I started reading Anne Lamott in the late nineties. I wanted to move from playwriting, which I’d done for decades, to novels and had been told by a handful of smart people that Ms. Lamott’s Bird by Bird was as valuable a guide to writing good prose as I could find.
I loved her voice, her life force. Since Bird by Bird I’ve read everything she’s published as well as most of her blogs. Next to my wife, daughter, sister, granddaughter, nieces, and a small handful of very close friends, Anne Lamott is my favorite woman in the world. She is my model for honesty about oneself and the willingness to see the dark side of life while continually moving toward the light.
In preparation for the publication of my new novel, Hello, Rest of My Life, I sent a copy of it to Ms. Lamott, hoping she’d read it and give me a “blurb.” This is something an author is not supposed to do. It’s okay to ask to send a copy of your book, then hope for a response. But sending the book without an invitation to do so is a no-no.
Unfortunately I don’t have time to observe all the protocols. I think as an author I have something to say, but regrettably not forever and a day to say it. So I broke the rule and skipped the “Would you let me send you my book?” part. I was pretty sure nothing I sent would find its way to her anyway. If you’ve read or seen a little about her, you know she’s one of the busiest, not to mention enlightened and accomplished creative artists around. She has over 600,000 Facebook followers and draws crowds wherever she speaks.
Three days ago, I got an email from her. She apologized to me for taking so long to get back. She said she liked my title and the description of Hello, Rest of My Life, but she was up to her eyeballs and couldn’t promise to read it any time soon.” “But,” she added, “I am so pleased that you sent it to me, and I send you congratulations on this and all your work.”
And then she signed it, “Anne Lamott.”
Well, really! What more do I need? It’s far more than reasonable that she says she doesn’t have time to read it “any time soon.”
So, I’ve learned from Anne Lamott how to be a better writer than I used to be, plus I’ve had reinforced in the tiny clear-sightedness subdivision of my mind that it’s possible to be a successful, inspired, creative artist and a first-rate human being all at the same time. I’ve been given yet another model—and we never stop needing those—as I tread my path, of the way I’d like to be in this world.
I have a child’s memory of World War II. My father was in the Army Air Force. He was a doctor stationed at various induction centers around the West and the Midwest: St. Louis, Lincoln Nebraska, Salt Lake City, and Colorado Springs. As a little boy, I remember a surge of emotion listening to the Star Spangled Banner.
Several older boys, who lived close by, went away to serve overseas. I remember being told that at least two of them would never come home.
In the time of Hitler and Tojo, there was a horrible paradox: there is no such a thing as a righteous war. But there is a time to say “No.”
I don’t believe this is a time of paradox. I think we should now say no to inflexible political opinions. We can say no to hatred. Just about every religion on earth has instructed us that as we sew, so shall we reap. Let’s stop reaping hatred.
I don’t know that we’ve brought this thing (Covid-19) on ourselves, but I also don’t know that we haven’t.
I moved to New York when I was a young man. It was fashionable, especially among “artists,” and would-be artists, to be wised-up atheists, or at least very skeptical agnostics. I wrote plays about how silly, even bigoted, some churches and religious factions are.
I still think that’s true. The difference now is that I realize I didn’t recognize that the wellsprings of sanity beneath most religions are profound and based on deep spiritual understanding. Our smartest scientists can’t understand the depths of quantum physics. Which of our philosophers understands, in a comprehensive way, the underpinnings of metaphysics? Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” Shakespeare: “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio.” At the end of Darwin’s life, he was unable to claim any understanding of what the world, for lack of a more all-inclusive word, calls God.
We can no longer pretend we know there is no such thing as karma. All those who say we do not reap what we sew are very likely wrong. What an excellent time to take seriously the words of American philosopher, William James: “Despairing doubt accomplishes nothing.”
We were made to accomplish. When we try, we invariably do. It’s time to suspend animosity. It’s time to really love our brother and sister–every single one. At the very least, it’s time to work hard at learning how.
Our hatreds, jealousies, and petty responses to people who are not exactly like the people in “our” little village have been at least part of bringing down on ourselves all kinds of evil.
We are not by nature hateful. If God made us in His image, then we have it in us to be loving to each other.
I earned my keep as an actor for most of my life. I love the theatre. I also love reading and books and there came a time in my 60s when it seemed like a good idea to give writing a full time go.
The more I write, the more I love doing that too. But starting next year, God willing, I’m going to take a break for a while.
