Saturday, December 26, 2009

Flesh and Spirit

I was reading this morning in 'The Calendar of Wisdom' Tolstoy's reflection that life takes on meaning only as we begin to convert the physical into the spiritual. This is the same sentiment expressed by Kazantzakis in his spiritual exercises, 'The Saviors of God,' when he said that the purpose of life is to convert flesh into spirit. As a proposition, this seems to me indisputable.

Tolstoy also wrote that so long as we continue to view life only as a physical phenomenon, we will find ourselves in the midst of contradictions that cannot be resolved. Escape from meaninglessness, then, lies in our ability to perceive and to grasp the spiritual essence of existence. The older I get, the clearer this idea becomes to me, and the more urgency with which it presses itself upon me. To remain in the physical realm to the very end is, I think, to condemn oneself not only to insignificance, but to extinction. The longing for some form of survival after death is thus embedded in the very nature of our existence as corporeal beings, and it begins to assert itself more and more powerfully as we approach the end of our physical lives.

But there is another dimension to life; one that is not confined to the physical realm, and, therefore, which offers the hope not only of meaning but of survival. What form that survival may take is, of course, shrouded from our view. But if the two concepts - meaning and survival - are linked, as I think they are, then some sense of the nature of survival may be found in the meaning with which we invest life. This is the essential insight of Beckett's great play, 'Waiting for Godot,' when Vladimir declares, against the bleak backdrop of empty time and space, that life does have meaning with which we have the power to invest it. Even Beckett, aesthetic and moral anarchist that he was, could not restrain this insight. And I reach out for it, as do his characters, desperately, as a form of lifeline.

That lifeline ought to lead us past life itself into some other state of meaning and life which lies beyond time and space. That much is clear to me. Yet I see every day everywhere around me people who have no such thought, no such expectation. They are devoted to the physical realm, and apparently see or feel no possibility of transcending it. Religion, of course, offers some comfort, but this is a sort of pre-fabricated comfort, designed and built by others, in which the souls of the faithful huddle, protected from the winds and storms of fundamental questions such as How should I live? and What follows death? I sometimes think that religions were created precisely to prevent people from asking such questions in their hearts, or to help them avoid doing so. 'Give me a patent answer, and I need never confront the question.' Such is the motto of the religionist.

But some of us cannot content ourselves with other people's solutions to the questions that contain and consume our lives. We must devise or discover the answers for ourselves, and first that means facing the questions squarely and with a clear mind. This is what religion teaches us not to do, and in this way, it stands as an impediment to discovering the truth. To my mind, most religion is not a path to truth, but an obstacle on that path. Shove it aside, and though you may experience fear and trembling, at least the pathway will be open, whether or not you choose to take it.

All this is not by way of saying that people should simply reject religion. As I have written elsewhere here, religion is a necessity for most people, and, on balance, its presence does more good than its absence in the life of humanity. But once you have perceived that religion leads inevitably to contradictions that cannot be resolved - that it is directed at the physical and not the spiritual - then it is necessary to move beyond it, and its concept of god, and seek the truth where it lies: not in the church, but in the individual human soul.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Set Up

I was informed today that a script we recently finished for an independent producer has been set up at a studio. This happened because everyone is thrilled with the work we did. The note from the director said that the set up deal is done, the studio plans to fast-track the film, and "the rewrite starts after the New Year."

This is typical. The studio loves the script so much, the executives want us to write it again. Does it ever occur to anyone in this industry to make the movie that the writers write? I am aware of only one instance in recent years in which this was done - Clint Eastwood making Paul Haggis' first draft of 'Million Dollar Baby.' The result was Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of Hollywood films are written, rewritten, and re-rewritten a dozen times by writers, executives, producers, and directors, with the result that most of what is in the theaters is crap, worth neither making nor watching. The remedy for that dismal fact - just on the basis of the odds - is simple: Make the movies the writers write. Just as an experiment - just to see what would happen. Because whatever happens, it couldn't be any worse than it is now.

The main culprits in this mindless muddle are, of course, the producers and the studio executives, none of whom could write a coherent screenplay if the Taliban were holding their sisters hostage. But another culprit is the Writers Guild, which does nothing to protect the aesthetic integrity of its members' work. Yes, they do a pretty good job of looking out for our economic interests - but that is only half the job of representing writers. The other half, which they fail miserably to do, is to stand up for the artistic integrity of the work we create.

I have already recounted how, on one occasion, I asked the Guild to intervene to prevent the secretaries in the typing pool at Warner Brothers from making changes to a script we had written. I was told solemnly that doing so was outside the Guild's jurisdiction. Money is in - aesthetics are out. Well, it can call itself a Guild if it wishes, but it ought not call itself a Writers Guild, in my view.

Among other things, this raises the question: Why would anyone who wants to take himself seriously as a writer write screenplays in the first place? To me this remains an impenetrable mystery. The screenplay is a hybrid literary form, the integrity of which is up for grabs the moment it is submitted to the studio. Everyone on a film has the right, either acknowledged or implied, to change a screenwriter's work at any time, with no regard for the writer at all. On 'Ali,' a twenty-two year old production assistant (a gofer, as they are called, because they go for coffee and donuts) was asked to rewrite one of our soliloquies. And there was nothing we could do about it, not least of all because we had been banned by the director from the set.

If you want to take yourself - and be taken - seriously as a writer, write plays, novels, short stories, or poetry. Write anything but screenplays. But that rarely happens these days, since most young writers - and many of the older ones - are seduced by the promise of wealth, fame, glamor, and the chance to have lunch with movie stars. I have had lunch with movie stars, and pleasant as that experience can be, it is not worth the sacrifice of your artistic integrity.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Finished at last

I am relived, and pleased, to announce that tonight at 10:50 I finished writing my book - the memoirs of a retired Compton police sergeant.

It has been an enormous and exhausting undertaking (505 pages), but I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to write the story of this 120-man police force that managed to keep order in a city with 10,000 gang members. Their courage, skill, and raw humanity have moved me deeply.

I hope you will enjoy the book one day. I will keep you posted as it proceeds toward publication by St. Martin's press next Fall.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Unexplained Absence

I have not posted here recently because I have been laboring mightily to finish my new book. It is the memoirs of a retired Compton police sergeant who spent twenty years on the streets of Compton. Some of the stories he tells about that tiny police force's efforts to maintain order in America's most dangerous city in the 1970s and '80s nearly defy belief. It is a vast and human document, the writing of which has consumed all my free time. I am 470 pages into it now, and hope to finish in the next two weeks. At that time, I will resume posting on this site. Meanwhile, I apologize to all who follow it for my absence.

However, I hope that I will produce a book which you all will find as absorbing in the reading as I have in the writing. It will be published next Fall by St. Martin's Press.

See you again as soon as I surface...

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Mulkey

Today, we finished a screenplay about Louis Mulkey, a Charleston fireman whose passion was coaching high school basketball. When his boys were eighth graders, he promised them that if they worked hard and believed in themselves, as seniors they would win the South Carolina state basketball championship. It was an unlikely prediction: Their school had never won a state championship, had never even come close to it. But Louis Mulkey believed in those boys, and he inspired them with the idea that the force of history was nothing compared to the power of faith.

Three years later, on the eve of his team's senior season, Louis Mulkey was killed in a fire. He died as he had lived - for others. He refused to leave a burning building so long as his men were inside. He gave his life trying to save them. But what he did for his fellow firefighters was no less heroic than what he had done for his boys - he gave his life for them, he shared with them his dreams of victory, his faith that love and hope and sacrifice must triumph in the end.

The next season, in their senior year, Louis's boys worked their hearts out to make his promise real. They struggled their way to the state finals, where they met a team that was much bigger and better and more qualified than they. But they had a dream and a motivation that came from beyond themselves, and they fought, and pushed themselves to the limit and beyond... and they lost.

At the buzzer, an opposing player made a miraculous shot - a desperation throw, an eighty-foot effort in the final split second that arced its way the length of the court and went in. Louis's team had lost his promise by a single point. It is what happened then, after they lost, that makes the story so special - a miraculous ending to a heart-rending season which no one could have predicted, and which I, certainly, could not have invented. In fact, if I had tried to invent it, no one would believe me. But it was true - it was fact - and facts have a way of altering our perceptions.

My way of looking at things has been changed by the experience of writing this film. (I am a writer because the best of what I write always changes me.) Many of my old beliefs, long jaundiced by life, have been resuscitated by this project. It has reminded me that one man, with faith in his heart and a single-minded devotion to the humanity of others, can make a difference, no matter what the coruscated purveyors of cynicism who fill so much of our culture now may say. My buried belief that sainthood is possible even for those who have been taught that only that which is material, that which is profitable, that which can be reckoned on the bottom line has value, finds a new breath in this story.

Louis Mulkey, in many ways a flawed and self-doubting man, changed the world. One of his players, a freshman at Georgia University when I met him, said to me: "If it wasn't for him I'd be mopping floors somewhere." It was the testament of a humble young man whose life had been touched by pure selflessness; by a simple caring and compassion that altered forever the course of his destiny.

Those of us who live can still, by having the courage and the selflessness to intervene in the lives of others, change not only those lives, but our own as well. The task of telling the story of Louis Mulkey has reminded me that each of us can, through faith in humanity, achieve in our lifetimes a kind of immortality.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Looking Back on Death

I have always been fascinated by war. I have read a great deal about it, and written a good deal about it. I view it not as an isolated phenomenon, a subject for scholarly study, but, rather, as an integral part of history, and as a revealer of human nature and the human spirit. For I have long believed that violence is a spiritual disease, and so these massive acts of violence have much to teach us, for better or worse, about the soul of man.

