Growing Up

The first two paragraphs of actress Mary Astor’s autobiography My Story, ©1959:

People have often said to me, “You haven’t changed a bit!” They meant it as a compliment, but I could hear it only as an accusation, a statement of brutal fact.

And I have thought bitterly, “You are so right!” For I knew that if I had not changed I had not grown. To be a perennial child, an ethereal Peter Pan playing with pirates and Indians through all eternity, can be a lovely thing in the never-never land of fantasy, but it is an unhappy thing in life. The child is born so that he may become a man. It is his destiny to grow– to learn, to understand, to assume responsibilities. Growth can be painful, I know; but I have found that a stunted and retarded growth can be a pain beyond belief.

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Regrets, I’ve had a few…

Actor James Dean used to show up at a lot of the same parties as Sammy Davis Jr., and wanted to befriend him, but Sammy was enjoying his first blush of success and wrote him off as just another starry-eyed kid with dreams of stardom.  After seeing the movie Giant he realized how much talent Dean really had, and was looking forward to telling him so.  But:

When we got off (the stage) I saw Freddie Robbins standing in the wings– a buddy from New York, one of the first disc jockeys to play my records, when I’d needed it. I walked over to him, smiling.

“Great show, Sammy. Wonderful. Hey, Jimmy Dean just died.” I searched his face for a sign that it was a joke. “It just came over the air. Car crash. He was…”

I went into the dressing room and closed the door. Dave was standing in front of the radio, his face ashen, listening to the report of how it had happened.

I never got a chance to tell him. I never gave him the pleasure of hearing it. And he didn’t have that many people who told it to him.

They started the commercial. A jingle. I ripped the plug out of the socket and the sound died.

I sat down and looked at Dave. “We had him and all we did was brush him off. I did to him what I wouldn’t want anybody to do to me. I tolerated him. I treated him like a kook.”

“But he never knew that.”

“Of course he knew. He was a sensitive man. He felt everything. And I made jokes about him.”

How could I have judged a man before I knew what he was all about? Me, who’s suffered from prejudgment. Oh, God, I just hope– as corny as it sounds– I hope he knows I mean it, that I wish I’d said to him, “I know you were my friend and I wish I’d been your friend, too.”

After the second show, I borrowed a car and went for a drive by myself, circling through the winding road in the park, trying to shake the guilt that was ripping me like an iron claw. I’d been so busy being Charley Star that I hadn’t seen a guy who was reaching out to be my friend. Even on the hill when I could have said something— I could have yelled, “Hey, you were great”– but I’d wanted the pleasure of telling him just right.

Why don’t you tell someone you appreciate them while you still can?

Excerpted from Sammy Davis Jr.’s autobiography Yes I Can, ©1965.

The cause of an incident

I bought Sammy Davis Jr.’s autobiography Yes I Can at a charity sale for $1, and it has far exceeded my expectations.  I had no idea of the hell he went through on his way to becoming a headliner.

In this excerpt he has just begun to have some success as an entertainer, but is acutely aware of the racism that surrounds him.  He has been turned away from clubs and motels in the past because of his race, and was once severely beaten for a friendship with a white woman:

I finished my main course and asked for a check. Pete the headwaiter came over. “Compliments of Mr. Danny (Stradella).” On the way out I thanked him but he brushed it off. “Cut it out, willya? Thank you for coming in.” He put his arm around my shoulders and walked us to the door. “Now, don’t be a stranger. Please, I want you to think of this as your home away from home– y’know what I mean?”

Danny and Marty Mills caught the late show that night and drove me back to New York. Marty said, “How about a sandwich?”

The last thing I wanted was to be the cause of an incident somewhere. Especially in front of Danny. He thought of me as a winner…

He was saying, “Let’s go over to Longchamps, at 59th and Madison. They’re open all night. Most of the kids from the shows drop in. We’ll have some laughs.”

As we reached the East Side I asked them to let me out at 61st Street. “I’ll meet you in a little while. There’s something I’ve gotta do.”

