Where Elvis Lives

A while back, a business trip took me to Memphis for the first time. Me and my boss at the time, let’s call her Daphne, were just there for a morning presentation, but I made sure to book a late flight home in order to have time to visit Graceland – something I had always wanted to do.

Our host’s secretary had booked the tour for us, and told us to check in with the concierge at noon. But the concierge knew nothing about it, and had to phone somebody. Several times, in fact. We could hear his mumbling, shoo-fly end of the conversation, which made it clear that whoever he was talking to, each of his calls was coming as a complete surprise. I could tell that the delay and the mumbling were starting to get to Daphne. She was from up North and had become accustomed to a Manhattan level of efficiency. This was nowhere in sight.

We had a long wait before a small, very beat-up bus pulled up. Michelle, the driver, was giving a tour of the city but offered to drop us off at Graceland, no problem. So we began a rambling ride around Memphis, with Michelle keeping up her tour guide spiel the whole way. I didn’t think it was possible to shout and mumble at the same time, but she’d mastered this difficult art.

The relaxed, anything-goes Southern vibe was cool with me, but I could feel Daphne growing steadily more irritated. We finally pulled up to Graceland Plaza, which is across Elvis Presley Boulevard from the mansion. There was quite a lot of confusion about our luggage, and how to pay for the ride, and the tour… Graceland has 1,500 visitors a day, but you could easily get the impression that nobody had ever done it before, that the city of Memphis had just gotten the idea the previous week. Daphne, not an Elvis fan to begin with and now in a really foul mood, actually got on her cell phone to find an earlier flight home.

No dice. We were stuck. Or rather, she was stuck, because I had no intention of getting an earlier flight home. I hadn’t come all this way only to get across the street and bail. Another little bus came, and I coaxed her onto it the way you would a recalcitrant five-year-old, and it finally trundled us and a German family through the famous music-themed gates, and up the hill to the house.

From the outside, it’s smaller than you expect. Built in 1939, it’s in the Colonial revival style popular at the time, thanks to “Gone with the Wind.” It sits atop a beautiful piece of land, with horse paddocks in front and behind. Inside, everything has been frozen in time, as if it’s still 1975. The front room could be my parents’ old living room, except for the big stained glass windows with the inlaid peacocks. Same with the formal dining room and the kitchen, all dark paneling and ancient appliances. The look is traditional and upper middle class… not very ostentatious for a man who earned something like $20 million a year (in 60s money) for 25 years.

Farther into the house, it’s a different story. The downstairs rec room, the famous jungle-themed den, the racquetball building, and other spaces are what you’d expect a wealthy 20-something rockstar to build for himself. Lots of custom-made bars (there were at least four of them, and Elvis didn’t drink), crazy fabrics and textures on the walls, some upholstered ceilings. Late-period Elvis in all his karate-chopping jumpsuited glory might lead you to think that Graceland is tacky, but it’s not. It reflects its owner completely, being a perfectly blended mixture of Southern graciousness, redneck excess, musician cool, and the indefinable air of authority that comes from huge success. A hint of that success is represented by two separate buildings that house Elvis’ trophies and awards—including an 80-foot-long hallway covered in gold records—163 of them, representing more than 800 million records sold. It’s overwhelming.

Outside, by a small swimming pool, there’s a family gravesite. After Elvis died, he was buried in a public cemetery next to his mother. Within days, someone had tried to dig up his corpse, so his father Vernon had Elvis and his mother’s remains moved to the house. Now Vernon is there too, with a couple of other family members and a marker for Elvis’ stillborn twin brother, who was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in 1935 and couldn’t be found. This whisper of sadness and loss and mystery is central to Elvis Presley, maybe part of his self-destruction; certainly it’s part of what draws you to him and makes you feel such empathy. He’s not some remote Rock God, he’s one of us; his house is like your granddaddy’s house, only exponentially more awesome.

