Last week when I sat down and saw the news that Robin Williams had died, my first thought was that it couldn’t be true. Obviously his death was a hoax. Robin Williams wasn’t someone who died, he was someone you loved intensely when you were a kid and then rarely thought about, save for maybe occasionally catching five minutes of Hook or Mrs. Doubtfire on cable and being torn between nostalgic devotion and realizing they’re not very good movies. The news that Williams was dead must have been either a lie perpetrated by some dumb goon or by Williams himself, and he’d gone to live on that mysterious pacific island where John Lennon and Heath Ledger and the Oxiclean guy hang out. The more I thought about it, though, the more it made sense. That he’d killed himself. If you string his whole career together into a narrative, obviously he was at risk, this man who swerved between a comic persona that revealed a deep engagement with humanity but was really a manic sleight-of-hand meant to keep you from looking too closely at the guy behind the blabber, and dramatic roles that often left no room for any light save that filtered through the most tired clichés—the truth will set you free, the healing power of laughter, stuff like that, the kinds of things people cling to like driftwood when they get tired of swimming for shore.
Maybe that’s what happened. Maybe he started thinking there was no shore, maybe he got tired of pretending driftwood was just as good. But I don’t want to speculate. All I’ll say is that now he’s in that hall of heroes erected by so many in my demographic—him and Belushi and Farley and Hunter S. Thompson, amongst others, all these guys who seemed a little more alive than everyone else and a little more at war than everyone else, who gave up fighting one way or the other.
When I’m especially down, or frustrated, I’ll think about how it would be easier to not have to deal with whatever is going on. I never think about it practically—all the different methods are so grizzly—instead I think about it in terms of having an accident. Falling, or drinking something poisonous by mistake, or a blow-out on the highway, my car spinning end over end and finally bursting into an awesome fireball visible for miles that leaves a charred streak on the side of the road that lasts for years and years, and teenagers in the future will drive by and invent tall tales about what happened there. I’m being dark and dramatic but I don’t think there’s anything to worry about. Either I think about it as much as anyone else or else I’m wrong about everyone else, I guess, but I do know what it’s like to feel out to sea and I’ll bet you do, too.
But here’s what I really want to tell you: not too long ago a friend of mine was going through a hard time. It would be disrespectful to try to quantify someone else’s bad mood, I think, and not to suggest she was having the kind of hard time Robin Williams was, but she was bummed. Going through some shit. I went over to help her get organized and try to cheer her up. This friend, when she’s feeling up it’s like hanging out with the chorus of Weezer’s ‘Surf Wax America’ in walking, talking, human form; when she’s down it’s like hearing Nas blare from within a scorched old building that Mapquest insists is the bookstore you’re looking for and you know you’re in a bad neighborhood but it’s kind of exciting, too. She can be tough to cheer up. If she catches you trying to cheer her up she resists and then calls two days later and demands you tell her a joke while you’re driving around, lost, with people in the car. Her place didn’t need that much organizing, actually, but I helped her pick up a bit and while we were at it she mentioned she’d signed up for horseback riding lessons, and was planning to get back into the piano lessons she’d taken a break from earlier in the year. “And look at this,” she said. She opened a drawer in her desk and pulled out a little plastic kit filled with slender metal tools and passed it to me. It was a lock-pick kit. I asked her why she had a lock-pick kit and she said, “I’m going to learn to pick locks.” I asked her why and she said, “I told you, I’m a mess.”
Some people drink, you know? Some people scream and punch the walls. She was learning to ride horses and pick locks, like she might suddenly stumble out of reality into the Dungeons & Dragons world and have to start thieving to survive. If I hadn’t already fallen to my knees before her to pledge my undying devotion so many times that it had gotten boring, I would have done it right then. Not to take away from Williams or anyone else stricken by despair so deeply, but how beautiful is it that faced with challenges, she took on more challenges? Unhappy with her life, or at least some of it, she decided not to retreat, but to dig in.
Don’t you want to be that person? Don’t you want to be around people like that? People a little more alive and a little more at war than most who fight harder when they feel like they’re losing? My friend thought she was flailing but I looked at that lock-pick kit… maybe she felt like the shore was impossibly far off but good God, she’d found a whole new way to swim.