Tag Archives: memoirs

5. Survive love and loss (part 1)

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross said, “The most beautiful people are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” I first became acquainted with Kübler-Ross my freshman year in high school – quite accidentally, and by osmosis. My freshman English teacher was Joanne Fahey, who also taught an upper-class elective on Thanatology that used Kübler-Ross’ “On Death and Dying” as its primary text. Seeing students with copies and finding a couple of copies in Ms. Fahey’s classroom, I eventually picked it up and read parts of it. I also think Jiddu Krishnamurti’s “Think on These Things” entered by consciousness the same way. I was very lucky to land in Ms. Fahey’s Freshman Honors English class, by the way. As a transfer student (we had just moved from Ohio that summer), by the time I got to pick my first year classes, the Honors classes were full with a long waiting list. I therefore landed instead in David Spaid’s regular freshman English class. It is to Mr. Spaid’s credit that upon reading my first assignment, he pushed to have me reassigned to Ms. Fahey’s class almost immediately. Both of them saw something in me that I certainly took a long time to recognize myself, and I will never forget their encouragement (and often, gentle scolding).

When it comes to surviving love and loss, I suppose everyone feels they’ve had their share. Of course, it’s a very subjective measure in any case. Throughout our lives what we call “love” and what we consider “loss” evolve almost geometrically, and often in directions that make both states probably unrecognizable to us at any other time of life.

When you’re young, love and loss are different from when you’re older. Maybe not different, maybe just profound on a different scale, measured by a different yardstick. When you’ve only had one friend in your short life, losing that friend is monumental – regardless of the reason. When you don’t make friends easily to begin with, a life that involves moving every seven years or so results in a pattern of loss that establishes how you interact and entertain people for the rest of your life. It’s hard to put down roots anywhere when you’ve been repotted several times. You learn to get your nourishment nearer the surface.
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Using Twenty Questions as a Starting Point

Maybe a better way of organizing a life is using something like Franklin’s admirable virtues and contrasting one’s life events against it. In that vein, Sarah Blakewell’s How to Live, or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer is perhaps more helpful. In any case, it’s a starting point – and every journey, or so we’re told, must have one.


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On Discussing Beginnings

Discussing beginnings always degenerates into some kind of talk about the universe, spirituality, theology or at the very least physical philosophy – because when speaking in the present, it is usually assumed there is a past. A place where, at a minimum, the facility for speaking in the present was acquired along with the concepts and ideas that make any discussion worth the participation. But where does the beginning actually begin? And which or whose beginning is the important point of origin? For example, is physical birth the beginning of your life’s tale? Or is it more likely that you become you at some later point, when you begin to accumulate an idea of self and start storing it up with that old friend, memory? The psychologists may interject at this point that it’s a question of nature versus nurture. Your DNA being one part of that nature, and the conditions into which that DNA is placed, nurture. The one seems fixed, while the other seems dreadfully dynamic. Things change. Because everything changes. You might go so far as to say that everything IS change. In that ever-shifting milieu, how important is it to pinpoint an exact point of origin? To fix it, like a bug in amber, is to preserve it. But to be preserved in this way, a thing must die – and it is not particularly auspicious to speaking of life using the language of death. Or maybe auspicious is the wrong word. In any case, describing one’s life in comparison to one’s death seems more like building a sandcastle at high tide than anything else.

So where to begin? And where is begin, anyway? With the benefit of crystal clear hindsight, one can perhaps point out the key milestones on the journey. But often, the milestones we acknowledge now are not the milestones that were at the time, or that we even noticed along the path.

Returning to the Stoic idea that this life is a minutely crafted reproduction that simply repeats infinitely, with no variation or pause, you could imagine the details would be easily recalled, if only because it’s not likely this is your first rodeo. But if in fact a life were simply repeated, it would be necessary for each repetition to be a clean slate. There would not be, as in Eastern reincarnation, the remotest possibility of “remembering” things from previous lives – because those memories would make this reoccurrence different, even if only infinitesimally, from any previous version. These smudges on the carbon copy, in essence, would make subsequent versions less and less legible. So Stoically speaking, there is no benefit from living on infinite repeat other than in the here and now, recognizing yourself to be in a cycle, to make each moment as meaningful as possible. Does that dovetail with the Eastern idea of mindfulness? I’m not sure. I’m also not certain that from the Stoic point of view, the mere act of watching or recognizing one’s breath is sufficient to ensure the meaningfulness of the moment.