“What are you going to do with yourself?” asks the little voice inside me that I keep handy to ask questions when I need questions asked.
“Funny you should ask,” I say. “But since you do, here’s what I have in mind:”
I’m going to go to the theater. I’m going to go to the theater every night for weeks, maybe months on end.
If you catch the theater bug and end up seeing lots of plays of every variety, it can easily become a serious addiction.
I haven’t acted on stage in years. Recently, I realized I’ve barely attended the theater in years.
I miss it. I think it is the most exciting, vibrant art available to the lucky ones of us who have the opportunity to see living theatre in action. No other art form is as electric. When you go to a play, you are a part of that art form.
Ask any actor. Ask any theatre professional. When you attend a play, you are every bit as important as anyone who had any role in making that production happen—including the writer, director, and producer. And, amazingly, you, sitting comfortably in your theater seat, are alive in that story, as much a part of it as any of the actors on stage.
When it’s a good production of a good play, there is an electric current that you in the audience are an organic part of. You are palpably connected to, and one with, the actors on stage. They are no longer actors, they are the characters they are playing, and you are a vital part of what makes them live. When it works—and people have given a good piece of their lives to make it work—you are watching, hearing, sensing, and taking part with your entire being in the life-and-death drama, the comedy, the tragedy, and the gamut of human experience that’s playing out in front of you.
Go take in a good play one of these days. You’ll be reminded of how exciting it can be. P.S. Someone may have noticed I spelled theatre (theater) both acceptable ways. I just never could make up my mind.
Linda and I celebrated the launching of my last book, Impersonators Anonymous, by going out to dinner at one of our favorite restaurants in LA.
The Yamashiro (Mountain Palace in Japanese) was built by a German family circa 1914 to house their extensive collection of Asian art. It’s now a popular restaurant, perched on top of a hill in Hollywood, with a dazzling view of the city.
The building is surrounded by eight acres of beautiful gardens with a path running through. That’s where we got a little goofy and Linda did the silly video.
If you’re wondering what we had for dinner, it was the small Sushi Boat.
Accepting the gift horse is the important thing; dissecting the creature serves no purpose. We are offered a free ride. We’re meant to grab him/her by the mane swing up, and let it take us wherever it’s going. Troubles or not, life is a beautiful ride, what a joy to be offered the chance to go on it.
I wrote a little play about thirty years ago. It’s about a family whose relationships keep shifting. I had no coherent point of view in mind when I wrote it. I just wanted to keep the audience interested.
I got a call recently from a man who’s directing that play at a college in Northern California. Someone appears on a big tricycle — toward the end of the show. The director said to me, evidently accepting my silence as agreement, that the tricycle is a vehicle for the protagonist’s—I didn’t know I had a protagonist—for the protagonist’s attempt to reach homeostasis, “a stable state of equilibrium” according to my dictionary.
I filed that one away and didn’t think about it again until the next time I bought a new pair of shoes. The shoe salesman told me I take a nine-and-a-half-C. I explained to him that I’d always been a ten-and-a-half-D, ever since I was seventeen. The salesman insisted.
Okay. I had to consider the possibility that I’d been wearing the wrong-sized shoes for the past several decades; that all the other shoe salespersons in my life had been incompetent. I tried to keep an open mind. But the damned shoes just felt too snug. So I bought the ten-and-a-half-Ds. And now, right in that one little area of my life anyway, I have … homeostasis.
What a wonderful thing. I’m going to get myself a bumper sticker: HOMEOSTASIS IS WHERE THE HEART IS.
I keep learning life is change, of course. I can certainly see that’s true, watching people I know. From day to day, we all change. Between two average Mondays, I think most of us have shed at least seven new skins.
Still, I like the sound of homeostasis. It feels comfortable. You could role up into it like a blanket.
But like most of us, my mind never settles in one place very long—Buddha … was walking along a river bank one day and an old disciple of his came up to him and said, “Master, I’ve been following your teachings. I’ve worked for thirty years and look what I’ve learned.” And the disciple walked across the river and back. And he said to Buddha: “Do you see, Master? Do you see what I’ve accomplished?”
And Buddha said, “That’s terrific. And it took you thirty years to learn that?”
The disciple said, “Yes.”
And Buddha held out his hand and said, “Here’s a nickel. I can take the boat.”
