Bridges To Cross: A Conversation with Michael Grbich, Oakland, CA Sept. 10 09

 I first met Mike over thirty years ago and found him personable, upbeat and engaging in a way that was not intrusive. And since he was a neighbor, this was especially nice. One day I was walking out of the house with a tennis racket and ran into Michael. “You play tennis?” he asked me with obvious relish. Then and there I learned about his love for the game. He had been a serious player, but a severe injury put an end to any hopes of a professional career. He showed me his disfigured right hand explaining what had happened. “Even though I had to give up my ambitions in tennis, I discovered I could still play and I’m out on the court as often as I can manage it.” He had lost none of the joy of the game. 
     I had the pleasure of getting to know his two sons and his daughter, all lovely kids, and his wife, Diane, whom I remember fondly. Back then Michael was still teaching art at Miramonte High School in Orinda. A few years later his wife died suddenly, a tragedy. And a year after that, in the Oakland Hills fire, Mike’s home burned to the ground, almost too much to contemplate. 

By then, I had moved a few miles away and had lost touch with my former neighbor. But I ran into him about a year after the fire and remember being moved by the way spoke about it. He’d learned from his suffering. He had learned a great deal. 
     What is it that allows a person to pass through tragedy and come out on the other side with more, not less? It wasn’t until after our interview that I learned that Michael’s mother had died from complications from his birth. Then, a year later, his father committed suicide and he was orphaned. Over the years he was raised was by four different people, all elderly, each of whom cared for him lovingly. “And so I have a special feeling for the elderly,” he explained. He last custodian was his mother’s sister. “She was like mother Teresa,” he told me. 
     “Do you know what a trust fall is?” he asked. It’s when you fall backward with someone standing behind. To really do it, you actually fall backward and trust that you will be caught. He told me that one day teachers were given an exercise  of forming an inner circle and an outer circle. All in the inner circle were invited to fall backwards trusting that they would be caught by a person standing behind them. Only three people could do it. Michael was one of them. 
      I still have the pleasure of crossing paths with Michael in a little business district nearby. He’s usually wearing shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt. He will have been on the tennis court or heading there. Or perhaps he will have been practicing tap dancing, something he took up maybe ten years ago-or practicing walking on a tight wire. Michael is always good for a surprise, or a friendly challenge to anyone who might be feeling stuck. There are always one or two or three people sitting with him in animated conversation on the benches outside a coffee shop. He’s good medicine. And Grbich is an artist, too, a painter. A couple of years ago his work was included in a group show of the work of older artists at the opening of the new De Young Museum in San Francisco. 
     Michael Grbich has some important things to say and he’s dedicated to spreading his message to a wider audience. We met at his rebuilt home in the Oakland Hills on a bright warm day near the end of summer. 

Richard Whittaker:  First thing I see when I walk into your house is your tight wire set up here in the living room. You’ve really made this part of your life, and I wonder if you’d say something about that?

Michael Grbich:  I’ll try to be brief. I saw a program called “Art in the 21st Century” and one of the artists featured was Janine Antoni. She was walking on the same structure you see here and she said, “This is not so much about maintaining your balance, it’s about feeling comfortable falling and being out of balance.” All kinds of bells and whistles went off when I heard that. I said, “Oh, my god! I’ve got to learn walking on a tight wire.” It’s the last thing I thought I’d ever do. So I did a lot of research and looked for instruction in the Bay Area. I couldn’t find it anywhere. Finally I found someone at the trapeze center in Oakland.

RW:  When was this?

MG:  This was about six years ago. The person I talked with told me they didn’t have group lessons, but they could give me private lessons. So I had about a half dozen. Then I made myself a crude wooden structure to walk on before I got this one. Little by little I started to get better. Then I contacted Janine. I just called her. A person walking a tight wire is referred to as a “funambulist.” I love that term.
So I learned where she got her wire and there was the whole drama of getting it over here and so on. Then I tried to find other people who were doing this. There aren’t many people walking tight wires, especially in their own homes. But one thing led to another and I finally caught up with Phillippe Petit, the man who walked across between the World Trade Center towers in 1974.

RW:  Wait a minute. One thing led to another and you caught up with Phillippe Petit? That’s a big jump. Now how did that happen?

MG:  I’d heard about him and when I’d go to New York, I’d call. His number was available. One of the times, he answered. I said, “Phillippe, you sound the same as you did thirty years ago!” I said, “I’d give anything to have a lesson with you.” And I told him a little about myself. He told me he didn’t give many lessons, but he gave me his private number. It took about a year filling out waivers and forms and promising not to sue him, and then I got this four-hour training session from Phillippe. It was one of the turning points in my life.

RW:  That is amazing.

MG:  I went into this thinking it’d be a neat physical thing to do and have since learned that’s not so important. What’s important is living in the moment and not being impetuous, and just slowing down a little bit. So it influences everything I do-my dancing, my tennis, my running, everything-because we’re all kind of walking a tight wire. We’ll all trying to maintain our balance, our diet, our lives and so on. It’s something  I hope to continue to do until I pass on.

RW:  Could you say something more about how it’s made you slow down?

MG:  When you get on the wire, there’s a tendency to want to get to the other side. That’s symptomatic of a lot of what’s going on right now in the world. People are rushing around, chasing their own tails, and I realized you can enjoy life much more if you go through it slowly and look around, smell the roses and so on. It’s a matter of lowering my heart rate and being more patient with myself. Walking on the tight wire is a very difficult thing to do and you make a lot of mistakes early on. So the discipline of doing it carries on to everything else.

RW:  So a big part of what slows you down must be that when you’re on that wire, you have to have your attention totally focused on what you’re doing.

MG:  That’s correct. What you do is look at something out there. That becomes your visual mantra. You look at that and forget everything else you’re doing. You’re just looking at it, looking at it, looking at it, until you get across. You do the same thing in the opposite direction.  You try to block out everything else.

