I do not believe in magic. I want to, but I do not. Even when I was a practicing druid, I thought of the rituals I performed as manipulations of psychological and scientific principles. When friends tell me I should have a vision board, I tell them that I have a picture of a vision board and am waiting for an actual vision board to manifest. Still, I think humans are somehow hardwired to seek out ways in which thought and action might influence outcomes by directly affecting unseen forces and energies.
Several years ago, I performed at a fund-raiser in a huge, beautiful house in the Hollywood Hills. After the show and the schmoozing and the flattery from high-powered, high-end audience members, I found James Cromwell hanging out near the door, handing people glossy post-cards to promote his upcoming solo-show. James Cromwell has won an academy award as best supporting actor in a film in which the star was a talking pig. There was something both reassuring and disheartening about seeing an actor of such stature doing the same sort of self-promotion that I hate doing for my own career.
I tried not to make eye contact, because I did not want a post card, but he told me I had been funny that evening, so I had no real choice but to engage. The conversation quickly shifted to the subject of his show, the person on whose life it was based, the playwright with whom he had worked. I could not properly focus on anything Mr. Cromwell said to me because I had fixated on his nose. James Cromwell has a magnificent nose. Somehow, as he spoke, his nose took on the aspect of an interactive sculpture or the knot on an ancient tree that a druid might have touched to commune with the wisdom of the forest or have marked to create a guide point in the wilderness. It became imperative that I touch his nose. I may have cut him off mid-sentence to say, “Excuse me. I know this will sound odd, but may I touch your nose?”
James Cromwell laughed a deep, avuncular laugh and said, “Nobody’s ever asked me that before. Sure.” So I touched his nose and felt that somehow a spell had been broken. I was able to converse with him for a few minutes before walking to my car and driving home, feeling oddly connected to this man who had been handing out postcards after my performance.
I did not know that my psyche held a level of Obsessive Compulsivity that might be triggered by such an action. Over the ensuing weeks I found myself needing to touch the noses of people with whom I conversed. It did not happen in every conversation. It occurred only when I felt awkward or uncomfortable, embarrassed or intimidated in some way. I always asked first and almost everyone I asked acceded to the odd request. A few did not. One woman said, “Face touching? Really?” A person who books a comedy club that I don’t particularly want to work at any more said, “You shouldn’t do that. It’s weird.” Most people though, the vast majority, accepted my request as an endearing if unusual quirk.
I did not accept it as such. When people refused to let me touch their noses, I found myself incapable of letting it go. I resented them and found myself touching my fingertips to my thumb, imagining touching their noses. I felt rejected and disrespected and demeaned and angry. I worried that instead of becoming known as a humorist and story-teller, I would come to be known as that guy who touches everyone’s noses. I feared the compulsion would be with me forever and would ruin my life.
I created a psychological manipulation to give myself a bit of solace. I decided that eventually I would meet James Cromwell again and would close the circuit. Once I did so, I determined arbitrarily, a metaphysical web would be created, connecting all those whose noses I had touched, opening them to a great, cosmic force, granting them all great luck and good fortune. I would not be a part of that web, of course because, while I do not believe in magic, I know that it must not be performed with selfish intent.
While this did not immediately free me of the need, at times, to touch the noses of people with whom I interacted, it did allow me the comfort of knowing that I would not be troubled by the need for the rest of my time on earth. Surely eventually I would happen upon James Cromwell once more and he would chuckle his deep chuckle and I would touch his nose and the ordeal would end in a flash of human contact.
Last weekend I had to fly to New York for the 100th birthday of my miniature Aunt Sylvia. I took the least expensive round trip flight I could find for the trip, so I wound up with a layover in Dallas. On the first leg of the first flight I began to develop a powerful anxiety about the party. I would be surrounded by extended family whom I had never met. I would see my parents and my older sister all of whom can be powerfully judgmental. This sort of circumstance could well trigger a compulsion to touch a nose or twelve and it was not a crowd amongst whom this was likely to go unremarked-upon or to be entirely accepted as adorably eccentric.
By the time I’d reached the Dallas airport I was in a panicky tailspin.
