A Tribute to Robin Williams

Carpe Diem_Red

Things are often not what they seem. We know that from experience. We knew that about Robin Williams, yet we are nevertheless shocked by the news of his suicide. How can a person so imbued with unbridled comic instincts be, deep down, so despondent and disillusioned with life that he acts to end his own?

The public may never know what personal demons plagued Williams beyond his highly-publicized struggles with alcohol, substance abuse, and depression. That line-up is certainly symptomatic of a life gone-wrong, but the deeper root-triggers of such havoc-wreaking conditions are never so obvious. Perhaps such desperation results from a sense of self-loathing or self-disappointment, or feelings of extreme loneliness, or the conclusion that life and living are a pointless exercise. Then, too, there are the little-understood roles that brain chemistry and genetics play in influencing our lives.

One thing is certain: Robin Williams was a genius, a one-of-a-kind comic mind,  capable of drawing  instantaneous connections between the most diverse of  thoughts and ideas and bundling those in cloaks of hilarity. I believe it was Charlie Rose who said that the time-delay between Williams’s mind and tongue was the shortest of any human he had ever encountered – and Charlie Rose has interviewed many brilliant people. Indeed, during interviews with Rose, it took Williams little time to have the normally staid and serious Rose laughing uncontrollably. Williams could routinely do that – take complete control of any situation and, without a script of any kind, turn it into one hilarious, extended three-ring circus. That was the genius of the man.

I think of him at his best when I recall one of his many appearances on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” That particular night, Williams was hitting on all cylinders, but at double-speed; like all viewers surely were, I was blinded by the flashes of comic lightning which struck, one bolt right after the other. As quick and as humorous as Johnny Carson was in verbal give-and-take, he and co-host Ed McMahon were reduced to helpless puddles of laughter as Williams just took over the proceedings, firing one choice quip after another. It dawned on me as I watched that evening that I was witnessing something that I had never seen before – a superhuman comic alien from some other planet; it was that good!

Williams did have a serious side, without question. We certainly know that now, but we saw it earlier, in other venues including the movies he did. Aside from Williams’s take-over of the Johnny Carson show that particular night, my favorite performance of his was as Professor Keating in the film, “The Dead Poet’s Society.” His portrayal and his professorial message was, at heart, earnestly serious – with suitably effective comic overtones. The opening scene in the film featuring Professor Keating’s advice to a class of young prep students at a prestigious academy is my favorite in all of movie-dom. I related it in detail in a previous post of mine (June 23, 2013, Refresh Your Life Perspective! Old Yearbooks, Cemeteries, and the “Dead Poets Society” ). As part of this tribute to Robin Williams, I repeat the section of that post describing my favorite movie scene.

 More Life Perspective:
My Favorite Movie Scene of All!

 Dead Poets Society

Although not in my top six favorite movies (see last week’s post, June 16, 2013), “Dead Poets Society” contains my favorite film scene of all time; it relates beautifully to today’s post. The staging of the scene is brilliant as is its message, and Robin Williams’ acting is superb as Mr. Keating, the new-hire, maverick English teacher at Welton, an old, very toney, and rigid prep school with a direct pipeline to the Ivy League.

The opening scenes during the credits constitute fine film-making, but the fun begins on the first day of class as we briefly follow a group of male “preppies” through their initial classes in chemistry, trigonometry, and Latin. Now, they file in and take their seats in Mr. Keating’s English classroom. As they patiently wait for their instructor to appear, the front door to the classroom opens; Mr. Keating walks slowly down the center aisle, whistling quietly to himself, and then disappears back into the hallway through a rear door. The students look around, puzzled; some tittering is heard. Suddenly, Keating pokes his head back through the door and shouts, “Well, come on!” while motioning the class to follow him.

They are now standing in the building foyer, just steps removed from Keating’s classroom. He herds them closely together, facing the built-in glass display cases along the wall which house athletic trophies and numerous team and student photographs dating back to the early 1900’s. He hands one of the lads a hymnal and identifies a verse for him to read out loud – page 542.

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, old time is still a-flying, and this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.”

“Why did the writer say that?” Keating asks. A voice in the back offers, “Because he’s in a hurry?” “No, thank you for playing anyway! It’s because we are food for worms, lads,” Keating replies. “The Latin equivalent of all that is, ‘Carpe Diem’. What does that mean?” “Seize the day,” responds a capable Latin scholar in the front. Now, Keating asks them all to step forward as a group, closer to the display wall in order to carefully peruse those faces from the distant past, there on display – faces that almost nobody ever stops to notice in passing.

“Look at them, boys – they are just like you, hormones racing around and all.”