RW:  So if you clear your mind, the intelligence of the body takes over? Something like that?

MG:  It does. There’s something called physical memory. After a while it gets a little bit like walking. When you get very good, which is a long way away, you probably reach a stage where you’re not conscious of what you’re doing.

RW:  But you must be very conscious when you’re on that wire.

MG:  Oh yes!  Even though it’s not very high, you can hurt yourself, a twisting fall. I don’t want to say there’s a danger, but it is hazardous to walk on the wire, even at two feet high. I talked with Phillippe and said, I know when you get on the platform you can’t be in too much of a hurry, but you can’t be hesitant. He said, as long as you have one foot on the platform and one foot on the wire, you’re not doing anything. You have to put the other foot out there. Then you’re really on the wire.
That’s the metaphor of life. That’s why I tap dance across bridges. You’ve got to take the risks. You’ve got to face your fears unhesitatingly. Then you’re truly alive and evolving. I believe that. So that’s what it’s about, facing your fears and not holding back. If you’re going to err, it’s better to walk a little faster rather than a little slower. You remember when you were first learning how to ride a bicycle? You went real slow. You remember how hard that was? But when you picked up a little speed, you got your balance.

RW:  That’s true. Now you mentioned tap dancing across the bridge. That’s something I wanted to hear more about. Would you describe that? It was the Golden Gate Bridge, right?

MG:  The Golden Gate Bridge. I did that to celebrate my 75th birthday.

RW:  And that’s what-a couple of miles across?

MG:  Two miles, yes. Actually 1.9 miles. It had been done before by a woman who was twenty-five. So I’m not the first, but perhaps the oldest. Not too many people are doing that.

RW:  Well, yes. It’s kind of a wild thing. What gave you the idea in the first place?

MG:  First, it was a celebration of life. I have a reverence for life. One of the things I do when I cross bridges is talk to people about, again, facing fears, taking risks and saying yes to life. The bridge was just a stage just to get people’s attention.

RW:  Do you remember when the idea first occurred to you?

MG:  As I was nearing my 75th birthday I was wondering what can I do to celebrate this? I heard about this woman who did it, and I thought, this is what I’ll do! So I pursued getting a permit. That was a very complicated process. You wouldn’t think you’d have to have a permit to dance across the Golden Gate Bridge. But stop to think about it. You can’t have people doing demonstrations and all the people on bicycles and walking and so I accepted that. But there was a lot of bureaucracy involved, an insurance policy, a permit, all to tap dance for twenty-two minutes. [laughs] But that didn’t prevent me from doing it.
But with the Brooklyn Bridge, though, I said, forget about the permits. I’m just doing it. If I get arrested, I’ll just get a lot more publicity.

RW:  The Brooklyn Bridge?

MG:  I did that, too. I did that last year.  I consider myself a harbinger of messages about fitness and health and spiritual well-being. An important thing about saying yes to life is that yes can be an empowering word. It can open doors and opportunities. Sure, sometimes you have to have the sense to say no. But more often than not, if you engage in life, a lot of good things can happen to you.

RW:  Tell me some of the most memorable things from the experience of doing that tap dance across the Golden Gate Bridge.

MG:  Wow! The finish was really great. A lot of my friends followed me. It was a foggy day, a perfect situation! Perfect setting. My friends were cheering me on. One was carrying a boom box. People on the bridge were high-fiving me. I felt like I was on a stage. I was doing pirouettes and everything. It went by so fast. When I finished, a Chronicle reporter interviewed me and, at the end, she said, “Michael, would you consider marrying me?” [laughs] I said, “Of course!”
So many things in life are short-lived. There was all this preparation and it was all over, poof, just like that. But the memory lingers on, Richard. [big smile]

RW:  So tell me about the Brooklyn Bridge.

MG:  Another famous bridge. I tried to get a permit there and they just outright turned me down. This is funny. One of the reasons they gave was because they thought I might jeopardize the bridge [laughs]. Jeopardize the bridge? I really tried to get a permit. I pleaded with them. I said, I have a bridge behind me already. I’m in good shape. Look at my video. But they were reluctant to take a risk with me [laughs]. So that day-oh, I’m so proud, but I’m more proud of what led up to it than the tap dancing across the bridge, because the forecast for that week was rain every day-every day, more and more. I thought, “Ohhhh, man. Maybe I can do it in the rain with an umbrella like Gene Kelly did [laughs], but it’d be nice if I didn’t have to use an umbrella. Finally I said, am I going to go, or not? Do I cancel my hotel and my flight? And then I thought, “Hey, wait a minute! You’re the guy who’s talking about taking risks! You’ve got to do it. Just go!
So I’m in the hotel room. I’m nervous. It’s the night before. I look out the window.  It’s dark. I can’t tell if it’s raining or not. Then I see a full moon! Ahhh, it’s not raining! It was a beautiful day, totally out of the blue! It rained the day before and the day after! That day, God shined down on me! It was perfect! We started early in the morning because we wanted to avoid the crowd, but all the people in New York had been cooped up because of the rain and it looked like they were all on the bridge. So it took quite a while to get across. There’s a bicycle lane, a running lane, a skateboard lane and I was dodging people back and forth and going backwards. New Yorkers were high-fiving me and taking movies. You know, New York is lively. They couldn’t let that pass them by. So that took a long time, but it was a lot of fun.

RW:  So you got all the way across.

