The Great Appreciator


The Great Appreciator

Just One of the Many Rich Simons

By Fred Wistow

March/April 2021


We met in junior high school, Creston Junior High, just off the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, and we continued meeting—damn near nonstop—until Rich’s death 60 years later. Over that long stretch—12 U.S. presidents and the election of a 13th—Rich remained the same “Rich” I met in 1960. At the same time, like most people, he changed, earning himself a variety of nicknames along the way—”Dick Cavett,” “Tom Sawyer,” and “Charles Foster Kane” were just a few. I’ll get to those changes and nicknames in a bit but, looking back, I can see that our friendship was based primarily on two things that never changed.

The first was a feeling of reciprocity and trust that arose from our overlapping sensibilities. We had two phrases—”air conditioning” and “docking”—that we’d use to label and metaphorically sum up those remarkable, and remarkably frequent, moments of connection, when, whatever the cause or reason, we found ourselves on the same page, sharing the same “air,” having the same emotional or aesthetic or analytical reaction to something. That “docking” came in handy during times of stress, which, as one painfully comes to discover as life unfolds, tend to recur with disappointing regularity, particularly when it comes to love and work.

Whenever I, for example, was melting down from whatever awful stuff the world may have been throwing at me (or, more precisely, whenever I was melting down from whatever awful stuff I may have been throwing at myself), Rich’s calm listening presence provided implicit assurance that even as the chaos of any particular crisis roared on, there was constancy in the world. And even more: I knew that if and when any particular reigning chaos or turbulence were ever to be resolved, there would be constancy once again. Whenever you find yourself unmoored, trying to navigate your way through a world you keep fucking up, having a North Star like Rich can do wonders for you.

Here was a guy who took his work so seriously, work he devoted himself to, yet also a guy who could laugh his head off about it.

The second, probably more significant element that bonded us was another kind of reassuring constancy, the best kind: joking around and laughing. We laughed a huge amount of the time. No, that’s not right. We laughed a colossal amount of the time. Almost anything, including each other—especially each other—could be made fun of and set us off. Our mutual mockery was, paradoxically, a sign of love.

In the early years of the Networker, for example, whenever the latest issue would arrive in my mailbox—an issue, like every other one, that Rich would’ve labored over with enormous intensity and pride—I’d do my own kind of laboring, taking hours to mark it up, page after page, with as much ridicule, graffiti, outlandish obscenities, and adolescent mockery as all the margins—as well as every other available patch of white space—could possibly contain. When all my handiwork was done, I’d rush to the post office to mail it back to him.

When it landed in his mailbox, he’d call me up and read back to me, page by page, every last stupid and unforgivable comment of mine, as if we were again passing notes back and forth to each other in high school physics class, his laughter increasing with each subsequent turn of a page. By the end, he’d be shaking with laughter—convulsing with laughter—often to the point where I could hear—but mercifully neither see nor be the victim of—his spit-takes and what often sounded over the phone like snot-takes. Each such reenactment of this ritual was a gift we gave each other, a gift that also reminded me of how extraordinary he was. Here was a guy who took his work so seriously, work he devoted so many hours of his waking life to, yet also a guy, my friend, who could take a look at all that work—his mission in life, his labor of love—and wind up laughing his head off about it.

How could you not love that guy?

The affection and mockery led to the first of his nicknames. In the old days, back in the Bronx, while I was “Groucho”—deadpan and barbed—and Joe Bruno, the third and funniest member of our holy trinity was, appropriately, “Richard Pryor,” Rich was “Dick Cavett.” The real Dick Cavett was not only a comedian, but also the most intelligent talk show host on television by far . . . probably ever.

“Dick Cavett” was so totally accurate because, even then, like Cavett, Rich was funny, witty, urbane, sharp, loquacious, brilliant, inquisitive, celebrity-aware, pop-culture knowledgeable, erudite, unflappable, and with TV-host-presentable looks.

And, like Cavett, Rich was a performer.

On those not-so-mean streets of the Bronx—or anywhere else life later happened to bring him, whether indoors or out—as if he couldn’t control it, as if he were a leading man in a Broadway musical belting out his opening number, compelled to announce to the world both his open-hearted presence and the pure and simple joy of his being—Rich would, at any moment, arms outstretched, burst into song. They were often showtunes, an endless number of showtunes, which he was introduced to by his sister Susan’s Broadway cast albums, but he’d often add in classics from what’s now called The American Songbook or long-gone TV theme songs, even commercials.

