Reprinted, courtesy of TODAY at Minnesota State, from the magazine's May 2008 edition.
For many years listening to classic rock, watching movies made by fellow boomers or reading their books, I sometimes felt pangs of regret. I had missed realizing my own creative potential. Why couldn’t I have been like Crosby, Stills and Nash? They were a commercial success and spokespersons of sorts for antiwar sentiments that I held dear. Why could I not have been at least as much a literary success as Donald Fagen was a musical success? Fagen, my unimpressive classmate from South Brunswick High School in New Jersey, had gone on to found and co-lead the very successful Steely Dan.
For years, I felt somehow cheated by the politicians who’d engineered the war in Vietnam and by the generals who had conducted it. Their actions had forever altered my college and career trajectory.
Since the second grade, when I received my first rejection slip from Scholastic, I cherished the goal of being a writer. I expected college to provide me with the tools of the writing trade, essential for fulfilling my childhood dream. Not only that, college would lead me to that all-important day job, providing food and shelter to otherwise starving authors.
A year in Vietnam changed all that. At the height of the U.S. involvement in 1967-68, there were over 500,000 American soldiers in Vietnam, myself among them. Instead of spending that time of my life engaged in an orderly process leading to a job writing ad copy or technical manuals, particles of knowledge swirled around my brain like bits of paper sucked up by a dust devil.
I began college at the University of Minnesota in March 1970. Protests and rallies, many of which I participated in, frequently interrupted classes. Instead of wondering how I could get a job, I wondered how I could make the world a better place—a place without war, without racism. A place with hope and humanism.
I became a leader in the Twin Cities chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. After four quarters in Minneapolis, coordinating talks, rallies, radio shows and other public education efforts, I wanted to scale back my protests and get more education for myself. The smaller classes, promising more direct involvement with professors, drew me to Mankato. More importantly, moving to Mankato meant continuing my relationship with Liz, who was transferring there. My psyche needed the refuge from antiwar activities that she provided.
From her family home in Minneapolis, Liz moved into a dorm, or at least her parents paid for a room there. (They later admitted their suspicions at her frequent errands, showers or other excuses offered by her roommate whenever they called.)
When Liz and I married a year later, we moved into the basement of a house at the bottom of the hill from campus. Our elderly landlady seemed not to mind our wall-sized Peter Max 7-Up poster. She had a middle-aged son who was shell-shocked from his World War II experiences on a torpedoed ship. I felt uncomfortable talking or even being in proximity with the man, much like many people feel passing by the homeless standing at intersections holding their handmade signs asking for donations. I felt guilty in my discomfort as well, at my detached idealism.
I tried to focus on academic life, but I had no particular courses in mind that might satisfy my quest. I struggled with the decision over a major. Had I not experienced Vietnam, perhaps an obvious selection would have jumped out at me. For would-be writers, English is a common choice. But I had more than writing on my mind.
For a time I pursued American studies. While my original goal of being a writer seemed far away, the foray into American studies inspired one unpublished piece—a script for a non-existent TV show, somewhat like the children’s shows of the 1960s but really for young adults (like Soupy Sales; if you ever watched it, you know what I mean). The inspiration came from a field trip to a working farm, complete with cows. From that trip, I came up with Topanga Canyon Commune. On the fictional show, among other things, a group of hippies learns that s--- really stinks.
Perhaps Truman Wood’s “Utopian Communities” seminar inspired me as well. Professor Wood was a funny guy, or at least he shared my sense of humor. He laughed at my suggestion of little-known community of Shakers that were integrated. “They were known among themselves as the Salt and Pepper Shakers,” I said. You probably had to be there.
The spring 2002 issue of TODAY recounted the events surrounding the blockade at the Route 169 Bridge in May 1972. I didn’t see the blockade as a sensible option, so I stood off to the side. Seeing a student staggering with a head bloodied by a baton, I picked up and threw a rock, striking a trooper in the groin. My visceral reaction immediately shocked me. The following day, I spoke out strongly against another blockade, persuading a couple hundred students to peacefully march instead of following the instigation of Mitchell Goodman and others for more confrontation.
Those two days marked the beginning of my transition from detached idealism to engaged humanism that later fully bloomed in the practice of Buddhism. It’s not what is in my head but what is in my heart that matters.
Eventually I settled on a “non-major major,” which gave me the freedom to take almost any classes that suited my fancy. Thankfully the University soon renamed this option Open Studies, removing the unhappy associations it had with a character in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.
Meanwhile, my quest continued, amidst the continuing eruptions of antiwar fervor. Social sciences—political science, sociology, psychology—were a big part of my curriculum. And plenty of philosophy classes, some history and English as well—I couldn’t completely ignore my writing goal.
In the end, however, I found that as the radius of my knowledge increased, the circumference of my ignorance grew as well. While I might do almost anything with the education I had received, I couldn’t decide what I should do. So I went to law school, deferring a decision on my mission of reform.
After two more years of indecision, Liz lost patience with me and split. Near the end of law school, I finally found answers I sought. I was at a party, of all places. There I encountered a Buddha, or a person practicing Buddhism. The philosophy explained to my satisfaction both how to make the world a better place and myself a happier and more decisive person. Rather than initiating social, political, economic or legal change in society, I needed a revolution in my own character. Like a shadow, the changes in me would be reflected in the world around me.
Recognizing the current realities of that world were far from any utopian ideal, I went to work in local government, originally in consumer protection. When retirement from my local government job arrived in 2002, I knew it was time to begin writing.
While I still get wistful listening to old songs at times, I am no longer resentful of other artists’ successes. Others may have been ready to write in their youth, but the fruit from my tree required more time to ripen.
I may well have been deflected from my college and career trajectory because of the war, but I made the most of the moments I spent in what seemed, for a time, a fruitless quest. In the continuity of past, present and future, I had to experience what I did in the 1960s and 1970s to find my true direction. Not only that, but I needed the inspiration and content those times provided. They were necessary for the writing that fulfills a dream and that I now see as my mission in life.