I didn't have any posters in my bedroom when I was a teenager.
That's right. I didn't have a single poster of a popular rock star, teenage actor, astrological sign, or inspirational quote on the blue-painted walls of my bedroom. Nor did a fuzzy, hand colored blacklight poster glow moodily on my wall (not that I had blacklight bulb, but never mind). I didn't even have a subscription to Tiger Beat, Seventeen, Creem, or any other fine, wholesome publications designed to entertain and shape the minds of American youth with articles about makeup tips, boys, dating dos and don'ts, fashion, boys, physical development, boys, and cooking, plus of course the traditional advertisements for Mark Eden Bust Developing Cream. Teen heart throbs did nothing for me, especially after I started watching Star Trek and developed a massive crush on Mr. Spock.
Yes, I know. I know this marks me as a dangerous, possibly un-American subversive, but what are you going to do? I was a geek before such creatures had a name, and that meant my type was a brainy, theoretically emotionless alien rather than a dreamy, theoretically pubescent "singer." I was much happier reading a book anyway.
I did have one piece of wall art for my room, however. It was a silk screened fabric print of a lone seagull, sailing in silhouette across a blue background and a few fluffy white clouds. I wasn't a huge fan of shorebirds, but I liked the color and the design, and it stayed up on my wall for the rest of my adolescence and college years.
In this I was far from alone. Seagulls became one of the most popular decorating motifs during the Me Decade, soaring their way onto jewelry, book covers, flocked blacklight posters, normal posters, dress and decorating fabrics, and the finer sort of collectible ceramic statues across this great land. They even turned up in romantic movies, often during a scene where a lonely person walks along a beach at sunset and thinks about lost loves and lost dreams.
High flying, white, and seemingly above it all, seagulls came to stand for aspiration, hope, and transcendence. This was despite the actual birds being less than attractive in their habits, diet, and interaction with humans; anyone who's ever lived near the ocean knows that gulls are actually rather stupid, aggressive about food, and make everyone's lives miserable as they divebomb hapless tourists who are foolish enough to eat their lobster rolls outside the fish shack. Add in that they decorate the docks (and the cars, and the fishermen, and the New Yorkers taking pictures of the fishermen, and the New Yorkers' rental cars) with copious amounts of effluvia, screech like a cat that's caught its tail in the door, and think garbage scows are gourmet restaurants, and the overall impression is less than favorable.
Why then did seagulls suddenly become respectable? It wasn't because of their personal habits, which didn't change a whit. A few ended up on the network news as heartbreaking evidence of environmental degradation after crude oil spills, but surely that wasn't enough by itself to elevate the seagull above the noble albatross as the preeminent aquatic bird.
No, something else happened. It had nothing to do with oil slicks, fish shacks, or actual seagulls, but it was powerful enough that suddenly seagulls, along with long stemmed red roses, rainbows, hot tubs, and unicorns came to symbolize an entire decade:
I have Ahianne to thank for the subject of tonight's diary, but I probably would have gotten around to featuring Richard Bach, his spiritual classic about French fry loving shorebirds, and the rest of his oeuvre eventually. It's hard to ignore a book that all but defined its era (and not in a good way), its author, and its author's surprising life both before and after the success of the Book That Made Seagulls Respectable.
The plot of JLS is deceptively simple: Jonathan Livington Seagull is not like the other gulls. Instead of joining the Breakfast Flock for a hearty meal of fish guts, rotting food, and other delectable treats from the local garbage scows, he spends his days practicing fancy flying tricks, smoother landings, and various ways of gliding and swooping that are lots of fun but have no practical value when it comes to feeding himself. Not only that, he starts to tell all of his flockmates about how much fun it is to do something other than eat trash, and quickly is seen as a Bad Influence because he refuses to do what the other seagulls have done for time out of mind (or at least since the invention of the garbage scow): rely on human scraps for survival.
