A Meeting By the River

A few weeks ago, I slipped across the river to meet Howard Bloom (www.howardbloom.net). Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood has that New York feel, but more spacious and playful than the inexorable onward arrow of Manhattan, which I rarely leave in my short visits. Indeed the Tea Room where he asked to meet was very large, scattered with scruffy low couches and old stuffed chairs draped with louche youth staring into their electronic conveyances. A few actually having conversations. Save for the counter indolently offering drinks in the corner (and replace the texting with Marcuse and Fanon books) and the whole dusty scene could easily have been a London squat from the 70’s.

We easily recognized each other in this Facebook era. As he gathered himself, saving his latest thoughts and unplugging his small laptop from the extension cords that snaked around the couches, I gave him a little inspect. From his books I had expected a nerd, and from his portrait intuited a little man. And indeed he is, wire-rims askew, unruly thinning hair pulled back into some sort of ponytail, a series of pens like some IBM engineer in the upper pocket of a personalized one-piece black flight suit – about my age, I guess. With the computer in the backpack, his last bit of apparel was to place a ridiculous Muscovite’s black hat, where the visor is up and earflaps tie across the top. On the front was the traditional red flag pin, which I thought must contain a story, and indeed it did – the last of a large Soviet-era collection stolen from his grandfather.

He has a winning and boyish smile, and one can well imagine the pain of his youth, being so much smarter and more observant than those around him, but unable to defend himself, except intellectually. Been there. His step was jaunty, with each body part ahead of the one below it. We were just flowing through the small talk necessary to get us where we needed to go, and neither of us good at it. The epitome of the absent-minded professor, he was so involved in his talk that he made two wrong turns on the way to his favorite restaurant a mere 5 blocks away (“Whoops, we’re going in the wrong direction” and “Oh, we must have passed it”).

Finally seated in a mediocre Italian (food I would guess is not his forte; everything was ‘very good’ or ‘super-delicious’), we went at it hammer and tongs. No holds barred conversation, about 10 threads going at once, no problem for us to hold all of them simultaneously, switching from one to the next with ease, each silently appreciative when 3 or 4 could be tied in with one poetic image – rarely do I find a person who can talk on this many levels at once, whose scientific grasp is sheathed in a poetic glove. His breadth of knowledge outstrips mine by light years, but he was kind enough to slow down enough for me to keep up with him.

It has been my privilege to meet several geniuses in my lifetime – Bucky Fuller and Rupert Sheldrake come to mind – who share that ga-ga innocence, a child’s wonder and freshness that allows them to look at what everyone else is looking at and see what no one else has seen. Many are so labeled, like Ida Rolf and Moshe Feldenkrais in my field; they were smart and innovative people, sure enough, but gained their distinction through their determination, but definitely lacked this essential child-like element, as do I.

Howard has it – his smile and meandering train of thought illuminate it – but he also has a resident fierceness whose source I didn’t learn in this our first meeting, but which we also share: truth or die, and no compromise. His willingness to lay his life on the line for his truth was illustrated in a few stories I didn’t learn enough about to repeat, but I was convinced. This bedrock conviction – what are you willing to die for? – stood him in good stead through a long stint in the rock and roll business, where a long gesture with one of the greatest artists and most spiritual beings of our time (his opinion, not mine), Michael Jackson.

(When Michael died, I wrote a disparaging review in this blog, based on the media accusations of pedophilia (https://tomyers.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=376). Having watched a bit of “This Is It” on a plane, I revised my view. Talking to Howard further improved my impression.)

Such stories are not fair to recount, and I drop the name only to give him some credence in the real world – he is no starry-eyed intellectual but a truth warrior with a mighty brain. Untied to convention, he sleeps and works at odd hours, and turns down lucrative unchallenging jobs but jumps at the oddest opportunities. He cured himself – unconventionally of course, injecting himself with oxytocin and other chemistry – of a very bad case of Chronic Fatigue, a devastating extended bed-riddance that lost him his marriage and a decade of productive work, but emerged with his innocent ferocity intact, tempered now by a piercing ability to tweak the illusory foibles of those he observes.

I had wolfed down “Global Brain” before I came there, because unlike Peter Russell, Negroponte, Teilhard, Bennett, or other advocates of the electronic brain or noospheric demi-urge, Howard understands that Gaia’s metabeing has been present and building all along in the biological development, and the growing electronic ‘nervous system’ is but an extension of the intra- and interspecies communication that has always been present, we’ve just been too focused on the individual to see it.

