January 27, 2022

My New NDE Career

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

I am – or perhaps I should say, I was – a retired NDE researcher. I began my work interviewing NDErs in 1977 and eventually published my first book, Life at Death, describing my findings in 1980. I continued my research, lecturing and writing on NDEs until about the time I reached the age of sixty-five around the turn of the millennium. At that point, having authored four more books on NDEs and countless articles on the subject, I accepted a figurative golden handshake for my labors and, having by then returned to my native California, decided to devote myself life out in the pastures. I figured there were other things I wanted to do, apart from loafing, than continuing to prattle on about NDEs. I was tired of being interviewed by breathless TV hosts who would always be asking me the same questions, such as, “So, Dr. Ring, what is it like to die?” One time, in bored exasperation, I simply slid off my chair. At least that got a laugh.

Anyway, at that point I disconnected as much as possible from my life as an NDE researcher, declined all interviews or invitations to speak at conferences, and began to explore and write about other things that interested me. Some books on classical music, one on the lives of contemporary Palestinians, various memoirs, books of essays, and in the last few years, I took up the blogging life. But eventually since I never was entirely able to distance myself fully from NDEs, I was lured back to the field, at least to the extent of renewing my contact with various NDE researchers and came to know new people who were now devoting their lives to researching and writing about NDEs. Still, I was happy to remain on the sidelines. It’s sort of like being a grandfather. One gets all of the pleasures of seeing what others are doing without any of the responsibilities to do anything oneself. After all, when you’re in your mid-80s, what the hell can you do besides watching tennis and yearning for the promised life to come – at least if you take the implications of NDEs seriously, which I do.

But recently, at loose ends, and wondering what I should do next with what remains of my life, I got an idea. Since I now know and think highly of a number of NDE researchers, some of whom are relatively new contributors to near-death studies, I thought I might be able to perform a service by introducing some of them to you in these blogs. So I have suddenly become a soi-disant NDE researcher booster. In this blog, and perhaps in a few to come, if the good Lord grants me more time on this benighted planet, I would like to introduce you to some of these friends of mine and their works.

But I’ll begin with someone who hardly needs an introduction, really, since I suspect many of you are already familiar with his name: Dr. Bruce Greyson, a psychiatrist, who for many years has been on the faculty of the University of Virginia. Even if you’re not familiar with Bruce’s work, if you read my previous blog about my early life as an NDE researcher, you may remember seeing a photograph of him and me together, locked in a brotherly embrace, because Bruce has been like a brother of mine for many years. He was a part of the original “gang of four” who helped to established IANDS – The International Association for Near-Death Studies – back in 1981, and not long afterward he assumed the editorship of its flagship journal, The Journal of Near-Death Studies, which he edited for the next quarter of a century. In a recent tribute to him, which I wrote on the occasion of a book launch for his long anticipated personal account of his work as a NDE researcher, I expressed my own view of how I had come to regard Bruce: 

If any of you have ever edited a journal, you know what a selfless and time-consuming task it is. You had to be willing to sacrifice your own career in order to enable other professionals to publish their own works. That’s the kind of person Bruce was and is. Totally dedicated. And while all of us in that original group eventually moved away from involvement with IANDS, only Bruce has remained faithful to it to this day. In my opinion, no one has done more to bring professional recognition to the field of near-death studies than Bruce. I have long held the view that his contributions to the field over more than forty years – his editorship of The Journal of Near-Death Studies, his many excellent and important research studies, the books he has co-edited containing his own articles, all the public lectures he has given, his service to NDErs as a master therapist, and so much more – mean that Bruce is without doubt the most important and influential professional in NDE studies. 

His book, which I alluded to, which was published just last year, is what I really want to call to your attention. In my opinion, it is must reading for anyone interested in NDEs. It is simply called After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about Life and Beyond. And since I have appointed myself a kind NDE researcher booster, I will permit myself to quote my own blurb for the book in order to invite you to get ahold of a copy:

In After, psychiatrist Bruce Greyson tells the story of his personal and professional journey from a skeptical scientist to his becoming the most distinguished and important authority of near-death experiences (NDEs) in the field. Drawing on his treasury of forty-five years of research, and studding his account with fascinating cases, Greyson provides an always engrossing and illuminating survey of the basic findings and implications of NDE studies for the general reader. In his book, he shows us why he is regarded as the leading expert to put NDE studies on the map and establish it as a legitimate scientific enterprise. Moreover, he is not afraid to share his insights on spiritual issues that NDE research affords, including the possibility that death isn’t a dead end. Both inspiring and deeply personal, this is a book to savor and the culmination and capstone of Greyson’s outstanding career.


