My Friend James

My Friend James

By Gerald Grow
copyright © 2003

James always kept a pair of binoculars and a birding guide at the beach. Though he knew an immense amount about birds, the real purpose of the binoculars was to carry out his lifelong admiration of teenage girls in bikinis.

Often, when we were at the beach cottage alone, James would cry out, in a voice of truly touching delirium, “You’ve got to see this. Oh, you’ve got to see this!”–as he watched one of the neighbor girls tapdance past the sandspurs to a spot where she could stretch out on her towel in the sun.

He derived a seemingly endless and unembarrassed delight from caressing–at long distances– the bodies of beautiful young women–and it seemed to me to be an peculiarly innocent delight. When his eyes lit up and he babbled breathlessly about their beauty, you could hear how James probably sounded when he was 10 or 11 years old, crawling furtively up the sand dunes of adolescence and sneaking a wildly illicit peek at the buxom, unattainable, and endlessly mysterious girls of 14 on the beach beyond. It was a mystery we somewhat shared, but, as in many things, I could never hope to attain his level of dedication to it.

As the decades passed, I suppose the drinking began to qualify his sense of objectivity,  so that more of his opinions seemed to him to be universally shared truths. Most people in that position probably harden into certainties that are difficult to distinguish from bigotry. But James had a generosity of spirit that enlightened even his most peculiar self-deceptions.

One of the main functions of the human mind appears to be finding rationalizations to justify whatever we are doing or want to do. James had a powerful mind, and, over the years, he developed it into something approaching a genius for rationalization. There was nothing he wanted that he could not justify. What he wanted was often unique and creative. He had amazing arguments to explain why, for instance, it was imperative to mobilize every resource necessary to transport the entire Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra to deliver a command performance of Mozart on the beach, before a puzzled crowd of dozens, rhythmically swatting the no-seeums and yellow flies, at rural St. Teresa, Florida.

He discussed and planned and celebrated such ideas endlessly, though most of them never became more than talk. But some he actually carried out. He flew a landscape architect all the way from California to Florida to tell him what any redneck working in the garden department of Lowe’s could have advised him to do: Plant native plants; they don’t need much watering. It was an exorbitant act, in keeping with his exorbitant imagination. Those who saw him in his freer moments learned to take pleasure in swimming upstream through the flood of James’ projects–some of which would have been laughable if he had not been so innocently sincere and truly generous.

Out of his wild ideas, which served, like the girls in bikinis, to keep him in a state of effervescence,  James apparently donated money to near-strangers, gave away valuable  things to temporary help who noticed them, left $50 tips after $12 lunches, and bought dinner for everyone in a fifty mile radius. He ‘loaned’ his Pathfinder SUV to my teenage son for a whole year (and derived endless enjoyment fantasizing about what my son was doing in that vehicle, which was much more flamboyant in his mind than in the reality, and, at one stage, James offered to pay my son’s way through college–an offer, our long friendship notwithstanding, that I could not accept.

For years, he found excitement and focus in maneuvering the Packard Foundation toward donating tens of millions of dollars to construct a world-class aquarium at that center of world traffic and attention–Panacea, Florida, which is about 15 miles south of nowhere. He spent hundreds of hours working on a proposal for this project. He flew Jack and Anne R. from Panacea to Palo Alto to meet the board. In a typically Jamesian effort to transform the world, he shoehorned Jack into a suit and tie, which James described as about like gift-wrapping a live horseshoe crab.

James was completely committed to such projects. He could be outrageously ironic and comical on many occasions; he treated his magniloquent dreams with utter conviction. But he did convert them into stories. After every step in the Aquarium Project, James added new acts to the comic play he performed on the porch at Seascape, a yarn in which the rich and powerful of the world incongruously confronted an idea that tottered on the fence between being one of the most brilliantly humane educational projects of our time and one of the biggest put-ons.

Out of such things came the stories. James was a master creator of comic stories. He could take an account of a meeting with the board of a charitable foundation and make it into a series of characterizations that left his listeners in tears of laughter.

And out of James’ seemingly endless list of grand and sometimes absurd projects, came some beautiful, useful accomplishments. My favorite, of the ones I know about (there must be others I never heard of) is the Culpepper Pavilion at Gulf Specimen Aquarium and Marine Lab.

He understood the need – a place where children could come out of the rain and learn about the Florida coastal ecology that James loved so much. He engaged in every step of the plans. He chose the builder. (When someone worked for James, they not only worked with him, they became almost a member of his family.) James not only checked out the builder, he got to know him and his work. He could tell you just what skills this man possessed, what made him good. He knew each person who was part of this project, he could tell you about them, and he praised their work through highly specific knowledge of what they did well. His attentiveness and appreciation inspired them to produce their best work.

