A vet’s rates don’t come down just because it’s a dying rat
Don’t rate a deathbed experience by the number of words exchanged
Use a smart phone to become your family’s personal historian
He who laughs in the face of spiders is king
Play back absurdities of the day out loud
Immortalize the deceased with talk bubbles
Your To Do List
How to keep our minds “flowing comedically” after a death with smart phones, comic strips and more – as memory artist, Nancy Gershman talks with“gentleman cartoonist,” Keith Knight whose various, nationally syndicated comics are published in the Washington Post, MAD, Daily Kos, Medium.com, and the Funny Times. Visit Keef on his website and watch the documentary on his work.
“My rat, Anna Chavez, was named after the first newscaster (I saw on TV after moving to San Francisco). She lived for so long. But at the end of their lives, rats get all these tumors and her dying was a sad experience. It was weird, though, because in the process, I made the same kind of discovery you make when you learn that kids clothes are the same price as adult clothes. I brought Anna to a vet, dropped $240 bucks to make her healthy again (as much as I’d pay for myself!). And when I came to pick her up, I asked if anything had changed because my rat still looked ready to die.”
“A few years ago I lost my great uncle Owen. Out of everyone in the family, the two of us were so close. Even with how much we loved one another, there wasn’t a whole lot to talk about as he lay on his deathbed at home. I spent a lot of time just holding his hand, just being in the room. There’s a warmth and understanding we have because we knew how much we meant to one another. Being together was what mattered to us.
I remember feeling why is this happening to me.
Literally, five years earlier, maybe even less, I was standing in line with my Uncle Owen at the Big Apple Loop Roller Coaster in Vegas, and looking around. I remember thinking: Wow! Uncle Owen is wa-aay older than everyone in this line. Poor guy didn’t know it was a loop coaster (he had never been on one.) He got off the thing – and my uncle is always impeccably dressed – with his hair and clothing all tossled by the ride. My Dad was like, ‘Uncle, what do you think of the Loop Coaster?’ and he told us, ‘I will never go on that fucking thing again.’”
“Sadly, I wasn’t present for Uncle Owen’s service at his sister’s. I had to come back to California. But I sent a video with me raising a piece of toast in the air. My lovely wife had prompted me for few years earlier to interview my great uncle before he was sick. Out of those interviews I made these booklets with stories about Owen’s life, with his advice for younger people in the family. Like his experience with racism. He was stabbed in the ‘20s in a bar fight in Paris when he was an artist and broke. Everyone got a booklet for Christmas. When I showed it to one of my little cousins, Qiana, she told me how much it meant to her. I told her, “Now it’s your turn to do what I did and interview the old folks in our family, and get their story down.” Nowadays you can do it all with just a phone, by turning on Voice Memo or using the Camera.
I would talk to Owen about everything. I began to see that my Dad’s side of the family is where my artistic talent came from. I would draw trees with my dad when I was younger. I began putting all these life experiences into my auto-bio comic strip, The K Chronicles, which I began in 1992. I didn’t understand the value of doing that until Dark Horse published a phone book-size compendium of the work. It’ll be a great resource fro my sons when they’re older. And the strip will continue to live online, via various venues, including my own personal website, easily, for the next 50 years.”
“Isn’t it true that if you write your history you can also throw the story, right? That’s when history becomes, well, iconic.
Here’s something I’m doing right now: A graphic novel about my high school years as a Michael Jackson impersonator in the eighties. I have old friends telling me about stuff I have no recollection of whatsoever. All I can remember was: I was in high school, making $75/hour as Jordan Marsh’s (the Macy’s of Boston back in the day) official impersonator for Christmas 1984. When I entered as Michael Jackson, my twin sister and a neighbor accompanied me in suits and sunglasses, like they were my management team.
