Grief Counseling

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Mourning is very personal, yet it is unflaggingly universal.  Not how we mourn but the fact that we do.  How we choose to do it is a whole different story.  Well, actually, many different stories.

The HBO broadcast of The Normal Heart, coupled with the death of Maya Angelou and our seemingly bi-monthly mass murdering spree by a mentally ill young man with gargantuan firepower, made this past week feel like it was all about death.  Which meant it was really all about life.  Or, to be more accurate – how we all really feel about our own lives.  

No, this is not a greeting card homily because Hallmark, American Greetings and the like do not specialize in those kinds of phrases or in short, tightly written sermons that speak to our true thoughts and issues.  Can you imagine that?

 Too bad they’re gone but you got to admit, someone like you was lucky that they even talked to you.

 If they were so great – how come they’re dead and you’re not?  Hmm, maybe you are better than you think

OR my favorite —

Live it up because if someone as fantastic as her or him died, you clearly will not be living forever.  In fact, obviously you are already dead – inside.

I could go on but I won’t.  Or maybe you want to make up one of your own?

___________(fill in the blank)___________

Or you can always count on someecards for something wildly inappropriate.

Or you can always count on someecards for something wildly inappropriate.

As playwright Marsha Norman confided to me decades ago when I was working on the film version of her Pulitzer-Prize winning drama about suicide, night, Mother, there is nothing wrong with gallows humor when you spend day after day around death.  In fact, it’s necessary.

Still, it’s easy to feel as if all of this stuff is happening just to you, isn’t it? Or at least more deeply to you.  For instance, aside from all of the above indignities in the past week I also heard about the passing of a lovely young woman in her twenties who was the wife of one of my former students, the brain cancer diagnosis of an old friend, and various other serious illnesses involving both my parents. Add to this all the dredged up memories I have of all of the young men my age in the 1980s who literally disintegrated before my eyes from complications of AIDS that were, ironically, brought to life so accurately in The Normal Heart, and you could say I was leaning heavily in that direction and starting to lose it.  In fact I did lose it – meaning broke down and cried from the grief – for about 10 minutes – out of the blue – the following afternoon. (Note:  Don’t fret.  I felt a lot better afterwards).

The Normal Heart hits close to home

The Normal Heart hits close to home

Oddly, it was another death – that of the writer, poet, actress and activist Maya Angelou several days later – that really brought me out of this.  It’s something different for all of us, right?  The only thing you know for sure is that if you are really participating in life, something will indeed not only come to rip you back into the only rat race that we have but to make you feel inordinately lucky to once again retain your rodent status.

I was 14 years old the first time I saw and heard Maya Angelou speak and it was on The Mike Douglas Show, a nationally syndicated talk show out of Philadelphia that I promise you no other 14 year old boy in my neighborhood was watching at 3:00 on a weekday afternoon.  Still, that’s what made Ms. Angelou so riveting to me – she was different. All 6 feet of her, dressed in some colorfully patterned dress from head to toe – her voice booming in full articulate sentences as she spoke about her loneliness as a child and the brutality she endured and held in – until she finally found her voice.  She then read a passage from her book, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and all I remember thinking is, Wow – she wrote about her life and all the secrets she had that made her feel alone?  Hmmm, maybe one day if I get up the nerve, which I probably never will, I can write about what’s happened to me and feel better about things and, well, get recognized too- or at least feel less alone.

Phenomenal Woman

Phenomenal Woman

Oh, of course all writers want attention and to get recognized.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  And no – I am not comparing my life to a woman as accomplished as Dr. Angelou, who was raped at the age of 7 by her mother’s boyfriend and who then did not speak for six years because she felt responsible for his murder by other family members who had found out from her what he had done.  Or, perhaps, in some small way – I am.

What I began to realize – decades later – (and still have to remind myself of) is that this is, indeed, what life, and death, are all about.  That small connection.  Maybe only a tiny similarity but a connection nonetheless. It’s also what the creative arts – both great and small (Note: is there small?) is about.

You never, ever know who you will reach with your little story, do you?  Yes, that means you.  No doubt Dr. Angelou did not write Why The Caged Bird Sings thinking that some young, Jewish gay boy in Queens would be helped by it.  Or perhaps she did.

Who are you reaching today?

Who are you reaching today?

Well, none of that really matters, does it?  What’s important when we think of people like Dr. Angelou is not if they intended to speak to us but how they spoke to us – in what way – and what they left behind that to us makes the greatest sense This is also the case for our friends and loved ones.  It’s how they live on and how we manage to go on.

How did they touch you?  Help you to understand life?  What did they inform you of?  Enlighten you on?  Entertain you with?  Were they honest?  Did they tell the truth in life and in art – or both?  Or neither?  Do you?

