SCENES FROM CHILDHOOD
I must have been a contemplative child by nature, prone to day-dreaming, present in body
but elsewhere in mind. My mother was forever contriving tasks whose purpose I now
perceive was to encourage a healthy interaction with the outside world. She would send me
to the grocery store with a shopping list I was to give to some gruff giant who, my mother
assured me, would gather the requisite items and "ring them up" for me. I would panic, both
fearful of the confrontation and unable to read my mother's handwriting, and choose, as best
I could from the shelves, those items I thought she might desire: a large fish with one staring
eye, a package of delicious chocolate cookies... I would be found out and humiliated, and in
my distress lose my way on the walk home.
It's not that I lacked curiosity, it's just that experiences in the world stimulated reflections: for
me life was a collision between external reality and imagination, between things and ideas.
I really haven't changed much: as an adult I'm more comfortable navigating in transcendent
Gnostic realms among the blessed Aeons, the terrible Archons, than finding my way along
the concrete highways of New Jersey. And if it's true that, after all these years, I'm no closer
to solving those riddles whose existence lends living such charm, it's only because, as I now
realize, there are no simple answers, despite what we are often told, and in spite of which
the questions remain beautiful, and the questioning essential. Does not the lily, accosted by
spring's miracle, respond each year with gratitude and joy? Shall I do less?
Besides, this wondering keeps me warm, and, for the most part, out of grown-up trouble.
FIRST GRADE : THE DARK DOUBLE
My earliest memory of school is of sitting at my desk, lost in thought, engrossed in some
intellectual exercise more stimulating than the lesson unfolding before me. Back then I was
impressed, in a rudimentary manner, by the magnitude and diversity of the world, the
apparent boundlessness of external reality. At the same time, the formation of my
personality entailed the organization of subjective space into patterns of increasing
sophistication. The tension between these experiences - of the chaotic world and the
ordered self - found expression in the dream of miraculous coincidence. With silent
intensity, as I sat at my desk, I attempted first to imagine a subject as obscure, as unusual,
as I could, and then to fantasize a boy just my age, in another classroom, far away, who was
thinking that same thought at precisely the same moment. In other words, I wanted to know
whether repetition, hence form, is possible in the context of a virtually infinite matrix of
choices. If it were, I thought, that might indicate the presence of invisible but powerful
forces, like gravity, that would tend the world in certain directions in preference to others:
this hidden bond I conceived as a secret connection between me and my unknown friend,
whom I pictured, smiling complicitly, while an authority figure loomed behind him, shadowy,
I remember as well the vaguely guilty feeling that the lesson was slipping by, that there was
something I should have been attending to, along with the intuition that this wasn't the last
time I'd find myself in that position.
The non-existent friend whom I imagined so clearly has been replaced, in my adult
experience, by a host of people - writers and musicians - all of them real but more difficult to
visualize. It's their ideas - their insights and philosophies, their themes and forms of
development, I've encountered with a shock of recognition, delighting me with the revelation
of an unsuspected affinity, even as they disappoint me with the proof I've nothing new to
Meanwhile my obsession with finding finitude, with imposing form on an entangled world,
rich in randomnicity, has evolved into something like the opposite quest: now I dream of
many mes, of infinite selves, alive, simultaneously or consecutively, in worlds without end,
each existence unique and unimaginable from the vantage of the others, all of them bound
by the tiny, invisible indestructible force of a single, unifying human intelligence.
As for the feeling that my mind should be elsewhere, that I'm neglecting something practical
and important, it has only grown stronger with the multiplication of those responsibilities that
cause me, in turn, to betray and abandon my daydreams so that I'm ever torn, and never do
justice to anything.
SECOND GRADE: BIRTH OF THE IMMORTALITY PROJECT
On the first Friday of every month my classmates and I were led from the school building into
the church across the street to kneel in the pews and pray amidst a scattering of ancient
parishioners who clutched their rosary beads as they mumbled fervently, eyes fixed on the
large crucifix suspended above the altar.
One such morning I found myself directly behind some lonesome octogenarian and, since he
was seated, relaxing against the back of the pew, and I was kneeling upright, my face
hovered within a few inches of the back of his neck.
