For years, Glenn Beck, the man known for the great deluges of words and ideas that spewed out of his radio and TV programs, kept a secret from everyone: He was dying. Or at least, doctors thought he was dying. In an appearance on his online talk show Monday, Beck admitted that since his days at Fox News he has been silently suffering from a mysterious brain illness that baffled doctors and left him writhing in pain, sleepless, suffering from vocal chord paralysis and seizures.
For 40 minutes, Beck tearfully described how his brain had deteriorated, how doctors had told him he would likely lose normal brain function in five to ten years, and how, in a Willy Wonka–style plan for corporate succession, he had discreetly selected an heir to shadow him and realize his grand vision if—or when—he could no longer remember it.
“We didn’t know at the time what was causing me to feel as though, out of nowhere, my hands and feet, or arms and legs would feel like someone had just crushed them, set them on fire, or pushed broken glass into them,” Beck told his audience. “Most afternoons my hands will start to shake or my hands and feet begin to curl up and I become in a fetal position,” he added later. “When it gets real bad my friends just kind of try to uncurl me.”
Beck is fine now. Doctors at a brain rehab center in Texas finally diagnosed him with adrenal fatigue and an autoimmune disorder, among other things, and after some lifestyle changes and a few months of hormone therapy—plus some help from God, naturally—Beck says his “brain is back online in a big way.”
But staring down a painful early death has a way of making people rethink life. And if you’re Glenn Beck, rethinking life means rethinking America—and specifically, how to save it.
In an exclusive interview with VICE this week, Beck described the illness as a “pivot point,” a seminal life event that fundamentally altered his worldview, pushing him beyond right-wing punditry and toward bigger, even more elaborate ambitions.
“When somebody sits you down and says, ‘Hey, you could be a vegetable in five years and not really remember the names of your children,’ that tends to focus you on Gosh, what am I doing? What is important to me?” Beck told me. Unconvinced that the conservative politics that he had been synonymous with for years could salvage our reeling democracy, he turned his attention to soft power, building a sprawling media empire aimed at reclaiming space in mainstream culture. And quietly, he transformed into Glenn Beck 2.0—a quieter, gentler version who calls for national unity and optimism and who wants Americans to try to love each other a little more.
“I am still the same guy who believes that the country is in trouble, but it has nothing to do with one party over the other,” Beck told me. “It has everything to do with all of us. We’re choosing this course, and I think we’re doing it blindly at times. And what we need to do is step back, look at that, and really choose what it is that we believe to be true, and does that tear down or lift up? I really want to get out of the tear-down business and into the lift-up business.
“I just lose more and more faith in being able to change things at the top,” he added. “We have to change things in the individual and the heart and with our kids. It has nothing to do with policies or politics and has everything to do with our humanity.”
To the casual Beck observer, all this might come as a surprise. The famed right-wing provocateur works under the mainstream media radar these days, and though he runs The Blaze, a news website and television channel, he is still mostly associated with Fox News. That’s where he became famous during the early years of Obama’s presidency, commanding the frontlines of the Tea Party and organizing daily field trips into the dark, apocalyptic mental landscapes of his conservative viewers (Fox host Shepard Smith used to tease Beck’s studio as “the Fear Chamber”). Beck’s show was many, many things, but it was not exactly in the business of lifting anything up.
But since leaving Fox in 2011, Beck has changed his tone, adopting a more conciliatory, even bored, approach to politics. Recently, he’s started apologizing for some of his rhetoric at Fox and for his role in helping “tear the country apart.” In our interview, Beck, who’s been in AA since 1994, describes this transformation in the confessional cadence of 12-step programs.
“I made a lot of mistakes in the past, as anyone does,” he said. “As I saw the trouble that we’re in and the role that I played in it, that was one of the reasons that I got on [Monday’s show] and why I’ve done interviews over the last year. It’s pretty hard to believe people when they say they’ve changed and I don’t believe people when they can’t tell me their pivot point.”
“Now that we have gotten this clean bill of health, I want to make sure I’m spending all the time that I have been given to do things that are empowering and uniting and good,” he went on. “I think we have an opportunity to really change the way things are done in all arenas. I’ve spent a lot of time really doing some serious thought on, How do we do radio now? How do we do television? What kind of television do I want to do? Do we want to try to put some of these stories on film? What does the future look like? Where do I want to leave a mark?”
