November 22, 2011


The screen play for the 1981 film, “My Dinner with Andre,” written by the principle actors, Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, is about a discussion the two men have one evening somewhere in New York where the topics range from experimental theatre to the nature of life. Andre, just returned from abroad, tells about his exploits as he trotted round the globe while his friend, Wallace, listens in amazement. At one point the latter remarks that not everyone would have the stamina to live a life full of peak adventures, a life that seemed so unreal. His companion smiles and corrects his friend. Life in New York City, he replies is the dream. 

(New Yorker Films)

The screenplay came to mind as I shared a meal with a friend the other day. I’ve known him for many years and now that he is in his sixties, he plans to retire from a long and successful career as a defense attorney for clients who face the death penalty. If anyone has lived at the edge of life, where existence and non-existence hangs in the balance, it is this remarkable and affable man. I could only marvel at his fortitude and wonder how much it cost him to maintain his calm façade, for this was not a person who was indifferent about outcomes for his clients. 

I asked how it felt to be on the verge of giving up a lifetime of stressful work.  Was he nervous or happy about the future? Did he fear disappearing from the public eye after having  gained the respect of his community? Or did he look back with regret and wished he’d taken a different road?

I wasn’t surprised by his answer. He was ready to let go, he said, not because he was tired or had lost faith in the justice system, or because he couldn’t stand the pressure any longer. He was ready to let go because living on the edge had taught him what to prize in life: the affection for friends and family. These were real if simple values. Titles, money and moving up the ladder of success were the dreams.   

Like Wallace in the film, I nodded, having nothing to contribute. My friend had said all that was important to say.