Posts Tagged ‘Jesus’

Meeting Spock

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

leonard_nimoy

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2015)

“My folks came to the U.S. as immigrants, aliens, and became citizens. I was born in Boston, a citizen, went to Hollywood and became an alien.” Leonard Nimoy

Leonard Nimoy, known to hundreds of millions of people as Spock, died recently at the age of eighty-three. My brother was a huge fan of Star Trek, the television show, and is a gifted impersonator of movie and television celebrities. In high school, he founded the student club STUD—Star Trek Underground Devotees. STUD meetings were essentially showcases for my brother to perform his original wacky versions of Star Trek episodes in which he imitated with uncanny verisimilitude every member of the crew of the starship Enterprise. His Spock was virtually indistinguishable from Nimoy’s Spock.

I could do a credible Bones, the chief medical officer, and a pretty good Scotty, who ran the impulse engines powering the Enterprise, but my Spock and Kirk lacked nuance. When my brother was so inspired, he would enact hilarious scenes involving the entire Enterprise crew, and keep his audience, however small or large, laughing for the duration, his imitations nuanced and then some.

“The miracle is this: the more we share the more we have.” Leonard Nimoy

In 1967, my freshman year of college at UC Santa Cruz, I became enamored of Senator Eugene McCarthy who was running for President of the United States against Lyndon Johnson. He was pro-farmer, pro-labor, anti-corporate, and vowed to get us out of Vietnam as soon as he was elected. I joined thousands of other college kids in America and became Clean For Gene, which for young men meant cutting our long hair and shaving our mustaches and beards, and for young women meant wearing bras and donning skirts and dresses instead of jeans and halter tops. You may recall it was Eugene McCarthy’s strong showing in the New Hampshire and Wisconsin primaries that prompted President Lyndon Johnson not to seek re-election.

When Johnson withdrew from the race, Robert Kennedy entered and soon made famous the idiotic rallying cry, “There is light at the end of the tunnel.” Though not politically correct to criticize Robert Kennedy, who was assassinated shortly after winning the 1968 California primary, those of us who were devoted to Eugene McCarthy loathed Bobby Kennedy for entering the race against our hero.

But before that California primary vote, we Clean For Gene college kids worked hard to turn out the vote for our man. To that end, the McCarthy campaign asked us to come to Los Angeles and canvas neighborhoods to explain to voters why McCarthy was a better choice than Kennedy.

I traveled with a carload of fellow fanatics to Los Angeles where we spent a few days walking precincts for Gene. We were young, naïve, and full of hope, but more than this we did not want to get drafted and sent to fight an unwinnable war in Vietnam and die for a bunch of morons serving the military industrial complex. If McCarthy won, we would be safe to keep exploring the counter culture paradigm that came to be known as The Sixties, or so we hoped.

Hundreds of recently shorn and nicely dressed young adults convened at the McCarthy For President headquarters in Los Angeles and were asked to fill out questionnaires to determine where in that great sprawl of humanity we might best be deployed. Because I spoke fairly good Spanish, I was assigned to a predominantly Latino precinct. But before they turned us loose on the voters, we went through an orientation process in which several smart people explained the campaign literature and gave us tips on how to entice suspicious people to open their doors to us. And for inspiration, the orientation session climaxed with Leonard Nimoy dashing in to give us a pep talk and shake our hands before we hit the streets.

Leonard Nimoy had been a staunch Eugene McCarthy supporter from the beginning of the campaign, but Leonard, in his own way as highly intelligent as Spock, knew that Kennedy entering the race meant McCarthy had zero chance of victory. Nevertheless, he gave an earnest pep talk and thanked us profusely.

I then had a hellacious time—hilarious in retrospect—canvassing a Mexican American neighborhood where every single person I met was deeply committed to Robert Kennedy because Roberto was hermano of the deceased demigod John F. Kennedy. Thus the following drama played out dozens of times on that seemingly endless day.

Todd knocks on the door of a well-kept little house. The door opens. A man or woman frowns at Todd and says, “Si? Que quiere? No hablo Ingles.”

“No problem,” Todd replies in Spanish. “I speak Spanish. Here are brochures written in Spanish extolling the virtues of Eugene McCarthy, a friend of the farmer and the immigrant, a great man of peace, who is running for President.”

Thinking Todd insane, the man or woman reverently intones the name Kennedy and turns to look at a wall on which hang three large framed portraits, one of a hypothetical Jesus Christ, one of a hypothetical Virgin Mary mother of Jesus, and one of John F. Kennedy.