Whether we were on Grand Avenue or the Grand Concourse, with a force and at a volume that could not remotely be characterized as restrained, unashamed of acting like an idiot, capturing the shocked attention of every passerby while also entertaining them, he’d unleash some of the apparently boundless energy and infinite number of pop-culture artifacts bouncing around inside him just begging to be released into the atmosphere. He was irrepressible, delivering his material earnestly, showing off, but with a sincere desire to please his audience (even an audience of one—often me), while somehow also putting himself out there with more than a hint of self-mockery, a deft comic impersonation of the “sincere.”

Photo courtesy of Jacob Love

Calling Rich “Dick Cavett” turned out to be more prescient than we ever could’ve imagined because, well, Rich grew up to practically be Dick Cavett. With the Symposium as a venue slightly more appropriate than the Grand Concourse, he stunned and delighted thousands of therapists each year with his comedy and schtick. And both the conference and the magazine allowed him to enter a world where, like Cavett, he served as both interviewer and host. One year, hosting the Symposium as usual, Rich sat on the Omni Shoreham Hotel’s Regency Ballroom stage and—in a surreal conjunction that seemed to shatter the space-time continuum and usher us into the Twilight Zone—interviewed Dick Cavett himself . . . about the art of interviewing.

In conducting interviews with the big names in psychotherapy, Rich did more than just print questions and answers. He opened up the profession and made it more vibrant, bringing attention not just to theories and practices but to the people behind those ideas—human beings, with lives and personalities just like the very therapists who would read about them in the magazine. And those personal histories, that personal touch, made their therapeutic approaches more palpable, more comprehensible. The Networker created a People magazine celebrity-ness for the professionals Rich interviewed. As famous in the field as some of them were, it was not an everyday occurrence to have their faces splashed across the cover of a magazine. He lionized them, but he also made them real. And the bimonthly connection the magazine fostered helped his readers begin to think of themselves as members of a community, as part of a “tribe.”

Eerily, much later, Rich lived up to his nickname in yet another way. Like the real Dick Cavett, Rich suffered episodes of deep depression resulting from bipolar disorder. With as much determination as he could muster, he underwent a slew of treatments throughout his life, and, like his nicknamesake, he underwent electroconvulsive therapy. Successfully, twice. Then, later, not so successfully.

But, in sunnier days, as he was building the tribe, Rich acquired another nickname: “Tom Sawyer.” In Mark Twain’s novel, Tom famously convinced other kids that whitewashing the picket fence he was supposed to be painting was an honor instead of a chore, thereby tricking them into doing his work. Like Tom, Rich kept managing to seduce people into donating their time and effort to write for the magazine and present at the conference, getting them, in a way, to paint his own white picket fence—the Networker.

Except the fence he had them paint wasn’t just his, it was also theirs—the community’s. And, in editing their articles and guiding their presentations, he did pay them—by expanding their skills, advancing their careers, helping them create something they were proud of, and instilling in them a sense of what more they might still create in the future. Rich was just as proud of his fence painters’ accomplishments as they were, and proud too of the network’s growth and of the ultimate benefit to therapists and their clients from the wisdom conveyed in all those articles and Symposium presentations.

I myself was not exempt from Tom Sawyer’s seductive powers. He tricked me into painting the Networker fence in two ways.

First, he drafted me to serve for many years as chairman of the nonprofit, a position that mostly consisted of my rubber-stamping whatever Rich wanted me to. As the magazine and conference grew in popularity, “Tom Sawyer” evolved into “Charles Foster Kane,” as in Citizen Kane. Just as Kane, in his early days, toiled tirelessly to make his newspaper, The Enquirer, a success, Rich relentlessly devoted himself to putting in workaholic hours seven days a week, perfecting the quality of the magazine, watching its subscriber base grow and Symposium attendance climb—issue after issue, year after year, conference after conference, online course after online course, tote bag after tote bag—assembling what we sarcastically called his “multimedia empire.”

Though he didn’t run an empire like Kane’s, Rich was “Kane” in another way: neither of them cared about money. When it came to Rich’s compensation, for example, I had to push hard for him to take an increase in pay, especially because the Networker was a nonprofit and he therefore didn’t own any part of it. But money wasn’t the goal, nor, despite his shamelessness as a performer, was fame or glory. He was in it simply for the pleasure of exploring the ways he could engage and educate and improve the work of mental health professionals.

And though I served for decades as his chairman, I was really only “Bernstein,” Kane’s business manager, serving as advisor, consigliere, factotum, and, after each Symposium keynote, as Rich’s bodyguard and sounding board, walking with him to the nearby McDonald’s on Connecticut Avenue, where, over a chicken sandwich and fries for him, a quarter pounder and fries for me, he’d decompress or recompress and vent about any damn issue he had before he went back again to walk the halls of the hotel in the form of yet another persona: “Mayor of the Omni Shoreham.”

