Remembering Dan B

The objective connection between Danny and me is that we are stepbrothers: his father and my mother were married to each other for over 40 years. They met when both were employed at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.

When I first met him, I was 13 and Dan was 17. Those days were very much the latter phase of the 1960s, culturally speaking. I was then (already) keenly interested in doing drugs and being cool. Dan was the embodiment of all that I aspired to: a cool hippie dude. Complete with long hair, beard, and musical abilities, he was what we used to call “far out” without irony. He was like an older brother and I attached to him immediately.

Our relationship was episodic. For a time in the 1970s we lived together — indeed, in the same room — in La Serena, Chile, where his father directed the Cerro Tololo observatory. In 1982-1983, we happened to overlap again in Tucson when I was graduate student in guitar at the University. After that phase, we would cross paths from time to time owing to the family connection. He showed up for the wedding festivities when I got married (the first of two times) in Puerto Rico in 1994. A few times we coincided while visiting his dad’s/my mom’s home in La Serena and later in Vero Beach, Florida.

Danny was what’s known as a survivor. Of course the past tense is appropriate here — he survived until he didn’t, and if he were here now he’d probably laugh at some grim joke along those lines. But my point is that he overcame some fantastically bad breaks. He was dealt a shitty hand, with mother and brother both suffering from severe mental illnesses and a sister that was… kind of strange, if I may be forgiven for saying so. His dad, my stepdad, was remarkable: an accomplished astronomer and unfailingly loving and generous person. Except that he didn’t much care for dealing straight on with the interpersonal — not an uncommon characteristic, especially among men, especially men of his generation. So he took off for Washington D.C. to take the job at the Naval Observatory, and left Danny at age 15 to deal alone with his profoundly dysfunctional family. And deal with it he did. He got through all that and more, and led a life doing a great many interesting things that he wanted to do, rich in relationships with interesting people.

Truth be told, most of my memories of the times I spent with him are pretty banal, but entirely pleasant. There was good chemistry among our parents and us, and we enjoyed many a happy evening as a merry quartet, eating and drinking well and enjoying lots of long hard laughs. I have a mental picture from one afternoon at a beach in Chile. We waded into the surf and threw a frisbee back and forth, making heroic diving catches of errant throws — the sort of maneuver you might expect from a serious baseball player — but falling painlessly into the water instead of hitting the ground. It was funny, really funny in a physical-comedic way that’s impossible to describe. I have a vivid image of him emerging from the water after one those moves, laughing, laughing…

Now this is part where I make my presentation more compelling by choking up and shedding a tear or two. Note to Danny: that’s another laugh line I think you’d have found amusing.

And now I recover and continue with another fun memory, probably from that same period of time when we spent a couple of weeks in La Serena. We played several games of chess, winning and losing more or less evenly. It was the last night — one of us, I forget who, was traveling back to the U.S. the next morning. So we sat down for a final chess game and abused a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Creme, of all things. That isn’t a very high-alcohol drink and we were both fairly robust drinkers, so we got a little silly but not excessively drunk. The laughter, conversation and chess lasted through the night. The game finally ended in a draw, an outcome that pleased us both.

It is common to canonize people when they die, but there’s no need for that here. Dan definitely had his peculiarities, as do we all in one form or another. He was also a truly extraordinary person, talented and intelligent in a multiplicity of ways, an independent and original thinker, with a sense of humor surpassed by no one. Cliché though it sounds, he lived a full life. But he also did an exceptionally courageous job of dying, from what I can tell. One thing I regret about not attending his memorial in person is not being able to hear more about this from those who were with him at the end. He went out with equanimity, dignity and grace. At times like these I like to quip that dying is so very fashionable. Everyone does it! Those who have not done it yet will get their chance in due course. When my great moment comes I hope to emulate his example.

There is a powerful line in a novel by the writer Haruki Murakami, where two of his characters are in the presence of another who has just died. It reads: he had just accomplished the profound, personal feat of dying.

Good bye, brother Dan. You have accomplished the profound, personal feat of dying.

Remembering Nancy F.