“We’ll wait for you in the car.”

“No, please. You guys go ahead. Everything’s fine, no problem.”

They had to think I was crazy but they dropped me off at Fifth Avenue and 61st. I started walking toward a dark building as if I really had something to do there. When they were out of sight I looked for a phone so I could call Longchamps and leave word I couldn’t make it. But I was repulsed by the indignity of backing away. It was the defeat of everything I wanted. I killed twenty minutes walking around the block, and headed for the restaurant. At least if it’s a turn-away maybe nobody’ll see it.

I looked through the plate-glass window. Marty was sitting at the table talking to someone, but his eyes were glued to the entrance. By the time I went through the revolving door he was at my side, leading me to our table. Four showgirls from the Riviera were sitting there with Danny. I pointed to a table for two right next to it. “Let’s you and me take this one.” I didn’t wait for him to answer. He shrugged, not understanding, but he sat with me.

Danny gaped at us. “What the hell are y’doing?”

I gave it a Jack Benny reading.  “I hope you won’t take it personally but I can’t sit with those girls. They’re only in the chorus and I’m a star! I mean, you understand–” The girls laughed and I played it like I had something private to tell Marty and somehow I got lucky and Danny wasn’t insulted. Or, maybe he understood.

Paper, paper everywhere…

In this excerpt from A Journey For Our Times © 1983,  Harrison E. Salisbury describes visiting the Russian front after the battle to free the Crimea:

We went to the Crimea, the Germans finally driven out, corpses bobbing on the rock shores of the slim peninsula where the last stand was made, and over the stony land the Limburger stench of putrescent bodies; heavy, it got into your clothes, it clogged your throat, it hung in the air like plague. Here I inhaled the essence of war. I saw the pig-bellied bodies, eyes staring out of rotting heads, flaxen hair like wigs on a Kewpie doll, and the smell of piss-clotted uniforms, pants cruddy with excrement, with the pale worms of intestines, dirt, slime, paper, paper everywhere, brown-stained toilet paper, brown-stained newspapers with their Gothic print, broken bottles, jagged edges sparkling in the sun, rusty cans, the sleek white wood of ammo boxes, coppered coils of machine gun bullets, unmailed postcards, photos of girls stained with blood, here a splintered bone, the flesh torn like cotton rags, orders, commands, penalties, sentences (a sergeant sentenced to be shot; he had been apprehended trying to copulate with the captain’s mare on the village street), surrender leaflets, bits of green grass and dandelions, stinking fish floating in the gentle waves beside corpses gas-filled, buttons burst from faded green uniforms.

The Crimea did it. I had seen the winter corpses at Katyn, at Leningrad, in the Ukraine. Death in winter is clean. The bodies freeze in rigid forms. There is little stench. Except for the horses. The horses were the worst, winter or summer. They blew up like titanic counterfeits, the eyes still alive with terror. Snow quickly covered the winter dead. Now in the Crimea the dead were omnipresent.

German prisoners with dead eyes stumbled among the corpses, carting them off to endless trenches under the tommy guns of sullen Red Army men. I could not tell whether either Russians or Germans knew what they were doing. The Germans moved like sleepwalkers. The hardest thing, they told us, was the moment of surrender. Unless you were in a big group, a hundred or a thousand, you didn’t have a chance. The Soviet tommy gunners just mowed you down. The Nazis had been waiting for the boats to take them off, the boats that never came.

This was war and now I understood it. War was the garbage heap of humanity. It was shit and piss and gas from the rump; terror and bowels that ran without control. Here Hitler’s Aryan man died, a worse death than any he devised in the ovens of Auschwitz, anus open, spewing out his gut until a Red tommy gunner ended it with a lazy sweep of his chattering weapon.

There’s a reason governments censor the press.

There are things they don’t want us to know, stories they don’t want us to hear, sights they don’t want us to see.

The Better Thing

(One thing I’m very seldom asked, “So, what are you reading these days?”)