I was astonished by the deep wrinkles, the sagging, leathery texture of his skin, and
dismayed at the prospect of becoming old, decrepit, senile. I glanced at the faces of my
friends, whose skin was smooth and without blemish. Was it possible, even inevitable, that
each of us, with the passage of time, would be subject to such a miserable demise? I stared
again, more intently, at the old man's neck. If it were true that he once resembled us,
youthful and spry, then I should be able to notice a process of disintegration continuing
before my eyes. I realized, of course, that such a process, if it were at work, operates too
slowly to be noticed, like the movement of the hour hand on the great clock in our
classroom. But I reasoned, with juvenile logic, that if, from moment A to moment B, no
change in physical appearance was perceptible, nor from moment B to moment C, nor C to
D (as the rate of change, I assumed, was constant) then from A to D or to E or to any point
in the future, however remote, would likewise present no noticeable change. All that was
required for me to escape the vicissitudes of aging was a lifetime of vigilantly staring into the
mirror, watching over my face.
Needless to say, half a century later I've got plenty of wrinkles, but thanks to recent
developments in cybernetics there's hope that, before too long, I'll have some kind of
robo-neck, smooth and virtually ageless, along with cyber-arms and legs, cyber-heart and
lungs, and anything else that might need replacing so that, after all, I might yet cheat time
But with a cyber-brain, would I still feel the urge to paint, to make music? If robo-me never
sleeps, how can he dream? And then what of the unconscious, seat of intuition? Will the
birth of cyber-humanity mark the death of art? There is a tension between our infinite desire
and our finite existence, and this same tension informs a work of art as the creative impulse
encounters the limits of human perception and memory. If the past is perfectly present, and
if the future is unanimated by hope, will we forever and literally be killing time, robbing it of
both its mechanical significance and its subjective depth?
Or do these concerns only reveal my short-sightedness, the poverty of my imagination? Am
I behaving like those sceptics who warned Columbus he'd sail straight off the end of the flat
earth? For meta-humans why not meta-art? - for instance an open musical composition with
indefinite extension, freed from the necessity of patterning. Did I not, as a boy, dream of an
endless melody, devoid of those tedious developments whose appearances, impinging on
the natural beauty of the themes, would cause me, inevitably, to lose my way, to become
Or maybe future holds the antithesis of infinite extension: a musical work consisting a
single tone, suffused with an superabundance of overtones, to beings like us an
incomprehensible noise but to our descendants an elegant micro-counterpoint with a
perceptible play of partials, an ecstatic, everything-at-once effect, perhaps even granting
that transcendence art has always promised but never yet succeeded in delivering.
Or is there some activity beyond art and music and literature that I fail to imagine (as the
clam, clinging to the stone on the sea floor cannot imagine Mozart), an activity appropriate
to a new humanity, that will enrich their lives even as music does ours even leading to the
attainment of that which all the arts indicate symbolically through the senses?
But if art is the means by which we explore those mysteries without and within, and if art
loses its relevance,then perhaps, in some bright future, all enigmas will vanish, all riddles
dissolve in clarity, apprehended in a pelucid present that lasts forever.
THIRD GRADE: MY PA RENTS ARE SPIES!
As a boy I shared a bedroom with two younger brothers, so for a long time I used to go to
bed early. I would lie in the darkness, sometimes for quite a while, beguiling myself in my
sleeplessness by concocting fantastic stories in which I was the chief protagonist. I was the
orphan who, through his wiles and his courage, attained the love of a princess, I was the
soldier passing through Jerusalem who rescued Jesus from the cross, I was the
galley-slave, captured by a savage race and recognized as the king's lost son.
I even went through a period back then where I considered the possibility that my parents
were Russian spies whose loving care for me, reaching back as far as I could recall, was an
elaborate reuse whose purpose I could not discover though it was clear that the extreme
lengths they had gone to in disguising their true intentions indicated the existence of
supreme malevolence. The issue was how, without revealing that I was on to them, to
extricate myself from the danger I found myself entangled in. I would need to slip away and
report them - to whom? The police? The President of the United States? I would need
solid evidence, considering my tender age and their solid reputations.
I was, in all these fantasies, the underdog, the outsider, the messiah with salvific gnosis: I
was nuts. But my intuitions - that ours is a fallen world, that all creation groans for
redemption, that our spiritual homeland is far from here - were a source of secret happiness
and the origin of that beautiful Elsewhere that blossomed within me, strange and vast, and
which I later recognized as the Land of Music and Poetry, and interior kingdom pressing out
into the dull, deterministic world, enshrouding us in a spiritual aureole, granting us that
subjective space we need in order to continue to believe and to dream.