I hope for a future meeting to have this conversation, but I had initiated this meeting for another reason. Present-day America, it seems to me, is losing its values, the bedrock Enlightenment principles the founders so cleverly and foresightedly put into the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. The people shouting those words the loudest seem not to have read the documents they brandish in front of you as they do the bidding of our corporate feudal overlords. (I had just left my good friend where I stay, using his loft as a center for a MoveOn effort to call likely voters in Mt Kisco. When I came back from my seminar to view the scene of sincere people on phones all around the room – a contrast in both furniture and energy to the loungers in the Tea Room – he shrugged as if to say “I know, tacky and useless, but I have to do something”.)

Even as we protested against the government in the 60’s, it was not American values we were going against, just how the current administration was applying them in Vietnam and Mississippi. Although a decided citizen of the world, I have always valued American freshness and the openness and tolerance of our mixed society, the ease of movement and the opportunities for industry that are hampered or denied in other countries. Britain always held itself above racism, and deplored the American racism in the armed forces that came to WWII – until so many Indians and Pakistanis arrived after the partition, and the Brits discovered their own xenophobia. And now France, who has always had its pieds noir from Algeria, is deporting Romanies like the Germans deported Jews, and the Chinese ‘absorbed’ Tibetans. So it’s everywhere, I know, but America stood for something, for a kind of equality of opportunity, where democracy was not the tyranny of the majority. Though I know all empires must bloat, teeter, and finally fall, this was my empire, my Rome, and I hated to see it fall not fighting for its principles, but giving them away to the mindless chatter engineered by a few clever profiteers to numb the spirit of an industrious but complacent people. The United States, like latter Rome, has become soft and ripe for the picking – that much of the Tea Party analysis I agree with.

Howard was no help in this line of my discouragement, even though I had come here at the urging of Amir, a fitness instructor in Islamabad (there’s the internet in democratic action – how else would I know this man?), who said that Howard had a plan for the renewal of American values. Instead, Howard was blasé, giving me the old Bucky Fuller solution that we could create cities in the sky and E. O. Wilson’s line that if we failed, other species would take over. OK, OK, if we take the long view, it’s all working out as it should, and we can solve the environmental problems one way or the other, and the human race doesn’t matter much at all in the larger scheme of things – I understand all that, but that wasn’t the scope of the question I was asking.

If we deliberately define the question more locally: America, a fabulously interesting if flawed experiment in the social contract, is in trouble. What can be done to extend this experiment without losing its essentially egalitarian and participatory nature? To this question I received only airy assurances. I am not satisfied. I want to go back for more, because I am sure this interesting man has some answers to this more limited question.

This happened a few weeks ago, and now, as I sit on the plane typing it up, I am in the post-election funk – some good, some frightening in this election. Dylan is the only music that offers some comfort. One party is about as bad as another. Though Obama seemed the voice of reason when he campaigned, it was not enough, nor were the 200,000 (including my daughter and her boyfriend) in Washington for Jon Stewart’s rally, to change the wave I see sweeping this country, o my nation.

Yes, I know it will all work out in the end; yes, I understand the forces of psychohistory, and the futility of human endeavor, especially my own, in the larger scheme of things. But right now I am in mourning – not for the Eisenhower America of my youth, nor for Reagan’s shining city on a hill, nor FDR’s worker’s paradise-to-be, but Jefferson’s rough and tumble of a lively civic discourse, predicated on the idea that only if all of us progress can the few of us excel. Freedom – and I speak of political freedom, not individual spiritual freedom – is paradoxically a social event, not a license to gouge your own way to the top. We are a resilient society, as Jon averred at the rally to a picture of two lines of cars taking their turns into the single lane of the Holland Tunnel, but I see troubling signs of brittleness and isolation in our democracy everywhere I look. Is this what it felt like in Germany in 1933?

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One Response to “A Meeting By the River”

  1. Joel Says:

    Tom
    Two thoughts for investigation:
    1. Instant run-off voting will radically change the “one is as bad as the other” election scenario; many states are participating at least in major metropolitan areas for local elections (Minneapolis and St. Paul began using it recently). I think this holds real promise for breaking the stranglehold of entrenched partisanship.
    2. Spirit needs to be returned to our appreciation of reality. Not just in America, but this is where the blindered materialistic paradigm has set its teeth the deepest into the fabric of a people. I can feel that you appreciate this from your love of art, of beauty – and your passion for life. I haven’t taken your training yet, so don’t know if you bring this piece of awakening to your students. If not, why not? Spirit, no matter how one describes it is what allows meaning in life. Without it people fall back on their fears and prejudices.

    this got longer than anticipated.
    Blessings on you in your journey!
    Joel

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