The Dallas airport has a store that sells cowboy hats and suede vests and cowboy boots because, apparently, people flying into Dallas sometimes want to immediately adopt the affected costume of the locale. Standing at the entrance to this airport shop, I saw in silhouette, James Cromwell. I felt a rush of relief and a sense that the universe was protecting me from my own worst impulses. I approached at once and said, “Excuse me.”
The person who turned to me was not James Cromwell at all. The person who turned to me was a very tall, supremely unattractive woman with James Cromwell’s nose. What had been magnificent on James Cromwell was, on this woman, problematic. I saw her pain at once. Her eyes held the anticipation of revulsion and rejection, the expectation of derision. This was a woman who saw the sadness in a sunset, the dark that swallows every day. I smiled at her, undeterred.
I decided that this would do. If I could create the psychological trick that would allow me to close the circuit when next I saw James Cromwell, I could create a new psychological trick that would allow me to close the circuit when next I saw his nose. I said, “I know this will sound odd but may I touch your nose?”
The woman cocked her head to the side, taking me in like a bird studying the ground for edible bits and said, “I don’t see why not.” So I reached up and touched my fingertip to her nose tip. Rather than just touching it and moving on though, I took an extra moment. I closed my eyes and imagined the great web that I had created over the past few years of nose-touching. I imagined strands of metaphysical connector lighting up with energy at the closure of the circuit. I hoped to feel a flash of something magical, but I did not.
I thanked the woman and she said I was welcome, though that may have been commitment to a social contract more than open invitation.
During the party at my aunt’s apartment on the Upper East Side, I had a conversation with a second cousin once removed or a first cousin twice removed. I’m not sure. She’s some kind of numbered removable cousin. I had never met her before and she asked me what I do for a living. I told her that I am a humorist and storyteller. She said, “Is that actually a thing that a person can do?” She said it with a kind of disbelief that made me feel small and defensive. I nodded, rather than taking what seemed like obvious bait. She talked about her son and his law practice but I did not listen. I was just aware of how little interest I had in touching her nose. She talked and I listened in a disconnected, detached sort of way until my father came over and put an arm around me and muttered, “How are you doing?” in a way that told me this was not his favorite relative and he could tell I was being tolerant.
On the way home the next day I had another Dallas layover. It turns out the tall woman works at the airport store for those who wish to assaholically assimilate. She stood in the same entryway, taking in the passing passengers. She looked very different today. She smiled at people as they passed. Her nose was significantly less Cromwellian now. Where she had craned her head forward yesterday, seeming to separate her identity from her body and accentuating the beakiness of her visage, today she seemed to live in her body. A fog of misery and anticipated misery no longer enveloped her. As I approached I said, “Don’t you look lovely today!”
I took in her smile. I took in her joy. I could imagine a man who was into really tall women being immediately attracted to her, courting her, wooing her, adoring her, enchanted. She said, “You touched my nose!”
I said, “Yes! Yes, I did.”
She said, in a softer, almost secretive voice, “What did you do to me?”
I allowed myself to grin at her and matched her tone as I said, “Magic.”
She said, “I thought so . . . but I was afraid to believe.”
I flew home on cushions of air. I do not believe in magic but nothing makes a person feel more powerful or more joyous than the knowledge that by his own action, a curse has been broken.
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What Makes Her My Great Aunt
One summer, in my young adulthood, I stayed in the guest room of my miniature Aunt Sylvia. I call her my miniature Aunt Sylvia, but she is actually my Great Aunt. As aunts go, she really is great, but she is also a very, very small human. I am convinced that she is the prototype on which George Lucas based the character of Yoda. She is tiny and wise and unforgivably adorable.
I don’t remember how I wound up staying in her guest room for the summer. I don’t know if I didn’t want to be in my parents’ apartment or if they didn’t want me there, if it was my idea or if Sylvia suggested it. All I know is that at a time in my life when I desperately needed to feel independent, but was not at all prepared to live independently, Aunt Sylvia opened her home to me. She accepted me warmly and I treated her home as my hotel in the callous, unthinking way that only a young, self-certain college student can. I’m sure I was rude and insensitive in any number of ways. I know I repeatedly borrowed twenties from her, always promising to pay it back and genuinely believing that I would do so very soon. I was absolutely sure that fame and the fortune I erroneously believed would automatically accompany it, awaited me. This would allow me to repay all the accumulated twenty-dollar loans from my great and tiny aunt, a forty-dollar poker debt to a college friend and any number of other small debts accrued over the years.
