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Cancer, Live Theatre, and “The Penguins of Ithaca”

There are…things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself.”

Notes From the Underground, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Every writer has stuff that’s off limits. There are some things we just don’t want to think about. They are too personal. Or painful. Or perhaps writing about them would be awkward, or even embarrassing. Eugene O’Neill waited until his father, mother, and brother died before writing Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and even then gave strict instructions to suppress the play’s performance until 25 years after his own death.

Writing is terrifying, especially when it requires us to relive any kind of pain. “Why do I have to go through everything again?” So cries Louis in Suicide in B Flat, Sam Shepard’s beautiful and bizarre mystery play about the fragile and explosive relationship between Biography and Art. The play is literally framed as a mystery: Louis is not an artist, but a detective who, while searching for the link between the artist and his life, falls prey to his own inner demons, until all that is left is the past.

That’s all well and good, but who of us can write as well as Shepard? I know I can’t. There’s a reason why creating art is called a ‘risk’: the potential for failure is enormous. You want proof? Look at The Onion: “Study: Family History of Alcoholism Raises Risk of One Man Show.” Pure satire, but the joke magazine’s description self serving ineptitude has the terrible ring of authenticity. “The study found that males raised by alcoholic parents are 40 percent more likely to someday force their friends to attend a self-penned theatrical production about their life experiences….To see them throw their lives away by performing an hour-and-a-half-long monologue for 15 people in a tiny black-box theater is just plain sad. Tragic even.” One man’s catharsis is another man’s kitsch. Maybe it’s easier to just not write at all.

Alright, fine. But what’s the alternative? Years ago, I read an interview with Paul McCartney. This was a long, long time ago, back in the day when journalists and reviewers criticized the former Beatle for putting out less than totally outstanding material. (It’s kind of hard to imagine anyone doing that now, isn’t it?) Frustrated, the future knight of the realm shot back: “What am I supposed to do? Take Polaroids of myself sitting on the toilet?” It’s a good question; and one that every artist needs to ask when feeling too chicken to get disciplined, sit down, and start telling the truth. One of the great pleasures of Notes from The Underground is watching the author undermine of the narrator’s false premise. We can admit everything. It is possible to speak the truth. Not just speak, but write it down. Put the painful thing on paper and relive that moment we thought we never could. Or should. In order to survive, we finally need to heed Danton’s heroic call: “L’audace, L’audace, tu jours L’audace.” Sooner or later, we must employ audacity, and finally emerge from the underground.

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Fifteen years ago, I began tutoring 9 year old boy named Eric. My new student had recently been diagnosed with leukemia, and was being homeschooled. Told by his family of a voracious appetite Shakespeare, I was asked if I could take an hour a week to help foster his burgeoning interest.

Eking out a living as a professional actor in San Francisco, I was happy for the work. And I was especially pleased to meet my new charge; even at our first interview, Eric wasted no time. He wanted to talk about The Merchant of Venice. Bothered and fascinated with the Bard’s treatment of the Jewish moneylender Shylock, Eric wrestled with the most troublesome issues in the play before finally asking: “Was Shakespeare anti-Symmetrical?”

Most malapropisms reveal ignorance. Eric’s revealed knowledge. And curiosity. I mean seriously, how many nine year olds do you know who have even heard of The Merchant of Venice? Not only that, this nine year old boy cared about Shylock as if he were a living human being. Eric was concerned that Shakespeare might have done his own character an injustice. Tutoring Eric was already proving to be an extremely exciting prospect, and within a month, he’d read A Midsummer Night’s Dream from cover to cover. Pretty soon we were tackling Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, and Eric’s personal favorite, Macbeth.

We had great fun together. And Eric was brilliant. Totally, totally brilliant. It wasn’t just that he could read Shakespeare, he understood it. Not just intellectually, but on a visceral, gut level. “Malvolio and Puck are basically the same person: they’re both just in love with themselves.” “It’s wrong for Antonio to treat him that way, Shylock has to do something.” Eric once told me that Macbeth was his favorite character from Shakespeare. When I asked why, he replied, “Because even when he knows he’s going to die, he keeps on fighting. Right until the very end.”

