In Pursuit of the Sublime, by Dan Coffey | What Gives You Goosebumps?

Everybody has a life story, though some are more interesting than others. Even Emily Dickinson, the poet who never left her father’s house had something to say, stories to tell.

What follows is a random lists of episodes from my life. There is no moral to be learned from reading them. Life can be kooky. People make dumb choices sometimes, and that’s all there is to it. But maybe the reason behind our stupidity is more noble than it might seem on first examination.

When I was nine years old, I told the younger kids in my neighborhood that I had developed a system of secret passageways than ran under our various yards. As I told the story, it grew from simple hallways to include a subterranean handball court and a an Olympic-sized swimming pool After a while, I’d told the story so many times that I began to believe it. To this day I feel sympathy for guys like Bernie Madoff, who got so used to living a lie he forgot he was lying.

When I was thirteen, I developed an illogical fascination with radio antennas, and began to drape the trees in our backyard with not only wires, but bedsprings, barbecue grills, and sheets of tinfoil. I eventually decided that these allowed me to receive special radio waves that normal antennas could not detect, and that these waves came from outer space. Again, I confided my top-secret success to gullible younger kids, who lacked the sophistication to tell me I was full of beans.

At sixteen, I watched the James Dean movies Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden multiple times. This was in the days before videotape, so you had to watch your TV Guide to plan your viewing. I finally got to the point where I thought I was James Dean, and one night I decided that a very Deanish thing to do would be to stand on the running board of a VW beetle while it went down the highway. I hung on the tiny rain lip that ran along the roof. The highway turned, as did the car, but I continued onward in a straight line. You know those scenes in movies where people jump off high-speed trains, flip a few times in dirt and get up okay? They’re not the least bit realistic. What happens is you lose yards of skin.

Looking back, I ask myself, what was the source of all this foolishness? I think I was serving a natural instinct, the desire to find and know beauty. It’s the same instinct that draws us towards spirituality. I was trying to uncover the magic in life.

Today, I’m more sophisticated about my search, but it’s the same journey. Sometimes I find glimpses of that same beauty in art, especially music. I will list some notable places I’ve found a glimpse of the transcendent.

• Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins
• Chopin’s Barcarolle
• Wagner’s “Liebestod” (Overture from Tristan und Isolde)
• Debussy’s Claire de Lune
• The mesmerizing synth solo and blood-curdling final scream at the end of the Who’s “Won’t Be Fooled Again”
• Louis Armstrong’s “Potato Head Blues” and “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue”
• Stan Getz’s solos in his Bossa Nova period
• Horowitz’s performance of Lizt’s transcription of Wagner’s Liebestod
• Bix Beiderbecke’s solo on “I’m Coming Virginia”

This is, of course, simply my highly subjective tip of the iceberg. People have been snatching bits of the divine out of the whole cloth of reality since the dawn of time. But these are some places that I’ve found it.

For me, my reaction to unexpected perfection is to get goosebumps and to stop breathing so as to not interfere with the beauty of the moment. And the moments are tantalizingly short, a mere break in the clouds, a vision of the sun shining through and then the clouds close back together again. The smell of lilacs on a spring morning. That feeling of contentment halfway through the first cup of coffee, but before you get all nervous from the second and third.

So, no, the history of my striving for the sublime is no more interesting than yours. If you want to share some of your favorite breaks in the clouds, write me at

You can buy a whole book of Dan Coffey’s essays online: My World & Welcome To It.

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