For as we age the world presses in on us, piling up monotonous routines, entangling us in
decay, dragging us along where it will. I glimpse my face reflected in the window of a
crowded train-car that's shaking and clanging. I may be tired and hungry but there's a smile
on my face: as I am drawn inexorably toward death there grows within me, effortlessly, the
conviction that none of this is real, or rather that this present existence is one among many
times and places I've been or one day will be. And as the clamor of the moment softens and
blurs, there takes shape in my mind a sense, almost palpable, of a mysterious Somewhere,
strange and familiar, looming,beckoning. I wish to capture this vision, to bring to the world,
even to these unhappy souls crowded about me, like a Prince of Light from Beyond, this
Gospel of Hope, to move from intuition to certainty, to know now what later will be...And I
realize, as the train screeches to a stop - my stop - that the moment of full remembrance will
be the moment of my death.
FOURTH GRADE; HEAVEN IS A GERIATRIC WARD
In those days and in Catholic school, teachers didn't specialize in a subject of instruction.
Whatever their particular aptitudes or interests might be, they taught the same group
everything. Looking back, I suspect that our fifth grade teacher lacked either the requisite
training in conventional theology or the dogmatic temperament to inculcate it in our stubborn
heads. As evidence I can cite one interesting afternoon when, during "Religion Period," he
dimmed the lights and pulled the shades over those tall windows that looked out on the
school playground and beyond to those grainy white boulders bulging from the ground that
curious archaeologists would come to study - and began to speak, in the newly hushed
atmosphere, of ways to understand heaven.
It might surprise you to learn that this was a topic we all found relevant in the extreme.
Having become acquainted with the doctrine of the Resurrection of the Body (in incorruptible
form) and the promise of immortal felicity (on condition of good behavior), we were anxious
on a number of details: Did our dogs and cats accompany us to the next world? (No, we
were told: only humans have souls.) Did the hobo with the lame leg on the corner of
Broadway and 207th street hobble along in paradise for eternity or was he cured? (Cured,
probably.) Swept up in the excitement of so many propitious prospects, and suddenly
cognizant of another potential dilemma, I raised my hand and waved it vigorously to get the
"Dad," I began - for in my enthusiasm I had momentarily become confused, and thought
myself back home. "Sir," I corrected myself, "since most people live until they're in their
seventies, it seems heaven must be filled with old people." My colleagues murmured in
agreement: it seemed to us, suddenly, that the afterlife must resemble one of those
gatherings of seniors we'd witness in the shuffle-board court of Inwood Park in those hours
between dismissal from school and dinner.
I do not recall my teacher's reply, but as it seems to me now there are three possibilities.
1. If there is a heaven and I'm in it then it must be a certain version of me - the fifth grade
me, or the handsome me of my twenties, or the current me (my momentary favorite). But
whichever version it is would fail, inevitably, to satisfy all those other versions of me (whose
claims to be me are equally valid) so that, in the end, the winner would be the "last man
standing" - quite possibly some wizened old man after all.
2. If heaven is for eternity and eternity is understood not as time's infinite extension but as
the collapse of time into a plenitudinous singularity, then all those mes, the sum of my
experiences, is what I'd be. But all of me at once may prove to be none of me at all, for we
are defined by choices made in the context of limitations imposed, under particular
circumstances. Not heaven, then, with our aunts and uncles floating about girt in milky
robes, festooned in clouds, but nirvana is what we're looking at, a kind of everything and
everywhere of the here and now variety, which perhaps amounts to nothing and nowhere
and nevermore and no thanks (I'm thinking right now) to that.
3. But if it's me, really me, the ever-changing me, neither one of me nor all of me at once,
but moment by moment me, still growing and changing, well, that wouldn't be heaven, but
more of this. And I'll admit there's a part of me that would accept this gladly: to live on, in
one place or another, in one or another form, but really to live, with all life's uncertainties and
questions unfulfilled and unresolved, with no ultimate goal, simply to live, eternally risking
toothaches, bankruptcy, heartbreak.
Of course the scientists may be right, insisting there is no afterlife and attempting to console
themselves with the doctrine of the conservation of energy which holds that our essence is
indestructible and will be recycled through the eons. When I was young I liked the way that
sounded; I'm less keen on it now, but if it turns out I have to I can put up with it.