I should have paid attention. There were times when Eric was just fine. Better than fine. His white blood cell count improved. He was in remission. He had energy, tons of it, and everything seemed to be moving in the right direction. But then there were times when Eric was not just fine. The cancer came back. He had a stroke. And graft versus host. And a bone marrow transplant. And exhausting treatments. And…I don’t know. Disappointment? Fear? I’ll never really know what it must have been like. To be Eric, or his amazing family who loved and supported him every step of the way. But you don’t need a great imagination to guess that the worst of it must have been terrifying.

I knew Eric for five years. And pretty soon, it became clear that I was being called upon to do something besides teach Shakespeare. I did the best I could, but I made a lot of mistakes. The worst was a speech that I gave at a concert held for Eric while he was in the hospital. (The scope of this boy’s influence was unimaginable; you simply can’t count the number of artists who decided to be a part of Eric’s life). At the time of the concert, his condition appeared to be improving. I said to the audience that I had faith that Eric’s life would not finally be a tragedy, but a comedy. Yes, I said “comedy”. Sure, I qualified it with some clever remark to the effect of “not the slapstick kind that makes people laugh, but the comedy of life renewed, and blah, blah, blah,” but the fact of the matter is that the operative word, which I used more than once, was “comedy”.

Eric was not amused. He saw a videotape of the concert, and a month or so later, when he got out of the hospital, he sat down with me and made his feelings clear. His cancer was not a comedy. There was nothing funny about his struggles. And my use of the word had upset him. Eric was quiet, direct, and polite. I was devastated. But not as devastated as Eric must have been felt when he heard what I had to say at a concert that was, after all, supposed to be in his honor.

Instead of firing me (he certainly could have) Eric stated quite reasonably that he hoped that it would not happen again, and would like for us to continue in our work together.

When did I figure out that he was smarter than me? That I was running out of things to teach him? Was it when he started learning ancient Greek? (Homer was quickly replacing Shakespeare as his author of choice, and Eric was determined to read the original). I didn’t keep a journal of our time together, so I rely entirely upon my memory, which is fragmented, incomplete, and infuriatingly anti-Symmetrical.

Five years is a long time. And I am grateful for every minute. But I wish I’d had more. Eric died ten years ago, and hardly a day passes when I do not think of him. And I guess some part of me still expects to hear his voice when I answer my telephone. Indeed, for years I kept one of his last messages on my answering machine. Finally, a technical malfunction erased his voice, and with it the illusion that I would ever talk to my friend again.

But that’s not entirely true. In fact, it isn’t true at all. Because I do talk to Eric. All of the time. It started from the very day he died. About a year before, I’d moved from California to Portland, Oregon. Eric and I continued our lessons almost every week over the telephone. I even managed one trip back to California to visit him. But I wasn’t there at the end; Eric’s mother telephoned to tell me of his death. I hope that I was able to give some small measure of consolation to Eric’s grieving family. But, as is the case with so many other things, my memories are fragmented. I simply can’t remember.

Here is what I do remember. The day that Eric died, my wife and I had family visiting from out of town. Resisting the temptation to spend the rest of the day in a dark room, I kept the dinner date we’d made. We took our company to this place called The Kennedy School, a former elementary school in Northeast Portland that’s been refurbished into a pub and motel.  The school’s halls have been repainted by local artists, and part of the establishment’s charm is in its invitation to stroll around the grounds and explore every inch.

It was weird. I felt alone. Eric was dead, and all I could do was pace around some local brewpub and sip on an IPA. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be doing, but thiswas definitely not it.

I want to be careful how I describe this next part, because after a decade, I still don’t understand it. I also want to resist the temptation to guild the moment with any gratuitous drama. So the best I can say is this: as I walked around The Kennedy School, I started to feel like Eric was there. Here he was standing by the radiator. There again, for a second, looking back at me from a painted wall. They were moments, and only moments. But the feeling was clear and unmistakable. Most of my adult life had been spent as a lazy agnostic. As was so often the case with Eric, my previously held assumptions were proving absolutely inadequate for the awesome immediacy of the present.

Was Eric really there? Or did my grief and imagination get the better of me? And in the end, does it really matter? When Harry Potter asks Dumbledore’s spirit: “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?” his master replies, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry. But why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

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Years passed. My son was born. My mother died. I started writing plays, all of them haunted by the specter of death. A girl refuses to visit the nursing home of her ailing grandmother. A couple vainly ignores the death of their middle child. A teenager commits suicide in Act I, only to return as a ghost in Act III to haunt his grieving siblings.

