My May 2011 Interview with Actor/Author Rob Lowe

My PCTV show is called “About Writing,” and Rob Lowe had written his own book, so it looked like the perfect match. Station Manager Shane MacGaffey said he’d free up the studio for an evening interview. Shane sounded almost as excited as I was.

Marmaduke Factory colleague Pat Eisemann was handling publicity for Stories I Only Tell My Friends. Pat made it happen.

Of course I’m the sort of person who pretends not to care at all about celebrities. “They put on their pants the same way I do.” That’s what one of my childhood friends once told me more than forty years ago, and while it didn’t have the ring of truth, it is still ringing in my ears. That friend of mine—in case you’re curious—fixes cars for a living.

In any case there’s no denying that the very existence of group of apparently superior creatures leads to difficulties.

I know for sure that it creates difficulties for the celebrities themselves. Seems they can’t stay married, or off of drugs, or keep from being photographed just when they look their worst.  By this I mean that they get photographed looking like the rest of us look all the time: Startled. Dismayed. Bewildered. Even fat.

The category celebrity also creates a problem for the rest of us.

1. Either these people don’t deserve the adoration of the crowd.  In which case they’re sopping up love that should be spread around to other and more deserving sorts like yourself. Or myself.

2. Or they are smarter, better looking and harder working than the rest of us.  This doesn’t feel nifty either.

If I had my druthers, I’d go for answer #1.

“Injustice is relatively easy to bear,” Mencken wrote. “What stings is justice.”

I’m afraid, though, that Lowe is a clear example of the second and more troubling circumstance. Yes, he’s good looking and a movie star.  He’s also smart. He’s written a splendid book.

Doesn’t seem fair, does it?

Westchester Arts Award

Lu Picard BenCheever John Nonna This is the speech I gave in April when Westchester Arts gave me their prize for being an artist, a prize I was certain my mother [(92) and in the audience]  would  be amused by. (In photo from L. to R.: LuPicard,  Ben Cheever (me) and John Nonna.)

“I’m too polite to ask what you’re being honored for,” my mother said, when  I invited her to come today. “That’s good,” I said, “because I’m not at all  sure myself. I wonder if these people  know who I am.” And I thought this, too, until I saw today’s program and  noticed that my remarks had been restricted to a single  minute. “Well then,” I thought,  “maybe they do know who I am.”

I certainly know who some of you are. I know  Steve Apkon and how he (more…)

“Words alone are certain good.”

—William Butler Yeats

It would be an exaggeration to report that it didn’t matter what you said to my father (Short story writer and novelist) or to my mother (Poet, and wife of short story writer and novelist) as long as you said it well. But then it wouldn’t be all that much of an exaggeration. If my father was the king, then language was the faith. I was a good little boy, but for most of my life my mother made me feel deeply ashamed of the many books I hadn’t read. My father wasn’t an alpha in the way that Cesar Millan means alpha. Nevertheless, he was the patriarch. He was often funny, and sometimes even inspiring, but he could also be ruthless. He never struck me. He didn’t have to. Disney’s Davy Crockett only needed to catch a bear’s eye in order to stare the beast to death. Within earshot, I’m convinced that my old man could have convinced the bear to commit suicide. I learned the language as the horse learns the bit.

My father liked the histories written by Francis Parkman. In particular he liked volume II of Montcalm and Wolfe. Parkman tells how the English General, James Wolfe had his army rowed secretly—and at night—around the French fortifications at Quebec.

“For full two hours the procession of boats, borne on the current, steered silently down the St. Lawrence,” Parkman writes. “The stars were visible, but the night was moonless and sufficiently dark. The General was in one of the foremost boats, and near him was a young midshipman, John Robison, afterwards professor of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. He used to tell in his later life how Wolfe, with a low voice, repeated “Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard” to the officers about him. . . Among the rest was the verse which his own fate was soon to illustrate: The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

‘Gentlemen,’ he said, as his recital ended, ‘I would rather have written those lines than take Quebec.’”

Wolfe did take Quebec, of course, although both he and Montcalm died. It wasn’t Wolfe’s military genius that my father admired. What he appreciated was the man’s willingness to honor a poet above all else.

So the above line from Yeats’s “The Song of the Happy Shepherd” stopped me dead.

Yeats was baldly stating something I had only dared to suspect. Here’s the passage from which the line is drawn.

“Word alone are certain good.
Where are now the warring kings,
Word be-mockers? —By the Rood,
Where are now the warring Kings?
An idle word is now their glory,
By the stammering schoolboy said,
Reading some entangled story:
The kings of the old time are dead;
The wandering earth herself may be
Only a sudden flaming word,
In clanging space a moment heard,
Troubling the endless reverie.

“Let us assume that all men are created equal.”

—Thomas Jefferson

This is an example of language gone terribly wrong. What Thomas Jefferson meant—I think—was that all men are equal under the law. But that’s not exactly what he wrote, and his words have floated off into the public consciousness. It seems now that we—as a people—share the expectation that all men (and women) are created equal. Not equal under the law. Not equal in God’s eyes. Equal, equal.

We all expect to run the four-minute mile. Earn a billion dollars. We should all be beautiful or handsome. Unless we have a better idea, we all expect to be blond, tall and with piercing blue eyes? If not, then somebody else has cheated. Or else I, personally, have fucked up. This blanket expectation of equality generates a good deal of self loathing. It generates a great deal of loathing loathing. Maybe we should all relax, enjoy our differing strengths and expectations. I like to run. I like to run faster than my friends, but when my friends run faster than I do, I shouldn’t let this ruin my day. Maybe they’ve trained more assiduously than I have. Maybe not.

Nor should we expect the underdog to win every fight. Take this position, open your eyes and you’ll be in a nearly constant state of outrage.<

Damon Runyon said it well: “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.”

“There’s no worse thief than a bad book.”

—Italian Saying

I picked up this Italian saying in a novel I didn’t much admire. And yet I love the thought. People get misty eyed about books these days, all books. I think this is mostly because there’s a lot less reading going on. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. They forget that many books need to be put on a diet. Others are poison at any length.