Mark O’Brien and Stephen Hawking

“Doctor Hawking, what can you say to all the disabled people who are stuck in nursing homes or living with their parents or in some other untenable situation and who feel that their life is over, that they have no future?”

As I heard this long question unravel like an ill-mannered ball of yarn, Hawking continued to look at me and typed his answer into the voice synthesizer. I couldn’t see his right hand, the one he used to type. I waited. All of us waited. Then the silence was cracked by the voice synthesizer’s crisp, booming voice.

It can be very difficult. I know that I was very fortunate. All I can say is that one must do the best one can in the situation in which one finds oneself.

from “The Unification of Stephen Hawking” by Mark O’Brien, 1988, The Fessenden Review, retrieved from here. O’Brien was the subject of Jessica Yu’s “Breathing Lessons” and now “The Sessions” starring John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. I wrote about the new film in January when it screened at Sundance under the title “The Surrogate”. I also find in my sussing this evening — we just came back from the City where we saw Jasper Johns and Jay deFeo or their art rather — that apparently at one point Oliver Stone has contracted Jessica Yu to convert her documentary to a feature film. It says somewhere that Yu was a consultant to the new film.


TFR: Did you derive your idea of an impersonal god from Buddhism, Vedanta, or some other tradition or have you developed your own religious ideas?

His attendant then told me that I had misunderstood what Dr. Hawking had said at his press conference, which was that he didn’t believe in a personal god, not that he believed in an impersonal god.

HAWKING: It is better not to use the word “god” to describe what I believe because most people use the word to mean a being with whom one can have a personal relationship.

TFR: Do you sense a connection between how the universe operates and why it exists?

HAWKING: I don’t. If I did, I would have solved the universe.

Had I succeeded in my quest to solve Stephen W. Hawking? I felt that I had not. His answers were brief and unrevealing. Being disabled myself, I found it difficult to believe that he felt he did not have “anything to be angry about.” Had I asked him the wrong questions, questions he considered to be too intrusive? Was it that the slowness of the voice synthesizer tends to make him want to speak laconically? Or, what seems most likely, is he just a shy man wrapped up in his work and his family? Perhaps we demand too much of people when we ask them to turn their lives inside-out to satisfy our raging curiosity about celebrities. The one thing I learned was that Hawking’s work succeeds in distracting him from a becoming obsessed with his disability, just as Roosevelt’s work as Governor of New York and President of the United States rescued him from dark years of brooding and frustration. And was I so different with my writing? Didn’t my constant work on book reviews, poems, journalism, and my novel take me out of and beyond my wretched body? If the unification of Stephen Hawking is ever to be achieved, it will teach us the necessity of love and work, not only for those of us who are trapped in unworkable bodies, but for everyone who is trapped in the stark, unyielding prison of time-space.

obviously this isn’t writing, it’s merely cutting and pasting. on the other hand, literally, although I fret at times that I probably type worse than when I was in Mel Froli’s class at Terman, in 1978, and sometimes worry that this is how some brain disorder presents, my typos, just the mere blessing of being able to slosh around on the keyboard apropos of poor Mark O’Brien…Here is a link to TFR The Fessenden Review now reborn as RALPH. (Digressing to: their story on “Howl” audiobook including that Ginzy allegedly was going to rewrite famous opening to “I saw the best minds of my generation turned on to music”…AMEN. )

I am tempted also to lift some of MOB’s poems on baseball. He has a line about Jose Uribe; maybe they are playing catch in heaven. The are the saddest of possible words, Ginsberg to Uribe to O’Brien. A trio of heroes and higher than birds, Ginsberg to Uribe to O’Brien. Ruthlessly plucking our gonfalon bubble, making a Giant hit into a double (two WS wins, BABY) words that are leaden with nothin’ but trouble, Ginsberg to Uribe to O’Brien.

edit to add, November 13: Terry and I saw “The Sessions” last night at Palo  Alto Square. She liked it quite a bit whereas I was predictably disappointed. It’s sort of like a review I read in the Chron recently about the Mavericks movie in which a source said it was not about the Jay Moriarity he knew but a pretty good surf movie nonetheless. I did not know Mark O’Brien only feel that I did, having internalized Jessica Yu’s “Breathing Lessons” so completely, for whatever reasons (including: I knew Jessica in high school; I arranged a benefit screening here, in 1997 etc). This movie was less about Mark O’Brien and more about what would happen, if for example, John Hawkes became paralyzed but still had hot chicks like Helen Hunt, Moon Bloodgood, and Rhea Perlman, ready to straddle him. An important point: “Breathing Lessons” included only about 3 minutes about the sex surrogate. The film is worth seeing but it basically run of the mill, versus an amazing achievement like Yu’s work.

About markweiss86

Mark Weiss, founder of Plastic Alto blog, is a concert promoter and artist manager in Palo Alto, as Earthwise Productions, with background as journalist, advertising copywriter, book store returns desk, college radio producer, city council and commissions candidate, high school basketball player, and blogger; he also sang in local choir, fronts an Allen Ginsberg tribute Beat Hotel Rm 32 Reads 'Howl' and owns a couple musical instruments he cannot play
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