© 2005 by Spider Robinson; all rights reserved.
My daughter is a Master. An honoured one, actually.
A few weeks ago, on June 2, 2005, Terri Luanna Robinson da Silva graduated from Hunter College in New York City with her Master’s Degree in Social Work. Jeanne and I were there for the happy occasion, bursting with pride and joy.
Terri moved to New York years ago, after graduating from Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University with her BA in Cultural Geography. There she almost immediately landed a job as Print Production Coordinator for Martha Stewart Living magazine. After a few years she switched to a better gig at Ogilvy, the largest ad agency on the planet. And a few years after that, she noticed that working for Corporate America was not satisfying anything but her student loan creditors.
So she cut back her hours and enrolled at Hunter, while her husband Heron worked twice as hard to pick up the slack. She’s spent the past year counseling drug-rehab clients at a halfway house, one short step away from being put back out on the street to resume their broken lives, and to a man her clients love her, and she says it is the most profoundly rewarding work she has ever done in her life.
She drove us past her shop, down in Alphabet City--which in my day was an Abandoned Area, entered only by junkies and their suppliers, but is now a rapidly-gentrifying neighbourhood. Livingston Taylor once sang, “Life is good/when you’re proud of what you do./Give your all to others/and it all comes back to you.” You could see clearly on Terri’s face that life was good these days, and that it is indeed coming back.
The grad ceremony was held at one of the three main Hunter campuses in Manhattan--68th Street, if memory serves--and was extremely well done as these things go. Ruth Messenger, New York’s first black female borough president, was a particularly inspiring speaker.
There was one unfortunate, albeit unnoticed, glitch. At one point they read aloud the names of those graduates who had acquired 6 Honours Grades, asking them to stand and be applauded--then those with 7, then 8, and so on, peaking at 12 for the two year course. All courses in Hunter’s two year Social Work program are Pass/Fail…but they also maintain an Honours Grade option, a way for teachers to single out outstanding work with the equivalent of an A plus. Terri’s name was not called. On the way home to Astoria, she wondered aloud just how many Honours Grades she did have--she couldn’t recall. So we added them up when we got home. Nine, out of twelve courses. While working parttime. Needless to say, Jeanne and I are proud enough to spit. It’s a shame she didn’t get to stand and be recognized for it--but we know, and now so do you.
(In missing that public acknowledgment, by the way, Terri was actually living out a happily watered-down version of her father’s curse. When it came time for me to graduate from SUNY, many many moons ago...no, wait, this will give you an idea how many moons ago: the university had just gotten something miraculous called a computer, which filled an entire building, and had put all their records into it, and then trashed all the hard copies. And some data transcription dweeb had skipped over my name. I never got a cap or gown, never trod a stage. I graduated the following October, in the Dean of Men’s office--his secretary had the decency to tear up a little on my behalf--and to do that I had to get affidavits from every professor I’d had, including the one that was dead and the one hiding from the FBI in Algeria with Eldridge Cleaver and Tim Leary.
You can see it coming, right? Yep, two weeks before Terri’s graduation from Hunter, she learned their computer had lost all of her data. At least she was able to get it fixed a lot faster than I did; thank God--the only thing she missed out on was applause for her nine Honours Grades. But it got nerve-wracking there for a while, those last two weeks...)
A footnote: at one point we needed to wait for awhile in the lobby of a different, larger Hunter building down on 67th, while Terri took care of some details. And I got bored enough to start reading the walls. For every year since Hunter was founded, they posted a shortlist of graduates who had been selected, by what means or mechanism I know not, as that year’s greatest achievers in later life. And the name Judy-Lynn Benjamin del Rey leaped off the wall at me. I admired and respected her a lot. Lester too, of course--but Judy-Lynn was something else. She’d have been pleased to see her name there.
So now the plan is, Terri will bag bucks for the next year while Heron gets his own degree in Electrical Engineering from Stony Brook.. And sometime after that, if the gods are kind, they may move to British Columbia and start coming across with the grandchildren...
Also, while we were in New York, Jeanne and I had a religious experience.
(Does that seem odd prioritizing? First the kid’s graduation, then the personal encounter with The Divine? Doesn’t seem odd to me...)
You can have it too, if you can get yourself to New York. On the Lower West Side of Manhattan, at 540 West 27th, is a place called the Cosm Gallery, aka the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors. [; (212) 564-4253] And upstairs on the third floor, you will find exhibited the literally awesome Sacred Mirrors paintings of Alex Grey.
I already knew the work of Alex Grey quite well, and particularly his Sacred Mirrors series--I thought. Jeanne turned me on to him, has all his splendid books. He is heavily into Sacred Art, like we are, and Zen influenced, like we are, and his talent and imagination are just staggering. I was bright enough to realize that seeing the actual paintings live, as opposed to reproductions, would add a certain something to my appreciation. But I had no idea of the impact they would have on me.
I found the experience very similar to ingesting 100% pure Sandoz Laboratories lysergic acid diethylamide-25, another privilege I once had, back in the day. Just as then, I’m still resonating, several weeks later. A few of the paintings were simply too powerful to bear, something that has to be glanced at out of the corners of the eyes lest it tear them out of your head. The management had thoughtfully provided little folding legless chair-backs, that would let you sprawl on the floor and gape in reasonable comfort for long periods of time. I got good use out of them.
