Joan: A Statement on Her Legacy

As 2014 ended, one couldn’t shake a stick without hitting at least a couple annual recaps in the media. (If one is in the habit of shaking sticks.) Every one of these included a list of celebrities lost. I’ve already shared my thoughts on one celebrity – Robin Williams. But I’ve lately pondered the legacy of another: Joan Rivers.

I feel I should begin by stating that I wasn’t a fan. While mean isn’t the most appropriate term to describe her comedy in my opinion, without getting wordy it’s the best I can do. I say that not to attempt to distance myself from Rivers in case others who dislike her read this. I share that fact only to further clarify my next statements.

In my mind, more than her comedy, her lasting legacy will be her determination, dedication and good old-fashioned hard work. It would be tough to deny these things.

Not only that her career began when it did at a time when just women weren’t allowed to be what she became,  but also because she carved out her own life and career and seemed to be who
she wanted to be despite active discouragement.

Joan’s life, her work ethic – these are the lasting and most inspiring pieces of her legacy.

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RIP, Robin Williams | Thoughts on Brilliance & Legacies

In recent months, Nick and I have watched Hook and Aladdin with our four year old, Claire. It was fulfilling to introduce Robin Williams to a new generation–in fact to the third generation for my family. I recall as a child watching Good Morning, Vietnam with my parents who talked about “Mork and Mindy.” I was too young to understand the movie, but it wouldn’t be long before I fell in love with Aladdin and Hook and eventually with Dead Poet’s Society and What Dreams May Come.

In his comedic and dramatic roles, Robin Williams was intense, engaging and inspiring. His intensity was palpable; his work suffused with a persistence and a desire almost for perfection.

He was entertaining across his long career. It’s almost unheard of to see an actor with his range, his ability to be both dramatic and comedic, and his ability to appeal to audiences of all ages. His movies will continue to be watched for years to come by those craving sentimentality, to be transported back to the moment we first discovered this genius.

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For those of us interested in artistic pursuits–whether our own or others’–we can rattle off the names of authors, poets, musicians, artists, actors and more visionaries whose brilliance was cut short by their own hand. We mourn not only that person, but the loss of their brilliance. And we’re left wondering how much their brilliance had to do with their struggles, how their brilliance may have contributed to a tightening darkness. The brilliant genius with a dark side has become a trope, a cliche.

In The Wire, Dashiell Bennett wrote about an episode of “Mork and Mindy” in which Mork meets Robin Williams. In this episode, Williams himself addresses the curse as Mork. Bennet writes, “Yes, celebrities get money and attention, but they also get harassed and attacked and everyone who comes in contact with them makes unreasonable demands on their time and energy.” Mork learns that “if you can’t learn to say no, then ‘there won’t be no more pieces for yourself.'”

Between the demands for time and energy, the drive and the pressure to be brilliant, it seems, darkness lies. We can speculate that acting and substance abuse helped Robin Williams and others cope, but there comes a time that without treatment those things won’t work. It seems we need our own self worth to come from the inside, not the outside. But amidst the utter darkness found in deep depression, there’s almost no way to understand this, to embrace it.

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This summer Williams visited Hazelden in Minnesota for maintenance at the substance abuse rehab facility. He took a picture with a local Dairy Queen employee, looking a little tired, shabby and slightly unenthusiastic–not the public Robin Williams we’ve come to know and love. But what demands we place on celebrities to be who we want them to be, to be the person we see on the silver screen. Ultimately, the demand we place on them to be brilliantly entertaining all the time.

The picture made the rounds on the local TV news–Williams had essentially hit up two Minnesota establishments. Watching the 10 o’clock news later that night in June, Nick turned to me and said, “If I ever meet a celebrity, I don’t want their picture. I want to talk to them, see how they tick, how they think. What makes them who they are on the inside.”

In our “no picture or it didn’t happen” society I thought that was an interesting approach. Last night, as we discussed William’s untimely passing, we both wondered what would have happened if more people had demanded less from him and had gotten to know and understand the inner Robin Williams instead of just taking a photo.

If you or someone you know is struggling, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at  1-800-273-8255.

Rest in Peace

May and June seemed to have been plagued by the loss of important authors. We lost Maurice Sendak on May 8th, Jean Craighead George followed on May 15th and Nora Ephron rounded out the triumvirate on May 26th. If death truly does come in threes, I hope we’ll be done for a while.

Maurice Sendak was and will continue to be loved and remembered for Where the Wild Things Are. It’s hard to believe that Where the Wild Things Arewas first published in 1963. Love and acclaim for the book hasn’t dried up in the nearly 50 years it’s been a part of our world. Sendak has received the Caldecott Medal, the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the National Book Award, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, the National Medal of Arts and the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award among many, many other deserved awards. He’ll be remembered for many years to come for his contributions to children’s literature as an author and illustrator.

Many literature loving adults probably remember reading Jean Craighead George’s Julie of the Wolves and My Side of the Mountain among other books. Although not my typical book choice, My Side of the Mountainmade such an impact on me as a preteen that I randomly recall parts of the story as I go about my daily life (which has nothing to do with living alone in the mountains). George’s books brought the outdoors and natural life to an audience that isn’t always naturally receptive to it: young girls; while, at the same time, still being entertaining for and loved by boys (after all, I did find this book on my older brother’s bookshelves).

Despite a long list of accomplishments, I believe that Nora Ephron’s most important contribution to the world was in showing that women can be multiple things and do multiple things well. Ephron herself was an award-winning filmmaker, director, producer, screenwriter, novelist, playwright, journalist, author and blogger. She was nominated three times for the Academy Award for Original Screenplay for Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally… and Sleepless in Seattle. Ephron came from a successful literary and film family. Her parents were screenwriters (Take Her, She’s Mine among others), her two sisters Delia and Amy are screenwriters and her sister Hallie is a triple threat—journalist, book reviewer and crime fiction novelist.

Many of us heard the news of the passing of these authors with sadness, but their contributions to the craft of culture will be remembered for a long time to come.

What impact have these authors had on your life?