Even as I borrowed money, I spent unwisely. I bought pot regularly, a habit I later learned served as self-medication against fairly severe depression. I often took cabs rather than utilizing public transportation and, while I pretended that I did this because I tended to run late, in truth it was part of a pretense of financial comfort, a conviction that if I behaved as though I was doing very well, real success would rush in to meet me.
I cannot for the life of me place the exact date, find any surety as to whether this was all during the summer that I was the Stage Manager at the Light Opera of Manhattan or the summer that I interned at the Dramatists Guild, Xeroxing and reading submissions for their Young Playwrights Competition. Maybe those were the same summer. I do know it was a time of grinding poverty for me, made endurable by the beautiful, rent-free living conditions provided by Aunt Sylvia and her Upper East Side hospitality. She had a housekeeper who made my bed and did my laundry along with Sylvia’s in that apartment that my aunt had owned and occupied for so long that her phone number began “SA7.”
I fantasized that someday I would be as old as she, an age that is just twenty-years or so away now, and that I would have a guest room to spare. I imagined that I might grow up to be as generous of spirit as she was, as kind, as nurturing as she could be in her supremely practical, unsentimental way. I imagined that this was what a decent grown-up looked like. Only, you know, taller.
I could see her decency and could imagine developing it, but I had no idea how to exhibit it, how to emulate it. I was too young to have proper empathy for another human being, too self-involved to open myself to even the imagining of another person’s perspective.
Sylvia was seventy then and had been a clinical psychologist since the forties, as near as I can figure it. Maybe even since the thirties. I think her first book was published in 1950 and I know several years went into preparing that manuscript. A nineteen or twenty-year old man-child, I never explored what this meant in terms of professional development and personal self-determination for a small woman operating in a powerfully patrician pre-feminist culture.
I stayed with her for a couple of months in the mid-eighties, a time of self-indulgence and conspicuous opulence. I worked in the arts and attended an expensive college steeped in traditions of demonstrative liberalism and the kind of free thought that is possible only for those affluent enough to have free time and to believe, because their parents are the ones paying for it, that in a capitalist culture even time and thought might actually be free.
I could not imagine what it was for Sylvia to come into her adulthood during a national depression. I could not see past my own day-to-day experience, my own egotistical endeavors and my secret fears of personal inadequacy to know how arrogant and stupid and selfish I must surely have appeared to this lovely woman who gave me a home and a safe place to return to in the wee hours when I was finished smoking with my friends, discussing our bright futures and undeniable talents.
Many years later, after I had graduated college and moved to Los Angeles where I had taken still more time to turn into anything like a self-sufficient grown-up, I visited her on a trip to the East Coast. She welcomed me and I drank coffee in that big apartment on the Upper East Side.
It had been at least fifteen years since that summer when I stayed with her, probably closer to twenty. Still, something had been on her mind since that time and she asked me about it. She told me that once I had asked her for twenty dollars and she had given it to me. She did not say, “loaned,” but I remembered with a wince that I had thought of every one of those twenties as a loan, had marked each one carefully in a notebook that also contained bits of poetry and lyrics and jokes for my nascent stand-up act. She said that after handing me this twenty she had chanced to look out through the window of that high-up apartment and had seen me, far beneath her, hailing a cab. It had troubled her deeply, to see me spending so freely when clearly I had no money to spare. She had felt taken advantage of – though that is my inference and not something she said; she had felt cheated, conned, an enabler of ill-considered spend-thriftery.