MG:  Yes. That’s only a little over a mile. Not to make a big thing about the physicality of it. If I did the shuffle off to Buffalo, I could go across the entire Bay Bridge. It’s not that big a deal. Well, it might be for some seventy-five year olds. It’s about the message. That’s what it’s about.
So those memories will linger in my mind for a long time, both of those bridges. I’m looking for other bridges now. But at this point, I’m looking for some sponsorship. I’d really like to hook up with Kaiser Permanente because of their thrive and wellness program.
But basically, Richard, this right here is a bridge to cross, this tight wire. That never occurred to me before. There are bridges to cross, bridges to burn, bridges to build, bridges over troubled waters, bridges to nowhere-our whole life is based on kinds of bridges isn’t it? [laughs]

RW:  That’s right.

MG:  I’m enjoying this part of my life, believe me! This is my third childhood and each one gets better! [laughs]

RW:  Well, I can see that. I see you down in Montclair. You’re a person who loves people and loves to relate. And you’re always encouraging people and being an example, too. But I wanted to ask you about some of your earlier life. I know you taught art in Orinda, right?

MG:  That’s where I did most of my teaching at Miramonte High School. I taught there twenty-five years.

RW:   Could you tell us something about that? What do you remember the most?

MG:  About the children?

RW:   Sure.

MG:  It was all about them. They could have learned art from a text-book.

RW:  This was a rewarding experience, I take it.

MG:  You’re not kidding it was rewarding! I gave up twelve years of working at PG & E, a high paying job with perks. I was working with IBM machines. But I asked myself, do I want to do this for the rest of my life? I had the G.I. bill from the Korean War and so I decided to take some classes. Some of my friends thought I was crazy. But I had no ambition of continuing at PG & E and a friend said, well take some art classes. So I started doing that. Eventually I had to declare a major. I told the counselor, put down “art teacher.”  [laughs] I never wanted to be anything!
Then comes decision day. Here I was full-time for six years working at PG & E. All of the sudden I’m wondering, am I making the right decision here? Leaving this job? Taking a big cut in pay? I hear teachers don’t get much pay, much respect.
Looking back, to answer your question, I never, ever wished I was back in the office. I made the right decision. I probably taught over eight thousand students over the years. The syllabus that I would describe to the parents who would come in-I’d say, this class is all about your child. This is a partnership. If you put the same amount of effort I put into it, just think what we can do together. Incidentally, I wasn’t a tap dancer then. If I had been, I’d have been standing on top of my desk tap dancing when the students came into the room. [laughs] I’d have no problem doing that! [laughing more]

RW:  What were some of the creative things you did with your students?

MG:  Well, first of all, I was known as a pretty easy grader, so I had a lot of kids signing  up for my class. [laughs] It wasn’t because of my good looks or anything. I also had a lot of girls in my class. So the guys heard about that. Hey, we’ve got to sign up for art! And the word got around that I was pretty liberal. I tried not to speak down to my students. I respected them. I asked them to call me by first name. I tried to eliminate most of the power issues that come with being the teacher. It was an honor and a privilege to be with young people-an honor and privilege-because they are the spirit of life.
So it’s all about kids. And Leo Buscaglia, the guy who taught Love 1A at USC, he said in one of his speeches that the main responsibility of each teacher was to draw the “you” of you out of each person. Now that’s a daunting task.

RW:   Any particular stories that stand out?

MG:  Oh, my God! Let’s start with ones where I got in trouble as a teacher! As a student, I was too chicken to cut class or do anything zany. I never got a bad behavior report, but as a teacher, I was called into the principal’s office all the time. For instance, the music in my classroom was too loud. Some of the lyrics were objectionable. The sinks sometimes were dirty at the end of the year. I got called in because I had sideburns! The principal said, “I notice you have sideburns.” I said, “Yes.” [laughs] But he never told me I couldn’t wear sideburns. Oh, I got called in for numerous things! And I never really was upset by any of those things. If they had said they didn’t think I was doing a good job of teaching, then that would have been different. We’d have to talk about that. I thought I was a good teacher.
Oh, we did little pranks on people. The teacher next door had little pads that said, “call this number.” So we staged this between my class and his. I said, “Bob, you’ve got a message. You better go to the office and check this call, right away. It’s important! I’ll take your class. No problem.” So he goes to the office. It was the only place with a phone. He gets a busy signal. Finally he gets through to the number where a voice says [very seductively] “Hi there. I’m just sitting here naked waiting for you.” He comes back, “GRBICH!!” [laughs] And all the kids are laughing.
So why do that? Because school is a hundred and eighty days. It’s kind of like a prison thing, a little bit like doing time. So doing little zany things, like clearing all the tables out of the room and all having a dance party, having a barbeque outside and having fun were things that made it a little more real. Sometimes you have to do something to lift your spirits a little bit. Now Miramonte is a wonderful school. It wasn’t like I had to worry about my safety or anything. But still, it’s a long time, six periods a day, a hundred and eighty days. Lighten up a little bit.
No, the stories go on and on. Field trips! Going to Monterey Bay and meeting all kinds of people down there, having the free reign of the town, doing drawings and paintings. The field trips were some of the highlights of my teaching career. Big Sur. Up in Mendocino. I look back and there are so many wonderful memories. And, talking about my students-many are almost sixty years old now!

RW:  Do you remember the story of any one student that stands out? Maybe someone who was real shy?

MG:  That’s interesting, Richard. I always worked hard to try to get through to the people who were shy or a little diffident or kind of distrustful of me. What do I have to do to connect with these kids? Maybe I didn’t always succeed, but I tried. I’d look for things. Maybe a kid had an “A’s” cap on. I’d strike up a conversation about the “A’s”-just to make an inroad, to get to know them a little. And I liked that challenge. With the other kids, you didn’t have to do that. So whenever I could take a kid-especially when they said, “I can’t draw.”
I’d say, “Why did you sign up for this class?”
They say, “Well, but I can’t draw.”
I’d say, “Okay. Would you sign up for typing if you could type? That’s why you’re here!” I’d say, you can draw a bath can’t you? You can draw the blinds, can’t you? You can draw conclusions, can’t you? Pretty soon, I’d get them laughing and it took some of the seriousness out of this thing.
I said, “If you’ll suspend your disbelief and do the things I ask you to do, by the end of the year, I guarantee you’ll see some progress. Just trust me.” And I’d add, “You know, something worth doing is worth doing badly.” [laughs] “You don’t have to be great at everything.” But I also told them it was good to work hard at doing something and to try to excel.

