1 November 2014
By Clarke Warren
The Best of Buddies, the Best of Times: A Tribute to Alan Spragens, Goodbye Friend
Alan Spragens was the best possible friend to have. Even though he and I had indeed been very close friends in earlier years, riding the crest of the 1960’s and 70’s together, we had not seen each other in a few years. But around three years or so ago, we reconnected by phone and internet, and our original friendship flared up like a furnace of mutual warmth and appreciation. Hearing yesterday that he had suddenly died has made this life and world a great deal more lonely for me. The sadness I feel is deep and piercing.
Alan and I met in Boulder, at University of Colorado and in the very first years of Trungpa Rinpoche’s presence here. He had a down-home easy-going Kentucky style, but with an impressive sharpness and wit, joined with a great sense of heart. He played a mean guitar, and could sing to the soul. I remember learning a JJ Kale verse from him:
“Another cup of coffee, another cigarette,
You’re waiting for your baby and she hasn’t shown yet.
And if she don’t make it, then you ain’t got no regrets,
Because you can’t win or lose if you ain’t made no bets.”
It had a dharmic nuance to it, and it spoke to our young passionate dispositions, which soon connected like a high voltage cable to Trungpa Rinpoche. I was always impressed that Alan got his MA in English Lit writing an analysis of the Beatles along the lines of four archetypical ideals suggested by William Blake. He had that kind of mind. We studied, meditated, sang, drank, told stories, cracked jokes, intensely discussed dharma, shared visions and adventures together. And tragedies. Like when Melanie died. Her’s was the first death in our budding sangha. She was a piercingly beautiful young Italian woman, first generation American from immigrant parents, and as I remember most of our early sangha men had major crushes on her. Alan and I and the rest of the small sangha then sat with her corpse in Rinpoche’s living room, which was also the community shrine room, in Four Mile Canyon for three days, witnessing the ravages of impermanence before our very eyes as we practiced and directed our meditation and wishes for fearless passage to her. It was a baptism for all of us into the realities so often ignored by youth, and Rinpoche called Melanie a bodhisattva in her death for demonstrating this impermanence in the most pronounced way. Alan and I remembered those few days often after that. Now, all these years later, Alan has stepped up as the bodhisattva pointing out the shock of impermanence.
In 1972, Bill and Emily Hunter, working with Rinpoche, invited Alan and I and several other people to go with them to Jackson Hole Wyoming, to staff what became the Snow Lion Inn. Bill had built the hotel at the Teton Village Ski area, first named “The Sojourner” after a line by Thoreau, then sold it to someone who defaulted on their payment for it. His name was Harthang. We used to call him “Harthang Tulku.” The bank invited Bill to come back and run the hotel, as a way of recouping some of the loss. When Bill consulted Rinpoche, the plan was hatched to run it as a hotel in the off season, and a dharma seminar facility in the off season. The first Vajradhatu Seminary was held in Teton Village a year later, in 1973, though not at the Snow Lion, which reverted to the defaulted buyer Harthang when he got a bail out.
Meanwhile, at the Snow Lion, Alan was a cook, and I was a baker. He grilled steaks and lobster, and I baked Snow Lion Beer Bread in big braided loaves from a recipe we acquired from a local friend. Alan, who did the supplies ordering, would quip to the bartender, “Better send up beer from the bar for the beer bread today…enough for the bread and enough for the baker!” Our friendship deepened in the furious activity of the kitchen, and during a remarkable year of operating the Snow Lion Inn. Rinpoche came and stayed for many days a couple of times, and it was the most intimate interface with him I remember.
On a day off, Alan, Dale, who married Alan and was pronouncedly pregnant, and I portaged a canoe up a steep trail and into a semi-hidden and idyllic lake, Phelps Lake. It was an arduous portage, no one in their right mind would think to do it. Plus, the Rockefeller family had a sizable estate on the lake. It was obviously off limits to the public. But we dipped the canoe into the water and paddled down the lake until we came upon a huge mansion. I remember a teenager frantically running out and yelling at us that we needed to leave immediately. Alan remembered running into a groundskeeper who pointed a shotgun at him. We complied, after a failed attempt to strike up a conversation, paddling back up the lake. But around a bend, we came upon a luxuriously-appointed picnic shelter, with leather cushions six inches thick, facing out to the lake. We lounged around for a while, listening for a rapidly approaching speed boat. But no one came, and we were able to depart the lake with no further incident.
