude to these dictators’ blatant evil.

The banal truth is that you can follow your bliss over Niagara Falls, with or without a barrel.

Campbell’s hero’s journey isn’t so much a distillation of ancient truth as expressed in myth, as it is a restatement of a paradigm for modernist success: the individual who offers the most valuable contribution to society does so from the satisfaction of inner need. It’s great when that need builds character, fosters compassion and reveals vital capability. It’s not so great when that need invents a charismatic tyrant who foists his dark compulsion on a naive constituency, and leads them to an abyss that, unlike Nietzsche’s, does not gaze back at them, but roars “come on down!”

This said, I am now at the age of the bearded mentors whose quirky attentions speed heroes along their journey. And yet, I find myself more like a youthful hero, whose progress around so many walls feels unsure, awkward and unlikely.

I have found my inner need, that bliss that doesn’t so much guide me, as tease me with possibility.

And so, when no one is looking (or no one appears to care) I follow that bliss. I pause occasionally before a wall and, thinking of old myths made new again, I say, “Open sesame!”

Alas, the bagel bakery is too frequently out of sesame, so I settle for a poppyseed, or a plain, and hope that if a door in a wall ever opens, I’ll be welcome on the other side.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Slow Time

I first encountered slow time in a science fiction story: what if some people lived in a bubble and didn’t age at the same rate as the rest of us?

John Keats, like the other British Romantic poets, used an older, pseudo-classical style, with ye’s and thou’s and odd capitalizations for emphasis, to give Ode on a Grecian Urn an almost Biblical authority and resonance.

The poem is a reflection on how the interpretation of art and artifacts changes, and is not based on an actual relic glimpsed in a . The young Keats found inspiration in printed illustrations (this old Kent would have hesitated, having grown up on literary giants like Ernest Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald, whose search for “truth” in fiction gave them license to cannibalize the lives of friends, enemies and nice people who invited them for long weekends at fancy estates, research-crazed thriller writers like Elmore Leonard and John le Carre, who must visit a location, or learn as best as possible how a nefarious thing is done, before writing about it  and an unnamed critic who caused psychic scarring when he dismissed one of my unpublished short stories with “how can you write about Paris if you’ve never been there?” as if that ever stopped Hollywood set makers from throwing together a few cafe chairs on a Los Angeles studio while a guy walks by wearing a beret with a lavishly dressed woman on his arm.)

Keats began this beautiful poem:

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,/Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time.

An unravished bride of quietness is a virginal female (Feminist critics may object: though an urn is hollow and has been fashioned to hold or enclose, why must it be feminine?)  who has been raised in the absence of sound or attention. A foster-child of silence anthropomorphizes the lack of sound: quietness is a nurturing presence, possibly (though not necessarily) maternal. “Slow time” is a characteristically Romantic defiance of the punctually British understanding of time as a fixed, irrevocable, cause-and-effect process by which one thing happens after another. It is almost a privileged aging process, the kind we imagine would be a divine gift.

Keats ended this poem with a famous Romantic slogan that only the young can accept without qualification: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

If only this were so….

Let me set aside my English major prose and treat the usage personally: I am now a person of slow time, and it does feel like a gift, divine or otherwise.

My right knee has become “problematic,” a coy euphemism for things that don’t work properly and may never will. I’ve had difficulties with both knees that were resolved years ago with surgery. It’s too soon to know if I must endure steroid injections, go under the orthoscopic knife again, or have the joint replaced parts that will arouse metal detectors.

But I do know that my knee is stiff and doesn’t enjoy the load-bearing yoga stretches that were once waystations along a path to relaxation. When I run, or stress the knee, I feel pain that remains for several days. The agony is sufficiently intense to inspire a gobbling of tylenol tablets, and a limp.

A few days ago I paused at a traffic intersection, pressed a button on a pole supporting a traffic light, and waited for a signal to stop the cars and trucks so I could cross the street. A flashing signal told me I had 40 seconds.

As I limped across, I saw one driver glare at me with contempt. I was the old person who selfish intent halted his progress down the busy thoroughfare.  And I was moving so slowly. Though the light doesn’t change any faster if I speed up and finish with ten seconds left over, I imagined him wanting to see me demonstrating haste. What had he done to be so annoyingly delayed, and what had I done to be so incapable of running across, as I used to, as we all used to, when our knees worked perfectly?