Keating assures his charges that, by listening closely, “You can hear them whispering their legacy to you….hear it?” Expressions are intent and ears are cocked toward the frozen images on display – only the steady ticking of the clock on the wall can be heard. After a long pause, a soft, barely decipherable and throaty whisper floats among the assemblage as Keating inauspiciously moves to the rear of the group: “Caaarpe….caaarpe ….carpe diem! Seize the day boys!”

Keating reminds the group that these lads “speaking” to them in this manner are now “fertilizing daffodils.” Did they live up to their potential, their high hopes and expectations which were not much different from those of this, the current class at Welton?  Did they seize the day – each and every day that they were given?

As the boys exit the hall together on the way to their next class, one exclaims, “That was weird!” Cameron, the by-the-book student with the red flat-top seriously wonders aloud, “Think he’ll test us on that?”

Life will test them all on that; they were indeed fortunate to land in Mr. Keating’s class and receive such a valuable lesson so early in their young lives. End of excerpt.

 Comedy is a Serious Business

I suspect the serious side of Robin Williams relished the role of Professor Keating in that film. I believe the professor’s offering of a life-perspective to his prep students was applicable to Robin Williams, the private man. It surely must be true that, in private, he pondered the very messages he delivered to his prep students in those movie lines, and yet…..! It is regrettable that the real Robin Williams ultimately concluded that life’s offerings were no longer worth the pain and trouble.

A long-standing contention purports that comic genius is only possible when it germinates from a tragic personal sense. That theory strikes me as likely true, especially when pondering the well-known fact that that another acknowledged comic genius with a similar manic style, Jonathan Winters, was Robin Williams’s comic role model. Like Williams, Winter also suffered from depression and other issues. It is also true that the genius of such early master comics like Chaplin, Keaton, and Langdon seems related to their ability to project lovable characteristics and comic situations on basically pathetic and sad characters. Even circus clowns typically sport sad, painted faces. The most effective way to highlight a particular characteristic is to present it in stark contrast with another. Robin Williams deserves a place alongside the best purveyors of comedy that this old world has ever seen. Are we not fortunate to have known him?

Rest in peace, Robin Williams. Thank you for
brightening our lives while you were here among us.
The laughter and joy will resonate for a very long time.

Refresh Your Life Perspective! Old Yearbooks, Cemeteries, and the “Dead Poets Society”

Every now and then, life makes me depressed and irritable – sound familiar? Some days, a cascade of little things goes wrong and irritations intrude, all of which tend to put me in a funk. Sometimes, I lose the big picture and swerve into a funky rut from which it is hard to steer my way out.

I have found two effective cures for this condition, more potent and long-lasting than calling upon mere temporary diversions. These never fail to restore my proper life perspective: Cemeteries and old yearbooks. Oh, and one more: A scene from the movie , “Dead Poets Society.” Let me explain.

Two weeks ago, my wife and I treated ourselves to a two-night stay in Pacific Grove, near Monterey, California. Our accommodations, which were within easy walking distance of the old Point Pinos lighthouse, were not elegant – but very comfortable and satisfactory. Linda had a bit of a problem with a cemetery located just across the road and within sight of our patio window – a bit creepy at nightfall, thought she!

 The next day we walked through that cemetery on the way to the lighthouse, and, like so many other times in the past, I experienced that initially unsettling, yet ultimately peaceful reaction that I always feel in a cemetery – namely, the reminder that we all have limited time on this fine earth and that all of our personal trials and tribulations amount to little in the overall scheme of this vast universe. These periodic reminders are, to me, a refreshing tonic; for my wife, not so much – cemeteries are still a bit unsettling to her. Even so, we both lingered as we always do in a cemetery, and perused the names and dates on the tombstones. “What kind of person was Emma, the ‘dearly beloved wife’ wrenched so early in life from her family?” we ask ourselves. The older and more remote and neglected the cemetery setting, the more vivid are our musings about the permanent residents all around us. I recall other such occasions. One of the most memorable for us was an old, lonely hillside cemetery at Jacksonville, Oregon which we visited as a family many years ago. Off the beaten path, it was quiet and serene, there. 

The most moving tombstones there were the tall, old-style pointed slabs dating to the mid -1800’s which bore poetic recollections of dear children and young spouses cut down in the prime of their brief lives. We took pictures and copied some of the beautiful inscriptions, relics of a time-past when the use of language was a far more common art-form than is the case today. These had great impact on us and the girls, their ultimate message being: Life is short; do something noble in your allotted time; do not waste your time and energy on hatred and bigotry, for we are all made of the same, fragile stuff.