In the past few years, Beck has transformed into a conservative media mogul and red-state lifestyle brand—a sort of avuncular Oprah Winfrey-Arianna Huffington hybrid for people who go to megachurches, bury gold in their backyards, and read critical biographies of Woodrow Wilson. His media footprint is sprawling, including an online television network with 300,000 paid subscribers, the third-highest rated radio show in the country, a wildly successful imprint with Simon & Schuster (including 12 bestselling novels of his own), a movie studio, and a clothing company. He is also richer than ever: According to Forbes, he earned $90 million last year, which is more than Oprah and much more than he ever made doing cable news.
As the Glenn Beck Industrial Complex has mushroomed, Beck has also fashioned himself as a tech disrupter, intent on putting “old media”—that is, liberal media—out of business. There is an element of libertarian futurism in the newfound optimism of Beck 2.0 that hints at his old anxieties about America’s moribund freedom.” What gives me hope is Silicon Valley,” he told me. “The vision of the future, and it’s not some ‘flying car’ future, this is real, life will change as we know it in the next five to ten years. There’s a real reason to feel optimistic about tomorrow.”
“Instead of telling dystopian stories,” he added, “we also need to look at the good side, look at what we can do: Man can be healthier, more well-connected, and we can end so much pain and suffering in a very good way and turn everything around… I really think that the freedom that is within our grasp is the exact kind of freedom that our Founders hoped someday we would find, but never understood the route that would get us there. Now, with technology, man can truly be as an individual is free.”
With his health issues now in check, Beck said he plans on reshaping his media empire around his softer, more hopeful vision of America. Since announcing his illness Monday, he’s rolled out a series of new media projects based around Beck’s new love-and-hope message, including a national #IChooseHope event, when the Blaze website and television channel will black out bad news entirely and encourage viewers to share their feel-good stories. The goal, Beck said, is to reclaim the country’s cultural narrative.
“I want people to be able to see and understand, and I mean this for the right and the left, that family-friendly doesn’t have to mean sappy crap,” he said. “Things that are clean doesn’t mean that they’re not gonna be good or dynamic.”
As with most of Beck’s media empire, this new vision is inspired by his idol, Walt Disney. “Disney knew that the world was about to change,” he said. “You could tell a Disney story right off the bat… It was hopeful. It had a brighter tomorrow. That’s not great for everybody, and that’s fine, but somebody’s gotta be out there in a contemporary way just telling great stories. And by the selection of our stories, it will tell a greater story about who we are, and what we believe in.”
How Beck plans to execute all this isn’t totally clear. And while Beck has a devoted following, it’s not likely that relentless optimism and historical narratives will put Beck back into the mainstream. But that may not be the point. Beck seems to have made peace with his self-imposed exile, content to build a parallel media universe around his new vision for America.
So far, that includes a three-part miniseries on Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, a feature film about the life of Santa Claus, and a stop-motion animation series about history. There’s another feature film in the works as well, but Beck won’t give any details except that it’s called The Revolutionary, and that “our intent at this point is it will not be in English.” He told me he also wants to do a series on Crazy Horse, to “set the record straight on what America did to the Native Americans.”
“That, coming from somebody like me, is confusing to people at best. But it shouldn’t be, because it’s the truth,” he said. “We can correct American history, tell the truth about ourselves that’s not all Red White and Blue Rah Rah, but still, in the end, if you understand it, will deepen and enrich our experience of America, while inspiring people. It’ll be great.”
“. . . as these tellers of tales sat around the fireside or under the shade of trees, and looked into the rapt faces of the listeners, the deeds of men, monsters and the phenomena of nature became fused into one and their work grew architectonic, the story taking on artistic form and moving on to a magnificent climax, revealing in the end the ethical order of the world.”
So summarizes my following excerpts from the introduction of a small, tattered book [Wyche, Richard Thomas. Some Great Stories and How To Tell Them. New York: Newson and Company, 1910.], a copy of which was passed on to me by my grandmother.
With the spirit of Halloween once again animating us, it’s a time for the telling of macabre tales of ghosts, ghouls and goblins. But then, it’s always a time for the telling of stories. We are a storytelling people. At times our tales have questionable worth, but often enough, we tell stories “taking on artistic form and moving on to a magnificent climax, revealing in the end the ethical order of the world.”
I hope that this blog of mine, When Is A Party Not A Party, is a storytelling blog in the above “artistic” and “ethical” senses—with stories of our exponentially-changing world, stories of library robots, rocketships from India to Mars and teenagers (“digital natives”) who multitask with current media technology in a super-fast manner–ultimately, stories of “spiritual development.” It, at least, would make my late grandmother happy, and that would make me happy. The best stories, ultimately, make people reflective of our world—and happy in the common quest to become a more positive force within it.
