I am a 12-year-old boy on a Schwinn, pumping after school to Normandy Isle Park on Miami Beach, there to pursue the dream in which I quarterback the University of Miami Hurricanes to 45 consecutive Orange Bowl victories and go on to concurrent careers in pro football, basketball, and baseball.
At 12, Immortality I think I understand; mortality I do not. Life is a clock that runs forever and an eventual end to it is something I cannot imagine hurtling toward me at the speed of time.
Six years later, 18 years old, I barrel toward the extraordinary adventure of college in my ’56 Chevy convert, the amalgamation incarnate of Doctors Pasteur, Freud, Frankenstein, and Ben Casey.
I arrive at the University of Miami as a pre-med student, a proponent of my father’s dreams for me: The two of us some years hence sharing his office on Biscayne Blvd., him bequeathing, me earning my fair share of the adulation I have seen heaped on him since my earliest memories. He, the internist, will minister to the bodies; I, the psychiatrist, to the mind. Together, Healers. Medoff and Medoff. Rounds at the hospital (“Dr. Lawrence Medoff to Three East, Dr. Mark Medoff to Three West”); house calls marked by an endless assortment of graciously offered currency (“We don’t have the money right now, Doc, but would a fresh flounder help at all?”); dramatic middle of the night cries for help (The Miami Herald assigns a reporter to follow me everywhere and discovers that I engage only in missions of mercy); tennis on Wednesday afternoons (“That’s Dr. Mark Medoff on Court One, he could be ranked nationally if he weren’t obsessed with serving others”). But it won’t be all philanthropy; there’ll be the 6 figure income, the tailored lab coats, those unattractive but oh-so-comfortable-orthopedic shoes from Italy. And always and ever, that prefix before my name: Doctor.
But then, like a hint of what mortality might be all about, comes inorganic chemistry. My partner and I, a young lady from Scarsdale, NY, as out of her element (or elements, if you will) as I, almost blow the chem. lab into the stratosphere one afternoon. “What did you do?” my professor wants to know. “Beats the hell outta me,” I tell him. “Mixed a little of that with a little of this and got combustion.”
I thought that was a memorable exit line, for in fact the Dr. Medoff dreams, my father’s and mine, are over.
A Ph.D. in Psychology — there’s the ticket! Pretty much the same rights as a psychiatrist — maybe not as nice an automobile — but only 3 years post-grad instead of 4, less science, and no cadaver. But I vacillate. Who wants to listen to a bunch of neurotics tell me their problems for the next 40, 50 years? And why do I need them if I’m looking for neuroses — I live with me.
How bout an M.A. in Social Work? Into the streets, the ghettos. Kids, the homeless, the impoverished, the abused. Sacrifice myself to the betterment of those less privileged than I. Help someone! Is it possible that some combination of practicality and compassion are beginning to replace my frivolous dreams of Immortality? Is this what maturity is about?
Evidently not. Because it’s on to pre-law! Perry Mason, Clarence Darrow – and why the hell not: Abe Lincoln (I was born in Illinois)! Defending the innocent, prosecuting the guilty, upholding the Constitution, quirky double-breasted suits, Gucci loafers, waxed eyebrows, court room histrionics. Yeah — now we’re talking practicality, compassion, and a dumpster fulla bucks…and we still have a shot at Immortality in that big movie of the week of that big case I win when — you remember..!
But I grow weary and I’m frightened and I’m aware that I’m kidding myself and though I’m not going to be a psychologist, I’m going to see one. I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up and the growing, at least chronologically if not emotionally and intellectually, is taking place in-ex-orably.
To recap: Pre-med to Psychology to Social Work to Pre-law — all in the first semester of my freshman year.
But then, in an eruption of heretofore unknown intestinal fortitude, I choose to chase my own dream instead of my dad’s. The dream I have kept locked in a vault where it couldn’t remind me of its lunacy since age 15. I become an English major and set out to become a writer.