But it doesn't convince - and not for the reasons you might think. No, it's not from an excess
of optimism I'm incapable of believing I'll cease to exist as an individual, quite the opposite:
it's a feeling for karma, a guilty sense of unfinished business that inclines me to think there
will be work for me to do, and time to do it.
And besides all this I find myself wondering (more and more of the time) : where does time
go? Or if it's we who move through time, we who are a-going, then perhaps time - all time -
is always here (or there), like a landscape.
Are such questions tossed into the void? Are the silly hopes of humanity silenced, over time,
by a mute, indifferent universe? Or is such a universe called to account by the aspirations of
a silly humanity?
FIFTH GRADE: BIRTH OF THE LITERARY UTOPIA
Our recent literary efforts - essays in fiction, some poetry - having attained such caliber as to
merit dissemination beyond the school's borders, our teacher one day announced that he'd
be taking us to the urban campus of his alma mater to type, to print, to bind and to sell our
fifth grade literary magazine.
We called it The Porpoise Floats in honor of Mr. Porpora, our mentor, who might be a
descendant of the obscure Baroque musician Nicolai Porpora. I can still recall the giddy
feeling we boys shared, standing on the corner of Convent Ave. and 135th st. offering our
work to bemused passersby, and I think that it was then that there began to form within me
the dream of a utopian community of authors bound by their dedication to high literary aims.
For there were in my midst, so it seemed, certain writers of talent, or at least of ingenious
imagination. Richard Costello's short story, The Brillo Pad Monster from the Kitchen Sink
proceeded, in a mere five pages, from tranquility to pandemonium, leaving the reader
gasping, clutching his neighbor on the bus for support. And Joseph Burns, for all those
years an undistinguished student, shocked his audience with the revelation, in the last line
of his tale, that the brave astronaut, torn to pieces by the inhabitants of a planet he was
visiting in the hopes of establishing friendly relations, was himself the jackal-faced alien, and
it was we- we, who ripped his limbs asunder in xenophobic rage.
My own contribution was a modest, if quietly disturbing story, The Purpose of the Porpoise. I
was especially pleased with the unresolved ending that seemed at once to point in several
directions. But this was a last-minute substitution: I offered it in place of a bigger piece I had
been struggling with for months - a futuristic tale in which life expectancy has been vastly
increased to the point where ancient, wizened wisps of humanity come to resemble helpless
infants and ultimately fold back into the womb (I admit there are problems here) resulting in a
crisis of diminishing population.
Two years later we started a school newspaper. Attracted to girls now, but afflicted with
irremediable shyness, I thought to distinguish myself in their eyes through the indirect
eloquence of the written word. I also wanted to appear tough. So I composed a scathing
editorial on our teachers, a group of well-intentioned young men whose influence was
benign, whose surprise I was counting on but whose dismay only now do I appreciate.
Briefly I came to experience a hero's glory and a coward's shame.
Years later, while vacationing, I would institute for my children the habit of writing as a daily
exercise after morning baseball and before afternoon swimming and nocturnal reading. In
more recent years, the children being grown and gone, the old classmates dead or
scattered, I concocted an imaginary band of personas under whose various names and in
whose sundry styles I continue to enjoy something like a sense of a utopian literary
I think, over the years, I've gotten better (at writing, I mean). Anything I read now that I wrote
long ago seems inadequate, and I'll probably die dissatisfied, glimpsing some bright work on
the horizon I won't survive to finish, though what I hope to accomplish in any case has
always been vague - there's just this urge to put experiences into words, and to share these
words, and to be enlightened by the words of others, affirming at once our common humanity
and the irreducible uniqueness of the self.
CHAPTER SIX: ON THE VIRTUES OF KEEPING YOUR MOUTH SHUT
Our Saturday ritual consisted of breakfast, a few cartoons, and an afternoon in the park.
Back in those days and in that neighborhood kids were outdoors much of the time
unsupervised, which saved them from both the bane of obesity and the blight of organized
The only thing that could interrupt this pattern was the occasional decision by my parents
that we needed to purchase raincoats, or slacks, or some other item whose acquisition
required our presence in order that we "try it on."