I have been particularly drawn to World War I, both for its unutterable vapidity and the scale of its human waste, but also because of what its horrors taught about man’s capacity for endurance, courage, sacrifice, and even poetry. World War I produced some extraordinary poetry, and lately I have been listening to a recording of “Poets of the Great War,” a truly beautiful and wonderful compendium of the best poetry that came out of that uniquely European cataclysm. And some of it is great indeed. My deepened appreciation for Wilfred Owen who was, I think, one of the finest poets of the twentieth century – indeed of any century – and my discovery of Richard Aldington, Isaac Rosenberg, Edmund Blunden, and a rediscovery of Siegfried Sassoon, have been a great gift of the experience.

One cannot listen to an anthology of such poetry without feeling that one has, in some sense, penetrated to the heart of the experience of war. From the poets' portrayal of the soldiers’ minds and souls, of their sufferings, sacrifices, and even of their shortcomings, one derives a portrait of humanity at the very edge of existence (Owen wrote in “Spring Offensive" that the soldiers knew “their feet had come to the end of the world"), seen in the lurid light of flares and artillery barrages and gas attacks and machine gun bursts. You cannot but take such insight to heart; you cannot help but be changed by it. By the time I reached the final poem, Laurence Binyon’s famous elegy, “For the Fallen,” accompanied as it was by the stately and powerful variation from Elgar’s “Enigma,” I was moved to tears.

But I was moved also to reflection. For you cannot, I think, look into other men’s hearts and souls (as poetry always compels you to do) without peering into your own. And what I saw, reflected in the shifting glow of that beautiful and melancholy, and at times terrifying verse, was my own experience of war.

When I was in college, our political leaders, in their monstrous wisdom, offered me the chance of war. In that case, it was the War in Vietnam. At eighteen I dutifully lined up with other youths of my era and registered for the draft. (I will never forget the young woman who took my information – a rather pretty, full-skirted girl name Julie Gueri, who, though I saw her only for minutes and never saw her again, proved to be one of the most important women in my life.) And then, as the prospect of war drew close, I did what I have always done, and which I continue to do: research. What I learned about the history of the West’s involvement in Southeast Asia, and in particular what the French and now my own nation had done there, troubled me to my soul. I came to the conclusion, as did millions of others, that the war was both illegal and immoral, and that I could have nothing to do with it, except to protest.

Meanwhile, friends from high school who were not astute enough in the ways of academia to gain the safety of college, were being swallowed up by the war. I followed the growing lists of the killed with morbid regularity, and I noted in my yearbook the name of each of my comrades who died. “Killed in Vietnam,” I wrote beneath their pictures, “July, 1969” or “December, 1970”, or “April, 1971.” And as the war wore on and the casualty lists lengthened, and my yearbook became littered with notes of their deaths, my doubts about our involvement turned to hatred, and my hatred, to a determination to do something to stop it. And so I became active in the anti-war movement, which was growing almost as fast as the war itself. I protested, organized sit-ins, marched on Washington several times, but was careful never to break the law, for I understood that breaking the law to oppose evil, while sometimes necessary, was simply not in my nature. My feeling was that law – sane, humane, democratic law – was, in an important sense, what we in the movement were hoping to preserve; that we were not just fighting against something horribly wasteful, but fighting for something vitally necessary.

However, war allows no reprieve for the young; it devours them as hungrily as a hurricane devours the trees. When, at last, I was drafted, a line was drawn – not by me, but by the government. It was my moment of decision – I was being forced to break the law – and though I agonized over it, my decision was never in doubt: I refused. (The rest of that story is not important now, though I will add that I did not, thank God, have to go to prison, though I suppose I was prepared to. Instead, I was ordered to teach mentally disturbed children for two years.) What matters now, and mattered to me then, was that I had hoped to live my life without committing any great evil, without murdering anyone, without ransoming my soul for some diktat or some benefit of power. And so I refused to participate in what I saw as the greatest corruption of power – an illegal and immoral war.

That I had to do so was as clear to me as the fact that I was born and had to live and must be a part of humanity. It was, I believed then and still believe, a question of saving my soul. For I felt with all the depth of my being that the life of my spirit was at risk, and that, if I made the wrong decision, I would lose my eternal identity forever. And so I refused the war for the sake of my immortal soul. It was with me as it had been with Hamlet when he said, “My fate cries out!” My soul was telling me that I had no choice but to say no.

But now, forty years later, listening to these poems which dramatize the sufferings and sacrifices of an entire generation of boys, and feeling the power of that poetry in my soul, I have wondered for the first time in those four decades whether I made the right decision. At the time, I saw it as my duty to try to save my school friends’ lives by stopping the war; now I wonder if my duty was not to have joined them in that war, and to have taken upon myself their sufferings and sacrifices.

Camus famously said that war teaches us to be losers; I think now that he was wrong. War teaches, or can teach us, what it means to be human, in all its strengths and weaknesses. I was offered the chance to learn those truths about myself, and I turned it down. I was offered my own war, and I refused it. What it may have taught me once and forever about myself I will never know. And I will never know exactly how my high school classmates, who did not refuse, lived and suffered and died. I will never know their sacrifices and their terrors and the comradeship that only war can engender. I will never know who they truly were.

In “For the Fallen,” Laurence Binyon writes: “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old/Age cannot weary them, nor the years condemn/At the going down of the sun and in the morning/We will remember them.” And in a closing tribute to their immortality in death, Binyon compares them to the stars, saying: “As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust/Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain/As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness/To the end, to the end, they remain.”

I was one of those who were left, and now I am growing old. Age has most certainly wearied me, and the condemnation of the years is fast approaching. But I do remember those of my young friends who went to Southeast Asia in the Sixties and Seventies and did not return, and whose names I always touch when I visit the Wall in Washington. I remember them, if not every day, at least every time I look at my yearbook, or chat with a graying school chum on the phone. And in listening to these poems I cannot help but wonder whether it was not I who was lost in that terrible tempest of violence which swept through our young lives; and if it is not they, more so than I, who remain.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Family Ties, Family Lies

Yesterday I spoke with my cousin Charles. It was an extraordinary experience. Why? Because until last week I did not know he existed.

Five years ago I began doing genealogical research in order to find out where in Europe my people came from. What I learned in the process affected me profoundly. For a start, I discovered that I never knew my mother's real name. She had always told me that her name was Parisi, and that her father was an immigrant barber from Italy. This, it seems, was not true. Her real name was Goldsmith, and both of her parents were born in England. All through my childhood my mother insisted, and my father did not demur, that she was an orphan who had no brothers or sisters, and, thus, that I had no aunts, uncles or cousins. In fact, she had three sisters - my aunts - of whose existence I was, until my research, unaware, and whose names I had never heard. It appears, although it is still not clear, that her mother left or divorced her husband, and moved in with or married the Italian barber, to whom my mother always referred as her father.

Why my mother should have denied her parents and her siblings I cannot imagine. But according to government records, it appears that, when she was about fourteen, her mother and her older sister left Parisi's home, and my mother never spoke of them again. Her younger sister had by that time died in an automobile accident, and the youngest sister had long been dead from influenza. Whatever the cause of the rupture, it was a defining moment in my mother's life. She stopped using her father's name and disowned her mother and older sister. The split was so deep and so enduring that even my father, who apparently had known them, likewise never mentioned their existence or their names.

I was thus in my fifties before I learned that I had, in fact, had aunts, uncles and cousins. But that it seems is the practice in my family: When it becomes inconvenient to do so, we simply stop acknowledging and speaking to one another. The family has thus filled up with lies, implicit or explicit, which form a crusted substitute for family history.

My niece was able to determine that my surviving aunt had died in 2004 at the age of ninety-nine, in Arizona. This was a painful discovery for me since it meant that, had I known of her existence, I could have spoken with her, and gotten the truth about my mother and the destructive dynamics of her family. But the secret which my mother imposed had persisted, and the person best placed to tell me had taken the truth to her grave. My niece was also able to determine, however, that she had a son, whose age, while advanced, suggested that he might still be alive. He is, and with my niece's dogged assistance, I found him.

We spoke on the phone for over an hour. He knew who I was - he had been aware of me, if I not of him - and he gave me much information about my mother, her family, and her early years. For they had been close as children - although Cousin Charles was my mother's nephew, they were only two years apart. He has, he tells me, many family documents, which he has offered to share with me when I go to visit him in Tucson. I am looking forward to it, as a sort of adventure into my own unexplored past. He also says he has several photos of my mother as a girl. When he told me this, I nearly cried: I have never seen a picture of my mother as a girl, indeed, I have no idea what she looked like before illness, obesity and my father's drinking had taken their toll. I think that seeing those old photos will be both a revealing and a draining experience.

For my mother chose to end her own life when she was thirty-nine, a decision which has affected the entire course of my life. The suicide of a parent is a traumatic experience for any child, and for a child as sensitive as I was, with as vivid an imagination and as brooding a nature as mine, it became a force which shaped my life forever after.

I do not remember her very well - we take our parents for granted so when we are children, assuming that they will always be there. I recall her as a rather rambunctious woman who liked to laugh, who enjoyed trying new things, and who suffered from chronic illness throughout my childhood. Indeed, some of my enduring memories of my mother consist of sitting in a hospital waiting room doing my homework and watching for her to be discharged. It was, I suppose, the combination of her illness and my father's utter failure in his profession and his deepening alcoholism, that pushed her over the edge. And because of her decision, I have spent most of my life at that edge. Only the knowledge of what her death meant to me has restrained me from following her example, and imposing that burden likewise on my children.

Monday, July 27, 2009

BE-12 Healthcare

Reading about World War I aviation has been one of my continuing passions since I was a child. I possess a very large library, mostly of pilots' memoirs and diaries, and of fact books about aircraft and tactics. I think there is much to learn from the accounts of the early aviators, especially those who had to test themselves and their machines in war, and not all of the lessons are confined to aeronautics.

This morning, I made a point of reading about the Royal Aircraft Factory's creation, the B.E.12. The Royal Aircraft Factory, or RAF, was the government's official supplier of aircraft for the military, and as such, had a near monopoly on aircraft design, if not on production. It was run by government appointees, whose primary purpose (as is the goal of all government bureaucrats) was to protect their own jobs and privileges. Few had any experience of front-line flying and, what is even more extraordinary, they were determined to adhere to their preconceived notions of what the army needed despite all evidence and all reports of fatal failure. It was this mindset which produced the B.E. 12.