WELL, WHAT THE HELL WAS THE POOR GUY SUPPOSED TO DO THEN? He’d ALREADY learned to walk on water. He had to have worked hard to do that. What a crummy thing to say to him—“The consequence of this, my son, is that you’ve wasted thirty years of your life. Go and be happy.”
I personally like that guy for taking all that time to walk on water—if that’s what he needed to do. There are consequences to opening your mouth.
And so my epiphany for the day is: Homeostasis can be a wonderful state of being—something that leaves you feeling peaceful and never pinches your feet.
On the other hand, if you think your epiphany is going to work out for EVERYBODY you run into, you’re very likely wrong about that.
When I was a young actor, before I became an older actor—and long before I decided to quit taking my rejections in person; choosing to be a writer instead and receive them through the mail or electronically, I worked on the stage, mostly in New York City. The high point of that time was when I got cast in an already established hit Broadway play.
Four months earlier, I’d taken over the understudy of the “juvenile” male lead in Cactus Flower. The character was named Igor Sullivan. (“Igor’s my own, I made up the Sullivan.”) I’d done that thankless job for four months, when the young man I was understudying, Burt Brinkerhoff, a nice actor who later became a television director, got a job in another Broadway show, one he hoped would make his career take off.
Meanwhile, he had to be replaced in Cactus Flower. I was the understudy and maybe/maybe not had the inside track. In any case, producer David Merrick held auditions. It was narrowed down to four other actors and me. We were to read with the star of the show, Lauren Bacall. Knowing how close I was to getting this huge career break. I developed a fierce nervous backache several hours before the auditions. I was petrified.
I had one thing going for me. As understudy, one of my jobs had been to knock one time—and one time only—on Ms. Bacall’s dressing room door when it was time for her next entrance. And I would, flashlight aimed at the path in front of her through the backstage darkness, conduct her to her point of entrance. This happened several times during each performance, eight times a week. I performed my task conscientiously, meticulously. I knocked once and was painfully respectful of “Ms. Bacall.” I’d been raised by a mother who could be very tough. I knew how to be respectful of women who had power in your life.
Ms. Bacall liked that. When I read for the role of Igor in Cactus Flower, she gave me a one hundred percent performance to help me be at my best. She wanted me for the part.
I got it. I played opposite her for several months. After I’d done the role for a while, she looked at me one night with a twinkle in her eye and said, “I discovered you.”
I never stopped being a little scared of her though.
Over a year later I got cast in the same role in the movie. In that version, Bacall’s role went to Ingrid Bergman. I wasn’t a bit scared of Ingrid. She was so gracious and kind to me it took my breath away. She was friendly, sexy, warm, everything I might have hoped she would be.
And Ingrid seemed to like me. I was extremely flattered. I knew it was silly, but I developed a sort of… I guess it was a crush on her. It didn’t matter that she was over twenty years older than I was. In the movie, I played the same intimate scene with her that I had with Ms. Bacall on stage. We danced in the scene. Igor says something about her being a sexy lady. She says, “An old sexy lady.” I say, “Good, let’s run away and live on your Social Security.” The choreographer smiled at me one day and said, “It looks like you’re having a thing with her.”
Well, not exactly.
But Ingrid liked me in a different way than Ms. Bacall had. Betty Perske (Bacall’s original name) liked me in the role. Ingrid liked me personally. We talked together for hours during the times Walter Matthau and Goldie Hawn were doing their scenes and while we were learning our dance number for the final nightclub sequence.
I was flattered that she liked me. I liked her back. I don’t know if it was a kind of mother thing she felt for me or something else.
Either way, it worked for me.
She was rumored in the past to have developed crushes on her leading men. She didn’t have one on Walter Matthau (although he admitted to having one on her). I became aware that during the ten weeks of rehearsals and shooting, she spent more of her off-camera time with me than with anyone else.
There was no doubt about it; Ingrid Bergman had a crush on me. This was during January, February and March of 1969.
I guess to be entirely honest though, I should admit that I was a little disappointed when I saw her at the film’s premier in New York the following December.
I said, “Hi, Ingrid.”
Ingrid looked into my eyes for a moment, searching, then answered, “Hi, Nick.”
But … and maybe it was only a little one, for a few sweet moments in early 1969, Ingrid Bergman had a crush on me.
When I was twenty-five and he was forty, I saw Charles Aznavour at The Alvin Theatre on 54th Street, a half a block west of Broadway in Manhattan. It was a matinee. The theatre was sold out.