Persistent to a fault, Todd explains why McCarthy is vastly superior to Kennedy. The man or woman listens politely, says Gracias, and closes the door.

“I consider myself more spiritual than religious.” Leonard Nimoy

Returning to McCarthy headquarters the next morning, my cohorts and I filled out questionnaires otra vez, sat through another orientation, and once again Leonard Nimoy dashed in to give us a pep talk. Perhaps it was my dread of walking another precinct where everyone worshiped Kennedy, but Leonard’s pep talk struck me as hollow and disingenuous, and I was seriously thinking of giving up politics and going to the beach or catching a flick, or both.

Then some other exhausted dweeb called out, “Hey Leonard, do some Spock.”

And with great sincerity, Leonard responded in a voice half-Leonard and half-Spock, “This is not about me. This is about you doing whatever you can to make a positive difference in our society.”

Receiving

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2012)

“It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Jesus, Acts 20:35

John Steinbeck’s preface to his wonderful The Log From the Sea of Cortez is a celebration of Ed Ricketts, Steinbeck’s friend and mentor and co-author of that fascinating record of their marine biological expedition to the Sea of Cortez—the text rich with philosophical asides. Steinbeck felt that Ed’s great talent and finest gift to his friends was his ability to receive, and in receiving with grace and delight and heartfelt gratitude, he gave the givers priceless gifts. The idea that receiving can be a gift contradicts hundreds of famous directives, Biblical and otherwise, but it seems deeply true to me.

Einstein said, “The value of a man resides in what he gives and not in what he is capable of receiving.” But I don’t think Einstein really meant receiving, I think he meant getting or taking. Receiving involves surrendering, and that is the gift—opening our hearts to the giver.

One of my favorite books is a little tome entitled Love Is The Wine: Talks of A Sufi Master In America, the master in this case being Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak. Here is the beginning of his talk on Generosity.

Many years ago, a traveler came to a small town. The custom at those times was to open your door to whoever came as “God’s guests” as they were called. When someone knocked on your door and said, “I am God’s guest,” you were to invite him in, feed him, and give him a place to sleep.

The traveler came upon a group of townspeople and asked, “Is there a kind person in town who has space to put me up for the night? The next morning I will continue my journey.”

The townspeople said, “Well, yes, there is one person who does welcome guests. If you stay there, he will feed you, put you up, and be very kind to you. However, we have to warn you that he has a strange habit—in the morning, when you are leaving, he will beat you up.”

It was winter and very cold. The traveler said, “I’m not going to spend the night on the street, hungry. I will go and take what comes to me. I will eat, sleep in a warm room, and if he’ll beat me up, he’ll beat me up.”

The traveler knocked on the door and a very pleasant man opened the door. The traveler said, “I am God’s guest.” The man replied, “Oh, come in, please come in.”

He offered the traveler the best place and his best cushions. The traveler replied “Eyvallah.” (Eyvallah means “As you wish”. It literally signifies our willingness to accept whatever we are given—good or bad, delightful or unappetizing—remembering that it comes from God.)

“May I put a pillow behind you to make you more comfortable?”

“Eyvallah.”

“Are you hungry?”

“Eyvallah.”

The host brought out a delicious dinner, and then asked his guest if he would like some more.

“Eyvallah.”

The host said, “Coffee?”

“Eyvallah.”

“Would you like a cigarette?”

“Eyvallah.”

“May I make up your bed?”

“Eyvallah.”

The host made up a wonderfully soft bed and put a feather comforter on it.

“Would you like some water before you go to sleep?”

“Eyvallah.”

In the morning the host was up early. He asked the traveler, “Would you like some breakfast?”

“Eyvallah.”

The host served a wonderful breakfast.

Once breakfast was finished the traveler realized it was time to take leave of his host. After the stories he had heard, he was afraid of what might happen, though this man had just devoted almost a day to take care of him. “I would like to take my leave now,” he said, fearfully.

The host replied kindly. “Eyvallah,” and added, “You seem to be a man without much money. Would you permit me to give you some money?”

“Eyvallah.”

The host gave him ten pieces of gold. The traveler thought to himself, what a beating I’m going to get after this!

The host saw him to the door, saying, “May God go with you. Goodbye.” The astonished traveler said, “I beg your pardon? There is terrible gossip going around about you. You are the most generous person I have ever seen. They say that you act hospitably with guests but that in the morning you beat them up. May I go and spread the word that you do no such thing, that you are a wonderful man and wonderful host?”