"I know you want to play hockey with your friends," my mother would say, with a gravity that
allowed of no argument, "but it's important to take care of such business every now and
then." It was the same tone my father would adopt every other year when he informed the
family that we were "having the painters," and that we'd be moving furniture away from the
walls and emptying closets. "For the next few days there's going to be a lot to do here, and I
need everyone's cooperation."
My parents were good and wise beyond reproach, but I could never comprehend this
grimness, and as an adult I have stood by the promise I made to myself back then, that I
would never require my children to sacrifice a day of fun at the altar of mundanity.
But such events were rare, and as a rule we were free to play most of the day: baseball in
spring and summer, roller hockey in fall and winter. And with twenty five cents in our
pockets, my little brother and I could buy cups if Italian ice, and enjoy them, seated on the
concrete, leaning on a fence, warmed by the slanting sun. We weren't a perfect fit for those
tough, working-class Irish immigrant streets, Joe and I, dressed in those fancy red sweaters
our grandma knitted, and I must have sensed this for, in those early days I preferred to skate
alone with my brother in a secluded part of the park by the river. But inevitably we were
lured beyond this safe haven to mingle with our school friends in the basketball courts
where, with that mixture of inexperience and intelligence, of shyness and opinionatedness, it
was only a matter of time before I clashed with curious, street-savvy characters. Suddenly,
to my surprise and dismay, I'd find myself in over my head, pinned against the wall by some
snarling, freckled ogre, or encircled after school by bloodthirsty classmates, goaded to fight
with Dennis McSomethingorother, lanky, intent, implacable.
This kind of thing happened to me more often than it should have, and I can recall, in the
wake of such traumas, sitting at my desk at school the next day, exhorting myself henceforth
to bear in mind that, in the interest of a smooth and safe existence, all I needed to do was
learn to keep my big mouth shut.
Have I learned that lesson as an adult too well, and to my shame? Are my words
circumscribed by the consequences they could beget? And is what's excusable in a child
reprehensible in a man? They say most Nazis didn't really hate Jews; they just went along
with the extremists in order to minimize their inconvenience. Am I afraid of offending some
admiring reader by revealing that, alongside certain progressive tendencies in my thought, I
cherish notions antithetical to his taste? And will humanity in the future, having grown, by
the brave efforts of others, more sensitive and compassionate, conclude that people like we
were unwilling or unable to reach beyond the prejudices of our time and follow unwaveringly
the implications of our convictions?
As, for example, on the topic of abortion. My concern for the unborn has nothing to do with
an affinity for either religious fundamentalism or political conservatism. I despise rich
Republicans and brainless Bilble-belters alike, but I have as little respect for liberals who
clamor for the rights of women, minorities and the handicapped while sanctioning the
destruction of the defenseless unborn. I do not know when life begins, or even what that
means, but I do know when I see the powerful controlling the destiny of the powerless, the
articulate justifying their actions upon the inarticulate. I recognize that legislation becomes
necessary only when our conscience fails, and that at the core our society needs not laws
but a change of heart. And of course it's true that to criminalize abortion would lead to
dangerous situations for women. But every school child knows that you don't solve a
problem by creating a greater one. There is a strain of hypocrisy that runs through our
culture whose distinctive characteristic is the facile, overly literal and simplistic division
between acceptable and egregious behavior: terminating a fetus is perfectly legal, while
choking an infant is murder; purchasing pornography in which the participants are 18 or
older is legal (and increasingly "mainstream") while, if the participants are 17 it's criminal
(and prosecuted with a show of outrage); participating in various increasingly violent sports
is legal, no matter how badly the combatants are injured, while violent criminals are
condemned as psychopathic misfits.
The truth is that civilized human beings should stand in respectful awe before the mystery of
life, be it old or young. The truth is that pornography, degrading to women and trivializing to
sex, is incompatible with love. The truth is that violence, consensual or not, brings the beast
in us and kills the nascent angel.
There: I said it. Now come and get me. You'll find, I'm sure, that I'm still unprepared for the
challenge: with a few clever words some scholar-bully, ironic incarnation of those childhood
toughs, will have me pinned to the wall yet again. But watch out: with the lessons I've
learned from those early days I'll defend myself in a most unexpected manner, and if you find
such actions hypocritical, well I'm no worse than you. I'll spit in your eye, punch you in the
nose, and send you running home, your fancy arguments tucked under your arm, to your
mama (who, by the way, decided, years ago, despite the inconvenience, to bring your sorry
ass into the world).