The Best Day of My Life—So Far

A (Very) Short Story

The best day of my life so far was the day I auditioned for the New York Philharmonic.  I was washing my car in the front yard when the call came.  My wife ran out of the house with the telephone.

“It’s from New York,” she said.  “I think it’s the New York Philharmonic.”

I took the phone and cleared my throat

“Hello?” said the man’s voice in the phone.  “Hello, Joseph?  Joseph, baby, this is Leonard Bernstein!”

I let the hose drop.  My wife shut the water off and leaned her ear over to listen.

“As you know, I am the principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and I’m looking for promising new talent.  How would you like to be as famous as Van Cliburn, Pablo Casals, and Issac Stern?”

I smiled and said, sure, I would like that.

“Percussion is your instrument, right?”

I said that, yes, it was.  And then I explained that although I had never received formal training for what I do, people at the parties where I had performed had been quite impressed with my abilities — especially the stuff with the wooden spoons and the empty yogurt containers.

“Oh yes, we’ve heard about the yogurt containers here in New York.  Some of our percussion guys tried them out in the adagio movement of the Shostakovitch Third, but the sound was not good.  In fact, Joseph, baby, the sound was bad.”

They probably were using the wrong technique, I said.  A lot of the sound relates right back to the wrist action.

“Say, would you be willing to audition for me on the phone right now?” Leonard Bernstein asked.  “I mean, if you’re not too busy.”

I told him that, I was not too busy, but I would have to get some things together.  I would have to find my sticks, which I was sure were in the kitchen drawer behind the silverware, and my plastic measuring cups, which were in a bag on the porch.  I would also have to round up my billiard ball and the crochet hoop with the waxed paper.

“I’ll hold,” he said.  “And, tell you what, I’ll get my percussion guys to come to the phone and listen in.”

When I returned to the phone about ten minutes later, Leonard Bernstein was waiting, and he introduced members of the percussion section of the New York Philharmonic.  My wife held the phone out while I assembled my stuff on the hood of the car.  Then I went through my entire routine, whistling “Blue Skies” as I thumped, knocked, rattled, and scratched.  I finished with a resounding slap to the hot car hood with a spatula.

Loud applause and whistles and bravos came from the phone.  My wife and I just stood there and listened.  She gave me a shy smile.

“Magnificent!” said Leonard Bernstein.  “I mean, what can I say?  Joseph, baby, so long – I’ll be in touch.”

That was the best day of my life so far.




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On Silence

From an article in the magazine Spirituality & Health about my year of silence.

The silence we lived in the monastery had both an interior and an exterior character. Silence from the inside meant not talking, in the first place, but also something Brother Joseph, 1961deeper: it had to do with quieting the mind, not being busy inside. Inner silence also carried the idea of refraining from judgment and staying away from thinking about the past and the future. Being silent within was really being at once absent from the world of busy-ness and at the same time present in the moment.

Silence on the outside had to do with keeping away anything that did not foster inner silence. So, no radio or television or newspapers or magazines found their way behind the walls of the monastery. There were no computers in those days—and therefore no Internet, no email, no Facebook, no Twitter; if there had been computers, they would not have been part of our monastery. Natural sounds (birds, animals, the wind in the trees) were considered part of the silence, actually fostering contemplation in the spirit of silence. We were discouraged from making loud noises ourselves—even while working—because that would have disturbed that same spirit of silence, even if we were not speaking.

What happens when one is silent for a long period? The outer noise goes first, and then the inner noise starts to evaporate. Soon, quiet reigns everywhere, it seems. Time slows to a crawl. Sound becomes a curiosity—natural sounds, especially, like the flow of water or the rustle and sway of tall grass, become occasions for deeper listening and lead to a most profound inner calm.


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Questioning Abortion

Before I start pontificating, I confess that I am not a woman. More than that, since I have been homosexual from birth, I also confess that my knowledge of human roe-v-wadeplumbing is much more informed on the male side of the scale than the female.

That said, as we prepare to mark the 41st anniversary of Roe v. Wade later this month, I am finding it difficult to defend the idea of abortion. I do support the legal right for women to have abortions, of course: in a free and open society, the law of the land should not dictate what people can do with something as personal as their bodies. But I am having trouble trying to justify it on moral grounds. The question for me is not whether a woman can have an abortion–but whether she should…or should have to.

This all came into my thinking when I read the recent remarks of Pope Francis on the subject. He calls abortion ‘horrific’–a sign of ‘a wasteful modern culture that treats goods and people, including unborn children, as easily discarded commodities.’ I agree. It seems so ‘wasteful’ to throw away a human life, whether potential or actual. Science, religion, and philosophy may still be at odds about when a fetus is a person, but no one can deny that it is alive.

