I can remember it so well: Dressed in a suit and tie, in my car, in a hotel parking lot. I was early for my meeting, and was killing time listening to sports talk on the radio. Mike Francesca, I think it was. My cell phone's text message noise sounded, bringing inevitable news that somehow seemed shocking: J.D. Salinger was dead.
I was barely able to make it through my stupid meeting. Much wine was poured that night. I dressed all in black the next day.
That's the way it always is with me and my heroes -- their deaths hit me harder and longer than when even family members die. Maybe that's strange, I don't know, but it's the absolute and undeniable truth.
Salinger's death threw me head-long into a reading frenzy. I re-read Catcher, and Nine Stories, and Franny and Zooey, and Roof Beam and Seymour. Then I read (or re-read) a bunch of books ABOUT Salinger:
Salinger: A Biolgraphy by Paul Alexander
At Home in the World by Joyce Maynard
Salinger, Edited by Henry Anatole Grunwald
Dream Catcher by Margaret A. Salinger
J.D. Salinger, Edited by Harold Bloom
New Essays on The Catcher in the Rye, Edited by J. Salzman
J.D. Salinger by Warren French
"A Reading of Salinger's 'Teddy' " by James Bryan
It was a ton of reading, of course, but the task of it seemed to happen separately from myself. The emotion of it seemed to happen as deeply within myself as could be, as intimately as possible. It did not help me "process" the loss, or achieve "closure," or any other Dr. Phil kind of nonsense. All it did, really, was make reading Salinger's stories themselves immensely more enjoyable, because I finally realized just how deep and poignant and full of soul-rattling, life-changing epiphanies they really are.
And then last month a new Salinger biography came out, Salinger: A Life by Kenneth Slawenski. At first I was skeptical: how much new information or insight could it possibly contain? I held off buying it. However, when the reviews starting coming in, they were so overwhelmingly positive that I couldn't resist.
Let me join in that chorus of positivity for Mr. Slawenski's work. It is better than all of the rest of the books I've read on J.D.S. because he combines the best elements of both biography and critical analysis of the stories, collected and uncollected. He also adds in new and fascinating information on Salinger's life. Especially keen is his analysis of Salinger's World War II experiences and the profound impact they had on his life and fiction. But equally great are his descriptions of Salinger's days before and after the war, including tremendous insight into how these events translate, near-autobiographically, into his stories. One example is the fact that Salinger lost the hauntingly beautiful Oona O'Neill, daughter of the legenday playwright Eugene O'Neill, to an elderly but rich Charlie Chaplin. One gets the feeling that Salinger never really got over it.
Equally fascinating were Mr. Slawenski's insights into the in-fighting among the New Yorker magazine's staff members when it came to Salinger's stories. Katharine White (wife of E.B. White of The Elements of Style fame), for example, wanted to reject "Zooey" (!!!) Then-publisher William Shawn overruled her, and the edition of the magazine featuring Zooey's bathtub-birth into the world completely sold out within days. (And Franny and Zooey today is considered a classic.)
I HIGHLY recommend J.D. Salinger: A Life to any Salinger fan, certainly, or any fan of fiction in general. With many of Salinger's stories there is a subtle item or occurrence or word that carries with it tremendous meaning. If you don't know to look for it or are unaware of its nuanced meanings, you could easily miss it, and therewith, miss the entire potency of the story. Mr. Slawenski is quite skilled at uncovering those hidden gem-aspects to the stories and should be saluted for bringing them into the light.
After reading A Life, I found myself rushing back to the Salinger stories, just to see if I agreed with Mr. Slawenski's analysis or not, and I enjoyed just thinking about the stories from a different angle. Maybe you will, too.
"Buddy is engaged elsewhere for an indefinite period of time." - Seymour Glass, a Devega Bicycle if ever there was one.
You can purchase J.D. Salinger: A Life by clicking on this link or the button below.
It was cold, raining, and dark, as Pittsburgh mornings often are, when a dude with long blond hair and a red trucker hat approached me on Forbes Avenue and asked me a question. He was the fifth person who had recently asked me about the same thing, so I immediately suspected the universe was up to something.
As a professional risk manager, I’m used to peeking around corners, sensing potential impacts. In this case, I’m sensing a need for some basic disaster-prevention tips coming from someone with a qualified opinion.
Either that or the universe is just messing with me, which is also entirely possible. So, here goes.
