Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Curiosity has its own Reason for Existing

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.
I used to wear an Einstein mask every Halloween.  It was a rubber mask that cover my head and made it difficult to breathe.  Most of the kids had no idea who I was supposed to be, and were not a little frightened.  I also had some iconic posters of the scientist on my wall.  I looked up to him because he defied expectations and not because I wanted to follow in his path.  I was a dunce at math.

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.

When I was a young boy I wanted to become a movie actor.  My uncle had a modest success acting on Broadway, and his advice to my father about me was: "Drown him!"  When I was 10 I was impressed by a neighbor's clarinet and took up the instrument, later adding the alto sax and performing as a teenager in several dance bands. My dream then was to join Stan Kenton's orchestra.  But when it dawned on me that my musical talent was limited, I decided to write about it instead, reviewing records in a local paper and later interviewing rock stars. This led to a brief career as an entertainment press agent.

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.

But my first specific passion was religion.  While my broken femur healed, a friend brought me books about world religions that I found fascinating.  Another brought me books about flying saucers and he suggested that the Star of David was probably a UFO, an idea I found oddly appealing.  Paul (the singer in the first paragraph) had met Peter at our community college and Peter's mother received messages from the space aliens.  She was a successful interior decorator in Beverly Hills but had also founded a group to study New Age thought.  I sat at her feet and soaked up her wisdom and read the books she loaned me by saucer contactees who wrote about their encounters with otherworldly visitors.  One of them, Orfeo Angelucci visited our group to tell of his experiences but the fact that he was not exactly sober made it difficult to understand him.  Eventually the group's consensus that whiteness was a sign of spiritual advancement (it was the era of civil rights) made it impossible to remain.

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.
S.I. Hayakawa
After returning to California, my next passion was general semantics.  I was impressed by S.I. Hayakawa's book, Language in Thought and Action, some years before he angered students on strike at San Francisco State College, a stand that got him elected to the U.S. Senate.  He was also the editor of ETC, a journal to which I subscribed, hoping to better understand how language might be understood and used. Finally a friend introduced me to Alfred Korzybski, the self-taught scholar who had influenced Hayakawa, and I carried around a copy of his Science and Sanity for years.  "The map is not the territory," is one of his famous utterances, meaning there is a gap between reality and its representation in language (later Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature would reinforce that idea). 
In 1964 I moved with my wife to London where I worked as a writer for a TV program journal. The High Holborn library was next door to our offices and I spent much time in the stacks. I went through the collected works of Agatha Christie as well as anything I could find about the war in Vietnam then underway. The Theosophy Bookstore across from the British Museum was a few blocks away and I spent many breaks from work pouring over their selections. My uncle had suggested I read Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, two Russian New Age prophets, and they led me to a biography by the Englishman John G. Bennett, a disciple of Gurdjieff who had converted to Subud, a spiritual discipline that originated in Indonesia (later he moved on to Sufism).  By chance I met an American who practiced the latihan, the name for Subud's form of prayer, and my wife and I tried it out for a couple of months.  I also continued to read fiction and when Marianne Faithfull, a young pop singer with an intellectual bent, mentioned in an interview she loved Lawrence Durell's Alexandria Quartet, I read it with gusto.

Gary Snyder
Returning to California with my wife and infant son, I became an entertainment publicist in Hollywood with little time for intellectual passion.  But I did find time for classes at Los Angeles State in symbolic logic and philosophy.  I'd flunked algebra but was surprised to find symbolic logic was algebra by another name, simple and fascinating.  When I went to work for a record company in Berkeley I met a worker in the warehouse who showed me the poems he'd published in the Paris Review.  Much impressed, I asked him to teach me about poetry.  I'd read the San Francisco poets Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and Lew Welch, and he recommended the New York poets, like Frank O'Hara, and the French modernists such as Pierre Reverdy (a French Canadian, he'd translated Reverdy and others for a major anthology.  Under his influence, we started a poetry magazine.  Such mimeographed poetry zines were all the rage and ours was called "The End."  I typed up the issues on the same Gestetner printing machine I used for press releases and even contributed a few haiku.

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.

Nick Herbert
After five years working in the music business in Hollywood, the writing on the wall said "leave before you die!"  I left drugs behind when I moved to the Santa Cruz Mountains and reinvented my life as an occasional poet on unemployment reading in clubs and a paste-up artist for a local paper. In time I went to work as art director for a music magazine over the hill near San Jose.  Right after my daughter was born, I enrolled in an extension class at the university called "The Conscious Atom" taught by physicist and magician Fred Alan Wolf. Quantum physics and the philosophical implications of it because my new passion.  Fortunately, a neighbor, Nick Herbert, had written several books about it and introduced me to his good friends Heinz Pagels, also an author on the topic, and his wife Elaine Pagels who had written on Christian mysticism and theology.  Both religion and physics (the little I understood) obsessed me for a few years. During this time I attended a weekend seminar at Esalen and sat at the feet of the marvelous Gregory Bateson.