The host said, “No, no. What they say is true.”

The astonished guest said, “But you did not treat me that way.”

“No, you are different. My other guests are much more trouble. When I offer them the best place in my house they say, ‘Oh no, no thank you, you sit there.’ When I offer them coffee they reply, ‘Well, I don’t know. I don’t want to bother you.’ I ask them to have dinner and they say, ‘No, it will make too much fuss.’ Those people I certainly beat in the morning.”

“We are not cisterns made for hoarding, we are channels made for sharing.” Billy Graham

When I was forty-eight, I blew out my knee and was on crutches for six months. I was living alone in a second-floor dwelling and did not have a washing machine and dryer, nor did I have a car or any feasible way to get to a coin-op laundry, let alone to a grocery store. This was the first time in my adult life I was so incapacitated I had to ask friends for help, something I had never done before and something I found almost impossible to do.

I will never forget the day my friend Mindy came to get my laundry to take to her house to wash. “Your sheets are scary,” she opined, glancing at my unmade bed. “I’ll wash those, too.”

“No,” I said, trembling with shame. “You can’t.”

She smiled quizzically. “Why not?”

“Well,” I said, panicking, “I just…they…”

I sat on my living room sofa listening to her strip my bed and I became so upset and so terrified, I shouted, “Stop! You don’t have to do that. I’ll…I can do it. I’ll wash them in the bathtub and…”

“Cool it,” she said, coming out of my bedroom. “I enjoy helping you. I’ll see you in a couple hours.”

In those couple of hours, I came face-to-face with a big fat fundamental rule governing my life: no one was allowed to do anything for me; and that rule, otherwise known as a crippling neurosis, explained the nature and quality of my relationships with women up to that point in my life, as well as the nature and quality of all but a few of my friendships. I could never have asked the host in that Sufi tale to put me up for the night, but would have spent the night on the freezing streets if I lacked money to pay for a room.

I’m a little better—fifteen years later—about allowing people to do things for me, but only because of practice gained while I was ill or injured and needed help from others in order to survive. And what I find most fascinating about my particular neurosis is the large number of people I have met who suffer from the same malady.

Where did this crippling neurosis come from? One therapist I spoke with suggested that as the child of alcoholic parents I became a classic enabler at a very early age. In order to avoid my parents’ wrath, I learned to fend for myself, to do my parents’ bidding in hopes of pleasing them, and to ask as little as possible from them. As the therapist was suggesting this to me, I remembered that one of the very first things I learned to do for my parents—I was six-years-old—was to make coffee for them in the morning.

Knowing how miserable and angry my mother was until she’d had two cups of coffee, I would get up long before anyone else in the family, tiptoe into the kitchen, climb onto a high stool, fill the kettle with water, and start it heating on the electric range. Then I would open a drawer adjacent to the electric range and take out a big round piece of brown filter paper, which I would fold in half and then in half again so the folded filter would fit into the top of the hour-glass-shaped Pyrex coffee maker. Then I would spoon seven scoops of Hills Brothers’ dark roast coffee from a two-pound can into the filter and pour boiling water over the ground coffee again and again until the bottom of the hourglass was full of black brew.

I remember that for the first year or so of making coffee for my mother, I lacked the strength to lift the kettle high enough to pour water onto the coffee in the filter atop the hourglass, so I would pour the boiling water into a metal bowl and use a ladle to scoop the water over the coffee. After the coffee was brewed, I would make my lunch for school: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a banana. Then, if my mother hadn’t gotten up and come into the kitchen, I would tiptoe down the hall to my parents’ bedroom and say quietly, “Mommy, your coffee is ready.”

Eyvallah.

Myth & History

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

(This essay originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2011)

“As the heavens are high and the earth is deep, so the hearts of kings are unsearchable.” Book of Proverbs 25:3

“Have you seen The King’s Speech?” asked a friend.

“Marcia has and loved it,” I replied. “I’m waiting for it to come out on Netflix.”

My wife Marcia and I are on the two-movies-a-month plan, and we often don’t find the time to watch even that many.

“Of course,” continued my friend, “they’ve taken great liberties with the historical facts. I read one article that said the movie isn’t even close to the truth and another that said it has some truth in it, but not much.”