So, here are some brief reflections on the history and value of story-telling, of turning the outward in and the inward out, from a 1910 book that now spans almost a hundred years through the times of my grandmother, my mother and myself. –SB
STORY TELLERS were the first teachers. Before the art of writing or of making books, before even the runes or picture writing, there were story-tellers. Sagamen, scalds, rhapsodists, bards and minstrels by word of mouth handed down through the centuries much of our literature. Unconscious teachers they were, but none the less did they inspire and teach the people as they recited the deeds of their great heroes, . . . Before even the day of the Sagamen, somewhere far back in the morning twilight of the world, people began to tell stories.
When the child-race first looked out on the face of nature, saw the sun, moon, and stars; heard the stormwind and thunder; saw the tragedy of nature, the death of summer and the long sleep of winter, what did he think? To him it was pregnant with conscious life—men, monsters or gods, to be obeyed, worshiped or grappled with. This world of outward phenomena beating in upon him was a great fact, sometimes bringing cold, hunger and death, and at other times warmth, joy and gladness. If the world of outward phenomena was a marvel to the child-race, none the less significant was the discovery of the world of inward phenomena. Where did these hopes, these fears, longings, yearnings, loves and hatreds come from, and what did they all mean? He did not stop to analyze, but in obedience to a universal law spontaneously expressed in some way what he saw and felt.
He had two great facts to deal with, the world of outward objects beating in upon him and the soul and self-consciousness stirring within him. What must he do? In some way give expression to what he saw and felt; he must make the inward outward. He could interpret this outward world only in terms of his inward life. He had life, joy, sorrow, difficulties, death, and when the day was over he would lie down and sleep; therefore the sun must do like wise. When the sun came up from the sea and burned his way through the sky and went down gain, to him it was life—conscious life. The sun strangled the serpents of the night; he went forth like a strong man battle. Sometimes the storm-clouds would vanquish him; then he scattered his enemies, and from a clear sky smiled upon the children of men. Then again he went down in a stream of blood, in the red clouds of sunset; and still again into the calm and perfect peace of a clear sky.
. . .
Some became expert in the recital of stories, and as these tellers of tales sat around the fireside or under the shade of trees, and looked into the rapt faces of the listeners, the deeds of men, monsters and the phenomena of nature became fused into one and their work grew architectonic, the story taking on artistic form and moving on to a magnificent climax, revealing in the end the ethical order of the world.
In some such way came the Saga and the Saga-man, the story and the story-teller. Crawford says in the introduction to his translation of the Kalevala, the great Finnish Epic, that it dates back to a time of great antiquity, to a time when the Finns and Hungarians were a united people; in other words, to a time at least three thousand years ago. Although the poem is as voluminous as the Odyssey, it lived all these centuries by oral tradition among the people. It was collected and published for the first time during the last century.
In Rune III of the Kalevala, we have a true picture of the ancient story teller and his work
“Wainamoinen, ancient minstrel,
Passed his years in full contentment,
On the meadows of Wainola,
On the plains of Kalevala,
Singing ever wondrous legends,
Songs of ancient wit and wisdom,
Chanting one day, then a second,
Singing in the dusk of evening,
Singing till the dawn of morning,
Now the tales of oldtime heroes,
Tales of ages long forgotten,
Now the legends of creation,
Once familiar to the children,
By our children sung no longer,
Sung in part by many heroes.
Far and wide the story traveled,
Far away men spread the knowledge
Of the chanting of the hero,
Of the song of Wainamoinen;
To the south were heard the echoes,
All of Northland heard the story.”
In the oldest specimen of English poetry that has come down to us, we read of Widsith, the far traveler: “Thus roving, the gleemen wander through the lands of many men as their fate wills; they find ever in the North and in the South some one who understands song.” These story tellers, sagamen, skalds, gleemen, rhapsodists, who wandered from land to land telling or singing of some great deed, were welcomed by court and king, as well as by the common people. And sometimes as one passed from one court to another, a chain of gold hung about his neck as a royal gift.
These story tellers, bringing news from the outside world as well as giving the people glimpses of the higher realms of thought with which their story dealt, were true teachers and poets. Not surfeited with book-learned lore, they spoke out of their hearts to the hearts of the people. Their names have usually been forgotten, but their work remains in the stories of Ulysses, Siegfried, Beowulf, King Arthur, St. George, The Kalevala and similar stories—a picture of the life of the primitive race, a history of the spiritual development of man in time’s morning.