He’s still there in the house and on the grounds, a palpable presence—you can feel his wildness and excess, even though much of it has been carefully airbrushed away by the guardians of his estate, and especially you can feel his modesty, his gentleness, his sense of fun, his essential goodness. He’s your friend. And like a friend who’s gone, it feels like he’s just in the other room, coming back any minute.

By the time we boarded the bus back to the Plaza and found a cab to the airport, Daphne was in a relaxed, upbeat mood. Something had happened to her. Or, to be more exact, some one had happened to her. We bought some T-shirts, postcards, and trinkets at one of the gift shops, and headed home.

 

RIP Shakti Gawain

 

On November 11, a woman died in Marin General Hospital in Mill Valley, California. She was 70 years old, and her death was due to complications from hip surgery after a fall. For 20 years, she’d had Parkinson’s disease, and later developed Lewy body disease, a form of dementia. There were no articles published about her death, and in fact no stories online at all, other than a notice on the site of the publishing company she founded four decades ago. A week after her death, the San Francisco Chronicle published a pro-forma obituary that borrowed most of its content from the notice and misspelled the name of her first book.

The woman’s name was Shakti Gawain. Her first book, published in 1978, was called Creative Visualization, and it sold seven million copies. All told, her three other major books and assorted workbooks and journals sold an additional three million copies. And yet last week she vanished without a trace, except for the fact that she utterly transformed my life, and likely did the same for millions of others.

Had she wanted to, she could have had the celebrity and fame of Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, Louise Hay, and other self-help and self-development authors. But she didn’t want any of that. She didn’t do speeches or personal appearance tours or PBS specials. She didn’t hype anything or make any grandiose promises. Now and again she did conduct workshops—I attended one in Orange County, CA two days after my birthday in 1994, driving south from L.A. with helicopters overhead as O.J. Simpson was being chased in his Bronco back north up the 5 Freeway. I remember arriving at the hotel with the chase happening live on TV, the ultimate ego distraction, and the feeling of moving from that surreal carnival into the calm and grounding of her workshop.

No, she was all about the lessons, and the work. And there’s no particular drama or excitement in the work. Her writing style is unexceptional and doesn’t lend itself to quotes; it’s like water that’s so clear and still that you see straight to the bottom. Her lessons and messages aren’t based on footnoted research or scholarship, and she’s not part of any tradition or orthodoxy. It’s a distillation of some Eastern and New Thought teaching filtered through her personal experience. There’s nothing to hang your hat on, so to speak. And yet, her work opened the door to a real and meaningful spiritual life for me by showing me how to find and trust the spark of divinity within myself.

Here’s how that happened. I was 30 years old. My so-called career, really a collection of terrible jobs, had crashed and burned. I’d managed to get married and have a kid, but I was lost and adrift and unconsciously at war with myself. With hindsight I’m aware I was living every day with a low-level anxiety that sprang from my confusion and cluelessness. Often I’d make a move that would work out badly, and realize I’d known better all along. Or I’d feel a strong pull to do something and yet hang back in fear. I would hit these speed bumps all the time and then go back about my business, aware that something was wrong but always blaming it on other people or my circumstances… which if I stopped to consider them just seemed like random bad luck.

The latest terrible job ended like they all did, and my wife suggested I take some time off and be the househusband while she took over as the breadwinner for a while. Our daughter was in preschool, so I got a part-time job in a children’s bookstore that shared the same parking lot, in order to keep an eye on my kid across the way and also to earn a little self-respect money. One day I opened a new box of books we’d received, and on top was a book that clearly wasn’t for children. That caught my eye, so I read the title—Living in the Light—and then the back cover to see what it was about.

“Are you searching for deeper meaning and purpose in your life? Do you sense that you have an inner wisdom that can be a guiding force for you, yet wonder how to connect with that intuitive self? How do you know which inner voices to listen to?” That’s how the blurb started. I felt a twinge or a shiver or something, similar to the feeling when the door of a dark room starts to open, I guess, a kind of anticipatory awakening. By the time I reached the bottom of the copy, my head felt like it was exploding. It was as if my entire life had been leading up to that moment, like I was passing through a crucial juncture even as I was reading the words, and I knew on some deep level that somehow that my life was never going to be the same again.