I tried to explain to her that I had been deeply invested in a pretense of prosperity, that I had genuinely believed that if I just behaved as though I was wealthy, everything would work out okay for me. I was fairly sure that she did not understand how such a belief system could exist; the idea was wholly foreign to her experience of the world, as baffling to her as the piety of true, faithful religiosity is to me when I encounter it. I hoped that, at the very least, she had understood that I was no longer that young, unthinking, uncaring man, and that I had grown into a responsible adult, but the impression created all that time ago was probably far too strong to be so easily corrected. I suspect that in order to withhold any indication of judgment about the incident so troublingly remembered, she retreated into the habitual psychiatric detachment techniques of her profession.
Recently I received an e-mail inviting me to my Miniature Aunt Sylvia’s 100th birthday party in New York. I mulled it over all day while my wife was at work. I came up with lists of justifications for travelling East to the celebration. The truth is, it is not travel I can easily afford, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. I feel an affection for this woman, a real love that is not quite reasonable given the amount of actual time I’ve spent in her presence over my lifetime. She was kind to me when I was young and frightened. I have not seen her in quite a while. I wanted to go, but I wanted to have my end of the conversation fully prepared before bringing it up to my wife who is, by nature, far more frugal than I.
When Nancy got home I opened with a simple statement of fact. I said, “There’s going to be a 100th birthday party for my Miniature Aunt Sylvia.”
Nancy said, “Well, you have to go to that!”
I felt relieved and loved and taken care of. I threw away the complex arguments, the rationalizations. I said, “Yeah. Also, I want to.”
She said, “Book the flights. We’ll figure it out.”
She wasn’t even thinking about the money. Her only concern was how she’d manage to get home from school in time to walk the dogs while I was away.
I worried about what I could give to this century-old woman as a birthday gift. She has done quite well for herself over the years. Her apartment on the Upper East side alone has to be worth at least a few hundred thousand dollars and as far as I know she’s still working and writing and providing for herself. I couldn’t think of what she might need or want that I might be able to present.
I made calls to book an East coast gig to coincide with the trip, a gig that might allow me to write off the expense of travel. It occurred to me that this was the sort of sensible, financial thinking of which Sylvia might approve. I wondered how the timing would be in terms of getting from the party to a performance venue if I booked something on the same night. I considered whether I’d have time to do public transportation or if I’d need to take a cab. I knew, quite suddenly, what I had to give Aunt Sylvia and I chuckled at my own stupidity for not having thought of it sooner.
I dug through the closet in my office. I pawed through old journals and note-pads until I found the one with the right coffee ring on the cover, the one with the numbers written in it by a much younger me, long, long ago.
On the 17th of this month, I will travel to New York for the 100th birthday of my Great Aunt Sylvia. Now half her age, I will present to her the only gift I can think of that might have any real meaning. Having grown up the best that I knew how, I will give her an envelope into which I have tucked the full amount owed: one-hundred and eighty dollars borrowed in twenty-dollar increments over the course of a summer when I was young, and stupid, and she was a trusting, seventy-year-old girl.
I am most pleased with this, the first review of my new album, Dylan Goes Electric available only as a digital download. I have claimed that I gave it the comedic title because it is digital only, no CDs printed and mailed. That's not entirely true. I was a little bit afraid that my fans would feel I was a sell out because I went for consistent funniness in this recording. People who like my work often comment on my willingness to go dark or poignant and I was afraid this release, designed to help the mainstream entertainment world understand that I am capable of the all-important 4-to-1 Laugh Per Minute Ratio even though I do not always cater to that arbitrary algorithm (Am I using algorithm correctly, there?) would be perceived as a betrayal, a compromise, my own little 'Dylan goes electric' moment. This review from Ed Placencia at Comedy Reviews, therefore, came as a great relief to me.
On a badly damaged planet, limping sadly ‘round the sun
lived a deeply stupid species, blithely worshiping the gun.
The smart became depressive and let go control of things,
so the foolishly aggressive took the reins and played the kings.
Now this stone and water planet, danced its circle ‘round the sun
and to everyone’s indifference mass extinction had begun.
As the air filled up with carbon and fat kids began to wheeze
the people saw the problem far too late to save the bees.
So this blue and shining planet took its turns around the sun
and its self-appointed stewards let the melting glaciers run.
They built their gleaming cities and they drove their shiny cars
and hoarded gold as smoke and soot deprived them of the stars.