One day I had a chat with my godmother about my writing. Karen, a retired actress who still lives in New York suggested: “You should really write about Eric.” “Oh, I already have,” I lied, “All of this stuff I’ve been writing…it’s like, well, it’s my indirect way of processing my experience with him.” It sounded plausible enough to me, and I considered the matter closed.

But the truth was, I had made a decision not to write about Eric, or the effect he had had on my life. For one thing, I didn’t want to churn out some sentimental TV movie of the week Lifetime special get out your hankies and have a good cry piece of horseshit. Sure, I guess all writing is manipulative. But still, the whole prospect seemed wrong. And after all: I hadn’t had cancer. Eric had. Wasn’t this his story? Hadn’t I been there to help him? And hadn’t I screwed things up enough by just talking about his life with that horrible ‘comedy’ misnomer? No way. I wasn’t going to do it. Every writer has stuff that’s off limits. There are some things we just don’t want to think about.

In the spring of 2010, eight years after Eric died, I was writing a piece that I guess you could call an absurdist sketch. Here’s how it went:

A fully grown man named Ectoplasmic Jim is confronts an imaginary version of his middle school English teacher, a woman in her ‘70s whom he’d always had a crush on. Ectoplasmic Jim (EJ, for short) is smitten, terrified, neurotic, and self absorbed. Sputtering like a teenager, he presents his former teacher with a list of his virtues and good deeds, hoping to mitigate his crush, and in the proces justify his entire existence.

“Hmm,” I thought, “What does EJ have to say for himself? What’s the first thing that would come out of his mouth?”

And the first thing that came out of my brain was this:

“There was this one kid that I hung out with, he was like this genius. I think that he was ten or eleven or something ridiculous like that and they already had him studying ancient Greek.”

Oops. I knew where this was going. Eric did not belong here, didn’t belong here at all.

But I had made myself a promise: never censor anything from the first draft. You can always edit later. And you don’t have to show it to anybody. But the first draft is sacred. A note from the underground. So I took a deep breath, and spent the next month and a half writing something that I’d been avoiding for years.

The play I wrote is called The Penguins of Ithaca. It is about a self absorbed, neurotic man named EJ who befriends a ten year old cancer patient named Carl. (I named after the children’s author and illustrator Eric Carle). The play is a work of fiction. Most of the events are imagined, and roughly half of them aren’t realistic. But the play for me is real. In writing Carl, I tried to capture Eric’s voice as accurately as I could, even when inventing dialogue that never happened in real life.

I’ve tried to be respectful. I hope I’ve been honest. And I’m sure that I’ve made tons of mistakes. But McCartney was right: you have to keep going, even at the risk of getting it wrong.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall is not the story of Annie. Rather, it’s the story of how she forces the neurotic narrator to get over himself and grow the hell up. I tried to be original, but I’ve never been able to shake off Woody’s influence. And so my play is not about Eric. Rather, it is a fragmented, anti-Symmetrical reflection of how he taught me life’s value of making every moment count.

Still, I wonder what Eric would think. He was very critical, and I cannot help imagining him scratching his head and asking: “When did we ever talk about that sort of thing?”

Then again, Eric was a performing artist. He could do the dagger speech from Macbeth like nobody’s business. He put together intricate clown routines that from time to time he’d share. And Eric was a remarkable dancer. One of my most cherished memories is that of watching him perform in The Nutcracker at Marin Ballet. So I can’t really say whether or not he would have liked this thing. But I know that in writing the play, I have tried to honor his memory. I hope that perhaps, on some level, Eric is able to understand.

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Shortly before he died, The Make-A-Wish Foundation sent Eric and his family to the island of Ithaca. My young friend was eager to visit the home of Odysseus, who’d trumped even Macbeth as his all time favorite hero. “He’s a survivor,” Eric told me, and it was clear that he’d found his kindred spirit. Back in the states, Eric filled me with tales of his own voyage to Ithaca, as wonderful and amazing as any told by Homer.

Suddenly, he asked me: “Do you know where the word ‘perfect’ comes from?” I confessed my ignorance. “It’s from the Latin word ‘perfectus’, which means ‘finished’, or ‘complete’, like…like coming around full circle.”