I know why my knees do not work perfectly. Each meniscus–the fancy latin term for a knee cap–has been torn by the ends of the bones grinding together. The grind in my right leg happened when I mounted a horse from the horse’s right side. I put my right foot in the stirrup, swung left leg (and the body attached) over the horse’s rump, leaving my knee to bear the weight of the turn. The weight pushed the bones against the knee cap. They tore it up as they turned.

If I had known mounting the horse would cause permanent damage to my knee, I would not have done this. It was only when I dismounted after the ride that I noticed my knee was stiff and swollen. Some hours later the joint became…problematic.

I don’t know how I injured my left knee, though it may have had to do with climbing stairs at a landscaped garden. You bear down on the knee and, while going up, you turn to look over your shoulder. That could have done it, or something else.

Problematic injuries bring their own kind of slow time. You have to focus on your movements. You must improvise ways of doing things that used to be so simple you weren’t aware of your body. The use

As a child, I stood on one leg to imitate a bird. As a teacher, I stood on one leg to illustrate the Talmudic story of a challenge given to the Rabbi Hillel by a man who would convert to Judaism if Hillel could recite the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) while standing one foot. According to the story, Hillel accepted the challenge, stood on one foot, and said,  “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is explanation. Go study it!”

I also stood on one foot in a few yoga balancing postures. These became very helpful later in martial arts, where maintaining your balance in any conflict is always a physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual advantage.

Now standing one one leg requires a consultation with my knee. Are you up to this? Would you be more comfortable if I bent my leg, or can you take the full weight?

Problematic injuries also require a wariness of people, places and things that may resent, or simply not be aware of, the fact that you are temporarily in their way. You must examine trustworthiness of the earth beneath your feet, the chair beneath your bum, even the wind beneath your wings! What choices you have tend to be limited to moving faster, and more painfully, or slower and more pathetically.

Despite this difficulty, slow time does bring a gift. When you must slow down, you see things differently. You discover that, as much as you feel alienated, disaffected, scorned or rejected, you may also be part of something larger, smaller or more interesting, than the busy, narrowly self-absorbed world that you typically inhabit.

To that driver who was so annoyed: yes, I may be the reason you had to slow down.

But you and I are so much more than that.

 

 

 

 

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Trout Mask Replica

According so some of the musicians who played for Don Van Vliet’s Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, fifty years ago they began to work out the bits and pieces of two songs that, two years later, would be included on a double record album called Trout Mask Replica.

I found out about Beefheart and his music through a friend, who read Stereo Review and bought any record the critics liked. He especially enjoyed “The Blimp” and “Old Fart at Play,” the more juvenile of the astonishing, infuriating assortment of blues, folk, dada, naive, primitive, atonal, poly rhythmic music on the record.

Today we’d call Trout Mask a mash-up, a cross-cultural collage employing deliberate appropriation and combination of previous styles, motifs, and methods that subverts categories, challenges standards and norms, celebrates irony and, at best, is sufficiently interesting to be called art.

But it’s more than that. Van Vliet started performing in California as another white man mimicking black blues stylists Howling Wolf and Bo Diddley, with a beat poet’s playful sense of subversion. At times, you know the band, and producer Frank Zappa, who met Van Vliet when they were teenagers, are just fooling around, recording snatches of conversation, improvisational goofs and silly phrases that sound disgusting or marginally obscene, but are just goofs.

At other times the band you can feel the band’s furious concentration as they try to play music with definite blues, folk and rock roots that is so complicated and difficult that you might as well call it a tour de force. You ask yourself how could anyone write this stuff, or even perform it?

On the first few listens, the record can be silly, annoying, trite, sloppy–all the things that a slickly produced, blues-oriented studio recording like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon–is not. The music was composed from tape recorded motifs, many coming from Van Vliet, who composed at the piano, an instrument he did not know how to play. Van Vliet banged away at the keys, coming up with refrains, snatches of melody, and phrases that he liked. These were taped and then rearranged by the band, which, according to legend, recorded their parts in a single day. It took several days for Van Vliet to record his beat-poet lyrics, the horns (which he also did not know how to play) and other overdubs and studio effects.