Dear Red Trucker Hat Dude, et al.:
How to Personally Prepare for a Pandemic (or Any Emergency, Really)
Live below your means, saving as much money as possible with each paycheck you get. Having multiple income streams is also advisable, if at all possible. Examples of additional income streams include YouTube videos, book sales, dollar-store eBay flipping, getting a second or third job in the gig economy such as Uber/Lyft, Fiverr, TaskRabbit, etc.
Understanding personal finance is a key educational goal, and you usually have to look outside of the U.S. educational system to do so. I always recommend either Dave Ramsey or Ramit Sethi for this purpose, and there are certainly others out there who are helpful.
The Dave Ramsey method (“Envelope System”) is great for stretching a dollar, especially if you’ve been previously uneducated about the psychology of money. He posts clips of his radio show on YouTube, and has a free podcast. (Hint: he’s slightly against using credit cards.)
Ramit’s no-nonsense style makes for entertaining reading while he’s teaching you. He has free videos on YouTube and blog posts on his website at https://www.iwillteahcyoutoberich.com/blog
BENEFITS: Having a cushion in the bank helps to get you past any unexpected interruptions to your cash flow. While interest rates are currently terrible, even 1% is better than nothing. At a bare minimum, you should have a $1,000 emergency fund at all times.
RESOURCES: The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey and I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi.
2) EXERCISE/PHYSICAL FITNESS.
Exercise daily, aiming for at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day. Long walks are free, non-taxing, and very beneficial. There are innumerable free resources for you to research the exercise mode of your choice.
BENEFITS: By maintaining a healthy body weight, you greatly improve your immune system, and therefore your chances of fighting off any nasty viruses. Examples of nasty viruses that have killed people lately include Coronavirus, H1N1, Ebola, Zika, the flu.
RESOURCES: The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferris, Jeff Nippard YouTube channel.
3) STOCKPILES OF ESSENTIAL GOODS.
This is also known as “prepping,” but it’s just logical to stock up on certain items in case something happens and the supply chain is interrupted. It should be noted that the term “prepper” is frequently used with a negative connotation in the American media for some reason, so your neighbors may look at you weird when you start stockpiling. Ignore them.
Buy long-term storable foods. Ramen is cheap and lasts forever, for example. Kits with MRE-type meals are also not super-expensive. Rice is cheap. Canned goods are inexpensive and have a long shelf life. Additional things to stockpile or make sure you have enough of:
BENEFITS: By having supplies stocked up, you don’t have to participate in the inevitable mad dash to the grocery store when the media oversaturates the airwaves with dire warnings. This enables you to avoid a fistfight over the last turnip. [h/t Tarl Warlick.] Also brings peace of mind.
RESOURCES: https://ready.gov , Prepping for Beginners
Eat as healthy a diet as possible. Lots of veggies, not so many carbs. Lots of water, not so much soda. Very little junk food.
As hard as it is, try to quit smoking cigarettes if you smoke. (I and my mom both did. She started smoking when she was ten. I’ll say it louder for the people in the back: my mom started smoking cigarettes when she was ten years old, then quit fifty years later.)
If you must drink alcohol, red wine is the best of all choices. Whatever your choice of alcohol may be, drink lots of water in between and use something like DrinkWel to reduce the negative effects on your immune system.
Supplement daily with something like Athletic Greens, which is nutritional insurance. Other good supplements include Vitamin D3, fish oil, and turmeric.
Don’t do illegal drugs, obvz.
BENEFITS: Similar to exercise, this one is key for a healthy immune system and overall life enjoyment. The better you eat, the healthier you’ll be, and the better your odds in a fight vs. one of the nasties.
RESOURCES: DrinkWel, Athletic Greens, Vitamin D3, fish oil, turmeric, The 4-Hour Body by Ferriss.
Get at least 7 hours and enough as you need every night. Use magnesium and/or zinc to supplement if you have significant issues, including a “runaway mind,” which is quite common.
BENEFITS: See above re: nutrition and exercise.
RESOURCES: Sleep Smarter by Shawn Stevenson, magnesium, zinc.
6) SOCIAL LIFE.
As much as possible, try to maintain an active, healthy social life with supportive, positive friends and family. (As an introvert, I struggle with this one. I try to compensate via technology by using texts, Facebook groups, etc. Not ideal, though. Humans are built for interpersonal connections.) Meetup.com works well for some people. I haven’t had much luck with it myself.
BENEFITS: Human interaction benefits the mind in many ways, especially due to oxytocin, which is a “person-to-person bonding” chemical reaction in the brain. (Layman’s terms.) For introverts, try to cultivate at least a few close friendships. Even one is better than none.