Abortion, at any stage of pregnancy, is inherently unnatural, since the natural progression of life at this stage begins with conception and ends with birth. Unless I am completely wrong about this, abortion is a vitae interrupta. It is also violent–violent to the fetus, which dies in the process, but violent, as well, to the mother, who surely must experience both physical and emotional pain during and after an abortion. 

When abortion became legal in the United States, we never were really educated about its ethical implications. We understood that women were now free to determine for themselves whether they wanted to take a pregnancy to its logical conclusion or to terminate it. That was seen, justly, as a victory for women’s rights. But very little was said about the morality of the act. Isn’t pregnancy something that should be expected when a man and a woman decide to have sexual intercourse? If no means are taken to prevent conception, should come as a surprise that a child begins to develop in the womb?

Are there still people who do not know that when man’s sperm meets a woman’s egg there is a fairly good chance that new life will begin? We should suppose that a couple who are about to engage in an act that by its nature is designed to start a child, but don’t want one, would take measures to foil the process at that point. Abortion is such an extreme way of cleaning up after sex.

Naturally, I am excepting here victims of criminal acts which result in pregnancy, and other extenuating circumstances, such as a genetically-impaired fetus. What I’m talking about is ordinary people in ordinary settings.

I take it as a failure of moral leadership and lack of education that has gotten us to the place where we have confused a human right with what is right. Into this vacuum of ethical guidance now comes Pope Francis, who is being accused of not being the progressive everyone thought he was. In fact, he is more progressive than our benighted political leaders, who have consistently avoided public discourse about the morality of abortion–liberals for fear of alienating their base, conservatives because their rigid moral sense marches directly to legislation without stopping at dialog, under the misleading banner of pro-life.

A good way to mark the milestone decision that released women from the nightmare of back rooms and botched operations might be to reinforce the idea that in matters sexual, as in all areas of the human experience, no law–for or against anything–can take the place of personality responsibility.

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Citizen Gatsby

“Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy. F. Scott Fitzgerald

The fourth film version of The Great Gatsby is out. This may as well be only the second version, since the first, a 1926 silent with the debonair Warner Baxter as Gatsby and the equally gatsby26debonair William Powell as George Wilson is ‘lost,’ as they say–a victim of studio carelessness in preservation at a time when film stock was silver nitrate-based (thus, ‘the silver screen’), unstable and highly combustible. It’s safe to say that no one now alive has seen it, or at least remembers it.

The actual second version was the 1949 film with Alan Ladd as Gatsby and Shelly Winters as Myrtle Wilson. Howard Da Silva plays her husband, George, and would play Meyer Wolfsheim in the third version, made in 1974–the one most of us know as the definitive Gatsby— with Robert Redford in the title role, Mia Farrow as Daisy, and Sam Waterston as Nick. The screenwriter was Francis Ford Coppola, by the way, fresh from his Godfather successes. The 1949 film still exists (a new print was struck from the negative last year), but because of copyright issues, is not allowed to be distributed.

This new Gatsby is perpetrated, I mean directed, by the Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrman. Far from deepening the Gatsby story for me, watching it just made me dizzy. But, maybe because of this version’s pushy obviousness, I was struck by the story’s resemblance in theme to the Orson Welles classic, Citizen Kane (1941). 

The similarities came home to me with one tragic word, uttered at the end of the story by the protagonist in the crushing moment  when he realizes he will never have what has been eluding him all his life.  In that one word is the whole goal and prize, the grail, the promise of the future and recovery of the past; it is that which has given meaning, he sees in a flash, to his entire existence. For Jay Gatsby, it is ‘Daisy!’–for Charles Foster Kane, it is ‘Rosebud!’

Both Gatsby and Kane have been called “great American”: Gatsby the great American novel, Kane the great American film. But there is nothing particularly American about the idea that our lives often are borne upon the wave of a singular hope…and not a solid, rational hope, at that. 

Charles Foster Kane, torn away from a snowy but idyllic childhood and his famous sled, is thrust into the world of money and loses his innocence. Irretrievably. At the end of his life he understands that what he has wanted most, beyond the statues and paintings and ‘the biggest private zoo since Noah,’ is the time before he was extracted from hearth and home, however humble. He has wanted to go back to the past, and live there.