“The only way to speak the truth is to speak lovingly.” Henry David Thoreau

Historical facts. Hmm. When I was attending UC Santa Cruz in the late 1960’s (and I really did do that) Norman O. Brown came to teach at our newborn college. His course Myth & History was open to undergrads, so I signed up to hear what the famous man had to say. Who was Norman O. Brown? Having taken his Myth & History class, and having spent a few hours blabbing with Norman about this and that, I think he would have been amused by the question. Why amused? Because the central theme of his course was that myth and history are inextricably entwined; history being mythologized the moment that highly subjective reporter known as a human being attempts to put into words what he or she thinks may have happened.

Before I tell you a little more about Norman O. Brown, I would like to recount a scene from Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ, the novel, not the movie. The Norman I remember (which is probably a very different Norman than the Norman other people remember) would have appreciated this digression because his lectures were composed entirely of digressions that would then double back on themselves and culminate in conclusions that, depending on each listener’s perspective, made some sort of larger sense. Or not.

“Great things happen when God mixes with man.” Nikos Kazantzakis

So…in The Last Temptation of Christ there is a memorable scene in which Jesus and his disciples are sitting around a campfire after a long day of spreading their gospel, when Matthew, a recent addition to the crew, is suddenly impelled by angels (or so he claims) to write the biography of Jesus. So he gets out quill and papyrus and sets to work transcribing the angelic dictation; and Jesus, curious to see what’s gotten into his latest convert, takes a peek over Matthew’s shoulder and reads the opening lines of what will one day be a very famous gospel.

Jesus is outraged. “None of this is true,” he cries, or words to that effect. And then Judas (I’m pretty sure it was Judas and not Andrew) calms Jesus down with a Norman O. Brown-like bit of wisdom, something along the lines of: “You know, Jesus, in the long run it really doesn’t matter if he writes the truth or not. You’re a myth now, so you’d better get used to everybody and his aunt coming up with his or her version of who you are.”

Kazantzakis, trust me, wrote the scene much more poetically and marvelously than the way I just recounted it, but…

“All good books have one thing in common. They are truer than if they had really happened.” Ernest Hemingway

Back to Norman O. Brown. In the late 1960’s, Norman was among the most famous pop academic writers in the world. Not only had he written Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History, which made him famous, he had just published (in 1966) Love’s Body, a mainstream and academic bestseller exploring the impact of erotic love on human history; or was it the struggle between eroticism and civilization? In any case, here is one of my favorite blurbs from the hundreds of reviews that made Love’s Body so famous in its time. I will digress again (thank you, Norman) by saying if any book I ever publish gets a blurb even remotely as stupendous as the following, and said blurb appears in, say, the San Francisco Chronicle or even the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, drinks are on me.

“Norman O. Brown is variously considered the architect of a new view of man, a modern-day shaman, and a Pied Piper leading the youth of America astray. His more ardent admirers, of whom I am one, judge him one of the seminal thinkers who profoundly challenge the dominant assumptions of the age. Although he is a classicist by training who came late to the study of Freud and later to mysticism, he has already created a revolution in psychological theory.” — Sam Keen, Psychology Today

The myth and history web site known as Wikipedia says that Norman was a much-loved professor at UC Santa Cruz where he taught and lived to the end of his days (he died in 2002, or so they say). Wikipedia also reports that Norman had the nickname Nobby, which I would like to say I gave him, but I did not. At least I don’t think I gave it to him. On the other hand, I might have given it to him because that was not his nickname when I knew him, so it must have been affixed after I knew him. Thus we might say, “After I got through with him, he was known as Nobby.” That does sort of sound like I’m responsible for his nickname. You decide.

“Personality is the original personal property.” Norman O. Brown

Here are a few true stories about Norman that might as well be myths.

Norman loved to fool around with the order of letters in words and the order of syllables in words and the order of words in phrases. For instance, he began one lecture by…

But first of all, here’s a snapshot of Norman in 1968: a portly white man of medium height with curly brown hair. I wouldn’t say his hair was unruly, but it was certainly not ruly. Is ruly a word? If not, then from whence came unruly? These were the kinds of questions Norman would ask of us, his audience, and not answer. On second thought, his hair was unruly. In either case, he would cast his questions upon his waters, he the fly fisherman, we the trout finning below the surface of his stream of consciousness, and he would allow the flies (the questions) to drift along above us for a time to see if we might rise to the bait. If no trout rose, he cast again.