It still sounds like a mess, but it is far from that. The record has a wild, frenzied, free-jazz, anything-goes sensibility that can take several listens to appreciate. Like the splashier abstract expressionists (Van Vliet has a second career as a painter whose work was similar to Robert Motherwell and Joan Miro) and and the seemingly disordered ruckus of John Cage, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band produce a singular work of modernist art that is so turbulently original that few who hear it ever forget it. Fewer still want to hear it again. But enough have for many publications to put it on their best album lists, somewhat lower down than Dark Side of the Moon.

The album did not sell in the United States, though it charted as high as 21 in England. After it appeared, Beefheart changed his style, veering toward the longer, slightly more listenable compositions on The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot, before zooming off into the more completely realized songs of Ice Cream for Crow and Doc at the Radar Station.

Like too many musicians of his day, Van Vliet denied publically that he took recreational drugs, but wallowed in them. When I had a chance to see him live, I heard from those backstage that he was far too fond of cocaine. But his performance was even more amazing than his recordings: for once, all that strange, disjointed, seemingly chaotic music–worked!

Van Vliet was also notorious for being cruel to his band. He did not credit his musicians as co-composers, often did not pay them. Most who joined his Magic Band later spoke of the exhilaration in playing music unlike anyone else’s, and the financial destitution that awaited them at the end of a long concert tour.

Today Frank Zappa is honored as an important composer who worked within the rock milieu and even had a top-40 hit (“Valley Girl”), Captain Beefheart is mostly forgotten, though his influence on Tom Waits, The Simpsons cartoonist Matt Groening, John Cale, The Residents, and many others, is significant. Like many artists whose work surprises and even shocks us at first, Beefheart’s recordings yield their value slowly, requiring several listens and a patience unusual for contemporary music “consumers,” who are confronted with far too many easily likeable musical pieces on streaming services that have changed the way music enters our lives. Why listen to peculiar, challenging music that defies conventions, when there is so much more that has mastered those conventions?

Because much of life isn’t about mastery (and its metaphors: wealth, high status, connoisseurship, the self-congratulatory state of having made the “right” choices), but how we master the challenges we must meet along the way. If we can be patient with “difficult” art, we can apply that patience to the difficulties we find in ourselves and others, and accept that what is of lasting value is not always obvious the first time we encounter it.

Yes, it was very easy to adore Dark Side of the Moon on the first listen. And I can still appreciate it today.

And it was just as easy to be delighted at Trout Mask‘s triumphantly absurd “Neon Meate Dream of an Octafish” when I fifth time around.

Or was it the sixth?

 

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Happy Ending

I just finished the last scene in my novel. The book is far from finished, but the end is in sight, and it’s happy. Now I have to connect it to all the other stuff that arose over the last year and more, from that day my wife and I were celebrating her birthday in London, and we ordered room service.

I had been raised to never, ever do that. It was a sin so expensive that it was almost on par with paying full retail. My father, who grew up in the Great Depression and favored motels when we took long car trips to Florida and Canada, loved a bargain, and was eager to use every coupon in the newspaper, or go to someone he knew “in the business” before buying anything. Why order room service, most of the time, you could walk across the street, or go for a short drive and find a place open all night, for about half the price you’d be charged by a hotel, for food that was cold when it arrived at your door, and then, have to leave a tip?

After a long, but uneventful transcontinental flight, I suggested that, instead of taking the fast train and a cab to the hotel, we take the London Underground, my chosen mode of transport when I was last in London. The ride was very long, providing peculiar glimpses of a densely built urban sprawl. When we left at the station I calculated to be closest to the hotel, it started to rain.

Rain in London is characteristic, atmospheric, predictable and, if you’re in the right mood and have the rain gear, a little bit of splishy splashy fun. After so much jet lag, it wasn’t remotely enjoyable to huddle under an umbrella that was too small, get wet and not know that you have to go down a narrow little street from The Strand to find the lobby of the Savoy, a hotel I chose because it was among the most famous in the city, I wanted to have a drink with my wife in the American Bar, and…I got a reasonably good deal on the room.

Yes, at times I am my father’s son.

What a nice room it was! Not only did we have his and hers bathrobes, but slippers and a bed so comfortable that we went right to sleep, waking up, as jet lagged people always do, at a time when restaurants are closing and who wants to go out anyway?