Money comes to Jay Gatsby a bit later in the form of a small inheritance from his millionaire boss, which he uses to amass considerable wealth. The money corrupts Gatsby as thoroughly as Kane’s fortune corrupts him. But it isn’t the money as such that corrupts; it is the dream of hope that money can fuel. As a young soldier, he had fallen in love with Daisy, but she had passed him over to marry the scion of an ‘old rich’ family. Now the wildly rich Gatsby uses his affluence to build a world around him that will impress Daisy and win her back to him.

He’s become nuts over it, and Nick tries to pry him from his dangerous delusion. But Gatsby persists: ‘Can’t repeat the past?…Why of course you can!’

Well, no, not really. Not any more than Kane can return to a time before he was snatched away from his mother in the mountains of Colorado. This is what makes both stories tragedies, the greater the delusion, the greater the tragedy.

Why Gatsby and Kane persist in the collective imagination (Citizen Kane is consistently voted the greatest film of all time by critics) may signal something in us that yearns for the one thing we can never have. Can this hopeless trait in our common psychological DNA be what makes us truly human? If so, then maybe the great tragedies of art are given to us as reminders of our essential human nature–that though we are made ‘a little less than the angels,’ we are prone nonetheless to believe ourselves angelic.

We have been warned, but still we strive for the unattainable…in the hope….

Gatsby’s green light across the bay may be the evergreen of eternal spring, the liturgical color for hope; it is also the sign for ‘Go!’

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Refrigerator List

Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, the new Pope Francis, is an ordinary guy, we are told, who rides the subway to work.Jorge_Mario_Bergoglio-pope-francis-subway.jpeg.644x0_q100_crop-smart Having ridden the subways in both Buenos Aires and Rome, I can say these are challenging ways to get around town, the kind of thing that certainly can make you a saint, if not a pope.

Being ordinary, Francis probably keeps a to-do list on his refrigerator door in the Papal Apartments. This is my suggested list for him as he assumes his duties as supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church:

  • begin the process of divesting the Church of its wealth, accumulated over many centuries contrary to the wishes of the Founder: Now when Jesus heard these things, he said unto him, Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me. Luke 18:22.
  • immediately close all the churches around the world and reopen them as museums (the big, beautiful ones) or as centers for community activities such as feeding the poor, finding people jobs, helping people to fill out medical insurance forms, and so on.
  • disband the priesthood: as Garry Wills argues brilliantly in his new book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, we don’t need priests to get to God–or to have a rich spiritual life, as I myself argue (also brilliantly, of course) in my book God On Your Own: Finding a Spiritual Path Outside Religion.
  • make the Church hierarchy confess its sins and do penance for them…real penance, not 10 Our Fathers and 10 Hail Marys…sackcloth-and-ashes and ministering to the poor and homeless.
  • vacate the Vatican after transferring the Vatican Library to digital banks and making it available to everyone everywhere who wants access…this has already begun, btw: Vatican Library Transfer. Also, give up the nutty idea of Vatican City being a sovereign state–what nonsense. Turn it all into a museum–with free admission for senior citizens like, um, me.
  • abolish Baptism, or at least water it down (!) so that it does not designate fundamental differences between ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’–the root of so many wars over the centuries.
  • abolish the rest of the sacraments…we don’t need them and, if there are no priests (and therefore no bishops), there would be no one to administer them, in any case. Without sacraments, we wouldn’t need to be concerned about gay marriage, since matrimony is a sacrament. Holy Orders would also be unnecessary, since there would be no priesthood–and no need to ordain women or allow priests to marry.
  • use the money that is left over to get help for former priests with deep psychological problems, including child molestation.
  • recognize that women are the other half of the human race and that they, like men, have reproductive organs, but they are on the inside.

A lot to do, but I think Francis is up to it. He can start by taking his list off the refrigerator door and keeping it in his vest pocket on the subway, checking off items as he jostles along.

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Oscar Story

My Greer Garson Oscar Storygreer - older

Who Presented the Oscar to Greer Garson? I Did.

On March 4, 1943, Greer Garson received the Academy Award for Best Actress of 1942 for her role in “Mrs. Miniver”. The ceremony was held at the Cocoanut Grove of The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles — the presenter was Joan Fontaine. The award was the last of the evening and Greer’s speech ran on, according to Hollywood legend, for a very long time…for 45 minutes, some remembered, and certainly more than 30 minutes.

“Nonesense,” she told me many years later. “I spoke for only five and a half minutes. Really, I did.”

I had known Greer all my life (who of my generation hadn’t?), but finally met her in the mid-80s in Santa Fe. I was in a small ice-cream parlor on Guadalupe Street when she came in with a woman companion. I immediately stepped aside and allow her to order her ice-cream.

“Oh, a gentleman!” she said.

