Jul/Aug 2014  •   Reviews & Interviews

How I Became The Virtual Vanaprastha

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

The Ties of the Railroad Tracks Home: the Poetry of Jared Carter.
Gilbert Wesley Purdy.
The Virtual Vanaprastha. 2014. 59 pp.

I've been to the thrift store up the street, lately, picking up $5 or less of household items, as I find them amongst the rubble. Actually, I always familiarize myself the thrift stores when I move to a new area. Like all stores, they have changed with the passage of years, however, primping for a customer base that can give them a higher profit margin. The Salvation Army just isn't what is used to be.

I count it as a blessing, then, to have found an old-school thrift just a few blocks away that offers the person of alternative lifestyle genuine reason to believe that life can be good. Yesterday, I found a coax switch and several other connector-types I needed in order to complete an antenna I've been building to bring in over-the-air television signals. Together with a VCR tape on Solti: the Making of a Maestro, the lot cost $1.05.

The coax (spell check just corrected it to "coal") switch allows me to watch the VCR player I bought there last week, without interference from the antenna input. Both signals are processed via the same cable by my computer, or will be eventually. The player had to be returned. The second try to buy a fully functional unit will also have to be returned when the thrift opens back up next week.

The other connectors and cable have been used to expand my homemade over-the-air television antenna. The freelance writer must maintain an incredibly tight budget just to keep the hemorrhaging of the worrisomely finite bank account to a minimum. I've never purchased cable television service in my life, as it is, regardless the state of my finances.

The retired next door neighbor wants to buy an $80 digital antenna, he informed me, as I changed out the bulbs in the fluorescent fixture in his kitchen. I wasn't even interested in the $19.95 model I'd seen advertised and suggested to him as more within his budget. The $80 unit, he informed me, by way of reply, could bring in stations from Washington, D.C.

For myself, my antenna would be digital by virtue of the fact that I would refuse to give up until I had all the major networks' local affiliates coming in continually and crystal clear. It turns out that the copper water piping that runs throughout the building is a smashing beginning for a digital antenna. Living alone, as I do, all of the apartment has been drafted into service. Wires are strung everywhere. In particularly poor atmospheric conditions, the metal skeleton of one of my umbrellas is just the right digital extender. I get about 20 stations. No, I can't pick up Washington stations yet, but if there is a way, there's the will.

So now I can watch two episodes of Big Bang Theory each evening, Monday through Friday (three on Thursdays) and the NBA playoffs, after a long day in front of the screen. By way of unexpected bonus, a local PBS affiliate brings me indigenous English language news programs from Russia, India, Taiwan Burma, and Afghanistan.

Today the schedule calls for me to work on this essay together with the usual surfing of the Internet, with one or another 25 cent CD the thrift shop had on sale, in order to reduce its overflow stock (spell check just corrected it to "stack"), playing in the background. The new composers I've never heard of are a particular treasure. This time around: Zdenek Fibich and Dmitri Kabalevski. Last time: Toru Takemitsu's delightful "From Me Flows What You Call Time." And who knew that recordings were still being made of Paul Bowles's music? My popular music I stream from Vevo, mostly Evanescence, The Fray, Lou Reed, Neil Young, Portal's "Still Alive."

Facebook (the only social media in which I participate) informed me last week that I'd gained a fifth "follower," for my personal page, to go with the one new person, last week, who clicked "Like" on the book page for Edward de Vere was Shake-speare: at long last the proof. This essay is supposed to be followed by several days of developing a marketing strategy (at less than $20 per year) that I can bear to put my time toward. As I can barely deal with Facebook, much less the other modes of social networking, the Internet options are severely limited, to say the least.

I am one among the miniscule percentage of people, apparently, whose Facebook News Feed is actually that: a news feed. Hundreds of news and information pages fill my burgeoning list of "Interests." Between the deluge of photographs of kittens, wise observations by the Dali Lama and Oprah, and advocacy for everything under the sun, posted throughout the day by a handful of Facebook friends, I read the breaking news, the latest finding of particle physics, etc.

During the past two months, the writing project has been a monograph entitled The Ties of the Railroad Tracks Home: the Poetry of Jared Carter. Carter's poems have appeared several times in Eclectica since 2005, and I've reviewed his books a couple of times here, as well. The book published now, I spend a brief period of time breaking away in order to check my sales numbers several times a day. It all makes for a busy and an even more fragmented day.