So we ordered room service: we decided to split a turkey club and a cheese plate. I asked if I could have my favorite cheese, cheshire. Though the hotel did not normally serve that cheese, they promised to find some at 11:30 p.m.

The food was delightful and  came on a shiny cart, with beautiful presentation. Yes, it cost too much, but we enjoyed ourselves so much, and I began thinking of a hotel whose room service was so well prepared that people check into it, just to order the food.

As readers of this blog know, I write slowly, fretfully and doubtfully. I don’t jump eagerly into my work, as I once did. I brood. I mull. I waste time on trivial things. I play too much computer solitaire. Eventually, the words come.

And so the ending arrived, but not the relief of having finished, because there are many scenes left to write. I have learned to celebrate often, but, somehow, finishing a novel doesn’t feel as good as it once did, probably because of how much difference it DOESN’T make to everyone but me.

Once, when I finished writing a novel, I told my karate teacher. He said, “give me a down block.” People who knew me immediately said things like when is it coming out? I didn’t know. Unless your previous book sold well, or you’re already a celebrity so that the book is just another branded item to foist upon the fans, publishers tend to look at books that are merely the best you have ever done in your entire life as–risky business. Even if publishers have paid for the book (or a portion of it–your advance is doled out in fragments, the last on “publication,” which, in itself, is an incentive for the publisher to delay publication as long as possible). My conversations with my editor and agent were reserved. I was a factory that had manufactured a product that may, or may not, make money. They were in no hurry to move it to the marketplace.

By the box arrived I was wrestling with another manuscript, another “good idea” that, like every one that preceded it, inspired a difficult birth.

My contract required the publisher to send me ten copies of my book. It did not specify when those books were to arrive. I didn’t know the book was “out” until I opened the box and held the topmost bound copy in my hands.

The cover illustration appeared cheaply done. The book was priced too high–the only way I’d pay that much money for a book was if I could get a discount! Knowing people in the business wasn’t going to help. The cheesy jacket copy had been written by someone who had not read the book. The author photo I’d paid for was cropped so small you could barely see it was me.

But it was my book and, for about two months, it was in some stores. A few stores invited me to do a signings. The reviews were mostly good. Some were very good. I got on a radio show and talked briefly about how much I wanted people to enjoy what I wrote.

I still do, though I have no idea who will read this one. I never do. And then, somehow, someone does and is kind enough to say to me that the book was worth reading.

And that is a happy ending.

 

 

 

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Killing the Monster

“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.”

So said Winston Churchill, the conservative politician, imperialist, warrior, historian and one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th Century.  Though scowling, cigar puffing frown is best remembered as the face of victorious defiance during World War Two, Churchill suffered a long period of ostracism and neglect between the wars. He retired to his relatively modest estate at Chartwell and wrote a biography of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, and his memoirs, which, it turns out, were premature.  World War Two, as he called it, would not just be the United Kingdom’s “finest hour,” it would be his.

His sentiment about writing has been true for me, though I wouldn’t go so far as to call the work a monster (the Latin root corresponds to words for mountain and “what shows” or is most obvious). And, due to changes in how the English speaking world writes, distributes and reads book, what you fling–or, as I prefer to see it, offer gently, with the greatest good intentions–to the public is most often ignored. Most traditional gate keepers–agents, editors, booksellers, critics and those eager minions who search for anything other than a comic book, toy or video game to turn into a movie–want something that’s already popular, in demand or otherwise “sold.” What’s merely worth reading is…nearly worthless.

Such discouraging truth has discouraged me. I wish I could say I’ve had that unshakeable faith in myself that is so often cited in celebrity interviews as a reason, if not a necessity, for the kind of success that brings your work to those who may most enjoy it. To attain those brief minutes of fame is to risk eternal damnation on social media (and the mainstream media that now covers a tiny portion of social media as news) for not making the correct and timely responses to current events of which you may know little or, worse yet, be misinformed. Failing to respond is now considered a response, as controversies swing back and forth, what “side” you’re on doesn’t matter as much as how many responses you get. Worse than that, cyberspace is now inhabited with pranksters, trolls and other anarchic types who will say and do things on line that are cruel, rude and grossly false, just for the fun of it.