I read the book, which was predicated on the simple idea that each of us has a strong inner guidance, an inner knowingness, that is 100% present and 100% correct. In animals we call it instinct. In humans, we call it intuition. It’s a little bit magical and mysterious, in that it can’t be explained (Malcolm Gladwell later wrote Blink, a study of intuition in which he tries and fails to disassemble the butterfly). Even more mysteriously, it’s a kind of psychic ability that has access to facts and information that you have no way of knowing in any usual sense. For example, people who won’t get on an airplane because they have a bad feeling about it, and later the plane crashes. We all have this kind of knowing, but because we can’t quantify it or predict it or know where it comes from, we discount it or shrug it off.

The book was very simply written, but the lesson wasn’t so simple. I tested out my intuition, first on little parlor tricks on the order of finding my lost keys. When those worked I tried more complicated experiments. What I was doing without quite realizing it was learning to trust myself at an extremely deep level. Often I’d return to Shakti’s book, or her recordings, and her calm (faintly Southern accented) voice was very loving and reassuring. A few years into this process, she wrote The Path of Transformation, essentially a companion piece meant to clarify and enlarge the meanings of Living in the Light, based on what she had been hearing in workshops and personal sessions. Meeting her at the workshop was a little thrill, but since there was no drama about her, she just calmly acknowledged my thanks and appreciation. It was all about the work.

As the years passed, my “tests” of intuition became fewer, but much more difficult. I passed through some severe periods of doubt and trial, only to come through them with my faith strengthened ten times over. It was essentially religion without religion… spirituality discovered completely in action and doing. I hesitate to call intuition the voice of God, because I have no idea who or what God is. Neither do you, if you’re really honest with yourself. But I don’t need to know what it is. I know that it’s alive inside of me, that it wants the best for me. I know it doesn’t want me to be comfortable, necessarily, or even “happy” in the usual sense of that word. Sometimes it seems very quiet and far away, and then suddenly it’s hugely present and it reveals itself as having been at work all along. Over time, I’ve learned to trust it so completely that I don’t even think about it much. My life as I live it today would have seemed like a miracle to my 30-year-old self in that bookstore.

They say when the student is ready, the teacher appears. And so Shakti Gawain appeared, changed everything for me, and then quietly faded away. Her passing hit me hard, though: like the death of a parent. A wise and loving parent who has given you everything you need to live your life as a happy self-actualized person, and so you might undervalue the gift, thinking you did it all yourself. And you did, but only after someone else showed you the way. In fact, every day of my life for the past 30 years has been a tribute to Shakti Gawain and the power of her teaching. To say I’m grateful seems inadequate. To say I loved her seems almost silly. I owe her everything. There’s no way to repay the debt except to keep living out the truth she showed me, to be a small ripple in the energetic influence she had on millions of us.

Body Surfing

This weekend while visiting San Diego, I hung out at a beach house that had access to the sand just across the street. I walked down the path and found myself on the exact same stretch of beach I’d visited one year ago with co-workers at my former company, when a car dropped us off after someone said let’s go see the water. This is in a densely populated area of La Jolla, not a place I ever went to during my 30 years in California. Absolutely no connection between the events that led me there. What are the odds of finding yourself, utterly randomly, on the same 50 yards of an 800-mile coastline exactly one year later?

We went bodysurfing the next day. The waves were strong and breaking close to the shore. One of them got me, and I went tumbling helplessly; it’s a terrifying and humbling feeling. I swam back out and took the waves more seriously and rode them fine after that, but it was a reminder that I’m small and insignificant, and forces are at work that are unimaginably bigger and more powerful than I am. They’re indifferent to me as a person.

Or, you know, are they? Why did they bring me back to that exact same little stretch of beach?

I knew why, right away: to show me how far I’ve come in the past year. To give me some reassurance that the huge changes I’ve been through are real, and maybe a reminder to be grateful… like a parent might draw a line on the wall for her kid and then stand him up to the wall a year later and say look how you’ve grown.