The spoken word has more life than the printed page. Literature was first vocal, and nature’s plan has suggested the method for the education of the child to-day, and the stories she used have in turn become the stories for the children of to-day.
Note: above photos by S.A. Bort, autumn 2014.
Nestled snugly between sleep and consciousness, I listened through our bedroom window to birds singing in backyard trees, dreamily wondering if the morning’s chorus included the two blue jays that I had spied late yesterday afternoon by the birdbath, or the red-breasted finches that granted occasional appearances or the rarest of all winged royalty to this backyard choir—the cardinal. Surely, the gray sparrows were present in force this morning—this first day of spring.
Our cat Mittens moaned from the bedroom window, seeming frustrated, tapping his claws lightly against the pane of glass that separated him from all the backyard merriment. With a sudden thud against the carpet, he jumped to the floor beside the bed. My wife of fourteen years stirred for a moment next to me, then settled.
The shuffling footsteps of my mother in her slippers over a creaking kitchen floor could be heard faintly through the wall that divided our bedroom from the kitchen. The wooden screen door between the kitchen and the pantry area of the garage opened, then closed, slapping four times against the door jamb before its reverse crescendo into silence. The screen door opened again, then closed, slapping the wood four more times, again falling silent. The footsteps returned. I heard water running in the kitchen sink and then my mother’s hacking cough, chronic, seemingly lording its power over her costly prescriptions.
My father, unaware that he had less than four months to live, made his way into the kitchen. He pulled himself forward in his wheelchair using one foot, the one not paralyzed, against the kitchen floor. His foot went down—thump! He pulled himself forward. His foot went down again—thump! He pulled himself forward. With his right side paralyzed from a 1979 stroke, he had learned to use his foot against the floor along with his good hand on the wheel to guide himself forward. He stopped at the breakfast table. I could see him there, even with my eyes closed and the wall of wood and plaster between us.
The aroma of fresh coffee and bacon drifted under the bedroom door, enticing me toward consciousness. I pushed myself out of bed and headed for the shower. Mittens passed me along the way, moving on a mission toward the freshly vacated, warm bedsheets, as if toward a bed of freshly cut, backyard grass, toasty warm from the morning sun. One might have had the mistaken impression that he was visiting his parents here in the Panhandle of Texas.
When the various rites of morning had passed, and noon drew closer, the four of us loaded into a light-brown, eighty-four Buick Le Sabre that belonged to my parents. The car was large enough so that my father’s wheelchair fit in the trunk and he in the front. I drove. The ladies sat in the back. It was fourteen miles to Spearman, where the only Catholic Church in Hansford County offered their annual spaghetti luncheon as a fundraiser. It was important to my mother that we attend.
Driving through the scarred and barren landscape, home to the Comanches little more than a century ago, I asked about Ed, my best friend in high school. Still divorced, forty-one, and raising two of his three daughters in Perryton, Ed repaired roads and city vehicles. His ex-wife Donna had their youngest daughter. Howard, his father, had half his right foot amputated last December. A diabetic, he had apparently stepped on a nail in his garage. Not realizing the seriousness of the situation until too much time had passed, an infection developed, then gangrene. Doctors were forced to cut his toes off. Later, after no improvement, they cut farther.
For most of his life, Howard designed and repaired wooden, antique clocks. He worked with other wooden antiques as well, but mostly, people wanted their clocks fixed. He could have continued with his work despite the operations if his eyes had not gone bad as well. For a while, his son, Ed, would use his good eyes and hands to do the repairs while Howard stood nearby, instructing him along the way. Howard finally retired from work to relax and enjoy the time that remained with his family.
At the spaghetti luncheon, I recognized a handful of people, all very old now except for Cecilia. I hadn’t seen her in more than twenty years. A practicing nurse, specializing in respiratory care at a nearby hospital, she recently turned thirty-nine.
Cecilia, her cousin Kim, my friend Donnie and I often flirted with trouble. She remembered clearly the times when we drove ninety miles to Liberal, Kansas. Donnie was eighteen then and could buy beer. In Texas, the legal age was twenty-one. We drove back to Hansford County with Budweiser “Tall Boys,” which we drank, children that we were, sometimes drinking beneath flickering Christmas tree lights of the Panhandle night sky—so much light amid so much darkness.
