On or about Sept. 3, 1592, Robert Greene died from eating too many pickled herrings and drinking too much Rhine wine, or Rhenish, as the English called it in those days. I learned this from a poetry anthology — a gift from my mother — containing some of Greene’s poems along with a brief biography that relates how he spent his final days in agony, finishing his best-known work on his deathbed.
The poet’s final offering, “Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, Bought With a Million of Repentance,” is less known for any repentance than it is for Greene’s envious attack on a nobody, a non-university-trained actor who was getting some notice on the London theater scene. Much of the attention Greene felt was his due as an educated writer was instead going to this William Shakespeare person, who had the nerve to try his own hand at writing some of the plays in which he performed. Greene called him an “upstart crow.”
Not just for fun but as an annual examination of my own ego, envy, appetites, aspirations and mortality, I have long observed each Sept. 3 with a snack of pickled herring and a glass of Rhenish. I figure it’s my due. Not only do I share the man’s name, we share a profession: writing. He became even more important to me when I started to think that I’d like to make my living as a writer. Not as a playwright, certainly, or as a poet, and certainly I’m not entertaining notions that I could become a Shakespeare, or even the equivalent of a 16th century Robert Greene. But maybe as a newspaper reporter. Or an editorial writer.
It’s a great job, editorial writing. I tell people whom to vote for in judicial elections, criticize politicians, talk to people in the city and around the state, and try to make sense of it all. Mostly, though, I try to figure out and write about why more kids and young adults in California can’t have the abundant life that I’ve had, with first-rate schools, cities that work, responsive and responsible governments. And about how it’s our obligation to give them those blessings, however belatedly.
Those questions of opportunity, abundance and fulfillment have become more poignant and somewhat more urgent as my most-fortunate generation grows older and gets ready to leave a society, built largely by our parents, to the next class of Californians. The whole autumnal, passing-of-the-baton thing carries a special resonance at this time of year, on the anniversary of that other Robert Greene’s death, as the sun sets noticeably earlier and hot afternoons are followed by chillier (for Los Angeles) nights.
Over this past year, though, my namesake’s deathbed complaints became many times more urgent than they ever seemed before. I ate my 2010 pickled herring just days before undergoing my first chemotherapy treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. When that four-month course of treatments failed, I spent the first five months of 2011 shuttling between my home desk, where I hammered out the occasional editorial, and a hospital bed, finally spending a solid month lying down, miles from my home, with various tubes coming out of me.
I can compare for you the food at four different hospitals, and can tell you how guilty and grateful one can feel as his friends and colleagues do his work as well as their own. I can recite for you a list of celebrities who have died from my kind of cancer, with or without a stem-cell transplant of the type I underwent. And, on my glass-half-full days, I can give you a list of those who survived. I can tell you about how my doctor once put my odds at 50-50 but more recently at an optimistic 60-40. But I can’t tell you how many annual pickled herring days I have left. Maybe just one. Maybe — and why not? — another 40.
In the twilight of his career, Shakespeare wrote what has become one of my favorite plays. “The Winter’s Tale” is an elaborate story of love, jealousy, loss, forgiveness and bittersweet restoration. And something about a bear. One of the characters is Time itself, and in the midst of the play he simply declares the passage of 16 years, leaving the audience to wonder how it all went so fast. For no rational reason, I take comfort in the fact that after Time’s announcement, there are still two acts to go. I loved the play long before I ever found out it was based, faithfully, on an earlier work called “Pandosto.” By Robert Greene.
Centuries later, the story of Greene’s unhappy end (and it turns out it may have been just a story concocted by his enemies) is more funny than it is sad, and I like that. He sure could write. But he was a cocky man, a jealous man, angry that he was not universally hailed as the best. He became better known as a character, in work by other authors such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, than for his own writing.
His bad example provides a warning against six of the seven deadly sins. But it also provides a sense of perspective. It helps me enjoy the otherwise humbling fact that not only am I no Shakespeare, I’m not even the best-known or most successful writer named Robert Greene. In addition to the original, there is the award-winning former columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Oprah Winfrey’s favorite fitness guru, and the modern-day Machiavelli, hailed by rappers and film producers, who wrote tomes on power and seduction. I’ve gotten calls at my desk from hopeful readers thinking they’d reached one of those Robert Greenes. Sorry. I’m the mostly anonymous editorial writer.
Next spring though, if I’m still around — and I’m laying odds I will be — I will write you one heck of a judicial endorsement. Perhaps some upstart blogger will rewrite it into a masterpiece. For now, I’m eating some pickled herring and drinking some Rhenish. With friends. And fellow writers.
• Greene is a Los Angeles Times editorial writer.