There are certain storytellers who’re able to orchestrate language in such a way, where being alive somehow makes sense. Michael Ian Black, the New York Times Best-Selling Author, Comedian, Actor and host of the podcast How to Be Amazing does just this with the release of his new memoir Navel Gazing: True Tales of Bodies, Mostly Mine (but also my mom’s, which I know sounds weird).
This compelling autobiography chronicles Black’s dissection of his own physique, as well as the slowing train of his mother’s health. Navel Gazing explores subjects of mortality, disease, the complex relationship between a parent and child, existential crises of a mid-life American, and confusion over generalized masculinity (to name a few).
Thanks to his distinctive comedic chops and insightful sensitivity, the stories Black shares are hysterical on both sides of the coin, fusing absurdity and sentimentality. If that premise isn’t engaging in itself, one of the chapters is entitled “Douche Nozzle.”
On Amazon, your book is a #1 Seller in Mid-Life Management. I didn’t even know that was a category.
“I didn’t either.”
As a shrink would say, “How does that make you feel?”
“Very upset. Even though the book is about being middle-aged, I was sort of kidding. I’m not really middle-aged, even though I’m 44. I don’t think of myself that way. I joke about it, but then to have Amazon put me in mid-life management, I mean, Jesus. How miserable is that?”
I interviewed you about your book You’re Not Doing it Right four years ago. What has been the biggest transformation in your life during that span of time?
“I would say the thing that changed the most for me is, I feel like I’ve chilled out a lot. I’m more mellow, in the last few years, and happier as a result. I think it has to do with one, getting older and two, my kids have gotten older, so they don’t cause nearly as much stress as they used to. Everything has gotten easier and better. Aside from the fact that my mom is dying.”
Right. Aside from that.
“Aside from that. I mean, she is and she’s not. She’s in terrible health, but she doesn’t seem to be in any danger of expiring any time soon, I hope. You learn to live with low-grade horror as your parent is suffering. And then you write a book about it.”
And then you make millions of dollars.
“Yeah. You write a funny book about it and then make millions of dollars and don’t share any with her.”
Did you do a survey of your own anatomy and come up with the accompanying stories that way as your process for this book?
“A little bit. That was actually the initial idea. And I found that I was bored as I started doing that. It eventually evolved into stories from my life based on physical elements, not necessarily a head-to-toe review, and then coupled with the story of my mom’s health and her biography.”
What was the best way for you to cope with the grief that emerged during the decline of your mother’s health? Where did you put your feelings?
“I’m blessed with the great gift of denial and emotional retardation, so I’m very capable of not feeling anything, which is fantastic.”
No, come on, I am not letting that answer fly.
“Well, the feelings are so complicated and layered, that it’s hard to untangle them all, which I think I do a pretty good job of actually, in the book, untangling the different emotions I have about my mom and her health and her parenting and our relationship. There was a lot to go through. It was helpful for, I think, both of us.”
I would imagine that having lost a parent when you were a child, and then bearing witness to the downfall of your other parent’s health, must trigger a sense of powerlessness.
“The truth is you get to a certain age and you’re aware of your parent’s mortality. And so when a parent’s health starts to deteriorate, it’s not like it comes as a total shock like it does when you’re young and a parent dies. You’re not looking for it, but my mom was quite young when her health started going downhill. I don’t think she was even sixty. But I’ve had time to make space in my head and heart for the fact that she may not be around forever. This book was a really good opportunity to interview her and get a lot of her story out there, both for me and for my kids, and then for the world; because I think she has a story worth telling. I think that was a gift that we were able to give to each other.”
You mention that “When somebody you love has a chronic illness, you get used to living with a prickly, low grade fear.” Can you talk about that sort of routine dread?
“Any time the phone rings and it’s my mom or coming from my mom’s house—it could be her partner—your first thought is, ‘Is everything okay?’ It’s always kind of in the back of your mind. And then she’ll end up in the hospital for one thing or another, and it’s just always scary. There’s always that fear that maybe this time she won’t come out. It’s not inevitable where you’re feeling like it could happen at any moment, but at the same time it could happen at any moment, and I just sort of go through life a little bit on edge regarding her health.”
As a comedian, you obviously make jokes to deflect both your mother’s suffering and your own emotional burden. While reading Navel Gazing, I noticed how you almost always follow sentimental anecdotes with a hard joke. Is that how your brain has learned to function as a coping mechanism?
“Yes and no. Part of it absolutely is that it’s my coping mechanism. Part of it is also that in the context of writing this book, I wanted it to be enjoyable, as enjoyable as reading about this sort of thing can be. I wanted to keep it light without minimizing what actually was going on. So that was the balance I had to find.”
What has all of this taught you about being the moment?
“It’s something that I have thought a lot about not only in terms of my mom’s health, but also in terms of my own happiness, and the way that I’m learning how to go through life. A lot of it just has to do with trying to exorcise (not exercise) exorcise- like a demon- this sort of rampant anxiety and self-criticism that I experience and finding tools to do that. Some of that comes with maturity, some of that comes with the recognition that all of this is pretty fleeting, and certainly my mom’s health problems have contributed to that awareness. And also just looking at her attitude, which has been so great throughout. She’s pretty happy most of the time, even though she’s in a lot of pain most of the time. When you see that, and I’m bitching and moaning about whatever I’m bitching and moaning about, you feel like a bit of a fool. It definitely helps me stay a little bit more grounded and focused and present.”