Freshman year at Miami Beach High School. Mr. Samuelson has our class write a short story. A few weeks after we turn our stories in, he announces that he has given the first A+ in his teaching career and will ask the writer of that A+ story to come forward and read his tale – aloud — to the class. “His story.” Hmm. I look around, trying to guess which four-eyed, un-athletic, girlfriend-less, high-water panted, metal-mouth, pimply hyperbole, future Merit scholar classmate will so honored.
In the second it takes Mr. Samuelson to speak my name, he changes my life, pronouncing that I can do something I didn’t know I could do – and better than anyone else in my class.
Dreams of Immortality rearranged, I become an obsessive, closet writer. Closet, as it is not considered in the mid-50s of the last century appropriate for a jock and chosen-of-young-women such as myself to be an “artist.” My basketball coach, having heard of my treachery to male-dom, accuses me one day of “reading philosophy.”
Eleventh grade, I crack the door of the closet and hand in a story to the literary magazine. The English teacher/faculty advisor to the magazine, rejects my story because, he says, he suspects my mother or father helped me write it. “A bit sophisticated, no? Hmm?”
No, moron, I have a gift!
Second semester at the University of Miami, I meet my mentor for life, the fabled teacher of Creative Writing, Fred Shaw. I meet him because my Advanced Comp professor, a regal Victorian lady named Dr. Grace Garlinghouse-King allows me to write a short story instead of the assigned essay several assignments into our semester. She calls me at midnight the night after I turn my story in. She doesn’t introduce herself. She simply says, “There’s nothing more I can teach you. I’m passing you on.”
I call my parents the next morning. “Mom, Dad, I‘m being passed on.”
Fred Shaw teaches me pretty much everything I know about writing. He lives on in every one of my students, whom I tell at the beginning of every writing class I’ve taught since 1967, what he told me. 1) Don’t do it if you don’t have to do it, as the amount of rejection you’re going to face demands you either be totally committed or psychotic; 2) if you have to do it, you have to do it for at least an hour a day for 10 years before you can expect anyone but Mom to care; 3) writing is rewriting; 4) you cannot wait for inspiration; writers write; 5) you’re in it alone, you teach yourself.
I’m a prose writer until I’m 26 and just out of grad school at Stanford University, where my thesis project is a roundly mediocre novel.
In my first semester as an instructor at New Mexico State University, a university with a herd of cattle on campus 2 blocks from the English building, one of my colleagues, a founder of a new community theater in Las Cruces, says in the spirit of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, “Why don’t you write a play and we’ll put it on.”
Accustomed to being self-indulgently alone and lonely and fascinatingly neurotic as a writer of prose, I am reminded the moment I begin to work in the theater that I have always loved the familial nature of team sports, going back to Normandy Isle Park and dreams of everlasting athletic fame.
In a play I will write 17 years later, THE HANDS OF ITS ENEMY, a play about the doing of a play, one of the characters says (or used to say, as I cut the line a few days before opening in New York): “The thing I love about the theater is the collaboration of separate spirits who share the responsibility of a play’s fate.”
It is shortly after the Las Cruces Community Theater production of my first play, THE WAGER, in the spring of 1967, that I have one of those Eureka moments. I am making myself crazy that Philip Roth was famous at 26 and I’m 27 and my life is notable only in that I live in close proximity to cattle.
It occurs to me that I have always held something back and that I can’t fully succeed until I’m willing to face the possibility of catastrophic failure. Willing to find out I can’t be the only thing in life I want to be.
I recall a psychiatrist asking me at age 16 as I worried my lack of sufficient worldly accomplishment into chronic depression and an issue with anger management, “What’s the worst thing that can happen if you try your best and fail?” “Death,” I say. “No,” he says. “The worst thing is you’ll be humiliated. For life. But that’s all.”
Age 27, I eject myself into a new and permanent place: I will give my all…all the time, every day, in everything I do; and if I fail — better than to awaken months or years hence to suffer the regret of knowing I held back, protected myself, condemned myself to having to be one of that multitude who spend their lives making the excuse that goes more or less like: I could have been what I wanted to be but, (Fill in the blank): I stubbed my toe, it’s a deterministic world, I’m the wrong color, wrong temperament, wrong shape, wrong religion, do not look good in a hat.
Dreams of lost opportunities in later life, I take a guess, will be called nightmares.