I always wanted people to like what I did as a writer. If they didn’t like it, I hoped that they would at least consider that my intentions were honorable, given the constraints and exigencies of the creative life. This has happened with most (though far from all, alas) of the small critical reception my work has received.

My mood about my current novel has been up and down over the last year. I’m now at the point that I don’t want to kill the monster as much as I want to finish it so I can say to myself that, with the few years I may have left, I wrote something worth the struggle.

Anything else is…something else.

 

 

 

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A Question Unasked

I attended an evening lecture a few days ago in which a crusading civil rights lawyer recounted some of his most famous, paradigm-shattering court cases, some argued before the US Supreme Court.

I took notes as he spoke, out of a habit that began long ago, when I was assigned to attend open-to-the-public events by the Philadelphia Inquirer. The work appeared anonymously in a section modeled on The New Yorker‘s Talk-of-the-Town, that quirky, front-of-the-book (people who write and edit a magazine call their publication a book) assortment of quick  interviews and profiles, “think” pieces and breezy, self-consciously witty fly-on-a-wall observations that, when taken together, celebrated the unique excitement of living in the Biggest of Apples.

At the time I wrote for newspaper (whose reporters and editors definitely do NOT call their publication a book) my section was zoned, that is, it appeared only in the editions sent to New Jersey. The territory of the coverage was the entire half of the state from Princeton (whose McCarter Theater productions were reviewed faithfully by newspaper’s second string drama critic), all of the shore from Sandy Hook down to Cape May, as well as the Delaware Bayshore towns of Greenwich and Salem, with its atomic power plants. I typically spent more time driving to and from the event (and frequently getting lost), than attending and writing about it. In those days before hand-help GPS, I splurged on a half dozen street-by-street country road maps that I kept in the trunk of my car. This led to a fascination with back roads and towns with such names as Ong’s Hat, Berlin (a former settlement of German immigrants),  Winslow Junction (where steamer trains from Camden and New York would refill their engines with water taken from the Pine Barrens), Miami Beach, Rye Gran and Byoona”–Jersey for Rio Grande and Buena and Leed’s Point, legendary birth-place of the Jersey Devil.

One assignment sent me into the Pine Barrens where state forest rangers offered a Halloween-themed Jersey Devil Hunt, an evening, bring-your-own-flashlight nature tour. Though I am shy and afflicted with social anxiety, a reporter’s notepad, and need to “get the story” for a tiny section of THE major metropolitan daily in the Delaware Valley, helped me banish any personal impediments.

One challenge of this kind of reporting was to find reasons for people who would not normally be interested–to maintain their interest. An easy way to do that was to find, among those who gathered for the event, some people who come from distant lands (Scranton, PA!). Where there any degreed professionals among us (a botanist searching for rare species, perhaps)? What, you’ve written a self published book about the Jersey Devil?! Had someone done this before (this is your TENTH Jersey Devil hunt?).  and a cute kid who would say cute things. What would you say to the Jersey Devil if you met him? “Why do you have to be a devil when you can be a angel instead?”

Of course, I talked to the park ranger leading the tour and  then reported what happened, more or less. We shined flashlights on rare, weirdly translucent tree frogs. We trudged across the Pine Barrens’ luminous white sand. We stepped carefully among the dwarf pine trees, prized by bonsai collectors. We visited the ruins of a ghost town almost completely obscured by vegetation. I asked questions constantly and even aggressively to obtain information and quotations to give the article a special zing. The hunt ended without an appearance of South Jersey’s most famous monster, but, after a cute quote from the cute kid (“The Devil is hiding because he’s scared of us.”)  a good time was had by all. I rushed back to my apartment in Pennsauken, pulled out the typewriter, hammered out the piece and hand delivered it across the Delaware River to the Inquirer’s classical revival office tower, which, at the time, was on Broad Street, a few blocks from City Hall.

This was a living and, sometimes, a thing that led to something else. Covering a kite-flying contest led to a two larger articles about a guy who flew some of the largest kites in the world–one was four miles long! Stuff about Atlantic City eventually led me to move closer to the shore, where my coverage “peaked” when I covered the state and the shore for the New York Times.

Also, I genuinely liked learning interesting things about New Jersey, the people who lived and worked there.  I wallowed in the history and personality of different regions, no matter how trivial (Did you know Welch’s Grape Juice was invented in Hammonton by a Methodist who wanted to preserve the juice but NOT drink alcohol?!). I let my enthusiasm take me where it will, especially when the rather low amounts I was paid precluded moderately priced indulgences.