I was there because a couple of months earlier I’d seen the new wave movie, Shoot the Piano Player, in which Aznavour was the lead. Then, a week before I saw his live show, I was walking down 54th Street one day and saw Charles Aznavour. I guess he was on his way to the theatre. I was six-feet-four; I towered over him. As we passed each other, he looked up at me and gave me one of his open, twinkly, friendly smiles.
I turned around, went back to the Alvin box office and bought a ticket to a matinee. I was lucky enough to get a single in the seventh row.
On the day of the show, when the curtain went up, I was first struck by how huge and empty the stage was. There was nothing on it but a straight back chair and a small table.
Aznavour made his entrance. On that stage especially, he was tiny, miniscule. His presence, however, was huge, immense. I have never before, and don’t imagine I ever will, see a show with that much raw emotional power.
Tonight, with my wife Linda, I saw a video of a concert he gave at Carnegie Hall in 1995 at the age of seventy-one. I don’t think there was one bit less energy than when I’d seen him at the Alvin thirty years earlier (over fifty years before this writing). He was vibrant, aglow with passion and energy, the very definition of joie-de-vivre. Near the end of the nineteen hundreds, he was named Entertainer of the Century by CNN, and users of Time Online around the globe awarded him the same honor. He edged out Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan.
At one point tonight, Linda asked me if he was a good actor. Then almost immediately she said, “Oh, I already know the answer to that, don’t I?” Aznavour doesn’t just feel his songs. Like the best of the best singers, he inhabits the role he’s written for each of his heartrending musical stories like the finest actor inhabits a role. He is riveting.
I googled him after the show and saw that on this night, tonight, a few hours ago, November 4th, 2017, he performed live in Vienna at the age of 93. I looked up his schedule. He’s booked through next March. Having read about him before, I know he’ll be calling his manager, or whoever, in the near future and he will tell that person (in French, I guess, but who knows; he speaks—as he writes—in many languages), “Hey, Louie! I don’t have anything for April and May.” And of course, Louie will get on the stick and start booking the diminutive king of entertainment through to the end of 2018.
When Linda and I finished watching the Carnegie concert, I felt a familiar old sensation of wanting to perform, sing, dance, write, act, anything that would make me come to life like Charles Aznavour is alive anytime, anywhere.
My God, he is eternal. He began in the business in the 1930s, before I was born. He is a five-foot-three model of beauty, soul, and being alive.
In 1964, after a year of living the struggling actor’s life in New York, I decided to quit and move back to my hometown of Jackson Michigan. I loved it there. I could imagine a life there, perhaps as a teacher.
Just before I was ready to leave, I got a call from the producer of Buck’s County Playhouse in New Hope, PA, where I’d made my professional debut a year earlier. He wanted me to come do a play called Sunday in New York, starring Alan Alda.
I said of course. That’s all I ever said to acting jobs in those days. I didn’t know much about Alan then, but that didn’t matter. I later found out there was something magic about him. Years afterward, I talked to Harry Morgan, who played Colonel Potter on M*A*S*H. Harry and I were friends. I’d acted in two movies and a TV series with him. He told me in his whole life as a character actor (and there are very few who worked more than Harry did), he never had a better experience working with an actor than he did with Alan.
Last night, I saw an interview with Alan on Charlie Rose. He’s written a new book about communication, empathy, and understanding each other—not as relates to acting, but much more broadly, as relates to communicating and truly understanding each other in all areas of life. The book is called, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?
In his mid-twenties, not long before we did Sunday in New York, Alan had taken a workshop for six months with Paul Sills, who founded Second City. When we rehearsed in New Hope, improvisation-based acting was very much on Alan’s mind. Looking back, my impression has always been that when Alan gets something on his mind, he doesn’t let go until he’s gotten every bit of juice out of it (I’m pretty sure he’ll never get the juice out of his passion for communication).
In last night’s interview, he said “When we make contact”—really make contact—with another person, “it feels so good.” Then he repeated a line I’ve heard before and have always loved: “My performance is in the other person’s eyes.”
We rehearsed and performed Sunday in New York for about a month. During that time we (a cast of six, including Alan) also played “theatre games” based on a book by Paul Sill’s mother, Viola Spolin, called Improvisation for the Theatre.
Back in New York, after the show was over, and before Alan went into rehearsals for the Broadway debut of The Owl and the Pussycat, we continued our improvisation sessions, again with Alan as leader.
