In 1967, I changed my academic focus for the umpteenth time. After lobbying the dean of humanities, I convinced him that I should make my own major. Subsequently, I left the world of dominant British philosophers and discovered the burgeoning American Transcendentalists. After a few additional twists of the dean's arm, he threw in a dose of the classics and European romantic literature.
I remember my father's chagrin when he asked how would I find a paying job with such a major.
"Dad," I said, "I already have a job. I joined the Marines."
I'm not sure if you are familiar with Constantine P. Cavafy's poem, "Ithaka." It's a poetic story of Odysseus' 10-year adventure as he journeys home to Ithaka to be with his wife, Penelope. The Reader's Digest version of the poem's message is that the journeys we take can give us "the beautiful adventure." Without your personal Ithaka, "you would never have set out."
I have followed many Ithakas, which have led toward all points east and west, but the most prolific was studying Transcendentalism, the classics and Romanticism. Dante's "Vita Nova (New Life)" depicts my metamorphoses evolving from that choice.
The father of Transcendentalism was Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the philosophy's first practitioner was Henry David Thoreau. There are many tenets derived from Thoreau's thoughts that I have embraced; however, connecting with nature — foundational to transcendentalism — has been pivotal. Thoreau's commune with nature in his handbook "Walden" depicts the congruence of one's spiritual, emotional and intellectual evolution.
Last week, following the counsel of Thoreau, I left the hustle and bustle of La Cañada and headed to the woods near the Rim of the World in the San Bernardino Mountains. There, I hunkered down in my buddy's cabin and, following the prescription of Thoreau's handbook, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life."
Thoreau was a loner. Yet, I've read much about his life and believe it wasn't primarily because he enjoyed solitude. I think it was because he could never be at peace with the world. Thoreau lived deeply, and yet he found considerable disgust with contemporary life. He could only live within extremes because his emotional thermostat was broken.
My Ithaka has prompted painstaking thought, and I have learned that one of the secrets of successful living is found in balance, which refers to the avoidance of harmful extremes. The scientific principle homeostasis implies that stability is essential for the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of the individual. Consequently, throughout life, it is important to find the safety of the middle ground rather than the imbalance of the extremes. Thoreau couldn't do this. Unfortunately, his only salvation was the extremes.
The cabin I stayed in was a respite. There, I lived in front of a roaring fire, rewrote seven chapters of the sequel to "Girl with the Purple Ribbon," smoked cigars, hiked, took naps and cooked hearty dinners.
One early morning, while returning through the tiny town of Blue Jay after harvesting wood in the forest, I did a double take as I passed a romantic and picturesque building. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph," I said to myself. "That building has my name on it."
It read "Puglia Italian Restaurant." Serene, delicate and refined it appeared as a place where one could sit for hours and sip a bottle of imported red from Puglia, a region in the southeast of Italy, by the sea. I decided to discard Thoreau's handbook and seek the balance he couldn't. I would return that evening for dinner.
You can imagine the look on Antonello Zito's face when I introduced myself as Joe Puglia. The atmosphere, food and service were belissimo. I followed my Ithaka right to the best Italian food since my Nona and understood "what these Ithakas mean."