RW:  Now Michael, I know you’ve had some hard times in your life, some suffering and some real set-backs. I happen to know, since we used to be neighbors. For one thing, I know that for years you were gathering building materials for a dream home. How many years did you do that?

MG:  It must have been ten or fifteen years. Garage sales, estate sales.

RW:  Ten or fifteen years. You’d find wonderful little architectural things and find a special deal on some great old lumber. And you had this lot in the hills you’d bought many years before. Then the time came and you built that dream house. You built this pretty much by yourself, with some helpers, right?

MG:  I had someone for six months. I did hire someone to do the foundation. And after Bruce left, I was pretty much on my own. That’s another thing, I had a childhood ambition to build my own house, and I just kind of fell into it. When I was a little kid I was always building forts and making tree houses. That’s something I remember. So that much must be in my genes, to have shelter-maybe because we were so poor.

RW:  You built the house with love and care and a lot of hard work, and it then it was one of the houses that burned in the Oakland Hills fire.

MG:  That’s right. But first of all, as you said, it was one of them. I’m always quick to say that there were 3000 that burned. I was not the only one. Some people lost their lives and their loved ones. We didn’t lose any loved ones or any pets. My wife had passed away a year before that, Diane. So this didn’t compare with losing a loved one. We all know that life is more important than stuff. I hope we do! But still, when you’re put to the test-your house is just a pile of ashes, a bunch of rubble-that gets your attention.

RW:  Let me back up, because I didn’t quite remember the timing. But your wife died a year earlier. She died tragically at the age of 50. Then, a year later, your house burns down.

MG:  Yes. [quietly] Well why not my house? I’m not above anything. See, the thing is, Richard, we all have issues to deal with after what age, twenty or thirty? What distinguishes us, whether you’re Donald Trump or a hobo, is how we deal with it. That’s what distinguishes you. I’ve always felt that you have to have the right altitude. Not attitude. Altitude. If you’re above the clouds, how come it’s always sunny up there? If you want to wallow in self-pity and blame the fire department, the insurance company, it’s going to haunt you for the rest of your life. You have to move on and say, how grateful I am: my children are okay; I had insurance for the house.
Life is a crucible, one test after another. It tests your true grit, your beliefs and your philosophy. And God help the person who doesn’t have any beliefs! How do you get through life without any beliefs? You have to have something to hold onto. And it’s a constant struggle! Every day is a struggle. I don’t care who you are! There are things to deal with, impediments. Some are big and some are large. You have to deal with the IRS. Okay, I lost my house. Oh, I’m getting audited by the IRS? Well, that’s not so bad. It’s all relative. And it hones your steel. It has to be honed. Otherwise it can’t cut anything. So as we go through these experiences that are difficult it makes you stronger. I hate to quote Neitzsche, but that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. There’s a certain amount of truth in that.
So a lot of times I get people saying “you seem really upbeat, you’re not very angry” and I say, of course not, because I’ve been through all kinds of things! It doesn’t take much to make me happy-just by being grateful.

RW:   You went to India. Was that an important trip?

MG:  Yes. I went for a year and a half after Diane died. I tagged along with a woman I was dating who was studying dance. That’s where I was when I learned about losing my house in the fire. That was a tough phone call. But, again, when I talked with my son, Eric, and he told me they were all okay, I said, it’s okay. We’ll come together. We’ll get through this. It was another big test. There’s no end to these tests. Death is stalking all of us. We’re so vulnerable. All the more reason to put yourself on the wire and take the next step, right? [laughs]

RW:  Yes. Now you said you have some beliefs. Would you share some of those?

MG:  First of all, I believe it’s an incredible miracle that you and I are here. Just think of the odds. Billions of sperm bouncing around looking for one egg. One cell. That is so miraculous! So whether you bring in a God or a Source, to me, it’s more and more profound. I believe in the miracle of life. I’m not a religious person. I like to consider myself a spiritual person. But that absolutely blows me away. You can’t explain everything away from the Big Bang. Come on! At least I can’t. So it’s about having reverance for life.
In spite of everything, life is beautiful. In Anne Frank’s diary she wrote, in spite of everything in the world people are still basically good at heart. Thast’s what I believe. And I do believe in God. In fact, I thank him every night. Thanks, God. [laughs] You’re one heck of an artist! Oh man! This is really something! And sweet. [laughs]
There is so much to be grateful for. And gratitude creates happiness. Most of the people I see every day have a lot to be happy about. It’s about wanting what you have. Look at all this. [gestures around room] Nice furniture, nice views. It’s lovely, yes, and I enjoy it. But I like to think I’m more than my furniture and my rugs and stuff, right? In the bigger scheme of things, it’s all going to end up dust, anyway.

RW:  Yes. Now I wanted to ask something about being a painter. I know you get a lot of joy from your artwork.

MG:  Yes.

RW:  Do you want to say anything about that?