This was a purpose-built airplane designed to replace its predecessor, the B.E. 2. The B.E. 2 was the Royal Flying Corps' standard reconnaissance plane during 1915 and 1916, and at the outset of the war it filled its role well. It was a tractor bi-plane (it had the engine in the front), with a high-set top wing and a fan-shaped tail that gave it rather the appearance of an ambitious box kite. Though very slow, it was valued for its stability, a prime asset in its role of photographing enemy installations and helping to range artillery fire. However, as the war went on and the German air service developed new and better technologies, the B.E 2 acquired the macabre sobriquet of "Fokker fodder." This was due to the fact that the Fokker monoplane, a relatively speedy little fighter equipped with a machine gun synchronized to fire through its propeller, made mincemeat of the old, slow, inadequately armed B.E.'s.

Nonetheless, the Royal Aircraft Factory was wedded to the idea of a slow, steady observation plane, and against all evidence and reason, continued to build the B.E. 2's and to equip the RFC squadrons at the Front with them. The slow, slightly armed B.E. 2's were being shot down at an alarming rate, causing a member of Parliament to declare that the RAF's insistence on obsolete technologies was killing British pilots, and that their deaths were 'murder.' The Factory's response was the B.E. 12.

Now I took the time this morning to read about the B.E. 12 because I had read previously that it was one of the worst fighter airplanes produced during the Great War, and I wanted a detailed account of its design, manufacture, and performance at the Front. And, indeed, it appears that the 12 was everything I had previously heard about it.

Based on the obsolete B.E. 2, the B.E. 12 was intended as a front-line reconnaissance aircraft which could also be used as a fighter. A number of modifications were made to the old B.E. 2 to create what was to be an answer the lethal challenge of "the Fokker scourge." For example, the front seat was removed, and replaced with a fuel tank, thus putting fifty gallons of kerosene directly in front of the pilot, indeed, at his feet. This meant that if the tank were struck by a bullet and set on fire, the pilot was bound to be burned to death. Indeed, since the airplane, having been shot down, would be in a dive, the flames were sure to be blown back onto him. And since the British Government steadfastly refused to provide its pilots with parachutes (even though they had been available for years, and were issued to German aviators), the result of this modification was to ensure the pilot an agonizing, fiery death. But this was not enough for the institutional wisdom of the Factory. They slung a second fuel tank from the underside of the top wing, exposed for all the world to see. When this was set ablaze, it burned off the wing, causing a fatal crash.

The old B.E. 2's had originally not been armed, and it was only when the Germans began blasting them from the skies that the RFC began to put machine guns on them. But the British had no synchronizing gear at the time, and so the guns could not be made to fire forward. Instead, several complicated mechanisms were tried to enable the pilot to shoot over or around the propeller, all of which were woefully unsuccessful. Still with no means of firing through the propeller, the designers of the B.E. 12 mounted a machine gun on the side of the airplane's nose, and attached metal plates to the propeller tips, hoping that any bullets that struck them would be caromed away. (Of course, a bullet striking a prop blade square-on was bound to shoot it off.) The offset position of the B.E. 12's gun meant that the pilot could not just point the plane at his enemy and fire. Instead, he had to aim through sights mounted on the outside of the struts above the gun. He thus had to lean out of the cockpit in order to aim and fire his gun, while still performing the aerobatic maneuvers of the dog fight.

Now bear in mind that the chief purpose of the B.E. 12, as with its predecessor, was reconnaissance. The solo pilot was expected to fly the airplane and take photographs with the view camera hung on the outside of the cockpit. These primitive air cameras used glass plates - yes, glass - which had to be changed by hand with each exposure. Thus, the pilot had to lean over the side, view through the camera, take a picture, offload the glass negative, put it into the storage bin inside the cockpit, take out another, lean out again, and replace the plate, all while flying the airplane. And not just that - he also had to be on the lookout for enemy aircraft which might sneak up on him at any moment and try to kill him.

While it might have been possible to fly the B.E. 12 with one hand and take pictures with the other, a division of attention among three critical tasks was, simply, impossible. Yet this was precisely the challenge which was handed to British pilots when the B.E. 12 was forced upon them by the government bureaucracy. (Remember that the average age of a fighter pilot on the Western Front was nineteen or twenty years; thus, boys, many of them scarcely trained to fly, were being asked to undertake this impossible task.) And all of this was to be accomplished in an airplane that was almost certain to catch on fire and burn its pilot to death.

Yet this was the best that the government could do to address the slaughter of British pilots: Tanks of kerosene at the pilot's feet and over his head, a machine gun placed so that it was nearly impossible to aim, a camera that required an extra pair of hands to operate; and it was still slow and inadequately armed.

Now why do I raise all this? Because we, in this nation at this time, are about to have forced upon us the B.E. 12 equivalent of health care reform. It is a program designed by bureaucrats whose agenda is their own power and perquisites, and not the health and lives of the citizens. A program that is being cobbled together in face of a crisis using old solutions that were proved no longer to work, exactly as was the B.E. 12. And though members of Congress have not even read the 1000-page-plus bill, the president demands that it be sent to him in a matter of weeks. This is nonsense, it is idiocy, it would not be tolerated in any rational system of government. But in the past decades, the left has so stirred the populace to near hysteria regarding health care that no one dares challenge anymore the wisdom of the government taking charge of it, on any terms at any cost. Instead, only aspects (and precious few aspects) of this monster, life-altering legislation are being debated, for the simple reason that almost no one knows what is in the bill, nor what to expect if it passes.

But we do know what to expect, based on prior experience with massive government programs such as this: waste, fraud, incompetence, indifference to individuals, more bureaucracy, higher taxes, the substitution of statistics for humanity, and, as with the B.E. 12, unnecessary suffering and death. When the government takes over health care in this country (which it will do given the climate of hysteria, and the craven response of the opposition), it will cease to be health care and will become health corruption. It will be a government power-grab disguised as a humanitarian effort; it will be the B.E. 12 in which all of us will be forced to fly, whether we like it or not.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Uchida Unique

I suppose I should just say it: Mitsuko Uchida is the most skillful, intelligent, eloquent and tasteful pianist performing today. I have been listening to her recordings of the late Beethoven piano sonatas, which I found quite by accident. I had long admired her recordings of the Schubert sonatas and of Mozart, and I was not entirely sure what she would do with the Beethoven. As those who have followed this site will know, I consider the last Beethoven piano sonatas to be among the greatest achievements of our civilization, and I have loved and studied them for much of my life. So when I noticed the Uchida album on the shelf, I grabbed it.

I was not disappointed; indeed, far from it. She plays these sonatas with all the power, intelligence and clarity which she brings to everything else. Unlike many female pianists, who evince delicacy of touch and finesse of technique (which are unsuited to late Beethoven), Uchida plays the sonatas with all the strength of Rudolf Serkin, all the passion of Ashkenazy, and all the precision of Glenn Gould. But more than that, she brings such intelligence and such profound understanding and original ideas to the pieces that she shows things in them of which I had been only vaguely aware before. She does not try to make them her own, as so many pianists do; I am sure she believes that the sonatas belong rightly to Beethoven. But her vision of them and the potent tastefulness of her performance are unique.

Her revelations come in very small but salient moments. The way she ends a phrase, how she approaches an idea, her manner of using pauses, silence, elongations, compressions, bring out truths in the material which only she and her special talent can expose.To hear her play the Beethoven is like hearing Olivier or Gielgud voice Shakespeare. She is meditative when she must be, masculine when the music calls for it, insightful always, and she is capable (which many pianists are not) of enunciating the spiritual content of the sonatas, which is, after all, what they are about.

Uchida, to my mind and ear, combines supreme talent with profound sensitivity; a combination of power and delicacy that is rare; above all, an intelligence and a sensibility which, it seems to me, are unique to her. She is, I think, the finest pianist of our time.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Lincoln and Slavery

I post this in response to a comment I received on the question of Lincoln's attitude toward slavery. The comment can be found under the blog entitled Future USA.

My response:

I have been a student of Lincoln most of my life, and I can tell you emphatically that he was anti-slavery. He felt that slavery was a sin morally, a crime legally, and a potential disaster economically and politically. The question was how best to deal with it. As a strictly legal matter, the South had the right to hold slaves; Lincoln thus argued, early in his career, for the right of the federal government and the states to limit the spread of slavery. His position, essentially, was that we (the anti-slavery forces and the central government) can do nothing about the slaves where they are, but we can stop slavery from spreading to other states and to the new territories. By doing so, we will both limit the evil, and condemn it to a slow death. He was consistent on this point all through his campaigns for the Senate and the presidency.

If by Lincoln being bi-partisan on the issue of slavery you mean that he was a relativist, that is not true. He opposed slavery, argued that it should be abandoned for moral and political reasons, and did what he felt it was constitutionally permitted to do to speed its demise. But up to the war, the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of the slavers' right to own slaves, and Lincoln, and all other elected officials, were obliged to abide by those rulings. Nonetheless, if you read the Cooper Union speech (and I urge you to do so), his most extended and profound pronouncement on the question of slavery, you will see that he understood that the South would never accept a compromise. He states clearly that it is not compromise that the South wants, since they had had many of them; rather, they wanted the North to agree with them that slavery was morally correct, and so should be allowed to exist and to spread. That is why he made the famous House Divided statement: the Union will be either all-slave or all-free, but it cannot go on as it is. The South clearly wanted the Union to embrace slavery and endorse it as a moral right, and with this, Lincoln says, the North could not agree.