But in the second part of this blog, I want to introduce you to someone who, although he, too, has been studying NDEs for more than forty years, deserves to be better known than he is. Meet my good friend who is blessed with a wonderfully delightful and apposite name, David Sunfellow.

I say he is a good friend despite the fact that we have actually never met, and indeed these days I seem to have quite a few treasured friends whom I only know from seeing their names in my inbox. But David, if you’re not already familiar with him, is somebody you really should know about, especially if you’re interested in NDEs. He, too, is now one of the leading authorities on NDEs.

I came across him several years ago when an NDEr of my acquaintance put me onto him and advised me to check out his website (he actually has several – more about those at the end of this blog). I was impressed and was happy to make contact with him. Over the years, he’s been kind enough to post a number of my blogs, which he reformatted beautifully. The man is an artist (a gifted photographer, among other things) and not just a teckie.

Here’s a nice photo of him in one of his favorite environments:

In this blog, I also want to introduce you to two of David’s books. The first one, published in 2019, is entitled The Purpose of Life: As Revealed By Near-Death Experiences from Around the World. Filled with numerous extracts from NDErs supplemented by David’s own illuminating commentaries, this is a jewel of a book, and ever since it appeared, I have been recommending it to everyone I know who is interested to learn more about NDEs – and this now includes you.

But the book that this blog will be introducing to you was published the following year and is entitled 500 Quotes From Heaven: Life-Changing Quotes That Reveal The Wisdom & Power of Near-Death Experiences. This book is a bit different from his first because most of the excerpts from NDErs are briefer but they still pack a wallop. I read a draft of the book, and at the time I remember writing David that I really felt that I should re-read it every few years in order to refresh my own spiritual life by re-absorbing the insights and wisdom of NDErs many of whom quoted by David were actually friends of mine or people whom I had myself interviewed.

Recently I decided to order this book to do exactly that. As I told David, my plan was to read at least five quotes a day for a hundred (non-consecutive) days over the next year. After all, although NDEs teach us how we should live and what’s important in life, they also help us to feel comfortable with death. And since I am getting ready to leave the building, if not immediately (I hope!), I figured this would also be a good way to prepare myself for my final journey.

Trouble is, I found it difficult to stop at five quotes! Have you ever been able to eat a single peanut and then stop? Of course not, it’s impossible. Same with these quotes. And David understood; even he finds them addictive. So I just kept on reading through the beginning section of his book. And now I am going to share some of these quotes with you,  just to give you a taste for the spiritual treats you will find in this book.

The best thing to do, frankly, is just for you to buy the book and forget the rest of this blog. But I hope by drawing on it here, it will induce you to buy the book and to share it with others who wish to learn from a recognized authority what NDEs have to teach us.

All I’m going to do here is just to copy out some of the stories with which David begins his book, where he recounts some examples of NDErs who return from their encounter with death with the realization that they’ve been they’ve been graced with a sense of total knowledge of the universe. I will begin, however, with a few observations of my own from NDErs I interviewed who had the same experience. And I will continue and conclude by interspersing some further commentaries. My own remarks will be in this font. The excerpts from David’s book will be in a somewhat smaller font, so you’ll easily be able to distinguish my comments from David’s quotes. Ready? Here we go….

I don’t know how many NDErs I myself have interviewed have told me that during their experience they were given a “download,” as it were, of total knowledge, that they suddenly had all their questions about the universe answered, all at once. But I heard such claims often enough to be struck, almost dumb, by them. The mind, at least mine, boggles when trying to grasp what this experience must be like.

I now recall one such incident involving one of my favorite NDErs by the name of Tom Sawyer (yes, his actual name) whom I first met in 1981 and stayed in touch with until his death a few years ago. I wrote a lot about him in my book, Heading Toward Omega. Here’s just a brief excerpt:

You realize that you are suddenly in communications with absolute, total knowledge … You can think of a question … and immediately know the answer to it. And it can be on any question whatsoever. It can be on any subject … The light will give you the instantaneous correct answer and make you understand it.

