Mrs. Thatcher, Simon Warner and me

ThePrimeMinisterThanks to the Prime Minister of England, Simon Warner and I met 33 years ago. Now, because of that PM’s death and the marvels of the Net, we’ve met again – electronically at least. And in that lay an intriguing tale of media, globalization and winding career paths.

Credit Margaret Thatcher first of all. The feisty Conservative lioness, derided or admired as “the Iron Lady,” was running the U.K. when I was lucky enough in 1980 to be chosen for a journalism exchange program created by the English-Speaking Union. Chartered by the Queen, the E-SU promotes friendship among English-speaking peoples and had enough clout to get me into 10 Downing St. to sit with the PM for a while.

Imagine what a thrill this was for a 25-year-old reporter for a little New Jersey paper, The Home News. Mostly, I wrote about small-town mayors and the occasional county official. Now, I would get to interview a sitting PM, one who cut a swath culturally and politically almost as big as that of her buddy, Ronald Reagan. Some loved her, many hated her and I’d get to write about her.

The ways of politicians can be mysterious, of course, so things didn’t turn out quite as I expected.

Simon, right in the photo above, was the first surprise. Someone decided a young American reporter should be paired with a young British reporter for a sit-down with Mrs. Thatcher. That was no problem, of course. We met at 10 Downing St. on the big day, July 14, equally excited about our big interview. Back then, exclusivity wouldn’t matter much, since we worked on different continents.

But then, as we waited in an anteroom, the PM’s PR man delivered the bad news. The London media were in high dudgeon about a couple young journos – one an American! – getting access to Thatcher when she had no time for them. Some reporter even wrote a snarky piece about it (long before anyone heard the word snarky). So, the conversation would have to be off the record. No notebooks, no tape recorders, no interview story.

simon_warner09Weeks of boning up went out the window, but, okay, we’d meet anyway. And we did. We had a fine time, talking mostly about innocuous things, such as her son’s adventures around the world. Mostly, Simon and I listened, unable to get a word in edgewise with the imposing Mrs. Thatcher (not that she needed us to, of course). Simon’s editors, with the help of a local Member of Parliament, later negotiated the chance for him to write about the conversation a bit for his paper, The Chester Observer. I got a piece for my paper out of the visit, but just shared my impressions of the PM and spelled out her successes, failures and fights in office. Happily, we could run the photo of the meeting.

Fast forward to this past week. Touched by Mrs. Thatcher’s death, I tracked down Simon, with just a few clicks on Google (smiling in the head shot to the right here today). He rose through the ranks in journalism, becoming arts editor at a couple regional papers in the 1980s, did media relations in arts and education, and became a live rock reviewer for The Guardian during the 1990s. He earned a master’s in popular music studies, then a Ph.D., and now serves as a Lecturer at Leeds University. He’s a prolific writer, with at least five books about major cultural figures dear to Boomers. These include “Rockspeak: The Language of Rock and Pop,” “Howl for Now: A celebration of Allen Ginsberg’s epic protest poem,” “The Beatles and the Summer of Love,” “New York, New Wave: From Max’s and the Mercer to CBGBs and the Mudd Club,” and his latest, the just-issued “Text and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture.”

text-and-drugs-and-rock-n-rollThe similarities in our career paths intrigue me. We both wound up working for national pubs and both wound up leaving workaday journalism for the academy. Though I spent my career mostly in business news, we also both have written about popular culture and figures important to fellow Boomers (my book about the legacy of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Beatles guru, and his followers’ community in Fairfield, Iowa, is due out early next year). We’re both fans of the Beats (though I mostly left them behind in high school, while Simon has dug deeply into those folks and the long shadow they’ve cast. Gotta love the photo on his latest book cover).

Nowadays, we both also wonder about the future of journalism. Simon emailed me about it: “The media business remains close to my heart but how can print survive? Transatlantically, the great newspaper empires are caught on the horns of a dilemma. Can paywalls work? Can Internet advertising eventually bridge the losses to income that traditional papers, with their shrinking readerships, are suffering? The Guardian, to which I contributed for several years, is attempting to raise its US profile but can that bring dividends? Meanwhile, the middle-market Daily Mail is proving a web hit, of course, overtaking the NYT in terms of visitors!”

Also like me, Simon blogs. He wrote about his media adventures in 2009 in his “Words of Warner.” Interesting read.