Cecilia’s sparkling eyes stirred ghosts from their long slumber. I introduced her to my wife. Cecilia had never married. She informed me that Donnie had divorced and moved to Oklahoma City. He managed some Wal-Mart kind of store, she thought. Her cousin Kim was still married, working as a county clerk at the Court House. We talked for only ten or fifteen minutes, then said our goodbyes.
From the luncheon, we drove to Hansford Manor. My Great-Uncle Ralph, ninety-eight years old last December, paralyzed from cancer around his spine, welcomed us there with his glowing smile and stories of life in the old Panhandle days, cattle ventures, wheat harvests and fruitful days in the banking business.
He was the first of our family to move to this county, in 1926. He worked for the Spearman Bank until breaking off with a partner and forming the Gruver State Bank. He had lived the most financially towering life of all among our family.
He bragged up a storm about his daughter Peggy, honored recently in San Francisco as “Volunteer of the Year” with a hundred and twenty-five dollar-a-plate dinner. “One hundred and sixty-four people showed up,” he said with shining eyes—“a hundred and sixty-four!” He had bronchitis, his nurse informed us, but sounded much better today than yesterday. We spent fifteen or twenty minutes with him, then headed for home, allowing him his rest. Before parting, as always, he kissed my mother’s hand and then my wife’s hand.
The early part of the week had stayed cold and windy. Mid-week passed, and the wind turned calmer. The temperature rose. The road from my parents’ driveway to the gate of the Gruver Cemetery stretched just shy of two miles. From the cemetery, the town of Gruver appeared in a distant haze across several fenced fields to the west. While there, I hoped to revive some of the stories hidden behind the names that had been carved in stone—stories of people I once knew when they were alive and kicking.
A disturbing sight greeted me. Bird feathers lay scattered over the ground. At first, I thought the wind had blown them in from nearby fields, but there were so many—literally, they covered the ground. Walking further, I saw bird heads with hollow eyes and opened beaks, as if silenced in the midst of cries. Whole wings, black with red centers, indicated that they were red-winged blackbirds. The numerous bushes and hedges appeared freshly manicured. Having nested in the shrubbery, the birds must have flown in a panic into the noisy, hedge trimmers. Bird parts had fallen like leaves about the grave markers, casting a remarkable rudeness about this place of respect. The grass had dried almost white with green sprouts of new grass poking out here and there. Cottontails hopped from out of bushes, paused to look around, then hopped away. I saw only one ground squirrel dashing about.
The grave markers faced east and west with the north-side highway running east and west as well. Fields of dry grass bordered the cemetery on the remaining three sides. I recognized more than half of the names on the stones.
Diana, a school friend of my sister’s, and Mark, who I mostly lost to at the town pool hall, share the same day of death: March 10, 1973. They had planned to spend that day together in Amarillo, but died instantly along the way in a head-on collision with another vehicle. “Thy God Has Claimed Thee As Thy Own” was carved into both of their stones. She was one month away from her sixteenth birthday. He was twenty.
Mike, whose family lived across the street from ours, was returning to town with his wife on August 29, 1981 for a Thanksgiving weekend visit when his wife fell asleep at the wheel. His neck snapped. He was twenty-seven, and his wife survived.
Van, my brother’s best friend in high school, was leaving for college in New Mexico when he accidentally veered his Corvette off the road and into an embankment. He died April 2, 1970, two months before reaching age twenty-one. Buddy, his father, whose lawn I used to mow as a boy, died of cancer exactly three months ago yesterday, December 21, 1995. He was three days away from his seventy-fifth birthday. A small, oval photograph of a prize-winning steer had been permanently fixed upon his stone, where a picture of the deceased sometimes appears. The dirt was still fresh and piled high.
Christian and Emma, my great-grandparents, rest next to my grandparents, Cuma and Arthur, near the center of the cemetery.
Walking there, among the stones, the timeless question came to me that when a tree falls in a forest . . . is there only sound if someone is there, to hear it fall . . . if someone is there, to speak of the sound to others?
That evening, my dad retired to bed early. My mother fell asleep in the living room recliner with the television still on. For a while, I watched her closed eyes and her slightly opened mouth. I listened to her relaxed breathing and the ticking wall clock, and I stirred within like a child in a womb, resenting time and the decay that it brings. Turning off the television and lights, my wife and I then stepped quietly through the darkness to our room, with Mittens, leaving my mother to her restful dreams.
by Stephen Bort / 30 July 2013 (9 May 1996)
photo by S.A. Bort
I was living in Denver, Colorado when originally writing this essay. I entered it in a contest sponsored by the Denver Women’s Press Club. The reader kindly rejected it from the winners circle, commenting, “You write well, with good narrative descriptions. This piece reminds me of a chapter from one of those family epic novels, which sets backgrounds for the characters and their relationships. . . . I got the sense that I was reading stream-of-consciousness rather than a good, compact piece with a purpose. . . . I found myself wondering what the purpose of the piece was. Who are all these people mentioned? What do they have to teach me or show me that I care about? What would the audience be outside your own family.” She concluded with, “Your style shows great promise.”