Eventually the rest of the Breakfast Flock gets sick of this dangerous and subversive message that is coincidentally so close to the counterculture belief about doing one's own thing. Jonathan is cast out by the Elders of his flock, exiled from seagull society and all that is known and familiar.
person seagull would logically be a bit upset by this, but not Jonathan. He devotes his time to learning about flying, practices even more, and soars higher and higher. Eventually he meets two radiant gulls who are clearly metaphors for angels since he's gone as high as he can go, and boy oh boy if that isn't a metaphor for death/transcendence I don't know what is. The radiant gulls tell him that he's learned a lot but that they'll teach him more, and off he goes.
The radiant gulls introduce him to a society where all the gulls love to fly, there's plenty of mutual respect, and everything is just fabulous. Jonathan thrives, and picks up spiritual wisdom from his gurus along the lines of "You've got to understand that a seagull is an unlimited idea of freedom, an image of the Great Gull," "You have the freedom to be yourself, your true self, here and now, and nothing can stand in your way," "If our friendship depends on things like space and time, then when we finally overcome space and time, we've destroyed our own brotherhood! But overcome space, and all we have left is Here. Overcome time, and all we have left is Now. And in the middle of Here and Now, don't you think that we might see each other once or twice?" and "Keep working on love."
Eventually he decides to return to the Breakfast Flock to share his new wisdom with others. He acquires disciples (notably Fletcher Lynd Seagull, and why Bach thought that seagulls either had or needed two first names is beyond me), resurrects a seemingly dead seagull after a crash (Fletcher again, poor woobie), and is hailed as the Son of the Great Gull. Completing the Obligatory Christ Metaphor, Jonathan then flies off in search of new adventures, leaving Fletcher to impart love, wisdom, and fabulous flying tricks to the Breakfast Flock.
This thinly disguised New Age mash-up of Buddhism and the Gospels was not Richard Bach's first book. Bach, born in the Midwest and educated in California, had been a fighter pilot in the Naval Reserves, a technical writer for Douglas Aircraft, and a barnstorming pilot. He'd eventually become a contributing editor to Flying magazine and wrote three books about (what else?) flying, with the occasional gig as a stunt flyer for movies set during World War I. Nothing in this resume would have suggested that his greatest contribution to literature would be a 10,000 word allegory about seagulls, and it's little surprise that several publishers turned down JLS before Macmillan decided to take a chance.
Of course we all know what happened next. Jonathan Livingston Seagull was initially ignored by critics (one trade journal classified it under "Nature Books"), then lauded as a "strange little allegory" by no less than Publishers Weekly. Christians were particularly annoyed by the book, which one, John Carey, excoriated for being "soggy" for deliberately omitting the Crucifixion from Jonathan's Christ-lite life. "Mr. Bach’s...book is for those who think the world would be a lovely place if it were full of chummy people and tame animals" and went on to say that "It’s of interest that Jonathan’s spiritual aviation should prove so endearing to a nation currently using its own air power to crush North Vietnam.” Even Roger Ebert got into the act, saying that he found The Little Engine That Could deeper and more ambitious than the tale of Jonathan's little quest for citius, altius, fortius instead of stale grinder rolls.
None of this ultimately mattered. Jonathan Livingston Seagull became a smash bestseller and 1970s staple, the successor to such optimistic American self-help and spirituality books as How to Win Friends and Influence People, The Power of Positive Thinking, and the writings of Ella Wheeler Wilcox and other New Thought devotees. Seagulls became wildly popular, gift copies of JLS appeared under thousands of Christmas trees, and posterized quotations from the book appeared on uncounted dorm room walls. It sold millions of copies and is still in print today, still read, still loved, and now deemed a minor spiritual classic.
There was even a live action movie that used live seagulls (and motorized seagull-shaped gliders because real seagulls are too stupid to perform most of the necessary stunts) and wasted the vocal talents of James Franciscus, Juliet Mills, and Dorothy McGuire in one of the big cinematic bombs of 1973.