When Alan and I reconnected a few years ago, we remembered a seminal event in our life up there in Jackson Hole. Alan, Mark Barasch and I took the tramway up to the top of the Tetons on our day off. We started the long 12 mile hike down Granite Canyon. About a quarter of the way into the hike, I dislocated my knee while crossing a scree field. I was out of commission, unable to walk on my own. It was too far and rigorous to try and retrace our steps back up the mountain, and besides, the tramway would be closed by the time we did made it back up there. So Alan took me on his shoulder for the marathon walk down the rest of the canyon. At one point, we came around a corner and straight into a huge mother moose and her calf! We knew how dangerous moose could be, as highly near-sighted as they are. They often just charge, all the more if accompanied by their calf. In a flash, we were all up atop a large boulder, me much faster than I could have imagined with my busted knee, despite excruciating pain. We sat there for quite some time while the skittish moose and calf continued to nibble the greenery, occasionally eyeing us. The late afternoon sun started to push in strong shadows, and we knew we were in trouble. Finally the moose and calf rambled on, and we got on the trail again.
Mark went ahead to get help, while Alan continued supporting me on his shoulder as we hobbled along. Soon it was pitch dark with no moon. We had to peer intently down at our feet to see any sign of a trail as we inched along. We had not brought a flashlight. At some point, it seemed we were hopelessly lost in a forest. It was getting very cold. It was around 2:00 am, and still pitch dark. Then, after a short while, we couldn’t believe our eyes as the terrain started to become visible again. We spotted the trail. The light started to fluctuate, and when we looked up to the sky, we encountered the shimmering Northern Lights above us! We kept on hiking for several miles, trail lit by the lights, eventually reaching the road and got back to the hotel around dawn. That was Alan’s and my special “miracle”, and it took up a permanent position in our minds, hearts, memories and friendship.
Alan, some time later, after he and I had attended the first Vajrayana Seminary, was sent by Rinpoche to be the “emissary”, resident director and teacher, at the Palo Alto, Calif. Dharmadhatu. Not too long after that, I was sent to the Santa Barbara Dharmadhatu in the same capacity. Alan and Dale, his first wife, and their kids were having a rough time in California. Alan was able to get into a job training program through social services, in the then fairly new field of computer programming and documentation. He then was able to procure a job at a relatively new start-up company called Apple. He went on to become an important documentation and programming expert for Apple, finally joining the then zenith cutting-edge project which was creating interface between Microsoft and Apple formats.
When Steve Jobs died a few years ago, I immediately called Alan. Jobs was such an iconic figure for our generation that I just wanted to talk to Alan who knew him, to acknowledge the significance of that passing. Alan recounted to me the way he met Jobs, other than from a distance at Apple. He entered a coffee shop one day and found Steve Jobs having coffee with Kobun Chino Roshi, of whom Jobs was a Zen student. Alan was friends with Kobun. They invited Alan to join them, and at the end of their discussion, Jobs offered Alan a job in his inner circle, on the spot! Alan said he would need to consider it. As excited as he was by the offer, he was also thrilled to be on the Apple-Microsoft interface project. Not only did he end up turning the Jobs job down, but he hired away the person who Jobs assigned the task of hiring him! Alan mused whether he should have, after all things considered, taken the job. But bygones are bygones.
Due to tremendous pressure from his position as Dharmadhatu director, his family situation and responsibilities, and his financial situation, Alan left his Dharmadhatu position, and left the Vajradhatu organization, though Trungpa Rinpoche never left his heart, and friendships endured. I visited him occasionally in California, and it was always wonderful to see him. His first marriage broke up. His three children, whom he raised as a single father, grew up. He remarried, and when I reconnected with him a few years back, he had been happily married to Nan for fifteen years. They had moved to Silver City, New Mexico, where Alan continued to work for Apple via internet while working toward opening a sound studio for musicians. His wife Nan, an artist, opened a gallery. I told Alan I wanted to come see them, and he was utterly inviting. That opportunity slipped through my fingers, and now I will never see Alan again. I hope I meet Nan sometime. But as I write this, Alan is indelibly present in my heart. Alan, thanks so much for all you were and gave. You were one of the most genuine, kind-hearted people I could have ever hoped to meet, and we did meet and cross lives. You dealt well with sometimes exceedingly difficult circumstances, and you enjoyed the good times with great sharing and fervor.
The line from Thoreau that Bill Hunter named his hotel, the Sojourner, after was, “We are all but sojourners in this life.” So it is. Follow those Northern Lights, Alan, and I will know where to find you.
October 9, 2014
I want to share one memory of Alan. We were in his place in Santa Cruz in 1993, en route from SF to LA, a day or two after the Loma Prieta earthquake. Wenjing and I were on our way to Taos to get married by Kobun.
Alan and I were listening to the Beatles song, “Two of Us.”
He asked me if I paid much attention to John Lennon’s lyrics, in particular,
“Two of us wearing raincoats
In the sun
You and me chasing paper
On our way back home.”
Alan said that this verse demonstrated John Lennon’s understanding of the unfabricated nature of mind, and the futility of samsara. That despite our self-annointed efforts, “wearing raincoats,” we are “getting nowhere”; despite our sense of achievement or gain, we are foolishly standing in the sun with our raincoats on, standing in the sun of awake without effort. And the recognition of that is the journey back home, or to the source of everything, the unfabricated nature of mind. That song never sounded the same to me since. Rock on, Alan.