Today is the third anniversary of the brutal and unnecessary killing of a nephew, Shawn, who was shot to death by police.
He had encountered the law previously for misdemeanors but nothing more serious. On this day, three years ago, he placed himself in the company of someone who had previously committed at least one fatal crime. They planned the armed robbery of a man with a car load of cellphones so they could sell the stash of technology that would most likely later be sold again for use in other crimes.
The theft went terribly wrong. It appears to this day that the police had staked out the affair. How else could they have been in pursuit in so little time? Shawn and his shithead companion ran over something that caused a flat tire, then ran from the car.
The police gunners could have targeted him in the legs and then stopped when he fell. Instead, they shot him multiple times in the back and legs. When a Flight-For-Life helicopter was called for, the police said no and asked for an ambulance, which had to make it there in afternoon traffic. Shawn bled to death. His shithead companion was wounded and captured and is now serving time. I wasn’t there, but that’s the story as I understand it to this day.
Even within the space of seconds, there’s time for reason. There’s a clear need for law enforcement, but there was no reason for the multiple kill shots. Sure, he was involved in a crime that involved a gun, someone else’s gun. I won’t justify the crime. What he did was wrong, and I believe in the absolutes of right and wrong. Excess force leading to the overkill of a twenty-three-year-old is also wrong.
Maybe it’s just that he was family. Maybe I’m hopelessly naïve to still believe in the virtue of reason, even within the space of seconds, especially among those who are trained to react in seconds.
At Columbine High School in April, 1999, it was just the opposite. SWAT team members were afraid to enter the school. I lived a handful of blocks from Columbine High at the time, and I walked to that memorial service, the sorrow of which will never leave me — the doves being released for each of the victims and hair-raising fighter jets thundering in and out of low-hanging rain clouds, almost close enough to touch. Those elite were trained to go in under those circumstances — and they stalled. In Shawn’s case, the police rushed to a quick and messy kill. Things are just so wrong so often.
All of us have stories, good and bad. I have plenty of stories. Stories are important. They have to be told, sometimes over and over. Sometimes they stick, sometimes not. Sometimes they proliferate, most times not. There are storytellers of their own stories, and there are storytellers on behalf of those who have passed.
I’ve used up at least a handful of my “nine lives.” Once, I was with friends on a road trip to Austin, Texas. We were in a “beater” of a car on our way back north to Amarillo with cases of Budweiser in the trunk. We would down the beers and then relieve ourselves into the empty cans, throwing the full cans out of the windows. Even pigs showed more brains. I was about twenty years old then, sometime in 1975.
The driver began to swerve, at something like 70 MPH. He swerved to the left, then the right, overcompensating each time until landing in a side ditch and sliding forward with the car sideways. I was in the passenger-side back seat with a steel culvert coming at me on the other side of my window. We hit the culvert, which I was sure would flip our car over it. Instead, somehow, we bounced over and slid to rest on the other side.
Once upon another time, when I was eighteen, just two months out of High School, I was driving my brother’s early-1970s, BMW Bavaria that he had purchased while in the U.S. Army in Germany. He had it imported back to the U.S. and let me drive it on occasion. He trusted me.
I had been in the habit at that time of driving to Liberal, Kansas, where beer could be purchased at age eighteen. In Texas, you had to be twenty-one. I had two younger friends with me, and we were on our return trip to Texas from Liberal with a case of Budweiser “Tallboys.”
It was common to drink and drive back then in Texas, not near as enforced as today. My brother’s BMW would easily do 120 MPH on the straight, seemingly forever highways on the Texas plains. Fortunately, I was just accelerating as I left a small town for the open road. An older couple, in their seventies or eighties, pulled up to a side farm-road and braked at a stop sign. I saw them and continued forward. They looked at me, it seemed, but then they pulled forward.
I smacked them dead-center into the rear axle of their Cadillac at about 30-40 MPH. There were cuts and bruises to go around, but luckily that was all. I spent my one and only night in jail, and my brother’s BMW was totaled, its front end like a metal accordian. I’ve made lots of mistakes in life, none quite as eyeopening for me as those two. We’ve all made mistakes, and will continue to do so.
