Journey to the East

Indian Holy Man

In many ways, most of my life has been a “Journey to the East.” I was raised as a Roman Catholic, going to Catholic schools from the 2nd through the 12th grades. Even at Dartmouth College, I was a worshiper at the Newman Club. In fact, when I fell into a coma in September 1966, it was Father William Nolan, the Catholic chaplain at Dartmouth, who urged the school’s medical insurance program to keep covering me, even though my coverage had officially lapsed at the beginning of the month. So my family and I owe a debt of gratitude to the Catholic Church.

One does not undergo a massive physical trauma without affecting the way one thinks and believes. That September, I was getting ready to take the train to Los Angeles to start graduate school in film history and criticism at UCLA. I had to delay my film classes until the winter quarter to allow me to recuperate.

What was the first book I read when I arrived in Los Angeles? It was Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, closely followed by Paul Reps’s Zen Flesh Zen Bones. I had begun my own Journey to the East, mostly in my reading.

Why did I never fly to Asia to experience Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism directly? Strangely—especially for someone who was visited so much of Latin America—I was afraid that I wouldn’t survive the experience. Among my fellow Clevelanders who attended Dartmouth College was a student by the name of Noel Yurch. I was shocked to find out from the alumni magazine after I had graduated from college that he had gone to India and died of some gastrointestinal disease.

Curiously, my niece Hilary went to India and studied Yoga at an ashram without suffering any major adverse effects. Today, she is a yoga instructor in the Seattle area. But I was convinced it would be fatal for me. Was it nothing but funk? Perhaps.

Today, I still read many books about the Eastern religions. I consider myself to be a strange combination of Catholic, Hindu, Taoist, and Buddhist. Although I do not go to church on Sundays, I do not consider myself to be an Atheist or even an Agnostic. And when I visit Mexico or South America, I spend hours visiting Catholic churches and even attending Mass. But I no longer buy the whole package.

So in my so-called Journey to the East, I still have one foot in the Catholic Church, or at least one or two toes.

Apparently Not a Parent

Somebody Else’s Life

I found out in the most brutal way possible. I was in the endocrinologist’s clinic. The doctor mentioned in an aside, “You know, of course, that you’re sterile?” At that point in my life, I was appalled. Of course I wanted to raise a family, with perhaps two offspring. But it was apparently not to be. I had one major adjustment surviving brain surgery a couple years earlier, but now I had another major adjustment in the offing. No kids. No normal family life.

Upon hearing this several acquaintances (they could never really be my friends) would pipe in with, “You can always adopt!” If I adopted a child, it would be mine only by an act of will stretching decades into the future … to care for someone who, biologically, had nothing in common with me. Okay, so I am not Mother Teresa. I make no claims to sainthood.

I made the adjustment. The women I went out with just assumed that I was telling an untruth when I told them I was sterile, so I went along with it until I went to my doctor who tested me and certified that, yes, indeed, I was shooting only blanks.

Now, in my seventies, I look back on my life and am happy that I did not have to raise any children. My one long-term relationship has been with Martine, a woman who did not ever want to have children. I don’t think I would have been a good father, and as Francis Bacon wrote, “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.”

Not that I have ever had any great enterprises….

Among the Hippies

You Won’t Find Me in This Photo

Although I arrived in Southern California right around the time the Hippies sprang into existence, I was never one myself. I had just undergone brain surgery in Cleveland, and my worries were too basic for me to work on being cool. I was, in a word, decidedly uncool. I didn’t have a beard, though in 1968 I started to grow a mustache, not because it was fashionable, but because it reminded me of my Hungarian Huszár (Hussar) ancestors.

All around me, people were wearing tie-dyed shirts and blouses, headbands, and other regalia suggestive of Native Americans and Asians, the only Hippie trait I adopted was long hair. I had always disliked the crew cuts and flattops that my parents liked, so I let my hair grow when I came to the Coast. As for beards, I tried but it was way too itchy.

Some of my friends were Hippies, and by and large I got along well with many of them. I tended, however, to avoid kids who took their stance too seriously. I smoked grass from time to time, but I was probably more likely to get an asthma attack than to get high. As for more serious drugs, like LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin, I didn’t mess with them.I had no way of knowing how long I would live without a pituitary gland, so I didn’t want to experiment too much. I was into surviving.

And so, more than half a century later, I am still infesting the Earth—with perhaps the prospect of continuing a few years longer. My continued survival came as a pleasant surprise to me.