Brian Dana Akers

Autobiography


Where does one even start? And when? Who should be included? Who can be left out? Each parent has two parents. Go back just five generations, and you’re already at thirty-two ancestors. And what about their kids? It’s hopeless!

To keep this account manageable, I will present it chronologically, beginning with my most notable ancestor, then skipping ahead to my grandparents, my parents, and then to me. Apologies in advance to everyone left out.

My most notable ancestor, Peter Akers (1790–1886), was born and raised in Virginia, spent his early adulthood in Kentucky, and lived the remainder of his long life in Illinois, with eight years around the Civil War spent in Minnesota. He had three wives (outliving the first two) and fourteen children. In his younger days he was a school teacher, a lawyer, a newspaper publisher, and a free thinker. It was after his conversion to Christianity that he made his mark as an educator and, even more so, as a Methodist circuit rider.

Great-Great-Great-Grandfather
Formal portrait of my ancestor
Peter Akers

He served three terms (1833–35, 1845–46, 1852–57) as president of McKendree University, the oldest university in Illinois. He cofounded MacMurray College in 1846. And he served on the faculty of Hamline University, the oldest university in Minnesota, from 1857 to 1865.

As to his preaching, it was said an audience would listen for up to four hours with unwavering interest and unaware of the passage of time. T. Walter Johnson, writing in the December 1939 issue of the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, gave this description of Peter’s style in the pulpit.

Akers was a powerful preacher. His sermons were not limited by any artificial restrictions. While in the Kentucky Conference, he had learned the evil of short sermons. Some of the official members of the Lexington Church had demanded that his sermons be shorter. For some time he yielded to their wish, but later became convinced that he was making a mistake.

[Deciding] that his own spirit was growing lean and his ministry barren, he resolved to throw away the muzzle and to let his inspiration have way, and on the first Sunday thereafter took for his subject Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, and as he preached it seemed as if the breath from the four winds came and blew upon the congregation, and there was a great noise: Some screamed, some shouted, others fell prostrate on the floor, and there was such a shaking of the dry bones as Lexington had never witnessed before, and the preacher’s time limit was removed.

Akers’s preaching, according to the records that have been preserved, contained not only a deep emotional appeal, but it had an intellectual content as well. His knowledge of the Bible and his power to use it were unexampled. The Bible, with its thoughts, images, realities, and words, became a part of him. William Milburn, one of Akers’s proteges, wrote of his preaching:

You wondered how his massive thoughts, his lofty line of reasoning, mighty unfoldings of the deep things of the Holy Scriptures (for almost every sermon was an apocalypse, an uncovering of the mysteries), could hold as with a spell the plain, unlearned people of the border. If he had been merely an intellectual preacher, his failure would have been signal: there could have been no bond of sympathy between him and his hearers. His words must have been as a blare, signifying nothing; his ideas “garish gaudery,” and the peoples’ backs would have been turned upon him. But in him the red, yellow, and blue, the heat, light, and chemical rays were so combined that you had the harmony of the prism down to the violet, there was radiance, warmth, use, life. The beat of his heart propagated itself in the breasts of those that heard; they saw with his eyes, heard with his ears, his soul became a part of theirs; they were lifted to his plane; his patrimony in God, for the time at least, became their possession. Often it seemed as if he were transfigured; with shining face he translated the things unutterable into the speech of common life, and the simplest felt, believed, and knew; like the Master’s, his words were spirit and life, and, great as he was, the common people heard him gladly, forgot their meat and drink, and said: “It is good to be here!”

Perhaps Peter’s most important contribution to the world came from a single sermon delivered in 1837:

The sermon at the Salem camp meeting was preached by one of the most vigorous and original individuals in the pulpit of that day—the Rev. Dr. Peter Akers. The object of the sermon was that the dominion of Christ could not come to America until slavery was wiped out, and that the institution of slavery would at last be destroyed by civil war. For three hours the preacher unrolled his argument and even gave graphic pictures of the war that was to come. In this discourse was a remarkable and prophetic passage, long remembered by those who heard it. He prophesied the downfall of castes, the end of civil and religious tyrannies, and the crushing out of slavery. “I am not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet,” said he, “but a student of the prophets. As I read prophecy, American slavery will come to an end in some near decade—I think in the sixties.”

Akers’s audience was composed mostly of people from the slave states, and was decidedly proslavery. Indeed, this great sermon was preached within sixty miles of Alton, where but a few weeks before, Lovejoy had been murdered by a proslavery mob. The crowd surged about the preacher in wild excitement as he denounced slavery and predicted the approaching war. At the climax of his sermon he cried at the top of his voice, “Who can tell but that the man who shall lead us through this strife may be standing in our presence!”

Only thirty feet away, stood Lincoln.