So what’s more important – the birth of a person, or the birth of the idea of that person? The physical manifestation of their body, or the self-recognition of themselves as a conscious entity? The dull laundry list of what happened to them as a child, or the perhaps just as dull, but potentially instructive list of how they conducted themselves as a result?

And where, you might ask, does the world fit in? It’s busyness, artifice, interactions, distractions, beauty and ugliness, ongoing growth and decay?

Beginnings indicate a story. A story implies a journey. A journey implies a beginning and an end. So how can the story of one’s life be written while still underway, except as a journal or series of notes that ultimately will need to be reviewed and updated based on current conditions or perceptions before every time it is shared? It is often said of Mozart that he did not compose music – that the piece was formed, complete in his head, and he simply transcribed it. Talk about amor fati! To think that everything, each act, is birthed, like Venus from the half shell, in its final, most perfect state, without error or need for modification. Sometimes, it feels like creativity works that way. But more often than not, at least in my experience, there is a version of a thing that springs forth whole from the source. Sometimes, but not often, it is perfect upon arrival. More likely, it needs a little tweaking – often, a whole lot of tweaking.

Although I have never had dreams or memories that “felt” enough like déjà vu to convince me they were flashes from past lives or previous reincarnations, my own belief in the order of the universe is more akin to Eastern reincarnation and karma than to the Stoic idea of perpetual and yet unmalleable motion. Is there enough of “me” to pass through eons of space and time? I’m not sure. Certainly, compared to the unimaginable (and pointlessly imagined) vastness of infinity my own little spark is insignificant. As Ramakrishna put it, imagine the universe and all time to be a bucket full of water. Your life, while you live it, is the tip of your pinky finger carefully dipped in that bucket, so gently that it causes no ripple. At your death, an equally calm motion and your fingertip is removed. Where is the evidence of your being present at all? A few drops of condensation on your finger? An imperceptible change in the bucket’s water level or temperature?

How can anyone feel important enough to attempt capturing the essence of their life’s uniqueness?

Where does that story – the notion of importance – begin?

I’ve often quipped that if I were to have a grave marker – which is not my wish, by the way – it should read, “Here lies a man who accomplished a great deal of Nothing. Some of which was cherished by those whose lives it touched.” In an essay I wrote in the late 1980s (when I really began to see myself as a manic, peripatetic writer), there is a big different between saying there is nothing to be afraid of and there is Nothing to be afraid of. One implies an absence of an enemy, while the other implies the presence of a great all-consuming void. It is easy to be brave when you face nothing. Confronting Nothingness, on the other hand, with its cheerless implication that win or lose, the encounter may leave you with less than you started in a way that perhaps is not immediately measurable or meaningful, is certainly more daunting. Leaving no record of one’s life, no sure transcription of why you thought you did what you thought you did because you thought it was the right thing to do, is accepting that Nothingness is the not only the ultimate goal, but a great deal of the journey. Not a “cloud of unknowing” but a “mist of un-being”, in which there is no yoga or union with the Divine, but a simple flash out of existence that leaves no trace.

So what is there to trace in the first place? Benvenuto Cellini asserted that “all men of whatsoever quality they be, who have done anything of excellence, or which may properly resemble excellence, ought, if they are persons of truth and honesty, to describe their life with their own hand”. But excellence is so subjective – and so much of what is believed to be excellent, when compared with stuff that really is excellent, is mediocre at best. And again, it seems the notions of honesty and truth are also highly subjective, particularly when viewed at convenient distance across decades of comfortable remove. Like the title elder or sage when self-applied, there is something smug and distastefully self-serving about naming your own output as excellence. But then again, if it really is excellent, who else could possible know it, except someone capable of producing an equal or greater excellence? It’s that damned Dunning-Kruger effect again, making it impossible for someone to really understand how little they know, or how little excellence their output contains, without a certain amount of knowledge or the minimum level of excellence required to even know what excellence is.

