A Gucci-Loving Spiritual Seeker Gets It in est

In the late 1970’s, my father attended the Erhard Seminar Training, est, a large-group self-awareness retreat founded by modern-day American guru, Werner Erhard, and known today as The Landmark Forum.

After 15 years of estrangement, I became re-acquainted with my father in 1975 when I had overdosed on drugs and alcohol at twenty-four. He visited me in a New Jersey psychiatric institution to tell me about his own downfall and recovery from alcoholism.

A year later, I took my 9-year-old son Joe for his first visit to his grandfather’s home in Chicago’s Lake Point Tower. He ran his coal-mining business from a 6th floor office overlooking Navy Pier, and lived on the 57th floor with a girlfriend whose name I’ve forgotten.

I found comfort in our common interests. We attended AA meetings together, ate according to Dr. Atkins, and searched for meaning in the writings of American buddhists Alan Watts and Ram Dass. Over the years, his Kool-Aid obsession with the est Training led him to attend more exclusive retreats, outdoor survival excursions and seminars that would have led to his becoming an est Trainer himself. He relentlessly pursued fellow AAers, the doormen, his girlfriends, passers-by, my sisters and me to hop on the est bandwagon.

Joe loved and admired his athletic, yoga-practicing, Gucci-loafered, new-age grandfather. After my two failed marriages, I thought my father would make a good role model so we moved to Chicago. Before long, I capitulated and went to the est Training. The Trainer coerced me into confronting all the bad decisions I’d made in my life, which tore my soul to shreds and kept it tattered for years afterwards. I helplessly allowed my father to enroll Joe in the Training at age 14, and silently cheered when Joe walked out the first hour of the 60-hour course.

With est’s emphasis on the Self, my father drifted far away from his Jesuit-educated God-centered roots. His spiritual life ballooned into a reliance on his interpretation of the “god within” — that we are all our own gods and are capable of directing our own lives with no outside help. He preached at AA meetings to accept ourselves as we are in the present with no thought of what we’ve done in the past or what we will become in the future. People in AA tell me to this day his greatest influence on them was his constant reminder that no human power could relieve their alcoholism, that dependence on a higher power was essential to recovery. I never knew anyone to challenge him on his illogical, conflicting philosophies.

In October,1979, Pope John Paul II waved to my father as he flew by his 57th floor living room window in an open-door helicopter, his white robes flapping. The Pope landed in Grant Park to perform an outdoor Mass for 200,000 congregants. We watched the ritual on television and my father claimed that day as his reawakening to Catholicism. He didn’t return to Sunday Mass until the est organization dissolved in 1984. About that time I started noticing a slow disintegration in his character. His live-in girlfriends changed more frequently; he concocted fraudulent business deals, pitted my sisters and I against each other, sold his business and exaggerated his wealth.

In the end, he acted like he was his own god, unencumbered by moral obligations or the consequences of his actions. Perhaps he was like that all along.

Before There Were Hippies

Before There Were Hippies

Tom Spencer and I sat in slatted wooden seats on the aisle halfway back from the stage in the Asbury Park Convention Hall at our first concert. The Hall’s open doors and th-1windows allowed the peaceful ocean breeze to float in and around to cool us. It was 1961 and we thought we were the only Joan Baez fans on the entire Jersey Shore.The mesmerizing overflow crowd stunned us.

Until then, our only experience at a live performance was the Manasquan High School variety show. We lived in the remains of the 1950’s cultural wasteland where the middle class would never spend time or money on concert-going. Ignorant of concert etiquette, we refrained from singing aloud but mouthed all the words as our folk hero transported us — All My Trials, House of the Rising Sun,10,000 Miles. Just before intermission Joan Baez introduced a friend from Greenwich Village, Bob Dylan. Oh no! I saved my babysitting money to see Joan Baez, not some unknown. Onto the stage came this scruffy little curly-topped blue-jeaned boy who played guitar and sang a solo, “Freight Train Blues”. They sang “Man of Constant Sorrow” and “Pretty Peggy-O” together. Tom, even though his favorite singer was the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, shared my instant joy and devotion to the twangy-voiced Bob Dylan.

thDylan and Baez sang their love for the poetry of those old folk songs. And we shared a love for the singers with strangers from our own land.