That night, on the return trip to Springfield, Abraham Lincoln was silent. After some time, one of his traveling companions asked, “Lincoln, what do you think of that sermon?” After a moment Lincoln replied, “It was the most instructive sermon, and he is the most impressive preacher, I have ever heard. I never thought such power could be given to mortal man. Those words were from beyond the speaker. The Doctor has persuaded me that American slavery will go down with the crash of a civil war.” For a few moments he was silent. Finally the solemn words came slowly forth, “Gentlemen, you may be surprised and think it strange, but when the Doctor was describing the civil war, I distinctly saw myself as in second sight, bearing an important part in that strife.”

The next morning, when Mr. Lincoln came late to his office, his partner, glancing up at Lincoln’s haggard face exclaimed, “Why Lincoln, what’s the matter with you?” Lincoln replied by telling him about the sermon, and said, “I am utterly unable to shake from myself the conviction that I shall be involved in that tragedy.” [Drawn from Ida Tarbell’s The Life of Abraham Lincoln (Macmillan, 1917) and John Wesley Hill’s Abraham Lincoln: Man of God (Putnam, 1920).]

In his retirement, the citizens of Jacksonville, Illinois gave him a house so that he would honor them by living in their city.

The Prophecy
WPA Painting
“Peter Akers’s Prophecy”
Henry Simon, 1941

Skipping two generations, all four of my grandparents were born in the 1890s and died in the 1970s. My father’s father, Dana, was born in northern Wisconsin and homesteaded there, while also spending 1912–15 in Chicago working in the newspaper business and 1918 in the 38th Field Artillery. He was active in the Arrowhead Poetry Society for many years and his poems appeared in publications around the country. Many were about the sternness and beauty of life in the north woods. Here is a more light-hearted poem from his collection Legend of Nani-bou-jou and Other Poems.

Case for Simplified Spelling

When Malayan, Bantu or Chinese
Come to grips with our s’s and z’s,
  He can’t compromise—
  Much less temporize
With phonetics as jumbled as these.

Confronted with tests in our schools,
The odd and ambiguous rules
  That he can’t summarize
  Cause him to surmise
That his mentors are sadists and ghouls.

Have regard for the Musselman geek,
And the subjects of Pasha and Sheik,
  As they search through the maze
  The orthographer lays
’Round the goal they so trustingly seek.

Yet, sibilants cannot be lumped
As exceptions . . . Were you to be plumped
  To rhyme the noun “ague”
  With the adjective “vague” you
Would find yourself jolly well stumped.

So, pity the Riff and the Russ
And excuse them for making a fuss
  Over rules that surprise
  Their most erudite guys,
And peculiar as theirs are to us!

Grandfather and Great-Grandfather
Early 20th century photograph
Dana and father, 1912

My father’s mother, Helen, began teaching school at the age of sixteen, raised three sons, and was an active member of various civic organizations. Dana’s dedication to her in Look Northward, Man: A Collection of Poems reads, “To friend wife, Helen, who shared with me the vicissitudes of the north country and whose assistance in all ways has been invaluable.” She helped Dana with his poems and also authored some under her own name. Here is one of hers from Before Sunset: A Collection of Poetry.

Anticipated Holiday

Vacation days have arrived again—
A time to strive, with might and main
To do the things we’ve wished we could
Beside the things we really should.

Having lived together thirty-five years,
Sharing our happiness and tears,
We have decided to celebrate;
(To wait till forty might be too late.)

A trip to Chicago is first on the list,
To look at things that we have missed;
Of all the things, we surely must
See Magic Cinerama or bust!

So, we’ll take a reserved roomette
And travel in luxury, once, you bet!
Arrived in the city, pert and spry,
Baggage in hand and gleam in eye,

We’ll dash about madly every day,
Tortured by heat, determined to stay
To see the animals in the Zoo,
Museum of Science and Industry, too,

Marshall Field’s and the Merchandise Mart,
The Tribune Tower and Museum of Art.
Worn out at last, we’ll head for home;
Gone, for a time, the desire to roam.

When we are rested, fresh again,
Feet and joints all free of pain,
We’ll wash the ceilings, split some wood
And do the other things we should.

One of the more unusual aspects of Dana and Helen’s marriage was that they had diametrically opposed politics—Dana was a socialist and Helen was a rock-ribbed Republican. Since they both knew how to wield a pen, a newspaper reader living in Superior or Duluth might find on the same page a letter from Dana about Hubert Humphrey, the war monger, and a letter from Helen about Hubert Humphrey, the bleeding heart.

Grandfather
Writer at desk
Dana, 1940s

My mother’s father, Earl, orator of his class at the University of Wisconsin, was a dairy farmer outside of Black River Falls. He was extraordinarily involved in community affairs and the local cooperative movement, most notably serving as president of the Co-op Credit Union for thirty-three years. His days began before sunrise with the morning milking and ended long after sunset when he returned home from a co-op board meeting or other function. My siblings and I spent part of each summer on his farm, helping with the chores and field work, going fishing when we could get permission, and finishing each day with cookies and ice cream scooped from a bucket Grandpa would fetch from the huge horizontal freezer in the back room. Peeking in the glove compartment of the ’49 Ford pickup would usually turn up a bag of chocolate stars. If somewhere in the back of your mind is an idyllic image of an American family farm, you could lay it on top of Grandpa’s farm and get a pretty good match.