Ultimately, it becomes like Western civilization’s ultimate Zen koan – John Cage’s poem 13 Words (“I have nothing to say, and I am saying it. That is poetry.”). In the ultimate reversal of the quip, “those who can’t do, teach” the serious self-biographer straddles a Taoist tightrope: the way that can be described is not the way; the history that can be written down is not really the history.

Better then to start with the present; or at least, to use the present as an anchor thrown down to the ocean’s floor, linking the boat to both the depths, and a dynamic, fluid circumference around which to float back and forth, viewing alternatively the skyline through the mists hanging in each direction, and the varying illusions that bubble to the surface or can be caught in nets thrown overboard. A lot of metaphor for a single, deceptively simple set of tasks.

Ever since reading Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television I have surmised that we absorb information (for both education and entertainment – and I’m not altogether sure the two are ever actually separated) in three very different ways. The first source is direct sensory connection – we touch, taste, hear, see, smell a specific dataset. Closely aligned, but slightly different, is the secondary sensory connection – we hear but must interpret, like a spoken conversation; we read in a book and imagine various direct sensory connections and manufacture in our minds a response. The third source is involuntary absorption, occurring without consciousness handling or otherwise rational interpretation during loading. This is how a medium like television, which presents us with an image not formed externally from our bodies and scanned, but actually presented as a million points of light (or pixels, if you will) shot into our eyes like a ray gun and assembled by our brains in an area just past (or inside) the rational cognitive regions of our collective gray matter. Of course, we remember each of these experiences very much the same – with an upload date, upload type, summary and detail of the contents. Very effective computers, our brains; but the same maxim of “garbage in, garbage out” applies to all computing systems, including our cranium cased Hyper-Cray.

But do we remember everything the same way? And how, if there is a difference, does that affect how we recall our lives when in the process of chronicling our past? From personal experience, I can verify that there are events that I recall as actually occurring moments in my life, in the meat space of actual place and time, that seem more like a memory of a television show or movie than something real. Of course, there’s that pesky subjective real again. Is imagination somehow less real than tangible, physical action? Aren’t both, if you believe some Eastern philosophers, equal parts illusion, a veil of maya covering our true selves and their underlying Self-Realization?

My earliest memories are flashes that may be either internally or externally captured snapshots. I wonder, in a world obsessed with digital self-documentation, the extent to which anyone will be able to discern in ten or twenty years what actually happened to them in the flesh, versus what happened online.

It’s been suggested that the human mind never forgets anything – that everything to which it has been exposed is stored in the memory. The trick in remembering is then just recalling exactly where, in which file drawer, so to speak, the memory is found. The difficulty in such a system is that there is no master index, no card catalog. While it may seem that you could say, “give the events of May 13, 1977” and eventually have them brought to the table, like the contents of a safe deposit box, the reality is that these memories are more akin to a spinning roulette wheel – or spinning dart board. You can place a bet on a specific number – or take aim at a particular spot on the board, but it really is a matter of luck whether you are successfully in making it there. Elvis Costello, on a couple of his world tours, provided a huge wheel at the back of the stage, where each slice represented a song from his at that time, medium-large catalog. The wheel was spun, and the song upon which the needled landed, was played – potentially multiple times in an evening, or conceivably, in a row. Extending that device to the days or moments of one’s life makes for either an immense wheel, or incredibly small instances upon which to land. And of course there’s always the question – is this the actual memory of an event, or is it a memory of that memory. For example, I remember receiving my first Hardy Boys book on my 6th birthday. But how and through what filter is that memory delivered? Are the details as I perceive them now, or are they colored by how I remembered that event when I was 16 or 26? In other words, memory is always a subjective interpretation based on the conscious now of the person remembering, but are they remembering an original or a reprint? Does it make a difference, ultimately, since even if separate people who were present were to offer their interpretation of an event, and by comparison of these separate experiences one could eliminate any deviations and arrive at a somehow cumulative “true” narrative of it, how much of it could be truly believed to be a factual recount? Every history ever written down, from the ancient Greeks to the Romans to the present day relies upon the filter of its current lens to put the importance, weight, and/or significance of past events in perspective. Ah, yes, perspective. The dictionary tells us perspective is the art of drawing solid objects on a two-dimensional surface so as to give the right impression of their height, width, depth, and position in relation to each other when viewed from a particular point; alternatively, a particular attitude toward or way of regarding something; a point of view; or even an apparent spatial distribution in perceived sound. Since one’s life is, more than anything else, either work of art or at the very least, a point of view, both definitions are instructive. A life, one can imagine, is like a stone tossed in a pond – it has repercussions, reverberations. Ramakrishna suggests that these ripples are so short-lived, in the overall scheme of things, to be infinitely meaningless. I suppose that depends on both the size of the bucket into which the stone is dropped, and the height of the water in the bucket at the time. Once can imagine in a small enough bucket (and ultimately, the size of the bucket reflects the cultural boundaries of one’s time) with enough water in it (representing, I suppose, the relative “fullness” of that culture in terms of atmospheric absorption of moisture – or illumination, enlightenment, readiness, etc. – to the size of one’s bucket), even the smallest pebble might cause a significant enough upset to cause waves sufficient to spill water over the edge. You could draw the analogy that as a bucket’s capacity is reached, the individual drops of water represent individual people in a given time. Enough of a disturbance would, like a war, cause a significant drop in the bucket’s water level as thousands or more drops were splashed over the side – even accidentally.