As this swiftly warming planet wandered calmly ‘round the sun
the species dreamed up deities; some claimed each was the one.
They argued and they tussled and they built their mighty bombs
until their wars seemed normal, not the intermittent calms.
Understand. This blue-green planet spinning happy ‘round the sun
offered seas and forests, endless playgrounds sown with fun
but its body had this virus, spreading coast to every coast
and it reproduced so quickly it soon overcame the host.
On this gently turning planet making trips about the sun
the deniers of the problem took some wooly facts and spun.
They fabricated stories as the arctic ice dissolved
and they lied about the danger ‘til no problem could be solved.
Now this breathing browning planet circled sickly ‘round the sun
while its blue and verdant surface slowly faded to a dun.
It began to run a fever, thirsty, shaking, growing warm
it erupted, cleansed and healed itself with earthquake, flood and storm.
So, this clever, living planet in its orbit ‘round the sun
did the thing that bodies do when by an illness overrun.
It used its own defenses and in no uncertain terms
it ensured its own survival by destroying all the germs.
As this strong and fearless planet arced unfailing ‘round the sun
it proved itself a hero tiny challengers should shun.
Its oceans rose to drown them and its lava flows to burn
it deprived them of their sustenance because they’d failed to learn
Understand. This bright calm planet loved its journeys ‘round the sun
but it never met a battle that it hadn’t fought and won.
You needn’t mourn its death, because the planet’s living on.
And its blue-green cast recovered once the sickness was all gone.
Behold, the blue green planet, spinning happy ‘round the sun.
It once held human beings, but that episode is done.
They thought themselves important. They deemed themselves a force
but like any minor sniffle, the infection’s run its course.
I am currently ghost-writing a memoir for a client dying of a rare lung disease. This is a woman with whom I’ve been distantly acquainted for years, who has interviewed me on air for some promotional appearances, to whom I feel inordinately close already. Now, and for the next few weeks, I sit on the phone in the morning and ask directed interview questions of her. Then I sit at my desk, put myself into the head of a woman who has already passed her expiration date and turn the memories I am privileged to share into stories others might enjoy reading. Also, it is my job to make the stories palatably funny and light so they might have some chance at finding a literary life beyond that of their original teller.
In the past, ghost writing has always involved a good deal of internal struggle for me. As much as I like to be paid for what I do, I always feel a little bit odd about being paid to do work for which, ultimately, someone else will take the credit. I sometimes find myself hesitant to use a particularly strong joke or turn of phrase, no matter how organically it grows from the moment, because I hate to have such a flash of inspiration go to page as someone else’s, to lose it for my own future use. Ghost writing is something I do, generally, for the paycheck. Writing for which I can take credit I do for pleasure, and I cannot claim to be so enlightened as to be able to do it without the involvement of my ego in every damn line.
Also, I have all sorts of issues surrounding money. I have been known to go through long periods in which I make nothing at all, living entirely off of my wife. When I make large chunks of money, I frequently feel as though I am underpaid for my efforts. I have no standard rates as a ghost writer. Whenever a project comes up, and they generally do so once or twice a year, the negotiation is always problematic for me. I hate to turn down work, but I also like to be paid well for work that does not feed my voracious ego. When a project looks as though it will be no fun at all, I name outrageous rates in hope that the potential client will go away. If the client accepts or makes a counter offer that will greatly help me financially, I accept it, buckle down and do the writing-for-a-living work for which I’ve been hired. When an uncredited project seems as though it might be good, good fun, I do my best to make myself available at reasonable enough rates to get the job. Regardless of where on that spectrum the job lies, I spend much of the time feeling as though I’ve undersold myself and berating myself for still being at a place in my career at which ghost writing is a necessary revenue stream. Also, writing for money carries a lot of guilt for me in general; no matter how much or how little I make, it feels a bit like a cheat, a scam, a con. Writing comes easily for me and is, for the most part, an escapist pleasure; so I feel slimy getting paid for it, just as much as I always feel like no amount that I’m paid for it is enough.