The result is a simple, solid, functional, effective structure that has an additional quality that is so much like James: It is a strangely elevating space. The bare beams of its open sides and roof have a quality like the ribs in a seashell: they not only show you the structure, but they also subtly evoke the whole grand system of life on this earth that it is a part of. This is not just a building, it is cypress grown in this region’s swamps, its huge weight  suspended in the field of gravity by a meeting of nature with geometry–something that happens often at the edge of the ocean. It is the chapel of a man whose church was the sea.

James had various brushes with Christianity–starting with childhood membership in the Episcopalian Church, which he once characterized as a place rich people go to critique one another’s fashions. In rehab, James seems to have found religion easily, then lost it easily when he came out. Around religious people, he could be religious; I thought I saw several people become convinced that James shared their quite different beliefs. But at the beach, it was a different story.

Like many intellectuals, James labored to stretch his mind around the image that 20th century science gave us of the universe, and he was transformed by the effort. When he looked at Orion rising on a winter’s night across the southern sky and Gulf, he thought his way into the immense distances and billions of years of time that make up the context in which we imagine that we understand the stars.

When we sat on the screen porch at night and listened to the waves on the beach, his thoughts often turned to Darwin, and to Darwin’s vision that transformed the life around us into a process of subtly-changing forms flowing through the immensely long river of geological time, ramifying into every magnificent structure, every subtle function of life as we know it, and into the minds we know it by. In this vision of space and time, James found his version of religion. On a spot you pass to walk to the beach, James posted a plaque containing the closing lines of The Origin of Species:

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

I do not know if James knew this–I read it after his death–but Darwin lost his mother when he was eight; James’ mother died when he was 10, after two years with breast cancer. In both cases, a distressed father forbade the children to mourn, or even to mention her name, sealing a loss that never healed, but lay like geological strata beneath everything both men did. The binoculars were there not just to help James see bikinis; they were there to take his mind off something else. It was a loss that–as the years went on, the nights at the beach got later, his two-liter bottle of wine emptied and he started on the beer–James gradually became willing to whisper to a few close listeners. One touching night, two years before his suicide, in the middle of his protracted exploration of an ambivalent  (and never finished) divorce, he talked to my wife and me about his mother’s death, and cried for only the second time I saw him cry in nearly 50 years.

James and I were born the same week, met at 12 (when I had never heard of Tolstoy and he could quote passages from War and Peace), took nearly every course together in high school, played clarinet in band together, practically lived at one another’s houses, roomed together at Harvard, and both majored in English.  Our sons were born on the same day of the same year, about a hundred miles apart. James was my oldest friend and one of that small number of people through whom I know who I am.

Like many intellectuals,  James used ideas as a vehicle for talking about himself, for sharing his hopes and dreams, for symbolizing feelings that did not easily come forth. Almost every day, I think of something to tell him.

James left unpublished works behind him: at least one novel, a number of novellas and short stories, and one prize-winning play that was produced when he was an undergraduate. But most of all, music was what expressed for James the things he could not express directly. He wrote at least two symphonies, works for solo piano, and sonatas for piano and various instruments, including one for piano and violin. The excerpts he played for me paid unembarrassed tribute to Schubert.

He loved so much of Bach, Mozart’s piano sonatas and concertos and Coronation Mass, so much of Beethoven (to pick one favorite, the string quartet, Opus 59, No.1), Schubert’s Quintet in C Major, and pieces from other times that he had practiced or performed – including Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which a high-school James performed with the Florida State University Summer Music Camp Orchestra, after winning the solo competition, in 1959. I was in the orchestra and played the opening clarinet solo that upzips the jacket of that music and tosses it onto the piano.

James didn’t just love music, or know it; it lived inside him. He was a walking concert hall, where the great works of Western classical music played, in various auditoriums, with various orchestras, all the time. He could pause any time before any of those doors and listen.

If I picked one piece to play in James’ honor, it would be one he specially loved: Bach’s Goldberg Variations, performed on James’ instrument, the piano. It starts with a transparent, hauntingly beautiful theme; then, in the variations, Bach seems to pick up, one by one, each of the possibilities of life–the whole parade of human hopes and fears–hold and explore them, celebrate and lament them, laugh and cry over them–then, with a deeply exuberant tenderness,  set each of them down again. The scope of the piece is so vast that, if Bach had known James, he might have added a comic variation based on middle-aged boys, binoculars, and bikinis covered in stars and seashells — sun-bathing on a bass line reminiscent of a requiem.

When the 30 Goldberg Variations have passed and we return to the original theme, we are left with a view of life that I think James found echoed in Bach: Life derives from a changing process that is infinitely varied, and intricately ordered. We are a result of a seemingly inhuman process, yet our hopes and feelings and meanings and dreams, somehow, make us an integral part of it.

That is the deep-night starlight vision James seemed to live by. Day by day, however, life came to him as it comes to us all, in a seemingly endless procession of disjointed things that we can never put together, never quite make sense of.

But we can make music from them, and with them we can tell our stories.

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