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.

Monday, April 5, 1999

Every Night is Taco Night

No spring can possibly begin until I get my traditional top of the year up past the ears haircut. This ain't no ordinary haircut, it's a major buzz job. I went in last week and told the guy I wanted it as short as possible without my hair sticking up. Mission accomplished. Now there are only a few angles where I look like as if my head was caught in farm machinery. I may not be ready to go but at least I look the part.

Spring ahead, fall back? If I ever run for the legislature my first priority will be repealing Daylight Savings Time. Most of us ain't farmers no more and besides it seems to be rather vain to attempt to manipulate something that in the end we have no control over. Yes it is nice coming home to an extra hour of sunlight, but why only in the spring and summer? Why not change our clocks forward in the fall too?

But it's no use to look back when there is so much to do. Mr. Max spotted an advertisement in the newspaper the other day that got us all excited. TACO NITE! it said in big bold letters. It was the perfect April Fools Day dinner we thought because Max and I are nothing if not fools for all cuisine south of the border. We packed our bags and headed for the unknown address in the advertisement. Unfortunately when we got there two and a half hours later all we found was a discussion on iron pellets. Go figure. By the time we got home Max was all meowed out and wasn't in the best of moods as we did our traditional Easter ritual of dressing him up in his bunny suit and hiding malted milkballs all around the house. I must say this year's carton of milkballs was especially malty!

Yeah, I really wanted tacos and it's rough sometimes getting your hopes up for something out of the ordinary only to be disappointed. But it's no use getting all bummed out for too long a time. Life is full of comedians masquerading as every day people. I went to the drug store across the street the other day to buy some stamps. "I want twenty one cent stamps," I tell the clerk. "We don't have twenty-one cent stamps," he snickers. I should have paid in pennies. I stop next at the gas station. I fill up my tank and go in to pay. "I was on number twelve," I tell the Super America employee. "And then what happened?" he wisecracks. Must be the haircut.

Pre-spring cleaning began this week. Thursday night I took a look around the house and decided a new layout was needed. There I was at midnight moving around furniture from room to room. Mr. Max couldn't quite conceal the look of concern on his face. When I was done I'm not sure I made any vast improvements but it did give the place a slightly new look. There no longer is a computer room but different rooms now have computers in them. The exercise machine was taken from the centerpiece of the living room. (Who needs machines when you have Taebo?) The only thing that took away from the refreshed feeling was the lateness of the hour and the knowledge that soon some actual cleaning needs to occur. And taxes? I suppose it's time to get those done.

Springtime is about many things but most of all it is a fresh start and about having to return back to the beginning of the cycle all over again. It doesn't always seem fair that you lose an hour in the spring when it turns out you really don't always get that hour back again equally in the fall. The events between that time can take a lot out of you. No other time of year provokes such vivid bittersweet memories in me. This is the time of "The Trip." This is when my mother sewed a little brown cloak with cotton balls plastered all over it for my first major public performance as a pussy willow and then I got sick and couldn't participate in the play. I remember going to the Target in Woodbury on Easter with our favorite person with a rabbit related name and having a Target hot dog for lunch. We parted ways and she went home for Easter Dinner and called me that night and told me she had begun sobbing at the dinner table and couldn't stop. Her family of course looked on with great concern and she simply couldn't tell them what was wrong because she didn't know. Spring can do that to you.

Indeed, I seem to be living on the edge this spring. I was grocery shopping a while back with my friend. We made it to the dairy section and as I was choosing some yogurt she told me to be sure to not buy the lowfat kind because she read it caused seizures in some people. Well, last week I had a hankering for some strawberry banana yogurt and all they had was the lowfat kind. I decided to throw caution to the wind. No seizures yet and man that yogurt was tasty!