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Thick Neat Hank
November 17, 2010 - Rick Chatenever
This is so embarrassing.
I was away last week, catching up with family stuff, and old friend stuff, and new grandpa stuff in my old haunts in and around Santa Cruz, Calif. Before I left, I filed a feature story for last Sunday’s Currents section about Haiku holy man Ram Dass.
Fall weather in Santa Cruz sparkles with crisp, cool blue skies and pink-edged sunsets over the ocean. When we got back to Maui, the Ram Dass story had run, and there was all this wonderful e-mail telling me how much people had enjoyed it.
And other e-mail about my big mistake.
If you want to, you can read the story about Ram Dass — former Harvard professor, LSD experimenter, ’60s icon and groundbreaking teacher of Eastern thought to American minds — on the Maui News website. Go to www.mauinews.com and click on the Currents link.
What’s not in the story is my personal history with Ram Dass. When I was researching the article, I came upon an interview I had done with him around 1980, when both of us lived in Santa Cruz.
It was before his stroke, when he was still known as the master of the metaphysical one-liner. In those days he used self-deprecating humor to soften his message. He still does. Otherwise he might accidentally knock you over or blow you away with his wisdom.
Think of it like Moses coming down from the mountain and telling a few jokes before getting around to the 10 Commandments.
After talking to Ram Dass in 1980, he told me it was the most laid-back interview he had ever done. Very Santa Cruz.
We were both a lot younger then.
Part of last Sunday’s Currents story refers to his books: “Be Here Now,” which was published in 1971 and became a landmark of that era, selling more than 2 million copies, and “Be Love Now,” which has just been released.
In referring to the new book, I alluded to glowing endorsements on its back cover from best-selling authors in a category known as “Spiritual,” or “New Age” or “Woo-woo,” depending on what bookstore you’re in. The blurbs came from Dr. Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson and Thich Nhat Hanh.
Readers of books about Buddhism know Thich Nhat Hanh (it’s pronounced tick nick tahn) as a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was once nominated for a Nobel Prize by Martin Luther King. His writing is simple, wise and comforting. He now lives in France. He’s like the Dalai Lama, with a cooler wardrobe.
The spellcheck program on The Maui News computers isn’t a reader of books about Buddhism. I was still in Santa Cruz when spellcheck renamed the humble monk Thick Neat Hank.
Which is how it appeared in the story.
Even if it didn’t sound like a personal ad in a gay singles classified section, the typo was an error — which for journalists is the equivalent of a tablespoon of salt in an open wound.
Mortifying. One more reminder of the imperfection of what we do — not to mention, the imperfection of the world we do it in.
When I was interviewing Ram Dass for the Currents story, we did it on Skype. It was an incredible experience, his beaming face filling my computer screen for almost an hour, sharing the wisdom, sharing the love. It was like my own personal wizard of spiritual Oz.
Early on, I asked how the new technology affected being here now?
“I think we are,” he answered. “I have found these Skype calls are heartfelt. The mechanism takes the heart.”
But now another mechanism of new technology had transformed a poetic voice of spiritual peace into a name that sounded like it belonged on the Billboard rap music charts: Hey, Thick Neat Hank. Yo!
For a moment, my mind filled with a vision of a new sort of musical artist, dressed in maroon and golden robes, waving a microphone, his hands in those robotic gestures in front of his face as he spouted words of wisdom in frenetic rhyme.
I might be more embarrassed by the mistake if it weren’t so funny. Thick Neat Hank: the words belong in the dictionary as the definition of a cosmic joke.
Ram Dass. Thich Nhat Hahn. The Dalai Lama.
Good thing these holy men have funny names.
Wisdom — of the cosmos, or of the heart — is easier to get when it comes with a punch line.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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