This is a metaphysical universe. The physical is showing us the spiritual, revealing it to us, all the time. But most of the time we don’t have the faintest idea what we’re seeing. And then when you do get a glimpse of those forces, it’s still like me and those waves… understanding them on a visceral level rather than an intellectual level. Watching them build and swell and come at me over and over, learning how to ride them and not get creamed by them. Understanding the subtle differences between the things I have power over and the things I don’t.

Sometimes it can seem discouraging to have to learn the same lessons over and over, but a surfer doesn’t look at waves that way. Surfers are the real metaphysicians. They understand that every new wave is an opportunity to try again, and maybe get it right this time.

 

 

 

Chef

Chef

In the wake of last week I’ve found myself reading everything I can find about Anthony Bourdain. His death hit me hard, and I’m still trying to figure out why… I wasn’t a regular viewer and I hadn’t read his book. I figured I’d always have time to get to him in a more major way. “I must have thought you’d always be around,” as Jackson Browne put it in “For a Dancer,” his classic song of coming to terms with grief and loss.

And I suppose that sense of him as reliable is a big part of the shock and disappointment. You knew he was out there, exploring new by-ways and finding new people to meet, new cultures to shine a light on. He seemed like an adventurer and an old-school hero, masculine, stoic, impatient with bullshit and foulmouthed and funny about it. But also new school: open, non-judgmental, unafraid to admit vulnerability and failure. A guy who, if he ever happened to have a suicidal impulse, would just tell you about it, make a wry face, and toss back some more oysters and beer with a shrug.

You try to make sense of a suicide, and of course you can’t know why for sure even if you’re close to the person, but there was a clue in the long New Yorker piece about him that ran a couple of years ago. The interviewer asked how he felt about being called “Chef,” and he said somewhat testily that he had earned that title, but then he went on to say that it did bother him to be called “Chef” by somebody whose culinary skills were way beyond his. It seems he was a decent, hardworking cook but nothing out of the ordinary. So maybe he suffered from a form of imposter syndrome.

We want a hero, no more than that we need a hero, that’s a deep yearning of humanity from our earliest days up to the present. But if you’ve ever been called one, or treated like one, you know how ridiculous it sounds. “No man is a hero to his valet” the old saying goes, meaning you can’t regard someone as heroic when you’ve gotten to know them well, seen them in the fumbling, gross, clueless, haggard, indolent ways most of spend the majority of our time. And if you can’t be a hero to your valet, you certainly can’t be one to yourself, knowing how often you feel and act like a crushed, sad, helpless victim.

But if you can’t really “be” a hero, you can act heroically from time to time. Try something new, go outside your comfort zone, face your fears. Reach a hand out to somebody who needs it, treat a “lowly” person with respect, give somebody some appreciation for what they’re trying to do even if they’re not quite making it. A simple act of kindness or consideration can make a life-changing difference to somebody, and in that moment you are a hero to that person. And in that context, “Chef” or any other nickname isn’t a title as much as a thank-you, a pat on the back, a salute. People were grateful to Anthony Bourdain, because in a world of posers and users, he talked and reacted and laughed like a person. We need more of those.

What Difference Does it Make?

p213624_2aMy lifelong habit of reading the news every morning, especially the political news, has become a real issue for me. What are you supposed to do when every single day brings multiple stories that shock, depress or terrify you? I used to find some distraction in the entertainment news… but now that Hollywood has started exposing and confronting its bullies and predators (e.g. all the executives and half the actors), that’s out too. These days I look at the news the way you might check out a terrible breakfast buffet: lift the cover, shudder and put it back quick, move down the line, and finally give up. I’ll just have coffee, thanks.

In calmer and more reflective moments, I think maybe we need this, that it’s a necessary purging. The shock of 2016 was realizing how wide and deep the racism and sexism run in our society, the horror of discovering that your benign-looking neighbors and friends might be raging bigots, anti-Semites, homophobes or god knows what. Probably everybody who wasn’t a straight white dude had already figured this out, but I hadn’t. Now in 2017 it’s been like we’re turning over all the rocks and the vermin have been slithering out into plain sight. Nazis? What the fuck? I didn’t plan on dealing with Nazis as I entered my so-called golden years.

