Truths of Life
Barry Corbet: 1935 - 2004
Barry Corbet was one of the great masters of disability.
He wrote books, made movies, and helped start
one of the early source-books of the trade, Spinal Network.
He died slightly more than ten years ago.
I was invited by his magazine to write an obituary ---
which I did with love and pleasure.I was forever and a day trying to get Barry to write a review for RALPH magazine.
Our telephone conversations would go like this.
"Barry ... my friend."
"No," he'd respond.
"No? No what? I haven't even said anything."
"No," he'd say: "I'm not going to write a review for you."
"Did I ask you to write a review?"
"I know you. No."
"Hey. We're friends, right?"
"Listen, it's really no big deal. They just published a new five volume edition of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 1,868 pages, more or less: large type, fine binding. You can keep it after you've..."
§ § §
He would, however, and on occasion, consent to be editor-for-free on subjects that interested him. When we did a review of Firefly's new book on volcanoes, I wrote him, asking if he would look at it.
"I downloaded your volcano piece," he wrote, "and promptly forgot about it. But here's a very quick critique:"
The word is "tectonic," not "tetonic." "Tetonic" means of or pertaining to tits. Tectonic plates, at least when I was a geology major (new concept back then), are usually thought of as very large, like the two grinding plates (oceanic and continental, forgot their real names) that will soon push the Pacific coast into New Jersey.
You write "Sometimes volcanoes overflow with what geologists call 'spastic pyroclastics' which cooks animals, plants, trees, cars, houses, buildings and peoples left in the path." Subject verb agreement of "volcanoes" and "cooks"? Or does the verb agree with "overflow"? I dunno, you're the grammarian.
And: they really use the word "spastic" to modify "pyroclastics?" It's not nice to lie about volcanoes. They have long memories.
Pyroclastics are better compared to bombs, which is what they really are.
Are you sure they have penguins in Iceland? The humor works best when it's underlain by fact.
And why is there no reference to the original lava lamps?
Yours in vulcanology.
§ § §
The historian Hugh Gallagher once said that Barry was "a real cowboy." It wasn't a cynical comment. Gallagher loved cowboys and the old west.
I, on the other hand, told Barry that the pictures of him in Spinal Network and New Mobility put me in mind of a Presbyterian banker. That shows where my head was at.
He was hardly a banker. A master editor and filmmaker and writer. Even, perhaps, a master in the Eastern sense. (He had spent several years with one of the most famed teachers of Tibetan Buddhism in America, Chogyam Trungpa).
As a Buddhist, Barry didn't parade his faith around for others to see. I may have been interested, but he wasn't interested in talking about it. Although once he said, as an aside, that if I meditated long enough and with enough faith, one day I'd "be able to fly."
To fly? Me?
"Like a bird. You could do it. If you practiced. But you can't want to fly."
§ § §
Towards the end there I called and told him that I should write his autobiography. I said I'd like to be his Gertrude Stein; he could be my Toklas (Stein wrote the facetiously named Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.)
He demurred --- he wasn't interested in encomiums --- so I compromised on having him list the twenty-five most valuable things in life. He knew, I suspect, that I was preparing to write what you are reading right now: But he was a writer and an editor and --- in whatever bardo he's floating in right now --- I would hope that he's willing to forgive me.
He never did list all twenty-five. And I know few were stuck in there just to throw me off track. That was his way ... stuff like "Money" and "Malls" and "A Nice Car." He didn't give a damn about such things.
But there were a few in the list that went deep, and he knew it, and I knew it. Like "Health" and "Keeping Warm" and "Sex." And "Walking." And "Not Pooping When You Don't Want To." Things that go to the heart of us.
And then there were the Corbetisms, wry truths out of his past.
One was, "Going South in the Winter." Ten years ago he came to visit me in Southern Mexico. It was to be a vacation in paradise but the hours spent waiting for flights went on far too long. He developed a pressure sore, another of those that had plagued him so often in the last years of his life.
For most of the two weeks he was in Oaxaca he wasn't able to get out of his bed at the hotel. That left him out of reach of the sun and the waves, away from the bar where he could sip Martinis (his favorite) and watch the young playing volley-ball, catching frisbees, running and calling to each other: those innocents having such a fine time on the white sands, moving about so easily, unaware or maybe even uncaring of the truth of entropy that will some day come, that is the fate of all of us.
A few might call those weeks that Barry spent on his back a "tragedy," or a "disaster." Some might use those words, but they were not and are not in our vocabulary. Those of us who have been playing the disability game for so long have come up with other words to take their place. Words like "Reality." Or, "The Facts of Life." Or, "The Way Things Are."
§ § §
The very last on Barry's list was "Having But One Secret."
"I have a secret."
"I keep forgetting what it is. Secrets are never worth it."
"You know what the Tibetan Buddhists say about death."
"They call it The dream at the end of time."
"I don't want to leave you," I said.
"Then don't," he said.