Everyone should have a rich inner life, one that feeds your dreams or inspires you to act and achieve goals. My inner life animates my music, art and poetry, and vice versa; I’ll call it the bohemian side. But every artistic person is forced to be practical, whether they want to or not. My practical side enjoys the challenge of more academic stuff like history and science, and there is a natural tension between these two sides; my bohemian nature questioned the cultural rules and canon of stuff we’re not supposed to question, the things that are supposed to keep either society or an individual in check. I admit to being a high school reading list kind of guy, wandering through the library stacks, stopping at Thomas Wolfe and thinking hmm, Look Homeward, Angels; I know I’m supposed to read that (great book, incidentally). As I get older, I'm seeing a learning life in a positive light and reading as a meaningful activity rather than something passive (although I do get to a point where I get tired of watching basketball on TV and I just have to go outside and fucking ride a bike). There is no denying that I had book smarts and that I enjoyed school, but I was aware or wary of the good fortune of the circumstances of my birth that enabled me to get my education and to reap its benefits.
Many of my rock and roll band mates or friends on the scene in Washington, DC in the 1980s and beyond didn’t graduate or even go to college, while I have two master’s degrees, one in cell biology (MS) from University of Virginia (UVA) at Charlottesville (1975-1977) and the other in public health (MPH) (environmental health) from University of California (UC), Berkeley (1978-1979). It’s not that I actively sought out people with lesser academic accomplishments, but they seemed, well, more interesting. They took risks. They either actively rebelled against a comfortable upbringing or had to hustle because they didn’t have the best of childhood circumstances. I grew up comfortable middle-class and became bored with the societal benefits that my education could bring; it just looked one-dimensional, too easy given my circumstances, and frankly a little scary to get trapped in. “If you just follow these rules my man, you’ll make a million dollars!”
I applied to medical school over a period from senior year in undergrad through two years of grad school, gradually feeling less and less motivated or sure of my motivation. I saw the panic in others my age and class who just had to go to medical school but had absolutely no idea what type of doctor they wanted to be or if they even wanted to be a doctor. Their parents – and mine - were pushing them. I am Jewish, with the associated stereotype of parents urging their children to be “a doctor, a lawyer maybe,” although this is a fairly universal drive among first generation immigrant families of all cultures. While the 10- or even 15-year-old me may have been vaguely aware of the tyranny – no matter how well-meaning – of parental expectations (I felt like I was christened Most Likely to Succeed or The Smart One in my family), around this time I began to feel disconnected and downright queasy about the whole thing. I was sensing this, but couldn’t figure it out yet, didn’t have the tools, and felt like Bob Dylan’s Mr. Jones: “something was happening and ya don’t know what it is.” I realize now that I was uncomfortable with privilege but didn’t know what to do about it. The more I think about it, what resonate most with me, what I am most proud of, are the working class struggles of my traveling salesman grandfather, electrical engineer father, and socialist maternal step-grandmother.
So....I said fuck Medical School, and ended up going down the path of academic achievement-lite, gaining “lesser” master’s degrees in biology and public health. You're rolling your eyes now. I don’t expect to convince you that nine years of undergrad and grad school study represents a particularly ballsy rebellious streak on my part, but the fact that I finally realized that med school wasn’t for me was a baby step towards finding my path. It made me angry - still makes me angry - when someone hoping to understand me and connect with me talks about some judge or doctor who “has a little jazz combo on the side.” The Rule was that any artistic enterprise must be backed up by a profession. You wouldn’t want to just be creative, right? My parents preached the twin gospel of Education and Practicality. While I understood the value of education, enjoyed learning and sharing with inquisitive people, and could admire scholarship and intellectual discourse, in the end it all felt soulless and left me cold and alone. As an heir to Talmud-totin', intellectual Judaism, this is a big shift. I began to seek out something more zen and more soulful, which more often than not became synonymous in the public realm with “political.” I’m a verbal guy, so poetry - writing it, reading it - is where I found refuge. Of course, I grew up on The Beatles and Bob Dylan, and now I turned to beat poets/writers like Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen and Allen Ginsburg and Diane DiPrima and Jack Kerouac. I then gravitated towards James Joyce, Henry Miller, William Burroughs, Lydia Lunch, Exene Cervenka, Charles Bukowski, Anais Nin, and John Waters. You know, all those people labelled dirty, disgusting, and obscene when what they really are/were is hilarious and deeply thoughtful and…..real.
I was looking for something beyond the safety and insular comfort of family or religion, which was packed to the hilt with conditions and a steady diet of Shoulds. Hearing my inner voice was not easy. First, the inner voice emanating from that rich inner life is mighty hard to hear – we’re talking Horton Hears a Who quiet - and second, once you do hear it, it’s not for the faint of heart. You gotta be motivated because it’s gonna require an extra effort to swim against the tide. No one may give a shit but you gotta do what you gotta do. I admire people who venture out without a net. I’m sure I benefitted from coming up in a Sixties culture that encouraged out of the box thinking, from The Beatles to Timothy Leary to Bob Dylan to Jimi Hendrix, but on a personal level it is still easier said than done.