As for Richard Bach, the success of JLS lead directly to a collection of 48 of his magazine articles being published in the mid-1970s as A Gift of Wings. Although somewhat repetitious, and marred by some very, very typically 1970s penciled illustrations, the book is much better and more interesting than JLS, especially for anyone who wants to know more about flying and aviation. Bach then wrote a children's book (There's No Such Place As Far Away), which may or may not be autobiographical, about a little girl who wants the unnamed narrator to appear at her birthday party.
Both these books sold decently and are still in print. But the first inkling that Richard Bach's literary journey was taking him in some very strange directions was his next major work, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah.
This book, which is almost certainly autobiographical, concerns a couple of barnstorming pilots, one of whom is a former Messiah/guru who decided that he was sick of people who preferred miracles and tricks to actual enlightenment. This this enlightenment consists mainly of koans like "What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the Master calls a butterfly," doesn't prevent the main character from imparting his spiritual wisdom to his friend and fellow pilot, Richard (yes, really, he named the sidekick after himself, and no, I can't believe his publishers let him get away with this) as they hang out, fly, and appear on talk shows.
If that weren't enough, Illusions has no page numbers (so readers could simply jump in wherever they liked and ignore earlier sections). Even better, the text is interlarded with quotations from the main character's Messiah Handbook, which became so popular that it was eventually published on its own. It was most recently issued in 2012, so that everyone can benefit from advice like:
"Life tells you nothing, it shows you everything."
Debatable, but not bad.
"There's a reason you chose what's happening around you. Hang on, live your way through the best you know, and in a bit you'll find out why."
Um...does this mean that my father chose to drop dead at the age of 51?
"If it's never your fault, you can't take responsibility for it. If you can't take responsibility for it, you'll always be its victim."
I prefer the SCA version: "Take your shots." Shorter, pithier, and less victim-blaming.
"Having climbed certain peaks you'll descend no more, but spread your wings and fly beyond."
Not necessarily true, as 90% of the people on this overcrowded little planet could tell you.
"You do not exist to impress the world. You exist to live your life in a way that will make you happy."
Ah, the banality of the successful....
"You're master of what you've lived,
artisan at what you're living,
amateur at what's next to live."
"You are never given a wish without also being given the power to make it true.
You may have to work for it, however."
I always wished to be tall, athletic, and red-haired. Anyone who thinks that I got my wish is invited to look at my profile picture.
None of the above prevented Illusions from selling very well indeed, and remaining in print to this day; it appeared just as 1970s mushy spirituality was giving way to the New Age in popular culture, and since it had many of the requisite New Age trappings about self-determination, enlightenment, and vaguely Buddhist ideals, it's stayed popular in certain circles.
Based on JLS and Illusions, Richard Bach seemed to have carved out a niche for himself, and a profitable and long-lived one it was, too. And for all the carping about JLS being banal, or the questionably too-optimistic theology, Bach's books and ideas were no worse than those of many New Age/spiritual writers, and considerably better than many.
Then he wrote The Bridge Across Forever, and suddenly it became apparent that the man who had written "Keep working on Love" had some very peculiar ideas about just what that meant.
Bach had been married during his flying days, back before JLS hit big. His wife, Bette, was also a pilot, and during their marriage she'd borne six children, worked, and even typed and edited her husband's manuscripts. None of this prevented Richard from deciding that he really didn't believe in marriage, and quietly divorcing her around the time that JLS was published. He saw his children rarely, if at all, and had numerous relationships with women in the best Me Decade style.