He also makes it clear in that speech, through detailed argument, that the Founders overwhelmingly opposed slavery and believed that it would and should end eventually. He also mentions, interestingly, that the words slave and slavery never appear in the Constitution. His point is that the Founders accepted the fact of slavery in their deliberations on forming the Union, and knew that they could not secure the Union without acknowledging and compromising on the question.(This was the origin of the so-called three-fifths-of-a-man compromise, in which three-fifths of the slave population of the Southern states had to be counted in any census. It did not mean that the Founders considered slaves to be less than human; merely that members of the House should be apportioned with the acknowledgment that large parts of the Southern states' populations were black slaves. If this had not been done, the South, with its much smaller free population, would have had virtually no influence in Congress.) But Lincoln is persuasive on the point that the Founders neither approved of slavery, nor did they intend that it be a permanent part of the Union.

It is true that, initially, Lincoln did not forward the war as an anti-slavery struggle, though many in the North did. But Lincoln knew that the huge swell of volunteers who came forward to join the army in 1861 did not do so to eliminate slavery. Indeed, most of those boys had never seen a slave. Instead, they rallied to preserve the Union, and so Lincoln argued for the war initially as a pro-Union, not an anti-slavery, battle.

But by 1864, all that had changed. The emancipation was issued in the Fall of 1862, to take effect on the first day of 1863. By this act, Lincoln was making it clear that the cause of the North was two-fold: to preserve the Union and to end slavery. And he did this because he knew that the first could not be achieved without the second. As you may recall, in his famous letter to the abolitionist publisher Horace Greeley, Lincoln said that he "would save the Union," and if that meant he had to free all of the slaves he would do it, and if it meant that he must free none of the slaves, he would do it, and if it meant that he should free some of the slaves and leave the others as they were, he would do that. "But I would save the Union." (This letter was written before the emancipation was promulgated, though Lincoln had already made up his mind to it. And, in effect, he chose the last course: he freed some but not all of the slaves.)

Thus, he clearly saw abolition as a subset of the larger cause of preserving the Union, which he was bound by his oath of office to do. But in his own heart and mind, he was, and had long been, an opponent of slavery. It is not right, he said many times, that one man should earn his bread by the sweat of another man's brow, and he cited the Bible to this effect.

The Second Inaugural Address is his final statement on the relation between slavery and the war. In it he makes clear once and for all that the war was about slavery as much as about the Union; perhaps, as a moral matter, even more so. In fact, he puts the question in the largest moral context, arguing that God permitted slavery to exist in America as part of His inscrutable plan, and He now chose the eradicate it through this horrible war. It was not man's will but God's will that was behind the war and slavery, Lincoln says, and He now was using one to end the other. This was a courageous and nearly mystical view of the worst war of the nineteenth century, and Lincoln's way of somehow rationalizing it, and its terrible suffering, through submission to the will of God. (As I have said elsewhere in this site, if any modern president were to make such a statement, he would be hounded out of office forthwith.)

So to summarize: Lincoln was decidedly anti-slavery, though prior to the war, he tried to follow the law as it existed to that point. He was not one of the radical abolitionists, but he argued forcefully that slavery ought to be contained where it was, and not allowed to spread. He emancipated the slaves, technically, as a measure of war, which he had the legal right as Commander-in-Chief to do. Ironically, it was the South that gave him this right. You claim the slaves as your property, he argued, and so, as property of the enemy, I have the right to confiscate them and do with them what I think best to support our effort. And so he chose to free them. Though please note that, in another irony, the emancipation affected only those territories that were then in rebellion against the Union. Thus, the emancipation applied only to those slaves over which the federal government had no control. It specifically excluded slaves in states that had not joined the rebellion, such as Maryland and West Virginia, and parts of states which had already been secured by the Union Army, though Lincoln both urged their owners to free them, and offered to compensate them for doing so. But as the Union Army rolled through the South, it took the emancipation with it, and freed the slaves as it encountered them.

You say that Lincoln remains an important and enigmatic figure, perhaps for you alone. I assure you, you are not alone in this. His importance and the mysteries of his character remain an enigma to all of us who admire and study him.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Future USA

I was thinking today about the future of our country, as I often do. Though I try to avoid making predictions (since they almost always turn out to be faulted), I think I will put down how I see this country going, and what my children and their children may well expect.

Ever since the Civil War, the tendency in this nation has been toward centralization, specifically, the increase in the power and reach of the federal government. The presence of slavery on this continent was even more pernicious than we recognize, for the bloody, protracted effort to eradicate it from our society inevitably meant that the federal authority would have to take to itself extraordinary powers to manage the crisis. To my mind, the Civil War was the turning point in American history. Before it, states' rights were the norm, and most of the power in American governance resided in the states. The Constitution was very specific: Any powers not granted to the federal government by its precepts were to remain with the states. The war changed all that. It determined once and for all that the federal authority was transcendent, and that, instead of holding such power as was not ceded to it by the states, it would forever hold the prevailing power, ceding only such power to the states as it chose.

This was a violation of the spirit in which the nation was created - a direct affront to the vision of the Founding Fathers. The United States was meant to be just that: a union of states, each of which has sovereignty to determine its own destiny, culture, laws and way of life. But slavery, that great evil, made it impossible for the federal government to respect this precept. And so the central authority took upon itself the power necessary to purge our society of slavery, and in the process (as always happens) assumed rights that it never again gave up. (For once a power is taken from the people and given to the government, it is rarely, if ever, returned to them.)

And so, to put it briefly, we decided to choose a society free of slavery over one in which the federal government was limited by the power of the states and of the Constitution. Now it is true that the Constitution was amended after the Civil War to incorporate certain powers into the federal sphere, and it would have been well if the aggrandizement of the central authority had stopped at that point. But the process of centralization had been set in motion by the greatest upheaval which our nation had witnessed, and it continues to this day.

The second milestone in this process of centralization was the amendment, in 1913, establishing the federal income tax. This gave to the growing federal authority a virtually unlimited source of revenue to facilitate the expansion of its power. This amendment was the natural outcome of decades of increasing centralization, for the government could not have supported and expanded its authority without an enormous and ever-replenishing income. The ratification of the sixteenth amendment by the states was the most serious mistake they made since the secession that prompted the Civil War, since, as with the need to eradicate slavery, the income tax virtually guaranteed a perpetual growth in the power of the central government. It is, of course, a matter of no surprise that the income tax has done nothing but increase since its creation, exactly as the size and scope of the federal government has increased.

The third watershed in this process of usurpation by the federal government of individual and states' rights was the New Deal, and again, it arose out of a crisis. The financial collapse that was the Great Depression gave the central government precisely the same rationale for expanding its powers as the existence of slavery had done. And as with the struggle against slavery, the 'progressive' program of the New Deal, while addressing a genuine need for action, served to grow the central government enormously in the name of humanitarian reform. This is the most pernicious aspect of the process of centralization: It is usually touted as a positive benefit to society, redressing social and economic ills and improving the quality of life of the citizens. It is thus difficult for the forces of traditionalism and limited government to combat such measures, as it leaves them open to the charge of being racists or class-ists or retrogrades. (We see this every day in the public sphere at this moment.)

The current economic crisis offers to the federal government yet another opportunity to expand its powers, and it has not been slow in taking advantage of it. It may well be that the next few years will represent a fourth major phase in the erosion of individual and states' rights in favor of increasing centralization. The clamor for universal health care has all the earmarks of the righteous fight of the anti-slavery struggle and the New Deal, and anyone who opposes it is immediately labeled as a heartless retrograde. I have little doubt now that we will, in fact, have some form of socialized medicine and health insurance operated by the central government. Perhaps it will not at first be fully centralized, but the movement toward that end will be irresistible. When the president states that the proposed program will be neither a mandate nor a federally-run health care system, he is telling only part of the truth. It may not begin that way, but its natural evolution will certainly be in that direction. And so my first prediction is that, in the lifetime of my children, we will have in this country a single, central, socialized medicine and health insurance system dictated and operated by the federal government.

As with every form of socialized medicine, this will inevitably mean long waits for care and government mandated rationing of services. As a result, I believe that a black market in both care and medicines will develop, just as it did in the old Soviet Union (indeed, we are seeing the origins of this now with the influx of medicines from Canada and Mexico), and like that system, it will be officially illegal but informally tolerated. This black market will be robust though unreliable, but it will be necessary not only to provide needed services, but also to keep pressure off the government system, which would be intolerable without it.

We have already seen the impending nationalization of the banking industry, and it is being conducted, not surprisingly, in the name of fairness and for the good of the average American. And while corporate greed has become disruptive of our economic health, how much worse will federal control prove to be? At least in corporations there is accountability, to the directors, to the share holders, to the employees and to consumers. But in a federally-run economic system, the only accountability will be at the ballot box. And we have seen time and time again how tendentious and easily manipulated that can be. In every poll taken on the subject, voters declare that they are displeased with the direction of the government and the quality of its elected officials, yet overwhelmingly they affirm that they are content with their own representatives. And so, the inability of the electorate to link the behavior of their own officials to the wider condition of the nation keeps the hide-bound denizens of government in office until their rigoring corpses are carted out of the halls of power on a pallet.

And so my second prediction is that, the process already having begun, we will have a centrally-dictated financial system, not perhaps in the lifetimes of my children, but in those of their children. Ours will gradually become a command economy, with such tight governmental control and regulation of the market that the market will cease to be free in everything but name. And, with historical irony, all this will be done in the name of a free and fair market.

Now, these two taken together - centralized health care and insurance and nationalized banking and finance - will be sufficient to render the federal government nearly omnipotent, and something like the absolute master of the states. All power, all financial policies, all personal decisions regarding the quality of one's life, will reside in the central government, which will tout itself as the guardian and guarantor of individual liberties, expressed not as maximum freedom or opportunity, but as fairness and a better quality of life. Our lives will be better, more secure, longer and easier, the central authority will say, precisely because it will have taken to itself near-total power over them. And such power, once given up by individuals and the states, will never be returned. As a result of this near-total usurpation of power, the states will lose whatever sovereignty they may have left, and they will become nothing but quaint artifacts of a bygone era, characterized not by any real power, but merely by cultural diversity and symbolic differences.

