Thursday, August 28, 2014

"Whose Class" Action

Labor Day was always my least favorite holiday. I'm sure I was hardly alone.

Of course, I'm talking about when I was a kid, and so just about every other kid likely joined me in that sentiment.

Labor Day meant the unofficial end to summer, though the calendar says that the season runs until September 21. No matter. The calendar didn't give us kids that long; classes in Livonia, where I grew up, always commenced the day after Labor Day.

It was a final three-day weekend before the baseball mitts and swimming suits were to go back into mothballs, in favor of notebooks, pencils and rulers.

There was one day of excitement, however, in the weeks leading up to the first day of school, and that was the day the class lists would be posted in the school window by the front door. This was for grade school, not beyond.

I'm not sure how we found out that the lists were posted. Probably some sort of loosely designated sentry or Paul Revere type would spread the word. This was some 20-plus years before the Internet became all the rage.

The way it worked was simple. Printed 8-1/2 x 11 inch sheets of paper were taped to the window, face out. The sheets were generally situated by grade. On the top of each sheet was the teacher's name and the grade he/she taught. The students' names were listed below. And all the kids---didn't matter where they lived, they all managed to gather---would frantically search for their names, not knowing until that very moment which teacher they had and which of their friends were in the same class.

It was some pretty intense stuff.

After you located your name, the next step was to search for your friends' and also your enemies'. Soon there would be a cacophony of sighs of relief mixed with howls of disappointment.

Maybe you got the teacher you wanted, but your best friends were in another classroom. Or, vice-versa.

Regardless, when you got the word that the class lists were ready for consumption, you couldn't hop onto your bicycle fast enough.

I recently had a drink with an old grade school and middle school pal. We compared teachers that we had in grades 1-6 and not once were we in the same class. I thought that was pretty amazing.

That "what class are you in?" excitement ended when we all shuffled off to middle school, where you didn't have just one teacher.

It was fun while it lasted, though.

As for Labor Day, I enjoy it now. It means a three-day weekend, which as an adult you treasure.

No matter what kind of class you have.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Tears of a Class Clown

"I try to keep my sadness hid
Smiling in the public eye
But in my lonely room cry
the tears of a clown."

I don't generally like to start blog posts or columns with quotes or song lyrics. I have often looked at that sort of thing as a cheap, hackneyed stunt.

But the first thing I thought of upon hearing the news of Robin Williams' death by suicide was the iconic song by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, "Tears of a Clown."

So I thought it would be appropriate to lead this post with a portion of Smokey's lyrics, because how can you read them and not think of Williams and the many comedians before him who made their living making us laugh while at the same time battling inner demons?

Williams, 63, apparently hanged himself at his California home, sometime between 10:30 p.m. Sunday night and 10:30 a.m. Monday morning.

His manager said Williams was battling "severe depression" lately.

It is fascinating to me, how many tormented "funny men" have graced the stages of comedy clubs, Broadway houses and television specials practically from the time the first brave soul decided to stand in front of a crowd and crack jokes.

There must be some corollary between the thrill of getting laughs on stage and being shy, lacking of self-esteem and, frankly, sad.

Williams, of course, was more than a comedian. He started out playing an alien on a TV sitcom and turned out to be a whale of a dramatic actor who had a knack for playing lovable, vulnerable characters with a big heart.

He was also likely the most manic guest in TV talk show history.

A Williams appearance on Carson or Leno should have required the viewer to be asked to buckle up and put the tray in the upright position.

It was a six-minute exercise in non-stop tidbits, impersonations and story telling, and Williams never sat still during any of it. In fact, he usually wasn't sitting at all.

He made me nervous, truth be told, as a talk show guest but the crowd (and the host) always ate up Williams' shtick.

Williams, again like so many fellow comedians, got lost in substance abuse, which likely didn't do his depression symptoms any good.

He returned to TV full-time last fall in "The Crazy Ones," playing a quirky ad agency man who works with his daughter. The series was Williams' first foray on the small screen as a lead character since his days on "Mork and Mindy" from 1978-82.

But the new series couldn't come close to shaking Williams out of the deep and irreversible funk of depression that would ultimately prompt him to take his own life.



I suspect that comedians and actors who cause moviegoers and viewers to feel a wide range of emotions are often feeling wide ranges of emotions themselves. Their roller coaster sometimes makes one too many bumps and they fly out of the car.

Williams may have been lonely but he wasn't alone. He was a family man---a husband and a father three times over. His friends and colleagues described him---especially in the wake of his death---as kind, compassionate and with a huge heart.

So here we are---the man who dedicated himself to lifting the spirits of others, unable to lift his own.

When someone takes their own life, those who don't know the pain figure that there must have been a viable alternative.

But here's the punch line---the suicide victim instead thinks that the viable alternative that we espouse is a death sentence of sorts, anyway. So why keep going?

Billy Crystal, longtime friend and co-host of "Comic Relief" with Williams and Whoopi Goldberg for 20 years, had maybe the most appropriate tweet after learning of the news.

"No words."

Fitting, because Robin Williams didn't need too many to make us laugh or cry.