That summer, Tom and I had created a hangout in my mother’s garage with an old couch and a rickety TV table for our record player so we could listen to music and drink beer undisturbed during the day when everyone else was at the beach. My mother accepted my summertime retreat since she never used the garage and was happy to be removed from the sounds of folk music, Motown and Elvis. She seemed to like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, but she had no real interest in listening to music, not even on the radio.

We saved money from our part-time jobs to buy our 45 rpm records. Tom caddied at the Spring Lake Golf Club. I babysat for the neighbors. He had a crush on my younger sister, Erin, ever since we moved into the Sea Girt house down the street from his in 1959. They dated briefly the previous year but she lost interest and he and I became inseparable friends for one important summer.

One day my mother found us in the garage with empty beer bottles, practicing the Twist and the Mashed Potato. She proclaimed us degenerates and told us to go to the beach. We ignored her and roiled with laughter since being degenerate characterized the beat generation. We were reading A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and writing beat poetry. Her proclamation boosted our view of ourselves as beatniks.

The chilly weather and school reopening gradually closed the garage door. Tom’s studies took up his time. And I sought other hideaways where I could drink beer all day and listen to music.

Caught in a Naive Web on the Window of Reality

Caught in a Naive Web on the Window of Reality

In 1973 and ’74 Adele, the feminist, challenged our church elders to explain exactly what Bible passages like “wives, submit to your husbands,” had to do with us. She steadfastly refused to “wear a head covering” as proscribed in verses familiar to anyone who’s been ensnared by a church that adheres to literal interpretations of the Bible. Adele, my role model for a brief time, taught me how to live in a conservative Christian extremist community as a sincere provocateur who loved God.

“You should get a real estate license and work with me in that new subdivision,”  Adele suggested, knowing wives were discouraged by church elders from working. I trusted her counsel because she was on her third marriage and knew that financial independence was the first step to freedom from my bad marriage.

And so I sat in the makeshift office of the model home in a planned development of half-built single family homes on ⅓-acre parcels in Ocean County, New Jersey — answering phones, staffing open houses, tidying up the office, running errands. Month after month with no salary and no prospects, I persevered, buoyed by Adele’s words,“You only need one sale.”

Then one day a couple appeared when I was alone in the office. I leapt to my feet, obtained some qualifying information and showed them around. The Princeton University professors picked out their dream house-to-be-built, and I called the Owner of the development to bring a contract. Not only was I going to make a few thousand dollars, but I would be playing a bit part in helping to integrate our all-white community.

I had been a political activist since high school, and at age 27, I had no evidence to suggest that all of America wasn’t heeding the call of social change espoused by John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. It just never occurred to me that people thought any other way.

The pro forma Owner arrived with a contract but doubted that he could provide the couple their tile choice, or carpet, or kitchen cabinets. I always found him encumbered with cunning so nothing about his interaction with this couple seemed unusual. They signed a contract contingent on later negotiations for the decor. The whole project slowed, then halted. Adele claimed the money ran out, thanked me for my sweat equity, then found me a part-time job making stained glass lamps.

A few months later, I stood at my mailbox reading a legal notice naming me and the Owner in a civil rights lawsuit for discriminating against the black couple. All they wanted was a house near the ocean where they could raise their boys in a good school and send them to Little League. Guilt squeezed my chest with thoughts that I was complicit in killing their dream. “This is Adele’s fault,” I irrationally concluded.Unknown

It never went to court. One day Adele brought me a news article that the NAACP was testing the efficacy of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 by sending couples to white neighborhoods to purchase property. “See?” she said, “they were shills.”

Appraising this explanation, I thought, “Good for them.”

Discovering Urban Birds by Dorothy Pirovano

Discovering Urban Birds by Dorothy Pirovano

We showed up at the April birdwatching walk at the zoo, opera glasses ready, joining a small group of people earnestly comparing the high-transmission glass, baffle systems, prisms and ergonomics of their binoculars. It was our first birding adventure and we decided we might be best off keeping to the edge of the group, much like those who nonchalantly approach a tour group led by a man with a red umbrella, hanging around at the periphery, just close enough to hear him talk and trying to not be obvious in their lack of belonging.

