By Steven Pressfield
Published: April 21, 2014
How does the idea for a book come to us? Is there a seed? A trigger event? Do we recognize the inspiration in the moment or does it need to gestate for a period before finally surfacing into consciousness?
I had a classmate in high school named Alan Lew. Alan was a star. Co-captain of the football team, smart, funny, popular. I wouldn’t say Alan played down his Jewishness but it was not a particularly visible part of his life. He graduated in my year and went off to Penn, bound, one felt, for a conventional successful life.
I heard nothing of Alan until January 13, 2009, when he died, suddenly and tragically, while jogging.
The wife of a classmate, Ginger Gross, contacted me, I can’t remember how, maybe over Facebook, to tell me the news. Ginger said, “Did you know that Alan became a rabbi?”
“He was tremendously influential, a community leader, a truly beloved figure. He was known as ‘the Zen Rabbi of San Francisco.’”
“You’re kidding me.”
“Alan wrote a couple of books. Really good ones. I thought you might be interested.”
It is no small thing, learning of the sudden death of an old friend. But it’s even bigger to hear that that friend had become somebody completely different from the person you once knew, or thought you knew.
I ordered Alan’s books on the spot and devoured them the minute they arrived.
The first one was called One God Clapping. It was an informal autobiography, co-written with his wife, detailing Alan’s path to Judaism.
The book floored me. You know how you remember high school classmates? “Yeah, Joe was pretty good at math, but who knew he’d become head of NASA and figure out a new orbit for Pluto?”
In high school, Alan was always cool. Nothing ruffled him. Now I’m reading his book and he’s describing anguish, guilt, grief, terror, massive emotional turmoil, desperate searching, struggles to find his identity. More than that, Alan’s odyssey is happening at the same time and in the same places in Northern California where I myself went through the same shit.
Tassajara is a mountain retreat run by the Zen Center of San Francisco. I used to go there. Alan did too. In fact, as he wrote in his book, he was just about to become ordained as a lay priest when he suddenly found himself paralyzed, trying to sew his monk’s robe. “I’m a Jew,” he kept thinking. “Why am I becoming a Buddhist?”
Alan’s life turned around in that moment. He went to rabbinical school at 38 (he had been driving a tour bus when he had his breakthrough moment), found his wife-to-be, the writer Sherril Jaffe, and went on, in only a few years, to become a widely influential spiritual leader in Northern California. He introduced meditation into his congregation’s practice, not as a dilution of the Jewish way but as an intensification of it. Hence “Zen Rabbi.”
And that was just Alan’s first book.
The second arrived at my door a few days later. It was called This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation.
If there ever was an LSD-infused title, that was it. But the book wasn’t about psychedelic adventures in Haight-Ashbury in the Sixties (though apparently Alan had been there and done that), it was about the calendar practice of the Jewish religion, specifically the “Days of Awe” between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
I of course had never heard of any of this.
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The Warrior Ethos was written for our men and women in uniform, but its utility, I hope, will not be limited to the sphere of literal armed conflict. We all fight wars--in our work, within our families, and abroad in the wider world. Each of us struggles every day to define and defend our sense of purpose and integrity, to justify our existence on the planet and to understand, if only within our own hearts, who we are and what we believe in.
We are all warriors. Do we fight by a code? If so, what is it? What is the Warrior Ethos? How do we (and how can we) use it and be true to it in our internal and external lives?
Autumn, 1942. Hitler's legions have swept across Europe; France has fallen; Churchill and the English are isolated on their island. In North Africa, Rommel and his Panzers have routed the British Eighth Army and stand poised to overrun Egypt, Suez, and the oilfields of the Middle East. With the outcome of the war hanging in the balance, the British hatch a desperate plan -- send a small, highly mobile, and heavily armed force behind German lines to strike the blow that will stop the Afrika Korps in its tracks.
A riveting historical novel that re-creates Alexander the Great's invasion of the Afghan kingdoms in 330 B.C., a campaign that eerily foreshadows the tactics, terrors and frustrations of contemporary conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Narrated by Matthias, an infantryman in Alexander's army, The Afghan Campaign explores the challenges, both military and moral, that Alexander and his soldiers face as they embark on a new type of war and are forced to adapt to the methods of a ruthless foe that employs terror and insurgent tactics, conceals itself among the civilian populace, and recruits women and boys as combatants.
I have always been a soldier. I have no other life So begins Alexander's extraordinary confession on the eve of his greatest crisis of leadership. By turns heroic and calculating, compassionate and utterly merciless, Alexander recounts with a warrior's unflinching eye for detail the blood, the terror, and the tactics of his greatest battlefield victories. Whether surviving his father's brutal assassination, presiding over a massacre, or weeping at the death of a beloved comrade-in-arms, Alexander never denies the hard realities of the code by which he lives: the virtues of war. But as much as he was feared by his enemies, he was loved and revered by his friends, his generals, and the men who followed him into battle. Often outnumbered, never outfought, Alexander conquered every enemy the world stood against him — but the one he never saw coming....
In the time before Homer, the legendary Theseus, King of Athens (an actual historical figure), set sail on a journey that brought him into the land of tal Kyrte, the "free people," a nation of proud female warriors whom the Greeks called "Amazons." The Amazons, bound to each other as lovers as well as fighters, distrusted the Greeks, with their boastful talk of "civilization." So when the great war queen Antiope fell in love with Theseus and fled with the Greeks, the mighty Amazon nation rose up in rage.
If history is the biography of extraordinary men, the life of Alcibiades (451-404 B.C.) comprises an indispensable chapter in the chronicle of the Western world. Kinsman of Pericles, protégé of Socrates, Alcibiades was acknowledged the most brilliant and charismatic personality of his day. Plutarch, Plato, and Thucydides have all immortalized him. As the pride of Achilles drove the course of the Trojan War, so Alcibiades' will and ambition set their stamp upon the Peloponnesian War--the twenty-seven-year civil conflagration between the Athenian empire and Sparta and the Peloponnesian league.
In 480 B.C., an invading Persian army, two-million strong, came to the mountain pass of Thermopylae in eastern Greece. Led by King Xerxes, they were met by the finest three hundred Spartan warriors where the rocky confines were so narrow that the Persian multitudes and their cavalry would be at least partially neutralized. Here, the Greek loyalists hoped, the elite force could hold off, at least for a short while, the invading millions.
What keeps so many of us from doing what we long to do? Why is there a naysayer within? How can we avoid the roadblocks of any creative endeavor—be it starting up a dream business venture, writing a novel, or painting a masterpiece? The War of Art identifies the enemy that every one of us must face, outlines a battle plan to conquer this internal foe, then pinpoints just how to achieve the greatest success.
In the Depression year of 1931, on the golf links at Krewe Island off Savannah's windswept shore, two legends of the game, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, meet for a mesmerizing thirty-six-hole showdown. Another golfer will also compete--a troubled local war hero, once a champion, who comes with his mentor and caddie, the mysterious Bagger Vance. Sage and charismatic, it is Vance who will ultimately guide the match, for he holds the secret of the Authentic Swing. And he alone can show his protégé the way back to glory.