—MC Paul Barman
Yesterday’s tern joke from Puddlehead made me think about Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the quintessential ’70s blockbuster book by Richard Bach. Released in 1970, it became nearly as ubiquitous as the smiley face would a year later. The novella is about a seagull who is more interested in flying than in the feeding frenzy that consumes an average seagull’s day. But Jonathan is no average seagull; he has a mission: to learn everything he can about flying. He obsessively practices, leading his fellow gulls to shun him for his frivolous passion. Eventually he flies so high that he enters another plane, so to speak, meeting other gulls who share his ideals.
In retrospect, it was a schmaltzy paean to self-discovery in which every other page screams, “Metaphor ahead!” But at the time, it was delightfully epiphanic for my father. He loved this book. He wanted everyone else to read it. My pop embarked on one of those weird little side trips most of us take in life sooner or later—the kind that makes loved ones scratch their heads and worry if an intervention is imminent. In my dad’s case, he soaked up the ’70s self-help movement like Silly Putty™ on the Sunday comics.
It was understandable. He was, after all, recently divorced and suddenly burdened with being a single dad to five kids. He also left the Catholic church (a long story but worth telling another time).
Transactional Analysis (TA) was flourishing and my pop, like half of America, devoured I’m OK, You’re OK by Thomas Anthony Harris as if it answered every known question in the universe—something the Catholic church couldn’t give him. The book’s premise is that there are four positions a person can take in life:
- I’m Not OK, You’re OK
- I’m Not OK, You’re Not OK
- I’m OK, You’re Not OK
- I’m OK, You’re OK
Even as a 10 year old, this seemed naively simplistic to me.
My father soon grew sideburns and experimented with cooking. He had a grad student girlfriend named Deidre. He wore paisley and velour shirts.
He saw the stage production of Jesus Christ Superstar and was transfixed. He discovered the original “concept album” Tommy. I remember listening to it on the radio on a road trip somewhere.
And then one day he decided that I could be psychic (side note: this was after he decided I could be a child model and before he thought I would become an Olympic gymnast and, later, poet laureate). I don’t know if this was the influence of Deidre, who I recall was studying psychology, or if he read another meta-something tract that sent him off on a tangent. It doesn’t really matter. He began testing me with ESP games. The photo here shows us playing a game in which he took cut-outs of various shapes (triangles, squares, etc.) and, separated by a book so I couldn’t see his work, exhorted me to “think really, really hard” to duplicate those shapes on my side of the book.
An odds-maker could have just as easily figured out what was on the other side. But the fact that I was accurate most of the time fed my dad’s conviction and we spent more evenings on different psychic challenges, none of which convinced me that I was psychic, but did make me feel special.
Then the tests stopped. He either started dating another woman or was lured by something else—biorhythms, EST? At any rate, it wasn’t too long before he reverted back to his conservative Republican nature, ditching the paisley shirts, wearing ties, shining his shoes. I know he held onto a couple of new ideas—he remained faithful to concept albums.
In 1973, Hollywood made a film version of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which was a predictable flop—really, imagine watching two hours of sea gulls anthropomorphized with the disembodied voices of James Franciscus and Richard Crenna. Bach sued the filmmaker for not staying true to the book and singer/songwriter Neil Diamond sued because not all of his score was used. Critics called it For the Birds.
[Most of the details on the books and trends in this post were snagged from Wikipedia, whose hippy contributors probably know a thing or two about the ’70s.]