What Matters: Robert Edelstein on Kicking COVID and Really Listening

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Debbie Millman has started a new project at PRINT titled “What Matters.” This is an ongoing effort to understand the interior life of artists, designers, and creative thinkers. This facet of the project is a request of each invited respondent to answer 10 identical questions, and submit a decidedly nonprofessional photograph.

Robert Edelstein has written five books and is Special Projects Editor at TV Guide Magazine. His latest essay, “Thank You, Covid, for the Brain Fog,” is on Medium, and he’s currently writing a novel about the Wild West.

What is the thing you like doing most in the world?

“Rounding that first corner,” meaning, getting the notion that there’s a person, an idea, a thing—a noun—of interest, and feeling my way forward until I “know” it’s someone or something I’ll never wish to shake. It’s that passage from ‘notion’ to ‘know.' That’s where the seed of love is born. It’s a terrific high for me and has brought me to every true idea I’ve ever had.

Also, writing. I love to write so much. And spending any time with any or all of my three kids, who have my heart.

What is the first memory you have of being creative?

I was about five, living in the Bronx. There were three miniature people living in a rectangular indentation in the wall next to my bed named Turny, Tunis, and Iggins. (Any resemblance to Snap, Crackle, and Pop was purely coincidental, and I’ll swear to that in court.) The indentation was maybe five inches high by eight inches wide.

I had met Turny, Tunis, and Iggins in a series of dreams I’d had where I was a character in an almost entirely plotless television show called Pictures and Vacuums. I don’t recall much about the show, beyond the fact that I was frequently escaping, and the bad people were often George Washington impersonators. My older brother, who shared a room with me, knew about them and categorically denied their existence. But without me realizing it then, they helped me focus on the power of imagination and stories at a time when I felt unsafe.

What is your biggest regret?

I guess it’s that I haven’t ever learned as much as I’d wish to learn from my mistakes and in a timely enough fashion. I say that, but my mistakes are what have molded me, even if sometimes I wish they’d have molded me differently. The past, however, is gone.

How have you gotten over heartbreak?

Through patience and time. The hardest lesson of all; it’s grieving the living. Also, your core group of good friends help.

So does writing through it. Years ago, my late friend Gail schooled me about the inspirational power of heartbreak in one’s work. She badgered me one night about a particular breakup I’d had, trying to get me to admit I was angry about how our relationship ended. I should be less understanding, less forgiving, she said. “Admit it,” she kept saying, “admit that you’re angry at her! Admit it!” FINE, I finally said, “Yes! I’m angry!” And she was so quiet. “Good,” she said. “Now use this.”

What makes you cry?

I’m an easy mark; I rarely go a day without some moisture coming to my eyes.

So, I need to get specific, I think, and look at the last time I “gave a geschrei,” a Yiddish word from my youth that means a real cry. And that came a few mornings ago. I got outside to walk Emmitt, and the day was so glorious I could hardly contain my wonder. I felt suddenly cleansed, whether I was willing to feel that way or not; it was no longer my choice. A neighbor that I treasure drove up and stopped. He knows I had a very bad Covid experience and asked how I was feeling, and I said, “This day—you can’t script a more incredible day.” And, noting the rising vaccination count, he said, “I feel like this thing is finally starting to lift.” He drove off, and I just started crying so hard that Emmitt—the most empathic being I know—actually stopped in the middle of the street and looked at me. “I’m OK,” I said. And on we went, with Em yanking me forward the way Tiny Tim pulls Scrooge at the end of A Christmas Carol.

How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?

Not very long. It’s sort of like one of those graphs where it’s high and then drops down to about .5% for a longer time. Pride and joy are trinkets. They can’t ever touch the excitement and calm that comes from the actual doing of the thing. I once built two bookcases with my stepfather-in-law. I look at them now, and I recall the lessons he taught me about sanding and sanding and sanding until the wood is so smooth you can hear it as you run your fingers along it. Miley is right. It’s the climb.

Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you?

I don’t think about the afterlife, which might seem weird for someone who practices Buddhist meditation (although it was fun reading what it could look like in Lincoln in the Bardo). Then again, maybe it’s not so weird. I have a lot of work to do when it comes to sitting, so I might as well not think about any end goals. That won’t serve me well.

What do you hate most about yourself?

As I always told my kids when they were younger, “Hate’s a pretty strong word.” I don’t like hate. I wish I had a better way to turn my fears into confidence. I wish I could forgive myself for moments when I wasn’t “speaking my truth.” But I don’t hate anything about myself.

What do you love most about yourself?

I love that you can trust me, goddamn it. I love that you can count on me to look you in the eyes as you’re talking and listen to what you have to say because what you have to say is so damn important to me. And I really work hard to resist the human habit of “forming in my mind the next thing I’m going to say to you when you’re done talking,” and just listen to you. Everybody needs someone to listen to them. I do, too.

What is your absolute favorite meal?

Take a piece of yellowtail scallion roll sushi. Dip it in soy sauce with wasabi and slap a tiny bit of pickled ginger on top. Then carefully load that piece on the front corner of a slice of your neighborhood’s best cheese pizza. Trust me.