“Chivalry is not dead, Miss Garson,” I managed to blurt out.

“In that case, you won’t tell my doctor I’m having a chocolate cone today.”

I assured her that her secret was safe with me, then spent the better part of an hour talking to her over a tiny table about, not movies but the scenic beauties of New Mexico.

We became friends. I was a frequent visitor to her ranch in Pecos, 30 minutes from Santa Fe, where she spent her summers. When I created the film school at The College of Santa Fe, she endowed the project, in 1990, with a gift of $3.3 million to build the Greer Garson Communication Center and Studios.

In December 1989, a fire destroyed a luxury apartment building in the Westwood area of Los Angeles. Greer had an apartment there, as did the director Billy Wilder. Wilder, who lived there (Greer only stayed there when she was in Los Angeles), lost a lifetime of memorabilia and his art collection. Greer lost the Oscar she had been awarded for “Mrs. Miniver’.

When we opened the Garson Center and Studios in October 1990, it was already a big success: we had around 70 new film majors in the academic part of the facility; in the studios, Billy Crystal and his company were shooting “City Slickers.” I had written to Karl Malden, who was President of the Academy, to ask if a new Oscar could be struck to replace the one Greer lost in the Westwood fire — and if it could be done in time for the opening as a surprise. Malden wrote back and said that he ordered the Oscar and that it should arrive before the opening.

The Oscar arrived in an impressive red velvet lined box, but Greer didn’t. She was recovering from the flu and her doctor wouldn’t allow her, at the age of 86, to travel from her home in Dallas. She did make a phone appearance to the crowd of 700 having dinner in the studio that night. And during the conversation, Art Linkletter, the night’s host, told her about the replacement Oscar…at which she squeeled, “Marvelous!”

We kept the Oscar in a trophy case in the lobby of the Center for several weeks. Then, just after Christmas, I was going to Dallas on business and Greer invited me to tea at her penthouse apartment on Turtle Creek. I brought the Oscar with me.

We sat, Greer, me, and her assistant, Pamela, over tea and chocolate cake for an hour, then I stood and said I had a surprise.

“Oh, I do so love surprises,” Greer said with a light laugh.

“The Nominees for Best Actress of 1942 are: Bette Davis in ‘Now, Voyager’, Katharine Hepburn in ‘Woman of the Year’, Greer Garson in ‘Mrs. Miniver’, Rosalind Russell in ‘My Sister Eileen’, and Teresa Wright in ‘The Pride of the Yankees’ — and the Oscar goes to…”I opened the box, took out the heavy gold statuette, and handed it to her. “Greer Garson in ‘Mrs. Miniver’.”

I had expected there to be a flush of emotion from Greer at that moment; instead, she just stared down at the Oscar, smiled wistfully, then looked up at us and said, “This time I’ll be brief…thank you.”

Greer lived another six years. When she passed away of heart failure in 1996, the Oscar was still holding court on the mantle in her living room.


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Pope Petrus

The sudden and unexpected resignation of Pope Benedict XVI has opened again, at least for some of us who watch these malachythings, the possibility that the next pope may be the last pope.

According to the Prophesies of Malachy, the next pope will take the name of Petrus (Peter, the same name as the first pope), and he will preside over the dismantling of the Roman Catholic Church. We also have the vision of Pope Pius X, now a saint, who in 1909, while granting an audience, leaned back and closed his eyes. Suddenly he ‘awoke’ and cried out: ‘What I see is terrifying. Will it be myself? Will it be my successor? What is certain is that the pope will quit Rome, and in leaving the Vatican, he will have to walk over the dead bodies of his priests.’

I have thought for some time now that the Roman Catholic Church will fall, and in our day. I’m not sure how this will happen or what things will look like at the end of the process, but everything, everything will be different…dismantled, making for the knackers to come and truck away the remains not for salvation, but for salvage.

The ‘Faith’ may remain — there are a lot of good things to admire about Christianity. The philosophy of love and union that Jesus apparently preached, if we are to believe the gospels (you see, everything is in question now), is not only uplifting, but also quite evolved in terms of the development of our human species.

The ‘Church’ however needs to go. It’s record of atrocities is so long and depressing, from the earliest persecution of pagans to the present, that one gets weary and increasingly upset and alarmed reading down the list. It cannot hold together in this new Aquarian Age, when freedom-of-information is the key and all secrets must come flying out of the dark closet.

So, maybe our cry in the next few months and years will be, ‘The Church is dead…long live the Faith.’ Personally, I feel privileged to be living at this time, and hope to be among the vanguard that goes storming into Piazza San Pietro yelling that new truth.

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