Norman had voluptuous lips and frequently wept in front of us, moved by something he felt, or moved by inner demons we could only guess at, or moved by God knows what (if you subscribe to the myth of God.) I knew several people (mostly guys) who were so freaked out by how fragile and vulnerable and weird Norman seemed to them that they dropped the class after the first couple lectures.

“Freedom is poetry, taking liberties with words, breaking the rules of normal speech, violating common sense. Freedom is violence.” Norman O. Brown

One day (getting back to Norman’s playing with the order of letters in a word) he stood (wearing a brilliant white Mexican wedding shirt tucked into fine purple corduroy trousers, his feet shod in black sandals, his toenails painted red) with his back to the audience for the first five minutes of his presentation. People began to squirm; a few walked out; and several more were about to walk out when Norman turned to face us. He ran his fingers through his unruly hair three or possibly four times, took three (I’m absolutely sure it was three) tentative steps forward, touched the tips of the fingers of his left hand to the tips of the fingers of his right hand, and gazed at this collision of digits as a lover might gaze at her beloved, or as an autistic person might stare at her fingers, and then he pursed his voluptuous lips, raised his eyes to the audience, and said so quietly we had to strain to hear, “Roma.”

Then he swallowed, licked his lips, touched his fingertips together again as described above, licked his lips once more, and repeated, “Roma.”

I looked down at my notebook and saw that I had written Roma twice. And between the first and second Roma I had unwittingly drawn a heart.

Then I looked at Norman (I usually sat in the seventeenth row, having a particular fondness for that number) and he said, “Roma spelled backwards is…”

He waited a moment for us to begin to figure it out for ourselves, and then concluded, “Amor.”

“‘Tis as human a little story as paper could well carry” James Joyce from Finnegan’s Wake

Norman began another of his lectures mid-thought and mid-sentence referencing James Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake. I could not, for the life of me, discern when Norman’s sentences ended or began or even if he was speaking in sentences. People ran for the exits as if a fire alarm had sounded. Soon there were only a few of us remaining in the vast lecture hall, Norman rambling on, his tired face alight with what might have been happiness or possibly incredulity to have struck such a rich vein of…something; and I gave up trying to understand him. I simply surrendered to his sound and subtle fury, and fell into a trance from which I did not emerge until…Norman’s voice rose to a girlish crescendo, fell silent for a momentous moment, and finished basso profundo with: “Finnegan’s Wake. Fin! Again! Wake!”

“Hearasay in paradox lust” James Joyce from Finnegan’s Wake

It was following Norman’s fifth or sixth or seventh lecture that I went to his office to show him a four-page play I’d written, a dumb show, a drama without words inspired by something he’d been harping on for a couple lectures. “The slave becomes the king becomes the slave.” In my dumb show, which, come to think of it, might have been choreography for a ballet, I was exploring passive aggression and aggressive passivity and the pitfalls of passion and the pratfalls of sexual positions, and (being nineteen) I thought the play was way cool, and I suspected that if anyone on earth would appreciate my play it was Norman.

I went to his office. He was sitting at his desk, weeping. He dried his eyes, rose to shake my hand, and invited me take a seat. I told him I was taking Myth & History. He said he recognized me. He said I often frowned ferociously at things he said, after which I would scribble furiously in my notebook. He said he often wondered which part of what he had just said made me frown. I said I was unaware of my ferocious frowning but wasn’t surprised to hear I frowned ferociously because ferocious frowning was my father’s habit, too. Norman said the older he got the more he reminded himself of his father, and also of his mother.

I then blurted that I found him captivating and perplexing and thought I was probably not consciously getting most of what he was trying to convey but I was apparently unconsciously getting some of it because he had inspired me to write a short play, which I then handed him. He read the pages, avidly, or so I like to think, then read them again. Then he looked at me and blinked appreciatively. “Yes,” he gushed. “The violence of Eros the inadequacy of the nuclear family to accommodate the sexual divergences of male and female energies of young and old I love the mother becoming lovers with her daughter’s lover only to discover her daughter’s lover is her father transformed. You’ve read Graves, Durrell, Duncan, Camus, Beckett. What do you want to do?”

“I want to write epic poems disguised as novels.”

He frowned gravely and pointed with the fingers of his right hand at the air just above my head. “A path of great danger,” he intoned, wiggling his fingers to incite the spirits. “Don’t be afraid.”

Todd lives in Mendocino where he prunes fruit trees, plays the piano, and writes essays and fiction. His web site is Underthetablebooks.com