Another fellow I knew well, whom David also quotes in his book, had this same experience and told me it was like “being plugged into a cosmic computer.”

David, too, quotes a number of such cases in his book.  Here are some of his own examples: 

The Light welcomed me; The Light absorbed me into The Light. So I was part of The Light. Once I was in The Light, I knew everything The Light knew. I knew all about the universe. I knew everything about flowers, plants, asteroids, suns, novas -- everything. I didn’t have a question for The Light. Why? Because I knew all the answers. I had nothing to ask. I was given total and absolute knowledge about ALL things instantaneously! I marveled in ecstasy that I knew everything about everything there was to know in the universe right then and there. It was incredibly energizing to comprehend all that power, from knowledge about physics, astronomy, psychology, medicine, agriculture, meteorology, chemistry -- EVERYTHING about how the physical and spiritual worlds operate. I felt electrifying elation, being “on top of the world”, and so joyful to possess ultimate Truth.

I was given total and absolute knowledge about ALL things instantaneously! I marveled in ecstasy that I knew everything about everything there was to know in the universe right then and there. It was incredibly energizing to comprehend all that power, from knowledge about physics, astronomy, psychology, medicine, agriculture, meteorology, chemistry -- EVERYTHING about how the physical and spiritual worlds operate. I felt electrifying elation, being “on top of the world”, and so joyful to possess ultimate Truth.

I was just there, floating in this pure ecstasy, knowing to the depths of my being everything I had just heard and witnessed. Suddenly, I was being downloaded with information about every question I had ever had. I have always been interested in science, physics, biology, human relations, spirituality, religion, etc. In one instant, I understood all there was to know. I particularly remember understanding all about how electricity works, then physics, then human relationships.

Although most NDErs retain only their memory of this universal knowledge, they typically cannot access it when they return to their body. And yet, some astonishing aftereffects of this experience can and do occur.

For example, Tom Sawyer, who was not well educated and spent his entire working life operating bulldozers and other heavy earth-moving equipment, returned with a prodigious knowledge about quantum physics and well known physicists such as Max Planck whose name was completely unfamiliar to him previously. (All this is described at length in Heading Toward Omega.)

And the man who told me that he felt he had plugged into a cosmic computer, is cited by David in this same context:

[After his NDE] At twenty-six, I started buying books and learning languages. First French, then Spanish. After two semesters, I started on Don Quixote and read Voltaire's Philosophical Letters. Then, I returned to Portuguese [he had previously lived in Brazil]. At twenty-eight, I studied history and philosophy … I went through most of them. They were on history, philosophy, other religions, astronomy, physics, and archeology. Excepting masterworks and classics, I don't read fiction anymore. At twenty-nine, I began excursions into particle physics and electronics. At thirty-two, I started designing oscillators and low-noise amplifiers. One of them is in an orbiting satellite. At thirty-six, I started designing microprocessors. I'm forty-two now. As a professional programmer, I write about 40,000 lines of C-language a year. 

And other NDErs return with entirely new gifts and abilities, such as remarkable musical and artistic talents, though that is a story for another time. For now it is enough to note that when one is ushered, even temporarily, into the house of death, all knowledge can be revealed that can have a lasting effect on one’s life. Even knowing that can and usually does evoke a sense of wonder in the rest of us.

These are merely a few illustrative quotes from David’s book. Remember there are 500 of them in all! The book is really a treasury of NDE wisdom and insights. I can’t recommend this book highly enough to any of you who are drawn to wanting to learn more about these experiences so as to enhance your own spiritual life. And it can be yours for the proverbial song. What are you waiting for?

But if you’re not a reader, or even if you are, I have something else of David’s to offer you. You may want to visit a couple of his websites. Here are two that are particularly relevant to David’s books.

Outstanding Near-Death Experiences (YouTube)


I hope in the coming months to be able to introduce you to more of my NDE researcher friends – new ones whose names most of you probably will be unfamiliar with, but whom you will surely be keen to learn about. 

So I begin and hope to continue with my new NDE career to sing the praises of others before returning to watch more of the Australian Open…. 

