Einstein said that. He also said, "For me, curiosity has always been the drug of choice." Without it I may have settled down into a successful career. Like my friend Paul. We met when we were 14 and he sang in a boys' choir. Years later he toured the world with the Roger Wager Chorale. Now in his late 70s, he continues to teach and conduct choral music. Paul has had a great career down a single track. Curiosity may not have killed the cat but it gives birth to distractions that get in the way of sucess, fame and financial gain.
In my life I have followed the path of passionate curiosity, poking my nose in odd corners that attracted my attention. Sometimes the interest was sustained, but usually it lasted only a season, to be replaced in time by another. From the outside this appears to be the way of the dilettante, the nomad, the butterfly who never alights long enough to get the juice. My father used to complain that my habit of switching jobs was a recipe for disaster. He was driven by memories of the Depression to provide for his family at whatever the cost. I was driven by a thirst for novelty and adventure.
Reading has always been a passion. In the second grade I read biographies of famous people borrowed from the Sunday School library. In Atlanta at 12 I lay in a hammock behind our house and read science fiction, the novels of Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury in particular. While recovering from a car accident after high school I read best selling fiction, and was particularly fond of the novels of Ayn Rand and Frank Yerby. A girlfriend traveling in Europe smuggled copies of Henry Miller's banned Tropics for me, and an older mentor gave me Kerouac's On the Road to read. I would never be able to read pop fiction again.
New Age thought, however, continued to attract. One Easter Week, when college students flocked to the beach towns to drink and celebrate, I left my friends at our hotel to attend a meeting of Theosophy, a religious movement started by the inimitable Madame Blavatsky. I listened to Alan Watts' radio shows and once stood at the back of a church to hear him speak though I could only see heads in front of me. At Berkeley, foreign films became my passion after seeing "The Seventh Seal" and "La Strada." I got involved in campus politics and fell behind in my classes, lying in bed to read science fiction. After Christmas I dropped out and visited my uncle in Cuernavaca, Mexico, for several months. After an interlude of hepatitis, I journeyed to Manhattan where I slept in an Italian lady's room in the village and commuted to my job with United Press International in Newark, New Jersey.
"Who am I?" "What am I to do?" These were the two important questions I asked in my twenties. It also seemed important to know whether or not there was a god (who could perhaps tell me the answers). Aside from a brief moment while attending a Christian youth camp for a week during high school, I rarely came close to believing in the standard Protestant truths. I drank immoderately, smoked two packs a day, and if I couldn't find any worlds to conquer I looked for women. In rare moments of reflection, I attempted to make some sense out of my experience. But I resisted dogmatic and easy answers.
Back in Hollywood, I showed the magazine to an editor and a poet and the three of us founded the Sunset Palms Hotel. It was much more professionally done then the mimeod zine and the poet found excellent contributions from Bukowski among others. I encouraged Tom Waits, whose debut bio I'd written, to give us some of his song lyrics. Besides poetry, my other passion remained religion. When I learned my secretary was a trainer for Transcendental Meditation, I urged her to initiate me. The fact that I had slept with both her and her sister apparently did not count against my spiritual advancement. I went to a few TM meetings in Westwood but I never advanced further than feeling a bit of bless right before falling asleep.
With a new zafu purchased from the Integral Yoga Society in lower Manhattan, I took up meditation, using an egg timer to tell me when three minutes had passed, and a small book by Baba Ram Dass as my guide. Our son was born one rainy morning at New Haven Hospital and we left Connecticut to return to California where I would sit in silence in front of a wood stove until he crawled out of bed and into my lap in the morning. I continued to read about religion and physics. Merton wrote against the Vietnam war and in favor of other religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. He resurrected a mysticism that had been suppressed by the institutional church, and he was my main man. Years later when I visited the Buddhist ruins at Polonnaruwa on Sri Lanka I would recall the influence it had on him which he described in The Asia Journal. And in Bangkok I visited the spot where he died, electrocuted by an ungrounded fan. I also collected the works of Ludwig Wittgenstein because I sensed there was something important in his philosophy but I was not ready to understand them.
When I became officially Dr. Will, my interest in environmentalism as an intellectual idea was as almost exhausted. The Ph.D. dissertation turned out ok but it broke no new theoretical grounds and I had little interest in turning it into a book as Dr. Merchant suggested. By the time I collected by certificate at the graduation ceremony from Angela Davis, there seemed no new ground to explore.
Sometimes I think I'd like to go back to school. Taking classes, reading books, and talking about their ideas was the ideal life for me and I miss it. I'm more of a materialist than i used to be, and can no longer follow a religious path without nit-picking it to death. Religion remains the major over-arching passion of my life. My theory is that religious language is meaningful but not in any literal sense. It binds like-minded people together through stories like it did for my Catholic friends in California. Today I'm fascinated by the new cognitive study of religion which is developing theories about why humans anticipate an after life and engage in rituals with purposes sometimes hard to fathom. Consciousness -- what is it? -- is also a central interest. In a sense consciousness, our own consciousness of something like a self, is the only thing. But some think it's just an illusion. Buddhism has some interesting teachings on the subject but they're difficult to unpack. I'm working on it.
Now, as I await my 78 birthday, I look back on my life as a dilettante, one in which I changed jobs and passions as one discards old clothes. I was always either inspired or distracted by my curiosity. Which? And why? For all my efforts I've written no novels, no philosophical words of wisdom, no works of research to advance the boundaries of knowledge. I've traveled a bit, met some interesting people and kept a few as good friends. I've loved and been loved in return. It's been a good life. I don't regret most of it.