Aerial View
Midwestern dairy farm
Grandpa’s farm, 1950s

My mother’s mother, Elizabeth, was the other half of the home, and she was everyone’s picture of a farm grandmother—large, patient, always aproned, and thinking about what to prepare for the next meal. She raised four daughters and put three country-sized meals on the table every day. In the summers, the threshing crew numbered over a dozen and a fourth meal was served in the fields. Together they created a solid, moral, loving world for their children, grandchildren, and community.

Maternal Grandparents
Wedding portrait
Earl & Elizabeth, 1920s

My father, Owen (1928–73), was born and raised in northern Wisconsin. He graduated from Superior Central High School, Hamline University, and (what is now called) Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. He was the organizing minister of the Monona United Methodist Church in Madison, Wisconsin (1954–58), the organizing minister of the Chapel Hills United Church of Christ in Edina, Minnesota (1958–64), and a campus minister at the Kanley Chapel of Western Michigan University (WMU) and an associate minister at the First Congregational Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan (1964–73). In addition to his regular duties as student and then minister, he vigorously pursued the following activities.

Father
Formal portrait of my father
Owen, 1970

In Wisconsin, he was county valedictorian, editor of the school newspaper, member of the band and choir, president of the Methodist Student Movement’s campus unit; a member of the foreign affairs club, the Sociological Society, and the church camp staff; an ordained deacon and elder, New York Giants preseason camp cook, printer’s helper, railroad section hand, YMCA desk clerk, ore boat steward (i.e., the type of ship made famous by the Edmund Fitzgerald), pinsetter, church camp staff director, youth work director, collegiate ski jumper, clarinet player, author of worship materials for the Older Youth curriculum, conference board secretary; chairman of a CROP drive, a local American Cancer Society drive, and a local YMCA capital funds drive; lobbyist for the Wisconsin Association for Mental health, director of a Dane county rest homes survey, panelist on a governor’s conference on the aging, member of the Council for Clinical Training, Inc., and received clinical training at Mendota State Hospital. In Minnesota, he was an elementary school counselor; a member of the vocations committee, the University of Minnesota’s Arab-American Club, the African Students Association, the Minnesota Folk Song Society, the Religious Research Association, the Minnesota Welfare Association, the Congregation Minister’s Credit Union Credit Committee, and the Twin Cities Association of Ministers; a staff member of a rehabilitation center, a board member of the Opportunity Workshop, secretary of the PTA, secretary-treasurer of the Pastors Action Committee, vice-president of the local Hamline University Alumni Association, president of the Edina Ministerial Association and the Wooddale Elementary PTA, and picked a mean banjo. In Michigan, he was a member of Action Now, the Urban Church committee, the National Campus Ministry Association, and the Michigan Clergy Council; a board member of the Kalamazoo NAACP, treasurer of the Kalamazoo chapter of the Committee for Responsibility for War Burned and War Injured Vietnamese Children, an advisor to United Campus Christian Fellowship and the Muslim Student’s Association, a group leader for work-study projects and in Ethiopia for Operations Crossroads Africa; cofounder of the Night Ministry, the Association of University Religious Ministries at WMU; a student and draft counselor; and extremely active in the antiwar movement, the civil rights movement, city commission politics, school board politics, and community-police relations. He believed there can be no peace without redress of legitimate grievances.

Protests
Protest singer
Owen, 1970s

That’s a pretty comprehensive list, although there could easily be another dozen activities for which there are no longer written records. He was a whirlwind of energy who could mobilize the people around him—or sometimes just tire them out. He was admired by many and detested by some. Tragically, he assumed a superhuman workload while unknowingly becoming an increasingly sick man in an era of limited health awareness and preventive options. He died of an aortic aneurysm in April 1973 following ten years of arteriosclerosis and hypertension—the silent killers.

When someone like this dies, it’s like standing on the rim of a huge crater. Only as the crater recedes into the past do the survivors comprehend the size of the hole in their lives, appreciate the death’s force of impact, and realize all that was vaporized.

My mother, Virginia (1929–), was born and raised outside of Black River Falls, Wisconsin. She attended Hamline University, met Owen there, raised four unusually stubborn children—my two older brothers, David (1950–98) and Bruce (1954–2017), my older sister, Helen (1953–), and me—and attended to all the duties of a minister’s wife. When the family moved to Kalamazoo, she resumed her education, earning both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from WMU. After teaching secondary school for some years, marrying her second husband, Marvin, and sadly being widowed a second time, she is now happily retired.

As you might suspect from my father’s busy schedule, I saw much more of my mother than my father when I was growing up. I was the only child still living at home when he died. It was my mother who brought home a book on Yoga, let me read it, and encouraged me to practice it. It was my mother who gave me sixty-five cents every week to buy yet another Heinlein or Asimov paperback. It was my mother who let me stay up all night to observe the night sky. It was my mother who gave me a chance to flourish.

