Howie told me to make sure to check out the beautiful tile work in the WPA public bathroom built on the beach a block from his new house by the Pacific Ocean. The bathroom building stood just across The Great Highway, which you could take out of town and through the eucalyptus trees and the fog, over an orange bridge to beautiful Marin County. I don’t recall if I ever saw that tile work, but I clearly remember Howie’s enthusiasm, which was characteristic. The man loved life.
When my mother was dying her long, slow death I had a lot of time to think about what would happen to her children after she was gone. Her children, my sister and I, were in their fifties, but it would still be a first for them, living in the world without mother or father. There was some terrible drama a month before my mother died, a Florida hospice trying to cover its ass hospitalized her against her will, sent her home eventually on a gurney, with her ass hanging out of her backless gown and soon covered in her own feces. So much for death with dignity.
It was on the first day of this unfolding treachery by Vitas Hospice in Florida, during a series of increasingly aggravating phone calls to Florida, that I had a call, not from the director of Vitas, but from an old friend I hadn’t heard from in a while.
Howie, who seemed to be in great shape and excellent spirits, and loving his new house in the Sunset, had stopped for a red light in Berkeley, driving one of his employees home after a convention. The light changed, the passenger said “Howie, it’s green,” but Howie was gone. Like a candle blown out by a whisper.
A month later my mother died, as peacefully as possible at Hospice by the Sea, attended by angels, with both of her children by her bed. After her memorial service my plans began coming into focus. I would do what I’d long dreamed of doing, find a way to get back to working with doomed– “at-risk”– kids, helping bring out their creativity and ingenuity.
On a friend’s recommendation I saw a movie called “Saint Misbehavin'” about a hipster named Wavy Gravy, a Flower Geezer, who prays each day, to every deity and noble soul he knows of, to help him be the best Wavy Gravy he can be. And this former Hugh Romney has done a lot of good for a lot of people. I left the theatre inspired to be the best Eliot Widaen I can be, to become the change I want to see in the world. There was a lot of work to be done and nobody but me to do it.
Seven or eight months later I had the workings of my plan fleshed out. A simplified system for improvising and animating short films for the web that children would be able to do themselves. The children would learn, problem-solve, teach each other, with a few adults on hand to listen and lend support. The program, set in a world where people don’t, as a rule, listen, particularly to children (unless they are the doting parents, and even then, it’s no sure bet) would create a place where children would be encouraged to speak, be heard and replied to. Feedback is crucial to any kind of human growth.
It’s like having a catch. You throw the ball, the other person catches it, throws it back. Few things, it seems, could be simpler, but it’s not simple enough to happen regularly. I think that’s one of the reasons there is this mania for e-mail, instant messaging, tweeting, blogging, texting, pinging– to get the feeling of this connectedness, a primary thing missing from so many lives.
I know an agoraphobic, bulimic with ten thousand on-line Facebook friends. He apparently has regular contact with many of them, but when I run into him, on the rare occasions he ventures out, he clings to my company in a way that tells me his ten thousand virtual friends may not be enough.
If you go to wehearyou.net, now a 501(c)(3) charitable organization ready to do business in the world, you will see a brief sketch of the intended program. A link from there will take you to the youTube channel, wehearyoudotnet, where you can see examples of what the kids will do, and you will notice the name Howie Gravy as the proprietor of that site.
Howie, because he listened, never spoke badly of anyone, had a madcap curiosity about everything, because he was my friend and ready for adventure, and because he died years before his time. Gravy because of another good-hearted soul, a man who, among other things, helps bring medical services to save the eyesight of thousands in impoverished parts of Asia and other places. Howie Gravy, as good a name as any I could think of that night, my eyes tearing up, to think that, in spite of it all, I might actually succeed in setting up and running this program that would make my mother proud.
Howie’s wife, understandably inconsolable, felt largely abandoned by their large circle of friends in the weeks and months after Howie’s death. First life had cruelly snatched Howie away just as they were beginning to enjoy their lovely new home by the ocean, then their many friends seemed to recede, make excuses instead of visiting, listening, helping with her loss. It was no doubt painful for the friends, as it was for all of us, most especially Howie’s wife and kids, but still.
I listened with concern on long, late-night cross-country calls to the latest details of the group of friends taking her for granted, putting her off with platitudes. Her hurt was palpable and all I could offer was my concern, my agreement that her friends were a pretty sad bunch. And to observe how differently Howie would have acted in any of their places. That her friends also had a difficult and painful job, trying to console this inconsolable woman, did not make them any less sad a bunch to my mind. Friends do what is difficult, cry with us as well as laugh, that’s why they’re friends, why real friends are so rare.
My thoughts flitter and alight on my current board of directors. Four old friends of mine who agreed to help out, one of whom is doing all the legal work to get the organization up and running. He emailed me the other day with the great news that the IRS had given us expedited tax exempt status. This means we can now begin applying for grants and tax deductible contributions, it is a big step forward. I shared the good news with the Board in an email 48 hours ago.
What I heard from the Board reminded me of why the change I have already undergone has been so important to me, why wehearyou.net may have such a crucial role to play in troubled young lives. I heard nothing from any of them.
Howie teaches not to judge these busy, preoccupied people, that there’s no reason to condemn them in any way in my disappointment. Better to move on, following the dream Howie is no longer around to help me dream, except when I dream.