One of the heroes of my youth, after Jim Brown and Bob Hayes, was Woody Allen. Woody couldn’t carry a football worth a damn, and I’m pretty sure he would finish near the bottom, if he finished at all, in the 100-yard dash event at the Stand-Up Comedians’ Olympics. (Bill Cosby, his current crises notwithstanding, would win the gold, pulling away.) But boy, could Woody make me laugh. (I am very much like my Dad was, in that it takes a lot to induce me into obnoxious, tear-streaming, snot-squirting, out-of-control-ugly guffawing. Woody was one of a very few people who could do that to me; for Dad, it was Sid Caesar.) Now understand that I’m talking about the Woody of “Take the Money and Run,” “Bananas,” and “Sleeper,” not necessarily the Woody of “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” and “Zelig.” Though I liked many of his later films, they always seemed to be less about his brilliant, off-beat, zany comedic genius and more about his brilliant, off-beat, zany neuroses. It began to bother me after a while, when I paid good money (what, exactly, would constitute bad money?) to sit in a movie theater for the privilege of observing Woody’s emotional deficiencies playing out on screen; especially when they weren’t making me laugh that much anymore. And, truth be told, his well-known, if alleged, affinity for very young girls, bothered me a bit, too. But the dude was funny.
“I am not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
Among Woody Allen’s many emotional issues which were graphically portrayed in his films over the years, was his apparent preoccupation with—and fear of—death. I’ve never been particularly frightened by the thought of my own death (though I am terrified by the thought of the death of people whom I love), but I do think about it occasionally, and when I think about it, it is not really in a morose or morbid way. Instead, I simply wonder, sometimes at length, and in great detail, just what this thing called death might be. (That would be a great song title: “This Thing Called Death.” I could hear The Doors doing that one; or in a totally different vein, crooned by the likes of Frank Sinatra or Michael Buble. Bonnie Raitt would sing the hell out of that one… Which would be a good thing.) My inquisitive, scientific, logical side says that death is what death is: the absence of life. But then there is my long-lapsed-Catholic side, which necessarily sees it another way. While I don’t consider myself an overly religious person, I am a relatively spiritual one and, admittedly, the teachings of Mother Church die hard in many people of the Woodstock generation, if they die at all. Instead, like the essence of matter itself, our spiritual beliefs, can neither be created nor destroyed, only changed in form. While there is still much I believe, or at least accept, about my religious upbringing, some other concepts are more difficult to cling to.
“Death is one of the few things that can be done as easily lying down.”
One of the great songs about death (if there can be such a thing) is “And When I Die,” by, quite appropriately, the group Blood, Sweat and Tears. This is a truly epic composition—conceptually, musically and lyrically (in fact, as I think about it now, it should probably be on my “50 Best Songs of My Generation” list). Among many terrific lines in the song is this one: “I can swear there ain’t no Heaven; But I pray there ain’t no hell.” Lots of thought-provoking things in those lines, including swearing against Heaven (capitalized) and praying against hell (lower case). Interestingly, the composer of this song, Laura Nyro, was “goth” before “goth” became cool. She frequently dressed in black and wore purple lipstick, and darkness/death were familiar threads throughout much of her music. She was, however, a great artist, whom I think was underappreciated in her time. Nyro was reportedly devastated by the death of her mother, Gilda, to ovarian cancer in 1975, at the age of 49, and, ironically, Laura succumbed to ovarian cancer herself in 1996. Also at the age of 49. She was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.
“The difference between sex and death is that with death you can do it alone and no one is going to make fun of you.”
I find the concepts of Heaven and hell equally fascinating, but for very different reasons. For one thing, if you can just get past the fire, the snarling demons poking you with pitchforks, and the pain-and-suffering-for-all-eternity thing, hell might be an otherwise friendly place: filled with lots of interesting, unusual, and party-hearty people. Plus, most of your friends, and at least some of your family will undoubtedly be there. Where Heaven is concerned, I just don’t see how they could possibly have enough clean towels… But I kid. I find it curious that many of the atheists and agnostics I have had personal contact with over the years, while they swear there ain’t no God, Heaven, nor hell, swear with equal fervor, in favor of every other cockamamie concept that comes down the pike! Ghosts, aliens, witches, vampires, zombies, fortune-tellers, mediums; you name it, they’re on board with it.
