I grew up with pretty unconventional parents. My father, Peter Tompkins, was the author of "Secrets of the Great Pyramid" (the first book to popularize the notion that pyramids have mystical powers) and "The Secret Life of Plants" (which put forth the idea that plants are conscious beings that we can communicate with telepathically). For most of my childhood and teenage years we lived in a giant dairy barn that my father had converted into a living space. Not too long after "The Secret Life of Plants" came out, he bought a second house in Miami and spent several years trying to find the lost continent of Atlantis on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. Conventional? No way. Sensible even? Not that either. My father didn’t like to do anything the average, ordinary way if he could possibly help it.
Which was why I was always so surprised on those occasions when, during my teenage years, he would stick his head into my room and--with a pained expression that would do the most conventional suburban dad proud--ask me to turn my music down.
“That garbage is actually destroying your etheric body,” he would say to me sometimes, using a little esoteric terminology to attempt to disguise the fact that we were engaging in one of the most time-honored, all-American father-son discussions there was. “Nothing on the Good Music Station has that kind of effect.”
The “Good Music Station” was WQXR, the Washington, DC area’s most popular provider of classical music. Dull Music Station was, to my ears, more like it.
Not that I was going to fall into the trap of making value judgments about someone else’s music. If my father enjoyed Beethoven and Mozart, that was fine with me. But-–especially considering the view he took of people who criticized him for his own values--he had some nerve telling me that the noise those composers produced was actually better than the music I listened to. According to whose standard, exactly?
One evening I called my father in as he passed by my room. “Listen to this,” I said, setting the needle down at the start of the Rolling Stones’ song “Moonlight Mile.” In addition to having some fancy instrumental parts in it--parts that, I imagined, might bare some distant relationship to the kind of music he liked--“Moonlight Mile” was simply such a gorgeous song that I figured it transcended all those tiresome categories like “classical” and “popular,” “good” and “bad.” When I heard this song, it was like another person inside of me suddenly woke up and took notice: the person who, when you got down to it, I really was. The person who was really living my life, but who usually hung back, behind the scenes, and only came into the light when something really important--something real--was going on. Who on earth could fail to get swept up in a song like “Moonlight Mile” on the very first note?
My father sat, politely but blankly, through the entire five minutes and 56 seconds of the song. “Well,” he said when it was finished, “at least it didn’t have any of that ghastly thumping in it.”
Just as frustrating to me as my father’s failure to grasp the obvious greatness of “Moonlight Mile” was my puzzlement as to why I wanted him to get it so much. What was so important about conveying to him what I heard in the song?
One afternoon not too long after that, my father asked if I felt like coming with him to the hardware store. When he turned the key in the ignition the Good Music Station hopped instantly to life. An opera was playing: my absolute least favorite kind of “good” music. The stuff without voices one could at least block out, but when two people were howling back and forth at each other like that it was a lot harder to not pay attention.
All along the way to the shopping center, the people on the radio howled away and my father didn’t say a word. Then, when we pulled up in front of the hardware store, he put the car in park and just sat there, his hand still on the wheel, the engine still running.
“Are we planning on going in?” I asked finally.
“In a moment,” my father said, as if he’d forgotten I was there. “Listen! Here it comes. She’s about to throw herself off the roof.”
The howling voices grew in intensity. If someone was going jump off a roof, it couldn’t happen soon enough for me.
Then, all of a sudden, something changed. Not in my ability to appreciate the music (I still didn’t like it), but in my ability to perceive who was really sitting there next to me, listening to it. It wasn’t my father. Or at least, it wasn’t that regular, day-to-day, go-to-the-hardware-store part of my father that I usually saw and interacted with. It was that other part of him: the person inside. This opera was my father’s “Moonlight Mile.” And he wasn’t going to turn the car off till it was over any more than I would have turned off “Moonlight Mile” if it had been playing.
I got to do a lot of exciting stuff with my father over the course of our years together. We even, at moments, managed to actually get to know each other a little bit. Maybe that’s why for all the novelty that his talking plants, magical pyramids, and lost civilizations brought to my life, that moment in front of the hardware store remains one of the most memorable, and genuinely valuable, that I ever spent with him.
Even if it wasn’t all that unconventional.