Along the way we meet a bizarre cast of characters, from transcendental meditation devotees to preening game show hosts to self-serving politicians' shills. And somehow Orvetti manages stints at several of Washington, D.C.'s biggest thought leaders, including the Cato Institute and National Journal, all while doing pioneering journalism on the still novel Internet.
Reconciliation: A Half Life charts his remarkable intellectual voyage that's by turns amusing, touching and, at times, horrifying. It's a dizzying voyage into the contemporary soul, characterized by vulnerability, self-deprecating honesty and a constant searching for spiritual wholeness. But it's also an insiders' voyage that touches first-hand many of his generation's cultural icons-from Who Wants to be a Millionaire? to a certain red-faced president-and finds humor in the absurdity of the modern milieu.
“The Buddha’s bones were tossed in the Ganges and it means nothing!”
A red sun was setting across the campus lawn at the entrance to Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and the student-built windmill at its center rested motionless. In front of the library complex hung a brass bell, and at its base, gathered around it were about a dozen students of the alternative college, watching my oration with looks of both bemusement and concern.
“Charles Mingus’s ashes are in the Ganges and it means nothing!”
My white raw silk kurta and pajama outfit, crafted at a roadside tailor shop in India a year before, glistened in the sun. My hair was a mass of untrimmed and uncombable curls; my chin and cheeks sprouted a weedy beard, giving me the overall appearance of a drunken dandelion.
My brain and soul were well-lubricated by Jim Beam, and I had a bottle of Guinness at hand. I was puzzled by my memory of Mingus — at that time I had never heard him, and had only heard of him when on that trip to India, a fellow student traveler mentioned in passing that the river we were boating down was his final resting place.
Hampshire College, a school that opened its doors just four years before I was born, had few traditions. The bell was one of them, the most sacred — and the only one that did not involve the ingestion of illegal mind-altering substances. Some years before, a group of graduates had donated the bell, which could only be rung by a student after completion of her or his final thesis project. Mine, a two hundred and thirty-page tome about the evolution of the portrayal of Judas Iscariot over twenty centuries of Christian history, had been finished a few days before.
For most of us, the bell ringing was far more important than the commencement ceremony itself. There are many ways to ring the bell. Some do it alone, some do it along with several friends, and some turn it into a party. The year before I graduated, a student rappelled down the side of the library building for a showy arrival. But while there are many approaches, all agree that the bell should never even be touched before one is qualified to ring it. At a school that prides itself on rebellion and iconoclasm, students are downright reactionary on this point. Any physical encounter with the bell before one’s time is said to leave a curse that means they will never graduate. Some superstitious undergraduates will not even walk beneath it.
Bell ringing season was a great time for free alcohol, that most sought-after ambrosia of the college student. The campus rules on public drinking, never strictly enforced, went positively lax where the bell was concerned. One could often just wander by the ringing bell and be handed a beer or a paper cup full of box wine by an ecstatic celebrant, and the season turned some would-be barflies into bellflies.
In my Indian silk combo, with George Harrison’s “Across the Universe” playing on a beat-up old stereo, I pressed my palms together in the Hindu gesture of pranam, bowed slightly, whispered a prayer, and dashed up to the bell, pulling the cord as hard as I could to the whoops and cheers of my friends. We had already been drinking, and with the ritual out of the way, we all kicked up our imbibing.
I was not someone known for partying, but my bell ringing was one of the very first of the year, and I wanted it to be remembered. That meant “well-stocked.” I had hauled up a few dozen bottles of Guinness and Harp, as well as a heavy bottle of Jim Beam. As these items were part of my regular college diet, this came as little surprise to my friends, and I was later told my bell ringing was one of the best of the season. It was remembered by everyone but me.
I next faded in to find myself staring at the ceiling from a bed I did not remember lying down in, in a sunny room that seemed mercilessly over-bright. My frowning girlfriend filled me in. As the party had gone on into the night, I had claimed the rapidly emptying bottle of bourbon for my own, and with it in my hand, began expounding. I put together a spontaneous Sermon on the Quad based on the scraps of my two years of studying theology, and had apparently delivered a lengthy and surprisingly coherent oration. A person I did not know, on his way to the snack shop inside the library complex, had stopped, stood watching for a moment, and sat down on the ground to hear what I had to say. In an alcoholic haze, I had attracted a disciple.
Eventually I got too drunk to go on. I was told that two people had guided me back to my room as I shouted out lyrics from Jesus Christ Superstar, my arms thrown out as if I was being nailed to a cross. The next morning, my girlfriend and another friend got together with notebooks to try to piece together what I had said the night before. First I had gained a disciple; now I had a gospel.
About Peter Orvetti