Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Perfect Day for Reading and Remembering

'Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around - nobody big, I mean - except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all.”

JD Salinger - Catcher in the Rye (Holden Caulfield,)

It seems funny how things turn out sometimes. Who knows where inspirations really come from or why the stars align certain way. I read once that only about 1.5% of the population has real vocations or callings concerning their life work or careers. This statistic included clergy, medical professionals and some teachers. The rest of the population just plod their way through the muck earning honest days wages and hopes everything comes out satisfactorily in the end. For example, I was thinking the other day about how I really wasn’t much of a reader in my pre-teen years except for a comic books and Mad Magazine. The novels and stories that teachers forced us to read aloud in droning monotone in class were mostly obscure classics that didn’t interest anyone and I couldn’t relate at all to most of the characters. The exception may have been some of Mark Twain’s works. I was labeled an “immature reader.” So I wore that label proudly!

I think it was my best friend Matt who handed me a copy of a little paper back at about age 13 or so that would change me forever. The book was banned in some libraries and it wasn’t used or taught in schools as it had curse word, prostitute, pimple bursting and passing gas in it. Matt was a hero of mine as he was quietly rebellious without a cause and the first person I knew who loved social protest folk music. While the rest of us were dancing to Buddy Holly, Dion and the Belmonts and waiting for someone like the Beatles, Matt was strumming his banjo along to Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary and of course Bob Dylan. No one really played banjo in suburban Jersey in ‘62. He passed on to me his sacred book of controversy wrapped in a brown paper bag and I was sworn to secrecy as to the source of my new found treasure. If I were in therapy I would probably get a better grasp as to why I like to recall this event so clearly. Maybe it has to do with Matt dying from cancer just a few years afterwards when we were both about 19 years old. The main character in the book he had given me had a brother he loved die from cancer. Maybe there is something else to it.

The cover of Matt’s new book looked stupid with this guy with a suitcase and the title was confusing. I used to judge a lot of things and people by what I saw on the surface. This book began to change that perspective. I had no clue back then when I first opened that book that years later I would eventually become a college English major and get a graduate degree in English. Who would have thought that a kid who chagrined reading books without pictures would one day pride himself in reading profusely? You see I had almost failed out of college. I was not adjusting well to the state of pre-adulthood while attempting to get filled with wisdom in the halls of “higher” learning. I was placed in a sophomore English class with the dreaded Professor Irving as our instructor. He was known as the hardest professor in the college. No matter how far in the back I sat in his class I couldn’t hide, as he would always find a way to ask me a question.

During one English class with the Professor the class herded itself in to take a test as we carefully placed our homework in his in-basket on his desk. We had to write a paper about the experiences of being born. Professor Irving was a little out there for most of us. Defiantly and naturally I wrote a poem:

“Birth is a process

Of being released

From one box

Into another

In preparation for

The final one

Six feet under.”

You could say I was still in my pessimist phase, besides I didn’t want to write a paper on birth. While taking the test Professor Irving flipped through the assignments and stopped and suddenly succinctly called out my name requiring that I stay after class. That was it. I had done it. My father would kill me. I might as well run away! After class I stood by his desk as the professor said, “follow me.” He called; I listened and followed sheepishly to be slaughtered. This student dutifully walked what I believed was my last mile in the ivy covered building. When we arrived at his office the inquisition was to commence. To my surprise he started by asking me about what kind of books I like to read and I could only think of the book that Matt had given me years earlier. The good professor didn’t move, as he sat expressionless. I had read other books since as I had begun to appreciate certain fictional and poetic styles but I could only recall the title and author of that one book. He shifted the questioning and asked me if I do much writing. I wrote regularly in a marble notebook, “mostly random observations and some attempts at poetry.” The queries then shifted about my academic major and my academic standing. I think I said “History and almost none.” He gave me a printed form after he signed it and I cried when he directed me to the registrar’s office and I thought he was expelling me from college. That’s when he informed me that I would be an English major.

This all happened around the same time Matt became quite ill and soon tragically passed from cancer. It was about the same time period when on a fateful night where I was drinking away my sorrows when an ole friend introduced me to this girl who went to high school with me who I really had not known. I became that English major and continued dating that girl for the remainder of the next two years. The good Professor Irving and I developed a close relationship and I eventually succumbed and married that young lady. (Did I tell you Matt was an English major too?) From that moment I became an English major and started dating Ginny I had straight “A’s” across the board for the remainder of my undergraduate career. Irving says to this day forty – two years hence that his mentoring led to my academic success and Ginny argues that it was her inspiration that motivated me. In order to maintain peace and harmony I tell them it was a little of both.