What do you think parents want to hear from their children in terms of their impact on them?
“I don’t know that parents want to hear anything. I mean, I can only speak for myself. All I care about it is that my kids grow up to both be secure and happy in who they are and not a dick to other people. There’s nothing you can say. What are you gonna say? The only phrase we have in the language is, “I love you” and it doesn’t feel like enough. You can’t say it enough and you can’t say it the right way to convey how you feel either to your kids or to your spouse, I don’t think you can hear it in the way it’s meant to be said, so the only way to know it is in the actions of others, and if you feel like your kids are kind and happy, then that’s enough. There’s nothing they can say.”
Do you have a memory or maybe even an image between you and your mother that symbolizes your bond?
“The first thing that comes to mind is going grocery shopping with her when I was a kid. And sneaking a box of Swiss Muesli into the grocery cart, which is not something either of us ate, just to be a dick, and to be funny. And then watching her pay for the Swiss Muesli without realizing that she was buying Swiss Muesli, and having her laugh that that happened. Even though she was pretty annoyed that I had done that.”
You go into detail about the men in your family who served time fighting battles and wars as a sort of contrast to your perception on your own (lack of) masculinity. Can you share your insight about masculinity, and how you’ve experienced it in a visceral way?
“It is for me and always has been for me a confusing and vulnerable area. Not because I ever felt like I wasn’t a man, there was no part of me that ever felt like I was fluid in my gender or anything like that, but the way I grew up and in the time that I grew up, and in the household that I grew up, I didn’t have great models for masculinity. My dad, when he was alive, was pretty shy and withdrawn a lot of times, and he also worked a tremendous amount towards the end of his life, which was sort of the time in my life when I probably could have used more of a guide on how to be a man. And then coupled with my mom’s kind of strident feminism, where the worst thing you could be in the world is a male chauvinist pig, I grew up having a lot of conflicted ideas of what it meant to be a responsible man in the world. It took me a long time to come to my own ideas about what it meant to be a responsible man. And a lot of those ideas I ended up coming up with ended up being very kind of traditional male modeling.
These traditional roles are very appealing in some ways to men and women because they let you assert yourself in comfortable ways and in structures that everybody understands. And when you’re you’re constantly juggling those and subverting those, it ends up being confusing to both parties. That was hard. It was hard to deal with that. At the same time, the model of “there’s one way to be masculine” in terms of your interests or the way you present yourself or the way you dress, that I have rejected. And continue to reject. Mostly because I can’t be that way. I can’t be the kind of “bro” my New Jersey culture wanted me to be. I was just never gonna be that guy. And that got interpreted as, ‘Oh, well then, you’re gay.'”
Everything you’re saying is really great. They’re these kind of these wise, prolific observations. But what does that do to a boy growing up, emotionally? To harbor all of that is really quite something.
“It takes a lot of years to even recognize that that’s what you’re going through. I just knew that I wasn’t happy growing up. I wasn’t happy in my small town. And I didn’t know how to be. I didn’t know how to present myself. Like a lot of young people, I tried different things and tried to figure out who I was. I started a punk band and dressed weird. So I wasn’t able to articulate those emotions, I just knew that I felt very stifled.”
When we first met, I was expecting you to show up in Prince’s wardrobe and body glitter from the way that you mock your manhood. I actually found you to be considerably “manly,” whatever that means. I just feel like the idea you have of yourself isn’t reflective of what you actually put out into world.
“I think a lot of that has to do with getting comfortable in my own skin and not feeling the need to rebel in the same way. So if you would have met me when I was in my early 20’s, it might have been different. I would have probably dressed differently and presented myself a little bit differently. Just because I was still trying to say, ‘Fuck you’ to the world, and that was the way I did it.”
I liked how you discuss the idea that we all want to be remembered for contributing something by future generations. You wrote that you don’t have a great need to be remembered on a grand scale, but isn’t that why on some level you wanted to be an artist?
“I’ve thought about that, and I really don’t think so. Maybe I’m lying to myself, but I don’t really give a shit about legacy beyond my family. It doesn’t matter to me. I think I’m interested in doing the best work that I can while I’m here for me, and feeling like I did a good job, but if it all turns to dust at the moment of my death, I don’t think I would give a shit. I don’t feel like one’s purpose in life is to do anything other than to do the best that you can with the tools that you have at your disposal. I don’t feel like I’m contributing much, if anything, to the body of human knowledge- there are plenty of other people out there who contribute much more than me, and we can take a sampling or a poo poo platter of everything that they’ve done, and the human race will be just fine without me being remembered. All I’m trying to do is the best that I can.”
Okay. I still don’t believe you, but okay.
“I’m not sure that I believe me either, but I think I do?”
Why did you turn to running for enlightenment over other physical sports? Is it because of your observation that “At least half of running’s purpose is trying to run away?”
“I think like a lot of people, I equate the idea of finding, for lack of a better word, enlightenment, through the diligent application of suffering. That if you suffer enough or hard enough or you push yourself far enough that you will cross through that threshold through the work-a-day world and find something greater than. And I still sort of cling to that possibility. I still believe maybe that’s true. But that certainly hasn’t be true for me in running. It’s hard for me to believe that that isn’t a path, in some way, that there can be moments of clarity when you’re reduced to a physical being that moves through the world. It makes me feel like there’s gotta be, at the very least, moments of transcendence in that suffering.”