This woman I’m working for now, though, is a friend of sorts, certainly someone for whom I feel affection, though we’ve never met in person. I’ve known of her terminal prognosis for a couple of years, although I didn’t realize until recently that she is already well into bonus time, well beyond what was predicted by the doctors who diagnosed and now treat her. When she told me she wanted to do a memoir, I encouraged her. When she told me that she cannot bring herself to write it and wanted me to ghost write, I winced because I did not think she could afford me even at my lowest, happy-to-do-it rates.
She’s dying, though. I have time. I offered to do the work for a very low, living-expenses sort of advance against my proper rates if she manages to find a publisher for it who would provide a proper, professional advance against royalties. I started doing the interviews and writing. Every day for the first week I did this until my head felt as though it might explode. I kept doing the mathematical reductions to figure out how many pages were done, how many left to do, how many I write in a day and how many more days this was likely to be my task. Then, as she wheezed her personal anecdotes to me over phone and I typed my notes for the day, I felt an unexpected sense of privilege. I was the person this lovely woman trusted with her legacy. I was the one chosen to turn memories into prose. I was the one she believed could honestly and accurately and touchingly put her life to the page. She thought, I will be gone soon. She thought, I want to leave something behind of what I have experienced in this life. She thought about making that thing beautiful and lasting and funny and touching and she thought of me.
I am not a guy who takes artists seriously when they talk about how they think of what they do as a service they perform for the world. That has always felt to me like a pretense of humility from someone who, like me, serves his or her own ego.
On this project, though, I have begun to feel the pleasure and the responsibility of using my craft to be of service to someone who very much needs my services. I am underpaid and I am overjoyed and it feels as though I have been given a gift.
I am the hand behind the part of her that will live on. My client will die. And I, happily, am her ghost.
I know I've been a downer a lot lately, talking about the sense of loss I felt at the death of Robin Williams, talking about depression all the time. (By the way, my Modern Depression Guidebook has just been re-released as an e-book by Autharium. You should order it.)
To shift the mood a bit, here's a piece I wrote last week and presented on Saturday for the first time. It's written in the style of Alex Stein but it works well enough to stand on its own. I suspect I will include it in the Evening With Dylan Brody that Eve Brandstein is producing at Beyond Baroque on the first of November. That show will have a larger audience and the recordings will be of high enough quality released as a series of singles by Rooftop Media.
Click the little forward-pointing triangle below to hear this first presentation. I could not be happier with the story.
I have to talk about depression for a minute.
Robin Williams’ death hit me hard. It hit a lot of people hard, people who had worked with him extensively, people who had passing professional relationships with him like myself, people who knew him only in the way that a celebrity is known by the general public. We all knew, to one degree or another, of his struggles with depression and with substance abuse, but that a man of such energy, such productivity, such genius could reach a point of suicidal despair came as a shock. His death feels like a loss. His death by his own hand feels somehow like a betrayal, as though giving in to the power of his darkest demons is something this wonderful man has done to us, rather than something he has done to himself or, even more accurately, simply done.
I have faced and continue to face my own battles with depression. I have felt the certainty that the world and my loved ones would be far better off without me, have made the shift from looking at the stack of bills and thinking about expensive things that I own and could sell to looking at the swimming pool and thinking about heavy things that I own and could tie to my feet.
Right now my depression is fairly well under control. For decades I self-medicated with marijuana. Eventually that stopped working. For about fifteen years I kept the depression at bay through a combination of cognitive therapy and martial arts training. Eventually the darkness crept back up my spine to infect the creases in my brain. Now, depression is mitigated as a side effect of the Paxil I take, because I now see a strict Orwellian Therapist who medicates me against political outrage. (My wife points out that the therapist in this joke should be a strict Huxlian and I know she’s right, but I think “Orwellian” is more accessible and the medication keeps me from caring that much about such details.) Still, I remain vigilant for symptoms, knowing that should I develop a resistance to the medication, should my chemical balances shift, should the wrong confluence of events occur, I could once again find my mood spiraling downward like Larry Flynt at the Guggenheim. I hope that when it happens I will recognize it and find a new weapon to utilize in the continuing battle.