January 16, 2022

A Half Day in the Life

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Many times during the day I look out my wide office window to the street beyond my court where I see many young people, and some not so young anymore, striding along or sometimes riding their bikes with the wind at their backs. I look with envy because I can no longer walk. Well, I can, but not without difficulty. What I can do is trudge, but even then I can only make it partway down my street. And even to do that, I have to stop once or twice to catch my breath before continuing on my solitary way before pausing for a few minutes, and then starting my return trip.

I usually have to walk bent over, my eyes seemingly searching for centipedes, which has sometimes resulted in my failure to see an oncoming cyclist who has suddenly emerged from the gloom, forcing me to step aside quickly and not lose my balance in the effort to avoid a bone-shattering collision. The hazards of the trail.

Spinal stenosis. I don’t recommend it. It’s like walking with cement blocks on one’s feet – uphill.

Sometimes when I stop to catch my breath and curse my fate, a kindly roadrunner will halt and say, “You okay there, buddy?” “Nothing that a new spine wouldn’t fix,” I retort.  “Do you happen to have one?” A chuckle. He resumes his run, I resume my tottering, usually stopping once more before entering my court and congratulating myself on another successful mission on my rounds to nowhere. 

But actually I am going somewhere. All this was just a prelude to my real mission, which is to re-enter my house and find my way through the winter darkness of my garage to my storage room. There, my gleaming stationary bike awaits my sorry ass. Frankly, it is the only bike I have been ever been able to ride. As a kid I had a very poor sense of balance owing to a congenital nystagmus and dreadful vision. Nevertheless, on my ninth birthday, I was given a shiny new bike. Taking it down a nearby street, a flat straightaway that typically had little traffic, I found a truck heading my way. I lost both my nerve and my balance, and swerved right in front of it. Obviously, I survived, but I immediately decided that in the interest of preserving my still young life, I should relinquish my cycling ambitions forthwith. I have been walking ever since, though not continuously of course, if no longer well, as you now know.

Anyway, I am now a veteran stationary bike rider and have been pedaling my little legs off for years, although I find that they are still attached, which is a good thing. But what isn’t good is my current performance. Consider the trend line:

A couple of years ago, I could still easily do 30 minutes with an average of speed close to 6.O and burn off more than 300 calories. These days I start out at a good speed but by the time I do 20 minutes of pedaling (which is my limit now), my speed is barely above 5.0. Even a few months ago, I could still get up to 5.4, but lately I am lucky to reach 5.2, and usually it is no better than a shocking 5.O or even (gasp) 4.9. And that’s with “pushing” hard, too. My calorie count has plummeted as well, naturally, and is now only a little more than 200.  

At this rate, I will soon be able to give new meaning to the term, “stationary bike,” as I approach a stationary state myself, like one of those human statues one sees along the Ramblas of Barcelona.

Yes, I rambled down the Las Ramblas back in the day when walking was a pleasure, not a trial, making sure to keep my left hand in close proximity to my wallet-filled left trouser pocket lest one of the many pickpockets who were plentiful among the human non-statues thereabouts not find their way into the region of my loins. And in Barcelona where at any time of the night or day the streets are thronged with young revelers and elderly tourists – or sometimes middle-aged ones like my lover of the time and me – walking mile after mile was de rigueur. Oh, those were the days when I was happy to promenade down the noisy boulevards of that fabled revolutionary Catalan citadel, a would-be flâneur taking in the sights while sometimes stealing a glance at the young beauties gaily coming my way, singing. 


If it’s a bad idea to change horses in mid-stream, is it also inadvisable to change directions in an essay mid-way through? Well, who cares? I’m gonna do it, anyway, and I’ll tell you why.

Richard Leakey.

You’re probably familiar with the name. He’s one of the great paleoanthropologists of our time, still another member of the famous Leakey family beginning with his father, Louis, and his mother, Mary. Richard died the day after New Year’s Day this year, and I just read a short tribute to him in which I learned some important things, not only about his work, which is well known, but his physical hardships, which are not. I learned, for example, that he survived two kidney transplants, a liver transplant and a plane crash that resulted in the amputation of both of his legs. What a series of incredible agonies he must have suffered and yet, from what I read, he was uncomplaining. He just carried on. Even in the few months just before his death when suffering from COVID and having trouble breathing, he gave, while sitting in a wheelchair, an inspired 45-minute talk.

What a guy, eh? How many people could have endured such serious operations only to emerge after recovering to continue their work without whinging about them and their condition?