I was twenty-four. I’d studied with seven or eight different acting coaches by then, all very able. None of them came close to having the effect on me that Alan had. It was exhilarating. He listened to me with his eyes as well as his ears. In one of his books he says, “There’s an ecstasy in acting and that ecstasy is a glorious experience. It can be a noble calling.” He also said that he likes “to infect people with enthusiasm.” And that he’s “avid about being avid.”
It worked for me.
When I got back to Jackson, in my new enthusiasm, I asked the man who ran Jackson “Adult Education” if I could teach theatre games as a class. He said yes, and for the next several months I did that. That was exhilarating too. It was also something I wouldn’t have had the guts to do before.
After a while, I decided to go back to the University of Michigan and finish the work I’d started on a master’s degree. After enrolling, and as I drove back to Jackson, I realized I had no choice but to go back to New York and try again.
I loved the work. Like Alan, I also love writing. It took me a long time to (sorta) grow up. I keep working at it. In regard to working at undoing his “old bad habits,” Alan imagined: “Maybe I’d become a better actor. I didn’t know it then, but maybe I’d become a better person too.” I felt the same way. He was only four years older than I was, but I looked up to him as an older brother, or even kind of a father figure. I was extremely immature. Alan had his ghosts too and they were considerable. He’d had a battle with polio when he was a boy. His mother had mental issues, but mine did too; that only made me feel closer to him somehow (of course I didn’t tell him this).
But mostly he had a joie de vivre that was infectious and a fearlessness that to me, who should have been a little past his formative years, but wasn’t, he was the very essence of a role model. I remember one night before the performance, he was doing push-ups to warm up and he observed that we were similar types. I knew what he meant, but what I was thinking was “in my dreams.” I wanted desperately to learn how to have his attack on life. I felt if I could just manage a little bit of that, I could slowly gain his kind of fearlessness and grow into a success like the one I knew he was about to have.
Those couple of months I spent working with Alan changed me—not always as quickly as I would have liked—but it’s had an unwavering effect on my life.
Last night, Linda and I were at our friend Anne’s home for dinner. One of the other guests, Rosemary, had worked as a personal assistant to Alan for eight years during M*A*S*H. She said she’ll be seeing him next week. I’ve been out of touch with him for a long time; I asked her to say hi to him for me.
In the last few weeks Linda and I have read his previous two books. I’m currently reading If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? Last night I met Rosemary and saw Alan’s interview with Charlie Rose. It all feels a little like the serendipity of working with him in the first place.
Having the good luck to run into good teachers when you’re young—or anytime—can fill you with optimism, faith and confidence. The name of the town where I met Alan still resonates with me, New Hope.
After I left New York and my professional life of stage acting, and moved to Los Angeles because I was being offered movie and television jobs, I settled into a life of working and watching Hollywood at work and play, mostly play and much of it deadly play. The late manager-producer, Bernie Brillstein, said, “You’re nobody in Hollywood unless somebody wants you dead.”
One day my agent, known to be one of the Hollywood killers, said to me after I’d committed to do a play in Princeton at the McCarter Theater, “I don’t think you really want to be a star.”
I thought about that. Also, my second marriage was breaking up (all my fault); I was proving to be far too immature to be married. As far as being a star was concerned, that was steadily becoming academic; I hadn’t been paying attention to business. Besides, a lot of my friends were stars and I’m pretty sure most of them were not very happy.
For the next four years, I got lots of psychotherapy, so as not to end up dead before my time. I also began to date—at first, very unintelligently, repeating over and over again my dim-witted patterns. One day, my therapist said—very unprofessionally if you ask me—“You can really be a bastard.”
This sounds as if I’m a little proud of that. I’m not; I wasn’t even then. I didn’t like being alone and lonely. Some people are fine with it, I guess. I wasn’t.
I started to date … methodically. I know, what a cold word for dating. But I really had to do it that way. I “shopped” for a mate. If I went on a date with a woman and heard a list of her life’s problems within the first five minutes, we finished dinner or whatever, I said, “It was nice to meet you,” and we parted ways.
I don’t think it was cold. I think it was smart. Finally.
Thirty-seven years ago I had a blind date with my wife Linda. If she had any problems, she didn’t tell me about them. I didn’t reel off a list to her. We came together like new people, with sort of clean slates. She wasn’t attracted to me because she saw a way of being pulled out of a hole; she just liked me.
From then on, I was not a star, but I was a working actor with a great marriage. Nobody wanted me dead.
Well … maybe one of my ex-wives, but I don’t count that.