It would be one of my last conversations with Eric. Except for the fact that I still talk to him. It sounds crazy, until you consider the alternative. Those notes from the underground will only be ignored for so long. If Eric taught me nothing else, his life demonstrated the amazing and transformational power of art, knowledge, and friendship. I shall not look upon his like again.

Thank you, Eric. I hope that your Odyssey has indeed come full circle. As for myself, I still have a bit of a way to go. But wherever you may be, you will always have the gratitude and fondness of a humble fellow traveler.

David Berkson

1/17/12

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Fear of Writing

Mom

Four years ago my mother died. She’d had a stroke a month earlier. The doctors asked about an autopsy. They were curious, I suppose, about the overall picture and unanswered questions regarding Mom’s health during those final years. Perhaps I should have been grateful. But honestly, I sure would have appreciated little more of that medical curiosity while she was alive. Maybe an autopsy would have been informative, but I declined the offer. The questions I had (and still have) about Mom wouldn’t even have been asked, let alone answered.

A parent’s death reminds us that our days our numbered. It also highlights our own pieces of unfinished business, which plague us in the form of The List. The List is a catalogue of things that we just haven’t gotten around to doing. But that we will do, really, once we have a little more time. The items on The List may include (but are not limited to): going to the gym, losing weight, gaining weight, skydiving, travelling abroad, going to Disneyland, cleaning out the basement, cleaning out the garage, reading Moby Dick, spending more time with the kids, spending more time with the parents, quitting coffee, quitting drinking, taking up running, eliminating cholesterol, volunteering during the holidays, or getting up in the morning and writing that pain in the ass goddamn stupid novel.

My mom had her own List, and if writing wasn’t on top, it was very, very close. Her relationship with the craft was complicated and sometimes tortured. As a professor of English at a highly respected liberal arts college, she was a sensationally avid and astute reader. She alone introduced me to critical thought; I’ve never had a better teacher. And you could not ask for a more enjoyable reading or movie companion than my mom. Her ability to contextual details and show how they illuminated a complete work of art was exhilarating, and one of the things that made her a brilliant and wonderful teacher.

As for writing? I wish I could tell you. While rereading The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was always more important than cleaning up her study, the same could not be said for writing. The prospect seemed to frighten her, and my childhood memories of Mom composing her doctoral thesis are neither warm nor fuzzy. She certainly talked about ideas for articles and books, and to be sure, her job required writing and publishing. But it didn’t seem fun. I never remember hearing, “Jesus, would you kids be quiet? Don’t bother me while I’m writing!” Indeed, interruptions seemed welcome, and as any procrastinator knows, a welcomed interruption will always oblige the invitation.

It’s easy to pick apart someone’s unfinished business. But now, Mom’s final List is the mirror image of my own work in progress. Parts of my List seem permanent, like going to the dentist or cleaning up my own messy office. Not so with writing, a figure far more elusive and complicated, leaving and rejoining The List like a smoker at a party: present yet absent, engaged yet aloof, a charismatic and absorbing celebrity who might vanish or reappear at any random moment.

I did not wake up the day after my mother’s funeral and begin my life as a writer. But reminded of my own mortality, I looked at The List. I started to panic. And I began to work things out.

Three and a half years later, I have two full-length plays, a few comedy sketches, and at least two solid one acts to show for my efforts. Good for me! Right? Demon conquered! Correct? Isn’t that awesome that I snatched a victory out of the jaws of tragedy? Well? Isn’t it? Isn’t it?

Maybe. But not really. Truth be told, I haven’t completed anything major for over a year and a half. That’s right: largely unproduced, and completely unpublished, I appear to be resting on my rather slender laurels. And so, procrastination proves to be the eternal Hydra: forever sprouting two heads in the place where one has just been cut off.

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Google ‘books on writing fiction’, and you’ll get over 412 million results. A search for ‘creative writing programs’ yields hits of a mere 14 million. Amazon appears to sell over 30,000 books on writing fiction (although some of the listings may be duplicates). I could go on, but you get the point. For a society that’s supposed to be post literate, there sure are a lot of people who desperately want to write.

So what’s the problem? Don DeLillo tells us that, “A writer’s role is to sit in a room and write,” so why don’t we get over ourselves and do it?