Depression lies. It lies in all sorts of ways. Depression tells you that you are worthless and that nobody needs you. It tells you that it cannot be treated. It protects itself from treatment by telling you that it is necessary, that without depression you will not be able to write or to paint or to be funny or to be passionate about your political beliefs. Depression tells you that it is permanent and unavoidable and correct. Depression tells you – and this is the most dangerous thing of all – that nobody cares, that nobody will listen, that nobody will understand.
In truth, some people will not care, will not listen, will not understand. Some people are dismissive assholes. But if you are lost in the darkness, keep calling out. Someone will respond, I promise. Eventually someone will not just hear you, but will listen. Someone will take your hand, lead you toward daylight and hug you reassuringly along the way.
If you are not lost in the darkness, keep your ears open. You needn’t save everyone. Nobody can save everyone. But be ready, when you see someone in need, to open your hand and your heart. Be ready, when you can, to help.
Depression isn’t easy. Hell, life isn’t easy. But if we can all be brave enough to share our own burdens and to help others who need to share theirs, there’s a damn good chance we can get through this together.
You guys are all wonderful in your humanity, every damn one of you. Stay alive, would you? I can’t manage my struggle without you.
Early in my career, Robin Williams was among my heroes. I listened to Reality, What a Concept on my component stereo system until the needle hiss became indistinguishable from the sound of applause. Jokes from it still cross my mind at odd moments, triggered by a turn of phrase or a passing reference to something of the time. Perrier. Jaws.
Two weeks into my work as a stand-up comic I showcased at Catch a Rising Star in New York because, according to the movie Fame that was what you did. I heard that Mr. Williams was in the room just before I went on. I went down in flames and as it happened I wondered if he was there, seeing it. Just imagining the possibility that a hero would see me flounder so badly troubled my sleep for weeks and made me wince whenever the thought of it happened across my mindscape. Several years later, when I moved to L.A. as a regular at the New York IMPROV, I set up a showcase for myself at the IMPROV on Melrose. I gave the emcee my intro, but instead of introducing me, he introduced a special guest. Robin went up ahead of my showcase. He took the stage and sweated and improvised for forty-five minutes and he was hilarious. Then I went up to an exhausted crowd and showcased into a microphone as they paid their checks and left the room.
These are the vagaries of show business. He remained one of my heroes.
About a year and a half ago, Robin came in to do a guest spot on the David Feldman Show. When he read through the sketches prepared by the writers, mine was the first one he picked to do. He complimented me on my writing. He did the thing word-for-word as I had written it. This was not because he could not have improvised. It was because he was kind and respectful.
(Here's the recording of Robin doing words I wrote From the David Feldman Show with Paul Dooley and Rick Overton. The Shakespear Sketch.)
When I performed in Mill Valley six months later, he was at the Throckmorton Theater talking to Mort Sahl before the show. I approached him. He remembered me. He introduced me to Mort as a very talented writer.
He was gracious and kind and he exuded warmth.
His death saddens me more than the death of an acquaintance really should. All death speaks to loss and reminds us of our own mortality. But Robin Williams’ light burned so brightly that the thought of so much darkness just below the surface hurts the empathic heart. I am sad. That is all.
As a man -- and a jew -- who feels that violence is never the solution and always a continuation of the problem, I find myself deeply troubled by the most recent violence in the middle East. I am troubled by the Palestinian attacks that come after a history of saying that they are opposed to the very existence of a Jewish State. I am troubled by the Israeli ghettoization of Palestine, after a history that should have left them – us -- hyper-sensitive to the need of a people to have a viable and recognized home. On personal level I am troubled by the polarization that has made me hesitant even to write about this for fear of alienating friends and colleagues who have become so entrenched in their positions of defense that any talk of peace seems a betrayal. The enemy is neither the Jews nor the Arabs, neither Israel nor Palestine. The enemy is our own readiness to see violence as an answer to violence, to see vengeance as a response to past wrongs committed, to see weapons of death as acceptable tools of self-expression. While it is true that peace brings with it risk, it is also true that war has never been safe for anyone. If we cannot all stop and listen together for the shared sound of our breath, we might begin by quieting the explosives long enough so that we can at least to hope to hear the true sounds of the world we must inhabit together.