Wednesday, April 8, 2020

A Tribute to Austin Finnegans Wake Reading Group Member Richard Lee Price (1949-2020)

Memory is not an eye that returns to the past; it is rather the power that allows us to see what is, in its essence, outside of time .... 
- Ermilio Abreu Gomez 
(quoted by Richard Lee Price in his novel Troubadours: Love, Death, Rumba)


Do not go gentle into that good night,  
Old age should burn and rave at close of day; 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 
- Dylan Thomas

Yesterday I heard the news that a good friend who was part of our Austin Finnegans Wake reading group for years named Richard Lee Price (June 14, 1949 - April 7, 2020) had passed away. Richard was a truly beautiful soul, a poet, a musician, a songwriter, a scholar professor, a funny and witty chatterbox with a Bronx accent. I loved him and I feel crushed by the news of his loss. Since hearing about it, I have been overwhelmed by feelings of grief and anger that I will never get to see him again. I knew that he was battling an illness, he had been sick for a while but I was holding out hope, I felt sure he would get better and return to our group. I'm really going to miss him and I want to send my heartfelt condolences to his family and loved ones. (You can read an obituary for Richard Lee Price here.)

He was a really unique guy, a true character, lots of fun to be around. Because I grew up in New York City the son of an old school Brooklyn guy with a heavy accent and most of my father's friends and associates were old New York guys with heavy accents, Richard felt like a long lost relative or family friend. Richard grew up in the Bronx, lived in Brooklyn for years, went to school in Queens, he was a true New Yorker. Like my dad and his pals, he was talkative, a super witty and funny and occasionally over-the-top chatterbox. Unlike most of the people I grew up around though, he was an intellectual, a poet, an artist. His NYC street-tinged accent spitting out rants was not raging about petty bullshit, no, he was frequently carrying on about Greek philosophy and mythology, about Shakespeare, about Yeats, about jazz music, about the Bible or eastern religion. He was a passionate and proud Jewish man with a great sense of humor. He had been an English professor for forty years and then became an avid practitioner of Tai Chi and Chi Kung in his retirement, battling back ill health. He had a sage-like presence, a wisecracking old professor who walked around with a cane, but who was a master of the art of kung fu (no kidding). I really enjoyed being around him and I feel sad and angry that I didn't get to spend more time with him and that I can never see him again. What I do have are lots of memories of him that I will cherish.


I want to tell you a few stories about Richard Lee Price that may capture what kind of guy he was.

- First time I met Richard was at a Bloomsday event at Malvern Books in central Austin about five or six years ago. I read an essay about Ulysses from the podium and then this guy with a white beard, wearing a sideways beret, carrying a cane gets up to ask a question and goes on into a longwinded and passionate discussion about Homer's Odyssey and the Molly Bloom chapter in Ulysses and then asks me some super heavy question that I had to think about for a while before I could muster an answer. I don't remember what the question was now, but I remember later on all of us from the group were wondering who the hell was that guy? He and I connected and he soon started attending our meetings.

- Richard was a brilliant guy, he sparked so many ideas and perspectives for me in our discussions. I remember the first time we had a Finnegans Wake reading group hosted at the Irish Consulate, Richard went into detail on an interpretation of the I-Ching appearing on a page we read and what he said became part of my inspiration to write a paper on FW and I-Ching that I delivered in Mexico City last year. I recall many times when he'd point out something in the course of our reading groups, a unique interpretation of a line in Finnegans Wake that was just so perfect and enriching that I'd be pondering it for months and would always thank him. I still have ideas and notes for future pieces to write that sprang from talking with him. As a professor of literature and seasoned scholar he was a mentor figure for me but also a great buddy. I remember one time it must have been a rainy night or something and only he and I showed up to a reading group meeting we had at the Wheatsville food co-op in South Austin. So instead of doing the normal routine of studying a page from the book we just talked in great detail about Finnegans Wake in general, he wanted to hear my theories about it and then he went into long fascinating monologues about Dante and The Divine Comedy and Herman Melville and Moby-Dick. His mind was a treasure trove. Another great memory of him I have is one time at a reading group where Richard and I were discussing a subject related to Finnegans Wake and the next morning he left me a voicemail talking at length about an article he had read online about that same subject, an article he just loved and went on and on in great detail about and said he wanted to read it 10 more times. Then he left me another voicemail immediately afterward where he realized it was actually something I wrote on this blog and he said "in the parlance of my youth, you are one heavy dude, man." I still have these voicemails from him and I will cherish them. (Part of what I loved about Richard is he was genuinely interested in my writing and my ideas about Joyce, he would often read my work and give me really meaningful feedback. That piece he was talking about on the voicemail was one of my favorite pieces ever, called What is Finnegans Wake? A Simulacrum of the Globe (Part 2).)

- Richard was a scholar and a professor of literature for forty years. In our groups he would regularly go off into Greek philosophy and mythology, come back to Judaism and the Bible, veer into old New York City and the Bronx and jazz music, throw in some classic poetry and dirty jokes. He was known to break into song and he had a good voice. He had so many classic poems and amazing lines and lyrics memorized and he was eager to share them. For a while he had his own book group focused on Chaucer's book Troilus and Criseyde which he adored and often mentioned in our Wake discussions. This is the kind of thing that I wish I could hear him talk more about now. At one point some of our reading group members recorded a pilot episode for a podcast, the full recording is something like 4 or 5 hours and Richard is on there giving his typically wide-ranging and long-winded talks. I hope I can share some of that here soon.

- He was a very funny dude, kind of a goofball, always cracking jokes, being ridiculous and witty. One thing I remember that cracked me up was one night the reading group had a party and when Richard and his wife were getting ready to leave I was like "leaving already?" and he responded, "Peter I'm an old man! I gotta go home and have my milk and cookie and go to bed!"

- One of the last times I saw Richard was a Wake reading group night I will not soon forget. In the meeting prior to it, a young college student had attended the group for the first time and later while we all ate pizza afterward she had expressed some unkind opinions about Native Americans which Richard politely but firmly argued against and sorta shut down. The exchange was a little odd I guess but I didn't make much of it at the time. Then in the following reading group meeting a month later, the same young lady returned and brought her boyfriend along. He seemed sorta like a young conservative frat boy kinda dude but, as she boasted, "he knows everything" and he did indeed talk like he thought so. After our group meeting while we all ate pizza across the street again this guy and his girlfriend spouted some egregiously hateful and Islamophobic opinions and racist garbage interpretations of history and I got to witness the old professor, old school Bronx dude, and obligingly confrontational yet calm Tai Chi master Richard, sitting with both hands atop his cane, absolutely school those little fuckers in the most articulate and info-dense manner possible. This was all an intellectual debate, mind you, but it got pretty heated. The more heated it got, the more calm, articulate and piercingly funny Richard got. I think my feelings on the matter were apparent by my hysterically laughing at how badly Richard was schooling them in this heated argument. God, it was great. He had been slicing through that kinda bullshit from loud, know-it-all assholes for decades. What an inspiring guy he was.

May he rest in peace.

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