Monday, August 28, 2000

I Wanna Be a Survivor (or Sedated)

I recently was at the mansion on the hill, at my favorite reporter's house off Summit Avenue attending a book reading by the author, Rafael Alvarez whose new novel, "Orlo and Leini" captures the arc of a love affair (and the taste and smells of living in Baltimore). I was quite enjoying Mr. Alvarez's reading when part of the story quoted a line from a somewhat obscure Brian Wilson song, "Baby Let Your Hair Grow Long." Immediately I felt a connection to the writer.

Back in 1988 after I had just started working for Cheapo, I was in the midst (mist?) of my somewhat infamous first blue period. I was living in a duplex with a couple of guys, one being the guy who got me connected to this company, the affable Johnny Baynes. One night Johnny came home from a late shift at Cheapo West with a copy of Brian Wilson's new (and long awaited) first solo album (the album that includes "Baby Let Your Hair Grow Long.") There was a buzz around the release from the reclusive ex-Beach Boy, with all his well chronicled emotional struggles and the controversial role his therapist (and guru) Eugene Landy played in producing the LP. Johnny kindly gave me the LP. I put it on the stereo and immediately felt something I hadn't been able to feel (having been quite numb for a while)- INSPIRED. Here was an artist (some would say a genius) who had been all but given up for as dead, coming out with well crafted music. The opening track "Love and Mercy" is as nakedly (and admirably) confessional as it is compelling. The song "Melt Away" blew me away. "The world isn't waiting just for me. The world don't care what I can be..." Shortly after playing the LP over and over for days upon weeks I decided it was time to break through my emotional anguish and crippling writer's block and begin work on my life's ambition- a novel. Wilson's LP played throughout my writing of the well meaning but ultimate failure that finished in a 265 page mess of a story.

It has occurred to me over the years that my favorite artists share a common trait- they are all survivors. Along with Wilson there of course is Bob Dylan who has been written off many times over the years only to release a work of art that inevitably gets labeled "his best since Blood on the Tracks." There too is Francis Albert Sinatra who pulled off the greatest comeback of any singer after he had been deemed finished. I so admire people who overcome the odds (placenta previa babies for instance) and succeed by their sheer determination.

When I first heard about the CBS show "Survivor" I was almost as indifferent as I was critical. The whole idea of the show- stranding 16 people on an island to survive the elements and ultimately whittle the group down to one who would win a million bucks- sounded as stupid as it has turned out to be. And this whole trend of "reality" TV ranging from "The Real World" to "Jerry Springer" has been as tawdry as it has been annoying. The idea of "Survivor" seemed to take this trend to another plateau. Yet the day one of the guys in my office came in and asked us all if we had seen the premier episode and said it had been the darndest thing he'd ever seen- I knew I had to watch the scheduled repeat a few days later.

Watching that repeat I became immediately hooked. The show's hokeyness ("the tribe has spoken... "Fire represents life...") sets the nearly impossible perfect tone. It has been a fascinating look at group dynamics. It is hardly a coincidence that the show's four finalists were the four most conniving of the entire group. The ultimate lesson of the show has been that in a corporate culture sometimes it is inevitable to get ahead one has to be more than a little self serving.

So this past week I had a wonderful conversation/lunch with the person who succeeded me (in all the meanings of that word) at my last job. Unfortunately her experience ended much the same as mine- questioning the ethics of the person we reported to. She had endured (much as I tried) in a culture of dysfunctionality and survival. For me it was an enlightening message about how standing up for personal principles is as hard to do as it is worthwhile.

It was a valuable reminder of the importance of remaining committed and curious as to what is next. For some inevitably their existence on this shared journey (listen to Wilson' wonderful and achingly heartbreaking song "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times") is tragically cut far too short. For others is the admirable ability to outlast and endure their seemingly destined fate. The lesson of the show "Survivor" as cynical as it has been (one must be as indifferent, as manipulative as possible to get ahead) notwithstanding- those who are to be admired are those that are as aware and as sensitive enough to comprehend that in the end what we are here for is to serve someone other than our own self interest- is to learn how rewarding life can be.

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