I remember sitting in a café years later, hearing from somebody that Jackson had been taken to the hospital and that it didn’t look good — and suddenly the regular café soundtrack changes to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” I just knew at that moment Michael Jackson must have died. It felt like the first ‘real’ thing from childhood had gone away. For the first time, I’m thinking Oh, I’m going to be dead soon …that I’m finite. If something as big as Michael Jackson is gone then for sure I won’t be on this earth for who knows how long! Jackson was so much a part of my existence. The server was smiling in a goofy way – it was clear it didn’t affect her nearly as deeply as it did me.
That’s the interesting thing. When you’re doing a daily strip, there’s no vacation. No stopping, no time to grieve, because you have to get your strip in by the deadline. When Owen passed, I still had to go and be funny. It was a tough thing to do. I’d warm up by thinking of some of the really funny stuff I experienced with my uncle. Even some of the funny stuff that happened when he was sick in the hospital.
For example, in the parking lot, we were in a rental car, with my wife, sister, and infant son. I saw there was a spider in the car, and my wife is deathly afraid of spiders. I was trying to get it out discreetly without her seeing me do it … opening the window and trying to get it out but it jumped straight back into the car. At that point, everyone freaked and dove out of the car and Jasper (he’s, like, 1 year old) is still buckled into his car seat. Yeah, he was a little shocked to see everybody leave. And the spider was in the middle of the car, just hanging out.
I told my uncle about it, and he laughed — as much as he could muster. I’m always looking for humor any way I can, in the worst of situations.”
“I did a bunch of comics after 9/11. One was about how we drop our petty quibbles when something horrible happens to us collectively, and we actually understand that we’re all in this together. In 9/11, you saw that no one was black, white or brown that day. Everyone was grey, covered in ashes. Everyone was helping everyone out: Wall Street people, homeless, bike messengers, and shopkeepers.
What’s funny (or sad depending on how you look at it) is that when we wash the grey off, everybody’s quibbling and going right after each other again.
I just think that comedians have this open receptive filter that is always taking everything in with a measured calmness, even during a crisis. Like, I had a 15 year old cousin who died of cancer. Here he was deathly ill on the bed, and yet everybody was focusing on me, commenting about me getting bald. ‘Wow, you’re losing your hair!’ I made a strip about my little cousin, saying ‘at least I have an excuse for losing my hair.’ That was a charmed moment.
Take my son, Jasper. My wife speaks to him in German so he’s become open at an early age to both English and German. His mind is open to it and he’s honing it like a muscle. Part of that is because all he’s ever known is that his parents speak different languages. So there’s no pre-judgment. He’s learning both. It’s just – that’s the way it is. When the World Cup was on, we were watching it on Univision, the Spanish language station, and it was amazing how easily he picked up all these Spanish phrases because they sounded so catchy and he loved repeating them.
Noticing that kind of stuff is what keeps my mind flowing comedically in this town.”
“I like to honor certain people who’ve passed with my comic strips. I do strips where I draw folks like Nelson Mandela and Maya Angelou along with some of their most insightful quotations. Prints of those strips have sold really well with educators and librarians. I put my Uncle Owen as a character in my auto-bio strip. In a weird way, he gets to live on within the strip. Gives me a warm feeling when I draw him.”
What ways can we keep our minds “flowing comedically”? Keith suggests that every day you search for it. And if you don’t feel in the mood? Try this:
- See what other folks are chuckling at, and make a mental note of it
- If you happen to bump into what used to make you laugh, study it
- If you make someone else laugh, ask them what’s so funny (but adopt the expression of an extraterrestrial)
- Look for one thing that is different today (out the window, at the office, and so on) and see if there is any humor or irony behind it
Then do the most important thing: write it down. Get yourself a nice book with blank, unlined pages. If it’s something somebody said, make a talk bubble, and mark down who said it and the date. If it’s something somebody did, describe it narratively. And if you’re gifted enough to draw, turn your observations into a strip, however primitive, by placing vertical lines between scenes.
Viewing this treasure once you get your mojo back will make you damn proud of yourself.