So, we’ve enjoyed somewhat parallel lives on different sides of the Atlantic. Their arcs don’t quite reflect that of Lady Thatcher, who lived on a far grander stage, of course. But, at a nice point for all of us, our paths crossed. And now, thanks to the same technology that is upending the media, Simon and I get to say hello again. I plan to buy his latest book, snapping it up as an ebook I can read on my iPad. Small and surprising world, isn’t it?

Something to meditate about

Do you meditate?

People have for eons, of course. The practice seems to provide a way to quiet busy minds, shut out the frenzy around us and restore a sense of calm. It also seems more necessary than ever these days, given the blizzard of distractions – and electronic addictions – that confront us.

But the question arises: what exactly is meditation? Further, what practice is best? Further still, are there forms that can be harmful?

When I was younger and practiced karate, my absorption in the katas felt like a form of meditation. The dance-like movements required concentration and focus, but, with practice, grew to be effortless. There was something liberating mentally and physically about the routines – especially when done in groups. The forms seemed to pull together body and soul, perhaps in a way similar to what athletes feel at times.

I have seen the same sort of absorption on the faces of people here in China practicing tai chi. Even as they move in those ballet-like steps, with their eyes open and apparently taking in all that’s going on around them, they seem to be somewhere else mentally. They are engaged, body and mind. If I had more time here, I could easily take up the practice.

Similarly, at meditation sessions in my gym in Lincoln, Neb., last year, I found the sense of calm marvelously refreshing. That practice involved someone chanting hypnotically on tape. We also had the help of sounds teased out of a group of large and small crystal bowls. The pleasant background noise was transporting.

These days, as I head out in the mornings for solo runs, I sometimes go to a place like that. The “runner’s high” combines a sense of peace with exhilaration. It’s a wonder to be alive once those endorphins kick in, with all that oxygen whooshing into one’s lungs. The sky seems bluer, the sun brighter. The frustrations of the day melt away. Nagging thoughts vanish.

I wonder if people who pray regularly feel the same paradoxical mix of exhilaration and calm. People here in China bow and kneel in concentration before various Buddhas when they go to their temples. It’s impossible to know what is going on in their heads, of course, but there is a sense of calm and focus about such practices. These folks seem to be getting in touch with something outside – or deep inside – themselves. Call it plugging into a sense of sacredness, perhaps tapping into powerful sources.

People who practice Transcendental Meditation speak of the experience in much the same terms. Indeed, one fellow I know in Fairfield, Iowa, attends group meditation sessions regularly because, he says, it’s simply a pleasure for him. TM’ers are pressed to go to such sessions, on the claim that power radiates out from the group, the so-called “Maharishi Effect” that brings peace into the neighborhood. Who knows if such claims are true? But certainly it seems likely that few people would repeatedly go to the Golden Domes in Fairfield to engage in meditations if they weren’t pleasant.

But is TM superior to meditation in a gym or tai chi or karate katas? Does it take you to a deeper or more meaningful place than, say, the psychic spot where monks singing in monasteries go? Is it any different from what whirling dervishes feel or native Americans experience in sweat lodges or even in drug-assisted religious ceremonies? How does it compare with what Hasidim feel chanting the Amidah weekly? Indeed, are all such practices really no different from listening, enraptured, to a favorite symphony or even singing along with some toe-tapping rock and roll?

Moreover, there’s the issue of whether the benefit is a passing thing. Sure, meditation can be pleasant, but so is sex. Alas, the benefit is all too short-lived (though repetition surely helps!) Does meditation lead to an enduring sense of mental discipline, an internal relaxation? Or is it a fleeting thing, gone the moment one leaves the lotus position? Advocates argue it gives them a sense of focus that, among other things, helps them succeed on Wall Street, in Hollywood or in a variety of businesses that meditators have gone into. But would they be winners even without the practice?

Then there is the potential downside. Critics say repeated or prolonged meditation sessions – sometimes as long as six hours at a sitting in the TM Movement – spawn all sorts of problems. Some who have broken with the movement complain of feeling incoherent, of winding up unable to focus their thoughts, to stay attentive to tasks. Longtime meditators are easy to spot, they say, because of a faraway look in the eye that is anything but healthy. Is it possible that the practice rewires one’s brain in ways that could be dangerous? Or do such practices just attract people whose faulty wiring needs more than meditation to set it right?