And really, what is up with all the hate? Well you know what’s up with it, because you feel it yourself. Your own tendency to notice differences, and to use them to make yourself feel better. To judge people, as a handy way to stop having to think about them, consider their perspectives, and accommodate them a little bit. Put them in a box, and you’re not only done with them but you get to feel superior at the same time. At least I’m not a [fill in the blank]. We all do it, and what’s really crazy is that women can be sexists, gays can be homophobes, people of color can be the worst racists of all.

Think of the bitchy, snarky, nasty comments you hear when anybody is trying to climb out of the box they’ve been put in. Oh, look at her. Who does she think she is? The friendly fire from your own tribe is the most painful of all, because it’s a reflection of your own self doubt and self loathing. Right, who am I to think I could get that job, or go to college, or cross a gender line, or just stand up proudly in public with my real face showing? I’ll just crawl back to safety and join the others taking shots at the people in the arena who are sweating and bleeding and potentially looking vulnerable.

Indeed, that’s what you see in the Comments section of virtually any article foolish enough to allow comments. The sniping, the tearing down, the trash talk. It’s the absolute worst of human nature. It’s also embodied by our current *president, who is a walking talking Comments section. In fact if a Comments section had a face, it would have that face: fat, pasty, perpetually scowling, and slathered in poorly applied bronzer. And again, once you could just ignore the comments, but what do you do when the Comments section has a megaphone and the power of the state behind it?

You “Be the Change,” that’s what. I am noticing some things about my own reactions this past year. On the one hand, I’m listening more. I find myself stopping and considering other points of view that I might have steamrolled past. I’m letting other people have their say, and trying to understand. I’m trying to see where I might be asserting privilege, at least unearned privilege. And sometimes I step back. But on the other hand, I have some earned privilege, and I’m getting very comfortable with that. I’ve been speaking up more: confronting bullying, openly promoting what I believe, being an unapologetic voice for my own views. Lately I find myself with zero tolerance for bad behavior. And you don’t have to be a bully in return; sometimes a quiet, assertive change in topic or tone is enough.

I run an arts event in Orlando and for the past couple of years, I’ve been using it with more intention. I’ve put speakers on the stage who strongly advocate for the things I care about: tolerance, equality, justice, conservation, everything that’s under attack at the moment. Sometimes I think, well I have a very tiny voice and what difference does it make? But as my friend Aquanza put it, each of us is an instrument and if we express ourselves in harmony with those around us, the accumulated sound can be very powerful. I felt especially powerless after Pulse last year, when I was 3,000 miles from home and my people were attacked. And I thought over and over, “what can I do?” until I realized: I can do my work. That’s what I can do. And the event we put on a few weeks later was the Anti-Pulse: a bullet of inclusion and pure love to the heart of Orlando.

So yeah, we’re living through an ugly moment. A roiling and tumultuous time, and something tells me there might be worse to come. But hasn’t it always been this way? Hasn’t humanity always been in a battle with itself against its own worst impulses? Haven’t people always had to suffer and sweat and even die to conquer hate and oppression? Is it so bad to be in this fight, especially when you know you’re on the right side of it? I happened on a quote from Franklin Roosevelt yesterday: “Calm seas never made a skilled sailor.” In my best moments over the past couple of years, I haven’t cursed my bad luck at having to live through this shitstorm. I’ve seen the light through the darkness, and to me the light is as simple as this: Just show up. Speak up. And don’t give up.

What Sort of Man Reads Playboy

Back in the late 60s, somebody gave my father a birthday present of a jigsaw puzzle. It was a Playboy centerfold of a playmate wearing nothing but argyle socks, and it was packaged in a little canister that he put up on a shelf above his suits and ties. If you were a boy of that era and you wanted to see a girl with her clothes off, and I’ll confess that I was one of those boys, you had to do things like make sure everybody was gone, take a stepladder into your dad’s closet, and give yourself enough time to assemble a jigsaw puzzle. Parts of one, anyway.