Thomas Merton
We moved to Connecticut to be near my wife's family and I used my publishing skills in New York City.  A friend introduced me to Thomas Merton's writings and I think I discovered Simone Weil on my own, as well as Nicolas Berdyaev.  All three expanded my understand of what Christianity could be and I began to sit in churches at lunch time waiting for a sign.  I visited a Catholic church in a barn upstate where I met Brother David Steindl-Rast, the prophet of gratefulness, and learned about Buddhist meditation at the New York Zen Center.  And I spent a weekend at the Catholic monastery St. Joseph's Abbey in Massachusetts where I listened to a monk, Father Theophane, advise us to write our own Bible. (His book, Tales of a Magic Monastery, is delightful).

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.

My next job was doing data entry for the Alumni Association in Santa Cruz, and not long after I learned I could apply to reenter the University of California with an essay on my life experiences (books read, etc.) which could erase the Fs I received when I dropped out of Berkeley.  I started slowly with one class in Indian philosophy from an Oxford-trained Indian professor who announced "we will light no candles in this class!"  The next few years were among the best of my life.  For a BA I studied philosophy with a concentration in religious thought, and my thesis on Wittgenstein (who I finally was able to read) and the will earned me a nomination to Phi Beta Kappa.

It wasn't easy going and I stopped and started my resurrected academic career a number of times.  I tried to get into the graduate program in History of Consciousness (Huey P. Newton got in, but not me).  At the time I was studying to convert to Catholicism under the influence of Weil, Merton, and liberation theology in Latin American which was combatting the oligarchs with life lessons from scripture.  I ended up in history with a plan to study the influence of politics and socialism on religion in Europe. I took a number of courses in intellectual history in the 19th century, focusing on France because my dissertation topic was, Felicit√© Lamennais, a French priest who progressed from conservative views to radical political ones. I also did work on Poland for the MA, Peru, Morocco, and contemporary historiography which had been influenced by postmodernism.  It was a fascinating time, but because of my obsession with ideas and history I was too preoccupied to be a very good husband and father.

There wasn't much support in academia at that time for a white male in his mid-60s.  I needed to dig into the French archives for my dissertation research but found no grants available that would help me provide for my work and my family.  So I took another year off, and audited a course an environmental history taught by Carolyn Merchant from Berkeley, author of The Death of Nature, who because a mentor and friend. Another helpful influence at this time was sociologist James O'Connor who was researching local history. I switched my field from European to U.S. history and began a dissertation on the middle-class social movement that saved the redwoods in Big Basin, not far from where I lived, for the state's first public park.  My new passion then was environmentalism which include such topics as eco-theology and Deep Ecology (a class full of Marxist students thrashed me over that New Age subject).  I wrote the text for a coffee table book on the Sempervirens Fund which continued to support Big Basin land purchases.

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.

Bede Griffiths
While I was becoming a Catholic, I spent time at the Hermitage, a monastery in the Camaldolese order, in the Big Sur hills. I had long known of Bede Griffiths, the British priest who took over Shantivanam in India from the French monks who had started it in the 1950s.  Although Griffiths had died in 1993, Shantivanam remained a place of pilgrimage.  I learned of an annual tour there from Matthew Fox's Wisdom University led by a disciple of Griffiths, and I joined it in January of 2004. Before then I'd never had any desire to visit India or even Asia and was not a little nervous about the trip.  It was an eye-popper.  The tour leader got us into temples past the signs banning non-Hindus, and I loved the peace of Shantivanam near the banks of the Cauvery River in Tamal Nadu (but not the squat toilets). I returned three more times, and co-founded Sangha Shantivan with a group of mostly Catholics. One year later I led a tour group to Shantivanam.  Another time I played Santa Claus for the kids.  It's been ten years now since my last visit and I miss it, especially the cricket-playing boys on the river beach.

When I became an expat in Thailand the natural passion was the social history and politics of the region.  I read a number of books on the subject as well as many on Theravada Buddhism, the form practiced in Thailand.  I joined a group of expats and residents in a Buddhist sangha for English speakers, became a volunteer of the National Museum, and attended talks at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand.  Along with other members of the NMV we began a separate group to discuss the more sensitive subject of Thai politics with guests who offered their perspectives for us to chew over.  While I don't know if I'm exactly a Buddhist, I buy flowers ever Monk's Day for our condo shrine, and continue to form and spread my opinions through social media.  Since politics is an even more dangerous subject in contemporary Thailand, I will say that this forbidden subject is a definite passion but one I cannot discuss.

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.

If I have a major passion these days other than the above it would be pedagogy.  I've been teaching English for ten years to Buddhist monks and a few lay students but I really have no idea if I've accomplished anything.  At the end of most of my 16-week classes, the students with a good facility continue while those who have difficulty saying anything in English remain mute.  I've tried a variety of methods and techniques, have learned how to design a PowerPoint presentation that will hold their attention (usually), and I've collected a wide range of videos that help to teach the grammar lessons I want them to learn.  But the biggest problem, pronunciation, remains because the university's Sound Lab is unusable.  With only two and a half hours a week, my students really do not have enough time to practice conversation.  The only permanent way they can learn is to use English like a tool, like a hammer, to achieve communication with other English users.  It's been my most rewarding career but I'm not sure if I've been up to the task.

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.