Mother
Formal portrait of my mother
Virginia, 1944

Finally, we come to me. I was born July 19, 1958, at (what is now called) UnityPoint Health — Meriter, very near Wisconsin’s splendid Capitol in Madison. Just two months after I was born, our family moved to Edina, Minnesota, where we stayed until I completed kindergarten. My memories of this period are those of a little kid living in an Upper Midwest suburban heaven—birthday parties on vast lawns attended by hordes of neighbor kids, learning to ride a tricycle, pulling a string of toys down the sidewalk, waiting for the tooth fairy, learning to ice skate on Minnehaha creek, tenderfooting it across the fallen acorns to get to the municipal swimming pool, and singing along at the hootenannies.

I’m the Baby
1950s family
Family, 1958
Me Again
Drinking from a bottle
Me & my bottle, 1958
Waiting for Santa
Waiting for Santa Claus
Waiting for Santa Claus, 1959

In the summer of 1964, before I started first grade, our family moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan, where many family members live to this day. It is the place I still think of as home in many ways. We moved into an enormous parsonage on the corner of Burrows Road and Lovell Street, overlooking Kalamazoo College’s Angell Field and WMU’s campus. All the Checker cabs in the world were built in Kalamazoo, Gibson crafted its outstanding guitars there, Upjohn was an independent company, and WMU was poised to double its enrollment. It was before the 1967 Detroit riot, before The Sixties, before the 1973 oil crisis, the 1979 oil crisis, the rise of the Sunbelt, and the impact of Japanese imports. Michigan was thriving and the whole family threw themselves into life in our new city.

Parents, teachers, family, and friends all influenced me, but I was also deeply affected by two people far away. The first was Victor Gruen. Entirely by chance, my family lived both in Edina, home of his Southdale Center, the first enclosed shopping mall, then Kalamazoo, home of his pedestrian mall, also a first. So malls were big in my young mind. Malls! Malls! Malls! That’s the future! Sometimes I would walk down a street and wonder when it would be turned into a mall.

The second, even larger, influence from afar was Sergey Korolev, also known as the Chief Designer. He created Sputnik, and America’s response to Sputnik was the air I breathed. ARPA was formed five months before I was born, NASA was founded just ten days after I was born, and my grad-school funding was passed just one month after I was born.

And I have to say that growing up in the Space Age was pretty damn cool. Aerospace models and toys, telescopes and cameras, I Dream of Jeannie et al, and a Gemini launch every few months, explained by Walter Cronkite and Wally Schirra on a B&W TV. It sure beats whatever the hell it is we’re living in now.

Summer Vacation
Endless childhood summers
In the backyard, 1968

If I had to characterize the household I grew up in, I would say it was a liberal place, not in a political or programmatic sense of the word (although it could be that, too, in the heat of the moment), but in a largeness of spirit, a freedom of thought and discussion, an interest in and concern for the whole world and everyone in it. It was a home that hosted a hundred international students at a time, each one cooking dishes from their native land, the news from far-off places buzzing in the air, the issues of the day seen from a hundred different angles, the aromas of distant lands billowing out of every window. It was a home where an energized citizenry hotly debated the issues of the day and planned the next direct action. It was a home in which each child was free to follow their own unique path. It was the kind of home that would later (now and then) make California and New York seem like provincial places. That was the dizzying upside. It was only as the years went by that I realized I had had a wildly atypical upbringing. The downside? When your parents sit around the kitchen table marveling at the pay and benefits of public school teachers, even a little kid gets that there isn’t a lot of money in the house.

All of Us
1970s family
Family, 1970

I was sort of a generic kid through seventh grade, living as part of the family with no distinct interests of my own, just playing with my friends in the back yard or in the Prange’s woods, riding bikes, going to Wisconsin in the summers, and dealing with the Kalamazoo public schools. I became quite a troublemaker in second and third grades. The enlightened principal of my elementary school correctly surmised that part of the problem was an insufficiently challenging curriculum. So I went directly from third grade to fifth, and consequently spent the balance of my school years with older (and larger) children. Taken as a whole, I would say the school system was average. Some of the teachers were excellent, most were good, a few were dreadful. The student body contained more than a few knuckleheads. Undoubtedly the worst aspect of the school system was the epidemic of race riots from 1967 to 1972, paralleling the inner-city riots of those years. Riots never occurred at West Main Elementary School, and they had burned themselves out by the time I got to Kalamazoo Central High School, but they were chronic while I was attending (what is now called) Hillside Middle School. Looking back on it now, the public school system is like a publisher that has to accept every manuscript. If I had to do my best with every single manuscript that came in over the transom, you would think I was a terrible publisher.

Simply by happenstance, I acquired many of my life-long interests in 1970 at age twelve, when I was in the eighth grade. I distinctly remember the day Mom brought home the book Yoga, Youth, and Reincarnation by Jess Stearn. I picked it up wondering, “What crazy thing is Mom into now?” Instead, the book spoke to me, and I started practicing asanas. (I also started becoming a vegetarian, a diet I have maintained to this day.) After I mastered the headstand, Mom mentioned there was a woman teaching Yoga classes at the YWCA and suggested I sign up for one. So I did. The woman was Janet Bhuyan, an American married to an Indian-born researcher at Upjohn. I would be a faithful student for the next five years, a lone teenage boy in a sea of middle-aged women struggling to stave off the ravages of time.