Thirty something plays, 20 or so movies, 1 novel, and 44 years of teaching later, I find it impossible not to give my all…all the time.
Much of my last 35 years has been spent between theater and movies.
Though I made a fine living writing movies, the position of the writer in film is very different from the role of the writer in the theater. In the theater, as the writer I can have the last word, if I care to. In film, my experience has been that movies are written by me and RE-written by committee. Though I’m a good collaborator, still love team sports, I am at heart still a quarterback who played in an era where the quarterback called his own plays.
Thus, I have come later in life to directing movies, and writing them only if I am attached to direct them.
The theater is the place I can write whatever I want and where, if I dare, I can write at the top of my intelligence. It’s popular to talk about movies dumbing down; it’s less that than the effort to appeal to a common denominator, whose commonality is often that we all belong, nominally, to the same species.
Working in the theater is intimate. A writer, a director, a stage manager, some actors, a few designers coming in and out. Directing a play is like having a few friends over for dinner and not monopolizing the conversation.
Directing a movie is like running an army.
I would have turned to directing movies in my mid-30s, at a time when I have 2 plays running simultaneously in New York, am acting in one, and am the living example of leisure-suited self-importance run amok. My wife Stephanie points out that we probably won’t stay married long or extend our one-child family if I go to Hollywood to write, direct, and act in movies.
I realize in that moment that I want to defy my destiny, which is to live the life of what is then popularly referred to as a male chauvinist pig. And so I agree I won’t pursue a film directing career until however many children we end up with are all out of the house.
Thus, I direct my first feature at age 60 after our youngest of 3 daughters finishes graduate school in music.
In the library of our house in Las Cruces, there are 2 stained glass windows. When we build this library onto our house in 1980, I tell the artist only that I want stained glass and that she should decide what the stained glass represents. She says she wants to do one window representing my work and one window representing my influences, making of my library a kind of cathedral to someone who is a better model human being, I think, than the one previously discussed.
And who are those influences, she wants to know. The fact is I have never put together a rank-ordered list.
I could certainly put my parents there, for their love and financial support, and for accepting my aspirations and basking in my efforts and success. My wife Stephanie and our daughters, who, among many gifts of love, radically feminized me in time to create Sarah Norman in CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD, giving me the confidence since to purposely write large roles for women.
But the stain glass artist wants to do my literary influences.
Ah. So who wrote all those books my mother read me as a child? Who wrote the kids’ book that, at age 9, out of some impulse, I set out to “rewrite” by messing with conjunctions. Who wrote all those orange-covered biographies I read in junior high? Who wrote the first great erotic books I read — The Hoods and Forever Amber?
Do I put Bernard Malamud there, he who touches my soul in novel after novel for 3 decades? What about the incredible influence of Joseph Heller and a single, seminal book — Catch-22? What about what I learn the first time I read William Styron’s Lie Down In Darkness or Ellison’s Invisible Man? What about the feeling of alter ego in Philip Roth and Lenny Bruce and Mel Brooks and Bruce Jay Friedman and William Goldman? What about Bellow and Updike and Vonnegut and McCullers? What about what happens to me for ever and all time when I read Richardson’s Clarissa and Smollett’s Humphrey Clinker and a nameless Holocaust survivor’s book called Atrocity, written under the name Ka-tzetnik, a word meaning simply “concentration camp”?
What about my beloved Mr. Salinger, whom I strive to imitate in my late teens and early 20s and whose absence in print I lament to this evening? What about the poets Arthur Rimbaud and T. S. Eliot and J. V. Cunningham and Frederick Goddard Tuckerman?
What about my philosopher guides, those illuminating and scarifying Virgils: Sartre, Camus, and Kierkegaard, my holy trinity of Existentialists? Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche? Spinoza, my ethicist? Plato, my lay-it-on-the-line guy: “You have to choose to be virtuous as the essential ingredient of your being.” That would be a tough daily reminder.
And what about the first line of the epic poem written by the guy who borrowed Virgil for a tour of mythical hell. That first line has come into several things I’ve written: “In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to a dark wood where the straight way was lost.”