From this comes my third prediction. Within the lifetime of my grandchildren's grandchildren, the United States will have become, in effect, a massive dictatorship run from Washington. It will be a new sort of dictatorship; not one lorded over by a single man or woman, or even by a single party, but a dictatorship of bureaucracy backed by technology, in which the titular leaders will be no more than that. If I may coin a phrase, the United States will become a mega-garchy.

The president, congressmen, department heads will be nothing more than managers of this massive bureaucratic system, which will be, ironically, a progressive, left-wing dictatorship, put in place by people who claim to be serving the public interest and combating a right-wing menace, at the very same time that they have stripped our citizens of their birthright as free men and women. In other words, the mega-garchy will be a dictatorship of benevolence, imposed for our own benefit by those who wish to remove from us all risk and initiative, in order to preserve us from ourselves, while concentrating all power in the hands of the central government.

I am tempted to say that I am glad I will not live to see this, but I have too much solicitude for my children, and for their offspring whom I may never see, to take such a passive position. Indeed, if the young men who volunteered to serve in the Union Army in 1861 had taken that position, slavery might have persisted for another fifty years. (Like Lincoln, I am confident that it would eventually have sunk under the weight of its own economic ossification. However, unlike him, since I have hindsight, I think it might have been better to have allowed this process to occur naturally, rather than to have permanently altered the nature of American democracy, while in the process having taken the lives of 612,000 young Americans.) And so I cannot content myself with my own mortality, consigning my descendants to the fate of all those who, as Dostoevsky said, exchange their liberty for bread. For that, in my view, is precisely what we are doing for the sake of a "fairer" financial system and cheaper health insurance and doctor visits, and so on.

No, I would like to leave to my progeny something like the nation that the Founders wished to be left to me: a nation with a strictly limited central government, wherein real power resides close to the citizens, and in which personal liberty and opportunity are at both a premium and a maximum. But I am not sure at this point what I can do to bring this about: this may be left to future generations to decide.

And so comes my fourth prediction, which is more in the nature of a hope than an expectation: At some point, probably late in this century, the government having become so suffocating of rights and opportunities, so paternalistic in its attitude and maternalistic in its behavior, and the economy having reached the point of utter collapse, there will be a second revolution in America. And that revolution will take as its values the very same values, purged as they have been of racial injustice, that were embraced by the Founders, and enshrined for all to see (who care to read it) in the Constitution. And that, I think, is the great advantage which this second American revolution will have: It will take as its guiding principle the very document which the first one struggled so heroically to produce.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Heartaches 12

It has been some time since I last posted about my heart surgery. It took place on January 6 of this year, to replace a defective mitral valve and perform a double bypass. I was in intensive care for five excruciating days, and remained in the hospital for three or four more. My recovery took about two months.

Now, fully six months after the surgery, I continue to experience aftereffects. The two most troubling are memory loss and recurrent, unpredictable and profound fits of depression. The first is especially annoying in that I always prided myself on the quality of my memory, and because memory is essential to my professional life. My short-term memory is affected the most, but my medium- and long-term memories are also suffering. I will be told something and, a few minutes later, have completely forgotten it. This happens almost daily and is quite debilitating. As for my longer-term memory, while I expected that it would diminish with age, I believe the surgery has accelerated or exacerbated the process. Information which had always heretofore been available to my mind is simply no longer there. And while I can still recite poetry I memorized in high school and college, names, dates, events, and especially whom-I-told-what are just disappearing. I had read in my research on heart surgery that some memory loss is to be expected (they actually give you a drug to induce amnesia so that you will have no recollection of the experience), and that it may persist for as long as a year. We shall see.

The intense depression is a greater problem. I have always been a depressive, but formerly I could anticipate, even predict the episodes, and I usually knew what was causing them. Now, powerful, deep fits of depression come upon me suddenly, without warning and with no apparent trigger, and I am nearly helpless to prevent or manage them. At my younger girl's baccalaureate mass the other night, for example, I was suddenly overcome with a depression so profound that I had to fight tears, and was afraid several times during the mass that I would have to leave. But one has to hold oneself together for the sake of children, and so I managed to get through.

These depressions, which are far worse and more gratuitous than previously, seem now to me to be getting out of control. And while I do recognize the root causes of my chronic depression, the post-surgical depressions have taken on a character which is distinctly different, and much more disruptive. It is almost as though the invasion of my heart has shaken loose demons whose power to haunt I had learned in large measure to control. Without those hard-won restraints, they surge up now in my mind and spirit like killer waves, inundating me and threatening to capsize my sanity entirely. And indeed, sometimes, especially at night when I am alone and struggling to sleep, I feel that I may be headed for a nervous breakdown.

I mention all this not to elicit sympathy, but, rather, as a caution to others who are facing or recovering from heart surgery. The violation (I would even say rape) of your personal integrity is going to provoke symptoms of which no surgeon will warn you, and which no course of care is prepared to address. The surgeons should warn us, however, and our course of care should address the non-physical aftereffects, but until that happens, those of us who undergo heart surgery may find ourselves at the mercy of our minds' and emotions' unfathomable powers of retaliation.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Free-re- 2

I have been asked in response to my posting on the practice of producers demanding free-rewrites why we simply do not refuse to do them. The answer to this question is twofold.

First, refusing to perform free work is invariably met with threats of early termination. In other words, if you don't agree to the free re-write, you will be fired, and another writer brought in to rewrite you. This other writer, presumably, is one who will agree to work for free at the producers' demand.

Second, any writer who acquires a reputation for refusing to perform free work will probably not be employed. And any writer who exercises his right as a Guild member and reports the demand for free work will be blacklisted.

Now this latter point is critical. We are occasionally asked by the Guild whether we have been required to do free re-writes, and then asked to name the producers who have demanded them. And this is where the problem lies. If we report such demands, which violate the Writers Guild's minimum basic agreement with the producers, we will become known as trouble-makers. And trouble-makers are seldom, if ever, hired.

I do not recall during the recent strike (of which the Guild continues to boast) that the issue of free re-writes was ever mentioned, let alone negotiated. This represents just another aspect of the destructive failure that was the strike. While the Guild was militating with much bravado for a 'window' in the third year of the contract, and other such abstruse concessions, nothing was said or done to prevent the producers demanding that Guild members work for free. Yet I dare say that the amount of income lost to writers through producers' polishes probably cancels out any gains which the Guild secured. In the example which I cited in the previous post on this subject, we lost over three weeks of work, that is to say, of income, in the course of a writing job that should have taken about ten weeks. That is a net loss of thirty percent, in time and money. And I doubt that the Guild can boast that it managed to wrestle gains of more than thirty percent in any aspect of the contract obtained by a strike that cost us nearly six months of work.

I am sure that there are several ways in which the Guild could redress the free re-write problem, and I would be grateful to hear any suggestions on this point. One solution which has been proposed to me, however, seems fairly straightforward. It is this:

Every time a Guild member signs a contract with a producer, the terms of that contract should be filed with the Guild. Then, every draft written by the member should be sent to the Guild, which could track compliance with the number of steps contracted for. Thus, if the writer's contract specifies three steps, and four drafts are submitted, the Guild would have de facto proof of the demand for free work, and could move quickly to stop it. It would also have an ongoing record of producers who violate the Guild's rules. And instead of writers being blacklisted for refusing to perform free work, it is the producers who demand it who can be held to account, publicly if necessary.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Free re-writes

The scabrous practice of demanding free re-writes, which is the bane of the existence of the Hollywood screenwriter, is alive and healthy. I have pointed out before that the Writers Guild has failed miserably to stop this odious practice, and as work has become scarcer, money tighter, and production focuses more and more on fluff and nonsense, producers seem emboldened to increase their demands for free work. I would think it is a rare industry in which senior executives are not only asked to work for free, but are expected to do so without demur. So it is in the film business.

Some years ago the Guild filed a lawsuit in an attempt to put to an end to what is euphemistically called 'producers' polishes,' but their legal strategy was as bizarre as it was ineffectual. As I recall it, they argued before the court that the producers were de facto agents of the studios and therefore could not demand free work on the studios' behalf. This skewed and largely irrelevant point of distinction was dismissed by the court, and the lawsuit fell apart.

What the Guild should have done, of course, is argue that no employer has the right to demand free work from an employee who is under contract, and use threats to enforce the demand. This would have been a simple argument to make, could be understood by anyone (gaining sympathy from the public), and would have, in fact, addressed the real issue, which is that producers, with a stranglehold on any given project, are guilty of the crime of extorting work from writers; not that they are agents of the studios. The Guild's lawsuit having failed, it will probably be years before the issue is joined again in the courts.

Meanwhile, the producer's polish has become so ingrained in the business that no one, neither producers, writers, directors, studio executives nor agents, even gives it a second thought. We all just accept that, having turned in a first draft, we writers will be expected to re-write our work for free, before the second step of the contractual process commences. Now, lest those of you outside the industry conclude that a producer asking for a few small alterations, the change of a word or two, is innocuous, let me relate some of my own recent experiences.

On one script, we signed a contract for a two-step deal. This means that we contracted for, and were to be paid for, a first draft and one re-write. In fact, on this two-step deal we ended up doing fourteen steps, which means that we wrote twelve drafts of varying significance for free. On another recent script, we signed a three-step deal. After the first step, the producers demanded a free re-write, and refused to pay us until we had done it. Our agents insisted that we be paid, arguing that the producers had no right to hold our payment hostage. The producers agreed to pay us what they owed, on condition that we committed to the free step. The first draft took us about five weeks to write; the free draft took three and a half weeks. And for those three and a half weeks' work, we were paid nothing. I could go on and cite many other examples of this abuse; in fact, we have encountered it on almost all of the scripts we have written. Suffice it to say that the producers who have honored their contracts and paid us for every step we wrote can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Perhaps you understand now my frustration with the Writers Guild, which is so very careful of the rights of gay and lesbian writers, of Latino and handicapped writers, of aged and black writers, and so on in its manic pursuit of political correctness, but ignores the fundamental rights of all writers: to be paid for their work, not to have the minions of production change their work without their knowledge or consent, and to have the integrity of their work respected by the very people whom the Guild cannot persuade or compel to respect us.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Pining in Pasadena

I am this evening mourning my lost pine trees. There aren't many of them in the canyon where I live, and I was fortunate to have two on my property, at the back, on the far side of the pool. They were sixty or seventy feet tall, with ogived arms and needles as fine as salt spray; nests to robins, blackbirds, hawks and the occasional owl. But a few years ago, bark boring beetles made their way through Southern California, and my twin pines were infested with them. They fought for two summers, and I thought last year that they had won. But it wasn't until the fire department left me a notice ordering me to remove them that I realized they were gone.