At the Clubhouse
Newtonian reflecting telescope
Steve helping with my scope, 1970s

I can’t recall the moment I fell into amateur astronomy, but I do remember that I dropped piano lessons to embrace it single-mindedly. I hooked up with the Kalamazoo Astronomical Society and that group of guys became the center of gravity in my life. I bought a 2-inch refractor and it opened up the universe for me. It was so extraordinary, setting it up on the driveway that first evening, searching for the Evening Star in the twilight, aiming the tube, bringing the brilliant white crescent into focus. Then the rings of Saturn, the craters on the Moon, the Great Nebula in Orion—the sense of awe and wonder leaves me gaping to this day. Here’s a poem a family friend, Dave Trumbull, wrote about me in 1972.

My friend was twelve, almost thirteen, that year
when he bought a telescope
with “summer jobs” money.
For many weeks my mind swam with
mathematical figures, diagrams
and excited announcements
concerning that beautiful
metal tripod tube contraption.
The big night was coming,
I was told, and reminded of
    several times
        prior to the first all-night viewing
because
    I must be there to share
in a once every-two-or-three-year event
a total lunar eclipse.
I made my promise

Early, early Monday morning comes
magically, for I am awake
    before the alarm.
In darkness I dress, put on my coat
    and step outside
to a sharp, cold, cloudless universe.

I come to my young friend’s house
stand at the edge of his yard
No words
    only an arm gesture
    motioning me over
brings my attention to him
bent over the eyepiece
    A solitary conglomeration of boy and telescope
    in a field of white pointing to a
    slowly waning penumbric glow
I move across
Stand over, looking down at the boy
looking down, and somehow
Our decade’s difference is eclipsed.

The Moon
Earth’s moon
The Moon. Timeless.

I went on to build a 6-inch, F/10 Newtonian reflector and also an 8-inch, F/4 Newtonian. We formed expeditions to the 1972 and 73 solar eclipses, watched occultations, plotted meteors, took astrophotos, attended meetings and conventions, and observed till dawn (which always went smoother with pizza and the Moody Blues). We fought and made up and fought again, but we all knew astronomy was more important than anything else that ever was, ever would be, or even ever could be. Astronomy was beyond drugs, beyond sex, beyond rock ’n roll, beyond school, beyond family. We were mainlining the Universe.

To Africa
Staten Island Ferry
Aboard the Staten Island Ferry, 1973

Another interest I picked up then was science fiction. We had to do something on cloudy nights! There is an old saw that the golden age of science fiction is thirteen, and it’s true. That one could buy brand new paperback books by the masters—Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Heinlein—for only fifty or sixty-five cents made it even more golden. There seemed no upper limit to the number of times Tolkien could be read or 2001 absorbed. Science fiction was astronomy’s afterburner.

Astrophotography
Camera and telescope
Piggybacking on Pete’s scope, 1970s

We also played historical board games such as those published by Avalon Hill and Simulations Publications. (This was just a few years before personal computers and video games appeared.) We spent hours reading page after page of complex rules, then hours more refighting the battles of Waterloo, Bull Run, or Stalingrad. Many games of Risk would stalemate for hours as the armies built up, then be resolved in minutes by wiping out hundreds of armies with each throw of the dice. I was in a play-by-mail game for three years.

High-Energy Concert
John McLaughlin
John McLaughlin, 1973

Aside from the death of my father—a big aside—tenth through twelfth grades were a kind of golden age for me. School was safe and increasingly interesting, but not so demanding that it impacted my real life. I delivered the Kalamazoo Gazette one year to raise funds for the ’73 eclipse, but otherwise I spent my time on school and fun. Good ol’ Mom aided and abetted all my activities.

What’s with the hair?
Yearbook Portrait
Senior year, 1975

All this fun came to an abrupt halt in the fall of 1975 when I entered the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor less than two months after my seventeenth birthday. Suddenly school work was damn hard. I gave up board games, science fiction, astronomy, watching TV, sleep, and even did less Yoga so I could study, study, study. I started Sanskrit as a freshman, with no previous experience learning foreign languages—not recommended. I tried to read every book on every syllabus—impossible. I tried really, really hard to Figure Everything Out and Do My Best.

Eventually I did gain my footing and I did learn a lot. Each semester I would look through the course catalog and try to pick the most interesting courses, letting my curiosity roam far and wide. I benefited greatly from absorbing ethnology at Vern Carroll’s feet. I learned a great deal about India from Deshpande, Hook, Broomfield, and Trautmann. I attended many lectures at Hill Auditorium and couldn’t resist catching at least one classic film every week.

