Thursday, April 07, 2011

” Ommm”: In conversation with High Fox

Category: Conversations

When it comes to inspiration and creativity, silvers are unbeatable. Take Hugh Fox for example. At 79, the prolific American writer has published over 100 books and numerous individual writings in literary magazines across the US and abroad. Based in East Lansing, Michigan, where he has taught for 30 plus years, Hugh has been coping with prostate cancer that is spreading up his body while he also frequents the local hospitals for changing urine tubes leading to his kidneys. Hugh hopes he may be able to reach 80, but there is one thing that make this silver citizen sparkle in his ongoing, life-threatening trials—he hasn’t given in. He is active, vivacious, and he means to publish 30 novels whose manuscripts he has already completed, beside some poetry collections that are on his to-publish list. What’s more is that he looks younger and healthier than he actually is (or is expected to be).

After reviewing Hugh’s collection of plays and monologues “Ommm” (World Audience Publishers, 2007), it was hard to resist talking to this intellectual giant about the theme of aging and related concepts that show so expressly in his work.   

Ernest: Hugh, it’s an honor to be speaking to you about your work. You mind giving us a glimpse of your early life and how you see the world! 

Hugh: I think my whole world-view comes from the fact I was sent to an Irish Catholic grammar school in Chicago with 90% of the nuns from Ireland, then the Christian Brothers of Ireland high school in Chicago (Leo)... Mass, Communion, Confession, remembering the dead, talking about death, resurrection, Jesus on the cross above the altar… the whole Irish concentration on the Next Life… plus the fact that I was raised by a very old Jewish grandmother who hid her Jewishness from me, but was very old, always a kind of incarnation of Caring, Careful Old Age. Also, my father was an M.D. and we lived in an apartment right next to his office, and he used to take me into the office sometimes when, say, someone would come in with a slashed-up leg, and ask me to help hold the bleeding leg. Or he’d take me to the hospital with him, on home calls, always the sick, the dying. And our apartment house, 756 East 82nd St., was right next to a very busy funeral home. Then I began studying violin at age 6 with composer P. Marinus Paulson; and at age 8, opera with aging Zerlina Mulhman Metzger… though never a baseball game, football, anything but The Arts and Death: plays, films…death, death, death.

Ernest: Is that why aging is a recurring theme in Ommm? How long have this been in your thinking and writing?

Hugh: Age has been a major theme for me my entire life. Mainly, I think, because of the grammar and high school and I went in Chicago. There we had Mass and Communion every day, a constant immersion in the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ; remembering the dead at Mass every day, always the Irish (Cathar) sense of the transience of this life, the important thing being resurrection, the Next Life. It’s the whole basis for what was essentially ancient Catholicism. Also, I was raised by my widowed grandmother, Mary Mangan, a Jew with a STRONG sense of time, aging, and death. The whole family was like her, always having a sense of transience. My father was a doctor who used to take me to his office, on house calls, to the hospital…. always the sick, the dying. In fact I also had polio at age 5, and was cured with a new vaccine, but crippled for more than a year. The whole ambience around me was saying one thing—LIFE IS SHORT, DEATH IS FOREVER.

Ernest: Your elderly characters seem quite fond of remembering things in a critical mood of thinking. How did the spirit of life evolve with age in you?

Hugh: Well, like my widowed grandmother, alone, hiding her Jewishness from me, you get to a point when you’re retired, no more in contact with work, workers, and life moving forward. All you’re left with is emptiness. And I’m talking about pre-TV days, especially. The dead keep coming back. That happens to me a lot these days. No more trips to Brooklyn, San Francisco-Berkeley, Carpinteria, Chicago every couple months, constant contact with a horde of poet – artist friends. Now it’s cancer, death staring me in the face full time.

Ernest: How do you like to see people today, to interact with them, and socialize?

Hugh: I certainly overview everything full-time. I spent lunch time today with a second cousin visiting from Chicago, my father’s sister’s son’s daughter, Katie Kirby; plus a 50-year-old daughter of mine, from Ann Arbor, and her 24-year-old daughter; plus a 30-year-old daughter from another marriage and her three-year-old daughter. It becomes almost historical, generational overviews. Hours talking about relationships, contacts, possible futures, and seeing films like that one about Stravinsky and Coco Chanel – young, old, dead. Being a Jew myself, now I go to the synagogue every week, always the aging, the dying, the newly dead, remembering the long-dead. Always having a sense of transience, the bible…. the ancient, ancient past and our soon-passing present moments.

Ernest: Some of you aging characters tend to gravitate toward religion, though still asking some pinching questions. Is turning to religion mainly about its afterlife incentives? Or is there an intellectual appeal as well?

Hugh: I mainly go the synagogue to be with PEOPLE, PEOPLE, and PEOPLE. But I think when you get really old, you start re-examining all the possibilities dealing with your future. Is there a God out there somewhere? How come he/she/it doesn’t come back, make an appearance? Or did it all just happen by chance? Are we going anywhere after death besides a coffin? You’re facing ultimate questions without any ultimate answers. I think basically I’m an atheist, but my mind still flirts with all the ancient world religions. Of course I also have a stack of books published on ancient archaeology relating the ancient Americas with the rest of the world, so besides Judaism and Catholicism, I’ve spent much of my life studying the religions of the Mayas, the Hopi, the Incas, the Hindus, the Iroquois; you name it. I’ve been kind of a specialist in comparative ancient religions.

Ernest: “I’m 71; everyone thinks I’m 40…” reads one of the monologues. How do you see the fascination of the elderly with looking young?

Hugh: I had a face-lift about 30 years ago, in Brazil. My third wife was a plastic surgeon. When I first met her, I was mainly kidding when I asked her to give me a face-lift. But she did it. So I’m 79 but looking 49ish. A friend of mine, poet Glenna Luschei, at 75, just had a face-lift, which I see as silly. In fact, that’s the way I see all attempts at looking younger, although I’m still happily amazed at how some verrrrrry old beauties still maintain their beauty. Just for the fun of it. But never forget that we’re sliding down the same hill into death.

Ernest: Finally Hugh, why the title “Ommm”? What does it signify for life and for humans particularly?

Hugh: OMMM is one of the cores of Hinduism, the “prayer” (call it sound-worship) that creates Peace and eliminates Negativity. It’s kind of prayer precisely for escaping from the negative and moving into spiritual/psychological tranquility. It’s similar to praying in Hebrew – BARUCH ATTA ADONAI ELOHAINU MELECH HALOLAM. Anti-suicide, anti-despair.

Ernest: Thanks so much Hugh! It’s an honor being in conversation with you.

Hugh: It’s great working with you!