There were ones we knew – robins, cardinals. Small and medium sized brown birds were given names like “nuthatch,” “wren” and “junco.” A flicker was called out, distinguished by the red slash around his neck. A red-headed woodpecker was attacking the bark of a maple. Not that we actually saw any of them, for our puny glasses were made to watch big people with big voices on a stage hundreds of feet away rather than things that flit and fly.

Except for the black-crowned night-heron, a fat, squat bird, so big we didn’t need magnification to see him perched on a branch overlooking the zoo’s lily pond, red beady

Black-crowned Night Heron
Mature Black-crowned Night Heron

eyes intent on spotting a ripple set off by a fin, foot or wing. A common sighting, said our birder guide. A first for us, we novices who, since moving near the zoo in 1996 made it a favored destination for our almost daily walks. Somehow during four years of discovering the zoo’s nooks and crannies, we managed to miss spotting these white bellied giants with their distinctive black crowns and long white feather that pops out of the middle of their heads, curving along one side. That’s its ponytail, our birder noted as the group moved on. We didn’t move until the heron gave up and flew over our heads, no longer just a two-foot tall giant, but massive with a four-foot wingspan that rustled the air as he let out loud, annoyingly throaty squawks.

Imagine our amazement to see one flying in from the lake a week later as we walked past the little island in the pond south of the Farm In The Zoo. The bird, graceful in flight, landed with a thud in a messy twig nest on one of the island’s large willow trees. Then another, then a dozen returning from what must have been a successful fishing expedition. We came to know them on our many return trips.

They had a peaceful community that grew to hundreds of birds, wok wok woking as they approached their island at dusk. One day their nests were occupied when they glided back, then vacated after some back-and-forth squawking, so the returning fishermen could take a turn on the nests while their mates headed out. Weeks later, little heads, mouths agape, jutted up from the twigs, squeaking frantically as they begged for dinner. We became the-crazy-couple-with-binoculars – our new purchase – who stopped people as they strolled by, urging them to take a look at this wonder.

Fat, ugly babies emerged from their nests, hanging tight to branches as they flapped their wings, gaining courage to let go.  Impatient parents would nudge a dallier off the branch,

Immature Black-crowned Night Heron

forcing an attempt at flying. The bodies of fledglings beneath the trees showed this tough-love technique didn’t always work, but with multiple babies in each nest, parents turned their attention to others and their survival-of-the-fittest life went on.  Those who did master flying soon joined their parents, sometimes holding their heads up, mouths open, hoping to be fed. Ignored, they would join the flock in twos and threes on morning and evening runs to the lake, awkward looking brown spotted youngsters standing out next to the white and black adults.

And then they were gone. Nests abandoned, headed south, no doubt, as the shortened days of late October told their body clocks it was time. The chirping of frogs could be heard again around the island, heralding their relief that the predators had moved on.

No one is sure why these notoriously shy birds that have earned a place on the endangered species list, chose this urban patch of land. The zoo has taken over their management, keeping a headcount, monitoring their health, rescuing and caring for the injured, hauling away the dead as part of a research initiative. When the pond was drained, overhauled and improved a couple years ago, it was feared that the night-herons would move on to a more hospitable place without construction, but they simply moved over to the large trees that lined the walkway near the pond, built new messy nests and set up housekeeping. When the pond renovation was complete, some moved back to their old trees while others in the colony stayed by the sidewalk. Flocks have branched out to establish night-heron neighborhoods at the Farm In The Zoo and near the Lincoln Memorial statue by the Chicago History Museum.

Each year they return – more than 600 a year occupying old nests and building new ones each spring. As common a sight as robins if you know where to look – with or without binoculars.

Acting Against Type

Acting Against Type

Sitting in my church pew for the last 45 years I’ve heard from time to time that characters in the Old Testament are types of Christ. For instance, the Jonah story — spending three days and nights in the belly of a whale before the big fish spat him out on the beach is a type of Christ because the tale is a foretelling of Jesus spending three days in hell after he died, then emerging from his tomb onto the shores of Christianity. I don’t know why all this typology is necessary to connect the Old Testament to the New or, for that matter, what it has to do with me.