My summers were each spent quite differently. After my freshman year, I took a Yoga teachers training course at the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Camp in Val Morin, Quebec. The course was taught by the organization’s founder, Swami Vishnudevananda. Swamiji, as he was usually called, was an indescribably dynamic personality who arrived in Canada a penniless young man from South India and built a worldwide organization from scratch. After my sophomore year, I spent the entire summer working six days a week in a potato chip factory. Hot. Salty. Greasy. ’Nuff said. After my junior year, I spent the summer learning Telugu in Madison in preparation for spending my senior year in Andhra Pradesh with the University of Wisconsin’s College Year in India Program.

Swamiji
Swamiji in Val Morin
Swami Vishnudevananda, 1970s

Seven of us arrived in Waltair (a name now mostly abandoned in favor of Visakhapatnam, or Vizag for short) in September 1978 after a three-day train ride from Delhi. We continued with Telugu together and took various courses separately, in my case, reading the sandhi, karaka, and stripratyaya chapters of Panini’s Ashtadhyayi, memorizing innumerable verb conjugations, and making my first pass at translating the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. All the Sanskrit work was done under the guidance of J. Prabhakara Sastry—another dynamic personality.

Temple Complex
South Indian temple
Meenakshi temple, 1979

Of course, when living in such a different environment, much of one’s education comes outside the classroom. Our biggest tutor was our cook, a widow whose husband had been a truck driver in the Indian Army and consequently spoke nine languages. Fortunately for our Telugu, none of them were English. Another clue about our environment came from the fact that a student strike over a non-university issue, the safety of the municipal bus system, shut the university down completely for the entire academic year (except for us Americans). I also absorbed a lot traveling throughout South India over the Christmas break and up to Calcutta, Banaras, and Kashmir after the school year ended. Finally, I learned a lot deep in my bones by coming down with malaria twice, being hospitalized for two weeks with dysentery (I weighed ninety-eight pounds at one point and the doctor was seriously worried), then being hospitalized again in Kalamazoo with German measles immediately after returning home. A less dedicated—or more sensible—person would have returned early. As they say in Telugu, Bhaarat naaku ishtam, kaani kashtam—I like India, but it’s difficult.

Banaras Sunrise
Varanasi, Banaras, Kashi
Banaras at sunrise, 1979
Vale of Kashmir
Kashmir valley
Kashmir, 1979

Although I was still a little wobbly for the rest of 1979, I returned to Ann Arbor and began graduate school. My studies were much more focused—Indian history and Hindi-Urdu. I taught the grammar section of Advanced Sanskrit one year. Faint wisps of the lessons I wrote can be seen in the second half of Samskrtasubodhini: A Sanskrit Primer. I continued to study hard, and in my fourth semester of graduate school the grind caught up with me. I burned out.

It’s an odd feeling to sit down to study and within fifteen minutes find yourself staring at the wall in front of you instead of looking down into your books. It’s even odder when you can’t recall how long you’ve been staring like that. And it stays odd when you try to resume reading, nothing sinks in, and you’re staring at the wall again and you can’t remember if this is just the second time you’re staring at the wall or the fifth time. When this happened to me one afternoon in early 1981, I knew my studies in Ann Arbor had run their course.

“What now?” I wondered. Unfortunately, the statewide unemployment rate in Michigan in 1981 was 17 percent, with some cities as high as 25 percent. The whole scene was brilliantly captured in Michael Moore’s Roger & Me. I would have to emigrate. Where? I did know a couple in California. And do what? Maybe something to do with computers; they seemed to be the coming thing. So after gathering my wits and my stuff, I flew off for the Bay Area in October 1981.

One way of looking at American history is that we’ve only had two presidents since 1932. FDR was president from 1932 to 1980, and Ronald Reagan has been president ever since. All of my childhood and schooling took place in FDR’s America, while my entire adult and working life has been in Reagan’s.

The observant reader may suspect, due to my family and personal history up to this point, that I was singularly unprepared to make my own way in the world of commerce, and they would be right. I was almost entirely incompetent, a little pitiful, and faintly ridiculous. But I spent the next ten years in Berkeley, most of it in the same one-bedroom apartment, maintaining the same frugal lifestyle I had in graduate school. I held eight different jobs, progressing from illegally underpaid to handsomely compensated. (By typical 1980s standards. I certainly didn’t become Steve Jobs.) I worked at four book publishers, two prepress companies, one software publisher, and one international retailer. Most of the jobs were in Berkeley and San Francisco, but I also worked in Oakland and San Leandro. I kept giving notice mostly because it was the only way to get a substantial raise, partly to gain more diverse experience, and sometimes just to leap from frying pan to fire. I earned more, I learned more, but it was stressful to fit into new work environments on an almost yearly basis.

California Coworkers
lunch with coworkers
With coworkers, 1985

Luckily, I found the work intrinsically rewarding and engaging. In the most general terms, what I did was evaluate, purchase, install, learn, use, and train others in publishing technologies. I started as a typographer and finished as a department manager. The evolution of publishing systems deployed in the field during the 1980s was astonishingly rapid and far reaching.