Yet here I am complaining about not being able to walk well. Honestly, Ken, you think you’ve got troubles? Don’t you realize how lucky you’ve been to have had the life you had – and still do? Besides, who wants to listen to old men recount all their infirmities? How tedious, especially in light of a two-year-long pandemic that now, suddenly, seems to be raging out of control, and is apparently so dire as to cause the director of the FDA to warn that it’s likely everyone, sooner or later, will get COVID. Well, pardon my French, but fuck that!

Anyway, after considering Leakey’s story and the dark winter we are living – and dying – through, it does put things in perspective, doesn’t it?

So what if I am now a reluctant member of the species, Homo patheticus? After all, I wasn’t always such a pitiable sight as I try to make my way down the street. Until relatively recently and for the great part of my life, I’ve been able to travel widely, I’ve had a successful and very rewarding career, I’ve written a bunch of books, fathered three wonderful and talented children, had quite a few amorous affairs and, when I wasn’t preoccupied with them, managed to acquire four or five wives, depending on how you count them. Truly, I have had a blessed – and lucky – life.

And even today, I am blessed with a loving girlfriend, a caretaker who is an absolute gem, and very kind neighbors who are always offering to do me favors. Plus, friends who I know love me, and devoted children (and grandchildren). Count your blessings, Ken, and quit griping about your trivial bodily trials. Why don’t you just confine your bellyaching to the fact that apparently the Australian authorities are going to permit Novak Djokovic to defend his title at the forthcoming Australian Open [or perhaps not according to the latest news bulletin from down under] despite his lying about his application for his visa and his refusal to get vaccinated like the rest of his competitors. (Can you tell I am still a diehard Federer fan even though that champion’s career is now effectively over because of persisting knee problems. You don’t hear Federer complaining about his fate either, Ken, do you?)

And guess what? Yesterday afternoon, after beginning this essay, I went out to exercise and had the best workout I’ve had in months. I was able to walk all the way down the block without difficulty or having to stop, and ditto on the way back. A complete rarity. Not only that, but when I got on my bike, I was able to pedal vigorously without “pushing,” and had an absolutely splendid workout. My speed was at an all-time recent high of 5.6. It was like I was the old Ken. Well, of course I’m still an old Ken, but you know what I mean.

To coin an original phrase, what a difference a day makes.

Well, even if I don’t die of COVID, I surely will die during the age of COVID, but I have a new goal now. Some of you who may be familiar with my book, Waiting to Die, may remember that some years ago, it was my goal to reach 1000 months before dying. Well, hell’s bells, I already shot well past that mark and am now into my second thousand month cycle. But my new goal is to survive this year. If I can manage that, I will be 87, and will then be the longest-lived male member of my family. I’m going for it, and right now I am getting ready to get back on my horse, figuratively speaking, to get out to exercise. Wish me luck today – and also for my new goal to set a longevity record in my family! This ancient mariner (I live in Marin county) is off to the races… 

Postscript: My workout today was just as good as yesterday’s, even a tad better. I’m on a roll. Watch me, ma.

That blur you see is me!

Note: That old gent pictured on the stationary bike isn’t me. I’m not nearly so ancient-looking as that fellow!

January 9, 2022

I Found It At The Movies

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

One of my favorite authors has long been Roger Angell, who for many years was an editor at The New Yorker, but who today is chiefly remembered for a series of wonderful books and New Yorker articles about baseball. Because ever since I was nine years old when I first saw the New York Yankees play, I have been an avid baseball fan, I’ve relished Angell’s marvelous baseball yarns and seasonal recaps in the New Yorker. I still have a couple of his baseball books – Season Tickets and Once More Around the Park - in my library.

People familiar with The New Yorker – and I’ve been reading it since the age of thirteen since my mother subscribed to it – will also know that Angell has a very distinguished New Yorker pedigree. His mother, Katharine White, was a founding editor of the magazine and played an important role in establishing it as one of the leading weeklies in the country while her second husband, Roger’s stepfather, was the famous writer and essayist, E. B. White, the author of such classic books as Charlotte’s Web, which caused me to cry when I read its ending to my children. He, too, was one of the important early contributors to the New Yorker, along with humorists like James Thurber and S. J. Perelman, often writing droll pieces for its “Talk of the Town” column. White, whom his friends invariably called Andy, was also the co-author of the indispensable book on style, The Elements of Style, which was every writer’s Bible as I was growing up. (I still have it in my library, too.) “Brevity, Brevity, Brevity,” was one of its witty ironic strictures, a telltale White sally.