Grandpa Bill Burke

I suspect looking to the past to explain the present is a natural phenomenon, one we’ve used to nail each generation’s stake in the Oregon Trail of human history. Christian typology fortifies this grand obsession. Just as actors fruitlessly try to escape typecasting by choosing roles that are opposite their types, we cannot escape the age-old pull of seeing signs of our type in those who’ve gone before us.

A cousin named Barb Violi found me a few years ago through FaceBook. My father had spoken of his sister once or twice, but  he never mentioned she had children, or that he visited them in Memphis from time to time. When I visited Barb for the first time in her home in Omaha last month, she shouted, “Oh my God, you look just like Grandpa.”

Barb Violi with Zoe & Louie

Looking for signs of my type in them, I was hungry for Barb’s memories about Grandpa and our other relatives. There were a few similarities in the dead forebears but nothing like that of Barb herself who is a rabid Democrat, cultivates indoor geraniums, loves her Scottish Terriers, swims and rides her bicycle and has art-covered walls. Her yard is full of birdhouses and flamingo planters. We are the same type

Barb told me our grandmother’s name was Katherine. My father was the type who kept secrets. He’d never mentioned her. She was killed in a car accident when he was a toddler in Terre Haute. My son unwittingly named his daughter Katherine with no knowledge of his great-grandmother’s name. My father’s father, whose looks I favor, had a girlfriend, Stacy, whom my father secretly visited in Indianapolis. My father named his youngest daughter, my sister, Stacy. My mother, who was an east-coast snob, couldn’t have known the connection because she would never have stood for naming Stacy after anyone connected to my father. Barb disclosed that most of my father’s relatives were not the drinking type. My mother found non-drinkers the ultimate in lower life forms. The only thing lower: Midwesterners.

The Midwest

I keep looking for some ancestral typecasting to blame for my body shape, my alcoholism, my arthritis, my murderous thoughts. Jesus and Buddha both taught that we are who we are in the moment, unyoked from the past or the future.

Adhering to this spiritual axiom requires me to act against type.

Something Fishy at the Spring Migration on the Platte River

Something Fishy at the Spring Migration on the Platte River

Something’s fishy. Is it fate? Chance? God?

On the Platte River in central Nebraska I gather with friends from Chicago for the spring migration of the Sandhill Cranes. We arrive at our rented cabin just in time for the dusk fly-in ¼ mile down the road at the Audubon Rowe Viewing Stand on Elm Island Road. On the boardwalk-like stands we parrot the 100-plus birdwatchers as they steer their binoculars toward the goose-like honking in the sky. The bugling cries grow louder as the cranes start to

appear. Thousands of birds swirl in the overhead vortex down into the shallow river with their spindly feet splayed like landing gear on an airplane. It takes about two hours for the birds to land in their overnight roosts on the sandy Platte. We press our binoculars into our eye sockets until the very last bird nudges itself into place, snuggling alongside its friends in the water for the night.

Sandhill Crane

The long-beaked crimson-headed North American Sandhill Crane coexisted with dinosaurs, making it one of the world’s oldest bird species. For six weeks every spring, 600,000 of these five-foot tall grey beauties stop in Central Nebraska.

At dawn, Peter, Amy, Anne, Laurie and I make our way back to the riverbank for the lift-off. The cranes yak each other awake in one of nature’s most melodic cacophonies. They fly off in waves after socializing for a long stretch extending their time on the river to mid-morning. During the day they forage in the corn fields adjacent to our cabin, packing in calories for their long trip north.

Murmuring overtakes the viewing stand. The nature-loving brood from Illinois, California, New Jersey and  Florida grow collectively quiet to hear the cranes’ every cackle, trill and honk. Conversations spring up, “I was in New Jersey once. Drove out route 80 to 70 to 35 to the Atlantic Ocean.” Why do men always talk in numbered roads?