The monograph seemed a reasonable choice. I genuinely like and respect Carter's poetry. So, it turns out, does Ted Kooser and a good many others, indicating that there might be some interest in insights regarding it. That said, even the finest success in poetry must somehow make its presence known amongst all of the other competition for a reader's attention.

Take, for example, this past Monday's lunch. As I was working on this piece, word came of another school shooting in progress. No use trying to write and watch a local live stream from the scene, so... it became lunchtime. There was a lot of tension, drama, emotional engagement, flashing lights, police procedure. Happily, only two lives were lost. But still, how deeply sad to think that two lives lost has become a happy outcome.

Tuesday the retired neighbor knocked on the window for my attention. After verifying that his kitchen light is suffering from age, and that there is only so much that can be done, he mentioned that the church across the street was a polling place for the Republican Primary. I called on my incisive analytical capabilities and informed him that Eric Cantor had his enemies but also an enormous war chest. Like everyone else, I was being served a steady diet of his negative advertisements about his opponent whose name nobody could remember: there wasn't the slightest chance of Cantor losing. By the end of the next news cycle, I was scrolling through my news sources, searching for detail on how he could possibly have lost. Not just lost, actually, but been soundly beaten. A few hours later I was treated to an equally shocking performance by the Miami Heat, as they were thrashed in historical fashion.

Also on Tuesday, an Al-Qaeda off-shoot, called ISIS (or, alternately, ISIL) had also captured the second largest city in Iraq and another major city into the mix. ISIS is so radical that Al-Qaeda has actually declared their relationship ended. On Wednesday, the Kurds took advantage of the situation to declare that they were taking control of the now formerly Iraqi city of Kirkuk and the surrounding oil fields. Crude oil is now nervously hovering at above $106 per barrel on the New York Exchange. The already overpriced equity markets are falling and the T-Bond market is massively rallying in expectation of equities continuing to plummet into the future.

Where was I? Yes, now I remember: poetry being deluged by impossible amounts of competition. And this brief list has not even mentioned Tom Cruise or Miley Cyrus, whichever singer it was that showed up to recent a red carpet affair naked, the latest from the competing national talent shows, "reality" shows, etc.—the stuff that people just can't get enough of, that is to say.

For my own part, my plan was to publish humbler works of non-fiction rather than to give one or two lottery-style attempts at a best seller. I had years of notes and partially completed manuscripts at hand. Theoretically, it should be time that a number of such humble electronic books might provide a subsistence living. Along the way, one or two might even find a larger audience. The day the monograph came out was one of the two days, over the past six months, when the idea seemed to show some little promise. By the next day, the promise had melted away.

I had been thinking about this move toward freelancing for a few years before I took the leap. A group of friends had begun doing Kirtan-chant masses at the Episcopal cathedral where I worked. They put in vast amounts of love, analysis, and effort. They had a genuine commitment to the masses, which brought them a public for a while. But the effort was simply massive, and the limited success personality-based. As so often is the case in such matters, they declared an indefinite hiatus that has yet to end.

One or two of the members of the rather large group had struck out on their own, even before the end, thinking to make a living from Kirtan. Early promise did not pan out. Optimism and celebration of at last living a truly creative and rewarding life gave way to silence. It was clear that the attempt had not nearly met expectations. This, even though they were among the more expert social networkers I have known.

My own opinion was that even native Indian Hindus felt their lives would be considerably more enriched by indoor plumbing than spiritual uplift. They dearly wanted the electrical lights that were turned off during the Kirtan in favor of more "natural" and inspiring arrays of candles. Simply put, Indian Hindus want not to cast off the insidious ways of the West but to embrace them and as quickly and fully as possible. There was a myth at the bottom of it that seemed sure to be mortal.

Nevertheless, I had gone through a heart-felt Eastern religious phase myself when young (Zen Buddhism, in my case). The Kirtan masses often set me to thinking about what the experience had effected in me. I returned to the texts (Hindu included), interested to learn how they would impress me now that life had made of me a resoundingly Western thinker.

I was particularly struck with the stage of enlightenment represented by the Vanaprastha: the middle-aged Hindu who has withdrawn in semi-retirement from the world. I considered taking on the simple robe of the Vanaprastha even though I held down a fulltime-plus-plus job. I did already wear the simplest clothing, eat simple meals (when not eating caterers' gourmet leftovers), and put almost all of each paycheck into the bank.