On a personal level, the same could be said for individual change. When I was young and philosophically foolish, I used to describe the use of drugs or other self-medication in this way: a person’s life is a door which opens to two rooms, one reality and one fantasy. We live by constantly swinging that door back and forth, between the two chambers. Self-medicating is the equivalent of adding oil to the door’s hinges. The door swings freer, and faster. Some people, however, are born with better hinges than others. When their door swings, it stays affixed to the door frame no matter how violent or passionately the action. Others’ hinges begin to loosen, their screws stripped from the wood. At some point, their doors come completely away from their frame, and the door falls completely into one room or the other, or is jammed in between – in a state of hardcore reality or hardcore fantasy, or simply stuck in the middle motionless. There are some voyages from which you only return half-way home.

But what if that half-way point is actually supposed to be your destination? If you accept the proposition that “everything happens for a reason” – ultimately a kind of fatalism that rejects both free will and the notion of grace (i.e., salvation granted without reason, at Divine whim).

It seems that writing one’s personal history implies a sense of urgency. Why start now? Why not wait until after something really important happens? This of course infers that nothing to date passes that test; and I suppose it is the curse of every creative person to look at their oeuvre to date and think little of it, to see it as mere preamble to one’s Great Work. All the while others are cooing and gathering around telling you how great you are, or at least how important you are to their sense of importance. After all, knowing a great or smart or talented or famous person is almost as essential as being one, right? It may in fact be a preferable state, since it means a life lived near enough to the limelight to bask in the glow, and yet not be continually tortured by the personal demons that by necessity must accompany the genius. What was it Soren Kierkegaard said, What is a poet? A poet is an unhappy being whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and the cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music … And men crowd about the poet and say to him: ‘Sing for us soon again’; that is as much as to say: ‘May new sufferings torment your soul.’

So what is so urgent in my own life? Am I more worried about forgetting than of convincing myself that the Nothing I’ve undertaken and completed is actually important enough to merit documentation? Where is the line in the sand drawn by that pendulum that swings between optimistic underachiever and philosophical busy-body? Is that in fact the polar axis of living, or is it something else entirely?

I feel woefully unqualified to either satisfactorily document my own life, or to examine the reasons I feel unqualified to do so.

Henry Miller writes of finding an anchor around which to float and collect thoughts worthy of transcribing. Every time I think I’ve found an anchor, it feels more like a millstone – that I’m not carefully held in place on the surface, but being taken down, down into the depths.