It was odd, then, to go to this lecture and not talk to people. I didn’t see any cute kids attending, or even those who might be in college. A discussion of the history of the irrational, hateful, murderously violent struggle for racial, ethnic and gender rights did not seem to be a date night draw: most attending were of senior years, which meant that they lived through this, even if, as I did, most of the conflict was watched on television, or portrayed in movies and stage plays.

The speaker was, without question, a hero who had not only defended successfully the rights of mixed-raced couples to marry. He trained Freedom Riders who challenged the “separate but equal” hypocrisy of the South, got Martin Luther King out of one of the many jails that tried to hold him, consoled those who had been beaten during protests and counseled those whose repeated marches on Washington helped to end the Viet Nam war. He sued colleges that refused to admit women, school systems that fired female teachers when they became pregnant (he quoted one of his adversaries explaining that “We don’t want children to think there’s a watermelon under her dress”) and, as a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union who happened to be Jewish, and who rediscovered his Jewish identity when he practiced civil rights law–defended the American Nazi Party.  When his parents found out about this, they did not listen to him explain that any abridgement of civil rights, no matter how despicable the people exercising those rights happened to be, could lead to further restrictions. His parents refused to speak to him for two years.

Some of the court cases were actually easy to win. The baseless claims used to defend racism, bigotry and inhumane cruelty did not work against a highly educated judicial elite that knew American society had to change for the better. He quoted a college administrator: “We don’t discriminate against women here. We just treat them differently.”

He barely restrained his contempt for the way members of the current Federal administration, many in Congress and specific Supreme Court justices, are trying to limit, curtail, “roll back” and otherwise deny the rights that so many died for in the last fifty years.

When the talk ended, we were told that this was our speaker had turned down an honorarium and, because of his advanced age, this was probably the last speech of this kind that he would ever give.

Then we were told we could ask questions. I had one to ask that was similar to the kind of questions I used to ask many important people. This question was especially important to me because my father not only practiced law, he had helped ban the death penalty in New Jersey. I remembered how my father became so happy when we won a case, and so bitter when he didn’t.

Other hands went up. Those permitted to ask questions seemed to talk more about themselves. They couched their queries in long preambles, sometimes demonstrating a knowledge of the law, other times subtly challenging–in light of the harrowing turn our current government has taken–the propriety of going up against the powers that be.

He answered the questions forthrightly and, at just the moment when I thought to raise my hand, we were told that there would be no more questions.

I wanted to ask if, when he was trying a case where the outcome did not seem obvious, logical or easily won, did he, in a private moment, pray that things would happen his way? Or did he, like my father, withhold importuning Heaven, and put his faith in the rule of law that, for all its many faults and failings, still aspires to be the essence of justice in the free world?

Perhaps if I had a reporters pad in my hand, and the certainty that a newspaper or magazine would print my account and give me some paltry pile of coins for the privilege, I would have jumped up and done the “one more, Mr. President” act that, far more than not, does get one last question from your source.

But I didn’t and, as people left, I reminded myself that part of what makes prayer so interesting, compelling and, for some, necessary, is that, when we are genuinely afraid, when we want one outcome over another, or when we are tired of losing, of seeing our values defied and insulted, of suffering and watching other suffer even more for no reason other than the powers that be do not care enough to make things better–we do it anyway.

And sometimes, you get what you want.

 

 

 

the Inquirer’s circulation was most of northern Delaware, all New Jersey south of Trenton, all of Philadelphia and the five Pennsylvania counties surrounding it. My section was zoned, that is, it appeared in only the New Jersey editions.

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Not to be Taken Away

On the front cover of Who Are You, the last worthwhile album by the British rock band The Who, bandmembers pose before a stack of bulky cables, plugs and massive electrical equipment that could be the back of their concert gear. Their different clothing styles are supposed to demonstrate divergent personalities on an over-produced recording (too many string sections!) padded with songs so weak that, with the exception of the sensational title track, are indications of band that has run out of things worth saying.