And finally, when all is said and done – what one thing did they leave behind with you?  Not with the world but for you – yes you.  For as lofty as it might sound, you are the world they leave behind.

If I learned early on about the power of speaking the truth from Dr. Angelou, I was taught the real value (actually, necessity) of speaking your own truth from the deaths of so many young, dear friends and colleagues I lost from AIDS in the period depicted during The Normal Heart.

And —

that I would gladly agree to spend the rest of my days never speaking one ounce of my truth in return for being able to bring them all back and to have had that period of history erased is, of course, the ultimate paradox of life.

Alas, it's not that easy

Alas, it’s not that easy

So here we all are – faced with a world where everyone’s actions and deeds and truth speaking do matter.  Never has this been more clearly seen than in the recent events at the University of Santa Barbara, or at the Boston Marathon, or in Sandy Hook Elementary School – or at countless American locales each year before them.

One cannot pretend to have known what was truly in the heart of our most recent mass murderer in Santa Barbara  – 22 year-old Elliot Rodger – despite the vast human wreckage, extensive written manifesto and plentiful You Tube postings he left behind.  Perhaps that truth was a mystery even to him and is the very fact at the heart of his actions.  On the other hand, it might be much more simple – something that brings to mind one of the most memorable quotes I can recall from Dr. Angelou:

When people show you who they are, believe them; the first time.

Be ready for the mask to come off.

Be ready for the mask to come off.

If nothing else, this brings to mind the imperative of really listening.  Not only to the people we care about or are paid to listen to but to each person with whom we come into contact.  I usually learn the most from moments with people from whom I don’t anticipate learning anything at all.  Just as I have often been hurt the most by those from whom I never would have expected such behavior.

Yet every so often you meet a person you adore and you get to spend time with them – and even love them for a period of time.  Sometimes it’s a short time and sometimes it’s a lifetime.  It can also be from afar, or even up-close but not personal enough.  And then, suddenly, they’re gone.

No matter how many greeting cards you get, tears you shed or words of wisdom you read or hear from concerned relatives, friends or anonymous bloggers — It’s hard not to miss that.  Or them.

Eating pizza helps.  Though certainly ice cream or cookies are a good temporary fix, too.  You do what you can.  And then try to have some fun again.

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Something for Everyone?

William Goldman, the Oscar winning and once highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood (though he lived in New York) once famously said of the entertainment industry:  “Nobody knows anything.”  I never truly believed this, though I said I did.  After all, it’s easy to be the most successful and highest paid anything and say that because a) you’ve already made it, b) you are one of the few of us who are so clever and talented that you don’t have to figure out the regular rules, or c) you are probably also the kind of person who is ALWAYS in the right place at the right time, something that never seems to happen to me.

Now that I’m mid-career (if I live to be, like, 110), I know that’s bullshit.  You might not believe me because, well, why should you?  Especially if you’re the age I was when I first heard William Goldman make his remarks in the 1970s.  But trust me, it’s true.

Conventional wisdom tells us a lot of things but what it doesn’t tell us about are the EXCEPTIONS – and CHANCE – both of which have a lot more power than we think and shifts conventional wisdom on a dime.  It also probably produces the best films, television, music and theatre, anyway.  Yes, it’s a bit of a cliché but bares repeating – no one thought “Star Wars” would be the hit that it was; Francis Coppola wasn’t the first choice to direct “The Godfather; horror films were dead until “Halloween,” musicals were dead until “Chicago” and “Glee;” and John Travolta’s career was dead until a fan of his named Quentin Tarantino decided it would be a hoot and cast him in a little film called “Pulp Fiction.”

Further – you don’t make movies on issues such as anti-Semitism in the 1940s until a film like “Gentlemen’s Agreement” wins some Oscars and makes money; nor films about black and whites intermingling or marrying until “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”; nor hire blacklisted writers until Kirk Douglas decides “that’s crap” and employs accused Commie Dalton Trumbo to write “Spartacus” because he knows he’s the best man for the job.

Or take a chance on anything particularly new and different in the post millennium world because the world economy is in collapse, everyone is risk adverse, the public IQ has been dumbed-down and we now live in a four quadrant world where any artistic property that has a hope of being made has to appeal to the broadest audience possible and have the potential to be an action figure, an app or a happy meal.

Oh please.

All it takes is guts, talent, perseverance and, yeah, a little bit of luck.  But we all have luck at one time or another in our lives – both good and bad.  If you believe you never had any good luck – well the fact that you’re still breathing does count.  And if you still want to believe that isn’t true then you can take some solace in the fact that if there is only bad luck, someone’s lack of luck could certainly cause you to inadvertently prosper.  Would that be considered your good luck?  Well, I certainly think so.