You couldn’t just buy your own copy of Playboy (I found out later), because they were sold over at a separate stand that was presided over by a gimlet-eyed old coot who knew exactly what you were up to. You couldn’t even look at the cover, because the stack of copies was behind a wooden plinth with a bunny logo on it. Playboy belonged to Adult World, and it was separated very firmly from Kids’ World. You could peek through the fence sometimes, but it remained remote and tantalizing.

This was the very uptight, knees-together America that Hugh Hefner slowly pried open. Impossible now to recapture the guilty thrill of being a young boy looking at a Playboy centerfold. Not just the photo, but the fact that it was three times the size of the magazine, and if you were actually able to pull it out, you were making a statement. You weren’t just looking at pornography, you were holding a poster of it with both hands. No hiding it. Something about this act of assertion got into your blood, gave you a first taste of what it might be like to be that unimaginable thing: a man.

There’s a moment in the best James Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), when George Lazenby is cracking a safe, and in this highly tense moment while he’s waiting for the decoder to finish working, he picks up a Playboy and glances at the centerfold. Just to be cool, you know. Sixties Bond was the Sort of Man Who Read Playboy, and I will risk branding myself as an old coot when I say we lost something when the Bond movies lost their blatant sexism. Yes, women had to endure the Male Gaze, but they were a lot wiser about it than you think. The blatancy of it looks faintly absurd now, but guess what? It was absurd then, too, but people had something back then called a sense of humor. Pussy Galore — that was a joke, son, and everybody was in on it. The joke kind of wore thin by the 70s, and nothing ages worse than a previous generation’s idea of what’s naughty, and of course for me like everyone else, the reality of becoming a man was nothing like the fantasy. Bond cried at the end of OHMSS, cradling the body of the strong, resourceful, beautiful woman he loved. That might have been a clue.

So yeah, we started reading it for the articles. And in fact the articles were often really fine: long, detailed, and informed by the publisher’s intelligence and taste, and Libertarian politics that now look leftist. Slowly and subtly things changed… life became serious and complicated and the forces of Puritanism that Hefner seemed to have vanquished just became meaner, more punitive, and more dangerous. I was reading Playboy on December 8, 1980, in the dim, cavernous basement of the department store where I sort-of worked the night shift. A young man by that point, I was having my own adventures, grimy though they may have been. I was drinking a beer and paging through an epic, exhaustive interview with John Lennon on the occasion of his first album in five years. I was halfway through when my friend Gary called to say Lennon had been shot. There were no cellphones then; he had to call the store and make them find me. The interview went from being a hopeful new beginning to a tragic remembrance right in the course of reading it; that long night of blood and sorrow turned out to be the overture to a decade of ugly new political realities. Culturally, psychologically, energetically, the 60s died that night. How fitting that I had a Playboy in my hands.

The President’s Guide to Being a Man

If you’re paying attention, the President is providing an object lesson in how to be a fine, upstanding, honorable man. Just watch what he does, and do the exact opposite. Call them Trump Tips for Men:

  • Stay informed and be hungry for knowledge.
  • Work hard.
  • Think before you speak. Maybe don’t speak at all.
  • Let your reputation take care of itself.
  • Remember, you get what you give. Bullying and force will come back to bite you.
  • Be mindful about your diet and get regular exercise.
  • Watch very little TV. Never watch Fox News.
  • Value women for more than their ladyparts.
  • Pay your vendors in full, and on time.
  • Make sure people can rely on your word.
  • Cosmetics make you look like a fool.
  • Airing your grievances makes you sound like a fool.
  • Keep business and family separate.
  • If you plan on being successful, learn the difference between a reporter and a PR person.
  • Minimize your time on social media.
  • Never take on any role (father, boss, partner) unless you intend to totally fulfill its obligations.
  • The more bling, the less class.
  • Neither your adoring crowds nor your dick are as big as you wish they were. Deal with it.
  • Don’t be a racist.
  • Money isn’t everything.