I read the histories of others; autobiographies are the most useful, and at the same time, most daunting, because they suggest that committing an interesting history of self is at least possible, if not at times entertaining to others. Those works that are at best semi-autobiographical, like Henry Miller, seem to make the most sense; but to what extent are they true? And the “purely historical records” like Benjamin Franklin’s seem like recollections at safe and comfortable enough distance to make them mere recitations. The memories of popular living or recently living figures (e.g., Keith Richard, Bob Dylan, Billy Graham, Johnny Cash, Patti Smith, Tony Iommi) seem inflated with assistance of ghost writers or editors to make sure what is supposed to be most important is seen as most important.

In a lifetime that consists of a myriad of choices, I suppose writing an autobiography requires the writer to identify what they feel are the key, critical decisions. But as I’ve noted before, are these the decisions that seemed most important at the time, or through the lens of hindsight seem the most critical and informative? Further, a memoir implies an audience. Does the audience really care about the decisions or choices someone else makes, unless they support their worldview and perspective on the validity and nature of the outcome? In other words, so what that I made decision X, if it doesn’t validate the reader’s belief that people who make X choice end up like Y – a positive or negative outcome depending on the philosophy, morality, religious inclination or other agenda. To prove, for example, that a lifetime of sin and debauchery results in the epiphany necessary to get through the Pearly Gates seems an outcome at odds with the moral code of a person who believes in the strict straight and narrow as the only acceptable path, who holds in contempt any individual attesting, believing, or acting otherwise. Of course, the Devil’s advocate, or any other rational person for that matter, might suggest that very contempt is the reason why people who believe they will be raptured still seem to be around after every proclaimed Days’ End. What if the Devil’s mark, the Bible’s “666” was in fact, “stick, stick, stick” or a crucifix, and all who wore it were marked as lost?

Choices. Forks in the road. The road less traveled. The path of least resistance. The high road. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

But what if there is no “destination”? What if it’s all about the road, and not so much the distance you travel, or your difficulty in “keeping up the pace” so as to not block traffic? So often we look at life as having a beginning, middle, and end – and an implied velocity. Excelsior! Ever onward! Never backward (and don’t look back, because someone might be gaining on you, quote Satchel Paige), never sideways, never idle. Keep your eye on the prize – true north.

Today is November 8, 2016. The annual elections occurred yesterday, and the Republican Party now has control of all three branches of government. This does not change true north, for me. But I suspect it is a tipping point. I wonder whether or not true north can be a shared destination. I have never believed it to be. Talk of universal ideals and brotherhood and noble truths and shared goals always seems to be little more than talk. Our theories of universal brotherhood look good on paper. But there are few examples of those theories ever working out in practice. Plato’s Republic was a pipe dream too – just another old man’s imagining the world in a way it was never meant to be.

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Each thing that starts must have an end

Each thing that starts must have an end; for every wax there is a wend that once begun, moves to its finish. Every birth has “bury” in it.

My earliest memory is of walking down the street beside my mother, who is pushing my brother in a stroller. It is a shady oak-lined street, which puts the place probably on Oakdale Boulevard in Pleasant Ridge, Michigan, and the time somewhere between 1966 and 1968. A pleasant memory, but not particularly instructive. We lived in a house on Oakdale for a few years before moving to a much larger house on Ridge Road. There are pictures of activities in the back yard at Oakdale, but not any real memory of those events. My first actual memories of things happening, and things being done, are at and around Ridge Road. Bicycling, tennis, basketball, sandboxes, pole climbing attempts, the huge Dutch Elm tree (and talk about Dutch Elm disease) in the lot corner, surrounded by jack-in-the-pulpits and other shade plants. The swimming pool (and swimming lessons) across the street. The Detroit Zoo (and the revolutionary train that ran through the park), and Theodore Roosevelt Elementary just a few blocks down the road – in opposite directions.