I took estimates from several companies and found one that offered to cut them down for half of what the others wanted. I happened to be at home the day it was done, and so I watched occasionally from the windows as my pines were dismembered and topped and chainsawed down and the pieces carted away. Now there is a gap at the back of my yard, a bare space thick with fragrant sawdust, revealing a mashed fence and the Spanish tile roof of my neighbor's house below me.

It would be easy, I suppose, to make maudlin comparisons between the loss of my pines and the human condition, bored through with mortality as we are, fighting a losing battle against destruction. But I prefer to think of those two trees as family who have passed on. They join with those whom I had previously lost: my parents, my grandparents, a baby sister, uncles and aunts I never knew and of whose existence I only recently learned, teachers, old friends, two cats and a golden retriever.

I never mourned until recently, because, I suppose, of my Catholic school training, during which, as an altar boy serving wakes, I stood at candlelit attention over two dead bodies every week for six years religiously. I often remark that I saw more cadavers as a child than most medical students do. And that continual exposure to death inured me to its sting, so that even when my mother came home in tears from the maternity hospital, and when she herself died suddenly, and when my father, after long years trying, finally drank himself to death, I scarcely reacted, because I thought my religion and my Anglo-Saxon duty forbade me from doing so.

But I have felt these latest deaths, and any death and every death that comes close by me these days with a keenness seasoned by years of what I can only call enforced stolidity. I was told it was a sign of strength, but the fact is that the longer we remain impassive before mortality, the more vulnerable, not the stronger we become. Since silence is our destiny, we gain nothing by practicing it in life. I sometimes envy those African women I saw when I was a volunteer in the Congo, standing by the roadside at night and wailing out their souls for lost loves. I think now that they were wiser and healthier than me in their howling public grief.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Rethinking Rebirth

The longer I think about the question of an afterlife, the more am I inclined to think that the only possibility which makes sense of both life and death is reincarnation. Now, I have said in my essay on religion and spirituality that I believe that consciousness can survive death, but only for a short while. But what then happens to it? Does it merely dissipate, dissolve into some eternal ether, as the Cal Tech professor said to me? But Dr. Thurman in the preface to his translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead points out that there is absolutely no precedent in nature or human experience for such a thing occurring. Physics tells us that energy cannot be destroyed, but only may be converted into something else. But is consciousness not a form of energy? Is it not made up of years, of decades, of a lifetime of experience and effort, of struggle and suffering, of joy and wonder and imagining? And do all those not require the expenditure or investment of energy? And so, if consciousness is energy, how can it then just disappear?

No, if I am correct on these two points, namely, that consciousness can survive death, and that, as a form of energy it cannot be destroyed but merely converted, then does not the idea of 'the transmigration of the soul' as it is called, make sense? It would explain not only what becomes of postmortem consciousness, but also the meaning and importance of consciousness itself; that is, that consciousness evolves and progresses and expands and deepens with each experience of corporeal life. I have written that my instinct tells me that human consciousness, as an expression of spirit, has a destiny, and that it moves forward despite death to attain to that destiny. Rebirth, then, would explain how this is so.

It was Plato who said that learning is remembering. Rebirth would validate this idea, in that each successive regeneration would possess, either actually or potentially, the residue of previous conscious lives, and therefore offer the possibility of building on those lives to expand and deepen consciousness. And while I do not find that the idea of rebirth in some form of life other than human makes much sense, it does seem to me now that the conservation of spirit and the persistence of consciousness through recurrence in corporeal being makes eminently good sense.

Putting these ideas together, I found myself wondering today whether, after that brief postmortem sojourn during which it retains integrity, consciousness may not transfer itself (or be transferred) to another body, there to continue its movement toward the fulfillment of its destiny according to the dictates of the spirit which animates it. Now, all this is rather ethereal and vague, I realize, but I do not think that it is fanciful. Rather, it seems to me the only way to explain both the meaning of life and the movement of humanity toward something like a transcendent destiny.

I believe that it was Somerset Maugham who remarked that the only form of belief that provided an adequate explanation for suffering, and offered some consolation in death, was reincarnation. I would go a step father and suggest that only the idea of the continual rebirth of consciousness offers hope for the investiture of life with meaning. I have said elsewhere here that if nothing happens after death, then nothing of any significance happens before it. By this I mean, as Tolstoy suggested, that death has the power to strip life of meaning. "There is nothing but death," Ivan Ilyich reflected, "and death ought not to exist." If a human being has only one life, as the Christian faiths contend, and during the course of that life he fails and suffers and experiences joy and hope and love, and then those things are extinguished in death, what was the purpose of that life? Was it not merely a form of self-indulgence, of self-immolation, a kind of cruel joke played on man by an omniscient God who knew all along how the game would play out?

This is one of the many points at which I part company with the Catholic and Christian faiths. By ascribing to man but a single, death-bound life, it offers no solution to the puzzle of meaning. Now, I know that Christianity posits an afterlife, but what sort of afterlife? It is quite vague on the subject. It posits eternal punishment or reward in places called heaven and hell, but, really, this is nonsense. At a time when the human race conceived of a flat earth surmounted by an endless sky, then the idea of a heaven above and a hell below may have been tenable. But these concepts did not survive the advance of science, or ought not to have done so. We do not go to a 'place' after death, for no such place can possibly exist, and to believe this is to entertain a child's fantasy.

And what of meaning? The Christian faiths say that it consists in this reward for good behavior, or in punishment for malignity. But if death is the fate of every person, then everyone is punished, whether good or evil. If death comes to us all despite the quality of our lives, then how is there reward? 'In the afterlife,' the Christians say, but that afterlife is nothing but an archaic myth. (I need not even mention here the concept of the resurrection of the dead at the last judgment, since it is such a patently ludicrous idea that bodies that have lain and rotted in the earth for centuries will suddenly be restored. Restored to what? Their age at death, or some arbitrary middle age, as Aquinas argued. And where will they go? To a sort of country club in the sky? How can anyone believe in such foolishness, let alone take comfort in it?) No, the Christian concept of afterlife is simply not a serious answer to the question of the meaning of life, and the destiny of consciousness and the soul.

Now, all of Christianity is posited on the idea that Jesus conquered death, and in so doing, that he freed his followers from death. This, too, is nonsense. We all still die, Christians and non-Christians alike. And so we are thrown back once again upon the notion that the afterlife in heaven and hell is the ultimate solution for the problem of death. But as I have said, it is no solution at all, but rather a childish fairy tale of some ecstatic sanitarium of the spirit, or of some demonic torture chamber the throes of which are never extinguished.

To my mind, none of this offers either meaning or consolation. But the idea that consciousness survives death long enough to be transferred to another corporeal form, just as had been done in our conceptions and births, does offer both of these. It tells us that there is a point to living and learning and changing, namely, that we are called to a spiritual destiny through the very experience of life, and that each life is an opportunity to expand and deepen consciousness toward some transcendent state. And it also tells us that this life is not the be-all and end-all of existence; not the alpha and omega of consciousness. Rather, consciousness persists and may be cultivated by our own efforts toward the achievement of something that outlasts time and space and any single life, and that links us as sentient beings to that spiritual origin from which we and our natures first emerged.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Genius Among Us

I was thinking today about genius, which is a word I use very sparingly. I have such great regard for genius, and believe so strongly that it is rare if it is anything at all, that I prefer to reserve it for a very select group of people. (Now, when I talk about genius, I refer only to genius as it has manifested itself in Western civilization. I simply know too little about other civilizations to have a meaningful view of the question.)

It annoys me when the word genius is bandied about thoughtlessly. I have heard it applied to virtually anyone in any field who does what he or she does better than most people. But what one means in such a case is that the person possesses a greater degree of skill than even others who share the same profession. I think it is possible for someone to possess a very high degree of skill indeed, and still not deserve the accolade of genius.

Mozart was clearly a genius - I doubt that many people would dispute the statement. But was Haydn a genius? Personally, I do not think so. Shakespeare was a genius beyond question. But was John Donne? My answer would be no. Yet Haydn and Donne did exhibit an extremely high degree of skill in their work. They were great artists whose contributions are of the highest importance. Yet there is, to my mind, something lacking in their work that places them beneath Mozart and Shakespeare.

In my view, the true geniuses of our civilization include Bach, whom I regard as the greatest musical genius of all; Beethoven, Mozart, Michelangelo, Raphael, Tolstoy, Shakespeare and Leonardo. These men's genius is above all question. Beyond them, there are others who deserve the appellation, but a case must be made for each. Among these I would include Einstein, Dostoevsky, Sophocles, Schubert and perhaps Brahms and Wagner. But once again, I think that their position as geniuses can be disputed in an intelligent and meaningful way.

Conversely, I do not think for a moment that Ray Charles or Miles Davis or Ernest Hemingway or Tchaikovsky were geniuses, though they did possess a very high level of skill. Thomas Jefferson may have been a genius, and in his own homespun way, so perhaps was Lincoln. I admire both men greatly, but I would not put them into the same category as Bach and Shakespeare and Tolstoy.

Now you will say that I am mixing apples and oranges by comparing Jefferson to Tolstoy or Einstein to Ray Charles. But I am not talking about the category of the individual; rather, I refer to an evaluation of his contribution to humanity. It is possible to put both apples and oranges into a golden bowl, and that is what I am doing when I speak of genius as an attribute of achievement regardless of the nature of the achievement.