The LSD metaphor is apt: there was a specific single day in history, thirty-odd years ago, on which Grey 1) took acid for the first time, 2) met his wife-to-be, to whom he is still idyllically married, for the first time, and 3) understood for the first time his purpose in life: the creation of spiritual art.
If you don’t know Alex Grey’s work, stop reading this and go to www.alexgrey.com. Use the best monitor you can get access to, on a machine with Flash Navigator installed. Click on the “Paintings” link, choose “Sacred Mirrors”--and as you scroll through, imagine each of those suckers as tall as you are, in a frame exactly like the one pictured. That still won’t quite convey it--because no matter how good your monitor is, it won’t tell you how much and how effective use Grey makes of gilt, like a medieval monk illuminating a manuscript. It has the effect of making each painting seem three dimensional, at least six inches deep. To be in the same room with all of them was a little like being in the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid. Each shot should be served with a whisk broom, so the customer can brush off the sawdust when he gets back up.
The synchronistic magic Jeanne is famous for took place: while gaping in awe at the huge masterpiece called “Theologue,” she and I found ourselves in deep conversation with a fellow pilgrim who was as stunned and moved as we were, one Joshua Penman of Ann Arbor. We have come to strongly suspect he is a member of our karass. He is a gifted and highly acclaimed composer, whose music has been played at Carnegie Hall and Alice Tulley Hall, and performed by the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne in Montréal and the Pianoduo Post en Mulder in Amsterdam. And he has a strong interest in the extremely esoteric field of Tuvan throat-singing--which is a particular interest of mine, and deserves a whole Diary entry of its own someday. And if that weren’t enough, he’s also heavily into Balinese gamelan music--which is a major passion of our good friend Colin MacDonald, the Vancouver composer/saxophonist who kindly maintains this website for me (and is finally preparing one of his own at www.crypticmusic.ca). Check Mr. Penman out at www.joshuapenman.com.
We also ducked out to Long Island to visit my sister Mary, who lives in Smithtown with her husband John and their sweet kids, Jeanne, Megan and Patrick--and also present was my father, Charlie Robinson, who flew up from South Carolina for the purpose! Only my brother Jim in Florida was missing. It’s been thirty years now since my mother Evelyn had to leave the party, and we all pumped Dad for stories of their life together--and of his war years in the Mediterranean, as Chief Signalman on a destroyer he’s always claimed was named after him, the U.S.S. Smartt (I didn’t say Good Speller.). It was so much fun, when we got back to Terri’s place I announced it hadn’t been enough, and we went back out and did it again a few days later, and had an even better time.
Finally, we also took the opportunity to lunch with our dearly beloved agent and friend Eleanor Wood of Spectrum Literary Agency, and our longtime pal Pat LoBrutto, who is the Tor Books editor for my Heinlein collaboration, VARIABLE STAR. (Due in November; currently on schedule; pray for me) And after lunch we all went over to Tor HQ at the Triangle Building and met the pr and marketing wizards, and discussed ingenious strategies for promoting VARIABLE STAR when it’s published. Ubereditor Patrick Neilsen Hayden was particularly supportive and had some cool ideas. Elena Stokes, Head of Publicity, was amazing too. And Mr. Tor himself, Tom Doherty, brought us up to his office eyrie and showed us one of the coolest views in New York: a straight shot up Broadway to Central Park.
And we did a bunch of stuff of real interest only to us: walking the boardwalk at Coney Island, listening to a terrific jazz band blow in Washington Square, like that.
One last thought before I leave the subject of New York--a mystery that has been driving me crazy for years now. I’ve discussed this question with several people who know that city as well as anyone living, including Donald Westlake and Lawrence Block, and we all come up empty.
The question is: what the hell is that smell? Exactly?
There is an utterly unique smell to New York, unlike that of any other city on earth. If you’ve even passed through it, you know what I mean. If you drugged me, transported me unconscious, and turned me loose downtown in any city there is, I would eventually work out where I was, by language cues and architectural clues and so on. But if the city were New York, I’d know it before you got the bag off my head, just from the smell. All five boroughs have it.
Anything Lawrence or Don or I can come up with for a candidate source, we can just as easily name several other big cities that have that same feature or combination....and just don’t smell the same. Steam tunnels…stinky buses…subways…surface trains…industry…polluted rivers, with coral reefs of rusting handguns…multiethnic cooking…coal fired power plants… We just can’t think of a single stink-producing source in New York that is not also commonly found elsewhere. Yet noplace smells even vaguely like New York.
I now make my home in a rustic rural paradise, so preternaturally beautiful that rich tourists come thousands of miles to stand around and take our picture and envy us. The air is as pure as anywhere on the planet, the peace passeth all understanding. And I am appalled to report that when I am in New York City, enveloped in that pervasive stink, bathed in that constant 24/7 torrent of noise, I seem to have twice as much energy as I do at home. Lying on my daughter’s futon in Queens, with the sound of traffic, distant gunfire, shrieking arguments in eight languages and drunken laughter drifting in the windows, all night long......I slept like a stone for eight hours, and woke refreshed, every night. Back here at home, I’m lucky if I can manage five hours. God help me, I am, in my bones, a Bronx boy.
Be careful where you pick to birth your children. Like baby ducks, they will imprint on it, as The Good Place. And be tied to it forever, way below the conscious level. I can no longer bear to live in New York...but I can never truly leave it.
I am grateful to my daughter, the Hunter Master of Compassion, for giving me a reason to go back there again, and spend time with her and her husband and my family and friends.