Some Stoic philosophers imagined life as an endless cycle, to be infinitely lived over and over again. In contrast to the Eastern idea of reincarnation, where each successive life leads up or down the ladder of enlightened beings or states based on your conduct in the present, this Stoic idea suggests that we live the same life, exactly the same, over and over again. This of course is a pleasant thought if you believe your life a good one – and less pleasant should you believe otherwise. It also magnifies the importance of every single moment, act, and thought – because you will be repeating it, ad infinitum or ad nauseum, in exactly the same way each time through. There are no little things. Like minor cosmetic errors in a computer program, they don’t have much impact individually. But when considered a thousand, ten thousand, or a million-fold, their sheer volume causes as much risk as a single high severity show stopper application flaw. Each decision, each considered idea that leads to action, gains a certain gravitas that it lacks if considered in the context of a single life. Another Stoic idea is to imagine yourself at the edge of death and consider at that moment, as you prepare to expire, whether your life has been well lived. If yes, you can depart, like Montaigne interprets Seneca, as a satisfied dinner guest leaving well-fed and happy. If no, then the loss of your life is of little consequence anyway, as you obviously had no idea what to do with it. A useful exercise, of course, before your actual moment of death so you have time to remedy your failings and get on with the business of living well.

In these two Stoic scenarios, memory serves a completely different purpose. In the first, where everything is to be lived over and over again, memory seems much less important. After all, you’re going to be living the exact same life over and over again, right or wrong, left or right, up or down. In the true spirit of alma fati, what will be, will be, and remembering one’s mistakes or victories doesn’t really matter all that much, because changing one for the other isn’t any option. In the second scenario, the ability to remember one’s failings and strengths in detail is much more important. After all, if you’re going to correct a wrongness, or reinforce a rightness, in order to continue, or return to, living in plumb with the universe, it seems essential that you recognize and understand a thing for what it is, in its infinite complexity.

I suspect that the reality is somewhere in between. All cultures, at some point or another in their attempt to achieve “enlightenment” or at least to alleviate the boredom and monotony of suffering and pain, suggest that the answer lies in simply paying attention. Call it mindfulness, devotion, atonement (at-one-ment), attention (at-tension), or any other cultural buzzword of the moment; it all boils down to being aware of what is actually happening versus what seems to be happening. Of course, that eliminates the idea of writing one’s memoirs altogether, because it requires absolutely living in this moment, and not wasting the time of a single second imagining actual or perceived past events. How all this reflection leads to enlightenment at all is of course subject to debate. Aleister Crowley quipped that if you loved life, you would not waste a single moment of time, that being the only actual measure of life we had. He however spent a great deal of time pondering signs and portents of the past, and scribbling endless polemics that it would seem could not have done anything but consumed vast quantities of his time – and ultimately, if you can stand to follow along throughout his writings, taught him little or nothing about actually living in any kind of balance or harmony with the world around him.

I like believing that my own life has been a tight rope act of sorts, and while my physical balance is horrendous – due I think to numerous inner ear infections growing up – that my mental or spiritual balance has over the course of my life greatly improved. Believing it and making it so, of course, are different things. The accumulated evidence, at least as I recall it, points to a much less glorious conclusion.

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The wise men all say look within

The wise men all say look within; and still, we focus outward. Is it because we’re deaf, or stupid? Maybe we’re just cowards.

In so many ways, our memories are like poetry: distillations of images that if given too much solid detail become stodgy, boring and definitely unmusical. Show, don’t tell; as if in telling too much, you’re actually hiding behind an edifice of words and not revealing the soft, white underbelly everyone suspects is there.

And how far back does a really accurate memory go? How useful is it to remember everything in detail? If a manic-depressive were to actually appreciate while at one end of the spectrum the absolute height or depth of the opposite cycle, how even keeled they might become! Like the mystic story of the king who wished to have something to both sober him when he felt too happy, and intoxicate him when he felt too dry, and was eventually given a trinket inscribed “this too shall pass”. Is there REALLY a middle way?

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Memory is the Greatest Weapon

Memory is the greatest weapon in love’s mad arsenal.

I wrote that line when I was 26 years old. It still rings true – although as I get older it seems often it is a weapon for good, a defensive rather than offensive tool. Like vision, which has so many words related to falsehood – illusion, deception, misperception, memory is often associated with failure or more accurately, betrayal. Our memory of events, people, ourselves over time is the only database we truly have to catalog and create, of out some great Aristotaliatarian urge for order, the meaning of our lives; that is to say, the context of what we perceive to be our living – or as RD Laing put it, our “experience of living”.