Here are my three “morals” to this story, which I’ve told to younger members of my family, and which I consider at the pinnacle of the list of “wisdom” I’ve somehow managed to pick up in life.
1. There are three kinds of accidents: Those that go away almost immediately; those that go away after some time has passed; and those that never go away.
If you trip over something, then right yourself and quickly look around, seeing that nobody observed what happened, then you brush yourself off, walk away and no one but you knows.
The two accidents that I described above, I consider somewhere between the second and third kinds of accidents. Most of those involved are either dead now or have forgotten the whole thing, but both incidents left an indelible mark on my psyche that stays with me always when I’m either driving or placing myself into a car with another driver. I could easily have died in either accident, along with one or more of all the others.
My nephew Shawn, as good as his heart was, made the third kind of mistake, which will forever affect him, his family, his friends and anyone whose eyes happened to be on the horrible scene that day, three years ago, when he was “overkilled” by the police, lying there, no doubt wishing that he had chosen instead not to run, not to have placed himself in the car with his shithead friend, not to have wanted money so bad as to break the law for it until his short life was over and he could wish no more.
His two children will no doubt forever wish the same things that can never ever be. “Why didn’t you just stop and put your hands up, Shawn?” How many times have I asked myself that question?
2. Always think BEFORE you find yourself in the company of people you don’t know.
I remember once, back in the “hazy daze” of the 1970s, when a very good friend of mine drove me to a little house way out along dirt roads in the farmlands of Texas in order for him to acquire some exotic Mexican weed from someone that he knew but I didn’t. We arrived there, and I found myself in this “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”-style dump with pounds of pungent grass on a table, various well-used tools for weighing it, cutting it and bagging it, along with a visible variety of firearms. I remember being in a serious conversation with myself, basically asking “WTF was I thinking?”
The journey began with me climbing into a familiar car with a familiar good friend and ended with me in a dump of a lonely farmhouse somewhere out in the sprawling shadows of Texas. Luckily, my friend and I walked out of it, but not without wisdom that I’ve somehow carried with me to this day.
A co-worker of mine told me a story once about her and some girlfriends who had traveled down to Mexico for a vacation. They were on the beach in bikinis and saw some hot guys in swimsuits motioning to them from a small yacht just offshore. The guys wanted them to swim out and join them to party. They did. After arriving there, it didn’t take long for my friend to realize that even though things went well, and they lived to tell about it, it was an incredibly pig-stupid thing for them to have done, to have placed themselves into the confines of that boat with total strangers.
Shawn, to my understanding, had just met his shithead friend days before their attempted theft. The guy was a friend of Shawn’s girlfriend, and he placed himself in the guy’s company with blind trust. “I know about climbing into cars out of blind trust, Shawn, but with the intent of armed robbery? Why?”
Think of this in a political way, as well. When you pull the ballot crank in a voting booth, you’re essentially placing yourself in the backseat of a very big car with someone driving that you really don’t know much about at all. Pulling the crank is blind trust, even when you think you know who you’re placing in the driver’s seat. You can’t go through a whole life without placing yourself in some kind of backseat at some point. I’ve done it. We’ve all done it. In this political sense, you have to pull the crank for some driver. Blind trust, though, is never one’s friend. Reason is the only equalizer.
3. When working at a coal mine in Wyoming back in 1979-80, I had to take an OSHA safety class since I would be working around trucks the size of small houses with tires twice as high as a Chevy van, as well as other hazards. I learned something in that class that I still keep in mind thirty-two years later.
If you place a roller skate on a living room floor and leave it there, it’s an accident even though it hasn’t happened yet. If you pick it up when you first notice it, you’ve eliminated the accident from happening. It works the same way with a car tire that’s becoming bald. If you leave it, it’s bound to go flat when you least expect it – like when you’re on the highway doing 70, or 120 in a BMW. But if you fix it asap, then you’ve prevented it from happening.
The Nature of Accidents: An accident is not something that has already happened, but something that has potential for happening. If you nail it in its potential stage, then you’ve nailed it from happening.
The last time I saw Shawn was Christmas of 2008, three months before his killing. He was twenty-three, having been born three days before Thanksgiving of 2008. Shawn was someone to be thankful for, 100%. We have all made mistakes, and all of us have known terrible accidents.