In this excerpt from The Year of Living Biblically  ©2007,  A.J. Jacobs is discussing prayer with one of his many spiritual advisors, a  trained Rabbi named Yossi:

Yossi tells me this story:

Two men do their daily prayers while at work. One spends twenty minutes in his office behind a closed door and afterward feels refreshed and uplifted, like he just had a therapy session. The other is so busy, he can squeeze in only a five-minute prayer session between phone calls. He recites his prayers superfast in a supply closet.

Who has done the better thing?

“The first,” I say.

“No,” says Yossi. “The second.”

The second guy was doing it only for God. He was sacrificing his time. There was no benefit for himself.

I like that.  I like the idea that it’s not always about me and what I want.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized the futility of waiting for The Perfect Moment, and how overrated motivation can be.  Waiting for inspiration to strike is a set-up for watching life from the sidelines.

Sometimes you just need to get in there and do it anyway.

Marvel

Agnostic author A.J. Jacobs decided to try and obey all of the rules in the Bible– even the weird, obscure ones– and document what happened. This excerpt from The Year of Living Biblically is from about four months in to the experiment:

I spend a lot of time marveling… I’ll marvel at the way rain serpentines down a car window. Or I’ll marvel at the way my reflection is distorted in a bowl. I feel like I just took my first bong hit. I feel like Wes Bentley rhapsodizing about that dancing plastic bag in American Beauty.

I’ve noticed that I sometimes walk around with a lighter step, almost an ice-skating-like glide, because the ground feels hallowed. All of the ground, even the ground outside the pizzeria near my apartment building.

All well and good, right? The only thing is, this is not the God of the Israelites. This is not the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. That God is an interactive God. He rewards people and punishes them. He argues with them, negotiates with them, forgives them, occasionally smites them. The God of the Hebrew Scriptures has human emotions– love and anger.

My God doesn’t. My God is impersonal. My God is the God of Spinoza. Or the God of Paul Tillich, the Protestant theologian who believed that God was “the ground of being.” Or the God of the Jedi knights. It’s a powerful but vague all-pervasive force; some slightly more sophisticated version of pantheism. I don’t even know if my God can be said to have a grand plan, much less mood swings. Can I keep edging toward the true biblical God? I’m not sure.

It’s a surprisingly respectful book. He talks with everyone– Hasidic Jews, Jehova’s Witnesses, atheists, Amish, creationists– and is always curious, never mocking.

I’d recommend this book to anyone of any faith.

(Or at least watch his TED talk, HERE.)

The Aroma of Pine

Excerpted from A Journey For Our Times, the autobiography of Harrison E. Salisbury, © 1983:

In the bay window where the Christmas tree stood, stiff lace curtains hung. Father had had candles on his tree since childhood in Mazomanie, and he had them as long as we celebrated Christmas at 107 Royalston, small candles of red, white, blue, green and yellow affixed to the branches with snap holders.

The tree was lighted at evening. Mother presided over a pail of water. Dad, matches in hand, climbed a stepladder and lighted the candles, one by one, until the tree sparkled with captured stars. Almost immediately the aroma of pine filled the room as the candles warmed the needles. Janet and I sat beside the tree in delight edged by fear communicated by Mother. Dad seemed oblivious of the moment, his gray-blue eyes distant, a smile on his face such as I never saw at other times. Mother hovered beside the water pail, nervously calculating the distance between herself and the tree, an exercise in emotional geometry. Hardly were the candles lighted than she said: “Perce– that’s enough, don’t you think?” Dad would stare at the tree. He was years away from the present. God knows what thoughts were passing through his mind. He would not answer. Possibly he did not hear. He sat and watched the play of lights, the reflected image on the plate-glass window. Three or four minutes passed. Mother spoke again: “Really, Percy, I think we’d better put them out. They’re beginning to burn down.” Soon, very quickly, she would stride to the tree and begin to snuff out the candles, and Dad, with reluctance that slowed every muscle in his body, rose and helped at the task. Christmas was over.

I just love the way he writes.  This is a book to read slowly, so every line is savored.