It may be that the failing of our memory as we age, rather than a curse, is an infinite blessing. Much like the edges of a scene are washed out and lost as a light is brought closer and closer to it, perhaps as we approach nearer and nearer to the infinite we, like a cosmological deer caught in the headlights, lose our periphery as a mechanism for focusing us on what’s next, what’s beyond: a re-merging or reemerging with the light of pure energy. It’s an idea, anyway. It explains end-of-life lapses, maybe, but does it justify what seems to be a complete forgetting of what it means to be young, to feel free to make mistakes, to imagine oneself ten feet high and bulletproof (or conversely, to lack enough imagination to see negative outcomes as well as ephemeral pipe dreams) – that bitter cynicism that seems to latch onto us when we see our children grow up, when the salary increases don’t come, when the first world problems of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and bad cholesterol turn our muscle to fat, our burning young blood to sludge, and our thoughts to preservation instead of rebellion? Winston Churchill quipped, “If you’re young and conservative, you have no heart. If you’re old and liberal, you have no brains.” Isn’t there a middle ground? More importantly, if in fact you become conservative, shouldn’t part of that stewardship be to preserve (as in keep alive, not as in pickling) the ideas, energy, and purpose of one’s own youth? To at least, remember it as a necessary force in getting you to your current state?

Remembering one’s life, however, requires something a little more than simple memory, especially if that memory is limited to dates and times and places, a rote classification like that required in learning history in school. Writing that kind of history requires the author to be equal parts archaeologist, anthropologist, historian, philosopher, and demagogue. Because what’s important to a history, we are always taught, is the key milestones, decisions, and events – the turning points in a journey. What’s important to your own life, I suppose, is where those milestones, decisions, and events lead. But what’s interesting to anyone at all is none of those things. It’s the journey we want to hear about – the means, not the ends.

Of course, this flies in the face of everything we know about success, about what makes it and what it isn’t. Success, so many of us think, particularly in the West, is the bottom line. The balance sheet. The physical (and far too often) monetary legacy. An inheritance that can be passed on without too much bother, or effort, on the part of the beneficiaries. Sounds cold and unfeeling. Perhaps it is. But since the only way to pass on the intangibles is to share their experience, so that they become part of the beneficiary’s consciousness and history as well.

And for that, the best a personal history can do is make suggestions, offer clues, share if not the physical roadmap from here to there, then at least the names of the shops where such maps may be sought.

Memory is both an ally and adversary, both mirror and shadow. We have a tendency to remember ourselves as either more heroic, or more absolutely ordinary, than the reality of ourselves experienced by others at the time – our contemporaries, or people who existed (and perhaps still exist) in a shared, same time and space. It’s easy enough to cherry pick the highlights, after all, from the advantage of hindsight – when we are perhaps self-satisfied enough to put a blithe label on success and failure. In this sense, we are like self-examining anthropologists (which is by the very act of crossing the line between the Observer and Observed, an extreme breach of anthropological etiquette). When we look back and examine the artifact (i.e., artificial fact) of a past experience, there is a choice to either apply the worldview we have now, or imagine a remembrance of our worldview then, and interpret the motivation, action, and outcome of our history accordingly. Our interpretation then casts us as hero or villain, genius or idiot, by the yardstick of today only. There is never a clear connection between the fool that was and the fool that is. To make that connection requires a humility that an autobiographer lacks in the first place. You cannot, after all, trace the evolution of the intangible without using a tangible paradigm. And even those paradigms have their limitations – as my wife demanded in elementary school when told there were only three undefined terms (in geometry), the point, line and plane, “Define love.”

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On Reading Benjamin Franklin

To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, I find that on the whole my life has been “felicitous” enough to suggest that I would, if given the opportunity, live it again exactly as it has been to again reach its current point – assuming that although perhaps desired, an author’s prerogative of certain rewrites in a second edition would likely be denied. Admittedly, one usually only says that sort of thing if the point at which they are currently arrived is agreeable to them. In my case, that is relatively accurate – although there are parts of my present life that I would like to change, on the whole my life is a good one. Its faults are entirely my own, and mine to correct or put up with. Besides, “agreeable” is such a subjective word. What is agreeable to one person is anathema to another. What you might find absolutely intolerable, I enjoy if not for its comfort, then for its familiarity – and ultimately, we each seek out what makes us comfortable, in the end, regardless of any desire, obligation, or imagined destiny to push beyond our perceived and respective envelopes. We each have our own personally defined “veneers of responsibility”, those public-facing masks we wear so others, as quick or quicker to judge than ourselves, can “understand” who we are without all that much effort. If, as Julian Jaynes suggested, the definition of civilization is any group of people gathered in large enough numbers than no one knows every other on a first name basis, then it follows that the premise of society is a subset of that civilized people who are comfortable enough with each other’s masks that they need not invest too much energy in finding out the details of their neighbors’ lives.

