[edited 2007 0130 to correct Rob's middle name, which was Hauter and not Hunter.]
This piece dates from around 2003 February 10. I wrote it about three weeks after the death of a legendary colleague and true friend, Rob Myslik. Rob taught at Hun for nine years, including two while I was there, and then went off to pursue his dream of being an even-more-world-class writer. He went to Missoula, MT in the summer of 2001 with Susan Bogue, the love of his life; in summer 2002, they wed. Rob came back to the East Coast in 2003 January to catch up with his relations and friends. Then, on 2003 January 21, while heading out to the Sundance Festival, Rob was involved in a tragic car accident and killed. It was devastating to many people, and I count myself among them. I wrote a quick piece that day but it took three weeks before I could truly find my voice.
By the way, some people quibble with my opinion on the Pink Floyd connection. If you’re one, I hope you’ll keep reading anyway.
God keep you, Rob Myslik, wherever you are now.
-=-Bernard HP Gilroy
OK, so all the remembrances and stories got me, finally, thinking about one of my own. One night a bunch of us — I admit, shamedly, to not remembering exactly who — piled into an old Volvo and trekked to the great Metropolis, a half-dozen wanderers searching for oracular wisdom. For reasons that made more sense then than now, we’d decided that wisdom was to be found at the intersection of Pink Floyd and The Wizard of Oz. We sought to partake of The Dark Side of the Rainbow.
For the uninitiated, this is a film, or experience, or really just an allegation. Wandering the Net for years was a certain rumor; for all I know, it had been wandering the memespace of humanity for years before that, perhaps all the way back to March 24, 1973.
That was the date that Pink Floyd released the seminal and confounding album, Dark Side of the Moon. A haunting, lyrical, sometimes-confused tribute to — as near as I can tell — mental instability, Dark Side was a huge part of the album-oriented FM rock revolution of the 1970s. Its surreality also made it a hit of the drug-oriented not-quite-there counterculture of the 1970s, a point of no small consequence to what follows.
These things could not have been known, or even anticipated, on August 15, 1939 — the release date of the classic film The Wizard of Oz. This family favorite, released on the eve of war, was timeless and perpetual, a paean to that most humble and wonderful of ideals, home. It seems odd to find it in the company of Dark Side in the first place. Dorothy’s odyssey had nothing in common with the psychodelic meanderings of Pink Floyd… it just had towns full of midgets, a gold road, eye-dazzlingly bright four-color backgrounds, armies of flying monkeys, and a horse that somehow turned purple, occasionally.
Well, OK, so maybe it wasn’t entirely unrelated.
The rumor, or thesis, or allegation, is that the album Dark Side of the Moon was meant as an alternate soundtrack for The Wizard of Oz. If you begin the first side of the album on the third roar of the lion, the two supposedly gel in amazing ways. For example, Mrs. Gulch enters on her bicycle with bells a-ringing — while the song “Time” begins with its cacophony of bells and chimes. Dorothy does her fence-walking while the group sings about being “balanced on the greatest wave”. Dorothy puts her head to the Tin Man’s chest as the album ends with its signature heartbeat. Perhaps most tantalizing (if oblique), the tornado ravages the Gale farm to the tune of “Great Gig in the Sky”.
Roger Waters, who wrote the lyrics, decries any connection between the movie and the album. So does every other member of Pink Floyd at the time. The sound editor has said it’s all an amazing coincidence, that no one had mentioned The Wizard of Oz during any of the recording of The Dark Side of the Moon. And remember, this was 1973 … it’s not like the band could have dispatched a groupie to run down to the local Blockbuster and pick up a tape of the movie.
And yet … Google the Net and you’ll find dozens of people telling you exactly how to set up the system and recalling their own moving experience as they imbibed the synchronicity for the first time. At some point, a bunch of us were bandying the tale about. We were educated but still, we hoped, open-minded. We were teachers and writers and dreamers, our whole lives oriented around exposing the hidden order of the world, in science, in literature, in life. The truth here taunted us, hung seductively between ludicrous fiction and sublime fact.
It stayed there for a little while, until someone — it almost certainly had to have been Rob Myslik — nudged us out of our superposition. He had, somehow, discovered that a theater in Manhattan gave a regular showing of Dark Side of the Rainbow: a carefully-calibrated double-playing of the album and movie, in an honest-to-goodness movie theater using honest-to-goodness film and honest-to-goodness vinyl. The lure was irresistible. A bunch of us piled into someone’s old Volvo — too many for comfort, just the right number for camaraderie. We bumped our way up to The City, got momentarily lost, paid far too much for parking, and grabbed a quick bite before heading into the hole-in-the-wall theater … and into the deeper recesses of pop culture.
We watched the film and had our epiphanies, or not — more on that, later — and we headed home. Getting out took a lot longer than getting in, mostly due to the epic struggle between Rob and his arch nemesis, the FDR Drive. Someone, it seemed, kept moving the entrance to the road that we needed to take south, to get back to the river crossings and back to the safety of our lives in Princeton. Given, as we were, an outrageous amount of time, we had more than ample opportunity to discuss the film and the synchronicity and what it all meant — or indeed, if it meant anything at all. As is usual in any late-night philosophy rap among six over-educated adults, opinions diverged. But we made it home without any holy wars breaking out. My conclusion, I will — for now — reserve to myself.
