On Jonathan Livingston Seagull

The Book That Changed My DadI keep it more gully than Jonathan Livingston.

—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:

  1. I’m Not OK, You’re OK
  2. I’m Not OK, You’re Not OK
  3. I’m OK, You’re Not OK
  4. 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.

Me & Pop, circa 1970

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.]

7 Comments On Jonathan Livingston Seagull

  1. puddlehead June 15, 2007 at 11:37 am

    I’m glad something so thoughtful game of that terrible joke, Magoo45. Your post got me thinking of all the pop-movements of psychology or psuedo-religion that rear up here and there. They cause brief and intense conversion events for so many people, but the fervor never seems to last. It’s like a quick fix that can leave the person feeling more lost than when they first started. I think of that Dan Millman guy and his Peaceful Warrior books. I knew a bunch of folks who hung on that guys every stray thought. Two things struck me about this: 1. they were sort of brave for reaching beyond their upbringing, beyond the dogma and ritual we were implored to honor; and 2. Through breaking that chain, they replaced their waning faith with something every bit as dogmatic and rigid. The second they clung on to it, it became the new scripture, the new capital T truth. But I guess that’s how we move through our lives sometimes, trying this on, trading that out, and always stretching for the next big thing. Anyway, this was an important read for me, and I appreciate you passing it on. Oh, and the Barman quote? Awesome. The man is a brilliant rapper. A pervert, too, but oh, what a clever one!
    Thanks,
    Puddlehead

    Reply
  2. Cookie June 15, 2007 at 12:41 pm

    Not only do I remember Jonathan Livingston Seagull, but the boys camp at my summer camp performed it as a play one year. And was your Dad a pilot too? Mine is absolutely batshit crazy for everything that Richard Bach writes.

    Reply
  3. Cookie June 15, 2007 at 2:06 pm

    By the way, “like Silly Putty on the Sunday comics” is an excellent turn of phrase. Drok can suck it.

    Reply
  4. Meg June 16, 2007 at 10:35 am

    I guess that’s how we move through our lives sometimes, trying this on, trading that out, and always stretching for the next big thing

    I do think this kind of experimentation can be healthy—as long as it leads you to a deeper understanding of yourself and not away from it. I’ve seen Zelig-like acquaintances become absorbed by pop-psychology movements or religion, only to return to themselves more confused.
    Thanks, Puddlehead, for reading and commenting.

    Reply
  5. Meg June 16, 2007 at 10:41 am

    Not only do I remember Jonathan Livingston Seagull, but the boys camp at my summer camp performed it as a play one year. And was your Dad a pilot too?

    Wow. How did they perform it as a play? Did they wear gull costumes??
    Yep, my pop was a pilot. I was thinking about writing something on that tomorrow, being Father’s Day and all. I hope you’ll comment with stories about your dad…I seem to recall you had quite a few too!
    And thanks for the kind words, Cookie, as always. You’re a peach.

    Reply
  6. Cookie June 17, 2007 at 4:35 pm

    It’s been so long, I can barely remember. (Gak! I think it’s been 29 years!) I know that there weren’t any costumes, and I can’t even remember whether the actors flapped their arms like birds, but they must have.

    I’ve got nothing but kind words for you, Meg. (Not so many for my dad, who can also suck it.)

    Reply
  7. wp1957 March 12, 2008 at 12:00 pm

    I remember the book: for me it meant striving for excellence.
    The movie was visually stunning then when seen in a movie theather. Nowadays it would probably be just another movie.
    Thank you for the memories. 🙂

    Reply

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