With parents like these, it was virtually ordained that Angell would follow them in his career becoming, like them, a fixture in the New Yorker family and a well known author in his own right. Angell wrote on other subjects besides baseball, including some charming memoirs, the last of which, This Old Man, came out a few years back when the author was ninety-three. And he’s still with us at the age of a hundred and one, Roger, the Indestructible!

Recently, at loose ends, I ordered an earlier set of Angell’s essays entitled Let Me Finish, published when he was still a stripling at eighty-six, and have just started reading it. The second essay is called Movie Kid, and evokes Angell’s early but passionate love of movies, which takes us back to the period when “talkies” were still novel movie fare before the Great Depression occurred. He has fifteen years on me, but I also remember many of the films he saw during those years and most of the character actors about whom he lovingly reminisces. His stories took me back to the years of my less than golden youth when I, too, spent my weekend afternoons at the movies in Oakland where I grew up.

There were two movie theaters in my neighborhood I could walk to. The closest was The Capitol. Two dimes were all that it cost for the price of admission. The Fairfax was further away and a little bit more upscale, so the tickets there cost a quarter, which was my weekly allowance. I had to steal loose change from my aunt Mary in order to buy my popcorn and candy. I would eventually pay a price for my petty pilfering, although my penchant for alliteration would go unpunished for years.

But before I started to attend those theaters, my mother took me to see some films at what I now recall were more like palaces than ordinary movie houses. The seats were plush, and we sat up high in a balcony. (I remember climbing the stairs.) It wasn’t until many years later when I saw it again that I realized that the first film I had ever seen with my mother was Walt Disney’s Fantasia. I’ve since wondered whether my love for classical music wasn’t born with that film. The then celebrated conductor, Leopold Stokowski, was brought in to conduct such pieces as Paul DukasThe Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain.

It’s odd but perhaps significant that mostly I remember the music and not the images from that film. (I’ve never been a visually-oriented person.) Of course, I also saw another Disney favorite from those years, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and I still remember being frightened when I saw Bela Lugosi in The Count of Dracula. Like many kids, I’m sure, I had nightmares for a while after seeing that scary movie.

But after that, I can’t remember seeing any more films with my mother. I think I mostly went to the Capitol and the Fairfax by myself, but I do have a distinct memory of going to the movies with two would-be girlfriends when I was about ten. I am walking down Fleming Avenue with Bonnie Sartwell, a redhead, on my right, and Sandy Reader, a tall brunette with bad skin, on my left. Did we hold hands on the way? I don’t recall, but what I do remember was that I was into girls, and movie goddesses, too.

My first love from the “silver screen,” was Veronica Lake, she of the peek-a-boo haircut. I found her entrancing, but what films did I see her in, I wonder? Was it perhaps Sullivan’s Travels, with Joel McCrea? Perhaps, but more likely it was I Married a Witch. It doesn’t matter. Any matinee with Veronica Lake was enough to enchant me. Watching her, even at a young and tender age, I knew that I was already drawn to beautiful and alluring women. My gonads were still to develop, of course, but clearly my amatory yearnings began early.

I’ll return to my early longings for the voluptuous screen stars of my youth later in his essay, but first I should probably tell you about some of the failed erotic encounters I had during my outings to the movie theaters in my neighborhood.  

Although I generally went alone to these showings, I have a distinct memory of sitting with a girl – I cannot remember who she was or her name – toward the back of the theater in what were then called “the loges.” That was the area where one could “neck” with one’s girlfriend. I must have only been about ten years old at the time, but what I remember is putting my arm clumsily over the girl’s shoulders and being gently rebuffed. Oh, well, there would be plenty of time for that sort of thing in a few years….

Another time I was sitting alone on the left side of the theater when a man sat next to me. After the movie began, I felt his hand start patting my left leg. He then whispered, “Would you like to go outside?” I was a very naïve boy, but this made me uncomfortable and I wanted no part of it. I made some kind of excuse, probably saying I wanted to get some popcorn, but I just went to the other side of the theater and afterward left the theater hurriedly in order to make sure I would not be accosted by that creepy guy. 