All of this raises the question: What constitutes genius? What is it that elevates it above even the loftiest level of skill? In order to begin to answer this question, I think it is useful to point out that not all human endeavors, and not even all artistic endeavors, are amenable to genius. To give some examples of what I mean by this: painting is an arena for genius but film and photography are not; music is certainly such an arena, but dance is not; the novel, poetry and drama are also forms which lend themselves to genius, whereas song writing, singing and, I think, even instrumental performance are not.

Martha Graham, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev were consummate masters of the dance, but I would not call them geniuses. For their art was entirely a matter of performance, or of interpretation and of skill. Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan were not geniuses, but it is possible that John Coltrane was. Coltrane, to my mind, offers an instructive example of what may be genius in a popular art form, namely, jazz. His skill was of the highest degree, indeed, it would be difficult to name another virtuoso who achieved a comparable level of performance. But had Coltrane been only a performer, I do not think he could be considered a genius. It is in his compositions, coupled with his artistry, that something like genius emerges. And his compositions were characteristically ethereal, transcendent, spiritual.

This, I think, is what sets genius apart. Genius, in order for it to be authentic, must manifest itself in a form which enables creation as well as performance, and which offers the possibility for transcendence, not only of the art, but of the very experience of life itself. Genius puts us in touch with that which outlasts time and the mundane categories of existence in a way that nothing else can. It represents a direct communication among souls, and a connection between souls and the source of that spiritual reality which souls reflect. Bach surely did this, as did Beethoven and Tolstoy. Shakespeare revealed to us truths about the human condition that endure as revelation in every generation. All practiced their art to the highest possible degree, but all, also, transcended their art, taking us to a higher plane of existence. That is what makes them geniuses.

If genius does not reveal the existence and nature of universal truth, then it is not genius. If it is merely skillful rendering, no matter the brilliance or virtuosity of the performance, it is not genius. And another point is worth making: Genius is not acquired, it is inbred. This is so, I think, because genius is the transcendent expressing itself through the corporeal. And this, in turn, implies that the source of genius is some form of consciousness. To put it another way: because people are born with genius, the source of genius must lie outside of the mortal; that is, it must be immortal, eternal, transcendent.

Relatively few people in any given generation are born with a potential for true genius, but that potential is not always realized. To do so requires a great deal of work, a great deal of sacrifice, and a great deal of opportunity. I have said elsewhere here that the true tragedy of the Third World, or of the fundamentalist Muslim world, is that, by simple statistics, there must be within them a few great, lofty geniuses whom we will never know because their genius was stifled by poverty, or disease, or early mortality or the ignorant prejudices of religious fanaticism. The loss of such genius is, to my mind, a matter for universal mourning. For genius is so rare, so unique and so needful to the human spirit that to destroy even one particle of it is a loss that may never be recovered.

Perhaps that is why the world is in the lamentable condition it is: because we have had so little care for the possibility of genius and for its role in elevating humanity that we have, in effect, performed a lobotomy on our race and an excision of our spirit for which we all suffer.

But there is genius among us, both past and present. And the hope that such genius will continue to nourish our souls and enlighten our culture must yet sustain us.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Life on Earth

Those of us who own gardens in Southern California know that the California live oak tree is a protected species. Because I live in a canyon in the foothills, I have several on my property. In recent years, I have taken to preserving live oak seedlings, and nurturing them to maturity. I have one in my driveway that I raised from a sprout two inches tall and that is now taller than I am.

We also know that, since live oaks are protected by state law, we are forbidden to trim or otherwise alter them where they grow. This is, of course, well-intentioned but wrong-headed bureaucratic nonsense. It is what happens when one tries to write an organic process into law. Live oaks, as any other form of vegetation, benefit from judicious trimming. But I recall about two years ago, a couple in Glendale were ordered by the fire department to trim their live oaks, and then were fined $300,000 by the city council for having done so. Such is the inanity of government when it tries to do that which is in the interest of any living thing.

My point is that, today while I was watering in my back yard, I brushed up against a live oak which I had nurtured from a seedling and which is now about three feet tall. Its spiky leaves grabbed hold of my shirtsleeve and would not let it go until I paid it proper attention. It was, as I had known for some time, in need of re-potting, having long since outgrown the clay bowl in which I had raised it. And for a moment it occurred to me that the oak was trying to tell me something; that it was communicating to me a basic need which it was experiencing and which it could not satisfy for itself.

Now this set me to thinking that there are two fundamentally different ways of looking at life on Earth. One is that life is merely a concatenation of events which have no deeper meaning than that which appears in the present. This is the view of the atheists and the secularists, which is invading and infecting our society more and more. According to this view, I ought simply to be more careful how I move about my garden. But there is another way of looking at life. This way assumes that the Earth is a living thing, a spiritual as well as a physical presence, and as such, all that lives on Earth cannot help but express itself, and express itself particularly to us humans as the summit of life on Earth. This implies both that all that lives has some need and ability to express itself, and that we, in our humanity, have a responsibility to listen and to understand.

Now, do I think that my live oak was trying to communicate with me? No, I suppose not. But can I dismiss out of hand, and in a rude and arrogant manner, that it, too, like me, has the need and ability to express itself? No, I cannot do that. Perhaps it was reminding me, in some primitive, self-assertive way, that, though I had nurtured it, I was neglecting it. Perhaps all that lives on the Earth, insofar as it shares life with me, shares consciousness with me as well. And perhaps, just perhaps, its lowly form of consciousness reached out to me, sensing that I was feeling guilt towards it and seeking to remind me of the basic organic connection between itself and me. And that connection is two-fold: my having saved it from extinction, and transplanted and watered and even talked to it. And it, in its latent glory as an oak, a true native of the sliver of the Earth that I inhabit, that it would provide shade and shelter and inspiration and even awe to me.

In this way, was that oak tree, in its nascent vitality and beauty, reminding me of my humanity, and of the responsibilities of my humanity - not only to be human, but to enhance my human-ness by being aware of that which, though it may not be human, is nonetheless as alive and worthy as myself?

Slippery Slopes

I have been very disturbed by two news stories in as many days. The federal government has, as I understand it, decided to convert its bailout money to the banks into stock ownership. This will, in effect, give the government the power to run the nation's largest banks. Also, the EPA has, apparently, consigned to itself the power to regulate (read tax) virtually every aspect of life in America in order to carry out its mandate to protect the environment. That the federal government should nationalize America's banking system, and that an agency of that government should have the power to impose taxes on its own authority in direct violation of the Constitution, is a telling and frightening prospect.

There have been many such examples of this usurpation of Constitutional authority by the government in recent years, forming a pattern of increasing federal control of American institutions, American life and American liberty. The response, on the other hand, has been predictable. The left actively lionizes and promotes this usurpation, given its hysterical confidence in the power of big government to solve individuals' ills, and the right has failed miserably to mount a coherent counterattack based on Constitutional principles. The poet W.B. Yeats might have been describing our current condition when he wrote that 'the best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with a passionate intensity.'

But the truth is that, to the left, the Constitution is merely a quaint artifact of the eighteenth century, for which it is increasingly lacking the shame to express its disdain. Some on the left still pay lip service to the Constitution, but more and more the purveyors of collectivism are making it clear that they never really respected the Constitution to begin with. It was, in their minds, the product of bourgeois, slave-owning male chauvinists who pursued self-interest over liberty and their fortunes over the nation's future.

This point of view is pernicious ideological nonsense, of course, but there are few left in our society, either in politics or in the media, who will say so. And now, with the nation's first mixed-race president in office, any attempt to stem the tide of anti-Constitutional usurpation of power by the Executive can be, and is being, denounced as racist. Indeed, just last night I heard a left-wing spokesperson declaring that the only reason that anyone opposes the federal government's increasing centralization of the nation's economy and its growing regulation of its citizens' behavior is 'because there is a black man in the White House.' (Leave aside her slap at the president's mother, who was white.) This woman might as well have labeled those of us who oppose the Administration's policies as 'filthy Zionists,' or as 'cosmopolitan anti-proletarian agitators.' She would have fit in very well as a hack spokesperson for the fascists or the communists.

In the same broadcast, someone pointed out that in the previous Administration, opponents were called unpatriotic; today, opponents are being called racist. Both positions are misguided and harmful to the national debate. What is needed, in my view, is a return to an understanding that the Constitution is not a mere historical artifact, but a statement of the nature of the nation which was founded upon it. It is a vision, a set of beliefs and principles, which were meant to reflect the yearnings, not of a class of people, but of the human spirit. And this was so because those principles were ascribed not to human will, but to divine will. And whether you believe in god or not, the underlying point is that the nature of the human soul demands, and the nourishing of the human spirit requires, the maximum of personal liberty. This is what the Founders understood, and what they endeavored in brilliant prose and profound political and social terms, to guarantee. But that maximum of personal liberty necessarily implies a minimum of governmental power. And to the extent that the left refuses to accept that principle, and, indeed, stands it on its head, its views and policies are in direct conflict with the Constitution and the spirit in which the nation was created.

If this is so, let them admit it publicly; let the left say that the Founders were wrong, that the historical traditions of this nation are at fault, and that they, and only they, know what sort of a society we should live in. Let them declare that the Constitution is nothing but a blueprint for a structure that should never have been built, and that, having been built, has outlived its usefulness. In short, let them be honest with the American people about their ends and means. And let them tell us exactly what sort of socialist paradise they have in mind for us, rather than try to implement it through extra-Constitutional means, gradually, using courts and bureaucracies which have no accountability to the people. At least then we will know exactly where we stand, rather than having to figure it out by reading between the lines of legislation and court decisions which the people's representatives themselves do not read.