One other very memorable graveyard experience took place some seventeen years ago on the English moors around the Bronte parsonage, the house where Charlotte Bronte and her siblings lived with their father, the parish rector. We arrived on a sullen, chilly, and leaden afternoon to tour the house and grounds, all of which were fascinating. Being a parsonage with an adjacent church, the grounds near the house were thick with old gravesites – not tidy little granite slabs flush with the ground, but large old markers and very tall, pointed vertical slabs of dark stone standing like an army of sentinels over the closely spaced burial plots.

Bronte Parsonage_1

Bronte Parsonage_2

As we began our tour of the gravesites, the skies turned darker, and the wind came up across the moor, whistling through the graveyard. “My God,” I thought to myself. “This is like a staged movie or a descriptive scene from a Jane Austin or Bronte novel; it couldn’t be more dramatic!” The graves were old and intriguing; they sent that same message: Don’t take yourself and your troubles too seriously; you and they shall pass, ere long. The message is at once both unnerving and one of peaceful resignation and realization. The net effect for me is a restored life perspective and a renewed determination to make good use of my time.

Old Yearbooks?

I have always been fascinated by old photographs (see my post of March 12, 2013: “Photographs: The Power of Time and Place”) and, especially, old school yearbooks. In my earlier years, my yearbook fascination puzzled me, seeming somewhat off-beat, but I ultimately figured out why they especially intrigue me. School yearbooks are about youngsters and young adults. Their content hints of promise, the future, and the possibilities inherent in the young, serious and somber faces which peer back at you from the page when you stop to look closely. 

1925 Quad Cover

1925 Quad Football 

I have a 1925 Stanford University Quad whose pictured students are now long-gone. It is fascinating to look at them, to read where they were from and what they studied, and to contemplate what kind of life they led and what legacy they left. I managed to do some internet research on the young woman whose ownership signature and senior picture grace this book’s pages. I discovered that her father was an important turn-of-the-century architect in Sacramento, California, responsible for a number of important structures, there.

More Life Perspective: My Favorite Movie Scene of All!

Dead Poets Society

Although not in my top six favorite movies (see last week’s post, June 16, 2013), “Dead Poets Society” contains my favorite film scene of all time; it relates beautifully to today’s post. The staging of the scene is brilliant as is its message, and Robin Williams’ acting is superb as Mr. Keating, the new-hire, maverick English teacher at Welton, an old, very toney, and rigid prep school with a direct pipeline to the Ivy League.

The opening scenes during the credits constitute fine film-making, but the fun begins on the first day of class as we briefly follow a group of male “preppies” through their initial classes in chemistry, trigonometry, and Latin. Now, they file in and take their seats in Mr. Keating’s English classroom. As they patiently wait for their instructor to appear, the front door to the classroom opens; Mr. Keating walks slowly down the center aisle, whistling quietly to himself, and then disappears back into the hallway through a rear door. The students look around, puzzled; some tittering is heard. Suddenly, Keating pokes his head back through the door and shouts, “Well, come on!” while motioning the class to follow him.

They are now standing in the building foyer, just steps removed from Keating’s classroom. He herds them closely together, facing the built-in glass display cases along the wall which house athletic trophies and numerous team and student photographs dating back to the early 1900’s. He hands one of the lads a hymnal and identifies a verse for him to read out loud – page 542.

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, old time is still a-flying, and this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.”

“Why did the writer say that?” Keating asks. A voice in the back offers, “Because he’s in a hurry?” “No, thank you for playing anyway! It’s because we are food for worms, lads,” Keating replies. “The Latin equivalent of all that is, ‘Carpe Diem’. What does that mean?” “Seize the day,” responds a capable Latin scholar in the front. Now, Keating asks them all to step forward as a group, closer to the display wall in order to carefully peruse those faces from the distant past, there on display – faces that almost nobody ever stops to notice in passing.

“Look at them, boys – they are just like you, hormones racing around and all.” Keating assures his charges that, by listening closely, “You can hear them whispering their legacy to you….hear it?” Expressions are intent and ears are cocked toward the frozen images on display – only the steady ticking of the clock on the wall can be heard. After a long pause, a soft, barely decipherable and throaty whisper floats among the assemblage as Keating inauspiciously moves to the rear of the group: “Caaarpe….caaarpe ….carpe diem! Seize the day boys!”

 Keating reminds the group that these lads “speaking” to them in this manner are now “fertilizing daffodils.” Did they live up to their potential, their high hopes and expectations which were not much different from those of this, the current class at Welton?  Did they seize the day – each and every day that they were given? 

As the boys exit the hall together on the way to their next class, one exclaims, “That was weird!” Cameron, the by-the-book student with the red flat-top seriously wonders aloud, “Think he’ll test us on that?”

Life will test them all on that; they were indeed fortunate to land in Mr. Keating’s class and receive such a valuable lesson so early in their young lives.