My Fisher King (for Robin Williams)

(Originally posted August 11th, 2014.)

I wanted to write this tribute to Robin Williams as a poem, but I’m not quite up to it right now. What I’m going to present instead is my personal history with Robin Williams.

Of course I’ve never met him, and never knew him, but I still grew up with him. My parents and I watched Happy Days when it was first being aired. We saw the goofy Mork episode where he first made his appearance, and then when I was a bit older, he made us all laugh with his own show with the same character.

But he’s been seemingly ever present in my life from then to now. Dead Poets Society confirmed for me my choice to major in English in college. Yes, I thought that essay was BS too. And yes, I said to myself “rip it out” right before Williams voiced that line. When, a little bit later, life was going rough with me, and I was facing the prospect of loss — a real, significant loss — I watched The Fisher King. It told me it was okay to grieve. And it told me that it was okay to grieve so much that you’re a little bit unhinged, even. When my family needed to draw itself together we found ourselves watching Hook quite a bit. And not long before my wife and I divorced, she rented Mrs. Doubtfire, and we watched it with the kids over and over again. Again, it told us that we could still be alright, even still be a family. And some years after that I was able to watch What Dreams May Come and understand.

When I started teaching History of the English Language Robin Williams was there with his Scottish Airport routine.  And just last week my second wife borrowed season 1 of Mork and Mindy from the local library, giving my youngest children their first exposure to Robin Williams. When he sat on his head on the couch my kids all laughed. Uproariously. Just as two generations of my kids did when they watched Aladdin.

Actors, celebrities, musicians… as we experience them, they are all objects. They’re physical things. Controlled projections of an image. It’s easy to forget that they’re human beings, that they live and feel. But I’ve seen Robin Williams so often in so much for so long that I can’t help but feel that some of him has become perceptible behind all of the parts, the standup, the warp-speed silliness. Bitterness and kind sensitivity were like an alternating current projecting from his one big power source: pain.

I think that for whatever reason it finally caught up with him. Maybe it was residual from his open heart surgery in 2009, or the medication he took for awhile in order to be able to sleep after his surgery. I think he’s been in pain his whole life, though. I think his previous drug use may not have been an attempt to be cool, or to seek pleasure or new experiences, but a form of self-medication, a way to escape his pain. Either way, I do know that in so many ways his work was about pain and loss, and that more than anything else he seemed to want to laugh it away from us, or to comfort us with kindness and understanding, so that in all of his roles he was either a clown or Patch Adams. But in all of it, he was a wounded Fisher King, or maybe the fool who brought the Fisher King his grail: I don’t know about your quest. I just know that you were thirsty. And I don’t know what finally drove him to end his life. None of us can really know. I think, though, that I’m not alone in feeling that I wish I could have given back to him what he gave to me for so long, especially right at the moment he needed it most.

I will miss you, Robin Williams.

The Real “First Edition” of the Iliad and the Dumb J-Lo Clip

A clip from J-Lo’s The Boy Next Door is making the rounds on the internet today. In that film, J-Lo plays a teacher who has an affair with one of her students, and in this scene her student gives her an “expensive” gift. You can tell she’s really smart because she’s wearing glasses, and you can view the clip here:

So the boy hands her a book, she opens the cover, then looks in and says, “Oh my God… it’s a first edition. You can’t give me this.” When the camera zooms in on the book, it’s a “first edition” of Homer’s Iliad.

Of course, since the Iliad was originally written on scrolls in Greek some centuries before Christ it’s very unlikely that the boy was giving her a first edition of that book.

But let’s be more generous than that. Let’s just say that the boy gave her a rare first edition of an English translation of Homer’s epic poem. There are some famous ones out there: John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Matthew Arnold. A first edition of any one of those could conceivably be worth quite a bit of money, and who knows? Maybe someone would find one in a garage sale somewhere.

Red Line Poets Series FlyerUnfortunately, the book pictured isn’t even that. It’s an edition of Homer’s Iliad published by Thomas J. Crowell & Co. for their Red Line Poets series. I own copies of their editions of Percy’s Shelley’s works and of Byron’s works. The photo to the right is of a flyer stuck inside my edition of Shelley that advertises the series. While it is a nineteenth-century edition, Crowell & Co. having published all 45 titles in the Red Line Poets series by 1882, they originally sold for $1.25 each and typically go for around $8.00 in used bookstores today. The Red Line edition of the Iliad sold for $4.00 at the time because it was bound in calfskin. It might really go for $1.00 in a garage sale, and it’s certainly attractive and would make a nice gift, but no one’s going to empty their bank accounts for one. You can read more about different Red Line Poets editions on this University of Iowa page.

Even trying to be generous, it’s not that rare an edition. I have to admit that I like them, though — they’re very attractive books. I want to collect them all now…