Monday, April 12, 1999

Dear Sweet SJL

"I heard a nice little story the other day," Morrie says. He closes his eyes for a moment and I wait. "Okay. The story is about a little wave, bobbing along in the ocean, having a grand old time. He's enjoying the wind and the fresh air- until he notices the other waves in front of him, crashing against the shore. 'My God, this is terrible,' the wave says. 'Look what's going to happen to me!' Then along comes another wave. It sees the first wave, looking grim, and it says to him, 'Why do you look so sad?' The first wave says, 'You don't understand! We're all going to crash! All of us waves are going to be nothing! Isn't it terrible?' The second wave says, 'No, you don't understand. You're not a wave, you're part of the ocean.'"

-Morrie Schwartz to Mitch Albom

The other day I was waiting for a Senate hearing to begin. A recently hired researcher and I were chatting and getting to know one and other. Toward the end of our conversation she said to me, "You must read a lot." I wasn't exactly sure what she was basing that observation upon since surely nothing from my part of the conversation would have indicated anything resembling a smidgen of literary intelligence. Over the last ten years or so I've probably read on average only three or four books a year. It's not that I'm terribly proud of that anti-accomplishment, but it's something I've worked hard at. Whenever I read a good novel or non-fiction book I have the same reaction- enjoyment tinged with burning jealousy- I always end up resenting that I wasn't the one to write it. It's been a lifelong goal of mine to write something that truly matters, that changes somebody's life somewhere just like some specific pieces of literature have done for me, so when I read a great piece of writing it serves as an uncomfortable reminder of the work I have yet to accomplish.

I read JD Salinger's short story, A Perfect Day for Bananafish, when I was in junior high. It was the first story I read that completely changed the focus of the way I thought and felt. It masterfully demonstrated to me how writing could change your perspective and how effectively a stirring story could convey the fragility of life. About ten years later I read F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story, Babylon Revisited, a story to this day that continues to inspire me. Fitzgerald was a master of glitz and perfectly described imagery, but this story is one of the finest examples I know of truly writing nakedly from one's heart. Babylon Revisited is a masterful piece that shows how a writer can clearly and masterfully convey and confront his demons at the very time those very demons are consuming him.

Now I've discovered a third equal but different story. Mitch Albom's 1997 Tuesdays with Morrie is a book I must sheepishly admit I picked up because I read an interview with Sandra Bullock in which she expressed her admiration for the book. I knew nothing about what it was about, but if it was good enough for my dear Sandy, it was good enough for me. (To add even more doubts about the book I later found it was one of Oprah's recommendations for her lil' reading club.) I was more than a little skeptical when I found the book located in Barnes and Noble's self help section. About the only meaningful thing I learned from my brush with the psychiatric profession is that there is more than enough psycho babble out there to fill an ocean. Generally I think it's fairly accurate to say if you have to read something to get self help you are betraying the notion of helping yourself. A good self help book seems like an oxymoron, and I am of the firm belief that a great piece of fiction can be more helpful and more insightful than any book written with self improvement as its principle goal.

But Tuesdays with Morrie works because Albom is somehow able to walk that fine line between telling the sad story of a man's battle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS- Lou Gerhig's Disease), and the true meaning of the story, one man's attempt to die the same way that he lived. The book's obvious sentimentality is tempered by the heart and character of its subject, Morrie Schwartz. Schwartz was a college professor and mentor of Albom and the two lost contact after Albom graduated and became a famous sportswriter. Albom learned Schwartz was dying simply by chance because Schwartz was featured one evening on Nightline. Soon the two men have reunited and are meeting every Tuesday for what turns out to be Schwartz's final class for Albom. There really isn't anything all that insightful in Schwartz's observations about dying. He preaches that family is more important than material accumulations, that what we give to the community ultimately is what we judge our own lives by and not professional achievements.

"Learn how to die, and you learn how to live," Schwartz says. "Life is a series of pulls back and forth. You want to do one thing, but you are bound to do something else. Something hurts you, yet you know it shouldn't. You take certain things for granted, even when you know you should never take anything for granted. A tension of opposites, like a pull on a rubber band. And most of us live somewhere in the middle." The book is an unflinching look at an issue most of us prefer not to think about until it's staring us in the face. Unfortunately too many wait until it's too late to let those who matter know just how much they have touched our lives. Tuesdays with Morrie is a book all of us should read if only to remind ourselves this isn't exactly a two way highway we are on.

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