“There are worse things in life than death. Have you ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman?”
I personally don’t accept the notion that anybody has the ability speak with the dead; if you believe that there are, in fact, individuals who possess the power to converse with the deceased, that’s your prerogative. I will not use this forum to ridicule your belief system. The only people I do have a problem with on this matter, and whom I will gladly ridicule in this forum, are those confirmed atheists who positively swear by people who claim to communicate with the incommunicado beyond the grave. Why? Let me put it this way: If there’s no Heaven and no hell, where exactly are all these chatty dead folk? Schenectady!? And, in case you hadn’t noticed, these people who believe that aliens are real, but God is fiction, generally embrace both Christmas and Easter. I guess that means they worship Santa Claus, a large, decorated-egg-laying bunny, and ET. If the dead could communicate with the living, why would they need a third-party signal-carrier to do it? Do they really require these conveniently, pre-wired people, with internal cell-phone antennae, which enable them to pull in signals from all those die-Phones operating in the Verizon Dead Zone? As with ET, do these mediums enable the dearly departed to phone home? Makes more sense than God, I guess. (Not for nothin’, but the Long Island Medium is clearly a Large.)
“It’s impossible to experience one’s death objectively and still carry a tune.”
What happens when we die? I wish I knew, as I’m sure everyone else riding this big blue marble-of-a-planet does. Religion gives us the confidence to imagine a dignified, comfortable, beatific, and fulfilling life-after-death. While I am not intimately familiar with the beliefs of every religion, I think that most religions, outside of Judaism and perhaps a few others, point to an afterlife as the ultimate reward for a life properly lived, according to each particular Faith’s specific operating system. If, for example, you are a devout male Muslim who believes in the infallibility of the Qur’an, and your death comes via martyrdom for your religious convictions, your ultimate heavenly reward will be 72 virgins. Why 72? I’m not exactly sure, but I think a significant rebate kicks in at around six-dozen. (Why virgins? Don’t go there.) If you are a female Muslim who gives up your life as a martyr to the cause, however, you are apparently not guaranteed 72 of anything, virgin or otherwise; though perhaps something even better. As I interpret the Qur’an, your ultimate reward is a dearth of men for all eternity; or just one, who will eagerly share his most intimate feelings with you, and who actually likes to vacuum. It’s your choice.
“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying”
My cousin Frank (we always called him “Sonny”) died this past week; he had been quite a bit older than the rest of us cousins—so much so, that we almost thought of him as an uncle, rather than a peer. The thing I remember most vividly about Sonny was that he had a raucous laugh that could fill a room like no one else I have ever known. And that laugh probably could, as I recall its rich and throaty timbre, even wake the dead. Not in a gruesome way, but because what Sonny had said, or had heard, was so damned funny, that every person within earshot—dead or alive—wanted to share in the joke. He had that effect on people; you loved being in his company because he possessed this unusually abundant gift of laughter, which he willingly—even eagerly—shared with anyone and everyone who had the good fortune to come his way. My jovial cousin Sonny had inherited this gift of laughter from his father, my lovable Uncle Frank (who died way too soon, of a heart attack, while walking back from the grocery store one day); and both men earned their livings as movie theater projectionists.
I can almost see Sonny now (as I hope I always will), half-hanging out of the projection booth window at the opulent, old Oritani Theater on Main Street in Hackensack. His white t-shirt is a beacon in the dimly lit auditorium, and he is laughing heartily (though as quietly as he could manage), at something funny that is flickering into life on the giant screen far below. He’d viewed that same scene probably a dozen times or more, but he needed to see it once again, leaning as close as he dared toward the screen, to enjoy a laugh one more time along with the rest of his audience. Death isn’t funny; especially when it hits close to home. I get that. But, the thing is, I’ve always figured that if you could learn to laugh at anything (real laughter, not just the “whistling in the dark” variety), that person, place or thing you were laughing at couldn’t possibly frighten you ever again. They say laughter is the best medicine, and the longer I live, the more firmly am I convinced of the irrefutable truth of that statement. And if, during the process of learning how to laugh at our fears, we can also manage to laugh at ourselves from time to time, the healing that laughter brings will be much more complete.
I guess Woody Allen taught me that.