What about an empty window to indicate the passage of my religious faith, thanks to all of the above plus a minor in Comparative Religion, a close reading of 2 Testaments, various other religious tomes, and some independent thought?
Finally, I deliver to her these names: William Faulkner, Emily Bronte, and Thomas Wolfe.
In that window today, there are the extraordinary likenesses of Faulkner, Wolfe…and Samuel Beckett. Ironically enough, in the era of “Women’s Liberation,” my artist cannot satisfy herself with a likeness of Miss Bronte.
I want Emily Bronte in that window because of what she teaches me about passion and about narrative technique in Wuthering Heights. And I want her there because a woman should be in the window of my influences. So many of my best teachers are.
Faulkner is there because he, among the myriad writers I adore, strikes me as having incorporated into himself the most extraordinary abundance of ideas, imagination, and style, to have taken the best lessons from everyone in every era and become them anew.
Becket is there because of Godot, to me the single most extraordinary stage play written in my lifetime, one whose lines come to me unbidden at some time every day.
Thomas Wolfe is in my window not because I so admire the enormous outpouring of emotion and verbiage in his undisciplined novels, but because I’ve been haunted for 50 years by a few words in the prose poem that acts as an epigraph to his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel. Part of it says this:
“Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our mother’s face; from the prison of her flesh have we come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth. Which of us has known his brother, which of us has looked into his father’s heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone.”
The writers in my window cry out for compassion and understanding of our lonely, spectacular plight in a universe we cannot comprehend.
Just missing the cut for the window: Mr. Dickens.
Because, oh yeah – this: “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business.”
Though I’ve played Scrooge several times and written a female version of Scrooge for my deaf actress, Tony Award-winning friend Phyllis Frelich, it’s those words of Marley’s that also come unbidden to my head at least several times a week.
At 19, newly anointed by mentor Fred Shaw for future Immortality, I told my mother one day I would change the world with my writing. She laughed and said, “If you affect one person in your life in a positive way with your writing, consider that a life well spent.”
And I…I whined and caviled, “If that’s all I can hope to achieve with my writing, I might as well become a doctor.”
Still, in a less egomaniacal way, I hope, I am driven by the notion that as husband, father, artist, teacher, ambulating human – or semi-ambulating at this juncture – mankind IS my business, though it is often hard to think well of us.
Case in point: 18 years ago, during my tenure as head of the Theatre Arts Department at New Mexico State University, I am sharing a dressing room during a production of A Christmas Carol with one of our sophomores, the young man playing Bob Cratchet to my Ebenezer Scrooge. We get to talking one evening about Mr. Dickens and I find myself whirling into some pirouettes about Richardson, Smollett, and Sterne and he stares at me as if I am speaking of an investment banking firm with which he is not familiar but about which he would love to hear more if I have any insider trading information. When I inform him I’m talking about the English novelists Sam, Toby, and Larry, he asks if those aren’t the 3 Stooges – Close! — and announces proudly that he has never read a novel.
In this season to be jolly, I assume, naturally, that he’s engaging me in a bit of spirited whimsy and tell him so. Jolly season or not, young Cratchet insists, there’s no whimsy involved here.
I inquire how he got out of high school and into his sophomore year of college without reading a novel.
He confesses with a certain pride that it wasn’t easy.
My Christmas cheer boileth over. But where do I aim my anger? Shall I dump it on the television networks for turning an entire generation into so-called “couch potatoes”? Dare I go way back and just drop the whole load on Richard Nixon?
Sitting in that dressing room with that young man, the Existentialist notion that we have the right at any moment to make ourselves anew leaps to mind, jockeying for space with the Chinese proverb about the longest journey beginning with one step, wrapped up and bow-tied in: “Mankind is my frigging business!”
I tell this young man that I would like to give him a novel to read. I feel like a penitent Scrooge, ever so hopeful that young Cratchet will be forgiving of my audacious proposal as he closes in on age 20, a mere year or two from the time he will depart college for the real world where he conceives, no doubt, that all the books he has not read will prove useless anyway, thereby validating his monumental ignorance. He agrees with the bare minimum of holiday cheer to let me give him a Christmas goose.