Pete Townshend, the band’s blues-infused songwriter, confesses as much on “Guitar and Pen,” about the frustrations of writing anything meaningful–a fitting lament for a band that had begun to take itself too seriously. “Sister Disco” and “The Music Must Change” are pathetic, rock mockeries of musical styles that, with punk rock and new wave, would render irrelevant much of adolescent alienation and geeky humor that had made the band’s “rock opera” Tommy and the fragments of its sequel, Lifehouse, on Who’s Next, so powerful.

And then the album ends with “Who Are You,” a thundering triumph of alienated anger made even more notorious by singer Roger Daltrey’s inclusion of the f-word in the lyric. I remember when the song came out and ruled “album-oriented-rock” FM radio, American stations played a version with the f-word edited out.

But to a generation that equated music with rebellion, excess, freedom, gratuitous destruction–the band no longer smashed their instruments at the end of their concerts, as shown on the first Woodstock film, but drummer Keith Moon, was still famous for vandalizing of hotel rooms and swaggering defiance of social norms, hearing Daltrey yell “who the f— are you” was proof that in-your-face exuberance of rock ‘n’ roll was still alive, though, as we were to find out, about to leave us.

Shortly after the Who Are You album was released, Keith Moon died of an overdose of a drug that was intended to blunt the symptoms of alcoholic withdrawal.

On the album’s cover, Keith Moon sits on a chair in dressage riding gear, as if he’s an English aristocrat who has just come from the stables after a day at hounds.  The chair is turned around, and on the chair’s back is a painted sign: NOT TO BE TAKEN AWAY.

I thought of that sign yesterday morning when my brother called to tell me that my step sister had died.

Townshend, eventually replaced Keith Moon with the less interesting. far less destructive Kenny Jones, but the driving, thundering, defiant rock ‘n’ roll energy in Moon’s drumming was gone. In 2002, bassist John Entwhistle died of a cocaine overdose in a Las Vegas hotel room. Townshend, who was nearly deaf from playing too loud, and politically conservative from watching so much of his royalties taxed away, broke up the band, a second career as a book editor and memoirist. He also came out as bi-sexual. He and Dawltry continue to tour, playing the music that still thrills their aging fans, who call them affectionately  “the Two.”

My step sister and I were always pleasant with each other, but never close. In the last year, I tried to change that.

I don’t “do” death well. Ever since I lost my grandfather at age 11, the passing of those close to me throws me into an emotional whirl. I become cynical, reckless, angry, despairing and very sad. When I was a child, my father told me outside the cemetery, that I did not have to go to the grave site, that I could sit in an idling car and watch people in dark clothes walk among the tombstones and trees, gather somewhere in the distance, and walk back. He said this to spare me, in a voice that suggested that funerals were for other people, and I would be better off by myself. Later, as a man with my cousins at the graveside funeral of my uncle, I saw my father refuse to get out of the car, claiming that because he was a kohain, a descendant of Jewish priests, he was forbidden to be in proximity of the dead, much less enter a cemetery. He had aged awkwardly. What was left of his personality would disappear in the angry blur of Alzeimer’s Disease.

I am also a kohain. On that day, I had no problem setting my face to the cold wind blowing off the Hudson River, scouring the graves as I followed my uncle’s coffin to the opening in the ground. I dropped dirt on the casket. I washed the dirt off at the spigot sticking out of the wall of the cemetery’s office. What sustained me was the wordless cry I had heard from the cantor at my uncle’s funeral. The song, if I can call it that, seemed to open a hole in the sky. For a moment, I thought I could peer through that hole and see the sacred.

When my father died and I went back to the cemetery, I could not say anything. My relatives were offended. Why didn’t I show some respect and say a few words? It did no good to tell them that, having not forgotten what I had seen, and heard from him two weeks ago in the hospital, I could not speak. A year after that, at the unveiling of his tombstone, I found some words.

In addition to my uncle and my father, I have lost all four grandparents, my mother, my stepmother, my father and mother in law, a brother in law, family friends, some that I knew as kids in high school, colleagues in teaching, publishing and writing.

And now, my step sister.

Our spirit is burnished over the years. We’re supposed to learn from, or, at least, remain resolute when confronting failure and loss, so that we can push forward, find purpose and, as we age, be an example for our kids and those who are momentarily lost.

Today I found some words. I can speak. I can think of things that are not to be taken away, but find ways to leave us.

But I am not any better at “doing” death.

 

 

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