save your sparkle for the page

Last week, I misspelled meshuggaas. It was a real meshuga thing to do. What a pisher I am. Sure, I’ve fixed the post, but what’s that worth? Bupkes. I am both a shlemiel and a shlimazel. If only you could edit the past as easily as a WordPress post! This is an embarrassment to my ancestors. Oy.

I suppose I should get on to this week’s megillah, but why you’d listen to a putz like me, who can say?

The weather in Brooklyn the other night was lovely, so my wife and I decided to take a stroll. (“Alexa, babysit the kids.” A little-known feature that works surprisingly well.)

Weaving our way through the labyrinthine industrial byways of Red Hook and the Columbia Waterfront District, we stumbled upon a used bookstore. Freebird Books sits on an isolated stretch across the street from acres of shipping facilities along the East River.

Only in New York will you, after a lifetime in the city, randomly discover yet another used bookstore that’s been around for years on a random walk in the middle of nowhere with only a handful of other storefronts nearby and almost no foot traffic. Only in New York will said bookstore be open for business at eight in the evening.

Remember my definition of the perfect bookstore? This place had it all, minus the cat. (With the rats you see in that area, you’d need yourself a lynx, minimum.) In the back, the owner was watching that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation with the aliens who communicate only in metaphors. He’d rigged it up so that the dialogue played throughout the store, a soundscape which felt even more appropriate, i.e. customer-unfriendly, than the usual hard bop jazz or discordant classical. Freebird is really something special: They just don’t want you in there. (Maybe it’s because they love the books so much it hurts to sell them.)

Right off the bat, I spotted a number of weird gems face-out on the shelves, but only one was worthy schlepping along for the rest of our walk:

The Executive Look: How to Get It—How to Keep It

Magnificent, isn’t it? The contents don’t disappoint, either. If you want to look like any late 70s/early 80s older male TV villain, from Highway to Heaven to The Incredible Hulk, this book will show you how. (Expect a whole new look from me in the coming weeks. In a word? Turtlenecks.)

“Who wrote it?” my wife asked.

“I’m guessing…a haberdasher?”

She opened the book to the back flap, and my life was changed…forever.

Remember those Dos Equis ads for The Most Interesting Man in the World? That guy was a tedious bore. Mortimer Levitt may not have surfed killer waves or wrestled bears, but by god he lived:

Mortimer Levitt opened his first Custom Shop in 1937 and is still the sole owner of this nationwide, 43-branch chain. He has also produced plays, films and television features, and is involved in many cultural and philanthropic activities: a founding member and producer at both the Manhattan Theater [sic] Club and the Levitt Pavilion in Westport, Connectict, and owner of the Mortimer Levitt Gallery; board chairman of Young Concert Artists…He is an avid skiier, tennis player, sailor, and pianist, and lives with his wife, Mimi, in New York City and Westport.

Remember how Fred Sanford used to feign a heart attack whenever he didn’t get his way? “This is the big one!” Reading this, I experienced a paroxysm of panic and regret that left me similarly reeling.

What am I doing with my life? Why haven’t I produced plays, films, and “television features”? Why haven’t I founded anything or been on the board of anything else? At the very least, why don’t I play the piano? (Unless he was talking about playing “Chopsticks.” I can manage “Chopsticks.”)

“This is the big one!” I cried, staggering under the weight of missed opportunities. “We’ve got to get out of this city. I’m not going to be able to get any of these things done here with the time I’ve got left—I’m already 41! We’re going to have to move to an easier city: Pittsburgh, or Cleveland. I need to learn how to play tennis and I need to start some sort of nonprofit. Maybe two. Above all, we’re going to have to stop watching Netflix! People like Mort only existed when Netflix wasn’t an option. I’ll need that time in the evenings to produce ‘television features.’ How do you produce ‘television features’?

I have “reactions” like this from time to time. My wife has plenty of experience talking sense into me. An hour later, we were watching Netflix and I’d canceled my order for a pair of skis.

Writers crave affiliation, accomplishment, distinction. We want to be interesting. I know the pull all too well, and Mortimer was only the latest reminder. That said, actually chasing interesting, going after these markers of distinction, is a mistake, a dead end. When we get caught up in trying to be interesting, we’ve conflated creator and creation. An actor plays villains and we assume they’re villainous. A comedian makes us laugh and we assume they’re funny in person. A speaker wows us from the stage and we assume they can string an entire sentence together in conversation. Far more often, it’s the opposite, and there’s nothing ironic about it.

Pros save their sparkle for the page.

Back in college, the other theater kids were very dramatic. They may not have created many characters—as actors, directors, or playwrights—but they were characters. These characters now work at Goldman Sachs. When I took a video class at a nearby college with a reputation for its filmmaking program, all the aspiring Scorseses and Tarantinos dressed the part, but very few bothered to learn how to edit video in Adobe Premiere. Only a handful completed anything. They, too, are now cogs in the global financial system.

Brilliant authors are often boring in real life. Comedians are frequently humorless. Creators (who know better) don’t waste time cultivating appearances or racking up distinctions. Trying to be interesting leaves a hole in your bucket. Smart creators put everything they’ve got into the work. If they’re still funny, charming, fascinating, or distinctive, it’s only because of a glorious, overwhelming excess of talent. Personally, I’ve got none to spare. I’d love to be polymathic or “notable,” to have an award for something or join an elite club or get my name on a building—but any of that would take time and energy away from my work.

Only five Custom Shop locations remain, but Levitt’s legacy lives on with a foundation that mounts public performing arts events around the country. Even in death, Levitt outshines my accomplishments. I haven’t even begun to work on establishing a foundation, which is probably for the best. Mine would be more along the lines of the Foundation for Law and Government from Knight Rider. Do you think I could apply for a government grant to build K.I.T.T.?

p.s. I should add that my wife was embarrassed when I recognized the Star Trek episode just from the dialogue. I was embarrassed when she couldn’t tell if it was TNG or TOS.

p.p.s. Now I’m wondering whether you know what TNG and TOS stand for, and now we’re both probably embarrassed about the other.