Once again, it’s tempting to succumb to no small degree of vanity. If I am so important, it’s only natural that my neighbors and in fact almost anyone falling inside my circle of influence would be infinitely interested in not only the agreeable, but admittedly and egregiously disagreeable segments of a lifeline starting at my birth and ending at the right here and right now. Again I think of Franklin, who suggested that vanity might be a gift from Providence worth nurturing.

So if it is to be utopian fiction, at least let it stop some distance short of hagiography. An “honest” appraisal by a devil is always more entertaining, at least, than an overly generous gloss by a saint – again, two terms far too subjective in their definition to be of much meaning, anyway.

This is then a semi-autobiographical work of utopian fiction. It is not, as Stanislavsky titled his biography, “My Life in Art”. My own experience is more like a “life around art” wherein the primary milestones perhaps appear musical or artistic, but those really make up a kind of “musical busyness” that surrounds and often obfuscates the point that the life creating that music is supposed to be making: the evolution or constant evolving of the person, and how to whatever extent the making of music enables that evolution, that both the musical creation and the life that surrounds can be deemed a success. And where that is not the case, both the life and music are less than extraordinary – at least in my subjective opinion.

But where does the music begin? At birth? Or somewhere later down the line when conscious thought becomes one of the primary motivators for action? My maternal grandmother swore that my first word, at six months, was “elephant.” No one believed her – including me, when I was later told the story, although I must admit a romantic notion of some spiritual connection to India persists in me to this day. My family was always “musical” in a sense. Our house in Michigan had a “music room” which housed a baby grand piano and the various other instruments I discovered later, in other houses, but must have been present at that early date as well. I don’t remember playing the piano at that time (we left Michigan when I was seven) but I do remember being awed by its size, its intricate construction – I often crawled underneath and looked up at it from between the giant pillar legs, and what seemed to me to be a gigantic amount of sound it produced, particularly when the lid was fully opened.

I also don’t remember music or the radio being played. Of course, there were likely television programs, Saturday morning cartoons and movies of the week, but most of my free time was spent outside playing or inside reading books.

It seems to me that any story describing a lifelong battle between art and commerce must inevitably be either a tragedy or comedy, both in the ancient Greek sense, with the comedy not necessarily funny or humorous in a happy way, but more abstractly sharp to a degree up to but not quite serendipitous. Like life in general, I suppose, the amount of sorrow or joy depends entirely upon the participant – because what may seem a precipitously jagged set of manic to depressive interludes to one person may seem of little consequence to another. It is not just beauty, but the absence of it as well, that lies in the eye of the beholder.

It may be in the way we’re made up – that we focus on the negative or positive throughout our lives, and remember best those episodes we believe are the formative forces in becoming who we are at present. That focus may in fact be our undoing, the reason why at some point or another almost everyone seems to lose their balance, perspective, “moral compass” or rudder, and for at least a short time float or drift aimlessly – until we “find ourselves.” We inherit the courage and timidity of our parents to a large degree. After all, their prejudices, fears, confidences, talents, and weaknesses are the stuff of the gods to our infant perceptions. They are our Zeus and Hera, and their relations, our Poseidon, Hades, etc. Any older siblings or relations, until we better understand and are able to exploit their human frailties to our own advantage, serve as our Athena, Diana, Ares, and even Aphrodite.[iii] Like all myths, our initial worldview serves not as an explanation of things, but more as an introduction to the explanation, a framework or morphology within which our instinctively curious selves, particularly if encouraged to do so, seek out and create a working definition of reality that both encompasses and steps outside the mythos of our infancy.


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