MG:  It’s about the process. It’s absolutely about the process. You saw my sign outside? It says, “Enjoy the process.” The road to Rome is Rome. Any sales you make, any successes you have are very short-lived. You can only go on bragging about going across the Golden Gate bridge so many times. People get tired of hearing about that after awhile. It’s all very short-lived. It’s nice to sell, because I do have expenses. That’s my main motivation.  Obviously. Look at how many paintings I have around here. [laughs]
The process is what you remember, the doing of the art. It’s the doing of the dance. It’s the doing of the singing. All the other things are ethereal and they’re gone. But the memories are going to go on.
Now you’re an artist, too, Richard, and a painter and writer. You’ve done things. When you’re in that moment, the zone a lot of people call it, and you loose your self-consciousness, what a beautiful moment that is! And there are a lot of things where you’re at one with what you’re doing. It happens a lot of the time when you paint-except when you’re struggling! But when things are going well, oh, how lucky I am to be an artist! Ahhhhh…[leans back smiling]

As I turned the tape recorder off, Michael added that he often didn’t like saying he was an artist because “multitudes live in us.” He didn’t like falling into the reductive way we label ourselves. We got up and took a tour through the house looking at his paintings and later sat down to watch a couple of videos of his tap dancing tours across the Golden Gate and the Brooklyn bridges. Before leaving, he asked if I knew of the photographer Ruth Bernhard. Of course! He handed me a piece of paper on which he’d written the following quote from Bernhard: “If you can’t see what is not visible, you can’t see anything.”

Interview: Jacob Needleman: Art & Philosophy, Oakland, CA 11/21/00

I visited Jacob Needleman at his home. We sat out on his deck in the sun and talked…

Richard Whittaker:  Not too long ago I heard Lobsang Rapgay, a psychologist and Tibetan Buddhist from Los Angeles speak. One thing he talked about was “a tremendous fatigue of thinking that prevents us from thinking aesthetically.” He said this way of thinking makes it possible “to transform a numinous experience and share it”… To be shared, he said, “it has to be transformed in a way that someone else can understand and learn from.” He said further, “What I find most painful, even within spiritual communities, is an inability to translate a numinous experience…” This caught my attention, and it struck me that Rapgay chooses the word aesthetic as the necessary form of transformation. I wonder if you might have some thoughts about that?

Jacob Needleman:  [long pause] I think there may be many things to clarify before we can approach this. The question has many roots. One root is that we really don’t know what we’re communicating most of the time. If I try to communicate to you just in words, even aesthetically—however you want to put it—I don’t really know what I am communicating. I don’t know on the very simplest levels. You can say something to somebody and then you hear that person speak about what you said and you realize that, just on the level of simple declarative sentences, they haven’t heard you, and far less in regard to very subtle or inner experiences. So one of the biggest roots of this big issue is the awareness that we don’t know what it is that we are communicating. Of course-as the “communicatee,” if you like-I don’t know when I am taking in what the other person has said or instead, how much I am imposing my own associations.
So, in a way it is a very profound thing he is saying, but it covers over a lot of other things that have to be unpacked before we can really dig into it. From one point of view it sounds like a great re-expression of the meaning of art, and probably, it is.
What does he mean by a “numinous experience”? In Plato’s Republic there is the famous Allegory of The Cave. Socrates says that the person who finally comes out of the cave and sees the Truth—the reality of the sun—is obliged to go back down into the cave and try to help the cave dwellers. He is obliged. That doesn’t mean it’s nice to do that, it means it’s part of the law. You don’t keep it for yourself, you must share it. Then that touches on the question of skillful means, which is another root of this question—a big root out there, having to do with the transmission from one person more attained to one less attained. This is matter of communicating in a way that actually helps you feel something, touch something, glimpse something in your heart and your intuition. It troubles you in a right way, intentionally. So skillful means. I’m just trying to expose the roots of this question.

RW:  Yes. This is helpful.

JN:  The Buddha goes to help people who are suffering in hell, and in order to communicate to those who are living in hell, he has to speak in the form of a lie. He speaks the truth in the form of a lie because they would never understand the truth as it is. A famous example of that is called “the lie of kama” which is love—”The Kamatic lie” which is how you communicate the truth. People are asleep. People are deluded. If you tell them really straight out what the situation is… He likens it to a house being on fire where there are children in the house on the second or third floor. You’ve got to get them out but they don’t know the house is burning. You might try to scare them, you could try to plead with them, but they might not listen to you. You have to say something that will really make them listen. You tell them there are toys in the street. Jump! They would be afraid to jump, that you might not catch them. There are many toys down here! And so they jump and you catch them. They see then that there are no toys, but their lives have been saved. So you have to communicate knowing the levers that you have to press. Skillful means could be called, aesthetic communication. That could be part of the roots of this whole big question. Do you know Kierkegaard’s thought at all?

RW:  A little.

JN:  He was a great thinker, nineteenth century. He says all communication directly between man and man is an unnatural form of communication. That is, important things have to be communicated indirectly. By that he means if you tell somebody something, “you’re asleep” or something like that, they just take it in as if you’re imposing a view on them, they believe it or not, it’s of no use to them. But if you speak of it in such a way that can lead them toward it for themselves, then you have really been compassionate and human in your communication. Socrates was a great hero for Kierkegaard. He never spoke directly. He always led people to the point where they could discover the truth for themselves. Is that aesthetic? it’s an aspect of this question. There are many other roots to this question. So I’ve taken just two of them.

RW:  Yes. That expands the question a great deal.

JN:  Maybe you’re talking about what we ordinarily call art.

RW:  I was attracted to his formulation. I hadn’t gone very far with the thought which you’ve now opened up. I’m struck by what you said at the beginning, that I don’t really know my own experience. Ordinarily I don’t ask myself this question. Ordinarily I have an experience and the next step is finding a way to express it, I suppose. I don’t think such a question gets asked much, “do I really understand what I am feeling or seeing?”

JN:  Let’s go into that a little bit, but that isn’t what I said. I said, we don’t know what we’re communicating, but it is another root of the question.