I will deal with these issues in my forthcoming book on Fairfield, the U.S. home of the TM Movement. In the meantime, dear reader, please drop me a line to share your thoughts. I can be reached at

My book on Fairfield will be published by the University of Iowa Press

The Oprah Effect: Can The TV Guru Jumpstart TM?

Oprah Winfrey, the nation’s trendsetter-in-chief, has given her blessing to Transcendental Meditation. The guru of Middle American women visited Maharishi University of Management and the Maharishi School for the Age of Enlightenment in Fairfield, Iowa, on Oct. 19. She meditated with several hundred fellow bliss-seekers in the women’s dome on the university campus, where devotees of both sexes practice transcendental meditation separately a couple a times a day under sprawling golden domes.

So, now that Oprah has embraced TM, the question is whether she can ignite a new boomlet in interest in the practice and the movement. She’s one in a long line of television and radio talk-show hosts who have fueled the movement’s growth for decades. TM’s ranks first surged in the 1970s, when Merv Griffin helped whip up enthusiasm for it among Baby Boomers. He showcased the movement’s guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and, like so many other celebs, took up the practice himself. More recently, shock-jock Howard Stern’s longstanding support has helped keep long-waning interest in the practice alive.

Can Oprah do for TM what she did for marathon-running and weight loss? Or, will her efforts for the practice go the way those enthusiasms have gone for her – short-lived at best? And what, if any, effect will she have on the town of Fairfield, home of the all-important U.S. arm of the movement? I’m especially interested because for the better part of the last two years I have been putting together a book on the town, looking at how the movement has changed this quintessential piece of Middle America, and looking at the movement’s ups and downs and prospects through that local lens. The University of Iowa Press will be publishing the book.

Oprah’s staff, reportedly, had been working on an hour-long program about Fairfield before her arrival. The TV guru was quoted saying the little farm town that TM has transformed has been a “best-kept secret” but won’t be for long now. With a camera crew in tow, she visited the school, where uniformed youngsters in grades K-12 learn a lot about meditation, their guru’s all-embracing worldview and subjects such as Sanskrit, along with reading, writing and arithmetic. At least one report quoted Oprah as saying, “some people are working toward raising consciousness but the MS students are living raising consciousness.”

Certainly, the Boomers who dominate the graying movement must hope that Oprah’s fond attention will provide a shot of adrenaline. Even before the Maharishi died, in 2008, interest in TM-style meditation had been declining, at least in the U.S. The movement’s ranks have shrunk from the peak in the 1970s, even as interest in meditation generally has grown and gone mainstream. Enrollments at the Maharishi School – mainly made up of children of Boomer adherents who moved to Fairfield to follow the guru – have slid. Enrollment at the Maharishi University of Management stands at 1,268 at the moment, though the undergraduate total is a modest share of that.

On the plus side for backers, Oprah certainly is the Merv Griffin of today. Her influence on book sales is legendary. A guest shot on her long-running show meant instant fame and she launched several other media bigwigs. She has an especially passionate following among women, prime recruits for stress-reducing techniques such as TM.

But it’s also possible that Oprah’s kiss could be losing its power. Her programming is no longer on network, so her audience will be smaller than when she could launch an author — or another talk show host — into the stratosphere. Her embrace of meditation, too, is familiar to fans, since she has encouraged the practice for several years – even if her explicit passion for the TM variety seems fairly new. And, most troublesome of all for movement backers, there’s no giggling guru for her to put on the air.

For good or bad, TV loves a personality and so do movements. Even if TM’s twenty-minutes-twice-a-day meditative practice is as effective as the enthusiasts say, the movement lacks a charismatic personality who can rally followers. There’s no one exuding humor, wisdom and warmth — as the guru did — to adorn Oprah’s couch. There’s not even someone who can jump up and down on a sofa, a la scientologist Tom Cruise. Without that, TM could come across as just another meditation approach, not much different from what one could sign up for at many local gyms, except that TM usually costs more.

Whether it’s a short-lived boomlet or a jumpstart to a new enduring wave of growth, Oprah’s blessing can’t hurt. Certainly, she will put Fairfield on the map anew. She could even help the town attract some new residents. It will make for a fascinating discussion in my forthcoming book. Maybe even Oprah will find it worth reading.