I was always amused to note there is a boulevard called Cervantes in the Marina. I lived around the corner for 22 years. Miguel de Cervantes, of course, wrote Don Quixote, the great story of a chap who was obsessed with the notion of honor – and pure love. He tilted his lance at windmills in a sort of madness. Yes, that madness was engendered by love that transcended the physical. (Unless you could find a motel on the Lombard Strip before 11:30 p.m.)
Ahem. Cervantes’s tale is so famous that we have a word after this quirky character – quixotic. It means to be “sublimely chivalrous.”
There are all sorts of love. Quixote loved the much-younger Dulcinea. She embraced the ideal of pure love. Quixote had a servant – a valet. But Sancho Panza was more that that. He represents loyalty. What higher form of love is that?
When things go wrong, you find out who your friends are. Old Quixote, a don, a nobleman, had fallen into a sort of homeless, vagabond figure. A patchy patrician. Simply driven by raw ideal, he could not quit. He could make wishes, but not wash dishes. His attire and his public image began to suffer. Appalling. Not a practical guy, a romantic to the extreme. Who would not admire him?
“You’re starting to look like a derelict,” his friends would murmur to Quixote. “Perhaps you should lay off the turpentine. Or the turpitude. Or staggering along the shoulder of the New Jersey Turpitude while carrying the turpentine and the turnpike too.”
Then they’d all laugh it off in that patrician, nervous, carefree way, and find a warm sympathetic saloon for chronic, hopeless dreamers.
Walking down Cervantes the other day, on my way to see the nice people at the Golden Gate Yacht Club, I wondered what a modern-day Quixote might do. What cause would drive him to a celestial pinnacle of passion today?
I thought of my old friend, Harry Miles Muheim, who died some years ago in Colorado at the age of 82. He was raised in the Marina and lived, as a kid, yes, on Cervantes. If anyone were meant to carry the lance for justice, it would have been he.
If anyone personified chivalry, it was Harry. At the age of 81, he won the Best Writer category from the Writer's Guild of America. Harry wrote the TV script for the Kennedy Center Honors broadcast. How could anyone win a writing award for an awards show? Because Harry dripped, he would constantly swim in the reservoir of context. He knew history, but better, he knew compassion. Passion, perhaps, above all. The essence of love.
Harry was a speechwriter for Robert Kennedy and Jimmy Carter. In early years, he wrote for television when it was all live and much livelier. At Playhouse 90, he worked with Paddy Chayevsky, another hero of mine. You remember Paddy – Saint Paddy, as Jon Winokur calls him. Mr. Chayevsky wrote Network and The Hospital.
I once told Harry that Robert Trout, one of my idols at CBS News, had retired to Madrid. Mr. Trout gave me his home address. It was on the Calle de Cervantes.
How did exchange of addresses occur? When I worked at KCBS, I produced the local coverage of the Democratic National Convention in 1984 at Moscone Center. Robert Trout was brought out of retirement to provide commentary for ABC News. He was in his 80s. Still slight, mustachioed, pinstriped and speaking in elegant, clipped tones, he told me he was worried that the smarmy, idiotic producer might not give him a lunch break. It seems to me that Mr. Trout was Quixote-like. Terrifically gallant and hopelessly tenacious. He wouldn’t have been left out of the action for nothing – even if he had to work for this gang of morons. Windmills are windmills and windbags are windbags.
And Harry had class too. When I called him a while back, I was stunned to learn he had moved off Telegraph Hill. That was like Coit Tower moving off Telegraph Hill. He explained on the phone from Colorado, “Bruce, I haven’t been back to Boulder since I went to school here to learn Japanese for naval intelligence. I never told you that my wife and I were separated for twenty-eight years. We had our separate lives with other people, but we never divorced. When I became ill, she called and said, ‘Harry, it’s time for you to come home.’ Here I am.”
What a love story. So quixotic. This time, Dulcinea intervened.
Harry always had advice for me: “Remember that as we pass through life, we have a greater impact on others more than we had ever imagined.”
So today I am thinking of these grand gents and the loves in their lives. They struggled with powerful forces. But they did not give up. They remind me that there are things worth fighting for – a higher purpose. Even if that damned windmill is still blowing in the wind, the effort was worth it.
These thoughts came to mind last Mother’s Day. And Memorial Day of my most immemorial year. I think it was something that Harry said about being closer to those who had departed. Get this: My mum’s name was Jemima. Kid you not. She hated that name. I love that name. But then again, no one calls me Jemima. Not even on the weekends after I located my sundress in the Mixmaster bowl.
Jemima had to suffer the scourge of her Old Testament name when she was on the school playground. That’s where the nasty kids would mock her – not for having a name from Scripture – but for being named for Aunt Jemima’s pancake flour.
Suffering is a necessary ingredient for transformation. All the poets yak about it, the sages solemnly impart it, our parents do their clumsy best to conceal it from us. So it must be true. We honor the dead only by paying attention to what they were about at their best moments while they were alive. It’s funny. When my mom died eight years ago – even after that long debilitating illness, Alzheimer’s – she suddenly was there with me in a vivid way. Her death somehow did not take her away. On the contrary, I felt a closeness to her that, strangely, I did not have before. All those petty and puerile things that pained me, the silly things I bitched about, had vanished. I was left with an essential touch of goodness, those kind, lovely moments, the funny exchanges, the zany things she said and did.
One thing about Mom was I could never get her to be really mad at me. Once, after my heart had been broken for the hundredth time by a desultory doll, I cruelly announced to my Scottish, Protestant, often-indignant mother, “The next one isn’t going to be white – and she isn’t going to be smart!”
My mother, Jemima of Glasgow, said calmly, “Whatever makes you happy, that’s all that matters.” That disarmed me. The people we love will always disarm us – that’s what is so aggravating about them. It’s even more unsettling to know how much they can love us back when we try to talk it out of them.
Harry and my Mother. I can see them now: stubborn, steadfast, silhouetted on a sandy beach, about to attack a windmill. They may have fought for different causes, but I’d certainly stay out of their way.
No matter. I’m lucky to know that once in a while, love turns to smile on me without even checking my credentials.
Bruce Bellingham extends all good wishes, though late, to all mothers everywhere. (I’ll bet their arms are tired.) And warm regards to everyone who wants to take up arms, such as a lance or a broom at a pernicious target such as a windmill, whether it represents green energy and all. It’s the effort that counts. Sheesh. Sorry, Mom. I’ll still take out that garbage, even when we’re both dead. Write to Bruce: firstname.lastname@example.org.