RW:  A demonstration right there! [laughs]

JN:  That’s a very interesting point, too—that we don’t know our experience. In art—with people like us, ordinary people—I think each artist has a different story to tell. We know there is this idea of great art where there is an intentional communication, where the artist knows what he wants to transmit and he knows how to do it, but that’s not most of us. We’re nowhere near anything like that. I think most artists would say they’re not much like Mozart was said to be or how Michaelangelo was said to be. I’m not like that.
For me, and probably for a lot of other people, there is an interaction that starts right from the beginning between the material and the form the creation is taking. That starts from the very beginning informing me of what I want to say. There is an interaction. I discover my experience as much as I communicate. I learn what it is. Sometimes it may be enhanced or it may be deflected. I may be slightly off. It may turn out to be something else than what I intended. All that is going on. Sometimes there is an out-and-out deflection.
So you know, in order to be sure to hit the target, just shoot first and whatever you hit, call it the target. [laughs] A lot of what we call art is like that. That’s not bad. Sometimes in that process things are evoked inside myself—ahhh! that’s what the character wants to say! And often, afterwards, the artist will lie to himself and say, here’s what I wanted to say. But, in fact I don’t remember what I wanted to say, exactly. It was kind of a vague feeling and this is what came out. In life it’s like that.

RW:  Yes. Just yesterday my wife and I were walking our dog. He has a strange habit sometimes of sticking his head in a bush and just standing there. I bent down to look because I wanted to see if I could get some clue about what was going on. Afterwards my wife asked me what I thought. I said I didn’t have a clue. But as we continued walking, suddenly I remembered that I actually had gotten an impression and, in only moments, had forgotten it. This subtle level became revealed, sort of by accident.

JN:  It is one of many, many things that can be given to you while you’re working on art. I talked about discovering, or inventing, or changing as you work. But there is also an aspect of a gift. A fine impression, for example, can return just at a moment when you’re writing or painting. Suddenly it appears and serves just at that point. It’s there for you to act on in some way. I think there’s a lot of gift, of the given, that can take place. You can’t say you knew that was going to happen.

RW:  Not at all. It’s obvious that you speak as one with first-hand experience, I wanted to ask you about the creative process.
When I was 14 or 15 someone I knew committed suicide. It was a tremendous shock to me, That night I sat at my little desk and, for some reason, was moved to try and write about these feelings which were chaotically surging around very painfully inside. As I was struggling to write, something happened about which I suddenly could say with great clarity, I want to be a writer. It had to do with some sort of transformative experience. Something happened that was very compelling. What do you make of that?

JN:  The creative experience. Sometimes what happens when you read or experience a work of art when you’re younger-you’re so touched you say, I want to do that. I want to participate in that. You read a great novel. It touches me so much I want to be a writer. Or you hear music. I want to play. Then there is this experience you are describing. Yes, I think a connection is made between parts of ourselves that is not usually there. I don’t know which parts exactly. Sometimes when you’re putting something into words you feel that your head has become connected to your feeling or to something in your instinctive part that knows something. Usually these parts are separate. Usually your head is going along it’s way and when it wants to say something, it just goes back to other words, other associations. But sometimes when you write-I’m not sure about this-but sometimes there is a connection made between the head and the feeling. That’s a very precious thing. The gift of language, the capacity of language, is that it is supposed to be able to connect to any part of the human organism. It all can feed into the power of speech or expression.

RW:  That’s its potential?

JN:  Yes. It has access to all the parts. So what is this joy that appears when we make the kind of connection? Or when you wrote about the suicide. How do you understand that? It’s a question for both of us just sitting here. What was the experience like?

RW:  Somehow it was very transformative of this horrible state I was in. There was some sort of ordering, I’d say. It was so new—of a different order from the way my life usually was. And since then I’ve had many, many experiences of something happening via the creative process. The ways that I’ve talked about it—and I’m not sure how accurate what I have to say is—the kinds of things I find myself saying is that something happens that brings about a greater sense of connectedness, less fragmentation. There’s an energy…

JN:  It’s interesting to me because when I try to speak about this sort of thing, I feel I really don’t know what I’m talking about.

RW:  Yes. [laughs} I truly feel that. It’s true.

JN:  I’m floundering. At sea. And yet the phenomenology of it is, the honest part of it is, that I feel so alive, so full of life. Explanations may be very brilliant, we could call it “catharsis.” We can call it anything we want. (Catharsis is an interesting term, by the way. It doesn’t mean what people think it means) But I feel life. I feel connected to another kind of life, and I don’t know what it is.

RW:  I like very much the way you put that. Your reference to catharsis makes me want to ask you about your own background. I know you’ve studied quite a number of different things. You’re a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State and have been for some time.

JN:  Many centuries.[laughs]

RW:  But before that you also had done a good bit of study in the field of psychology, I believe. I wonder if you’d talk a little about that earlier time.

JN:  It was medicine. A lot of it was in science and medicine. You read my book A Sense of the Cosmos?

RW:  Yes.