In this way, I could bring the years of study and writing to the center of the religious experience, where they belonged for someone like me. The only thing I lacked was the semi-retirement, and surely a western corollary was available to me that would fit my off-hours, however limited. The acceleration made inevitable by computers and the Internet could make the thing possible within a much smaller timeframe.

My work hours were still being expanded, however, and the pay and benefits continually trimmed "just a smidge" here and there, and I was not feeling particularly enlightened by any model whatsoever. Moreover, writing itself and a thought process of any quality, required a lot of time, computers notwithstanding. The idea was put aside. Surely, it had been impractical from the first.

When the pattern continued, I felt I had no choice but to leave my job. As the inevitability slowly overcame the impetus of actually having a regular job, and a regular paycheck and health insurance, however much eroded, I began to consider what to do next. My circumstances did not allow me to seek another job until the cathedral one had come to its end. I would have to hit the ground running. For a time I would have to do with even less time to put toward my own interests, but I felt up to it.

When I arrived in Virginia, I met with unmistakable signs of the same selfishness and determination to have my services for the smallest possible fraction of market value if not for free. Such was the price of finding a place for myself. It was nothing that everyone else wasn't having to deal with. What made me think I was somehow special?

Thankfully, Richmond is a town with character. I began to ride my bicycle for as many miles as many days as possible, exploring. Life felt good for the first in quite some time. It slowly dawned on me that I had arrived here in order to bicycle, study, and write. If I allowed myself to do the "responsible" thing, yet again, I would only be used again and the time lost. The pattern was unmistakable. I would make myself available (and my skills) if honest work were needed, under honest circumstances, for honest pay.

I've thoroughly enjoyed the richness of my new life. As I've come to realize that my ever improving ability to live surprisingly well for pennies on the dollar has far and away amounted to my largest source of income, however, I've found myself reflecting once again back upon the Vanaprastha. I suddenly discover that I am, in more ways than one, without having made an effort to modify my life, a "Virtual" Vanaprastha: a bicycle-riding maker of clapped together digital antennas, a day-tripper through the realms of the Internet, source of computer maintenance for family and friends, writer of electronic books almost no one reads, given to quiet observations that generally receive quizzical looks by way of reply.

In the weeks ahead, I will try to force myself to develop a marketing plan. For all it seems out of place in my new phase, I think I owe it to the effort. I really would like to inform and entertain as many readers as possible. Of course, at the same time, I'd love to make a go of it.

I will not, however, have to force myself to slave my old computer to the new in order to have access to the old 32-bit chess and language programs. I will not need encouragement in order to upgrade the bookcases which fill the apartment. Or to build the storage bins such that I can buy more food in bulk, or to haunt thrift stores and yard sales in order to acquire additional resources.

It is a rich life. Add an apartment and computer filled with the greatest books from every major field, a bathroom hamper laden with a copy of a biography of Lytton Strachey (at the moment) and a recent copy of Wired magazine (always), and maybe it is even worth following along a bit after you've watched your limit of twerking videos.

Several weeks ago, I changed my Amazon listing, for "Publisher" to read "The Virtual Vanaprastha." I will also change the title of the Facebook book page for my second book, Autism Before Autism: three autistic lives before the diagnosis existed to "The Virtual Vanaprastha." The new page will be about the experience of the contemporary Vanaprastha, as a whole, and only occasionally advertise the books I publish in that capacity.

If you are on Facebook, I hope you will consider stopping by to "like" the Virtual Vanaprastha page. It is free. I'll be posting links to my various goings on here, at Eclectica, and elsewhere, and to various other materials that seem to me to point up the strange and wondrous new realities of the world we all share.

I'll fully understand if you'd rather not. I must admit that the Facebook experience is beginning to be a bit tedious now that I'm tethered to it. At least I've met my responsibility to myself. I think I'll take a nice long bike ride tomorrow. It's supposed to be a beautiful day.


Editor Note: Thinking about buying The Ties of the Railroad Tracks Home or another book today? Please click the book cover link above. As an Amazon Associate, Eclectica Magazine earns a small percentage of qualifying purchases made after a reader clicks through to Amazon using any of our book cover links. It's a painless way to contribute to our growth and success. Thanks for the help!