In those days, the typical movie fare before the films began was quite different from what it is today when we are plagued with ads and then assaulted with a series of seemingly endless deafening previews. When I was a kid, the first thing we would see was a newsreel, typically one called The March of Time, which was narrated by a guy with a deep baritone voice spoken in a highly inflected and dramatic manner. I remembered his name was something like Voorhis, so I looked him up on the Internet. And sure enough, there he was. His full name was an impressive mouthful: Westbrook Van Voorhis. The entry about him reminded me of his signoff signature: “Time marches on.”

One of the things I remember from those newsreels was seeing the emaciated skeletal figures of the survivors of the Nazi death camps in their striped uniforms. I had had no idea about such things and didn’t know what to think. Actually, the war had never touched me personally in California. I never felt afraid and the war was only a distant event beyond my youthful understanding. The only person I knew who was in the war was my father, Phil, who would write me letters and send presents to me (I remember receiving a pair of Dutch clogs from him) and who seemed to be having a grand time. I don’t remember what he wrote me except for one sentence that has always remained with me. The gist of it was this: “Kenny, whenever you go somewhere new, always say it’s your birthday because then people will give you nice party.” My father was not exactly a Lord Chesterfield type of guy giving advice to his son about his manners. 

After the newsreel, there would be a cartoon. Maybe it would be one with Tom and Jerry or the Roadrunner, but most of the time it was a Bugs Bunny cartoon (with Elmer Fudd) or occasionally one with Mickey Mouse. That was more my speed. Walt Disney was the king of animated movies then.

Finally, we were ready for the movies themselves. In those days, it was always a double feature. There was a main film, later called an “A” film, followed by a lesser “B” film. The B film was usually some kind of gangster movie with a villain named Slade, who invariably was dressed in a black shirt. Or maybe it was a “cowboy movie” (they were not called “westerns” then) with Hopalong Cassidy or Roy Rogers and his horse, Trigger. [Synchronistically enough, the day after I wrote this paragraph, I came across this waggish description of a B cowboy movie: Your standard B-movie had only about four lines: “Yep.” “Nope.” “Thank you kindly, ma’am.” And “I wouldn’t do that if I was you, mister.”  Just those four lines, and some dust and six-shooters, and that’s your whole story.  Touché, as we said in the old West….]

During the war there were many “patriotic films” showing American “fighting men” (none of whom were actually in the armed services of course) inflicting heavy casualties on our enemies. I remember one famous film at the time, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, with Van Johnson, a popular star of that era. And there were any number of films showing evil Germans, speaking in their vile guttural language, who were always Nazis, of course. What I knew about the war came mainly from those films about American heroes and despicable and cruel Nazis. 

But I didn’t care that much for those sorts of action films or ones about cowboys chasing and killing Indians. No, what I loved were comedies and especially MGM musicals.

I can’t actually remember the names of many of the films I saw during and shortly after the war, but one I do distinctly remember was a film with Jack Benny and a then well known actress by the name of Alexis Smith (she of broad shoulders) called The Horn Blows at Midnight. After seeing that film, Jack Benny became my favorite comedian whose programs I loved to listen to on the radio. 

But as I loved to sing, musicals were my favorite movie fare, and through them I soon encountered one of my own movie heroes, the dancer, Gene Kelly. Strange because I was born with two left feet and during the days when it was raining and we couldn’t have gym at my grammar school, we were forced to assemble on the basketball court and made to dance. Well, I couldn’t. (“I don’t dance, don’t ask me,” as the song went.) I was graceless and clumsy, and my hands always were damp with sweat. 

But somehow I loved to see Gene Kelly dance (often with the long-legged Cyd Charisse). He would usually be wearing loafers with white socks, and I soon was imitating his foot ware if not his foot moves. For many years afterward, I wore loafers and I still wear white socks every day. All due to Gene Kelly’s attire on his dancing feet. I remember certain films from that period, too, such as Meet Me in St. Louis, with Judy Garland and Van Johnson (again). But mostly I remember the dancers, such as Anne Miller, Virginia Mayo, June Havoc, etc.  

A bit later, perhaps when I was eleven or twelve, I had moved on in my imaginary love life with beautiful actresses like Veronica Lake. Now it was gorgeous creatures such as the stunning green-eyed Rhonda Fleming who stirred my nascent loins. There was also the glamorous Arlene Dahl and the dark brunette Linda Darnell. These iconic screen stars helped to shape my love for beautiful women, even if I never was able to bed any movie stars. 

