Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Stories! Stories!

Ed Wells opens the show for
the 46th time with his story,
"How to use spelunking."

This is what I read this evening at Ed Wells’ Stories! Stories! at the Mercury Café in Denver. Ed puts this on the 4th Tuesday of each month, this was his 46th session.

My story takes place in Denver Union Station, fall 1965; Maggianos, Denver Pavillions, fall 2005; Philadelphia, 1727; and heaven. Here it is:

Astonished, I waive back through the glass window of my private sleeping compartment. 

The train jerks before we suddenly start to roll away. I look out the window just before the train leaves behind mom and my two younger brothers, they are all smiles and they waive,  and behind them is pop, he waives, trys to put on a smile, but clearly he is crying, tears fill his eyes, tears stream down his red face. Until this moment I had absolutely no idea how he felt about me leaving, and neither did he, I can see now.

The book I’d so looked forward to reading, now out of my sport coat pocket where I’d put it during my quick visit to the Denver Union Station gift shop, while my parents and brothers parked, maybe, I don’t remember. But what I do remember clearly, an indelible memory, is being alone in front of the wire rack of paperback books and spotting one with a bright red cover that screamed out in large black letters “The Art of Love.” Yes!

Just the thing to get me ready for the pleasures of college life ahead. I snatched it up, went to the cashier, quickly bought it, no bag (would raise questions), and slipped it into my pocket.

Now, taking it out as my first official act away from home, what a disappointment. I got beyond the red cover to the words of someone I’d never heard of at the time, the famous psychologist Eric Fromm. Not at all what I thought I was getting in my rush in the gift shop.

And now, suddenly, some 40 years later as a member of the Denver Lions Club  I stand up from the round table in Maggiannos, where I eat too much for lunch along with my fellow Lions, I stand to ask a question of our speaker, Ceil Berry, former women’s basketball coach from the University of Colorado, who was and may forever be part of the administration of CU athletics.

I’m 40 years the other side of my freshman year, I've read other books, dated, married, struggled, had kids, divorced, had girlfriends. For the last few months, motivated by concern for my nephew Jason who is soon to head toward his freshman year in college, I've been looking for just the right book, to give him or his dad, my brother,  before they leave to take Jason—wonderful, talented, kind Jason!-- to what turned out to be the University of Kansas.

I stood from the round table where we’d just eaten and I ask coach Berry about one of the books under consideration:  “Coach Berry, James Michener in his book ‘Sports in America’ says his own participation in sports had been very important to him, that he set out to gather the facts, as he does so well in his historical novels,  and then to write a book that would tell the story of how helpful participation in sports had been in forming the American character, our ability to achieve the American dream. Michener says he did his research and went ahead and wrote a book, but it was far different than the one he expected to write. He was shocked to find there was no correlation between participating in sports and success in life in any way you’d care to measure success. Are you familiar with his book, and if so, what do you think of his findings?” I sat down.

There was a long pause, a very long pause. After measuring her words carefully, Ceil Berry, one of the top professionals in college sports said, “Yes, I’m familiar with Michener’s book and I’d have to say that from my experience it is true. I’ve read ‘I am Charlotte Simons’ and I’d have to say it is an accurate picture of sports and college life today.”

At the time I hadn’t read Tom Wolfe’s book, “I am Charlotte Simons” I’d read other books of his, but this newest at that time book just did not appeal to me. But after lunch I went straight to the Barnes & Nobles right there in the Pavilions, read straight through the book in the next couple of days, and it triggered great fear for my nephew Jason who was soon to go to college. Before he left for Kansas I asked him what was going to be his major. He said he wasn’t sure about that, but he did know which fraternity he was going to join.

His mom and dad were excited about his going, he was on fire, I didn’t want to be a wet blanket.

So I never spoke about James Michener’s book or what Ceil Berry had said or what I’d read in Tom Wolfe’s book, I never shared any of this until his funeral.  In January his body was found by one of his fraternity brothers in his SAE bunk. He’d died of alcohol poisoning.

There were no trains or books from the gift shop or fraternity bunk beds for Ben Franklin.

300 years ago, young Ben Franklin, call by some the inventor of the American Dream—that vision-- although he never used that term. Wanting to get ahead, he formed a group for what they eventually said was “the purpose of mutual improvement”, that  group may have been his best invention.

Twenty one years old with almost no formal education, Ben gathered his friends for a weekly meeting, what we would now call a self-directed learning group, or a peer advisory group, Ben himself called it “the best school.   He and his “more ingenious colleagues” met each Friday evening for nearly 30 years, They finally stopped meeting about ten years before the American revolution because they had just about all died except Ben, who lived an amazingly  long time for back then when the average life was 35 years.

The group was Ben’s Harvard and Yale, I imagine the topic of those Friday evening confidential discussions turned from time to time to drinking and sex and other matters that just don’t get discussed in the shallow waters of lunch clubs, or in my family between fathers and sons, uncles and nephews or brothers. But as important as the group clearly was to him, Ben could never interest his son in it nor later in his call for revolution, they grew apart and they died estranged.

Ben’s vision, but not his words for it, the first usage of the term “The American Dream,” was in the historian’s James Truslow Adams’s, The Epic of America published in 1931.

 "The American Dream,” Adam’s tells, “ is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars (nor, I’d add today, a dream of home ownership) and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position." 

Have we made progress towards achieving this dream? Or do we each live out our isolated lives in private cars and lunch clubs? Do we each need to make for our self one of Ben’s greatest inventions, shunned by his son, the American Dream Machine, that little group that met for over 30 years.

Sometimes I dream of us all being together, Jason and his dad, our dad and brother, my son, and Uncle Scott and Uncle Jerry, Tom Wolfe and Eric Fromm, Ben Franklin and Ben Franklin’s son, and Jesus. Around a table, we listen, we share, and we laugh. Is this heaven?

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