This casual lifestyle ended when Bach met actress Leslie Parrish, a gorgeous, intelligent blonde who'd appeared in Lil' Abner and The Manchurian Candidate and later become famous in fannish circles for portraying Lt. Carolyn Palamas in an episode of Star Trek. Bach was convinced that he had, at long last, found his soulmate:
A soulmate is someone who has locks that fit our keys, and keys to fit our locks. When we feel safe enough to open the locks, our truest selves step out and we can be completely and honestly who we are; we can be loved for who we are and not for who we’re pretending to be. Each unveils the best part of the other. No matter what else goes wrong around us, with that one person we’re safe in our own paradise. Our soulmate is someone who shares our deepest longings, our sense of direction. When we’re two balloons, and together our direction is up, chances are we’ve found the right person. Our soulmate is the one who makes life come to life.Bach and Parrish married in 1977, and if his books are to be believed, for twenty-one years, Leslie Parrish was Richard Bach's key, his lock
Is anyone really surprised to learn that Bach and Parrish divorced in 1997? Or that shortly thereafter he married Sabryna Nelson-Alexopoulos? No?
What about Bach saying in public that despite divorce and remarriage, Leslie Parrish is still his soulmate?
That's right. It doesn't matter that they aren't together anymore, and haven't been for fifteen years. It doesn't matter that they divorced because Leslie wanted to settle down and live a quieter lifestyle while Richard wanted to fly and have adventures. It doesn't matter that their Epic Love proved, like so many loves that are played out in public,unequal to the burden of being not only Epic but a role model for millions of idealistic readers who were convinced that they, too, would someday find their soulmates. It doesn't matter that many, many of those readers were furious when they heard of the divorce, perhaps because they'd believed in his words, perhaps because if it could happen to such a perfect couple, why, it could happen to them.
None of that mattered because Richard and Leslie are still soulmates even though they divorced and he remarried. As Richard put it:
I believe that Leslie and I were led to find each other, led through the years we lived together, and led to part. There’s so much to learn! When a marriage comes to an end, we’re free to call it a failure. We’re also free to call it a graduation. We didn’t say, ‘I guess we weren’t led to each other, I guess we’re not soul mates after all.’ Our graduation was part of the experience we chose before we were born, to learn how to let each other go. (emphasis mine)I have been unable to discover any response from Leslie Parrish, but somehow I think she wouldn't have been nearly that sanguine about the breakup or the divorce.
As for Richard Bach, he's still writing, still flying, and still having adventures. Recent books include a series of children's books called The Ferret Chronicles, about the utopian world of our mustelid friends, the forthcoming Thank Your Wicked Parents, and the almost completed Travels with Puff: A Gentle Game of Life and Death, about his journeys in the eponymous seaplane.
Whether he ever plans a sequel to Jonathan Livingston Seagull is unknown.
So, my friends...did you read Jonathan Livingston Seagull? The Bridge Across Forever? Did you see the movie? Have a Mobius strip wedding ring? Or maybe an inspirational poster of a seagull soaring high into the sunset? It's a rainy night here in the thriving metropolis of Easthampton, Massachusetts, and we could all use a little uplift, so don't be shy....
Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule
|DAY||TIME (EST/EDT)||Series Name||Editor(s)|
|SUN||6:00 PM||Young Reader's Pavilion||The Book Bear|
|Sun (hiatus)||9:30 PM||SciFi/Fantasy Book Club||quarkstomper|
|Bi-Monthly Sun||Midnight||Reading Ramblings||don mikulecky|
|MON||8:00 PM||Monday Murder Mystery||Susan from 29|
|Mon||11:00 PM||My Favorite Books/Authors||edrie, MichiganChet|
|alternate Tuesdays||8:00AM||LGBT Literature||Texdude50, Dave in Northridge|
|Tue||10:00 PM||Contemporary Fiction Views||bookgirl|
|Wed||8:00 PM||Bookflurries Bookchat||cfk|
|THU||8:00 PM||Write On!||SensibleShoes|
|alternate Thu||11:00 PM||Audiobooks Club||SoCaliana|
|FRI||8:00 AM||Books That Changed My Life||Diana in NoVa|
|SAT (fourth each month)||11:00 AM||Windy City Bookworm||Chitown Kev|
|Sat||9:00 PM||Books So Bad They're Good||Ellid|