The first system I used was a Harris TxT, a behemoth the size of two huge refrigerators placed side by side. It contained its own walk-in dark room, cost over $100,000 new, yet had only 8 KB of RAM! The fonts were stored as letters in physical miniature on thick, rapidly spinning glass disks held in place with big brass knobs. When a new font was called for, you could stand outside the machine and hear the motors hum until the required disk clunked into position. The TxT held only five disks at a time, arranged in a pentagon. A light would shine through the image on the disk and expose a 6-inch wide roll of photographic paper, one letter at a time. The paper would be periodically cut and run through a photographic development process. The type would then be manually assembled into pages to be later photographed by a printer’s camera. Even more primitive, the input units were unconnected to the TxT and consisted of oversized, mechanical keyboards without monitors that converted each keystroke into a pattern of punch holes on a long roll of paper tape that would later be fed into the TxT. Mass storage consisted of a closet full of plastic bins, one per book, each holding rolls of paper tape, one per chapter, tightly bound with a rubber band. Needless to say, this system was not WYSIWYG. A premium was placed on one’s ability to visualize the desired output in one’s mind and then type in the correct codes.

The second system I used, a Varityper Comp/Set, had a green, monochrome monitor and a single 8-inch floppy disk, but handled only one spinning font disk at a time. The third system, a Quadex Q510, was actually pretty slick, and even had a 10 MB hard disk (shared by 3 people)! It was also the first system I used that had digitized fonts and a CRT output unit, the Compugraphic 8400. The fourth system was a DECsystem 2020 running TOPS-20, EMACS, TeX, and composition software developed inhouse, all driving the incredible Linotron 202. The last four systems I used were mostly networks of PCs and Macs as desktop publishing rumbled through the industry. My final job was setting up a service bureau operation for an existing graphic-arts company. We took in disks and output foot-wide, four-color, negative film at over 2500 dots per inch on a Linotronic L300, with type, line art, halftones, crop marks, and page numbers all in position. (Even this level of technology is now physically impossible to use—printers want PDFs, not film—and that’s assuming one even wants print in the first place!) It was a huge change from the TxT, and it took less than a decade.

The hardware I just described is long gone; the companies that made them have disappeared; whole categories of jobs have vaporized. One company I worked for was literally named “Adapt.” It didn’t. As computers become more powerful, they are applied to more challenging tasks, progressing from type to line art to photographs to music to video to Big Data and AI. Creative destruction ensues.

Yosemite
Yosemite
Yosemite Valley, 1980s

Stepping back from the breakneck pace of technological change for a moment, I think this ode from a window in the stained-glass museum at Chicago’s Navy Pier captures the nobler aspects of the trade. It is attributed to the Old-time Printers’ Association of Chicago and dated 1914.

In honor of printers
Past, present and to come
The multipliers of recorded thought
Carrying down the centuries the evidence
  of Man’s advancement in knowledge
The heralds of peace and good will
The conservators of wisdom
The antagonists of error
The champions of good works
The glorifiers of achievement
The preservers of art
The promoters of culture

Boating
Florida speedboat
In Florida for Halley’s Comet, 1986

By the end of my decade in California, I was mostly competent. My last day of work was February 28, 1991. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next—writing? publishing?—but just like my final year in Ann Arbor, I knew it was time to move on. So I caught up on my sleep after 16 years of hard work. I mulled over my plans. I wrote my first science fiction story. Then I took one of those trips that changes your life.

Berkeley Apartment
Berkeley, California
Berkeley, 1991

In July 1991 I rendezvoused in Los Angeles with old friends from the KAS for a solar eclipse cruise aboard the Viking Serenade. Down the Baja coast, landfall at Cabo San Lucas, observing the eclipse on board, another port of call at Mazatlan, then back to Los Angeles. It was on deck at Cabo, watching a sublime sunset, that I met Loretta and we fell in love. Really. Just like that. How improbable! After the cruise, she returned to her home in New York and I returned to California. We talked on the phone—a lot—and I moved out of my apartment at the end of August. We were married on the shore of Cooper Lake on October 10, three months to the day after we met.

Wedding Day
Wedding portrait
Wedding day, 1991

It’s a lot of work, establishing a household, a marriage, a life together. I brought my stuff from California and Michigan and we set up house month by month. Loretta was busy running her gift shop. Drawing on my graphic-arts experience, I produced all her interior signage and print advertising, and later helped with her computer systems. We decided to put the store up for sale in 1993. Prepping the store, finding a buyer, and running a blow-out, going-out-of-business sale took most of the year. (My advice to any business owner thinking of selling their business is to get an early start, because ongoing businesses are even less liquid than real estate.) Loretta created a joyous environment that is still remembered, missed, and remarked upon to this day, but it tied her down and she’s never regretted selling it.

Loretta Klein
Woodstock Gift shop
Loretta’s store, 1978–1993

While helping with the store, I was teaching myself how to be a fiction writer. Writers are neither born nor made, they’re self taught. I read a dozen how-to-write books, I wrote draft after draft of story after story, I went to science fiction conventions and took notes, I subscribed to the relevant trade journals, I collected a couple hundred rejection slips, and eventually some of my work was published. In science fiction terms, I traversed the short distance from wannabe to neopro.