RESOURCES: http://www.meetup.com, How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.
7) SPIRITUAL LIFE/MINDFULESS.
However you want to worship, getting right with that side of your life is important.
Either in addition to organized religion or to fill the gap for the areligious, meditation and breathing exercises can be greatly beneficial. I have found Calm, Waking Up, and Headspace as useful free apps.
BENEFITS: When things break down and life ebbs, having a sound spiritual foundation can provide the necessary comfort during those tough times. Without it, chances of experiencing things like loneliness and depression increase. A meditation practice, while not exactly spiritual, still provides a calmness of mind that is of practical day-to-day benefit. Some famous meditators include David Lynch, Jerry Seinfeld, Sam Harris, Tim Ferriss, J.D. Salinger, Will Smith, Bill Gates, Jennifer Lopez, Phil Jackson, Paul McCartney, Kendrick Lamar, Sheryl Crow, Clint Eastwood, Jessica Alba, Rick Rubin, Ray Dalio, Joe Rogan, Heather Graham, Russell Brand, Howard Stern, and Kobe Bryant.
RESOURCES: Calm, Waking Up, Headspace, Calm YouTube channel.
That’s it! Simple as a dimple, right? You’re now totally prepared for any catastrophe that comes your way. Except if the universe decides to fry you with a lightning bolt, that’s the kind of bummer that not even a professional risk manager can prepare for.
But did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments!
Note: I realize that this may seem basic for some people, especially experienced “preppers,” but maybe having all the links in one place might prove to be of value.
Back in my college days, I was often bored by my classwork, so I spent a lot of time hiding out in the stacks of the library, reading like a fiend. I first met Teddy (formally Theodore McArdle) there, hiding from my responsibilities, my student loan debt, myself. Precocious child Teddy was, for sure. But still, he had that other-worldly wisdom practically dripping from him, so there was no way I could ignore the boy.
I didn’t really know what to make of him. Some of the things he said—about getting out of the finite dimensions, about some crazy thing called Vedantism, about vomiting up the “apple”—seemed ridiculous, seemed like the make-believe world of a 10-year-old boy with an active, vivid, intellectual imagination. At first, in short, I wrote the damn kid off.
Being in the library anyway, I decided to delve into all those things they had stacked on all those shelves. Books, magazines, newspapers. Found everything I could on Vedantism and other Eastern philosophies. I read all the Salinger stories I could find, even the uncollected ones.
After all this extensive research, I came back to Teddy with a mind that had been grenade-blown wide open. With this new perspective, I could see that what he was saying was absolutely TRUE. It was NOT some fanciful fabrication of a hyper-intelligent kid. It was pure and beautiful truth.
“A few years ago, I published an exceptionally Haunting, Memorable, unpleasantly controversial, and thoroughly unsuccessful short story about a “gifted” little boy aboard a transatlantic liner….” — Buddy Glass, J.D. Salinger’s (most obvious) alter-ego.
There are a bunch of great essays on the web about Salinger’s “exceptionally Haunting, Memorable, unpleasantly controversial, and thoroughly unsuccessful short story about a “gifted” little boy aboard a transatlantic liner,” “Teddy.”
Orange Peels and Apple-Eaters: Buddhism in J.D. Salinger’s Teddy by Tony Magagna
Along This Road Goes No One: Salinger’s “Teddy” and the Failure of Love by Anthony Kaufman
Salinger's Teddy by Charles Deemer
The Grass Before It Was Green by Leslie English
What's Up With the Ending? on something called Shmoop.com
Teddy McArdle — Character Analysis on Shmoop
Professor Phillip Schultz in the Writers Studio’s CraftClass on “Teddy” and Salinger (Audio)
This being the case, I don’t really want to re-hash anything that these other fine essays have already gotten into. I’ll just reiterate for the uninitiated (and if you’re one, shame on ya) that Teddy McArdle, the “gifted” little boy mentioned above, advocates a Vedantic view of the world which espouses an unemotional approach to life. He (and it) champions the abandonment of desire—sexual, financial, and material— as a path to spiritual enlightenment. This is emphasized in the story by other characters’ obsessions with name-brand things: Leicas, and Gladstones, and Eastern-seaboard regimental outfits, and Ivy League educations. Teddy believes that a focus on these things prevents a person from making spiritual progress (by meditation) which eventually allows the person to become one with God, whereby that person would then stop the cycle of reincarnation and spend eternity in perfect bliss.