What novel do I give a kid in Trickle-Down 1982 that will stimulate the reading of more novels, and with what novel do I start to make up for the woeful void in this young man’s education in his one and only life?
Each of you is grappling for an answer as I pose the dilemma.
I am one of those kids who suddenly develops a love of reading in the sixth grade, due in large part to the love of language, of books, of thoughts, of children of my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Ruth Waller. Initially, I only like biographies of historic figures and novels dealing with sports, especially Clair Bee’s incredible Chip Hilton series, replete with Platonic lessons about integrity and knowledge and understanding of a boy’s dreams of achieving the stars.
In high school, I am oppressed by virtually everything I am supposed to read, from “Beowulf” right on up to Jane Austin, and including Mark Twain and William Shakespeare. What happens to my reading habits in high school is that I get hooked on contemporary fiction. I read 5 times in 4 years a book that I think at the time is simply the greatest baseball novel ever written; it’s called The Natural, and is written by someone named Bernard Malamud.
It’s not until I arrive at graduate school that I learn with what cleverness and complexity that book has been conceived, leading me back to Mallory’s “Morte d’ Arthur” and forward to Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King,” and to Jessie Weston’s From Ritual To Romance, to Joseph Campbell, and back to T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”
In my mid to late teens, however, Bernard Malamud’s The Natural speaks to me simply about morality and dreams of Immortality.
In college, I become thoroughly consumed by works of fiction which speak to me in some variation of the contemporary lexicon and idiom and experience. I would rather read a novel than do anything but write one.
At Stanford, in grad school, I feel like I’m on a 2 year read-a-thon. I fall in love with the 18th and 19th centuries. Finally, I groove on Beowulf.
By the time I am faced in that dressing room with young Bob Cratchet, a lot of books have become part of what makes me what I am and always becoming; but, no single book has any greater impact than the one I’m assigned to read in the first week of my first semester of college back in 1958, when I am still scheduled to be a doctor of medicine and play some serious tennis.
The next evening I slide onto Cratchet’s make-up table my 26 year old copy of The Catcher in the Rye. I assure him that he will read the first paragraph and find himself in the throes of a new hunger, for which satiety will, thankfully, never be achieved. He will come to me within 48 hours to ask for a list of other books that will touch his soul. He will thank me for changing his life. And I will smile humbly and maybe even say, “Mankind, you know, kid, is my business.”
I am already wrestling with what the second book should be. Don’t want to scare him. Do I go to my own next seminal book — age 19, my spirit soaring in search of wings — and give him my cherished hardback copy of James Ramsey Ullman’s novelization of the life of Rimbaud, The Day On Fire?
Yes! Good! Yes! And after that…
The following August, start of a new school year, young Cratchet still has not finished The Catcher in the Rye.
The despair this student ignites moves me to create a class within the Theatre Arts Department combining the reading and viewing of Post World War II American novels, plays, and movies. I cut 35 cards for the course, secretly expecting to have to add another dozen as students stampede my office, begging to get into the class.
Thirteen students sign up for the course, 2 of them on my staff, 1 on my faculty, 1 my wife.
I begin to think I don’t want to do this anymore: Be a teacher in a university in the latter 20th of this surely final century in the history of blithering, bumbling afore-mentioned Mankind.
Trying to conduct my life as a playwright, screenwriter, director, husband and father and son is challenge and commitment enough, surely.
I immerse myself in writing a play called The Homage That Follows, (later a movie called Homage), in which a teacher quits teaching, retires to her small farm to raise vegetables. It’s also a play in which the teacher’s actress daughter says: “I want to do something for which homage will be paid, will be accorded, will be heaped upon me. I want to perform so powerfully that people’s very lives will be changed.”
Well, her mother the teacher goes back to the classroom, and as I stand before you tonight, I am on the faculty of 2 universities. One of the programs I teach in is a film and animation program. Here is what I wrote in response to an email lamenting the lack of understanding of film history that one of our faculty sent, suggesting a new course in same to educate our collection of young Cratchets.