I can’t say why I’ve come close to death in the past but lived, and Shawn didn’t. I don’t have that answer and never will. I was so shocked after the phone call came early the next morning, before sunrise. His death was so uncharacteristic of the young man that I knew.
He worked in a health food store at one time as a manager. I remember him telling me all about the benefits of certain vitamins and supplements. “I know what would be great for you, Uncle Steve,” he would say, concerned for my health, writing down some names. “Why don’t you try some of these for awhile?” There are lots of answers I just don’t have and never will.
I like trying to find original stories or folklore that have found their way into modern thought, still moving forward after so many storytellers have passed. These treasured tales often wind up like those whispered to children sitting meditatively in a circle. By the time they arrive, having traveled from origin to a present form, they’re often much different, or at least applied differently, sometimes for good intent and other times not. Free will guides the choice.
These are three of the earliest Oriental examples of the concept of “the one and the many,” the most recognized of which is “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” Please note that these concepts were passed as oral traditions, by storytellers, for many years prior to their being committed to writing (the dates given below).
The basic concept can be found in plenty of modern examples. One would be the contrast between libertarianism and socialism or between the individual and the State. A second post follows on this one, focusing on a modern example of the concept from the author of The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher [ The One and the Many: The Ants of Capital Hill ]. –SB
A number of disciples went to the Buddha and said, “Sir, there are living here in Savatthi many wandering hermits and scholars who indulge in constant dispute, some saying that the world is infinite and eternal and others that it is finite and not eternal, some saying that the soul dies with the body and others that it lives on forever, and so forth. What, Sir, would you say concerning them?”
The Buddha answered, “Once upon a time there was a certain raja who called to his servant and said, ‘Come, good fellow, go and gather together in one place all the men of Savatthi who were born blind… and show them an elephant.’ ‘Very good, sire,’ replied the servant, and he did as he was told.
He said to the blind men assembled there, ‘Here is an elephant,’ and to one man he presented the head of the elephant, to another its ears, to another a tusk, to another the trunk, the foot, back, tail, and tuft of the tail, saying to each one that that was the elephant.
“When the blind men had felt the elephant, the raja went to each of them and said to each, ‘Well, blind man, have you seen the elephant? Tell me, what sort of thing is an elephant?’
“Thereupon the men who were presented with the head answered, ‘Sire, an elephant is like a pot.’
And the men who had observed the ear replied, ‘An elephant is like a winnowing basket.’
Those who had been presented with a tusk said it was a ploughshare.
Those who knew only the trunk said it was a plough; others said the body was a grainery; the foot, a pillar; the back, a mortar; the tail, a pestle, the tuft of the tail, a brush.
“Then they began to quarrel, shouting, ‘Yes it is!’ ‘No, it is not!’ ‘An elephant is not that!’ ‘Yes, it’s like that!’ and so on, till they came to blows over the matter.
“Brethren, the raja was delighted with the scene.
“Just so are these preachers and scholars holding various views blind and unseeing…. In their ignorance they are by nature quarrelsome, wrangling, and disputatious, each maintaining reality is thus and thus.”
Then the Exalted One rendered this meaning by uttering this verse of uplift,
O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim / For preacher and monk the honored name! / For, quarreling, each to his view they cling. / Such folk see only one side of a thing.
Udana 68-69 (Buddhism canon: Pali/Theravada, 1st Century B.C.E.) The Jainist version is considered older, but I like this Buddhist rendering better. — SB[ http://www.cs.princeton.edu/~rywang/berkeley/258/parable.html ]
2. “Truth is one, sages call it by various names“:
‘Ekam sat vipraa bahuda vadanti’ has been translated by some as ‘Truth is one, sages call it by various names’.
The sentence is ‘Ekam sat bahuda (iti) vipraa vadanti’ which means ‘It is the ONE reality which appears as MANY – So say the sages’. In other words, this sentence is only giving out the vedantic vision that though there appears to be MANY things, there is only ONE reality which is non-dual.
Vedanta (Hinduism, 1700-1100 B.C.E.)[ http://www.indiadivine.org/audarya/advaita-vedanta/138127-truth-one-sages-call-many-names.html ]
3. “God, Who is One has many manifestations“:
. . . as seconds, minutes, hours, quarters of a day, lunar days, week days, months, / Are created by one sun and so are created many seasons by it, / Similarly God, Who is One has many manifestations . . . .
Sri Guru Granth Sahib (Sikhism: Kirstan Sohila, Asa Measure, Guru Nanak, 1469-1708 C.E.) [ http://sikhs.org/transl6.htm ]