On those not-so-mean streets of the Bronx—or anywhere else life later happened to bring him—Rich would, at any moment, arms outstretched, burst into song.

There was a second way I painted the Networker’s picket fence. Like so many other people he roped in, Rich tricked (or was it “inspired”?) me into writing for the magazine, and, like all those others, I’ll always be ridiculously grateful for his trickery and the satisfaction I derived from the results. After each article of mine he published, the nickname he mocked me with was “Updike,” as in John Updike, whose writing we both loved. In another shattering of the space-time continuum, Updike appeared at the Symposium one year and, ironically, later came to provide yet another nickname for Rich.

Updike once described his mission as a writer this way: “to give the mundane its glorious due.” When he died, the subsequently much-maligned Garrison Keillor called Updike “The Great Appreciator” for his ability to describe almost anything, including the mundane, with precision, imagination, and love, a singular gift that reflected not only his startling talent, but his deep appreciation for all that the world presents to us, if only we pay enough attention to let it in. I appropriated the nickname for Rich because if anyone other than Updike was a Great Appreciator, it was Rich.

Sometimes the act of describing something vague or giving it a name dispels the vagueness and makes it come alive. “Naming something” was probably Rich’s guiding principle, for when it came to speaking or writing, his aim was always to name, to describe, to give substance, meaning, and life to whatever moved him. When Rich loved something—a book, or an article, or a sentence in an article, or a person, or a movie, or a song, or a basketball player, or a particular basketball game, or a particular shot in a particular basketball game . . . you get the idea—he’d practically grab you by the lapels until you heard him out as to the what and the why and the how, in the grand scheme of things, that book or article or sentence or whatever was the greatest book or article or sentence or whatever . . . ever. His feelings and his intelligence and analytical abilities would carry him away, and he’d recreate for you the experience he’d had of whatever thing he was appreciating, going on and on about it with breathtaking eloquence, humor, and insight, hoping you’d come to see it and live it exactly as he had—and love it just as much. That was Rich: giving the mundane its glorious due.

In the very act of transforming the mundane into the extraordinary, he’d become more and more infatuated with both what he was describing and his own ability to bring it to life. And when he was into it—I mean when he was really into it—you might find yourself praying that his onslaught of praise would be interrupted by an emergency of some kind—a fire or an earthquake maybe—anything to stem the exuberant flow of his words, those intricate sentences and paragraphs, and allow you to escape the heartfelt—but enough already!—outpouring of admiring analysis and love.

And when he really, really appreciated the hell out of something (the Derek Jacobi I, Claudius, for example, or, decades later, Mad Men), any goddamn thing in the world might become grist for the I, Claudius or Mad Men mill: meaning, he’d somehow see how the most tenuously connected—or completely unconnected—book or article or scene or offhand comment or basketball shot was just like a scene in I, Claudius or one in, say, Episode 4 of Season 3 of Mad Men, a scene which, of course, he’d then have the privilege and necessity to relate to you in great detail, maybe for what felt like the ten-thousandth time, but somehow miraculously managing this time to see some thrilling aspect of it that until that moment had yet to be seen. And when he was high? Fuggedaboudit. To your amazement, the endless monologues would last until he’d examined an experience to a degree that even an electron microscope would have trouble picking up.

If Joseph Campbell said (as I remember it, anyway, from Bill Moyers’s PBS series The Power of Myth) that the purpose of life was to experience the rapture of being alive, Rich’s joy, his unrestrained joy, allowed him to experience rapture more than anyone I’ve ever known.

At various times in his life, his exuberance evaporated, and he fell into depression, leaving him a shell of who he was. Then, tenaciously, bravely—and, as if a fairytale curse had been lifted—magically, he’d recover, and stay recovered for years, until another episode would kick in. The inexhaustible laughter that had always characterized our friendship started to peter out the last four years of his life. To disguise the depth of pain his illness was inflicting on him, he impersonated himself to everyone he knew as best he could. But with his limitless energy ebbing, the simple act of connection grew too hard for him to sustain. Ultimately, the pain—the loss of his ability to enjoy being alive—grew to be literally intolerable.

He left behind a phenomenally large group of people who love him, who are indebted to him, who feel cheated by his death. He did so much for so many.

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote that “death gives us a more perfect understanding of the person lost and of ourselves.” It was only after Rich’s death that I understood the true nature of his deep absorption, devotion, and commitment to the magazine, and now can see it more clearly for what it was: both a symbol of and a vehicle for his immense generosity of spirit, a spirit lovingly embraced and cherished by so many of us.

I loved him and will miss him.

***

Fred Wistow is a 1962 graduate of Creston Junior High.




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