JN:  But you didn’t read the book on medicine? I wrote about some experiences I had there. I was in graduate school. I was supposed to get a job as a professor, a beginning instructor, at Yale and for one reason or another, that fell through and I was without a job. I had written a doctoral dissertation on Existentialism, on a philosopher who was very popular right after the second world war.
Everybody has heard of existentialism. Nobody really knows what it is. Anyhow I’d written my dissertation on an existential philosopher and psychiatrist named Ludwig Binswanger who was trying to apply the principles of the world famous philosopher Martin Heidegger to psychiatry. I got very interested in what was called phenomenological psychiatry which was trying to break out of the overly scientific, analytic, reductionist mode of the Freudians and behaviorists. You take experience seriously and respectfully. So I wrote that dissertation and had given a talk at a VA hospital, to the staff about the application of philosophy to psychiatry. When I finished my lecture, the head of the psychiatry service joked that why didn’t I just come and treat some patients for them? Well, I was out of a job and I went over to him and said, “I know you’re just joking, but do you think there’s anything..? He said, “Sure.” [laughs]
There was lots of government money floating around so they hired me as a clinical psychologist trainee. There was a very good salary and they gave me a big, ugly green office.
I expected I’d be sitting there seeing patients. They were all VA patients, all in really bad shape. No reason to get well. No family. Schizophrenics, most of them. I thought I’d just see them, take down their perceptions and construct what we called their “phenomenological world view” and present and report to the staff. It was more or less what I’d done my doctoral work on. So at one point the head of the service who had hired me came in and said, “why don’t you treat some patients?”
I said, “I haven’t been trained to do that.”
He said, “That’s all right. We’ll supervise you. You’ve read more than anybody else here. Why don’t you try it?”
“But I’ve never done that before. I’m afraid I’d hurt them.”
He said, “If you could hurt them, you could help them. Nobody here either hurts them or helps them. They’re beyond that.”
It was a profound thing he was saying. The limits of psychiatry with certain kinds of patients were very clear in this man.
So I started treating patients. Some of them seemed to not actually get worse. I had a year’s training as a therapist with lots of supervision. Got my hands right into the center of it.
But I soon realized it was not my calling. I was interested in that, but I had started out more in biology. I wanted to be a doctor of medicine and do research. But while I was getting the education I needed to become a research scientist, I saw that my teachers were not much interested in the sense of wonder that I felt toward science. They were more interested in the theory, the techniques, but I was interested in something the modern scientific education didn’t have much place for which was the cultivation of a sense of wonder. That’s why I went into philosophy, making a long story short.

RW:  You have been teaching philosophy for many years. I never had a class from you, but I did end up getting a B.A. in philosophy myself. I studied existentialism, wrote my senior thesis on Heidegger. I did make some effort to continue at a post-graduate level but generally found it so far removed from my real concerns. So I’d like to ask, how did you continue in philosophy?—because so much of modern philosophy has left far behind, let’s say, “the sense of wonder” you mention. In many regards modern philosophy seems to have turned its back on the deep human questions.

JN:  There was an article a few weeks ago in the New York Times about New York City becoming the philosophy capital of the world—many leading academic philosophers are teaching there—and I was trained in that world at Harvard University. There were all these guys—competitive, analytic—and very often they were arguing about things which, to me, were completely sterile. And many people like you—I write about this in my book [The Heart of Philosophy]—who fell in love with philosophy find it was like falling in love with a beautiful woman who turned out to be frigid.
I remember I was a freshman at Harvard, in one of my first philosophy classes there. The professor started by asking—like I do sometimes, like professors do—what do you expect to get out of philosophy? I put up my hand and said, “I want to know why I’m living, why we die. Does God exist? What are we here for?” I went on an on like that, and I could see around me that there was this silence. My throat got dry, and I just felt awful. At first I’d thought that I was going to speak for the whole human race. And the professor, of course, was saying, “Yes. Go on.” He knew he had one. Finally I just couldn’t go on any more. Then he said, “Yes. But you see, that’s not philosophy. If you want to know those things, you have to see a psychiatrist or a priest. This is not philosophy.” It was such a shock.
I recovered quite well, but I had to find a few other people who shared my hunger. It is the hunger you’re speaking of. That is what Plato called eros—a word that’s come down to us which has taken on a sexual association. But for Plato it had to do, in part, with a striving that is innate in us, a striving to participate with one’s mind, one’s consciousness, in something greater than oneself. A love of wisdom, if you like, a love of being.
     Eros is depicted in Plato’s text, The Symposium, as half man, half god, a kind of intermediate force between the gods and mortals. It is a very interesting idea. Eros  is what gives birth to philosophy. Modern philosophy often translates the word “wonder” merely as “curiosity,” the desire to figure things out, or to intellectually solve problems rather than confronting the depth of these questions, pondering, reflecting, being humbled by them. In this way, philosophy becomes an exercise in meaningless ingenuity.
I did learn to play that game, and then to avoid it.
My students at SF State were very hungry for what most of us, down deeply, really want from philosophy. When we honor those unanswerable questions and open them and deepen them, students are very happy about it, very interested in a deep quiet way.

RW:  It is really very hard to find that, I believe.

JN:  Some years ago I had a chance to teach a course in philosophy in high school. I got ten or twelve very gifted kids at this wonderful school, San Francisco University High School. In that first class I said, “Now just imagine, as if this was a fairy tale, imagine you are in front of the wisest person in the world, not me, but the wisest person there is and you can only ask one question. What would you ask?” At first they giggled and then they saw that I was very serious. So then they started writing. What came back was astonishing to me. I couldn’t understand it at first. About half of the things that came back had little handwriting at the bottom or the sides of the paper in the margin. Questions like, Why do we live? Why do we die? What is the brain for? Questions of the heart. But they were written in the margins as though they were saying, do we really have permission to express these questions? We’re not going to be laughed at? It was as though this was something that had been repressed.

RW:  Fascinating.

JN:  It’s what I call metaphysical repression. It’s in our culture and It’s much worse than sexual repression. It represses eros and I think that maybe that’s where art can be of help sometimes. Some art.

RW:  Let me tell you about an interesting experience I had. Back in about 1985 I spent some time asking strangers at the Oakland Museum and a few other places, What is art? Is art valuable? and Why is it valuable? I was really curious to see what people would say. I had a tape recorder and a microphone and I found most people would talk to me. It wasn’t too long before I noticed something really unexpected: the way people were talking about art had a distinctly religious quality about it. And further, there was no quality of cynicism one often finds if the subject of religion is raised.

JN:  What kind of phrases did they use? Was it what they said, or in the way they talked?

RW:  They would say, “art is about beauty,” “about trying to express our highest feelings, the best parts of ourselves” “the best of art comes from the soul.” One man said, “true art is an act of love on the material plane.” No one used the word God, but the tone of language was very much in the realm people use when they’re talking about the spiritual. It was a clear impression of that.
On the other hand, I think there is something analogous in the professional artworld to what has taken place in professional philosophy. That is, something no longer represented there, or hardly possible to represent.

