Thursday, November 09, 2006


My law school class was divided into four sections of 140 students each. In my section, we had three class clowns. All were nice people, and all three made people laugh. But that’s where their similarities ended. One was funny because he kept cracking jokes even though none of them was clever, witty, shocking, interesting … in short, the jokes were stupid, but he became a comic character for his perseverance. The second class clown was funny because he was, well, he was nuts. And in a place as boring as a law school classroom, an odd duck cracking crazy jokes is pretty darned hysterical.

That brings me to the third class clown. He was a cool guy who always loved to laugh. He loved obscene jokes most of all, but he couldn’t tell those so much in the classroom. So in the classroom, he just figured out a way to laugh at his fellow classmates – only in a way that even they had to laugh with him. This guy, you see, didn’t have a mean bone in his body. He was just a super nice person who appreciated the basic human principle that we all need a good laugh, and the zanier and dirtier the joke, the more visceral the laugh.

He frequently called me up and made all sorts of obscene, sexual propositions that made no sense, given that we were both heterosexual males. He used to scream out the window when his wife was approaching his apartment walkway: “Get out of here bitch, my wife is coming!” He would hold parties in which, instead of playing music, he would play Rodney Dangerfield albums. He gave many people absurd nicknames that have lasted with them the rest of their lives. One time, when a friend named Jon was scheduled to answer the professor’s questions in Corporations class, he arranged to have people chant Jon’s first and last names, and then to rate Jon’s answers on a scale of 1-10. He gave the lowest possible rating.

In short, at Harvard Law School – otherwise known as sober environment that takes itself way too seriously – he was an antidote.

Last year, on November 11th, he was driving alone to his home in the Catskills, his family having recently moved from the NY City Area. He and his wife now had three children, and he had a successful practice as a bankruptcy lawyer. Alone in his car, sober and seat belted, he drove off the road on a rainy evening, fell down an embankment, and died. At his funeral, nine people gave eulogies. And well over 100 people had to stand, for all the seats in the synagogue were filled. I missed the funeral, but saw his surviving family the next day. Many of the neighborhood kids were there – despite how recently he moved to the area – and all of them referred to him by his first name. He was just one of the boys, to them. Totally unassuming. Totally friendly. Totally fun.

When I first heard the news of my friend’s death, my primary emotion was shock. I likely didn’t immediately perceive how much this would affect my life -- after all, while the two of us had spoken a few years back, I hadn’t seen him since we graduated from law school more than 20 years earlier. As soon as I learned the news, I instinctively took a shower, and that’s when the news really hit me. In fact, I started to bawl my eyes out. I felt badly that my friend was gone. I felt badly for his family. But most of all, I felt badly for my world, that in an environment where most people would live well into their 70s, this guy of all people would never reach age 47. He was so vivacious, so much fun, so full of love. And now, he is gone.

The police report said that he was exceeding the speed limit at the time of his accident. So is that the lesson here – that we should drive slowly? That’s one lesson. We could add other clich├ęd lessons like: (a) you never know when your time is going to be up, or (b) make the most of your days, because they are scarce. But those are not the deepest lessons I’ve taken from the episode.

First, I’ve realized that when people are both loving and vivacious, and particularly when they have a knack for making other people happy, they will be deeply appreciated in ways that most of us can’t understand. This man left quite a mark, didn’t he? In that sense, even someone who dies young may be said to have lived a full life.

Second, this episode reminded me of how much I not only loved my friend but life itself. It’s precisely because we adore life so – at least those of us who don’t set off suicide bombs – that we feel so awful for a person who dies before “his time.” Life may not be as fair as we’d like, but it is every bit as precious.

Third, one of the most beautiful things about my (Jewish) culture is how it deals with death. Last year, I was able to celebrate my friend’s life with his whole surviving family because, in Judaism, the family spends a full week together at home to remember and mourn the dead. This year, several of my classmates from law school are going to get together in my synagogue to honor our friend. We will be standing up in unison when his name is mentioned. And this will go on every year on or around November 11th, which will allow us to keep him alive in our thoughts during the weeks and months ahead.

Last, but certainly not least, this episode reminds me, as if I needed a reminder, that what goes on in this world is not the product of a great puppeteer manipulating human events. Out of respect for my friend, I refuse to believe that some deity made a conscious decision to take him away at a young age from his loving wife or his three adoring children.

Of course, that deity could have viewed his murderous decision as some sort of off-color joke – “Let’s allow all the cut-throat, status conscious pricks to live, and take the life of the guy who makes everyone happy. Yeah, that’s the ticket!” If that’s really what’s going on, maybe someday, in the spirit of my friend, I’ll figure out how to laugh at death. As Mary Richards said at the funeral of Chuckles the Clown: “a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.” In other words, the more awful life gets, the more viscerally we can laugh at its absurdities. Frankly, that’s one of the truths that have kept Jewish culture alive through crusades, ghettos, pogroms, Holocausts, and above all else, our own stupidity.


Finding Fair Hope said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Finding Fair Hope said...

That deletion was me because of a weird type that destroyed not only the profundity but also the sense of the comment I was making, which was this:

Dan -- I'm so glad you didn't discontinue blogging as I thought you said you would.

I lost my lifelong best friend about ten years ago, a "class clown" of great intelligence and huge neuroses, and have grappled with the subject of why people die before I want them to on more than one blogpost over the past few months. Like you, I don't think this is a decision made by God, as if God is some guy up there doling out rewards and punishments.

You might agree with this post and its comments among many dealing with God and the existence of a soul on my blog.

Funny how just being alive can take you down the philosophical trail, and how many people are willing to go there with you! I love what you're writing.

Finding Fair Hope said...

I hate to fill your comment box with comments on my own comments, but there was yet another typo in that most recent comment -- in fact, I meant to type "typo" and I typed "type." I must go more slowly. Sorry!

Daniel Spiro said...

Wow, FFP, that was quite a collection of comments. If I wanted to get 23 comments, I'd have to start paying people (like the Benefactor in The Creed Room). I hesitate to ask how much I'd have to pay either.

I agree with the "species-centered" comments, but not because I'm a vegan (though I do feel appreciably cleaner spiritually since I adopted that diet roughly 13 years ago).

I subscribe to the Spinozist comment that we were triangles, then our God would be triangular. The point of religion should be to worship the God that is (as best as we can), rather than to create a God in the image of our own ideals. We idealize will, mercy, love, justice, etc., so we posit and then saddle "Him" with all of our ideal characteristics (will, mercy, love, justice). That all seems pretty pedestrian to me, and I believe, to an increasing number of other soul searching people.

Besides, if God were a just and merciful God, then the three teams I rooted for last weekend wouldn't have scored a combined total of 3 points. Maybe God is, in essence, cruel, and that explains why "only the good die young." Hmmm. That seems as sensible as the Fundamentalist alternative.