As is so often the case, the answer comes from fiction: “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Hamlet knew all to well that the human psyche is a terrifying place. Natural disasters and pandemics are plenty scary. But they pale against the likes of the Holocaust or Spanish Inquisition. What makes these atrocities so terrifying is that they are human nightmares, products of the hominine imagination. Someone has to imagine an act of torture before putting it into practice. Now, as all parents and teachers know, “imagination” and “creativity” are almost always described as unconditionally positive. But how often do we overlook (or simply deny) the darker power of our own thoughts? Herein lies one of the many transformative aspects of Shakespeare’s art. While earlier tragedies show us the sins of hubris and denial, Shakespeare (especially in Hamlet and Macbeth) dramatizes the awesomely tragic potential of the power of imagination.

I am in no way suggesting that writing is a gateway activity towards unspeakable (or unwritable) acts of depravity. But Americans who bask in First Amendment liberties forget the incendiary potential of the written word. A figure no less horrifying than Stalin stated it with brutal simplicity: “Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns. Why should we let them have ideas?”

Forrest Gump compares life to a box of chocolates because, “you never know what you’re gonna get.” That is especially true of writing. How often do we hear authors and readers speak of fictional characters as real people (as I just did), with the capacity to act beyond (and perhaps against) the wills of their creators? It’s as if every author is a potential Frankenstein: creating life from nothing, and committing the ultimate act of sacrilege by playing the role of God.

Do I overstate my case? Probably. But here’s what Truman Capote had to say about the matter in his 1966 interview with Barbara Walters:

I happen to think that art is a form of religion and a way of reaching God. Occasionally and very rarely, in sudden moments, one feels in art a state of grace. It is as though a voice from a cloud is speaking to you and dictating to you what is transmitted through your hands to art. It is a religious experience.

Such grace proved too much for Capote: In Cold Blood was his last major work. He would spend the rest of his life in a terrible cycle of self parody and destruction. How telling is it that a decade before the Walters conversation, Capote conducted his own interview with Marlon Brando in the infamous New Yorker piece “The Duke and His Domain”? Capote and Brando were made for each other: two 20th century giants of genius, of taken and missed opportunity, whose lives now serve as cautionary parables of tragically wasted talent.

But the lure of the blank page is irresistible. Can anyone who’s ever experienced the thrill of writing ever completely leave it behind? I’ve heard lots of people (including me) make excuses for not writing, but I’ve never heard anyone claim to be done with it. For every Caliban housed in the human imagination, there is an Ariel to balance him out: joyful, effervescent, vulnerable, resilient, eternally optimistic, and forever longing to be free. The cave paintings of Chauvet and Lascaux prove beyond all doubt that our need to process experience through art is human, ancient, and primal. The Hydra is menacing, but not invincible. Sometimes we jut need to ask for a little bit of help from the gods.

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Earlier this month I went into my parents’ attic in my annual search for Christmas ornaments. I had a hard time locating them, as the top floor had been professionally reorganized during the summer. In the midst of my search, I found a manuscript housed in an old manila envelope. It is a murder mystery written over thirty years ago. The novel’s author is my mother.

Culturally important as the Lascaux cave paintings? Of course not. But no less thrilling for me. Mom carved out time for this novel, and writing it gave her tremendous joy. And she finished it! I don’t recall whether or not she tried to publish, but I certainly remember the teenage version of me reading that mystery with tremendous pride and pleasure. The discovery of this manuscript serves as its own cautionary tale: don’t oversimplify your parents’ vices; there’s always an Ariel waiting to be liberated.

The supreme irony of the piece that you are reading is that it’s just another form of procrastination. I have my own neglected novel, waiting ever so patiently for me in my eternally messy study. I have the story mapped out. I’ve written over 200 pages. But most mornings, I cannot call myself the king of infinite space. The bad dreams are just too frightening.

But ask, and ye shall receive. The discovered manuscript is my golden sword from Athena; I am ready, once again, to face the dreaded Hydra. And of course, Mom’s work is now at the top of my own growing reading list. Now that I know where it is, I am going pour myself a drink, settle down in a chair, and reread my mother’s novel. But not before I spend a little more time with my own.

David Berkson

12/27/11

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