But I also loved quirky comedic actresses such as the charming Jean Arthur with her croaky voice and slightly hysterical antics. And who can forget her (and Jimmy Stewart) in the Frank Capra classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington?

Roger Angell, in his reminiscences of his movie-going youth, mentions his fondness for various male character actors, and some of his favorites, such as Eugene Pallette (though I only knew him by sight and not by name), were also mine. There were also the always grouchy and bombastic Edward Arnold, the irascible William Demarest and the adorable S.Z. (Cuddles) Sakall, everyone’s favorite, even Bogie’s. 

Well, I could go on with my nostalgic trip down my movie-going memory lane, but I had better start to wrap up this account of my early days as a star-struck kid.

However, I do need to mention one more extremely pivotal film that I saw a few years later, when I was fifteen years old, which changed my life. Around 1950, a new tenor burst onto the scene and became wildly popular. His name was Mario Lanza, and he starred in a film about Enrico Caruso called The Great Caruso, in which his co-star was the lovely Ann Blyth. I saw that film seven times! I couldn’t get enough of hearing Lanza sing operatic arias. It was by watching and listening to him that I became a lifelong opera fan and even for a while entertained a fantasy of becoming an opera singer myself. That exposure to opera soon led to my discovery of classical music, which has been one of the great passions of my life. But it was Mario Lanza in that film and others that he made during that same period that was the impetus for me and my consuming love of music. His co-star in those days was usually Kathryn Grayson, a popular singer and actress in her own right whom I soon came to fancy. And she changed my first daughter’s life. I named her Kathryn after Kathryn Grayson. 

Thus have movies informed and changed my life. It wasn’t until I started to attend college, at Berkeley, however, that I really began to develop a more sophisticated taste in films. It was during that period that foreign art films began to make themselves known to American audiences, and Berkeley, with film critics like Pauline Kael there, became something of a mecca for such films. (By the way, I made a playful riff for the title of this essay by making an oblique reference to one of Kael’s books of film criticism, which she had called I Lost It At the Movies.) It was then that I discovered such “auteurs” as Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, etc.

And a few years later, thanks to that exposure in Berkeley to foreign films, I saw the greatest film of my life, which also made a deep and lasting contribution to my then completely dormant spiritual awareness. At the time I had just started graduate school at the University of Minnesota. One Saturday morning I went to see a film by a Danish director, Carl Dreyer, of whom I had never heard. And you have probably never heard of the film I saw that day, which was called Ordet, meaning “the Word.” It is a film about a demented Christ. It’s a black and white film and every scene is mounted beautifully like a painting. The film had me riveted from the very beginning, and by the time it had reached its shattering conclusion, I was convulsed by emotion and started heaving and crying. That film caused the first fissure to form in my wall of atheism and also changed my life for keeps.

I’ve since seen it four or five more times and I always respond the same way. If you can find a copy, you might find it changes your life, too.

Well, that was more than sixty years ago now, and since that time I have of course seen – what? – surely many hundreds of films, including many foreign films. Movies have remained one of my most treasured sources of my education and spiritual life in addition to providing countless hours of entertainment.

Of course, these days, with COVID, it has been impossible for me to go to movie theaters. So thank God for Netflix, Amazon Prime and other movie sites. And because of them, I have been able to undertake a new role in my life as something of a film maven and critic.

You see, my girlfriend Lauren, for reasons I had best not disclose here, seems to have lived her life without seeing more than few films and when I met her had hardly ever even seen a foreign film. Horrors! So, with her consent, I have spent the last several years trying to fill this dreadful lacuna by conducting a kind of film tutorial. During these years, I have introduced her to many dozens of films, including all my own favorites. I usually provide a brief introduction to them and then afterward, over a dish of ice cream, we discuss them. Lately, we’ve been working our way through most of Woody Allen’s oeuvre and have now moved on to the films of one of my favorite directors, Pedro Almodóvar, whose use of color, especially red, is sensual and marvelous. His stories of often wacky and hysterical women are a treat for one’s eyes, especially when they feature the glorious Penélope Cruz. Lauren has come to enjoy these films very much while I get to play Henry Hiiggins to her Eliza.

We found it – and love -- at the movies.