As soon as I showed up, while both the store and the writing were going on, we naively embarked on what turned out to be an endless home-improvement campaign. It has been absurdly, ridiculously, extraordinarily time and energy consuming. (And a money pit.)

And while all this was going on, we worked in quite a few vacations. The biggest trip we took (and are ever likely to take) was around the world in 1996. We visited four countries, each quite different from the other. Our first stop was Hong Kong—clean, safe and so developed it has sunset industries. We then flew to Hanoi and took a two-week train trip to Saigon. The country was literally developing before our eyes. Highlights were the military museums, the Viet Cong tunnels, Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, the rock formations at Halong Bay and the imperial edifices at Hue. Then on to a five-week stay in India. It was my first time back since I had been a student there eighteen years earlier. Cities that I visited as a student had doubled, tripled, even quadrupled in population. We flew into Delhi, took a day trip to Agra, spent a week in Madras, two weeks in Vizag, and one in Pondicherry. No picture has ever captured the Taj Mahal’s perfect proportions and delicate, floating quality despite its massive size. Our final stop was England. The museums and parks were excellent, the acting in the West End was top-notch, and the amount of fresh and delicious vegetarian fare was a pleasant surprise.

The Taj
The Taj Mahal
The Taj, 1996

It was in the fall of 1996 that I methodically began to rebuild my knowledge of Sanskrit from the ground up after a fifteen-year hiatus. Grammar, vocabulary—is this my handwriting? After finally getting all my ducks in a row, I started translating the Hatha Yoga Pradipika for a second time and it later became the first title for YogaVidya.com.

Before Totality
Morning cup of coffee
Morning of eclipse, 1998

Tragedy struck the family again in 1997 when my oldest brother, David, suffered a massive stroke. We rallied and did what we could, but we knew the end was near. He died in 1998. Like his father, he spent much of his life trying to make things better, from registering voters to protesting the Vietnam war to working in social services.

Hurricane Aftermath
Storm damage
Hurricane Floyd, 1999

Finally, we come to the 21st century and the latest chapter of my life: YogaVidya.com. I founded a tiny but important company dedicated to publishing excellent and affordable books about Yoga.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Hatha Yoga Pradipika
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, 2002

It suits me. My life used to be highly sequential and compartmentalized—one damn unrelated thing after another. Now my interests and skill sets are integrative and mutually reinforcing. The writing helps the translating helps the publishing helps the Yoga helps the Sanskrit helps the editing helps the English helps the writing. I like that. It feels good to bring decades of experience in diverse fields to bear on the tasks at hand.

In other words, I’ve become a hyper-generalist. I’ve always been interested in everything and still am. YogaVidya.com is a one-person company and I wear all the hats. Even when I subcontract out the odd task, I have to find and hire the person and check their work. The more surprising thing to me is that I turned out to be a late bloomer. I started many things early in life, but didn’t get a tight grip on them until my mid-50s. I am now almost entirely competent. (Just FYI, the number one requirement for success as a small book publisher is a patient spouse.)

Earlier I mentioned Victor Gruen and the Chief Designer as far-off, unexpected influences on my life. These days there’s another one: Mukesh Ambani. A huge chunk of the visitors to my web sites use Jio phones (and often a very low-end one, at that).

What else? We’ve done very little traveling, but this place is super cool. We survived the Great Recession (dicey) and the Covid pandemic. I collected my early writing and am continuing to write.

The Early Stuff
The Early Stuff
The Early Stuff, 2014

Tragedy struck my natal family a third time in 2017 when my last remaining brother, Bruce, died from organ failure. (I sometimes wonder if my family has a curse on it.) He loved being a farmer and put a laser-etched Holstein on his tombstone.

Bruce
Brother’s tombstone
Bruce, 1954–2017

Wrote a new book that answers two questions: Why Yoga? Why now? It summarizes the very long and remarkable history of Yoga from its Indian origins to its global present, its entanglement with money, where it fits in the constellation of religions, its dialectic with science, its place in today’s society, and the bright future of Yoga.

The Yoga Manifesto
The Yoga Manifesto
The Yoga Manifesto, 2024

On the whole, I would say I’ve lived a quiet, healthy, uneventful life, but I have survived numerous maladies—malaria (twice), dysentery, adult rubella, kidney stones (twice), a shattered left elbow, hypertension, shingles, and depression (part and parcel of being a genius ;-) ); numerous catastrophes—a tornado, multiple earthquakes (including the Loma Prieta quake of 1989), multiple hurricanes, multiple car crashes; and repeated economic collapses—both oil shocks, the Volcker recession, the Bush I recession, the dot-com bubble, the Great Recession, and the pandemic shutdown.

If you, the reader, have made it all the way to the end, I thank you for your attentiveness and hope you’ve learned something along the way. I found researching and writing this autobiography deeply satisfying. I encourage everyone to have a go at writing their own history. Every parent has two parents; each person has their own story.