JN:  It’s interesting. Let me bring out something. [goes into house and retrieves two figures of men about a foot high, each seated informally as if sitting on the ground their faces lit up with expressions of great delight] We just passed a store in the street the other day and saw these and fell in love with them. Particularly when they’re together. It’s a relational thing.

RW:  I had noticed these in your house. They’re delightful.

JN:  If you go and see those four women in there. [We go into the house. Four women figures of a similar configuration are arranged so that they appear engaged in joyous, animated conversation.] You can put them together in different ways. We’ve been changing them around. At this point, we’ve got these two guys together, but you can put them any way and they’re joyous.
This is not Michaelangelo, or some art statement. These people represented are ordinary, working people, or however you want to say that. Their postures are absolutely ordinary.

RW:  They’re wonderfully captured though.

JN:  They’re wonderfully captured. You feel something beautiful. There’s something beautiful about ordinary people when they’re captured like that.

RW:  I wonder if, in fact, this potential in art to touch the feelings doesn’t just continue to exist in an ordinary way. You don’t see it so much in the museum of modern art. Some people make quilts, some go down into their basements and make things out of wood. They get a certain joy out of it.

JN:  I agree. I mean, after we looked at these figures we began to see other people altogether differently. Like your posture, my posture, everybody’s posture. Somehow these portrayals of ordinariness evoke love for people. It’s not just the sense of beauty, but a sense of love for man. A love for people. There’s an ethical, or spiritual element, in these things too.
For a little while everybody I saw on the street, I saw their postures—the guy buying a newspaper, the woman at the bank machine telling her kid, “come on.” If that had been captured just like that, that would be beautiful. It touches a sort of positive feeling toward life. That doesn’t mean all art should do that. There are lots of other things that art does. It shocks. It awakens. It makes you quiet and brings you in. It harmonizes you. There are many things. As long as you can discriminate what is going on. There’s an art that can evoke a longing for the unnamable. That’s a very high thing.
I don’t know if you’re aware of Plato’s views about art.

RW:  I understand Plato was of two minds about art. He considered art dangerous. It was something to be very careful with.

JN:  It is. Look what it does to people. When I teach about Plato’s views about art, particularly about music. I play some different kinds of music.. It’s very hard to observe yourself honestly when you listen to music, but I ask my students to try. I play Country and Western, Beethoven’s Ninth, Hard-Rock, 1940’s romantic ballads, some sufi flute music, different kinds of Bach, schmaltzy romantic waltz music, just a few minutes of each one. And I ask, now, what did you see? We talk.
It turns out some of the students are really astounded at the emotions that these things are evoking in them. And that these are emotions they are living with, being brought up in. They are living, eating, drinking, breathing these emotions. For example, Country Western music is filled with self-pity joined to sexual desire. And we love it! The romantic music of the 40’s is a kind of sentimental…   And the fact is music is shaping the psyche of young people. It’s an organic feeling that is being habituated. The violence, not just in words, but it’s the music. It’s poison.
So that’s art. It’s more than just a secondary thing. It’s a central part of human culture.
I ask my students. Next time you’re rolling down the freeway and you’re turning on the radio, what are you getting out of it? I do it too. I think visual art has it also, a tremendous effect on people. Literature also.

RW:  It’s very difficult to talk about these things in a way that keeps people from getting into a big reaction. Anything that smacks of criticism or censorship gets people automatically into a reaction. There are a number of things that are extremely difficult to broach. Going back to something you said earlier. There are things you can not talk about directly. Simply cannot. Period.

JN:  Certain kinds of art are like that. People fly right off the handle. So you’re right, art has a religious component. It also has an idolatrous component too.

RW:  I hesitate to even bring it up, but there is also the mass media influence of advertising. Anyone who regards advertising as something one can take or leave is extremely naive. There are people who, in a different culture or era, would have used their creative capacities and their intelligence in a different way, but in our culture they are in advertising. That’s where the money is.
Is there anything that art or literature could do in this culture that could help in some small way to balance the larger movements that are simply flowing. Something that could support these smaller moments people sometimes have. I haven’t any answers.

JN:  There’s such an idolatry about art and artists. Everybody’s an artist. A lot of us who are artists can start blaming ourselves. It’s not really going to help anybody. There’s a lot to be said for an artist being able to make his own living, to sell his things. I mean, there are many roots to this question too. Some artists feel that they are privileged people and that they should be supported and should be allowed to do whatever they want. There is something very unhealthy about a whole aspect of art which is self-indulgent. Maybe there are some techniques which are skillful, but what is sometimes being offered to the world is not good.
I think what we are talking about is, what is a salvational influence in society? What can help? It always starts with a small group. There are films sometimes which really touch something, books which sometimes touch something, that help people, give them hope. I think what art can do is give hope. Real hope.
You read a great tragedy and it gives hope. It’s funny that a great tragedy would bring hope—the vision and the understanding of human forces, that someone understood that. There’s something that touches your sense of awareness and feeling for the human condition.
Art can evoke certain feelings that you said in something you sent to me earlier—how did you put it?

RW:  I wonder if we shouldn’t consider–when we’re thinking about the importance of the environment, about the value of wilderness and about ecology—if we shouldn’t consider that there is something analogous in our inner environment that needs to be protected and preserved.

JN:  We’re losing certain kinds of feelings. That’s exactly right. Just like certain species of animals. With all the things we’re getting from technology, it’s costing us certain values and feelings, which are disappearing. Art can help keep that, store them, bring them back—and can it do it by transforming the culture and not through escaping from it? Say through the media of television? In other words, can it sacralize these secular things?