“The problem of intellectual illiteracy is so far-reaching as to seem irremediable. Though I agree our students need a course in film/animation history, the larger truth is that they need a course in the literature, sociology, and philosophy that — at the least — immediately precedes the current epoch. I see not only here but in the University of Houston’s School of Theater and Dance a stunning lack of breadth in the foundational material that would qualify our/their students to carry on a conversation on almost any subject not technologically or film/theater/dance oriented. The inability to make literary, historical, or philosophical analogies frustrates me not only as teacher but as writer, director, and human being often stuck at social events with people with whom I have nothing to talk about.
“Though a film history course seems necessary, I find the limitations of that subject stultifying, especially if it’s going to be essentially self-reverential. I volunteer to do x number of class periods in concert with any of you in any class on the seminal literature, sociological events, and philosophy of all that precedes the current moment — assuming whatever class is capable of reading, not just watching and imbibing the glories of Film, with a capital ‘F.’ The lectures can be driven by what drives us: the history of storytelling.”
But, then, perhaps I have achieved dinosaur-dom. I am howling like a really big mad dog at the endless, disinterested universe.
“Sun and moon,” as John Updike writes in Rabbit, Run. In Seize the Day, Saul Bellow writes, “It is the punishment of hell itself not to understand or be understood.”
In his great poem “The Cricket,” Frederick Goddard Tuckerman writes: “Behold the autumn goes, The Shadow grows, The moments take hold of eternity; Even while we stop to wrangle or repine Our lives are gone Like thinnest mist, Like yon escaping colour in the tree:– Rejoice! rejoice! whilst yet the hours exist…”
In Beckett’s Godot, Vladimir ruminates: “Astride of a grave and a difficult birth, down in the hole lingeringly, the grave digger takes hold with his forceps. We have time to grow old. I can’t go on.” But then he adds: “What have I said?” — and he and Estragon go on.
I realize at some point in the journey of my life through Dante’s dark wood that Immortality doesn’t reside in awards or titles or financial compensation, does not reside, really, even in dreams. It rests, simply enough, in the legacy we leave in the minds of others. It is a matter of mass, expanding exponentially where we touch and where the touch leaves a mark. Whether we speak of individuals or corporations, bankers or tradesmen, artists or craftsmen, children or parents, we all endeavor to be writers and teachers of a sort, passing onward portions of what we understand, what we see, remember, what we were and are and would be.
I often wonder if my children will sit down days, months, years from now, on the occasion of my passing or its anniversary or on the eve of the selling of their childhood home and look at the honorific hardware their father collected and I wonder if they’ll know that their father came to understand that we are here to stimulate by our imperfect examples growth and to increase the legacy we, all of us, can share, which we hope will somehow make not only each of us alone, but all of us together, better, fuller, more complete human beings, thereby increasing always the legacy we make available to those who follow.
Will my children look at that stained glass window and know that I am haunted by these words of William Faulkner: “Memory believes before knowing remembers, believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.” Will they know that when their father, at the end of The Homage That Follows, sends the teacher Kaybee Samuel back to the classroom — and when he rededicates himself to the classroom at the same time — it is because memory does believe before knowing remembers, and memory believes that mankind is improvable, the human spirit indomitable.
A piece of the legacy I leave to my children and to the children of others who pass through my classrooms, the audiences who see my work in theaters and movies houses, an important portion of that legacy comes from all my teachers, from filtering my childhood and youth and young manhood through the magnifying glass of their classrooms, from seeing the literature of the world, many, many of the thoughts and facts and conundrums of this universe through the legacy of those teachers, many of whose wisdom and challenges I can no longer attribute, whose names in many cases I have, sad to say, forgotten, but who are present in all that I have become as surely as my parents, my wife and children, and the collected fabrications of my imagination.
Everything I will ever know, everything I will ever pass on is an inseparable part of an ongoing legacy of our shared frailty and curiosity and fear — of our shared wonder at the peculiar predicament in which we find ourselves, of our infernal and eternal hope that we can, must, make ourselves better.
In closing, let me paraphrase 3 of my favorite writers, Dickens, Lennon and McCartney: “Mankind is my business. Yeah, yeah, yeah!”