We have, I fear, started down a path from which it will become increasingly difficult to turn back. It is a path that leads to the diminution of individual liberty and the crippling of the human spirit. It is a path away from Constitutional principles and traditions in the name of free health care, free insurance, free what-have-you, none of which, of course is free. At the very least it must be paid for by increasingly onerous taxation, and at the most, by our birthright as a free and self-reliant people.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Musical Moments

I am nearly finished reading a wonderful book entitled 'A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Search for the Perfect Piano.' I have admired and enjoyed Gould's recordings of J.S. Bach's keyboard works my entire adult life, and though I knew that he was eccentric, I did not understand until now how deeply odd he truly was. That he was a sort of genius is unquestionable, but that he was neurotic almost to the point of social paralysis is also clear. Nonetheless, his piano recordings, especially of the Goldberg Variations and the Inventions, have given me more pleasure for more years than almost any others I possess.

Reading the book has made me realize how many of the most precious memories I have are wrapped up in music. And, indeed, music has been a continual source of pleasure, of inspiration, of consolation and of provocation in my life. I will relate three such moments here, in the hope that you, too, may take some enjoyment from them.

When I was a penniless playwright living in Philadelphia, I found myself drawn to the music students in the city. Now one of the few advantages of growing up and living in Philadelphia is that there is no shortage there of fine music and great musical performances, many of them, I gratefully found, free of charge. And so I spent more and more time among music students, people of my own age who were enrolled either at the world-famous Curtis Institute, or at the rather more humble New School of Music. I got to know many of these young people - all of them classical musicians - and much of my musical education is due to them.

One evening I attended a concert at the old Academy of Music on Broad Street given by the orchestra of the Curtis Institute, at which the soloist was the Institute's director, the great pianist, Rudolph Serkin. They played the Emperor Concerto of Beethoven, one of my favorite pieces, and the youth and exuberance of the orchestra, coupled with the elderly Serkin's famous bravura (in which, as one student remarked, he missed whole handfuls of notes, but who the hell cares) was thrilling to me. I heard things in the concerto I had never heard before, and I learned things about it and from it that I had never known from the recordings of the world's venerable orchestras. But the young musicians brought a freshness and vitality to the work that transformed it in my mind.

After the concert, I went with several members of the orchestra, all students, all in their early twenties, to a local watering hole called The Piano Bar, which was, I recall, a basement restaurant and bar with no piano in sight. It was a Saturday night and the place was crowded to the doors. Nonetheless, the students and I muscled our way to a table, and, as usually happens with young musicians after a big concert, everyone was determined to get drunk. I did not (and still do not) drink liquor, and so I alone remained sober.

About three or four drinks into the evening, the cellist who was sitting next to me, asked me what my favorite cello piece was. Now at that time I was romantically involved with a little work by Faure called 'Apres un Reve' or 'After a Dream,' and I told her so. The cellist, an attractive young woman named Wendy Tomlinson, then reached over, opened her cello case, took out her cello and proceeded to tighten her bow and tune. I had no idea that she intended to play whatever piece I named, and, indeed, all of us at the table were taken by surprise. But Wendy was a fey, spontaneous sort of person, especially after a few drinks, besides being one of the best cello students at Curtis.

She then started to play the Faure piece from memory, the whole time smiling beatifically at me. The result was immediate. Everything stopped, all conversation, all movement, all rattling of glasses and dishes. Everyone was listening as the dreamlike melody filled the congested room. But it was as if she was playing for me alone, and I felt, at first uncomfortable, but, after a few seconds, deeply moved and flattered. She played beautifully, soulfully, with great feeling and love. It may not have been technically perfect, but it was heart-rending. I still recall the mood in that stuffy little bistro, the looks on the patrons' faces, and the fact that the entire kitchen staff came out in their white aprons and tall hats to listen.

For the two or three minutes the piece lasted, the restaurant was transformed into a magical space, in a way that only music can do. When Wendy finished, still smiling, there was a breathless silence, and then everyone broke into applause. And as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, she put her cello back into its case and resumed getting drunk. It is a moment which I shall remember as long as I live; one of the few in which I felt truly special.

The second incident occurred in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. I was in the habit of hitch-hiking to this suburb of Philadelphia to visit the lovely cathedral, which was the headquarters of the Swedenborgian religious cult. The cathedral, a graceful Gothic structure, is surrounded by acres of rolling hillside grounds overlooking the peaceful Montgomery County landscape. I often went there in the warm weather to read or to study, lying on the grass below the church, enjoying the quiet.

One afternoon - I think it was a Saturday - I heard organ music in the cathedral. Now I had long been a lover of J.S. Bach's organ music, and I made a point of attending organ recitals whenever they occurred. So I closed my book and went into the church.

The place was deserted, but someone was playing, rather skillfully if not entirely professionally, up in the loft. I took a seat among the pews and listened. When the organist finished, I applauded. A face appeared over the edge of the choir loft railing. It was a young man, not more than a teenager, rather thin and pale. "I didn't know there was anyone there," he said.

I told him that I had enjoyed his playing, and he demurred, saying that he was merely practicing for the Sunday service. I asked if he intended to play any Bach, and he offered to do so. I thanked him and sat down again, but, to my surprise, he asked if I would like to come up into the loft.

I climbed the stairs and found him seated at the console. He invited me to sit down. There were no chairs or benches, so I asked him where. He patted the bench beside him. And so I sat down at the organ next to this rather earnest if shy young man, whose name was Kenneth Coy. Though only eighteen, he was the cathedral's organist, and had been playing for years. He asked if there was anything in particular I wanted to hear.

I told him that my favorite Bach piece is the Prelude and Fugue in A minor. He said he had never played it, but he thumbed through the thick book of music on the stand until he found it. He glanced through it, remarked that it was interesting if difficult, and began to sight read it.

As with Wendy's performance, it was a thrilling experience, all the more so since we were the only people in the church and I was sitting next to the performer. For the first time in my life I had the opportunity to watch an organist at work, and I was amazed. Playing the organ is monstrously hard work, involving both hands and both feet on the maze of keys, stops and pedals. He threw himself into the piece, literally, moving from side to side, working his arms and hands and legs, playing over the three ranks of keys, opening and closing the stops, and working the pedals with both feet like a dancer.

Because he was unfamiliar with the piece, his playing was tentative, but what I have always valued in that work, especially in the fugue, is the sheer joy which it exudes. It is, in fact, the most joyful and uplifting piece of music I have ever heard, and on more than one occasion it has saved me from depression and despair. And to see it played as well as hear it, and played by such a young spirit, overwhelmed me with joy. I was transported in that deserted cathedral, in which the music swirled and echoed, and I wished that it would never stop.

When Kenneth came at last to the end and lifted his hands and feet from the instrument, the final chords reverberated for many seconds, dying away finally into the Baroque emptiness of the church. I don't remember what if anything I said to him. I am sure that I thanked him, and he assured me that he was glad for the company and the audience.

After that I hitched to Bryn Athyn every Saturday to sit on the bench next to Kenneth while he practiced. I learned a great deal about organ music, as well as having a visceral experience of its performance. I also learned that Kenneth was torn about his future. His parents wanted him to attend the college run by the church and enter the ministry, but he had his heart set on going to music school. I felt I had to say something to him. I told him that he was right, and, hard as it was to contravene his parents, he had to pursue his music. He replied that his parents' argument was that as a minister he could contribute to the community. But I had to reply that, as a musician, he could give much more - he could give the gift of his talent, he could fill the church with music that would uplift and inspire countless people, and bring enlightenment and joy to their lives.

I do not know what happened to Kenneth Coy. I stopped going to Bryn Athyn at summer's end. But I hope that he followed his instinct and studied music, and that somewhere in the world today he is lifting the hearts of strangers, as he did mine on those magical Saturday afternoons.

Like the others, the third moment was entirely unexpected. After graduating from film school in Paris, I went to New York City to try to get into the business. Through a series of accidents, I paired up with two young filmmakers, one Israeli and the other Egyptian, and together we formed a company called Elektric Films. Somehow (I don't remember how) we secured a contract from the U.S. Department of Labor to make a documentary about two sculptors who were designing and building playgrounds for underprivileged kids in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. The filming would take several weeks, and one of my partners managed, through friends, to arrange for us to stay in the guest cottage of a vacation house belonging to the great soprano, Phyllis Curtain, near Great Barrington.

Now it just so happened that I had recently heard Ms. Curtin perform at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia, singing songs by the American composer Ned Rorem, with Rorem himself at the piano. She was wonderful, and I looked forward to the chance of meeting her. But my partner informed me that the only reason we were using the cottage was that Ms. Curtin was in New York, and had no plans to come to Great Barrington.

About halfway through the shoot, I was awakened one Sunday morning by a quiet knock at the front door. It was early, I was exhausted, but I dragged myself downstairs and opened it. It was Phyllis Curtin. She explained that she had come up to retrieve something from the house, but that she had forgotten her key and was locked out. She said that the kitchen window was unlocked, and asked if I would be kind enough to climb through and open the door for her. Of course I said yes.

I went with her to the back of the house, opened the window over the sink and climbed up onto the sill. I put my knee down only to find that the sink was full of dirty dish water. The leg of my jeans was soaked. I went to the front door and opened it and found Ms. Curtin waiting on the stoop. She saw at once what had happened and apologized, asking if there was anything she could do. Without really thinking, I said yes, and I asked if she would sing the aria 'I Know That My Redeemer Liveth' from Handel's Messiah. And she did, standing there on the stoop, to an audience of one. Again, it was one of the most wonderful moments of my life.

Just yesterday, I was listening to the Beethoven piano sonata op. 109 in the car on the way to work, and though I don't particularly want to be alive these days, I found myself saying that I do want to remain alive to listen to this music. Music, truly great music, not the distracting nonsense that passes for music in our culture, has the power to transform our lives, to fill them with joy, uplift them, and make them worth the living. This, together with my work and, above all, with my children, is what I live for, what nourishes my spirit, what keeps me alive. And when the work is done, and when my children are grown and gone away, I will still have the music, and, perhaps, more of those magical moments that only it can bring.