The main issue of contention about the story is its rather abrupt, controversial ending: What, exactly, happened? Did Teddy commit suicide? Did his kid sister push him into an empty pool? Did he push his sister into a full pool?
Here’s the exact concluding text [SPOILER ALERT — STOP READING NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT THE ENDING SPOILED FOR YOU!]:
“At D Deck the forwardship stairway ended, and Nicholson stood for a moment, apparently at some loss for direction. However, he spotted someone who looked able to guide him. Halfway down the passageway, a stewardess was sitting on a chair outside a galleyway, reading a magazine and smoking a cigarette. Nicholson went down to her, consulted her briefly, thanked her, then took a few additional steps forwardship and opened a heavy metal door that read: TO THE POOL. It opened onto a narrow, uncarpeted staircase.
He was little more than halfway down the staircase when he heard an all-piercing, sustained scream—clearly coming from a small, female child. It was highly acoustical, as though it were reverberating within four tiled walls.”
What I’d like to discuss is something that I haven’t seen written about elsewhere (if anyone else has please point me to it)—Saint George and the Dragon. It’s mentioned in the story in a rather inconspicuous way. Specifically:
“Teddy passively looked up from his newspaper, but the woman had passed, and he didn’t look back. He went on reading. At the end of the passageway, before an enormous mural of Saint George and the Dragon over the staircase landing…”
It’s just mentioned in passing like that, with no apparent significance whatsoever to the plot. However, I don’t think it would be there if it had absolutely no meaning. The fact that Salinger mentions this detail at all seems to me like the man put it there for a reason. Perhaps even a big reason.
So, who is this Saint George fella and what’s the deal with the dragon? Turns out, it’s a legend. And, like all good legends, there’s a kick-ass lesson behind it.
“The town (Silene) had a pond, as large as a lake, where a plague-bearing dragon dwelled that envenomed all the countryside. To appease the dragon, the people of Silene used to feed it a sheep every day, and when the sheep failed, they fed it their children, chosen by lottery.
It happened (one time) that the lot fell on the king’s daughter. The king, distraught with grief, told the people they could have all his gold and silver and half of his kingdom if his daughter were spared; the people refused. The daughter was sent out to the lake, decked out as a bride, to be fed to the dragon.
Saint George by chance rode (his horse) past the lake. The princess, trembling, sought to send him away, but George vowed to remain.
The dragon reared out of the lake while they were conversing. Saint George fortified himself with the Sign of the Cross, charged it on horseback with his lance and gave it a grievous wound. Then he called to the princess to throw him her girdle, and he put it around the dragon’s neck. When she did so, the dragon followed the girl like a meek beast on a leash. She and Saint George led the dragon back to the city of Silene, where it terrified the people at its approach. But Saint George called out to them, saying that if they consented to become Christians and be baptized, he would slay the dragon before them.
The king and the people of Silene converted to Christianity, George slew the dragon, and the body was carted out of the city on four ox-carts. “Fifteen thousand men baptized, without women and children.” On the site where the dragon died, the king built a church to the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint George, and from its altar a spring arose whose waters cured all disease.”
It is my belief that Salinger’s purpose for the story (which he admits was a failure, per the quote above) was to convert a large percentage of Americans into a Vedantic (or at least anti-materialistic) view of life. American Consumerism is the dragon, Teddy is Saint George, and the pool is the spring whose waters cure all disease coming from the worship of money and materialism — by being the cause of Teddy’s death. (Water is generally regarded as a symbol of life in stories or poems.)
It is also my belief that Teddy did actually die because, like all good prophets, his death was required for his cause to live eternally.
“Teddy” first appeared in The New Yorker magazine in 1953. The context of the culture at that time was that television was beginning its ascent to media domination in post-War America, as more and more households turned away from radio programming to get their entertainment needs met. This is also—as a way to subsidize that entertainment—the time when Madison Avenue advertising companies began to commodify the American Dream as something you can purchase at your local retailer. (This is currently being dramatized on shows like Mad Men.) If you just purchase the right brand of laundry detergent, the right brand of car, the right brand of cigarettes, the American Dream can be yours. No spiritual advancement required!
Living in the aftermath of those early, lying-for-profit efforts, in a hyper-materialistic, puddle-deep, attention-deficit, drug-addicted America, I’d have to agree with Mr. Salinger that this story, sadly, was an abject failure.
Maybe that’s why the guy wouldn’t come out from his dark hole prior to his passing. He couldn’t bear the light of truth that what post-War America has become is one non-stop orgy of Materialism and Nihilism.