It has been just about a year since a good friend died at a mere 57 years of age. I observe this anniversary by publishing the eulogy that my evil twin gave at her memorial, with just a couple of minor edits. Whereas he spoke of the legendary SDNY Courthouse Follies in the past tense, I have changed it to the present tense. That’s because at the time, Nancy’s colleagues were too stupified with grief to think seriously about doing the Follies without her. Not long thereafter, they came to the realization that the Courthouse Follies is too good not to continue, and that there is absolutely no better and more appropriate way to honor Nancy’s memory than by putting on the show.

Good evening.

We are all going to die. That simple, self-evident fact is perfectly easy to accept as an intellectual, objective proposition; it is much harder to come to grips with on a deeper, emotional and psychological level.

I’ve come to believe that one of our most important tasks in this thrilling, unpredictable, supremely delightful, horribly painful game known as life is not to obliterate our fear of death, but rather to learn to live with that fear — truly live with it — and be free at last from that ever-present undercurrent of anxiety and fear of our inevitable death. If we accomplish that, we have a chance at genuine happiness, and liberation: the freedom to live our life exactly as it is right now, rather than worrying about losing it.

This is much more easily said than done. In Buddhism they have a word for it: they call it Practice.
Nancy was not a Buddhist — not any kind of -ist as far as I could tell. But she surely had a Practice. I am convinced that on some level she understood and embraced the kind of worldview I’m describing — especially as she approached the end of her life, in which she was short-changed by who knows how many decades. Rather than trying to mention her many wonderful achievements and attributes, I will emphasize this: she had a fabulous sense of humor. Underlying that splendid humor was deep wisdom: though she was no stranger to pain and loss, she knew how to live and enjoy life. She knew how to appreciate life’s offerings. She knew how to have fun.

Over the 20 years I worked as one of the staff interpreters in the office she managed so ably, I must have had hundreds of conversations with her that followed a common pattern: they would begin with me poking my head into her office to discuss something or other, usually office business. She would always look up from her monitor and keyboard to greet me with her characteristic warmth. “Yes, mon cher?” Then one or the other of us would say something funny. And the conversation would end with both of us laughing. You know the way she laughed, with lots of nasal involvement.

We’re talking a lot this evening about Courthouse Follies because the deservedly legendary show was one of her signature achievements, possibly the most visible and well-loved. Entertaining as it is, the show is about so much more than just amusement. No, it is a matter of utmost importance to us all. As Nancy sometimes liked to quip, comedy is serious business. (Not sure whom she stole that line from.) Our job can be brutally stressful. We witness suffering and pain every day. We are all duty-bound to remain stuck in our rigidly defined roles, even at those times when our humanity cries out for us to do otherwise. Nothing is more important to our collective mental health than the Follies. At least once a year we need to sit in a room together and just laugh. Nancy was the leader of that noble project. It was she who put it all together and made it happen. (If this were a federal Sentencing Guidelines analysis, she would get an enhancement for being a leader, supervisor, manager…)
I remember one time when she addressed the cast just before a Follies performance, back stage. She gave us a pep talk in which she reminded us to pay attention and be where we were supposed to be at the appropriate time (incorrigibly ragged band of amateurs that we are, drinking our wine backstage before going on, she had to remind us of that!). She closed these remarks by saying something like: last but not least, have fun. Have fun.

Thank you, Nancy. Thank you for making such a positive contribution to the world and enriching our lives.

You know how she loved comedy. I’ll share this with you on condition of the strictest confidentiality, all 200 of you my closest friends, lest I incriminate myself: I sometimes do judge imitations. Especially when I’m just back from a courtroom assignment with a judge’s idiosyncracies still fresh in memory. Nancy absolutely loved laughing at these imitations. She would sometimes come up to me, eyes ablaze with that childlike, gleeful enthusiasm of hers — and urge me to to entertain the assembly with my imitation of Judge So-and-So. I would comply, and she would laugh and laugh, hoot with laughter.

I usually prefered to launch into an imitation spontaneously, that is, whenever the Muses moved me to it. So there were times when she would ask me to do an imitation, and I would decline on the grounds that I wasn’t in the mood, or some such nonsense. I now understand, and have learned this valuable lesson from Nancy: life is too short not to “do” one more judge. Even on demand.