I overhear an Audubon tour guide whisper on down the line to her group, “right there, below that white roof at the river’s bend, there’s a whooping crane.” I focus my binoculars. There it is.

Whooping Crane

There are 500 whooping cranes in the wild in North America. And I just saw one.

I run to my pals at water’s edge repressing a squeal, “There’s a whooping crane!” We are silenced by the stark white ladle-shaped body of the whooper shuffling among the blue-grey hoards of Sandhills over a mile upriver. We report the news to strangers around us, lending our binoculars to latecomers, cooing when the big white bird stretches its wings in view of our naked eyes. I whisper to Peter and Amy, “if I see a river otter before we head for home you can throw me from the plane because my life will be complete.”

River Otters

An hour later Peter nudges me. “there’s an otter.” And so it is. Fishing around in the water, diving down and popping up, nature’s graceful pet latches onto a tangle of twigs and leaves, twirling around and around as it floats downstream under the bridge away from sight.

Yes, something happened on the Platte. Was it you, God? You, who are both fishy and honorable? You, the everlasting instant.


Inspired by the hymn “You, Lord, Are Both Lamb and Shepherd” (“Christus Paradox”) by Sylvia Dunstan (1955-1993) who drafted these words on a commuter bus “after a particularly bad day at the jail” where she was serving as chaplain:
“You, Lord, are both Lamb and Shepherd.
You, Lord, are both prince and slave.
You, peace-maker and sword-bringer
of the way you took and gave.
You, the everlasting instant;
you, whom we both scorn and crave.*

Screaming at Hillary Clinton in Soldier Field

Screaming at Hillary Clinton in Soldier Field

Llani O’Connor and I were rabid Hillary Clinton fans during the 2008 Presidential Primary election. We exchanged did-you-hear-what-she-said exclamations all through the summer and fall of 2007 after she announced her candidacy.

IMG_1029.JPGThis photo from August 7, 2007 shows us with sunny smiles, blouses opened to our bra-lines, red-faced, droopy-haired and sweaty at an outdoor Presidential Forum in Chicago’s Soldier Field. All seven Democratic candidates are on stage in the background: Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, Dennis Kucinich, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. It was a full 15 months before the election, and Hillary was way ahead in the polls.

I had worked as Hillary’s advance person on a few trips when I was working in the Bill Clinton Administration in the 1990s and was completely starstruck by her brilliance, kindness and sense of humor. Llani and I were ecstatic to be voting in the Primary Election that would result in the first woman presidential candidate. We knew she was going to win.

I obtained three tickets to the Soldier Field event after shamelessly begging an old friend who was an aide to Senator Joe Biden. Our third companion, Ann, drove us there, dodging and weaving down South State Street to 31st, ignoring stop signs and red lights, crossing under South Lake Shore Drive then barreling back north 17 blocks to the south parking lot of Soldier Field. We recovered quickly from the tilt-a-whirl ride and rushed into the stadium onto the field to get to the closest seats possible.

The stage was set at the fifty-yard line. Long red,white and blue panels draped behind it, and dark blue curtains hung behind the panels, blocking the back and sides of the stage. Folding chairs filled up the rest of the field.

It was 95 degrees that day – so hot that the moderator, Keith Olbermann cracked that if the candidates didn’t behave he’d cut off their air conditioning. The stadium walls offered no shade and we thumbed our noses at the heat along with the other 15,000 people, all of us 1043829789_89f65ee11b_bdancing around and singing songs for three hours waiting for the 90-minute event to start.

We were disappointed that little-known populist Dennis Kucinich received the most applause, but Hillary’s star power exploded next to the six men. We waited for the candidates to leave the stage before heading to the car for the treacherous ride home with Ann.

“Llani! Look! Hillary’s out in the audience shaking hands. Let’s go!” We plowed through hot bodies and upturned chairs to get as close to our hero as possible. Suddenly, Llani, in her baggy pink shorts, flimsy sandals and turquoise tank top climbed onto a folding chair and took off, hopping from one chair seat to another, camera in hand, shoulder bag swinging wildly and screaming at Hillary to look her way.

Traveling home the wrong way down one-way streets with Ann behind the wheel evoked little excitement after that.