It’s been three weeks, almost, since news came about Rob’s death in a car accident on a winter’s night somewhere on a highway in Utah, on his way to — of all things — the Sundance Film Festival. If you knew Rob you know that this is somehow, oddly, a propos; and if you weren’t so fortunate, I can’t make it clear. Nineteen days have come and gone, as has a tearful and moving memorial held on the campus where he coached for ten years, taught for nine, met his future wife, and, incidentally, first crossed paths with me. I wrote something almost immediately — that night, I believe, when I heard the news — and then again, more contemplatively, to read at the memorial. This is piece three, and I know that I have not exhausted the issues of that night and that news. I might never.
Rob’s father, whom I have met only twice and briefly, served as the moderator of the service. Perhaps he’d prefer the word “guide”; it seems more in keeping with how he conducted himself and the memorial. He spoke exceedingly movingly of Rob and of his life. He reassured us several times that Rob was in a better place, that he had moved on to “a new assignment” … that his spirit and his essence lived on, somewhere, beyond our senses but not beyond our thoughts. In other words, Rob’s father — just as we all did — sought to frame the meaning in Rob’s death, to plumb its significance, to make sense of it. He told us a story, or a parable, really. Being as he was from out West, it held particular resonance for him.
He told us of the evolution in his understanding of forest fires. People out West are particularly sensitized to forest fires, especially over the past few, very dry years. A forest fire is the worst of the frontier: a giant, raging force of Nature that consumes what it touches and threatens what we hold dear: sometimes our homes, sometimes our loved ones, sometimes the beauty and majesty also immanent in Nature. For a century the American approach to forest fires has been: Don’t have any. Don’t allow any to spread. Put them out, and put them out fast. Recently, however, a counter-stream has arisen in the thinking of those who adore Nature. It turns out (Rob’s father told us) that many trees produce, as part of their reproduction, cones that cannot come alive under normal conditions. They require heat — more than the heat of an insulated burrow, more than the heat of a sunny summer day. They require massive heat, the sort found only in forest fires. Only in a painful conflagration can the forest renew itself and put forth new life.
And that was the point, of course. That was the meaning. Rob’s death had seared us all, had struck us down in the midst of our ordinary lives, had charred our souls. But it could be the prompt for new life: for the letting go of old hurts and hates, for the shedding of negativity and encumbrances, for the blossoming in us of the qualities we admired in him.
But all I could think of was The Dark Side of the Rainbow.
It isn’t true, you see. There is no overlap between Pink Floyd’s masterpiece and Frank Baum’s. Oh, there are coincidences, funny alignments, amusing interplays. On the night we saw it, the general consensus was this: The case was much more appealing if you’d pumped yourself full of illegal substances. The synchronization was good, but not perfect. The resonances could be imagined but were forced. If it was important to you that the two be cosmically linked, then you could find the outlines and traces of that linkage … but only because it was important to you. Otherwise, the apparent synchronicity was no more than random happenstance. Dark Side of the Moon supplies a soundtrack to The Wizard of Oz only if you need it to.
And forests don’t suffer forest fires to launch a new generation. That isn’t why the forest fires happen; there isn’t a great plan up there in the sky, some galactic foreman who decides, “Oh boy, it’s about time for a new batch of trees … better send some lightning.” Forest fires don’t dance to some hidden harmony and they don’t reveal the unseen grace imbued in the Universe. Forest fires happen randomly, tragically, because in this life, things die. Forest fires happen, all too often, because the Universe is unforgiving and because people are careless.
Just like car wrecks.
You might think I’ve brought you to this point just to depress you. I haven’t. There is meaning here, there is expiation and sense. But it doesn’t lie in Rob Myslik’s death. That was tragic, and random, and pointless. That was uncalled-for, unlooked-for, unplanned. There is meaning here, and it resides where it always must, with us and in us. It lies not in the final, chance moment that ended Rob Myslik’s life but in the uncounted and unknowable many moments that made up that life. The connections aren’t between Rob’s death and some all-knowing Plan in heaven, any more than they are between a cinematic twister and “The Great Gig in the Sky”.
At that memorial service, the School set out eight hundred chairs and allotted two hours of time. Coming together, brought together, we filled far more than eight hundred chairs, and we filled far more than two hours. We had been brought together through Rob’s death. But we had come together through his life — through the strands of joy and humor and happiness and hope that he had woven among us and around us and between us. We shared memories — not just because memories were what we had left, but because somewhere in our memories was the meaning and the message. It was not what he was saying to us from beyond the grave but what he had shown us before the grave.
Meaning isn’t in the accidents and foibles of life. Artificial synchronicity — even artful synchronicity — is no substitute for the complexity and wonder of life. And we must not get so wrapped up in our quest for the sense of it all, that we lose sight of the beauty of it all.