I was amused at Lady Gaga’s recent HBO concert for many reasons, but none more so than when she imitated one of her doomsaying, know-it-all NYU professors regarding Gaga’s chance of making it – Teacher (in heavy New York accent):  Well….you know….(gum chomping)…yaw’ll never be the STAHHHH (star).  Ya maybe can play the ballsy best friend… But ya’ll NEVER…… etc, etc.

Now granted, I may not be the greatest college professor in the world, or even in the top 1000, but I can’t imagine ever telling that to a student, or anyone, because – how the hell do I know?  Or anyone know? Hint:  If they tell you they do, remember what William Goldman says – they don’t.  And you can take his word for it because he’s made far more money and films than I have AND has also written numerous plays, books and musicals, too.  Google or IMDB him.  You’ll see.

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001279/bio

If you still don’t want to believe either of us – consider this year’s Tony Awards and what I couldn’t help but feel was the emergence of everyone’s inner GAY.  As in homosexual, same sex marriage, or the love that dare not speak its name as they used to say in the fifties (yeah, times are changing.  The Tonys might help gay marriage pass in NY…but still…)

Having been born at a time when they still used to say the latter and now living in a time when I write about the former, I confess to a still continuing surprise when I watch the opening number of a primetime, family-oriented network (CBS) offering hosted by an openly gay host (Neil Patrick Harris) and star of a very high-rated (at least it was) and traditional sitcom (“How I Met Your Mother”), singing to, oh, 50 million people – that theatre “Is Not Just For Gays Anymore” without so much as a ripple of public disapproval or threatened network boycott.  This was UNHEARD OF even just 20 years ago.  (see this or this).

But that’s not the only thing.  Yeah, we know the theatre’s always been more gay friendly than other entertainment mediums (is it something inherent about New York or because drama originated with the Greeks?), but the show then continues to become a tribute to an irreverent musical called “Book of Mormon” by the at one time controversial “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.  Remember when there was public outcry about their work and very existence?  What changed?  Was it CHANCE?  Or were they the EXCEPTION?  Or —

Did they just continue to do their work, good work, and the world somehow caught up with them?  Maybe that’s why they’re the toast of Broadway.  And not even gay.  (As far as I know).  Nah, I guess it’s just luck and chance.

Someone who is also the toast of Broadway and gay who I do know (of)  is a man named Larry Kramer.  For those of you who know him, you know how strange this sounds.  Mr. Kramer was one of the first (if not the first) activists to speak out about AIDS in 1981 – offending much of the gay community by handing out leaflets in the gay Mecca Fire Island and begging people (fellow gays) to curb their sexual activities until more was found out about the disease and demand government action.  He also offended much of the straight community, as he’d done his entire life, by simply being his unabashedly gay, mouthy, take no prisoners, self.  Mr. Kramer continued to do so and wrote a play about his travails 30 years ago called “The Normal Heart” starring a mouthy hero patterned after himself which played off-Broadway and got mixed reviews for being TOO SPEECHY, TOO PREACHY and generally (I can say this now) ahead of its time.  As those of us who were around then and have (somehow) lived to tell this tale now understand, Mr. Kramer was right and his artistic work on Sunday was lauded as if it were truly the Rapture (not the fake one predicted). And now, in one fell swoop, he got Tony Awards, a public platform for him to speak to a worldwide audience without leaflets, and tributes by just about every film, television and theatre star in attendance.    (Mr. Kramer, by the way, has never been a stranger to controversy – his first novel – a roman a clef called “Faggots” – which took the gay community to task for its penchant for loveless sex – was a huge success in some circles in the 70s, yet also cost him dearly in the eyes of his own community).

The admittedly very long-winded point I’m making is – WHAT WILL YOU FIGHT FOR?  WHAT IS YOUR ORIGINAL VOICE TELLING YOU IS IMPORTANT?  Because if you’re interested in “making it” in the entertainment business – really making it – meaning having an impact – this seems as sure a way as any to do it.  It’s a slow, unsteady climb, not a straight one (oops, didn’t mean to make that pun).  Chances are events won’t EVER fall into place for your work of art the way it did for Larry Kramer, or even Trey Parker and Matt Stone.   But chance is so-named because it’s unpredictable.  Just when you feel sure it’s trending one way, it can easily turn around, sneak up behind you and say “boo.”  Or much more than that.  Ask Larry or Trey or Matt.  Chance is strange that way.

Ellen Barkin, who won this year’s Tony Award for best supporting actress for “The Normal Heart” summed it up best in her thank you speech when she said her experience with the play taught her one very important lesson:

“One person can make a difference – one person can change the world.”

Kramer did it for gay liberation and the issue of AIDS.  Trey Parker and Matt Stone did it for comedy, political correctness and, now – Broadway.

But isn’t it all the same thing?  Take a chance.