It was Professor Irving who encouraged me to go to graduate school and continue my studies. He was the one who encouraged me to consider teaching as a career. Maybe he knew something I didn’t. I thought it might be a good idea. What does someone do with an English degree anyway? But it was years later when I became head of a consulting firm that I hired Irving to do some work for me. Student had become teacher. He recently wrote a book about that experience where he dedicated the book to my staff and myself. If you look at my library of books (see my list on GoodReads) it is obvious that Irving has been quite influential in my life and I am eternally grateful for his influence, mentoring and friendship. He is truly the wisest man I have ever met. But I have to admit that maybe, just maybe if I hadn’t mentioned Matt’s book when Irving and I met in his office that day things might have been completely different.

That same book seems to surface in the oddest places. I was drawn to see movie years ago called Field of Dreams. Yes, it had something to do with baseball and such .It was based on a book by W.P. Kinsella , “Shoeless Joe.” Ok, you have to know the movie to understand the impact it would have a man about forty years old . Not necessarily a great art flick but it still became one of my personal favorites and Ginny still says “arrggh” every time she catches me watching it as I shed a tear when the main character’s last line is heard,” Dad, you wanna have a catch?” In the movie and in the book the main character, Ray Kinsella, tracks down a once famous now reclusive author in Boston . Some inner voice whispered that Ray do this. In the movie the influential reclusive author’s character’s name is Thomas Mann who wrote a book that had a significant impact on Ray’s formation when Ray was just a boy. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? In the movie the main character takes his red and white VW van up to Boston to find this author. I had a VW van exactly like the one in the movie, same colors and same model year! Ray then takes this reclusive author to a Red Sox game at famous Fenway Park. Voices told him to do that too. Did I tell you that girl I dated and later married went to school in Boston and that I moved to a little town outside of Boston to teach and that my favorite team was and is the Red Sox? There is a scene in this movie where Ray parks his van underneath the famous CITGO sign in Kenmore Square. When I first started visiting this new love of my life I would visit her in Boston and stay at her friend’s apartment in Kenmore Square underneath the CITGO sign. Years later I returned to bean town as this pre-Chavez oil company, CITGO, had become a consulting client of mine and I spent a many nights in Fenway Park at “CITGO nights” with the sign smiling at me from over the green monster.

Ok “what’s the big deal?” you ask. Well, you see in the book “Shoeless Joe” the author that the character, Ray, sought out in Boston is “J. D. Salinger” who wrote a book “Catcher in the Rye.” It is the same book that Matt gave me in that infamous paper bag. There is also rumor that in real life the two authors , W. P. Kinsella and J. D. Salinger , were friends. Now it was just a couple of years ago when Leigh showed me this book she just read and described how neat it was. Of course it was “Catcher in the Rye.” To close the door on this chapter one daughter became a fan of the works of J.D. Salinger and the other became a pen pal of Ted Williams (and a Red Sox fanatic.)

Now somewhere fading quickly in my outer memory banks are a multiplicity of recollections and impressions about that book “Catcher in the Rye.” One of these seeds planted on my soul is of a dream the main character, Holden Caulfield, has. He recalls seeing children running almost aimlessly in a rye field and he has to catch them before they fall off the edge of a cliff. For years I thought about that dream and fed my own dreams about a need to be a “catcher.” So I still can’t tell you what led me to do what I have done in my life, in my career: teacher, counselor, consultant, corporate training, professor – all seem that they might have a common theme don’t you think? Unfortunately the children I once taught have grown but many are still running and not looking where they are going. I am still catching . Sometimes it’s not who recommended a book or why, or the impact or worthiness of the art of the book that matters but it's how the pieces touch your heart and what do you do about it to create your own story that matters.

“At the Day of Judgment we shall not be asked what we have read but what we have done; not how well we have spoken, but how holy we have lived.”

Imitation of Christ: Book I, ch. 3, Thomas A’ Kempis

PS – A former associate of mine and blogger - found the original review of CITR, which is on the menu bar to the left here. I am not bright enough to link you to his blog so here it is. Thanks, Ken.


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